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Tuesday, September 03, 2002
Why I Love Literary Theory

Despite what the title may imply, I am going to attempt a more conicilatory tone in this post: I think in some ways this blog has become rather polarized. Since supposedly we are trying to promote non-partisan independent thinking, I am going to try to put forth an understanding of textual interpretation that allows theoretical concerns to relate and interact with the New Criticism that so enamours Chien Wen (and which, I believe, has a valuable place in literary studies).

Firstly, the study of literature is simply impossible without some version of "close-reading", which is so central to New Criticism. I am interested in feminist theory, literary and otherwise, but I am equally interested in reading and enjoying literature for literature's sake. Almost more than anything else, I love a good book. I love picking apart a text to understand it and to discuss it. Close-reading is essential no matter what theoretical interest a scholar may have. And, despite the alarmist nature of some of the posts on this blog, most English departments and certainly all high schools focus on close-reading as the central teaching method in the classroom. It is an essential and hardly neglected technique, even is the supposedly misguided and overly-politicized academy.

In this regard, I fully support Chien Wen's perspective on studying literature. Where we differ is our understanding of literary theory and its value in the university. Chien Wen, I fear, is far too eager to simply write off most of literary theory as trivial and wrongfully dragging politics into the classroom (an assertion that simply does not stand up to careful scrutiny, to be addressed in a later post). While there are always useful critiques of the dominant movements in a field, and I have no doubt that theory is not the end of literary studies (in twenty years, I have no doubt, something new will turn up) the fact remains that literary theory is a powerful body of knowledge that has attracted the greatest minds in literary studies in the past twenty to thirty years. While there are some blowhards: both Blooms, for instance or the rancourous and ridiculous Jeffrey Hart, the reality is that the intelligent and fascinating analysis of literature today is theoretical. I found the following article Chien Wen suggested we read sensationalistic and wrong-headed. English literature is still being studied, and quite exactingly, from what I can tell in my English classes and my conversations with other students. Apocalyptic visions of the end of literature are easy to make. Careful and reasoned thinking about literary studies and the future of theory is not so easy. I call for more of the latter and less of the former from all parts.

To take my own interest as an example, feminist literary theory does not somehow "dumb down" or stultify true literary analysis. It simply explores another dimension of literature that for all too long has been ignored. I do not claim that all literature must be read this way, nor should feminist interpretations completely dominate the curriculum. But they do offer a fascinating and important insight into literature that didn't exist earlier. How can expanding knowledge and understanding somehow be a negative development?

Yes, Spivak can be hard to read. Yes, some theory is dense and perhaps a bit too...theoretical. Well, there are excesses in every field. To claim, as some New Critics did, that nothing outside the text should be considered when analyzing it, is just as silly and limiting as some theory can be. Simply put, why restrict ourselves to pure textual analysis when the contexts can be sources of illuminating importance as well? We should not discount the text completely, of course. And I firmly believe that some texts are "better" than others, simply because they provide more material for analysis or somehow strike us as beautiful. That does not mean that theory somehow prevents clear-headed analysis or limits thought. Some of the most ingenious and convincing readings of texts have been theoretical ones. Spivak, for instance, when she focusses on textual analysis, has some fascinating points to make. Check out her article, "Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism" (1986) (I couldn't find a text on the web, but it is available at the library) to see some fascinating analysis of Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea.

I will certainly concede that sometimes the exuberance of literary theory can get out of hand. However, to discount an immense movement and body of work that has expanded knowledge in a multitude of ways is both anti-intellectual and historically unwise. Build on the present to change it, but don't throw it away.