A DEDICATED follower of fashion, whose partner is an expert on the history of shopping, the critic Jonathan Dollimore marched through the 1980s under the banner of "cultural materialism", establishing his reputation with a neo-Marxist interpretation of Shakespeare and the Jacobean dramatists. In the 1990s, as the wind turned in the direction of identity politics, he wrote a major work of gay literary theory called Sexual Dissidence. Identity politics proposes that the personal is the political, so it is perfectly in order for Professor Dollimore to begin his new book with a personal matter. Having established himself as an icon in the world of "queer theory", he startled both his fans and detractors by ditching his long-term partner, the distinguished critic Alan Sinfield, in favour of a woman. He reports that "one lesbian was heard to snarl that I'd gone straight, gone `nuclear', and, worst of all, become a `breeder'."
A change of life requires a change of critical stance. Dollimore's personal trauma has opened his eyes to the curiously straight-laced quality of queer theory. He quotes a hilarious exchange involving Judith Butler, author of Gender Trouble and high priestess of the cult of the Queer. Interviewer: "This leads us to the question of heterosexuality". Butler: "I don't know much about heterosexuality!" "Don't worry, it's a theoretical question."
Queer theory is supposed to celebrate the mobility of desire, the freedom of all to make their own sexual choices. But it gets queasy when someone makes a sexual choice that transgresses the queer norm: the choice, let us say, of heterosexual monogamy.
The first part of Dollimore's book offers some sharp criticisms of fin- de-siecle literary theory. "Wishful theory", he calls it, by which he means "a pseudo-philosophical refashioning of the world according to a preconceived agenda; a kind of intellectualising which is self-empowering in a politically spurious way, and which... tends to erase the complexity and diversity of the cultural life it addresses."
So does the second part propose a return to the old "liberal humanist" celebration of the "complexity and diversity" of high culture? Not exactly. Dollimore wishes as great a plague on the house of Matthew Arnold as of Michel Foucault. He announces that, for all their faults, modern literary theorists have "been able to show that traditional assumptions about art are no longer tenable intellectually or aesthetically". Great art is a form of "dangerous knowledge". …