Life After the Death of Theory

Professors, in general, have the luxury of appearing moderate and open to competing ideas, but insecure students often research the opinions of faculty members to ensure that they will be on the correct side of any apparently open dialogue. The powerless seize on small expressions of political opinion from the powerful and embrace these views even more radically in order to prove their loyalty and worthiness.

Of course, most of us probably didn’t recognize that we were latecomers to the grad-school pyramid scheme. Theory with a capital T grew up with the expansion of graduate programs and the adjunctification of higher education during the last 30 years. It was a ticket to success for a charmed circle of insiders: a few people at elite institutions with the connections and advance knowledge to get in and out of the game before the general rush. The language of theory — carefully deployed in the world of academic hiring and publication — still functions in ways that suggest the sub rosa communications of Ivy League clubmen in the world of investment banking.

By the turn of the millennium, however, the jargon-laden writing was on the wall. Shoeshine boys were talking about Jacques Derrida. You could buy books on Theory at Wal-Mart with a six-pack of Zima and an “Indigo Girls” T-shirt.

And now it seems like everyone is rushing to get out with what’s left of their devalued stock. Famous scholars such as Henry Louis Gates, Homi Bhabha, and Terry Eagleton have announced that “theory is dead.” Of course, at this late date, it’s as if our leaders have emerged from months of concentrated thought to announce that Jefferson Starship is no longer on the cutting edge of popular music. –“Thomas H. Benton” —Life After the Death of Theory (Chronicle)

I had the very same alienating experience with one particular theory class at the University of Virginia, though I also remember some very productive courses with E.D. “Cultural Literacy” Hirsch and Arthur “Shakespeare” Kirsch, among others.

In Hirsch’s class, a history of critical theory, there were two philosophy students who frequently arrived about 10 minutes late, walked all the way across the lecture hall to their seat right next to the instructor’s desk, and dominated the post-lecture Q & A sessions by arguing philosophical points with Hirsch. Once I actually went up to Hirsch after class and asked that he not let those students dominate the discussion, though in retrospect I’m sure that if I had simply raised my hand to ask a good question, he’d have gladly called on me. I was such a putz.

Kirsch’s class was very much in demand. As a culling technique, he required students to write a 10-page paper every other week. What a way to ensure a dedicated student roster!

At Toronto, I got a good grip on a first-semester course, “History of the English Language,” and also took a course on bibliography (which was more than research — it was also an introduction to the history of books). I loved those classes, and I remember that they shook up some of my classmates. These were Ph.D. students who confessed they didn’t know the difference between an article and a preposition. A bibliography course is even more necessary now. At the time, most of the grad students probably remember switching from writing papers long-hand to composing them on the computer, but that’s probably not the case today.

My dissertation adviser, F. J. Marker, characterized me as a “theory refugee.” Fortunately for me, he was a theater historian with a joint appointment to the English department, so that wasn’t a problem to him.

Among my classmates, there were plenty instances of posturing and tunnel vision. As an American who had lived in Virginia all his life, I found myself in an interesting position in a class on Southern American lit, being offered at a Canadian institution.

One fellow, with steely blue eyes and long, flowing Jesus hair, got very excited about Foucault. He could “do theory” like there was no tomorrow. Years later, he told me that a library worker had cleared out his library carrel, throwing out a draft of his dissertation in the process. He said something about filing a lawsuit against that employee and the university. (Didn’t he keep a backup? Hadn’t he ever heard “Jesus Saves”?)

Another guy was planning to do a computer-assisted textual analysis of The Canterbury Tales (Or was it Paradise Lost?). I thought it was a cool idea, and at the time I was working on a computer project involving medieval drama. While my fiancée did end up joining me in Toronto, I had left behind a big network of friends in Virginia, and I was very lonely that first year in Toronto all by myself. So, one day after class, I asked this guy if he wanted to go out for coffee. He thought about it, then said he had some work to do instead. I later saw him in the library, reading. I never spoke to him again.

I feel like a hypocrite as I write this, but a student to whom I was polite and respectful seemed to get the idea that we were soulmates. She spouted theory left and right, interspersed with the occasional unthinking anti-American remark (which seemed almost obligatory in Canada at the time). For instance, when some text we were discussing featured rather violent and sexual language, this student noted that the author lived in such-and-such a town, and that near the town was an American military base, so it made sense to her that the author had picked up that language from the U.S. soldiers. Every couple weeks, she would call me up and share with me her latest outrages and department gossip. I was always polite, but never reciprocated. After several years, she stopped calling.

One student from Europe launched a whole interpretation of a story (written by a black author) on the premise that one family was white and another was black, and that the white family was oppressing the black one. When I pointed out that the mother of the “white” family used the “n” word to describe her own son, my fellow student paused, blinked, then suggested that the “white” mother was just demonstrating her racism by using a racial epithet against her son. When I pointed out several dialectical similarities between the way the two families talked, and when I showed how both families spoke in a completely different way from a group of characters who are described in the text as being white, he stuck to his guns. He was so interested in defending his interpretation that, when I asked him whether it was at all possible — under any circumstances — to use dialect to identify the race of a character in fiction, he said “no.” So much for textual criticism.

The one time I made a sudden connection over a literary text was a complete accident. In one of my classes, we were about to discuss some W. H. Auden poetry. I think I was scheduled to be the “respondent” to a paper written by another student. A few days before the class period, I saw her in the halls and said, “Do you want to go to the lounge and talk about Auden?”

The woman did a double-take, then flashed a confused smile.

I realized she wasn’t who I thought she was. “Whoops, My mistake,” I sputtered.

She was still smiling.

“I think I just accidentally hit on you, didn’t I?”

She laughed. “I was about to say, ‘yes!'”

Looking back, I am a bit saddened that I spent so little time talking about literature, and so much time fretting over my own shaky grasp of theory. It was a love of books and writing that led me to grad school. Between classes in my first year or so, I read a list of books on my own, so that I could pass a series of written tests. I also studied — alone — for a German test. Maybe I just remember it that way, because talking about the literature wasn’t hard, but reading, making sense of, and then talking about the theory was a challenge. I suppose we needed to spend that time practicing our ability to “do criticism.”

I enjoy spending time with the grad students and other young professionals I’ve met via blogs or via CCCC meetings, since they are so literate in the theory of their fields. Reading Mike Vitia or Clancy Ratliff reminds me of the best things I took away from my graduate seminars. (Hmm… it looks like Clancy has been goofing off a bit lately, but that’s okay — she deserves it.)