Tuesday, 12 July 2005

Theory's Empire: Ersatz Theoretical Ecumenicalism & Criticism qua Criticism Because the Technorati tags at the Valve seem not to be working, I'm cross-posting the completed version of the essay here: If asked to defend the publication of Theory’s Empire in twenty-six words, I’d write: "The Politics of Theories of Interpretation,” pp. 235-247 E.D. Hirsch, Jr. “Is There a Politics of Interpretation?” pp. 248-258 Walter Benn Michaels “The Politics of Interpretation,” pp. 259-278 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak Pilfered from the September, 1982 Critical Inquiry‘s table of contents, those twenty-six words represent the value of Theory’s Empire far more eloquently than I will. For most of its history, each number of Critical Inquiry contained a section entitled "Critical Response."[1] If the small sample above fails to indicate the stature of the critics who participated in this forum, the names of the two I omitted--Stanley Fish and Michael Fried--should seal the deal. At this early point in Theory's institutional history, representatives of particular theoretical approaches debated the merits of their respective approaches in one of the discipline's flag-ship journals. These debates were civil on the whole. Frank Kermode's response to Denis Donoghue is typical: "Like all sensible men I feel that to be read carefully by Denis Donoghue is a privilege rather than an ordeal; but although I am clearly to blame insofar as I allowed him to misunderstand me, I can't at all admit that he has damaged the argument I was trying to develop."[2] When uncivil, they were at least playfully so, as when Walter Davis anticipates his Fishing: "He'll pounce on some out of the way statement in your essay and cleverly use it to obscure the issues, incorporate every good point you've made, and then leave you in the embarrassing position of either already unwittingly agreeing with him or committed to an impossible position you never took."[3] This decorum provided the proponents of all theoretical orientations a forum in which to test the strengths and weaknesses of their own (and alternative) approaches. I've long thought the pages of early Critical Inquiry, peppered with the productive conflict of clashing theoretical models, a far better introduction to literary theory than any of the available anthologies: Hazard Adams' Critical Theory Since Plato, David Richter's The Critical Tradition, not to mention the latest entry, Vincent Leitch's The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. All of three of these anthologies attempt to encompass the history of "Theory" with a roll-call of primary sources that speak past more often than they speak to each other. (And, as I will explain shortly, they produce scholars who follow suit.) Each anthology glosses the importance of the works it includes in introductions to individuals thinkers, discreet movements or both. But even though they're typically written in the present tense, the rhetoric of these glosses is static and a-historical. Consider Hans Robert Jauss, whose "views of the historical nature of literary evaluation have influenced," according to The Norton, "debates over the literary canon in ways important to feminist, African American, and postcolonial critics."[4] Instead of framing the debates in...

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