Theory and the Premodern Text

Theory and the Premodern Text

Theory and the Premodern Text

Theory and the Premodern Text

Excerpt

I recently attended a lecture by Bruno Latour in which he discussed a Chinese proverb, the gist of which was “Show a fool the moon and he looks at your finger.” The folly in question overemphasizes the interpretative framework or strategy that renders the phenomenon visible (the pointing finger) at the expense of the phenomenon itself (the moon). Obviously, a balance is to be sought, in which the role of theory in identifying a problem is acknowledged, yet the object of study is also respected. Needless to say, this balance is threatened by overmuch indulgence in “theory” for its own sake, resulting in an estrangement from the object it seeks to illuminate.

In my view, a solution to this dilemma rests in the area of what I would consider engaged or “practical” theory. Its hypothetical opposite — “pure” theory, uncorrected or unchastened by sustained contact with a particular text — does not command or hold my attention. But if theory away from the text eludes me, theory with the text enjoys my fullest attention and respect. What I have in mind here is voluntarily “impure” theory: project oriented, aimed at explaining the text rather than its own vindication, uninsistent about its own status as a total explanatory system. Such theory need not currently be in fashion, or even have originated in France. It might occasionally be angular or difficult, if the concepts in question require it, but it should normally be susceptible to clear articulation, in the ordinary language of women and men.

The phrase “practical theory” is a deliberate reminiscence of that salutary volume, I. A. Richards’s Practical Criticism, an early edition of which still occupies a respected place on the shelves of my college library. First published in 1929, Richards’s work did not reach North America with full force until the 1950s and the heyday of New Criticism, and I am old enough still to remember the bracing impact of his insistence on “making out the plain sense of poetry,” unencumbered by personal associations or stock responses. For all its common sense, I no longer . . .

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