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Theory's Empire: An Anthology of Dissent

By Nan Miller

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February 20, 2007

Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent
Edited by Daphne Patai and Will H. Corral
Columbia University Press, 2005, 725 pages, $29.50

Editor's Note: Nan Miller, retired English professor and author of the Pope Center paper English 101: Ticket to Literacy or Postmodern Moonshine?, here reviews an important book on the unfortunate influence of "Theory" on the teaching of literature in college.

Nearly two years have passed since a band of 49 scholars fired the shot many hoped would be heard round universities nationwide. With the publication of their collected essays in Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent came 49 reasons to oppose the tribe of “theorists” that had hijacked the humanities three decades earlier—and built an empire on slogans, cronyism, and a great big dose of postmodern dogma. In the spring of 2005, the new anthology was hailed as a “mighty collection,” as “a welcome alternative to dogmatic thought,” as the longed for antidote to the “jargon and delusions” that had infected the humanities when the theorists took over.

And yet, when I set out to measure the impact Theory’s Empire has had on English Departments in the University of North Carolina, I discovered straight away that there’s not much to measure. A quick survey of my university contacts, for example, found only one who’d heard of the “mighty” collection. Even more telling were the results of a winter 2005 study conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Reviewing syllabi and interviewing a score of professors who teach literary theory, The Chronicle found the professoriate at twenty top schools still besotted by the elixir dubbed “Theory” and eagerly awaiting its next big mutation. In short, when the great lexicographer Samuel Johnson said, “Nothing odd will do long,” he never dreamed the word “Theory” would one day be crowned with a capital “T,” then rule the humanities for the next thirty years.

So what exactly does “Theory” with a capital “T” mean? Editors Daphne Patai and Will H. Corral say it’s simply another name for “idea,” “approach,” or “perspective,” none of which—in a theorist’s mind—could do justice to the “superior and demanding labor” of reinterpreting the classics or denouncing authors for past crimes of political incorrectness. What began as the theorists’ promise to make literary studies “relevant” in a changing culture quickly became their resolve to make that culture over in their own image—that of activists waging war against “cultural authority.” And the spin they put on any particular play, poem, or novel was determined by their individual passions, by the “marginalized voices” they would liberate from oppression.

One such example of putting cart before horse can be found in a theorist’s reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Under the lens of a “Marxist” theorist, Shakespeare’s play is no longer a comic take on the mishaps of lovers—which one particular Marxist finds “rather tedious.” Rather, it’s all about the subplot, the artisans’ hilarious play within the play, which isn’t one bit funny to the Marxist who says it’s really just “an enactment in fantasy of upper-class fears regarding the potency of the lower elements both of society and the body.” Theatergoers who’ve been enlightened by this Marxist theorist will cringe—not laugh—at Shakespeare’s parody of bad drama, and anyone who still thinks it’s funny can be “dismissed as politically conservative and out of touch, self-interested, exclusionary, and…intransigent.”

The question then becomes: how—despite its sometime link to tomfoolery—can Theory prevail in English departments nationwide? Anyone with even a passing interest in higher education knows the answer because the entrenchment of theorists and their trademark political correctness has made mainstream news for decades. Their formula for success, hatched in the 60s, perfected in the 70s and 80s, alive and well in 2007, goes something like this: Take a crop of upstart Ph.D.s who land jobs in Research I institutions. Add the rule “publish or perish”—make that “publish something ‘cutting edge,’ something avant-garde or perish”—then nose around to see if there’s anything left to say about Falstaff, Emma, or Huck. Spot the opening. If, prior to 1970, critics had called great works the hallmark of our Western heritage, the new kids on the block would invert that premise and call great works the scourge of Western thought—as the last refuge of racism, sexism, imperialism, and all the other “isms” perpetrated by dead white males. And if literary criticism theretofore had been written in a clear style, a new breed of scholars would adopt a torturously dense style and invent a language that made sense only to each other.

The final twist came when English Department innovators acted as though their reappraisal of literature meant more and mattered more than the literature itself. Armed with a new world view (anything Western bad) and theories that ranged from the obscure “poststructuralism” to the jarring “queer theory,” they could show us just how the West went wrong and, what’s more, tell us how to reform ourselves. A sharp insight into their inflated powers comes in the introduction to Theory’s Empire:

Professors trained primarily in literature began to claim for themselves a commanding position from which to comment importantly on any and all aspects of cultural and political life (and even on scientific research, which stood as the last bastion untouched by Theory) and thereby rise to stardom in the academic firmament.

The collection then lays out in stunning detail how English studies became “cultural studies,” how English professors became experts on everything—on “globalization,” “epistemic violence,” and “transgressive sexuality”—and how theorists came to deny both the aesthetic and humanistic value of literature.

What this collection does not do is address the one audience without whose support a new business called “doing theory” would surely collapse. I refer, of course, to grantors, taxpayers, and tuition-paying parents, that is, the unwitting patrons of scholars who can turn even “Marxism” into a profitable enterprise. Shareholders in any other business would catch on quickly if bizarre innovations had weakened operations. Not so in higher education where the poor value shows up long after investors’ checks have been cashed. Theory’s Empire aims to alert “students and faculty” to the connection between the rise of Theory and the decline in value of literary studies and to give them “a fresh point of view” on a bad business. As it now stands, however, faculty must admire, or seem to admire, the ruling orthodoxy or risk being tagged “reactionary,” which could wreck whole careers. With patrons in the dark about what Theory costs and faculty made wary of the penalty for dissent, this bankrupt business has continued to thrive.

All of which makes one wonder what would happen if patrons did know about the defamation of great works. Theory’s Empire notes the chasm that separates scholars who interpret great works to enhance understanding and those who misinterpret all “discourse” to advance an agenda. One contributor dubs this latter bunch “race-gender-class theorists,” who have in common their belief that “objectivity and truth are naïve illusions of traditional scholars and, more generally, of the Western tradition.”

In the mind of race-gender-class theorists, the only real truths are those they themselves set forth about who is to blame for worldwide oppression. Western hegemony is the culprit, and Western hegemony can be brought down only by theorists who spot the abuse of power everywhere—except in their own little fiefdom. Secure in tenure, income, benefits, and the prospect of a lifelong pension, theorists are free to use “literature as a weapon to fight this war against capitalism and patriarchy.” Only in academe can a young professional rise to stardom by exploiting the very system he or she would overthrow. Only in academe could Shakespeare’s King Henry reverse his claim that “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

In sheer heft, this exposé of theorist rule is unmatched. But if readers approach expecting to learn how theorist posturing affects classroom practice, Theory’s Empire will disappoint. Nowhere in 698 pages of incisive prose can one see real-life students bewitched or bothered by professors who confuse podium with pulpit. Readers can only guess what goes on in classes led by a professor who dissects the “hybridizing intrusions of human history” or the “quotidian processes of hegemony.” And readers can only guess what becomes of Hamlet when a professor declares: “Interpreters do not decode poems; they make them,” then says of his newfound power: “It relieves me of the obligation to be right . . . and demands only that I be interesting.”

Excerpting other such specimens from Theory’s Empire, I have taken guessing one step further and imagined what might ensue if a tuition-paying parent discovered that frippery is all too often what the big check buys. My made-up parent is a university graduate, a university backer, and is now the father (the very word can make a theorist wince) of a university enrollee, who’s come home to write her final paper for a course in British literature. Dad’s no snoop, but my made-up daughter has set up shop on the kitchen table, and Dad can’t help but notice that she has titled her essay “Exposing the Troglodytes: Neutralizing the Normativity of Western Savagery.” Intrigued, Dad asks,

What’s that supposed to mean?

It means I’m going to talk about the mess so-called great writers have made of so-called Western civilization.

Oh, I see. You’re imitating the NYU physicist who published the famous spoof on professors who attack science? I’ve read about those English professors who attack the humanities. You’re poking fun at them, right?

No way! Inhumanities is more like it. I see now how literature can turn people into tyrants and make them not even care about people who’re oppressed, here or in the countries we’ve bled to make ourselves rich—unless professors (they’re called “theorists” now) show us how writers have always used “sexuality, race, nationalism and the workings of capitalism” to justify Western imperialism.

Those are some pretty steep charges, young lady. I admit, I wasn’t crazy about having to take that course way back when, but I remember a professor who made British literature interesting and made us respect the genius behind it—especially Shakespeare’s plays.

The very fact that you’d call me “young lady” offends and shows that you took Brit Lit back in the dark ages before theorists saw through Shakespeare’s “all-woman ghetto” and his “ideology of the family” that’s “still firmly in place some four hundred years later”! My professor says men like you are “blinded by a bourgeois ideology” and, worse, that you espouse “a positivistic conservative materialism which rejects the specificity of history.”

Is that a new fancy way to call me a “male chauvinist pig”? Well, if I’m to be classed among your pigs or “troglodytes,” you’ll have to explain how a man’s belief in family, good books, and a free enterprise system makes him “savage.”

Simple. Since you were mistaught by an old fogy, theorists have figured out that a “patriarchal system has shaped Western Culture for millennia,” and if you don’t stand up and “oppose this oppression in Shakespeare’s world (or in the world of his plays),” it’s like admitting that you support oppression too! If you don’t believe me, read this quotation in my paper. It’s by Judith Butler who’s a Berkeley professor and “one of the ten smartest people on the planet.”

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

That is, hands down, the best parody I’ve seen yet of academics who write gibberish to make us think they’re smarter than all the rest of us. OK fess up. My brilliant little actress is really writing a paper for a class in creative writing, and the assignment was to do a takeoff on Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” Right?

Stop it, Dad! You still don’t get it. Dr. Butler explained in the New York Times that academic writing has to be “difficult and demanding” in order to “question common sense” and “provoke new ways of looking at a familiar world.” That’s how theorists announce their “commitment to the transformation of a social order which exploits people on grounds of race, gender, and class.”

I’ll say those theorists provoke! You’re telling me with a straight face I’m footing the bill to have them turn you into a man-hating, book-bashing Marxist? Hasn’t your professor noticed what happened to last century’s little experiment in Marxism? And how does your contempt for all things Western square with your passion for Jane Austen? I well remember the year I couldn’t get you to look up when you were reading one of her novels. Have you turned on Austen too?

Not turned on her, Dad. I’ve just learned now how to use “critical thinking” when I’m reading. All those Brits ever did—and Austen’s no exception—was use a good story and some pretty words to instill in readers a creed of Western superiority. I used to fall for it, but now I see that women writers are the very worst offenders because as oppressed women they should have known better. Austen, for example, was even pro-slavery! Look, it says right here in Mansfield Park that when the character Fanny asks about the slave trade in Antigua (which paid for the posh house she lives in, by the way), she is “met by such a dead silence!” It’s hard to excuse Austen for passing up that opportunity to attack slavery. Instead, she just “sublimates the agonies of Caribbean existence to a mere half dozen passing references to Antigua,” which make her position clear and show that even Austen can be “implicated in the rationale for imperialist expansion.” And don’t even get me started on what English imperialism did to her characters’ sex lives. Bet you thought they didn’t have one, but turns out all those women characters were into autoeroticism or homoeroticism. And those two sisters in Sense and Sensibility were probably into incest too because you can find “some representational metonymy of the genital” everywhere in that novel.

Enough of this nonsense! What would your professor do if I stormed her office and told her what I think of her course in Book Bending 101? And what would she say if I let her know I’m a big supporter of the university (and many other causes, I might add) but didn’t sign on to bankroll political grandstanding in class?

Back off, Dad. You’ll get me in total hot water if you complain. Thank goodness you couldn’t find my professor now if you tried because she’s at a conference presenting her paper on “Queer Performativity” and won’t be back till the semester’s over.

I can wait till next semester.

She won’t be in her office next semester either. She’ll be on sabbatical finishing up her work on the “face/butt metonymy” in Swinburne’s poetry.

Sounds like another howler in the works! OK, I won’t do anything till you’re safely enrolled in med school in the fall. But tell me now how you think she’ll defend these bizarre notions when I do track her down?

I can tell you exactly what she’ll say. She’ll say the way you “perform” your own “whiteness” has made you blind to everything else, and she’ll say you’re trying to put the kibosh on critical thinking and academic freedom in her class because you’re still hooked on the “arbitrariness of patriarchal hegemony.”

Sounds like in her world “critical thinking” and “academic freedom” are code for “free to think like me!”

OK, OK, I see your point. I know some of this stuff is way over the top, but if I don’t act like I buy it, I won’t make the grade, and I have to have this course to graduate. So please, just butt out!

I will for now, but you know what this class reminds me of?

What?

It reminds me of another famous “troglodyte”—another pig, in fact. Remember Napoleon from Orwell’s Animal Farm? Remember that he and the other pigs overthrew the farmer/oppressor—then Napoleon himself became dictator and made the sheep bleat their approval? Sound familiar? I do not understand how something similar could be going on in the university and I not know about it. I do not understand why no one in the university calls for “open discussion and logical argumentation” when the so-called theorists maim great works. I can’t be the only one who sees “the ultimate incoherence of certain theorists”—by that I mean professors like yours who seem to have lost respect for literature’s “ability to give memorable expression to the vast variety of human experience.” Aren’t there any scholars left who can “redeem the study of literature as an activity worth pursuing in its own right”?

 


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