Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Random thoughts on Falling into Theory, a book review

(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?


Sisyphus said...

It's long and boring --- sorry! I'll make up for it with cat pictures later.

Flavia said...

I was never taught theory in college OR in grad school (there was a course offered one year that was a broad historical survey of literary theory, beginning with Aristotle, which most of the other grad students took. . . but it conflicted with a course on the 18th C. novel, which sounded way more interesting to me).

So in some grad seminars (although not many!) we'd be assigned the occasional essay by De Man or Althusser or something, and I think my professors assumed that we knew who those people were--but I never really connected the dots. My best guess is that my professors thought we already knew whatever we needed to know about theory, or they were so weary of the theory wars themselves, that they just didn't bother to get into it.

So I'm in the weird position of being not-hostile to theory, and certainly not entirely ignorant of it, but not exactly sure how to give myself the education that I never got. (Luckily, in the Renaissance, most people can muddle through with a little Foucault and a lot of Greenblatt.) Eagleton's Literary Theory was useful to me in grad school, and I later picked up Hans Bertens Literary Theory: The Basics, but those are just overviews--useful for terms and big ideas and for how not to sound like a total rube.

So all this is to say, *I'm* interested in your ideas and recommendations, though I have none of my own.

Horace said...

My sense is that no single text does everything, and my recollection of Richter's FIT was that it did little of use, particularly compared to something like Robert Con Davis and Ronald Schliefer's expensive Contemporary Literary Criticism, or, for that metter, Norton's Theory Anthology. In this case I think the combination of a reader and a digested version--Like Eagleton's Literary Theory: An Introduction Barry's Beginning Theory (I'm using a different text from the Beginning... series and like it a lot) or Culler's Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction-- is a good bet. Or one of those digested versions and a bunch of single essays collected on reserves.

I had a good intro theory course in undergrad with a Con Davis anthology, and a poor one in grad school with the text you describe here, plus a big course pack. Nothing helped me more though, than Eagleton, who, while a bit out of date now, historicizes nicely, and could perhaps be replaced by that Beginning Theory text.

I'm thinking about a lot of this because of the Foundational course we're thinking through now: one of the models I'm looking at also uses FIT, and says her students hate it. There's alos this text called The Theory Toolbox that I've heard about, but am not sure what I remember hearing about it.

Ancrene Wiseass said...

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?

I seriously do not know. I'm still trying to figure out how to teach myself theory.

I'll be watching the comments for insights--thanks for asking the question!

Belle said...

Guys, give yourselves a break or twelve. As historians, we were simply expected to know it (it being lit crit and all associated theories), and to get it by reading the texts, without benefit of discussion, context... anything. So the idea that you're actually teaching it is wonderful.

I relied on Eagleton, and still refer my students to his overview. Referred fellow befuddled history grad students to it.

So if you find something that will help the non-lit types out here to decipher theory, please let me know. It would be wonderful if it's not full of arcane litcritese - or is that part of the appeal?

Yes, that's a snark. Sorry. It slipped out.

kermitthefrog said...

I've been wanting to reply to this post all afternoon, and not knowing quite how, since I feel like my acquaintance with theory began pretty gradually. But here are some things that helped me as an undergrad:

You're on target with the contextualization of why certain theoretical positions emerged at certain times. My first Theory-with-a-T lightbulb experience was an instructor who explained that Barthes was actually trying to argue something with S/Z, and all of a sudden I started to see theory/criticism as an ongoing process.

I had an OK sophomore seminar that paired theoretical texts with somewhat-relevant literature (Saussure and structuralism with Lewis Carroll, translation theory with a play called Translations). It certainly gave us a way to discuss theory as manifested/applied, not only in the abstract.

Eagleton and Culler helped some in terms of background.

As a grad student trying to teach myself, though? The most important thing I've learned has been that reading originary texts (i.e. Plato's Phaedrus, or bits of Hegel's Phenomenology) often helps to clarify later works that rely implicitly or explicitly on this established philosophical tradition. Routledge guides can be helpful in this endeavor if the terminology/background gets too much.

Finally, my first year in grad school, I had to take an exam on a list of 50 theoretical texts. That upped the comfort level a whole lot! (Apologies for such a long comment; drop me an email if you want the url of the list of texts--now under heavy debate by students and faculty who want to revise it, but that's a whole other can of worms.)

Bardiac said...

I've tried to use FIT a couple times, and always felt a bit disappointed. I think theory is somehow bigger than what he thinks; it's not just about what, how, and why we read, but about how we construct meaning and broadly understand the ways representation works.

I finally started getting that by reading theory texts, and then tracking back to try to understand who they were arguing with. It's hard all the way around becuase there's so much to know!

When I teach theory, I try to introduce students to three or four basic texts/ideas: Marx, Freud, and Feminist theory. You can't teach it all, but you can get students to see that theorists are trying to answer big questions, I think.

Sisyphus said...

Ok Horace, you've now returned me to my original disdainful and pissed-off reaction to the FIT. Way to go. :)

Flavia: I used to be all obsessed with "new historicism" because I could not figure out what it _was_, except that it was a "methodology not a theory" and it involved Foucault and some diluted Marx and lots of analogies. And chiasmuses. But our dept has people who say you can't apply Marx or Freud's theories anachronistically to people who'd never experienced them, and that makes some sense to me.

I will take note and squirrel away all these theory book titles (though none of them have the oomph factor that "falling into theory" did for me); I must say that the Norton is a beast and I can barely imagine carrying it, not really _assigning_ it to anyone.

and like kermitthefrog says (hello! welcome!) the biggest step in falling into theory debates is to go back as far as possible and read the texts that are inspiring the debates ... but I just feel like that's too much work, asking me to recapitulate the entire trajectory of Western philosophy so that I can go explicate a novel or two. (I think that's the way to do it, absolutely, but I'm lazy.)

And it's interesting all the historians who came out of the woodwork, eh? I worked with some history grad students at this campus and they were beyond hostile to a deep obliviousness to theory. Surely someone somewhere has written a good book to take some lit-crit or pomo ideas and show how they are important to history? I knew this guy in my writing group who could not fathom the notion of the "Other" or othering a group. I finally had to go, dude, when you only report on these black people as an object of study and discount their own words? That. That's othering.

Not that _you'd_ do that, heh.