Thoughts on being ‘post-theory’
By Dr Robert Irvine, Senior Lecturer in English Literature
At some point, and perhaps already, someone at a conference or an interview may tell you that Literary Studies is now in a ‘post-theory’ phase. By this they will mean that ‘we don’t need to bother with literary theory anymore, let alone bother our students’. Don’t you believe it! Such a person can only be misunderstanding what ‘theory’ is, or what it means for something to be ‘post-’ something else, or both at once. They are probably also misunderstanding who ‘we’ are. If you hear this at a conference, slip out and head for another panel; if you are in an interview, well, you wouldn’t want someone like that for a colleague anyway.
‘Theory’ in the humanities is not like theory in the natural sciences. The theories of relativity and natural selection make sense of vast amounts of empirical facts; they are ‘theories’, and not themselves facts, because it is always possible that experiment and calculation will come up with new facts which will oblige the scientists to alter the theory. They are ‘scientific’ theories, not because they have been proven, but because they could be disproven: their explanatory power is a function of their openness to further experiment and re-calculation. This is the fact missed by those who object to the teaching of Darwin in schools, or to taking action to reduce carbon emissions, on the grounds that evolution or anthropogenic climate change are ‘only theories’. The belief in God, or in neo-liberal economics, are not scientific beliefs, not because you can’t prove them to be correct, but because no amount of new information can prove them to be incorrect.
It is not like that in the humanities, because the objects that we study are not empirical facts, but human practices. All human practices have some sort of logic to them, of which we are not usually conscious when we are engaged in those practices; but, when abstracted from that practice by the scholar, can be recognised as a codification what we were doing all along. The native speaker of a language will not be conscious of the rules of grammar that they are following when they speak; will probably, indeed, be totally unable to even begin to explain what those rules are. Yet the rules explain why they speak the way they do; explain, that is, what the speaker shares with other speakers of that language, explain what makes communication possible. The articulated grammar is the ‘theory’ of the speech. In this case we don’t need the theory, of course, until we need to learn, as adults, another language. But in other areas of human life the distance that theory offers us from the practice, the opportunity to think about what we do, most of the time, without thinking, is a precondition for understanding ourselves better and for any degree of social change.
What complicates matters is that our scholarship, too, is a social practice, with its own assumptions and ways of doing things, themselves open to examination as the ‘theory’ of what we do. We do not stand above the phenomena we study: we are among those phenomena, and what we do has effects on the objects of our study. One of the stories Slavoj Žižek likes to tell concerns social workers in the former DDR, trying to understand the appeal of far-right politics to working-class teenage boys. The boys explain this as a response to foreigners taking their jobs and government indifference. But the social workers decide there is a deeper cause: a lack of paternal authority in the home due to absent fathers, and the consequent longing of the boys for strong masculine role models. Within months of deciding this, they notice that the boys now explain their politics in different terms: dad was never around when I was growing up, no-one ever taught me how to be a man (‘and so on and so on’). The formulation of the theory has changed the phenomenon it was meant to explain. The ‘explanatory’ social practice does not exist in isolation from the social practice that it examines: the two exist in a dialectical relationship, each available for appropriation by the other. This is not like natural science. No matter how often you explain the formulae governing electro-magnetism in the hearing of an electron, it won’t change its behaviour as a result. (Actually, Quantum Theory, as far as I understand it, seems to suggest that electrons are indeed susceptible to suggestion in something like the manner of Žižek’s East German hooligans, but let’s not go there.)
So: ‘post-theory’? If ‘theory’ names either the codes and assumptions deployed by the types of writing that we study, or the codes and assumptions we use in studying them, it is hard to see what our scholarship would consist in without it. ‘Theory’ names our self-consciousness as scholars: our awareness that we are reading texts in a particular way, and that we are choosing that way of reading, when other brands of reading are indeed available. But it also names the practice followed by our literary text, as it, in its turn, ‘reads’ both its social situation, and the literary resources made available to it by tradition. Our scholarly appropriation of a literary text, our producing another type of writing (our scholarship) out of it, is not in principle different from the act of appropriation that the literary text itself performs on something else. This is just to say that both the literary text, and our reading of it, happen in history. The suggestion that we might move ‘beyond theory’ is really a longing to get the literary text, and our own reading of it, outside of history, and the limitations and contingencies that history imposes on our thinking.
Put it like that, and I am starting to feel some sympathy with my fictional conference participant or interviewer, with their ‘we are now post-theory’ talk. After all, I know these people very well. They are about my age: they were undergraduates in the 1980s, taught partly by younger staff who were very excited by Yale School deconstruction and French feminism, but mostly by older staff who read novels by the light of F.R. Leavis and poems by the light of the New Criticism and felt threatened by a new critical language that they didn’t understand and that seemed to imply that their hard-won expertise was so much naïve dilettantism. Then my friends did PhDs in the 1990s and found that ‘theory’ was now a compulsory part of the programme, and that to really understand it meant getting to grips with Jacques Derrida, or Jacques Lacan. My friend never really did get to grips with Derrida or Lacan. That is not surprising, because Derrida is very hard to understand without a working knowledge of a philosophical tradition that extends from Kant to Heidegger and Levinas, and Lacan is just very hard to understand. So now, tenured, and finding that promotion depends on REF returns and AHRC grant applications and not, after all, on an understanding of On Grammatology or the Écrits, they have decided, with a sigh of relief, that ‘we’ are all now ‘post-theory’.
Yet the arguments of Derrida and Lacan are still there, perhaps unnoticed, in the texture of most of what we do in literary departments today. If you read a text looking out for its internal tensions and contradictions, for the ways in which it says things that are the opposite of what it seems to be trying to say, then you owe an important part of your scholarly practice to Derrida. If you find in the subjectivity of a lyric poem or a first-person narrative not a coherent identity but a provisional construction constituted in the moment of its articulation, then you are following in the footsteps of Jacques Lacan. These ideas have been appropriated in their turn by other ‘theories’, put to other uses, directed, perhaps, by their relation to specific social categories (class, race, gender) rather than textuality as such. But within Marxist or feminist or post-colonial criticism, these ideas still do important work. In this sense, all ‘theory’ is ‘post theory’: our practices are shaped by the way in which they have been conceptualised in the past, and have absorbed and utilised those conceptualisations in new critical practices. Yale School deconstruction, after all, was as much an appropriation of New Critical practice as it was a response to Derrida, even if it understood itself as a rejection of the former in the name of the latter.
All of which perhaps comes down to this, that literary theory has everything to do with history, and nothing whatever to do with fashion. I think I knew this, or at least wanted to believe this, even as a doctoral student, as I can remember being depressed to hear one of my contemporaries announce that ‘we don’t do structuralism any more’. Not only would this be a mistake, because we can still learn so much from Saussure and Levi-Strauss, from Barthes’ Mythologies and Propp on folktales; it is also obviously not true, since the insights of structuralism remain the foundation for almost everything that came after. In literary theory, as in literary practice, in scholarship just as in the novel, or drama, or the lyric, everything changes, but nothing, really, is forgotten.