Thursday, April 24, 2003

Adam Novy, a Chicago fiction writer, wrote to me a couple days ago with some good observations about the whole "theory doesn't matter" dust-up:

"All of us seem to struggle with this theory business, and how poetry (or fiction, which is what I write) "influenced" by "theory" (which probably includes Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Lacan, Derrida, Julia Kristeva, maybe Blanchot, I must be skipping some, like maybe Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard) can have failed to "change the world," given the supposedly irresistible force that "theory" is said to possess. "Why," they say, (whoever "they" is) "if your Derrida guy is so incredibly smart, has poetry written under his influence failed to right all social wrongs?" What I want to know is, since when has literature's failure to save the world meant that literature has failed to do its job? When did it become our job to save the world?

I think we misconstrue who and how literature serves if we expect it to lead to revolutions. We read poems as individuals, and we read them to enrich our lives in subtle, indescribable ways. For me, and I am pro-theory, though I also hope our generation junks this distinction between "pro-theory" and "anti-theory," since it only engenders fights; for me, literature is a destroyer of superstitions, and therefore of systems, or at least it should make us skeptical of systems. These conferences where famous people make declarations about "whether theory has done any good" seem like a waste of time to me. Can't they just talk about The Tempest or Defenestration of Prague? I always feel so unqualified to discuss big political issues, and so excited to talk about actual literature."

My response:

"I guess to me, as a grad student now, the days of the theory wars seem pretty remote--in short, I think you may be right that the pro/anti theory positions have been pretty junked. I mean, how can you really be anti-theory when movies are coming out called "Deconstructing Harry" and "Identity"? It doesn't really seem to me that you could have a "theory-free" literature classroom these days, or that that would be desirable. (I suppose you could do close readings all day long, but the whole idea of "close reading" may itself be the first modern example of theory.) And it would be as silly to imagine that young writers would be untouched by Derrida or Foucault as to imagine the literature of the 1950s without Freud.

The whole issue of theory and politics is another can of worms--theory has become the way in which we gain political leverage for the apparently esoteric and aesthetic study of literature. So if people question the relevance of theory to the "real world" of politics, it's really theorists' own damn fault for claiming that theory is the thing that's going to make literary study political.

When I think about my own scholarly work, though, I realize that I use theory in precisely this way all the time. Or rather--I use theory to give literary texts political readings or political significance. I tend to lean pretty heavily on Adorno in reading lyric poetry, for example. But recently I've been trying to study the very idea that literature is political--to historicize that idea, at least for the contemporary period--by looking at different kinds of contemporary poetry that have claimed political value (or that have had such value claimed for them by readers). And when I say a "political" reading I don't mean to say that doing *any* kind of literary reading is going to spark revolution. "Political" for me is about a certain kind of significance, a way for me to understand why a particular text seems important and alive when another doesn't, which has to do with my understanding of how such texts relate to dominant literary and cultural institutions."

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