This is an updated version—in the sense that I've elaborated some points and abridged others—of an email I wrote yesterday. Writing it clarified some issues for me and my interlocutor, so I thought I'd post another version up here tonight. I've decided to elide the names of those persons who don't have a significant web-presence, since I don't have their permission to write about their lives and work.
There's something about modernist literature which lends itself to and/or is consonant with continental philosophy. Joyce, Proust, Woolf, &c. attract people who study Lacan, Deleuze, Derrida, &c. The attraction is some combination of the characteristics of the text and the characteristics of the minds attracted to such texts, but whatever the explanation, the effect is palpable. There's certainly a relationship between continental philosophy and European modernism, as evidenced by the fact that almost everyone who works on the latter does so through the former. I'm being careful here to specify "continental philosophy" instead of Theory, since it's "continental philosophy" and not Theory which interests literary modernists. The reason?
Modernism starts, depending on who you ask, with the European-inflected thought of William James on Gertrude Stein; or with Bergson's influence on Woolf and Joyce; or with any number of French intellectuals on Joyce, Beckett, and Pound; &c. There's a kind of historicist heart to the modernist's embrace of continental philosophy, since it's often essential to understanding the formal properties of the works being studied or the works which have influenced them.
So, as an undergraduate I studied with M.P., a Joycean who split time between Santa Cruz and Paris in the '70s. He attended Lacan's seminars, worked with Derrida, and wrote a dissertation on Joyce under the direction of Fredric Jameson and Hayden White. (In graduate school, he, T.B.—now a notorious historicist—and M.B.W.—now just notorious—were close friends.) M.P. fancied himself a continental philosopher of sorts, but when he hit the market, he was considered a "theorist" because he was a continental philosopher of sorts who worked in an English department.
My graduate school agenda, hatched with M.P. during many a long office hour, was to continue to massage my philosophically-inclined Joycean interests by coming to Irvine, where I could work with Derrida (who got a backchannel letter from M.P. vouching for me, a copy of which was sent to N.M., a prominent Wake scholar. To round out my undergraduate education, I sought out a guy in the French department named John Protevi. (You may know him as a frequent commenter on Michael's blog.) He's the editor of the Yale University Press's Dictionary of Continental Philosophy, and his personal interests are in Foucault and all things Deleuzoguattarian. He and I clicked, so I started reading Foucault and many things Deleuzoguattarian, learning about the conflicts internal to the continental tradition. So my graduate project, such that it was, entailed me coming to Irvine and continuing this course of study.
When I got here, however, I discovered what I still take to be the central difference between Theory and continental philosophy: intellectual seriousness. In seminars I wasn't learning about the conflicts internal to the continental tradition; in fact, I wasn't learning about conflicts at all. I was learning that playing fast and loose with ideas in an endless game of oneupsmanship was encouraged and rewarded. That creativity was valued above consistency, and that a novel idea, no matter how nonsensical, was the only kind worth having. Work through the complexities of someone's thought? Pish-posh. You take a little something from it which helps "further" some theoretical project and you slap it in there. The point, I took it, was to combine superficial knowledge from a hoard of incompatible philosophies in order to express your own personal opinion about how the world works:
I think this demands a little repessiveness, so I'll mine Lacan for something suitable, then I'll duct-tape it to this Butlerian-Hegelian-phenomenological model of postcolonial thought I've concocted and turn it in. And, of course, if anyone says anything critical of my project, I'll call them anti-theoretical or, better yet, anti-intellectual.
In short, there's something tremendously intellectually dishonest, arrogant and, to be frank, careerist about Theory in English departments. The typical bullshit session consists of constructing gigantic theoretical edifices on the slightest of evidence for the sheer amusement. Some "interesting" readings are done and everyone goes home happy but utterly unedified. Such is the sort of nonsense which I associate with Theory.
Why don't I "do theory" anymore? Because I didn't want to take classes with such fundamentally unsound but unreasonably vocal thinkers. I bounced around, eventually took a class with the aforementioned T.B., who was trained to be an historicist in Germany, and belongs to a tradition of German philosophical historicism which I find suitably serious; then I took another, this one with S.M., a student of M.B.W., and trained as an historicist closer to T.B.'s mold than that of Stephen Greenblatt's.
In a way, then, I'm back in with the same coterie of thinkers I started with: continentally-trained philosophical-types. I admit the degree of their connectedness boggles the mind: my undergraduate advisor was close friends with one member of my committee and with the guy who trained my chair . . . and I learned this all after the fact. My interlocutor noted that his impression of the English department as his university doesn't correspond with mine of mine. (In the interests of full disclosure: my department doesn't look much at all like that anymore. Things have changed, for the infinitely better, since I've arrived at Irvine. The intellectual culture is far more responsible than it once was, and I can't tell you how
happy that much that makes me wish I had taken a few years off before going to graduate school.)