(I wrote this a couple months ago and never finished it. Sorry. Here it is now.)
Long ago a friend was preparing a syllabus and list of readings as an assignment in one of our grad classes. In telling me about it, he mentioned he wanted to introduce the students to Theory, and he had ordered a book called Falling Into Theory. Ooh, I thought. That’s exactly how I felt when I discovered there was all this poststructuralist theory and so many conversations going on, and where the hell does one begin, considering that all these theorists cite other theorists and require the work of each other to be intelligible? I made a mental note to order the book for myself.
Well time passed and I muddled along till I was way past the need for an introductory theory text although I’m sure I could use more grounding in it or perhaps an external hard drive strapped to my forehead; my friend graduated and got a tt job and is now known as Herr Professor Doktor Doktor (while I’m still here --- sigh.) and now, years later, I ordered the book as part of prepping for a course I was going to teach. Then I got shifted into teaching another course and the book sat on my Bookshelf of Shame until, finally, in a fit of boredom, I skimmed it.
I was going to say how disappointed I was and how this book doesn’t at all live up to its title, but now I may qualify that a bit. What sold me, and Herr Professor Doktor Doktor, on the book, sight unseen, was the title. Whose first experience (or hundredth) wrestling with theory (or Theory) wasn’t filled with anxiety and confusion, sprinkled with a bit of pleasure, pride in being able to understand any of it, and awe that you could practically see your brain expanding?
The anxiety gets worse once you enter grad school, especially if you have required theory classes or reading lists. It seems that you should be able to “master” theory --- isn’t it called a Master of Arts? --- but the very project seems impossible. Where the hell do you start? There must be some “entry point,” even though Derrida and many other theorists have deconstructed the notion of the Origin or a stable center point to any structure. And so, as you struggle to find your feet and a framework for understanding theory, you feel like this:
Unfortunately, Falling Into Theory could more accurately be titled Falling into A Slight Awareness of Canon Formation and the Academy. It has critical articles that reference a few terms and points of theory, but not much that I would call theory qua theory. Nor does the introduction historicize the explosion of structuralism and poststructuralism into literature departments except in the most indirect way, painting a portrait of an ideal “pre-theory” department. Edenic, even. There is a strange undercurrent of nostalgia here for the “pre-theory” days even though the editor appears to be promoting theory. Note that he compares the difference between a controversy and a “state of theory” (into which we have fallen) to the qualitative differences between “a sigh and an asthmatic attack” (10) and that he questions how long this “state of theory” will last, as if he can’t wait for it to be over. In fact, it seems that his Fall is very different from my fall:
Evidently we are forced to wander in the wilderness of paradigm-shifting uncertainties until the Second Coming of Matthew Arnold and our eventual rapture back into the glorious fold of humanist aesthetics. What will happen to all the women and working-class people and people of color who don’t like their literature flavored with the aesthetics of Western humanism, I wonder? Are we not part of the elect?
(No, I’m serious, he does use Arnold’s “Dover Beach” as a jumping-off point for the breakup of our disciplinary assumptions)
He also edited the theory anthology I was assigned in undergrad and several different times in grad school. Both books have a similar focus on the “literary” part of literary studies that works to their detriment. Don’t look in Falling into Theory for Freud or Marx or Levi-Strauss or Stuart Hall. And likewise, Richter’s theory anthology often imports theorists from other disciplines awkwardly, including Marx's “On Greek Art in its Time” and Freud’s “On the Three Caskets” essays because they reference literature explicitly, rather than including a more grounding essay actual Marxist or Freudian critics would use in their own work.
So he’s coming at the definition of “Theory” from a totally different direction than I am: “theory is the talk we talk when a consensus breaks down, when we begin to disagree about fundamental principles and to argue about which principles are truly fundamental” (9). That’s not how I define theory. And there’s a difference between theoretically-informed criticism or arguments and theory itself ---- as HP Doktor Doktor put it, the first is holding up a colored lens and looking at a text with it, the latter is a discussion, or even creation, of the lens itself.
But now, to the good side, for I actually do believe this book is useful and would be great for undergrads. I think it would be good in our Introduction to Literature course, to get them to "fall into the discipline" and to start thinking about what is an English department and what are we supposed to do here/get out of it, as a foundational step before I get them to fall into any sorts of theory. Having students here realize that every syllabus is a canon, and every canon has assumptions and politics back of it, would be a huge accomplishment in and of itself. Second, it offers lots of examples of critical articles, so that students have some models for academic “voice” and “structure” that they can play with and model from. Even more important, there is a range of scholarly identities here, for lack of a better term --- the male/female ratio is approaching equal, although not quite (ok there’s a lot of co-authored articles here and I didn’t count precisely), and there are a variety of scholars of color, so this does bring in issues of race and class and gender and sexuality to the students’ attention. And really, as a heads-up to the existence of postcolonial studies, queer theory, critical race theory, and (old-school) feminist analysis, it’s not bad.
In sum, I may be asking for one 400-page book to do too much. If you ignore the title, or paste “Introduction to Literature: Teaching the Conflicts, Questioning the Canons” over it, the book is useful and valuable. But that still leaves Grad Student Me trapped on top of San Juan Capistrano. How do you teach students Theory? How do you learn it as a grad student? I’m still looking for a map of the unmappable, a starting-point for the originless, a ball of string for the labyrinth that is Theory. Any suggestions?