A boy got annoyed with theory and he said,
(Excerpt from Valentine Cunningham’s Theory, What theory? )
[Here is a selection from Valentine Cunningham’s “Theory, What theory discussing the ambiguous state of theory and how it has come to the academic world (read literature teaching departments, English departments in particular) as big show for keeping the ball rolling to run the university departments. I believe that on one hand when people are uncritically obsessed with theory, such discourses provide us with a new perspective of looking at theory. However, I am also skeptical about the birth of a new theory – Theory against Theory. A solid read.]
“Theorists don’t like the charge of untheoretical messiness, and work hard to disprove it. Some have tried to lean on etymology for the strict meaning of their work, and invoke the originating Greek word theoros, spectator. So theory becomes spectator work, what onlookers and audiences do.
What’s embraced by the label theory, what I mean by Theory, is what you expect to find and indeed do find in those proliferating university courses called “Theory” or “Introductions to Theory”; what you find in the exploding field of handy student handbooks and textbooks. The scope is, of course, Structuralism and Feminism and Marxism and Reader-Response and Psychoanalysis and Deconstruction and Poststructuralism and Postmodernism and New Historicism and Postcolonialism—the concerns of the various sections of Julian Wolfreys’ volume, Literary Theories: A Reader and Guide (1999), in the order in which they appear. The modem gurus of Theory on these lines are, of course, the likes of Mikhail Bakhtin,Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Louis Althusser, Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Michel Foucault, non-anglophone thinkers all, but most notably French-speakers, the French men and women who poured the Word from Paris (as John Sturrock has aptly put it)3 into eager anglophone ears from the 1960s onwards.
For Theorists have indeed managed to pull off what is, by any standards, an astounding coup, or trick; have managed to wedge together a great many various subjects, concerns, directions, impulses, persuasions, and activities that are going on in and around literature, and squeeze them all under the one large sheltering canopy of “Theory.” They have managed to compel so many divergent wings of what they call Theory under the one roof, persuaded so many sectional variants of interpretative work to sink their possible differences around a common conference table, in the one seminar with the sign Theory on its door. So while setting their faces, usually, against Grand Narratives and Keys to All Mythologies, as delusive and imperialist, and all that, Theorists have managed to erect the Grandest Narrative of all—Theory—the greatest intellectual colonizer of all time.How this wheeze was pulled off, how you can have the political and the personal subjects of literature—representations of selfhood and class and gender and race: the outside-concerns, the outward look of writing, the descriptive and documentary, the reformist intentions, and the ideological instrumentality of writing—envisioned and envisionable as part and parcel of the often quite opposite and contradictory functions of writing—the merely formal, or the technically linguistic, or (as often) a deeply inward, world-denying, aporetic writing activity—rather defies ordinary logic. Foundationalism and anti-foundationalism, shall we say roughly the Marxist reading on the one hand, and the deconstructionist on the other, make awkward bed-partners, you might think. But Theory deftly marries them off, or at least has them more or less cheerfully all registered as guests in the same hotel room.
For all that, theorizing about literature is always a palimpsest. Below the latest lines you can always still read the older inscribings. Theoretical memory is always stronger than Theory’s would-be revolutionaries hope. The present trend of Theory is always a simultaneously present archeology or paleography. Theory’s archive is perpetually open. As with the media of communication. We move from script to print to IT, but I still start writing this with a pen and pencil. Now I fly, now I drive my car, now I ride my bike, now I go on foot.”
Source: Valentine Cunningham’s “Theory, What theory?” Published in ‘Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent’ edited by Daphne Patai and Will H. Corral, Columbia University Press, New York, 2005.