Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Imagined Literature: Notes towards a Revisionary History of Theory

Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Imagined Literature: Notes towards a Revisionary History of Theory

Article excerpt

Summary

This paper makes a case for looking beyond the tropes that oversimplify the intellectual movement called Theory. It claims that this is necessary to get a glimpse of the sociocultural processes that shaped Theory and defined its moment in cultural history. This paper analyses the assumptions on which these tropes are based. Based on this analysis, it seeks to establish that Theory is not a coherent discourse that yielded knowledge of the process of reality-making, without being affected by the discourses on reality it engaged with to carve out its position. Theory is a fissured discourse whose "discoveries" were both enabled and delimited by the contexts of its articulation. In fact, Theory owes its shape to these contexts. This paper attempts to establish this thesis by studying Theory's stance vis-a-vis literature, one of the important "contexts" (for want of a better term) of Theory.

Opsomming

In hierdie artikel word gronde aangevoer waarom verder gekyk moet word as die trope wat die oorvereenvoudiging van die intellektuele beweging genaamd Theory tot gevolg het. Hierin word beweer dat dit noodsaaklik is om 'n vlugtige blik te kry op die sosiokulturele prosesse wat Theory beinvloed het, en waaraan sy hoogtepunt in die kultuurgeskiedenis te danke is. Die veronderstellings waarop die trope berus word in hierdie artikel ontleed. Op grond van die ontleding word betoog dat Theory nie 'n samehangende diskoers kan wees en kennis oor realiteitswording kan genereer sonder om beinvloed te word deur die realiteitsdiskoerse waaraan die beweging deelgeneem her, en waardeur hy sy posisie verwerf her nie. Theory is 'n gesplete diskoers, en die beweging se "ontdekkings" word moontlik gemaak en terselfdertyd beperk deur die kontekste waarin dit verwoord word. Theory het trouens sy vorm aan hierdie kontekste te danke. Die tese word getoets aan die hand van 'n studie van Theory se standpunt oor die letterkunde, wat (by gebrek aan 'n beter woord) een van sy belangrike "kontekste" is.

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In literature alone, our ideas of author, audience, reading, writing, book, genre, critical theory, and of literature itself, have all suddenly become questionable--questionable but far firm invalid, reconstituting themselves in various ways.

(Hassan 2009; my italics)

1

Now that the moment of high Theory has well and truly passed, it is both possible and necessary to look beyond the facile accounts that often misrepresent sociocultural phenomena like Theory. In the context of the post-Theory debates, this is the need to engage with the two dominant tropes or facile representations of Theory that are popular in the academy today: the leaven and the lump, and the organic intellectual. Interestingly, these two accounts are founded on the same assumption about Theory: doing Theory involves a new way of relating to reality. Theory gives a new handle on experience, helps us read experience against the grain. Theory, it is assumed, is like the laws of gravity that established the invisible connection among what used to be considered unrelated events, and turned common-sense notions about daily occurrences on their head thereby transforming people's experience of them. Theory's deconstruction of the foundationalist notions of "subject" and "object" of knowledge, its reconception of these essentialist categories as effects of a process, it is assumed, has not only transformed the way contemporary reality is perceived, but has empowered the Theorist to see the shape of things to come.

This paper is an attempt to establish that both these accounts and the assumption underpinning them amount to an oversimplification of the phenomenon called Theory. Far from helping a student of Theory understand the dynamics of this phenomenon, they misrepresent this phenomenon in an effort to simplify it. This paper starts by making a case ['or looking beyond these "tropes" to get a glimpse of the sociocultural processes that shaped Theory and defined its moment in cultural history. …

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