Critical Theory; A Life

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.

36 thoughts on “Critical Theory; A Life

  1. There certainly is an issue to do with people feeling stupid. I used to see that in some of the Institutions where I was external examiner where the entry requirements were slightly less exacting than would have been the case at Cambridge. While there were students who understood the theory course there were also many who avoided it because they really felt it was beyond them. And then, of course, there were those who took the course and found that it really was beyond them. I have ghastly memories of one particular essay on a feminist take on ‘Great Expectations’ that might easily have left both me and the student traumatised for life.

    • Your comment reminds me of an academic I once met at a conference who worked at a university known for its open access – which is to say they took a lot of people from prisons. It was just after the exams had ended, and I will never forget her laughing remark that where she worked, murder was more likely than suicide for the student unhappy with the grade. Definitely not the type of student you’d encourage to read Levinas!! Patience is one of the main virtues required with theory. 🙂

  2. Excellent and very thought-provoking piece. It’s a great shame if we are not able to theorise about literature and I wish I had been taught more about this! Your comments about feminism and the unconscious writing of books strike many chords – I often wonder if I read to much into books, but if the author is not entirely in control of what is written this would make sense. Food for thought!

    • Absolutely! Whenever people say, oh but the author can’t possibly have thought that, the chances are that they are right, and equally that it does not prevent the interpretation from being there! I love that, though. It’s so liberating. If we had to believe in authorial intention, it would be like having to read the answers in the back and walk away. I love the sort of ideas that you can play with – sometimes they really open up a book.

  3. 1989 and I was in grad school and my university decided to make a theory class a requirement. The theory profs were young and hip and dynamic and we all immediately loved them and wanted to love theory too. We didn’t have to use theory to analyze literature it was a sort of survey of theory from Aristotle through the present and it was hard but exhilarating. That year the big deal was a guest lecture from Richard Rorty.

    I suspect you are onto something when you suggest that general readers don’t like theory because it seems so exclusive. It is if you haven’t had the benefit of studying it. But I think authors using theory could very easily take a chapter to briefly explain what they are doing. Still, there will always be readers who just want to know that a book is good and not care about the whys and wherefores and that’s fine too. We can all coexist!

    • We can most certainly co-exist. There are a zillion ways to approach books, and the point is for us to enjoy all of them. That’s so cool to think you and I were studying theory at almost the same time, and I’m so glad it was fun. It ought to be fun – it’s great when it’s fun. Playing with ideas was definitely the thing that got me hooked on lit criticism and I love it still.

  4. Theory didn’t make me feel any more stupid, it just made me feel stupid from a different angle.
    I think some Theory was esoteric and remains so, but other features have become more mainstream, That we all read texts differently because of what we each bring to the text is reasonable, but I studied in the balmy [both meanings] days before Theory, when if not openly stated, implicitly a text had one meaning, in the case of Leavis a moral one, and the purpose was to home in on that meaning. I exaggerate, but there was a far more essentialist notion of literature I am sure.That texts were not separate from the times of their production, seems sound. How could the ideas and issues that were being breathed in the air, be filtered out. Yet texts in my time were largely read in a vacuum, which tried to suffocate any intrusion from the outside world. So despite the mystery which remains around some theory, I am glad for much of its development. And I can still read like a general reader, which is where literature is meant to be read, I hope.

    • Oh I think you’re quite right. Prior to theory, it was all about the authority of the critic and the approach to reading literature was very standardised, very particular. I certainly suffered from the tail end of that in Cambridge when I first arrived, and I wasn’t too keen on it. It would be wrong to imagine that pre-Theory there was some mythic Golden Age where texts were read simply and honestly in ways that appealed to the general reader. I don’t know that the general reader has ever been that keen on what comes out of the academies! I think literature is open to every kind of reading, and it’s the very elasticity that is so fascinating and productive. I love that. And finally, you are clearly a highly intelligent person. Never, ever think differently.

  5. I loved the same course you did, Litlove! I remember I had to go to the lectures twice, once in 1988-9 and again in 1990-91, to try to understand them. For me, critical theory was my gateway to literature, the portal by means of which I was allowed to comment on literature. F.R. Leavis I understood to be a closer of doors, an excluder of all that did not fit the canon as *he* determined it, and I thought of him as a reactionary, not at all as an ‘enabler of general readers’. It was so incredibly saddening to me to come back to Cambridge as a lecturer, and witness the demise of theory, its integration into other papers as so much loam, even though it is the true life cycle of the idea — brave sprout, hurled upon by wind and rain, growing stronger, then older, and ultimately falling silently in the wood, to be reabsorbed. It made me feel so old to survive that life cycle, when I had wanted to be carried to the skies, like Jack on a beanstalk. Now I wander the earth, wielding my irony like a useless spade, digging at things.

    • Ingrid, how on earth did we not see more of each other during that course?? My supervision partner was Lucy Robinson – I don’t know if you knew her. A lovely woman, incredibly smart. I’ve no idea where she is now, and I doubt she’d remember me. But what you say about surviving the life cycle of theory is exactly what I’m saying – that is how I felt. I felt the same about Leavis and his ilk, too. Keep faith in that spade of irony – one day it will hit a treasure chest.

  6. As with Candide and the watered-down Leibniz, I think ideas from deconstructionism, for example, have filtered down from those who have read them and understood enough to make further metaphors. What puzzles me is that reader-response theory is not more talked-about.

    • I know! Why is that? Reader response is great, and would be interesting to anyone who reads voraciously. I think you’re right too, about theory filtering down. I think of it as the difference between catwalk and high street fashion – what’s most wearable ends up in mainstream culture.

  7. I am a 50 year old mother of two doing a BA in English at a small university in western Canada (but I’ve been to Cambridge and punted appropriately!). Last night I e-mailed my lit crit prof to ask that at some time in the course we have a discussion, or receive, some justification for the two part course, or theory in general. Even the opening essay in this thread made claims for theory but I would love some evidence (since we are being scientific). It is there, I have no doubt, but until it can be convincingly presented, it will be a hard sell. Otherwise, it just seems like a sophisticated version of pig Latin that the in-crowd speaks when they don’t want the prols to understand what they are saying.

    • The question here is what kind of evidence are you looking for? If it’s evidence that critical theory can be useful in reading, there’s probably a million books of criticism written by academics laboring under that assumption. 🙂 But if you mean evidence that it will be helpful to you, that’s trickier – you’d always have to find that yourself by going through the process. I remember the summer holidays before I began the theory course; I’d got a book by Terry Eagleton and read my way through it. To begin with, I wrote fiece and scathing comments in the margins, I thought it was all rubbish. Then about halfway through a penny dropped and I went back and erased what I’d written. It is a really weird thing to begin with, and it feels very counterintuitive. And of course it may well be that you end up not sold on a lot of it. But the field of theory is vast, and it would be a shame to dismiss all of it. Bit like saying you’ll never try sweet and sour pork because you didn’t like curry. When you find something that clicks, it’s a really lovely feeling, your mind opening up to a properly new thought. Do keep an open mind, not one that’s ready to clam shut again at the least opportunity. It can be hard to do, but it’s definitely worth it.

  8. I was at ‘university’ (actually what was then North London Polytechnic) at the end of the 1980s and will never forget the anger and upset in the English faculty when a lecturer came back from a year in the US having been converted to theory — lecturers shouting at each other in the lecture hall. I hated it then and have never really become fond of it, though I use to teach it and became something of an expert on women’s writing. It is certainly true that it has been really useful in changing the way we think even if we don’t realise it. So even though, like Bookboxed, I think I read like a general reader these days, I’ve no doubt that my reading has been informed by theory.

    • I find it so intriguing the way it gets under people’s skin so much. It’s like an alternative form of religion in the way it makes people behave. I do wonder what it challenges that is so precious. I certainly found the parts on feminist thought to be the most accessible and the most helpful to me. There was a natural link to psychoanalysis via questions of gender, and then I’d found an area that was really interesting. I agree with you, and think that all ‘general reading’ is informed by theory, not least because so much television and so many movies have been. Even Wayne’s World has a postmodern conclusion! 🙂

  9. For me theory is the essential stuff that allows me to say more about a book than ‘I liked it’ or ‘I didn’t like it’, and I couldn’t be without it. We never had a specific course on it at St Andrews, which was a shame, but it was there all the time in the background and I feel now like I have a whole case of theoretical lenses through which to view the things that I read and to interrogate the thoughts that I have about those things.

    I think the difficulty of theory does put people off, but I always sort of accepted that it would be difficult. Completely reorienting your view of the world, and reclassifying your reading experiences, is a huge and radical mental shift. Difficulty, or at least a mental stretch, is in the nature of the exercise. That said, I think a lot of readers would be surprised to discover that they are applying distilled versions of Derrida and Barthe and Bakhtin and all the rest without even knowing it. So many of these ideas have become integral to our patterns of thought.

    • Small world – I was at St. Andrews for the early 90s. Best time of my life, and yet the most wasted (WAY too many pubs in that small town) 😀

    • Victoria, I completely agree. I think theory has filtered down into popular culture in so many ways – and films have capitalised on it repeatedly. I really like what you say about the difficulty involved in reorienting your view of the world. Yes, that is what lies at the heart of the experience, and maybe that is why theory provokes such emotional reactions. Altering the way we think is a profoundly emotional experience, and one that really forces us out of our comfort zones. Thank you for your insightful comment.

  10. Having stopped studying English at 16 due to becoming a scientist, I am, by definition, a general reader – and the whole idea of literary theory is as alien to me as understanding quantum thermodynamics is to an English grad. However, having always been a reader, and luckily having enjoyed being fairly ‘well-read’ I don’t feel totally excluded from being able to exercise my brain writing about what I read on my own blog. Long live the general reader!

    • Leavis’s point would be that my extra education in reading would make no bar to us discussing a book (as indeed it doesn’t), whereas your extra education in science means we can’t have a proper discussion about scientific matters. I do wonder why we aren’t more bothered about the way that science excludes – there are so many scientific issues that are of huge consequence to us: global warming, genetically modified crops, stem cell research. We can only have the most useless conversation of empty opinions on them, and no amount of exercising the brain will work in the absence of special training. Got to hope more informed novelists pick them up and write about them, I guess!

      • Accepted. We also need more really good popular science books too that are attractive and accessible to non-scientists, and even more importantly, more people to study science so we don’t run out of engineers etc.!

  11. I was in grad school just as the ‘new’ theory wave came crashing through; though trickling would be more accurate in 1984. We were introduced to Derrida and Barthes, and assigned primers on deconstruction and structuralism.
    When next I encountered theory (jump ahead five or six years), what had happened was the theorists had decided their work (not all, mostly their own) was, in the words of a practitioner at Griffin university in australia, better than literature and where the real excitement lay.
    While theory has its merits, like others I find it hard to accept the tail wagging the dog. Everything has its place, though.

    • Ah well, I do hope, then, that my assertion that I have only ever used theory as an interesting tool, and one that honors the literature it’s applied to ought to trump that practitioner at Griffin. We’ve been friends so long, I’d hope you’d take my word over his. But really, if you don’t think tails should wag dogs, then the presumptions other people make about theory should be completely irrelevant. What you think about it and your own reaction and absorption are the only things that matter.

      • Litlove, you are incomparably better at integrating theory and placing judicious emphasis on both it and the book or play or poem at hand than were the feisty acolytes of the new dispensation.

  12. Oh how I have missed reading your column, and what a gift to me that when I return it is my favorite subject. However, my talking about it requires many expletives; no one around here even cares. If you have the time, and you feel up to the challenge of walking a hyped up pit bull on a short leash, shoot me an email. The whole lit crit scene here is like trying to get Onslow in a tie.

    • It is lovely to see you! Thank you for dropping by. Oh yes, I am willing to walk that hyped up pit bull – in language in any case! Looking forward to your email already. 🙂

  13. What an interesting post and discussion! The difference between algebra and reading is that people expect that algebra won’t be a part of their daily lives except for the few who employ it in their work. Reading is supposed to be, we hope it to be, something everyone will do, your general reader. That shouldn’t mean that some people can’t study it, discuss it, and apply or develop theory. It reminds me of how so many people I meet tell me they should write a book, as if the fact that they can spell, more or less, makes them able to be a writer.

    • I’ll bet you get a lot of people telling you about the books they should get around to writing! It’s just one more example of the way thought experience has so little to do with lived experience! Theory is interesting in the way it tries to bring thought and lived experience together in words. And of course it rarely manages that, but thinking about it is a very eye-opening endeavour. 🙂

  14. Wonderful essay. You have me ready to write my own historian-in-the-USA version of this story. We were more concerned with fighting to include the people who had been left out of traditional history to care about theory, but we had to deal with competing stories of the same event which led us to multiple truths and the adaptation of parts of post-modernism. Besides historians care more for the concrete and particular than the abstractions that can be used to ignore the humanness of individuals.

    • Post-colonial theory is the place our disciplines must crossover and unite. I still remember reading Edward Said for the first time! I’d love to read your historian-in-the-USA version, please do consider writing it!

  15. I certainly agree that translations or rather – bad translations – of some of the big thinkers have done this approach no favour at all. They would need highly specialised translators, who are really familiar with the concepts.

  16. Hi Litlove:

    Thanks for your informative post. I found your experience and the experiences of those who commented to be very engaging.

    I do not have a degree. My studies in Social Work and Psychology were cut short due to finances and illness. It’s been a decade since I was last in school. In my own time, I have studied psychoanalytic theory and it became the foundation that I built my other psychology learning on.

    I feel sad that I don’t have the money to join the wonderful dynamic world of academia and to earn a degree. But one line of comfort in your post, I did find: “The difference between getting a grade and getting an education”.


    • I’m a strong believer that education is the sum of your accumulated studying, thinking and analysing in life. As you’ll see from the comments here and all over the web, as many people find themselves distressed or undermined by studying in an institution as those who grow from good experiences. You sound like a smart and capable person to me, and I don’t doubt that you could get as far with independent study as other people do with organised teaching. It doesn’t matter how it comes in – it’s the thinking, which is entirely in your control, that makes all the difference. I’m really sorry you had to have your formal education cut short, and I hope very much you get as many opportunities as you’d like in the future to continue it. But I do think there are many different routes to the end goal, and it sounds like you’ve already found some of them – good for you!

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