Monday, April 21, 2003

The Poetics list is all aflutter this weekend about an article in Saturday's New York Times, "The Latest Theory Is That Theory Doesn't Matter." The article describes an April 11 forum sponsored by the academic journal Critical Inquiry featuring high-profile critics like Stanley Fish, Homi Bhabha, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The article suggests that these thinkers themselves deny the utility of "theory," holding it irrelevant to everyday life and politics. The ensuing discussion on the list has largely been about whether theory is useless or not.

First off, it strikes me as funny that anyone would take a NY Times article on academia any more seriously, say, than an article in Entertainment Weekly (Nick LoLordo makes much the same point). The Times's higher-education reporting tends to treat academia (the humanities, at least) as an entertaining sideshow, concerning itself with things like the personality conflicts among the Harvard faculty or debates about whether anyone can understand the writing of postcolonial theorists. I suppose we ought to be grateful that at least the Times acknowledges that universities do something besides field football teams. But the underlying assumption is always that anything an academic literary critic does is probably silly.

What got reduced to the claim that "theory doesn't matter" was really something a little more subtle. Gates was quoted as saying, "I didn't really see...the liberation of people of color because of deconstruction or poststructuralism." The article concluded that Gates was saying literary theory was useless, and some Poetics listers extended this by arguing that the academics in question "neutered themselves." But I would be very surprised--and disturbed--if anyone, theorist or not, endorsed the converse of Gates's statement, arguing that, say, a postcolonial reading of Jane Eyre would cause the immediate end of all racist repression on earth. Or, indeed, that any *one* action could lead to such a result.

Stanley Fish, who never passes up a chance to get under people's skin, is described as asserting that philosophy doesn't matter at all. But let's take away the element of truth in Fish's arguments: It would be foolish to suppose that a piece of philosophy is, *by itself*, going to change the world. In this perhaps he's just echoing Marx: "Philosphers have described the world; the point, however, is to change it." But that didn't keep Marx from writing philosophy and economics; he just didn't think you could *only* write philosophy and economics. He also didn't think (as his stinging critiques of various socialist programs show) that you could just act without thinking about what you were doing first.

The reason this kind of argument stirs the Poetics list up so much (and the one constant of the list is that some argument similar to this erupts every now and again) is that it captures precisely the political angst that characterizes much of the experimental poetry community. Here's the bind you're caught in: You have a theoretical (or poetic) practice for which you'd like to claim political value and relevance; yet because of the particular difficulty or specialization of that practice (which is often part of the political point), or simply because of the cultural position of criticism and poetry, your work will never reach more than a relatively circumscribed audience. So you can't measure your work's relevance by conventional measures, e.g. that millions read it and were moved by it, that it stoked the fires of revolution, etc. You're forced to argue that your work has an indirect political effect. And when your position that your work has relevance to "real life" is challenged, your response is divided: 1. "Yes, you're totally right, what I do isn't really doing anything, I feel ashamed," 2. "I do believe in what I do and that it matters, and my political intentions are good, therefore what I do can't be irrelevant or bad." It's good ol' liberal guilt.

I think that to argue that academic theory is politically irresponsible because it does not connect with "real life" is simply to romanticize "real life" as always elsewhere, apart from what we're actually doing day in and day out. I've noticed that most of the posts on the topic are coming from academic addresses (I live at one too), and, of course, the whole discussion is happening on a listserv hosted by a university. Academic discourse--like poetry, I would venture to say--is a certain kind of space in which certain kinds of things are possible; but it could never cover the entirety of what one has to do as a social and political being. Nothing could.

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