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.
The 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.
Deconstruction 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.
Literary 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.”
Intellectual 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.
The 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.
Theory 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.