Theory in Chaos ; Viewing Literature through the Lens of Some "Ism" Seemed Revolutionary in the 1960s. Today, Many Are Calling It an Irrelevant Approach

By David KirContributor to The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 27, 2004 | Go to article overview

Theory in Chaos ; Viewing Literature through the Lens of Some "Ism" Seemed Revolutionary in the 1960s. Today, Many Are Calling It an Irrelevant Approach


David KirContributor to The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


A n old joke used to ask, Where are the last bastions of Marxism? Answer: the Kremlin and the Duke University English department. But now that the Soviet Union has dissolved, the last defenders of Karl Marx's ideas may indeed reside on a pretty, Gothic-style campus in the pinewoods of North Carolina.

For literary traditionalists, the riddle is apropos. They have long bemoaned the effete nature of postmodern literary theory, calling it as hopelessly out of touch with both reality and literature as was Lenin with real-life economics.

But theory's impact on the study of literature in the US has been pervasive if nothing else. Large numbers of the last two generations of English majors have been instructed not to experience novels and poems directly, but rather to view them through the lens of some kind of theory - Marxism being one of the most popular.

The idea was to move away from viewing literature as having any innate "truth" of its own, and rather to study it in relationship to larger schools of thought. But the approach left many students complaining they spent more class time with dry theoreticians than with the great authors they had hoped to encounter.

Today, however, such complaints may be on their way out.

Postmodern literary theory is now transforming itself so rapidly that Marxist, feminist, deconstructionist, and psychoanalytic critics (and others) are flocking back to the drawing board in droves as they search for new approaches to writing and teaching.

Indeed, some academics say that postmodern theory is on the way out altogether and that the heady ideas that once changed the way literature is taught and read will soon be as extinct as the dodo and the buggy whip.

According to some, theory has been losing its grip on academia for years now. "For me, theory reached its apogee in the early 1980's and has since been declining," says Roger Lathbury, professor of American fiction at George Mason University. Today, he says, it's a matter of "the pendulum swinging toward the center."

Some of the biggest names in the field would seem to agree. In Chicago last spring at a discussion sponsored by the journal "Critical Inquiry" cutting-edge thinkers such as Stanley Fish, Frederic Jameson, Homi Bhabha, and Henry Louis Gates Jr. spent two hours saying that postmodern theory was ineffective and no longer mattered in the world outside academe, if it ever did.

And in his new book "After Theory," Terry Eagleton of Manchester University argues that postmodern literary theory (which he defines as "the contemporary movement of thought which rejects . . . the possibility of objective knowledge" and is therefore "skeptical of truth, unity, and progress") was relevant in its heyday, but no more.

In other words, theorists say of the world what Gertrude Stein said about Oakland: there is no there there.

Of course antitheorists have been saying that very thing about theory itself for decades. To an old-school humanist, there's plenty "there" in literature; Shelley's poems are incomparably beautiful, Shakespeare writes about the truths of the mortal condition, and so on.

But Eagleton has never been a tweedy, pipe-smoking purveyor of the humane verities. What makes his new view so startling is that for years, he was one of theory's most committed apologists. Indeed, his 1983 book "Literary Theory: An Introduction" has long been a standard text in university classrooms and will no doubt continue to be, at least until Eagleton's recantation of all he once held holy becomes the new orthodoxy.

The idea behind "Literary Theory" was to interrogate and refute what Eagleton and others thought of as lazy, received notions of what is true.

A Marxist himself, Eagleton would have been more interested in the relations between social classes in a Dickens novel, say, than a single character's suffering and redemption. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Theory in Chaos ; Viewing Literature through the Lens of Some "Ism" Seemed Revolutionary in the 1960s. Today, Many Are Calling It an Irrelevant Approach
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.