What Is Theory and Why?

Theory is the method of learning what more texts have to reveal to us than the surface of their words. I have already done a number of practical applications for examples, but I’ll demonstrate again on a famously misunderstood poem in a bit.

But here, it seems we are between a rock and a hard place in our discussion. In the one corner (in the blue-collared shirt sleeves), we have those who haven’t learned any theory. So it’s difficult to discuss Derrida. But in the other corner (in the gold-lamé cape and silver-plated knee-highs), we have the aristocrats who suspect they know all there is to know, sniffing at any discussion and anyone else who hasn't also heard it all.

The elitists would have you believe that only they can analyze texts because they have read Derrida. You don’t need Derrida. You don’t need Saussure. All you need is your mind and acquire (if not already acquired) the ability to abstract concepts from particulars (i.e. metaphors). Don’t get me wrong, elitists. The theorists do help, but only after we have a deeper understanding of the foundation. Let us be communists of intellect and share our understandings.

A Famous Misinterpretation Necessitates Theory

Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” is all about how the road “less traveled by... / has made all the difference” in this famous poet’s life, right? But which route is he really describing as better?

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both....

[I] took the other, as just as fair....
Though as for [one path having a better claim over the other] the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay...
Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Frost’s narrator doesn't have a clue how he got to be who he is, but "I shall be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence." Look at the very title of the poem. Which road is he thinking about? My God, how the world has so long misunderstood this most famous poem! Isn't it amazing?

So obviously there is a need for theory, a need to understand these works of literature better.

Terry Eagleton writes that theory is

“the labour of acquiring new ways of speaking of literature.... The economist J.M. Keynes once remarked that those economists who disliked theory, or claimed to get along better without it, were simply in the grip of an older theory.... [W]ithout some kind of theory, however unreflective and implicit, we would not know what a ‘literary work’ was in the first place, or how we were to read it. Hostility to theory usually means an opposition to other people’s theories and an oblivion of one’s own.... What is truly elitist in literary studies is the idea that works of literature can only be appreciated by those with a particular sort of cultural breeding.... Theory was a way of emancipating literary works from the stranglehold of a ‘civilized sensibility’, and throwing them open to a kind of analysis in which, in principle at least anyone could participate. Those who complain of the difficulty of such theory would often, ironically enough, not expect to understand a textbook of biology or chemical engineering straight off. Why then should literary studies be any different? Perhaps because we expect literature itself to be an ‘ordinary’ kind of language instantly available to everyone; but this is itself a very particular ‘theory’ of literature.”

In other words, we all already have a theory of literature--like it or not--and, I might add, it may be based on faulty reasoning. It’s difficult, but as Eagleton writes about literature in general, “By having to grapple with language in a more strenuous, self-conscious way than usual, the world which that language contains is vividly renewed.”

The Dangers of Theory (or Do I Mean Theorists?)

“Knowledge has its dangers, yes, but is the response to be a retreat from knowledge?” -- Isaac Asimov

I have discussed potential problems with theory here and here and here. The above Asimov quote hits another important point. Too often in literary theory, we spin our wheels discussing all the things we don’t or can’t know.

When Eagleton debates what literature even is, he shoots himself in the foot. He tries to state, using Derridaean logic (I told you Derrida was everywhere), that there is no such thing literature, which for hesitant book buyers would effectively encourage them not to buy a book about something that does not exist. Yet he decides he will use the terminology anyway, despite not believing in literature's existence (so we can see that his own subconscious disagrees with this dubiously reasoned conclusion).

He bases his rational on the inability to read Icelandic sagas as literature--without bothering to consider whether they actually have any value as literature... or whether he lacks the proper tools at this time for assessing what makes the sagas literature. We do know that they are crucial to understanding a people historically and comparatively -- among other methods of analyzing who and what humans are. Maybe that's all the reason we need for reading them.

He posits that Shakespeare, like Icelandic sagas, may have no future relevance. That’s certainly a possibility. It’s also possible that the Creationists are right. But do we teach Creationism in the classroom (no, with rare exceptions)?

He posits that our values change as a society, but concludes finally that we all share a common underlying value-system that allows us to discuss these values:

“We may disagree on this or that, but we can only do so because we share certain ‘deep’ ways of seeing and valuing which are bound up with our social life, and which could not be changed without transforming that life.”

But to realize this, we don’t need a time machine. We need look no further than our own backyard: Would you--whether you’re a Republican or Democrat (Labour or Conservative, for the Brits)--respond fundamentally differently from your ideological opponents if a step-father killed your father? Would the Chinese not feel Oedipus’ shock and shame of killing his father and marrying his mother? Would no man in Africa shake his head in sad agreement at the cruelty of fate and of former friends who kick you when you’re down?

Finally, to parse the difference between literature and a biology text, which he has difficulty doing, both are pragmatic--not immediately pragmatic while you happen to read them, but pragmatic, nonetheless. After reading Job, the shock of getting kicked by former friends can be shared with someone else in history (albeit, a rather gloomy sharing).

But literature is also inherently emotional and full of personal meaning beyond the text on the page. If one is able to draw personal analogies from biology or a street sign in the London Underground system (‘Dogs must be carried on the escalator’), this is a literary act of interpretation, true. But it isn’t literature because it is not taking the form of literature: Literature is a design (i.e. plot, theme, character development) meant to convey additional meaning. A street sign that can potentially be misread is not necessarily conveying additional meaning, but merely misleading.

Absolutely, do mention our possible misunderstandings of what literature is or does (just as we might mention Creationism as a brief but possible footnote although it certainly doesn’t organize and explain our knowledge as well as evolution does), but let us dwell on building on what we know and not, as Asimov exhorts us, retreat from knowledge.

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