Early in October 1988, I rocked up to the inaugural lecture of the modern critical theory paper, a module I’d signed up for because it sounded new and exciting. Cambridge agreed. The lecture hall was packed out, with most of the English faculty crowded into the front rows and, quite shockingly, my own lecturers and supervisors hogging all the seats at the back. I had never seen the grown-ups, as it were, attending undergrad lectures before. The handful of modern linguists who were actually going to sit the paper, myself amongst them, were submerged by a sea of interested parties. Cambridge had toyed with theory for a while, famously inviting the French Daddy of deconstruction, Jacques Derrida to give a guest lecture, in which he infamously spent the hour discussing the white space between the title of a work and its first lines. But this was the first time that the university had decided to create a syllabus, teach the theory and examine it. For a place that in its Tudor infancy spent a couple of hundred years dedicated to the works of Aristotle before moving onto anything else, this represented swift progress.
It was the Modern Languages faculty that sponsored the paper because theory, as we were about to learn it, had exploded out of the Left Bank of Paris at the end of the 50s. In 1958 the literary journal Tel Quel was founded, and over the next 24 years it attracted a swarm of cultural and literary theorists. Postmodernism, post-structuralism, psychoanalytic theory, feminism, postcolonial theory, reader response theory, these were the ideas setting the intellectual world alight.
At almost the same time in Cambridge (1959 in fact), the biggest ever fight between the sciences and the arts was taking place. In the red corner was C. P. Snow, who criticized the ‘snobbish’ culture of intellectuals for holding back the progress of science and technology, which he believed were about to change the world. In the blue corner was literary critic F. R. Leavis, who laced up his gloves and declared that literature was the place where everyone got to discuss what was actually happening in the world, unlike the sciences which belonged exclusively to those with advanced degrees. Everyone could read and have an opinion on the new books by Graham Greene and Kingsley Amis, but only a handful of people could understand the latest developments in quantum electrodynamics.
There was no clear winner to the debate, but over the next 25 years science and technology gained the upper hand in the cultural imagination. Scientists were increasingly seen as the saviors and pioneers of Western society, literature a leisure pursuit for a minority. Hardly surprising, then, that theory, the closest literature would come to a science of its own, should look so enticing as a way of perking up any flagging interest in the arts.
But theory was exciting, too. I loved the ideas in it, and how audacious and challenging they were. I enjoyed the process by which those ideas went from being ludicrous at first glance to naggingly plausible. Psychoanalytic and feminist theory were the areas that interested me the most. I was intrigued by the challenge the feminists faced to represent a group of people who wanted above all else to be seen as individuals. After centuries of an imposed identity as sweet, nurturing, charming, useless creatures, women longed to be different, but not instantly shoved into another set of adjectives: strong, competitive, dynamic, resilient, whatever. It’s an issue that, as far as I can see, has never yet been resolved. Women still get trapped into a ‘story’ by their cultures and forbidden from diverging from, or subverting, the party line. In my psychoanalytic studies, I was fascinated by the notion that a book, emerging from the mind of a writer, had the same characteristics as that mind: there was an evident surface meaning to it, but also an unconscious one, hidden in the shadows and ambiguities of the writing. Just that idea alone put paid to the belief that authorial intentions were the most important way to view a story. The author had as much chance of seeing his intentions come to fruition in narrative as he did making them come good in real life.
There were so many ideas thrown at me in that course, and I found it fun to play with them. I learned that theory was at its best when being applied to a book. Theory and practice struck sparks, and I grew adept at hunting down the places where they contradicted one another, or created a strange paradox. This was the point of theory for me – if it fit perfectly over literature and life, then we would be robots and our stories nothing more than a vast instruction manual. It was the very places where theory and practice buckled and fought one another that showed up what it was to be human, and how slippery and strange and surprising art could be.
My career at the university lasted as long as the modern critical theory paper did. It was retired a year or so before I stopped teaching, though it continues to this day to be part of the graduate syllabus. A couple of years after that, I noticed the tide turning and a surprising amount of hostility being directed against theory, as if it were in some way responsible for spoiling the field of literary criticism. The anger seemed to arise from the way some theory texts were written, essentially those heavily influenced by the discourse of philosophy. This was a bit unfair, given just how much theory there was available, and how much of it – including all my chosen areas of psychoanalysis, feminism and reader response theory – was perfectly accessible. Books by the likes of Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva suffered from being read in translation; I always found them much better in French. And then I think in the States, theory was taught in a vacuum, outside its historical context and away from its natural interaction with literature, which can’t have helped.
But it was hard to get away from the feeling that people were upset with theory because it made them feel stupid. Which says more about the stranglehold of insecurity than it does about theory (and more about the stranglehold of the grade over the notion of an education). I mean, I loathed algebra, which certainly made me feel stupid, but I didn’t believe it wasn’t useful to someone, somewhere. Without those decades of academics working on literary theory, we wouldn’t have the canon of women’s writing we do now, nor literature written by oppressed people of colour, both championed by intellectuals, studied in universities and finally merged with the mainstream. Political correctness wouldn’t exist, and our understanding of history would be infinitely poorer. Hundreds of novels and films and buildings and pieces of music and adverts wouldn’t have been inspired or influenced by theory.
But I wonder whether the ultimate reason for the anger against theory lay back in that debate between Snow and Leavis. Leavis had argued that literature was for everyone in a way science was not. Literature has the power to bring us together to discuss what is happening in society, and maybe we are wired up to want that. We don’t seem to mind the inaccessibility of science, but we do mind if stories get talked about in ways that seem exclusive. If that’s the case, then it’s up to the general reader to keep the discussion going.