The Emperor Redressed: Critiquing Critical Theory

The Emperor Redressed: Critiquing Critical Theory

The Emperor Redressed: Critiquing Critical Theory

The Emperor Redressed: Critiquing Critical Theory

Synopsis

The essays in this volume represent a collective questioning of the poststructuralist ascendancy, and of the assumptions involved therein, by a group of prominent scholars and critics: M. H. Abrams, Nina Baym, Frederick Crews, Ihab Hassan, David Lehman, Richard Levin, Paisley Livingston, Saul Morson, and John Searle. Assembled at The University of Alabama for the 1992 symposium from which this book takes its title, these scholars were charged with the task of examining the truth-value, methodology, practice, and humanistic status of poststructuralist theories and with speculating on what their conclusions portend for the future of theory. Some of the deficiencies "uncovered" in the emperor's apparel include the failure of poststructuralist theory to answer to the complexities of literary experience, its tendency to be self-ratifying, its betrayal of the feminist achievement, its conflation of style and logic, its attempt to impose apocalyptic finalities on history's open-endedness, and its ignorance of much,in current language philosophy. The writings of Jacques Derrida, in particular, come in for skeptical scrutiny by Abrams, Livingston, and Searle. The book concludes with a lively panel discussion in which the audience joins the fray.

Excerpt

When W. H. Auden glibly commanded the Harvard Phi Betes in 1946, "Thou shalt not commit a social science," he could hardly have anticipated that a later generation of literature professors would "commit" themselves and their discipline to such social science paradigms as Derridean philosophy, Lacanian psychology, post-Saussurean linguistics, feminist sociology, Marxist economics, and the New Historicism. In only two decades this poststructuralist enterprise has proceeded--if I may suborn its own terminology--from the "marginalized" to the "hegemonic." Within this span, the stocks of particular theories have risen and fallen, some to the point where they are no longer traded under their original corporate names. Even these, however, have survived through mergers wrought by the collective spirit of the enterprise.

Deconstruction, for instance, pronounced dead with almost as great a frequency as the novel, lives on in the "hermeneutics of suspicion" that informs all of the approaches in question. One also encounters feminist scholars wedded to Lacanian analysis, a marriage consisting--in Nina Baym's view--of incompatible bedfellows; and then there is the subtler union of modified Marxist precepts and the New Historicism. These amalgamations of comprehensive theories into a larger totality, and the cerebral virtuosity with which they are accomplished, typify the ineluctable Wille zum System that has enabled post-structuralism to claim, magisterially, the intellectual center of literary criticism.

But the magisterial readily mutates into the imperious, the imperial, the fashion of the emperor. And emperors' fashions must be scrutinized from time to time to make sure that claims of definitive and elegant coverage are justified, that indecent exposure is subjected to exposé. Hence the title of this book and of the Eighteenth Alabama Symposium on English and American Literature, at which the papers collected here were originally presented. The charge I presented to the speakers was to discuss questions raised by themselves and others about the truth value, methodology, practice, and humanistic status of various poststructuralist theories and about the significance of this questioning for the future of theory. Implicit in these concerns is not only the exposure of flaws . . .

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