The Life and Afterlife of Literary Theory: A Syllabus

September 21, 2011 | 6 books mentioned 18 5 min read

What is, or was, literary theory? And why is theory still so hard for us to get our heads around? One way of working out where we stand is to read theory not as an abstract mass of doctrines, but as something that actually happened: a lived life-cycle with its own historical record, its own memories, and its own set of descriptions of itself. The life and afterlife of theory can then be traced through a series of stable landmarks: key conferences and publications; varying national contexts of reception; influential institutional groupings. In this way, theory’s free-floating world of ideas can be tied down to real-world networks of people, places, and events. This syllabus sets out to supply a sketch of such an account.

coverThe Structuralist Controversy, edited by Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato (1970)
Back in 1966, Johns Hopkins University held an academic conference bearing the ambitious title “The Languages of Criticism and the Science of Man.” If it’s possible to pinpoint the moment of theory’s emergence in America, then this is it. Featuring contributions from Roland Barthes and René Girard, among others, the Baltimore conference marked the first appearance of French “structuralism” on the U.S. intellectual scene. Structuralism’s appeal lay in its promise to unify the humanities, by lending them a newly “scientific” legitimacy. So, why does the title of this “book of the conference” include the word controversy? That’s due to Jacques Derrida, whose intervention (a paper on “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”) seemed to call structuralism into question at its own point of origin. This was Derrida’s first major engagement outside of France, and it wouldn’t be the last time he changed the shape of Anglophone debate.

coverDeconstruction and Criticism, by Jacques Derrida et al. (1979)
Derrida’s next landmark appearance was as part of the so-called “Yale School” or “Yale Mafia” of the late 1970s. For this book he teamed up with Yale colleagues Harold Bloom, J. Hillis Miller, Geoffrey Hartman, and Paul de Man, who together put into practice the newly minted method of “deconstruction.” Against structuralism’s earlier self-certainty, deconstruction sought to pit language against itself, teasing out the inconsistencies inside written texts. This, perhaps, is why it came to be called a “poststructuralist” style of thought. Yet Deconstruction and Criticism didn’t set itself up as a manifesto for a movement. Instead, it did something more revolutionary: it put its theoretical principles straight to work through radical readings of canonical pieces of poetry. This is the reason the book caused such a stir on publication; it threatened a real and immediate shake-up of the ways people thought about criticism, and about literature.

British Poststructuralism, by Antony Easthope (1988)
Around the same time, a parallel trend was taking place in Britain. Yet while the Yale theorists reveled in an exuberant “free play” of language, the Brits had a somewhat more serious take on things. These were the days of forbiddingly rigorous U.K. journals like Screen, and politicized conferences on topics like “the sociology of literature.” What played itself out in these settings was a kind of intellectual symbiosis, where French philosophy got grafted onto an English tradition of radical Marxism. What’s more, unlike their American counterparts, the British critics had been learning from the work of Louis Althusser. The result was a heady mixture of political theory and textual analysis, urgently pressed into the service of a “critique of the bourgeois subject.” Antony Easthope’s survey of this period gives an excellent overview of its peaks and pitfalls. For all its naivety, it was a uniquely fertile moment, the likes of which have simply not been seen since.

coverLiterary Theory: An Introduction, by Terry Eagleton (1983)
The heyday of theory in Britain also produced what is still one of the genre’s bestselling books, on both sides of the Atlantic. Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory, now in its third edition, grew out of its author’s legendary series of undergraduate classes at Wadham College, Oxford. These seminars fed into the first book to portray literary theory not just as a research program, but as something that could be successfully taught to students. From here on in, theory would begin to be part of everyone’s curriculum. More remarkably still, while Literary Theory may have done more than any other publication to ease theory’s integration into the university, it did so while pushing a thoroughly radical agenda. In this sense it’s not insignificant that Eagleton’s Oxford class evolved into a semi-autonomous pressure group, or that his concluding chapter mounted a political rallying cry for the “death of literature.”

coverIntellectual Impostures, by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont (1998)
If Deconstruction and Criticism had been the hubristic high watermark of theory in America, by the time of the “Sokal Hoax” the tide had clearly begun to turn. The story goes like this. In 1996, NYU physics professor Alan Sokal tricked the preeminent journal of postmodern thought, Social Text, into publishing his article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” Sokal’s joke was that the piece was pure gibberish, dressed up in a flimsy disguise of theoretical buzzwords. The subsequent scandal was taken by many as proof of the empty-headedness of most forms of theory. In fact, Sokal’s attack, as later elaborated in his Intellectual Impostures, seemed to apply less to theory tout court than to some specific uses of mathematics by French philosophers. However, whatever the substance of the scandal, one thing was clear: if theory couldn’t separate the essence of its ideas from its technical jargon, its value ought to be called into question. The Hoax served to cement a shift in attitudes begun by Baudrillard’s misunderstood remarks about the first Gulf War. Both events contributed to a fatal devaluation of theory’s currency.

coverThe Speculative Turn, by Graham Harman et al. (2010)
If theory had “died” by the end of the nineties, it would be fair to say that it began the millennium in limbo. Even so, it may be possible to trace a “resurrection” of sorts to 2007, when another conference, this time in London, announced the arrival of a new school of thought: “speculative realism.” Where nearly every theoretical trend since the sixties had tended toward some form of linguistic idealism, SR, as spearheaded by figures like Graham Harman and Quentin Meillassoux, has reinstated the real world as a focus for philosophy. It’s telling, however, that the latest “turn” to take hold of the humanities is barely recognizable as “theory” at all. Indeed, it breaks not only with the structuralist inheritance, but with some of the most basic assumptions that have shaped intellectual life since Kant. It’s a bold approach, not least for its novel institutional context: its debates are grounded less in journals or even universities than in the rapidly moving world of blogs. Books like The Speculative Turn are published by open-access presses, and SR’s unique style of thought has been bound up with such communicative structures.

coverTheory after ‘Theory’, edited by Jane Elliott and Derek Attridge (2011)
This new collection best represents the state of theory today. It’s a diverse set of essays, most of which depart in some way from the genre’s former domain, striking out into non-linguistic fields like politics and biology, and reinforced by a roster of the latest must-have names: Roberto Esposito, Bernard Stiegler, and so on. The editors, on the lookout for a unifying thread, claim that contemporary theorists are no longer in thrall to outmoded forms of “epistemological indeterminacy.” In reality, the book isn’t wholly free of theory’s familiar failings – its reliance on idolized figures, or its habit of taking other disciplines’ ideas out of context. Yet the best pieces here exhibit a sophisticated, reflective awareness of theory’s intellectual history. And if that history isn’t over, it’s surely true that theory has ended up “after” itself, in a way. That is, while it wouldn’t make sense to say that theory has “failed” or “succeeded,” perhaps it’s helpful to see it as having done both. Theory got what it wanted, yes, but that also meant getting routinized, recuperated, buried in the bureaucracies of traditional disciplines. So if we can be sure of anything, it’s this: theory’s life won’t be worth living if it’s reduced to a collection of tools to be used. It’ll only survive as a principled set of positions.

writes fiction and literary criticism. He has written for the The Millions, Bookslut, Open Letters Monthly, ReadySteadyBook, The Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and others. He is Contributing Editor at 3:AM Magazine. His blog is called Why Not Burn Books? Twitter: @davidcwinters


  1. I’m not clear 100% on the sentence “[t]he Hoax served to cement a shift in attitudes begun by Baudrillard’s misunderstood remarks about the first Gulf War” and what it means. Honestly. I’m not being a jerk here. It could mean two things. If it is negating Baudrillard, I believe the irony of Baudrillard is being highly underestimated in his Gulf War essays. Can we not have irony? Can we not laugh at the human condition? That aside: Yes, Social Text made fools of themselves. But, honestly… it’s an academic journal. Not many people (possibly even less outside of research) read academic journals because they mostly are isolated discussions that’d yawn anyone to sleep. The Social Text incident revealed that a lot of American academia didn’t really have a grasp on the post-’68 French wave, American practitioners and deniers alike. Much of the “big-wigs” of the post-’68 French wave were interacting with over 2,000 years of material and making use of it w/in the present. Should they be blamed for Americans apparent just “Yeah, that sounds good” attitude?

  2. @ will c. I agree with you. It seems pretty clear that Baudrillard’s remarks were misunderstood, or at least that some kind of reflexive or possibly ‘ironic’ aspect of his argument was ‘underestimated’, as you say. I think that the Sokal affair played into a deepening of those (and several other, connected) kinds of misunderstanding. The implications of both events are much more complex than they appear, but what I’m interested in is the ways they were (mis)represented in the public domain, and what that reveals about theory’s changing context of reception in the US during the ’90s…

  3. I like the way this syllabus is constructed, but as a grad student I dislike that we’re still talking about theory in 2011. the contemporary english department is like a desperate little phrenology department to sociology and philosophy’s medical school.

  4. … And sociology seems like the poor relative of social psychology, which itself envies biology, the most prestigious version of which is mathematical biology. One interpretation of the Sokal hoax is that rather than criticising literary theory for being gibberish, it was really criticised for not being proper maths. In short it may be necessary to stop worrying and learn to love your discipline.

  5. At the risk of sounding like the faux-New-Criticism equivalent of one of those awful post-election bumper stickers, the English Department that’s been handed down to me by a generation of relentless self-marginalizers and inexplicably confident Marxists is not my discipline.

    On topic, I think some readings from “Theory’s Empire” on a syllabus like this might be a good way of subverting theory’s total dominance of the conversation about literary criticism since the 1960s.

  6. @ dan m. You’re right, ‘Theory’s Empire’ would make a great addition to a list like this. As would that whole crop of similar books published around the same time, with titles pronouncing the death of theory, ‘life after theory’, and so on. I mean, some of them weren’t very good, but what interests me is why and when they appeared, and how they were read. I’m not especially keen to proselytise for theory, or against it. What I want, a bit more modestly, is to keep track of the changing ways it’s been thought about.

    Equally though, it’s difficult to imagine literary criticism without some degree of ‘theory’, in the broadest sense. Good criticism has always reflected on its own principles and implications, hasn’t it?

  7. This brings back college memories of trying to wrestle Derrida’s “Of Grammatology” to the ground and my ill-fated attempt at a post-structuralist reading of Paradise Lost, (which did not sit well with my professor, Barbara Lewalski who I believe soon became the head of the MLA).

    That said, I found the processes of applying theories to be rewarding and learned a tremendous amount from my professor, Robert Scholes, (and envied my sister’s work with Bloom, DeMan, Hills Miller, Derrida, et. al at Yale).

    FWIW–It would be fun to see a “celebrity death match” between Derrida and the uber-objectivist, Ayn Rand.

  8. I graduated from a theory-heavy Literature program in ’00 (sample question from a young prof: “Who is the ‘other’ in this Taco Bell commercial?”), and remember how utterly turned off to reading I and some of my fellow students had become by the time finished. We all treated theory roughly the same way; as a plug-and-play system for writing papers we barely understood. But spending all your time reading closely for class conflict or paternalism eats away at the reason we read literature in the first place: to learn something about the human condition.

    It felt fraudulent at the time, which its quick passing only underscores. I’m glad to see that it’s over, but I wish I had studied my subject during a less absurd era.

  9. @ sean: the Taco Bell thing made me laugh. Reminds me of a cartoon called ‘Biff’ that used to run here in Britain. It did a good job of spoofing the pretensions of theory, cultural studies, and so on. (see, for example,

    I’m less sure I’d be confident making claims about a connection between literature and the ‘human condition’. But if there is such a thing, wouldn’t it be fair to think that class conflict or sexism are fairly fundamental parts of it?

    That said, the assumption that we can ask literature to ‘teach’ us about anything at all seems slightly unreasonable to me, sometimes…

  10. It seems to me that true THEORY can never be dead. From the Sophists to Plato to Derrida and the present, all reflective readers must take some stand on what language is and to what reality (if any) it connects. In that sense, it does not matter what you call this process of reflection on language: theory, criticism, philosophy,hermeneutics. No thoughtful person can read without some implicit or explicit theory of meaning.

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