On Theory

Both Charlotte Street and Word Munger have posted recently on the same topic that Chad Orzel recently touched upon… the place of literary theory in the study of literature.

Much has been made of Salman Rushdie’s disdain for literary theories and those who formulate them.

Though it’s slightly hidden behind some of her langauge, I think Charlotte Street makes the most important point:

What passes as spontaneous insight and theory-free close reading is shot through with the reified or shrivelled remains of earlier theories, which have now become mere second nature and therefore invisible/unconscious. The first task of Theory would then be to reverse this process and to demonstrate the theoretical genealogy of the naively ‘pre-theoretical’ standpoint. Thus, those who are ‘spontaneously attuned to the text’ and with a real ‘feel for literature’ are retrospectively revealed to have been Liberal Humanists (or whatever) who use literature endlessly to to re-tell the same old story or to extract conclusions anticipated or even generated by their own unacknowledged ‘method’.

This indeed would seem to be the starting point of Theory – the naive, immediate stance is a exposed as a lie. The anti-Theory allegation that literature should not be ‘contaminated’ with politics or conceptual assumptions presupposes precisely what is at issue – the claim that ‘contamination’ was there from the start.

Allow me to translate: what feels like a spontaneous, naive (ie. unstudied) insight into a text is usually a rather standard and formulaic reading of the text. You may think you under stand a book straightforwardly but your straightforward “understanding” is really built upon a huge network of preexistent reading and understanding strategies which you have been taught. Given the kind of things that have gone into building our education system—the way curriculum has been formulated with the approval of “specialists”, the way literary figures and establishments have rallied behind insane, awful, ridiculous things like, oh, war and slavery and the like, why should we trust “received” understandings of how we come to understand books?

In other words, Rushdie may not have any time for theorists, but who says he’s an authority on how to read books? Sure, he’s a famous and well-respected writer (in some circles, though most intelligent people I know abhor his work), which makes him an authority on how to write a certain kind of book; but even Louis Armstrong rejected bebop as “Chinese music”, and touted a much simpler theoretical approach than anyone seriously can claim to exclusively rely upon today. T say, “There’s only two kinds of music: good music and bad music…” isn’t really effective theory because it just sidesteps the question of criteria and comprehension, and appeals to taste—which is important, of course, but even Armstrong’s biggest proponents today cannot publicly claim to value him based purely on their personal taste. His canonical status is well-entrenched by both a load of theory and a good deal of prattle.

I suspect Rushdie’s own skepticism will be seen as ironic in the future, as well.

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