What's Left of Theory? New Work on the Politics of Literacy Theory

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Judith Butler, John Guillory, and Kendall Thomas, eds. What's Left of Theory? New Work on the Politics of Literary Theory. Essays from the English Institute. New York: Routledge, 2000. xii + 292 pp. $85.00 cloth; $21.00 paper.

The latest English Institute collection is a fitting representation of literary studies at the present time. The title plays coyly on the meanings of "left" and leaves "theory" unspecified, and "literature" unmentioned. The table of contents lists several academic stars talking about predominant, mostly nonliterary subjects-race, politics, gender, theory. The volume has no consistent theme or subject matter. The subtitle, "New Work on the Politics of Literary Theory," suggests a single issue, but of the nine essays only two of them (Brenkman, Culler) address literary theory per se. Four of them avoid literature altogether (Halley, Warner, Berube, Connolly), and one (Spivak) devotes only a few perfunctory paragraphs to specific texts. The two essays that do broach literary works (Levinson, Nunokawa) quickly veer into nonliterary concerns. The authors pursue singular lines of inquiry, casually touching on a host of topics including conspicuous leisure, global capital, The Bell Curve, Original Sin, the anti-- Rushdie fatwa, and a phone call from one of the editors.

What is odd about this diversity is that the contributors seem unaware of the rhetorical problems it poses. They plunge into their readings without worrying about their audience, without bothering to justify their choices. But how, for instance, is an English teacher supposed to understand William Connolly's discussion of the "secular public sphere" when it cites sources from theology and neurophysiology, and invokes Kant, Nietzsche, Deleuze, Rawls, Talal Asad, Habermas, etc.? Michael Warner recounts the recent campaign against New York gay porn shops, Michael Berube describes his Down syndrome son, and Janet Halley details gay rights legal arguments, and none of them pauses over the likelihood that most literature teachers have never entered a gay porn shop, observed a disabled child, or tracked a gay rights court case. The editors ask, "Does literature remain (the same) after theory?" (x), unconcerned that 99% of readers of literature would consider the question irrelevant and even nonsensical. These critics argue and compose as if readers already share their outlook, and are eager to hear what they have to say. They display a kind of self-certification, an untroubled approval of their subjects (as legitimate disciplinary objects), a disregard of rival viewpoints.

Unsurprisingly, the rhetorical practices that go with this critical arrogance conspire against the authority that these critics assume. Their habits of composition, discursive maneuvers, allusiveness, and self-reference effect the opposite of communication. As this collection demonstrates, with a few exceptions, the ethos assumed by the theorists yields a fractious, unwieldy critical style, an idiom of bloated abstract description, an argumentation that is casual and self-involved, that ends up patronizing and estranging colleagues who do not subscribe to the views of the critic.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's "From Haverstock Hill Flat to U.S. Classroom, What's Left of Theory?" is an appropriate lead essay. It opens with a sound acknowledgment of the inconsequentiality of the theory-practice debate outside the academy. But two sentences later the reasoning leaps to a political indictment: "elite universities [... ] protect their conservatism with a viciousness not necessarily imaginable outside that charmed circle, ideologically controlling the constitution of their student body when the formal law of the land will not allow more visible lines of separation" (1). Spivak says nothing more about this "ideological control," and indeed phrases it merely as a point she "should add here." Such a damning judgment would in any other context require supporting evidence and cogent argument. …