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Wednesday, May 02, 2018

The Stifling Uniformity of Literary Theory

The Stifling Uniformity of Literary Theory

"Among classical liberals, libertarians, and conservatives alike, Hayek is one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century whose The Road to Serfdom represents one of the most powerful arguments against socialism ever written. But those in the academy who have perpetuated socialist ideas since the 1980s have practically ignored it. In this article, I will argue that this unwillingness to engage with the ‘other side’ is not only endemic in the radical intellectual schools that have overtaken literary studies, but also that it is symptomatic of their entire way of thinking which, being hermetically sealed and basically circular in its argumentation, has no language to deal with critics beyond reactive moral condemnation.

Many universities and colleges currently advertise literary theory courses which purport to introduce students to a range of different approaches to literary texts. On paper, it looks like as many as ten or fifteen different approaches. The labels proliferate: new historicism, cultural materialism, materialist feminism, ecofeminism, postcolonialism, deconstruction, structuralism, poststructuralism, race theory, gender theory, queer theory, postmodernism … the list might go on. This extensive list of labels seems to signal genuine range and diversity; however, in terms of their ideas, these approaches are somewhat narrower in scope and focus than one might expect. Virtually every approach listed here lays claim to be ‘radical’, which is to say politically of the left or even hard left – with roots in Marxist theory – hostile to capitalism, the Enlightenment, classical liberalism, liberal humanism, and even to the West itself. Virtually all are also committed to ‘social justice’. It must be noted that, since about 1980, these labels accurately register the genesis of literary studies as a discipline, but what they do not register is that, as they were rising, dissenting voices were systemically hounded out of the academy.

For example, in 1985, Sir Roger Scruton – now famous as a philosopher and public intellectual – wrote a book called Thinkers of the New Left in which he was strongly critical of continental theorists such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan, and others. In stark contrast to the sometimes-wilful obscurantism of those he critiqued, Scruton wrote in plain prose and expressed ideas with clarity. Perhaps precisely because it laid the ideas bare, the book was greeted with howls of derision, and viciously attacked by scholars who had become disciples of Foucault et al. The publisher, Longman, was threatened with boycotts and risked being sent to the academic equivalent of the gulag if they did not stop selling the book, going as far as withdrawing copies from bookshops. As far as I can see, one thing that the episode did not produce is an intelligent response to any of the criticisms Scruton raised or, indeed, a single moment of critical self-reflection from any of those who had reacted so angrily. In effect, he was shut down and chased from academia.

In another infamous case, in 1988, Richard Levin, who was a Professor of English at the State University of New York, published an article in the PMLA – one of the premier journals in literary studies – outlining some of his problems with recent feminist studies of Shakespeare. The gist of Levin’s critique was that feminist readings of Shakespeare all seemed to reach similar conclusions. In his own words, ‘the themes employed in [feminist] interpretations are basically the same. Although the terminology may vary, these criticisms all find that [Shakespeare’s] plays are about the role of gender in the individual and society’. Now, one might expect a firm rebuttal to this charge from the scholars he was critiquing, and rightly so, but this is not what Levin received. Instead, the following year, a letter was published in the PMLA signed by twenty-four literary critics lambasting the journal for having the temerity to publish such an essay. It was not so much an academic response, but the public denunciation of a heretic – made more chilling because so many of the signatories worked on the Reformation, an era in which such burnings at the stake were de rigueur. Professor Levin, they argued, should not even be teaching literature... I was struck by reasoning that seemed based entirely on what Aristotle would have called ‘ethos’, that is, the judgement of the person’s character as opposed to their arguments...

The extensive list which seems like it represents a diverse range of approaches, in fact only promotes different flavours of a single approach. All that changes from one to the next are the specific groups of oppressors and oppressed as well as the structuring principle to which all individuals are invisibly in thrall...

We are all ‘always already’ in ideology, in the patriarchy, under power, which is implicitly white supremacist and heteronormative. And there’s no way out of this except to recognise it and to do our best to mitigate it. This is not a scientific hypothesis that can be falsified or a philosophical argument that can be countered with other philosophical arguments, it is more of a theological proposition. In fact, it functions in a near identical way to John Calvin’s notion of ‘total depravity’ and original sin...

We are each ‘contaminated’ and ‘defiled’ by capitalism, patriarchy, power, white supremacy, and heteronormativity. Once this is understood, it is obvious why Scruton and Levin – as well as countless others – received the treatment they did. Either you are with the oppressed, and therefore on the side of the angels, or you are implicitly supporting the side of the oppressors, and a damnable and unrepentant sinner. It is a straightforward binary moral choice and its missionaries will take no prisoners...

Students seldom, if ever, encounter any of the available counter arguments. And there are many powerful ones, underpinned with empirical data: from evolutionary theory, from economics, from philosophy, from history, and so on. Such studies seldom make it onto recommended reading lists, let alone onto syllabus lists...

It is not simply a matter of which thinkers are taught, but also how they are taught. Whenever I teach literary theory, I always ensure that I stress to students that what they are studying is not Gospel, but rather ‘highly opinionated men and women making very contentious statements about the world’. Critical thinking cannot flourish in conditions in which students cannot question the material they are being taught. We should not expect or even encourage students to inherit our own ideas, least not of all political beliefs. Universities are places to learn how to think not what to think. It seems somewhat ironic that a set of literary approaches so committed to deconstructing and uncovering the supposed processes of social indoctrination should also be so oblivious to their own role in indoctrinating a generation of students."
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