From Humanism Betrayed (McGill-Queens University Press)
For a long time, 'English' was a subject without a theory. How could. there be a theory of something so personal, so indefinable, so elusive as literature? The very word 'theory' seemed arid and cerebral, alien to the sensuous particularity of great poetry, drama, and fiction. Wellek and Warren's Theory of Literature was dutifully handed out to a generation of graduate students, but to many it seemed 'foreign' to Anglo-American ideas of literary education, slightly pretentious and somehow 'continental,' like the intellectual refugees from Europe who joined English-speaking universities from the late 1930s on. When challenged by Rene Wellek, F.R. Leavis explicitly rejected the idea that English could or should have a theory. To him, literary study was a discipline of taste, sensibility, and ethics, not one of conceptual rigour. Of: course, this did not prevent theorizing about literature, but it tended to remain on the margins of a subject that was felt to consist mainly of practice, of practical criticism, whether in the I.A. Richards mode or not. A 'philosophy' of literature seemed even less desirable, since it would subordinate a subject which was still a newcomer in academia and still jealous of its autonomy to another discipline. Angle-American philosophy, at that time under the dominance of logical positivism, had little interest in literature anyway, and though the German tradition had more to say about aesthetics, that tradition was out of favour. Even Northrop Frye did not announce a 'Theory' or Philosophy' of literature, but an 'Anatomy,' itself a literary genre he did much to bring to recognition, and as such a term less likely to raise the hackles of literary academics.
But now, English' has become a subject with almost nothing except theory. Once virtually theory-free, it now seems to be collapsing under the weight of theory. The superstructure is determining the base, or destroying' it, rather than reflecting it. The concept of 'Literature' has been 'called in question so often that it is refusing to respond. The'English' part has been repeatedly stigmatized by a canonical reference to the Newbolt Report of 1921, which supported the fledgling discipline on the ground that it would foster British national unity in the struggle against foreign foes. Ironically, the defenders of English against Theory are now in the same position as the classicists they originally opposed. Then the classicists complained that the new subject of English would leave students with a deficient acquaintance with classical literature and with no discipline comparable to composition and translation in Latin and Greek verse and prose. The champions of English replied with the nationalist argument, but also with the 'modernizing', 'democratizing' arguments that are now being used against them. They too are now being accused of safeguarding an outdated canon of dead white European males: not Homer, Virgil, and Horace, but Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton.
Theory is now in the process of dissolving the discipline it was originally supposed to theorize. In a sense, Leavis was right in maintaining that English could not be theorized; in' the event it collapsed under the strain. Theory replaced literature instead of conceptualizing it. 'Literary Theory' .and 'Critical Theory' eventually dropped their adjectives and Theory itself became the focus of study. But what exactly is the status of Theory? It is not a separate discipline like philosophy, nor do its adherents appear to want it to become one. Rather, they seem to want it to remain hovering in an indeterminate yet hegemonic way above the 'fields' of humanistic study, centring on English, but extending over the other language and literature departments and into adjacent areas like law, history, anthropology, art history, and musicology. Philosophy, however, is a notable centre of resistance to Theory, perhaps because it still offers an intellectual training in disciplines like logic which enable one to expose the intellectual weaknesses of Theory. The polemical clarity of a philosopher like John Searle has revealed many of the fallacies and absurdities of Theory, and naturally his kind of philosophy has not been among those 'appropriated' by Theory.
Theory is not a discipline. In fact, it .is as hostile to the notion of a discipline as it is to the notion of 'literature' as a 'special class of texts. The one is dissolved into 'interdisciplinarity,' the other into 'intertextuality' (the prefix 'inter’, like 'multi,' is a basic weapon in Theory's advance). Theory does not provide a method of study or constitute a field, as one might expect a theory tc do; rather, it is a linked set of concepts, terms, attitudes, assumptions, and strategies ('moves ‘). It is a style, a Weltanschauung, an ideology. At present it is a hegemonic ideology, and I will conclude with reflections on how its arrival in this position at a time of New Right dominance in politics is related to the triumph of Managerialism as the dominant ideology of university administrations. But first I want to analyse its three cardinal doctrines: Textualism, or the rejection of literature; Presentism, or the rejection of history; and Categoryism, qr the rejection of individuality.
There are really two distinct post-war periods: 1945-70 is the age of liberal humanism, university expansion, and Anglo-American intellectual and cultural dominance.
1970-1995 is the age of Theory, anti-humanism, anti-liberalism, university contraction, and Franco-German intellectual and cultural dominance. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, there was a strong sense of vindication of Anglo-American values, and the continuity of culture, language, and ideas between the two victorious powers was emphasized. Britain represented the past of the 'Anglo-Saxon' virtues of pragmatism individualism, and empiricism, America their future. In contrast, the Continental powers suffered a loss. of cultural prestige, France by its defeat and collaboration, Germany by Nazism, Italy by Fascism, Spain by Francoism, and Russia by Stalinism. Ideologies created by European intellectuals had directly or indirectly devastated the Continent, while the English-speaking world seemed a haven of freedom, decency and respect for the individual. Ideology was felt to have spawned class hatred and race hatred, and to have produced totalitarian tyranny and genocidal atrocity.
At this point Anglo-America, anxious to avoid any danger of repeating these catastrophes, focused on education as the vital means of liberating individuals from categories like class and race, and thereby opening and democratizing society. As the universities expanded to realize this vision, ideology as such was under suspicion, especially German ideology, whether of the Hegelian-Marxist or National-Socialist variety. In literary study, the overtly politicized approaches of the 1930s and 1940s were set aside for New Criticism's closely focused analyses of imagery and irony (its implicit conservative politics remaining in the background for most students), Trilling's nervous liberalism, and the synoptic humanism of Frye, whose Anatomy of Criticism is still the most successful attempt to organize literary study as a discipline. Freudianism and Existentialism existed on the margins of the subject, but both these incursions of Continental' thought were focused on the psychology or philosophy of individualism, and did not have the collectivist implications of 'ideology.' Western Marxism acceded to the prestige of humanism by emphasizing its own humanist credentials as a contrast to Eastern Marxism. Sartre, too, proclaimed that 'Existentialism is 'a Humanism' in the title of an influential post-war essay. Orwell became a cultural hero, a model of clear, concrete writing and courageous individual stands against the abuses of people and language out of ideological motives.
This era closed in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the debacle of the Vietnam War, racial strife in the United States, and the explosion of youth culture. Having imbibed many of the liberal values they were brought up with, the younger generation assailed the older with reproaches for the social problems left unsolved, the restraints on individual freedom still remaining, and the failures to realize liberal ideals. In this light, Anglo- America seemed hypocritical, oppressive, complacent, and intellectually moribund. Suddenly the 'Continental' ideologies awoke from their twenty-five-year dormancy. Survivors from the pre-war period, like Adorno, Lukacs, and Marcuse, became prominent again. Marxism was rehabilitated, along with Hegelianism and the Frankfurt School. At the same time a brilliant new generation of French intellectuals emerged. Sartre and Camus were forgotten for Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, and Althusser. But the key sources for these thinkers, too, turned out to be German; Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche were of much greater account than Descartes, Voltaire, or Rousseau.
Thus around 1970, two changes in literary study occurred at once and reinforced each other. Anglo-American sources, which had only relatively recently acquired some of the prestige of the classical Graeco-Roman ones, now gave way to Franco-German ideas, while literary criticism opened up not just to philosophy, but also to psychology, history, economics, and sociology leading to complacency and intellectual isolation; an infusion of new ideas was needed. But the reaction was extreme. In some cases as Theory developed, the tradition of Anglo-American criticism was not merely modified by France-German sources, but entirely replaced by them, so that graduate students remained unversed in the critical traditions of their own culture. 'English' became simply the application of Franco-German approaches to Anglo-American texts. The process of' applying' ideas to a text was also entailed by Theory. A body of' ‘theoretical' doctrine is given priority over the literary text. The ideas master and control the text rather than entering into dialogue and reciprocal illumination with it. The publishers' advertisements for works of theory-inspired criticism make this clear, with their contradictory claims
of radical originality and officially certified orthodoxy; 'drawing on the work of' Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, etc., Professor X gives a brilliant new ground-breaking reading of...’
Further, Franco-German ideas were often adopted in English departments with little sense of their cultural context. In part, this was because the ideas were adopted without study of French or German literature. This gap corresponded to the relative lack of study of Anglo-American criticism Thus in the new situation, the concepts coming from one tradition were simply applied to the literature from another. No wonder there was a mis-match. For example, the use of the concept of 'absence’ in English-speaking criticism has been .a travesty, justifying the insertion of the critic's own fantasies or the presentation of a shopping list of social injustices the text has failed to mention and is thereby 'complicit' with. Theory has overestimated the speed at which ideas an be transferred from one culture to another. ' The habits of dialectical thought which dominate much of the German tradition cannot be acquired overnight. Also; the-irony and intellectual play; vhich frequently characterize French thought are usually lost. When the French style is imitated in English, the result is leaden and humourless, and often unintentionally comic in its ponderous solemnity Barthes, Foucault, and Derrida are not treated with·such earnestness in France, and assertions taken as dramatic and provocative there are liable to be taken too literally in Anglo-America and adopted as revealed authority. An interesting parallel is the avid, uncritical welcome given by Russian intellectual Westernizers in the nineteenth century to ideas emanating from Europe, which were sometimes swallowed whole with disastrous or ludicrous results, providing Dostoevsky with a major theme.
The rapid, superficial absorption of ideas from other traditions is frequently helped by series of short 'introductions' to the work of difficult thinkers, or by dictionaries of the new terminology. These enable students and professors to talk in the approved way and drop the right names, with- out any real struggle with the author's actual work or any real grounding in its tradition. The adulation of French theory is accompanied by disregard or even disdain for one's own tradition. Clarity, common sense; concreteness, balance: these virtues of the Anglo-American intellectual style are actually seen as vices by some theorists, who believe them to be complicit with bourgeois individualism in preserving the status quo, while their own turgid and modish obscurity is promoted as radical. Fredric Jameson even attacks clarity as ideologically suspect in the preface to Marxism and Form: 'Nowhere is the hostility of the Anglo-American tradition toward the dialectical more apparent, however, than in the widespread notion that the style of those works is obscure and cumbersome, indigestible, abstract - or,
to sum it all up in a convenient catchword, Germanic.It can be admitted that it does not conform to the canons of clear and fluid journalistic writing taught in the schools. But what if those ideals of clarity and simplicity have come to serve a very different ideological purpose, in our present context, from the one Descartes had in mind?' (Jameson, xiii)
Theory, though transmitted through France, ultimately has its sources in the German-speaking world, in the combination of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche. Now, these three are all immensely exhilarating thinkers that everyone should read extensively and grapple with, and 'part of the problem is that few people now seem to be reading them whole. Instead of taking Marx as Marx, Freud as Freud, and Nietzsche as Nietsche, with the intellectual challenge that involves, Theory has produced a kind of composite of features they have in common. This amalgamated version I will call MFN. Foucault was one of the first (in his essay ‘Nietzsche, Freud, Marx’) to group them together as ‘masters of suspicion.’ What does this mean? It means that all three approach culture, discourse and text suspiciously, looking at it as distorted evidence for an underlying, concealed motive. For Marx this motive. is' class interest;' for Freud ' it' is sexual desire; for Nietzsche, it is will to power. All three produced 'brilliant insights by refusing to take individual and cultural expression at face value, and this suspicion should remain a part of any approach.·But if it becomes an exlusive: attitude, as it tends to in the MFN construct, bad effects follow. The first is a failure to listen carefully to what is being said because you're already looking behind it for what you already know or suspect is there, and what you're really interested in: the discreditable motives behind the text, its hidden 'interests.' The second is what I will call 'the degeneration of disagreement.'
Since Socrates, the principal motor of Western philosophy has been a certain type of productive disagreement. The open expression of dissent is politically essential in an open society, but it is also intellectually essential to advance and clarify individual thought through the process of challenge and qualification, argument and counter-argument. Without this we have dogmatism, where authority stifles innovation and intellectual life ossifies. The conditions for productive disagreement are equality with and respect for your antagonist, careful listening to the other point of view,' and willingness to concede that' you have lost a point or to modify your views in the light of valid objections.
All of these conditions are threatened or overturned by the MFN approach. Here the goal is to discredit rather than learn from your antagonist. There are a number of specific ploys. Place your opponent on your ideological map and apply a label. Do not answer the points but find a: discreditable ulterior motive behind them, or show that the point has also been made by ideological undesirables, such as right-wingers. Use the weapons of psychoanalysis in debate by treating your opponent as an ideological 'patient,' not an equal. Treat disagreement as Freudian 'resistance: to the assumed correctness. of your view, and suggest pathological causes for it. If you encounter vehement dissent, class it as 'defensiveness,' using the Freudian anti-logic whereby a strong denial of something is evidence for it. 'Unmask' your opponent's argument as an expression of will-to-power, while concealing your own intellectual and academic will-to-power. If things get tough, try saying 'I feel offended by what you say,' instead of 'l disagree,' shifting the ground to the emotional and personal. Try the 'inescapability' ploy, co-opting anything your opponent says as 'always already' part of your own system, as in Paul de Man's 'the resistance to theory is part of theory.' Never accept correction, as you are always already in the right and have nothing to learn from disagreement. Dismiss the norms of rational debate as a cover for liberal individualism and bourgeois class interest. The key to all these strategies is to refuse your interlocutor the status of a rational being on an equal footing with yourself, whose arguments have to be heard and answered, rather than simply ’placed’ within your own prior and all-encompassing view. The MFN style is not to dispute, discuss, and disprove, but to debase, distort, and discredit.
This process of selective appropriation and amalgamation has reduced the work of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche into a set of rhetorical ploys and sticky labels. The coherence and separateness, even incompatibility, of their respective visions, has been lost in the MFN blend, along with their stylistic distinctiveness. Theorists have not worked through the powerful challenges these systems offer to each other as well as to Anglo-American traditions; the latter have simply been abandoned without discussion. Nietzsche in particular seems to have been turned into his own opposite. A radical right-wing thinker is enlisted by an apparently left-wing orthodoxy. An intensely individualist thinker is co-opted by an anti-individualist ideology. A virulent anti-feminist is constantly cited by pro-feminists, his misogyny ignored or excused. Most perversely of all, the champion of the rights of the strong over the weak is reversed into an ally of the weak against 'power’. In fact, Nietzsche constantly asserted his contempt for the weak, and their .use of 'conspiracies' like Christianity and socialism to subvert the strong. Similarly, Marxism in MFN loses its basis in economics, class struggle, and revolution, and is culturalized, so that·instead of'production' we get 'cultural production,' and instead of 'dialectical materialism' we get 'cultural materialism'
Theory amalgamates the motivating forces of the three systems (class struggle, desire, will-to-power) into a single elusive yet ubiquitous force: power/desire. The world view of MFN-inspired Theory is one in which both subject and object are dissolved into shifting collectivities and projected representations of power/desire. The unity of the self is dissolved by the assertion that the apparent autonomy and liberty of the subject is actually a construct of bourgeois ideology in the seventeenth century, which we have now outlived and/or seen through. Conversely, objectivity is dissolved by the assertion that all representation is a projection of the power/desire of the observer, which is in turn conditioned by ideology. Thus both subject and object are illusions. Individual opinions and accurate representations are both simply 'effects' (as in Barthes's 'reality effect'). There are no
selves, only 'subject positions,' no objects, only 'constructs.' The result in philosophical terms is a form of impersonal idealism, akin to the neo-Hegelianism of the late nineteenth century which influenced T.S..Eliot, or to the 'collective solipsism' which O'Brien in 1984 identified as the Condition of Oceania. The subject-object distinction on which Western philosophy is founded is dissolved into a radical indeterminacy, which is presented as new; exciting, and adventurous as compared to the old 'fixities.'
This world view is intellectually ill founded and (perhaps as a consequence) politically dangerous. Theory trades in dramatic exaggeration and glories in wilful disregard of common sense and balance. A partial truth (eg. That perception is affected by the desires of the perceiver) is prersented as a whole truth (perceptions are constructed from the desires.of the perceiver; perceptions are projections).Take the obvious fact that no object can be described with complete and exhaustive accuracy and translate it into the idea that no degreesof accuracy can be discerned, and that all descriptions are 'constructions.' Or take the fact that individual autonomy of thought and action is limited (or 'situated,' as the Existentialists used to say), and assert that it is therefore an illusion. The political danger with these assertions is that if you cease to believe in the capacity of individuals to verify facts independently, you deliver them into the hands of the state, unable to contest the official version of events. They come to live in a gap, familiar under communism, between experience and ideology, what can be seen and what can be said. The possibility of the individual's independent account of reality, contesting the official account, is vital to liberal-democratic society, but most of our theorists no longer believe in it. Instead, they have chosen epistemological radicalism, pretending that it is the same as political radicalism, when the two are certainly independent, and probably incompatible.
In literary terms, theory's world-view of radical indeterminacy becomes 'textuality. Like 'sexuality,' which may have inspired the new term, textuality denotes a condition rather than an idea or object: It hovers somewhere between the subjective and the objective, and dissolves both into itself. Reader, text, and author lose their separate identities and blend into a reading/(re)writing.’ The text creates the subject positions needed to read it, so the reader is reduced to a 'textual function.' Yet the reader also becomes·a 'co-creator' of the text along with the author. Not only these basic distinctions, but most others to do with literature are effaced: fictional and non-fictional, critical and creative, classic and popular, literary and non-literary. There are no longer any identifiable subjects (author, reader, character) or objects (works, genres). Fixity, limit, definition - all are dismissed as such. Only the 'transgressive' is valid. Any divisions between selves, works; genres, or disciplines are denigrated as illusory, hierarchical, reactionary. All distinctions are lost in the swamp of textuality.
What kind of interpretation of texts emerges when all the checks and restraints - the author's probable intended meaning! the generic norms, the historical contexts - are invalidated? Theory can only offer contradictions and evasions in answer. At times the text is held to 'position' the reader, just as in Heidegger's view language speaks its speakers. At other times the reader is believed to co-create the text by projecting desires into it. Or meanings may be 'constructed' by ideology. Or interpretations may be governed by Stanley Fish's 'interpretive communities.' Only the idea that the author determines the meaning is unacceptable, perhaps because it's too obvious. The Question of who determines the indeterminate has to be left unanswered within Theory; if it were clearly answered indeterminacy would collapse., Indeterminacy, like absence,' is an opportunity and excuse for interpre- tive licence. Freed from the constraints of objective proof, 'readings' do not become personal and inventive, but are actually shaped by the dogmatism of the currently received ideas. Authority is taken away from the author, the text, and the reader, and vested in the academic institutions of literary criticism which are under the hegemony of Theory. Support for one's reading is no longer obtained by evidence, but from citation of canonical names and current terms. These sources provide concepts which are then applied to the text in a kind of superimposition. The theoretical ideas are privileged, and are not corrected or modified by the text. In other words, the secondary texts (critical) have become primary, and the primary texts (literary) have become secondary.
Just as textualism dissolves subject and object, author and reader, into the swamp of textuality, so presentism dissolves past and future into the inescapable quagmire of the present. Presentism repudiates both historicism and futurism. It holds that we cannot know the truth of the past 'as it really was' (in von Ranke's phrase), and that the past never has been knowable, though nineteenth-century historians pretended or believed that it was. Now, says presentism, we know better. We know that the past is unknowable. So we give up the effort and accept what survives of the past as simply a repository of 'heritage' motifs and styles, to be used in the present for amusement or 'retro' novelty. Past modes of architecture, art, or dress can be pastiched or collaged or appropriated or reinterpreted at will. The past is reshaped by the present also to suit present political purposes, as political correctness replaces historical correctness.
Of course it is true that the past cannot be known fully or exactly. Presentism takes this truth and converts it into the dogma that the past cannot be known at all. All versions are equally valid in theory, though in practice the politics of the present determines which version is acceptable. Much of the inspiration here comes from Nietzsche's idea, challenging the historicism of his century, that the past can and should be used to increase the present power of those actually in power. What does it matter if the image of the past created by the now-powerful is historically inaccurate, if it enables them to"relish their vitality and strength and dominance?” Nietzsche saw the quest for historical truth as not only impossible in itself, but often part of a slave-conspiracy against the strong. For him, the painstaking quest for historical accuracy is contemptible pedantry compared to the empowering vitality of myth.
However, presentism has reversed Nietzsche's political allegiances. When we hear that history is written by winners, it is implied that it would be a selective, biased account – though Nietzsche, of course, would approve of this. But he also foresaw the eventual victory of the weak, and the consequent rewriting of history by the former losers, after the eventual success of their conspiracy against the strong and free. He would undoubtedly see Theory as part of the rewriting process, which makes it doubly ironic that he has canonical status with theorists. Logically, history as rewritten by the former losers must be as much a 'construct' as the winner·history it replaces. Both sides ask, 'Why bother to acknowledge facts that are inconvenient to your case? Why not ignore, deny, or distort them if it makes your myth more powerful?' Nietzsche and Theory share the excitements of forget-the-facts myth-making despite being on opposite sides politically.
Presentism, rejecting the vision of historicism on one hand, rejects visions of the future on the other. The latter is formulated as a rejection of teleology (in philosophical terms), of human destiny (in religious terms), and of overall human progress (in political terms). The most influential version is Lyotard's repudiation of 'grands recits' or Grand Narratives, which include the biblical journey from Creation to Apocalypse, the 'Whig' view that humanity is progressing, despite setbacks, towards a higher and better state, and the Marxist vision of proletarian revolution, the withering away of the state and the end of history. A recent example of the 'grand recit,' Francis Fukuyama's brilliant Hegelian work called The End of History, was dismissed unread by most theorists despite (or because of) its offerof a coherent and persuasive vision of where we are in human history. If any further justification was needed for the dismissal, it was provided by the news that Fukuyama worked for the U.S. State Department. So why bother with study, argument, or disproof ?
Any long-term view.of'human history or destiny is anathema to presentism, which is our generation's version of the trahison des clercs. Without some vision of the future, some sense of overall development, some ideal, end, or goal, the present becomes simply a jumble of short-term activities. In particular, the Marxist colouration of Theory becomes mere pastiche, and ·Marxism is reduced to a scatter of terms and concepts meaningless 'without the system they belong to. Theorists adopt the vivid abuse-vocabulary of Marxism ('bourgeois,' 'reactionary') as a set of labels to stick on anything they dislike. Theorists use 'progressive' as a positive term, while attacking the notion of human Progress which gives it its significance.
Theory jettisons most of the genuinely progressive ideas of the last five hundred years: liberalism, humanism, individualism, realism, and science are all explicitly attacked or regarded with suspicion and hostility. The culture of Theory is neo-medieval, and the style of its discourse is neo-scholastic. The citation of received authorities is more important than direct personal inquiry and independent verification. For theory there is no individuality, no originality, no independence: the prefix re-dominates the vocabulary, along with its companion post-. Everything is always already a repetition, a re-reading, a re-writing. This climate of staleness and belatedness is a paradoxical result of presentism; without a narrative linking the present to the future and the past, there can be no development, only repetition.
But in practice, as with textualism, something has to determine the theoretically indeterminate. Even presentism has to give some orientation instead of pastness, postness. The three posts which situate theory for itself to the theoretically futureless and pastless present. The solution is this: are postmodemism, poststructuralism, and postcolonialism: POMO, POSTO, and POCO, like three characters in a Beckett play. In the absence of a concept of history, the present can only be characterized by the immediately preceding phase or period, the still-in-view, just-finished recent past which the present is just after.
The difficulty of periodization (in practice a necessity in academia without a concept of history is amply manifest in the many attempts to distinguish postmodernism from modemism, to give some meaning to this supposedly important distinction, beyond the banality that one is simply later than the other. Perhaps because of their shakiness, the two concepts themselves are rarely 'called in question,' though there is much dispute about how to characterize them. Postmodernism is a shaky construct because its basis, modernism, is equally so. Modernism is so widely accepted as a period concept for the literature and art of 1910-1930 or 1900-1940, that many do not realize it only became fully established as a usage in the 1970s. Before that, we only had 'modern' literature. Movements like futurism, vorticism, and imagism existed at the time, but not Modernism. In fact, modernism in art was known as Post-impressionism, perhaps the first time a new tendency was identified solely in terms of what it followed, and perhaps a precedent for the term postmodernism.
Modernism, like other period concepts, requires an emphasis on discontinuities and a neglect of continuities. Writers like Joyce, Lawrence, and Forster were initially classed with Bennett and Wells (by Henry James, for example) as further extending realism to an unprecedented and disturbing degree. Only later was this emphasis on the further development of realism reversed and, starting with Virginia Woolf’s 1924 paper: 'Mr.Bennett and Mrs Brown,' a radical break created between the Edwardians (Bennett, Wells, Calsworthy) and the Georgians (Forster, Eliot, Joyce, Lawrence, Strachey and Woolf herself), later to be known as the Modernists. Even here, it is worth noting that Woolf’s ground for preferring the Georgians was that they were better at creating vivid, believable characters. Woolf accepted the basic goal of realism, claiming that her means, or the Georgians' means, were superior to the 'external' methods of Bennett. The dissolution of the 'old stable ego,' in Lawrence's words, was not made a defining feature of Modernism until much later. This led to a neglect of the formal and intellectual sophistication of the Victorians and Edwardians in order to set them up as epistemelogically naïve and formally conventional, in contrast with the radical innovations of Modernism.
But then, 'from the 1970s on, came the companion `concept of postmodernism. Once the open-ended 'modern' had become the safely periodized 'Modernism,' the period following it needed naming. Modernism: was gradually repositioned where it had previously positioned the Victorians and Edwardians: as a conservative foil to the even more radical, experimental, sceptical, self-reflexive, parodistic, allusive postmodernism. The trouble is that, in the novel at least, everything that has been identified as postmodernist can be found in the first novel, Don Quixote (1605, 1615). Throughout its history and in most of its best examples, the novel as a genre has combined realism and experiment. Realism is not the naive, conventional, bourgeois form of the theorists' caricature; rather, it is itself a never-ending experiment, though critics are always trying to separate realism and experiment into different periods. Presentism needs to see the present as a radically new period, and thus stereotypes the recent past as conservative. Postmodernism repeats the heroic 'breakthrough' myth of Modernism, but with Modernism now in the conservative role. It is astonishing how theorists who claim to 'call in question' virtually everything have exempted the concepts of Modernism and postmodernism from challenge. These ideas are actually foundational for a perspective which claims to have no foundations, and they constitute indispensable period concepts for an outlook which has dispensed with history as coherent narrative.
Poststructuralism shares the same weakness as postmodemism: an excessive dependence on the concept it postdates. Structuralism had its heyday in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and for a while it seemed that literature would finally be subjected to a scientific method. But just as academia was examining this prospect, Derrida came up with something much more exciting: he discovered that even Levi-Strauss's 'rigorous' structuralism was self-contradictory - in fact, all texts were. Academia also recoiled from structuralism because there was not enough work in it: once all plots had been reduced to mathematical equations, what would remain to be done? Deconstruction offered a lot more material for professors seeking publication: show how every text is self-contradictory. Where before 1970 they had discovered more and more hidden unity (of image, symbol, theme, plot) in literary texts, now they went in to reverse and found disunity in all the same texts. Even better, this included critical texts. So the way was open to infinite chains of texts, each showing the contradictions of the previous ones. Every professor could add a commentary to Lacan on Derrida on Foucault on Poe. There was very little need for primary texts; in fact a small group of already much discussed texts by Proust, Rousseau, or Poe would be better because they offered more layers of commentary. Critics began to feel more than equal to the authors at the bottom layer. Critics too were creators of texts, as important and interesting as the texts they started from. They, rather than authors, were the people that graduate students wanted to see, hear, and read. A Derrida, Fish, Jameson, or Culler could fill more lecture halls than any mere poet or novelist.
But while the base of primary texts was contracting in one area, it was expanding in another: the tremendous flowering of creative writing in countries once colonized by the European powers. Unfortunately these new literatures, within the Western academy, fell under the sway of the third post: postcolonialism. Like the other two, this post is an inadequate response to the literature it aims to 'cover' or theorize. Anxious to move beyond thematic and descriptive criticism (now denigrated as unsophisticated), postcolonial critics have adopted, often uncritically, the terminology and concepts of poststructuralism. This frameworks is then applied, not to the 'small handful of canonical Western texts favoured by deconstruction, but to works from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds. Thus while decrying Eurocentrism, postcolonialist critics are constantly citing European theorists like Foucault, Barthes, Lacan, and Derrida. The theoretical reorientation in the English-speaking world often amounts to no more than a shift from Anglocentrism to Francocentrism,.
Postcolonialism, like postmodernism and poststructuralism, inherits the structures of what it is past. The former British colonies are extremely diverse in culture, and about all they have in common is having been governed by Britain. By maintaining this imposed grouping, postcolonialism reproduces colonial patterns. For example, it is rare to find courses which study African literature as a unity. Anglophone, Francophone, and Lusophrone literatures are treated separately from each other and from work in African languages. Postcolonialism's dependence on colonialism also leads to a lack of historical depth. Presentism conceals from view almost everything before the nineteenth century. Thus Roman imperialism is not discussed despite its obvious importance for later European imperialism. Negative Eurocentrism (seeing Europe as the only guilty party) conceals from view non-European examples of imperialism such as the Islamic conquests in Africa and India, as well as contemporary episodes like the Chinese invasion of Tibet or the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. Curiously, there is not much discussion of American imperialism either, and the United States is seen mainly as being itself a postcolonial culture. The case of Indian literature shows up the limitations of the postcolonial framework, which neglects the three thousand-year traditions that predated and survived the British Raj. This long-term context is vital for most works of recent Indian literature, while the international postcolonial one is insufficient by itself. A related obstacle is Theory's hostility to religion (this hostility is perhaps the common trait shared by Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche); this attitude is a serious barrier in approaching a culture imbued with religious belief and practice to an extent unimaginable to Eurocentrism.
The study of postcolonial literature in English.is united as a field by a negative Anglocentrism which often goes beyond·attacking British imperialism to a general attack on British culture as such. A favourite hypothesis is that Britain is in a terminal cultural decline' as a necessary corollary of the rise of postcolonial cultures, a perception whose main support is simply to ignore contemporary British writing. 'Furthermore, wealthy white-settler countries like Canada and Australia are classed as postcolonial along with countries which suffered the real brunt of imperialism, thus giving poco intellectuals the luxury of presenting themselves as members of the oppressed. :Postcolonial theorists in these countries cannot seem to reach a balanced view of their British heritage or their present relation to Britain. Them is little consciousness of ironies like the fact that Australia and Canada are more affluent than post-imperial Britain, much of whose population would gladly emigrate to them if given the chance, or the fact that much of the British media is owned by Canadian or Australian tycoons like Conrad Black or Rupert Murdoch.
The myth of British cultural decline is also inconsistent with the charge of continuing cultural imperialism. There is more evidence for the reverse hypothesis, that Britain is culturally dominated by its former colonies. Besides the matter of media ownership; it is clear that the cultural establishment is extremely open to postcolonial talent. The list of writers, critics, publishers, and TV presenters from former colonies who occupy powerful roles in British culture would include Clive' James; Peter Conrad, Germaine Greer, Michael Ignatieff, Ben Okri, Salman.Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, and the list could continue. This is more a case of the Empire Moves In than the Empire Writes Back. But rather than commend Britain on its openness, to foreign talent, postcolonialists, ignoring the equal abundance and quality of contemporary 'native' British writers, have seen it as a further sign of cultural eclipse, also neglecting the awkward question of why so many gifted postcolonial writers would be attracted to a supposedly moribund centre.
The poverty of postcolonial theory (as opposed to the richness and diversity of the literature itself) is shown in one of its key texts, The Empire Writes Back (the phrase is Salman Rushdie's), co-authored by three academics based in Australia. After two hundred pages of unremitting hostility to British culture and even its language-use, the book ends with a vision in which the English canon is radically reduced within a new paradigm of international english studies' (Ashcroft et al, 196). Among the remaining authors, Haggard and Kipling, as instructive examples of overt pro-imperialism, would replace the standard Victorian classics like Hardy and George Eliot in courses on British literature. In fact to add those authors to courses (though not at the expense of the others) would be worth doing. Kipling, in particular, deserves more study for aesthetic reasons. His support of imperialism has been treated as much less forgivable by literary academics than (for example) Pound's Fascism and anti-Semitism. The purpose of selecting Kipling, however, is not to increase aesthetic appreciation of his work; but inculpate nineteenth and twentieth century British culture. A similar purpose motivates Edward Said's recent Culture and Imperialism, which maintains that every work of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European literature, including Jane Austen's novels, is complicit with imperialism, whether it is mentioned or not. The book should actually be entitled European Culture and imperialism' since it has little to say, aside from a prefatory acknowledgment of their existence, about Russian, Islamic, Chinese or Japanese imperialism. The guilt is focused on the West, and for Said this taints all of its 'cultural production' in this period, however remote a work's themes might appear to be.
In the postcolonial perspective, glimpses of earlier literature are confined to those works which, like Robinson Crusoe, can be made to bear the burden of imperial guilt. The Tempest seems to be virtually Shakepeare's only play to judge from the frequency of its appearance in reading lists influenced by postcolonialist thinking equally; the Calibanic interpretation, which sees Caliban as the innocent victim of the imperialist Prospero, seems to be the only current interpretation, disregarding Shakespeare's obvious intent to show Prospero as a wise, though flawed, ruler. In general, Shakepeare is seen as an object of judgment by the present, which has the right to condemn any divergences from current standards of political rectitude. The Signet Classics have recently added to the collections of critical essays in their Shakespeare editions an article which in effect gives each play a rating, assessing its degree of racism, sexism, and homophobia.
For some, not just Shakespeare but the whole Western tradition is put on trial and found guilty. Postcolonialism combines with presentism to inculpate the past as a substitute for trying to understand it. The past as such is guilty of not being present. History becomes simply a repository of grievances, whose historical truth gets an exemption from the otherwise general view that historical truth cannot be established. Students get the idea that Western culture is uniquely guilty of racism, sexism, homophobia, ecocide, and imperialism. This kind of negative Eurocentrism would certainly be modified by a genuinely global outlook, which would show these abuses and prejudices as widespread in world history.
Political correctness in the present has replaced the idea of historical correctness, which, although ultimately unreachable, is an ideal that humanistic study should constantly strive for. The one apparent exception to the prevailing presentism js the so-called New Historicism. The Old Historicism would set the past work in the context of its period, and the period in relation to the present through a coherent overall view of history, whether 'Whig' view of gradual progress, the conservative view of gradual or catastrophic decline, or the Marxist view of continual class struggle erupting into eventual revolution. The New Historicism, lacking any such overall perspective, uses a collage technique to juxtapose a literary with a non-literary text from the same period and provide a feeling of moving outside the realm of fiction. This technique started in the field of Renaissance stu- dies,where drama is the dominant literary genre,and this led to the habit of placing a scene from a play next to a 'scene' from public life. The typical New Historicist article, taking its cue from Foucault, begins with a quoted description of an opulent pageant or a spectacularly brutal punishment, executes some transitional theoretical 'moves' involving power/desire, and arrives at a play with a spurious air of' 'freshness' and 'political relevance.' 'History' is simply a juxtaposed image, a gesture, a cross-reference.
The rhetoric of Theory is hostile to divisions, boundaries, distinctions, linearity, disciplinarity- to anything that structures and defines. However, there is one major exception: the categorization of people by race, gender, and sexual preference. Here, division is paramount. Both the individuality of humans and their membership in the universal category of humanity are rejected or downplayed in favour of these specific categories of identity. These are felt to divide human experience so radically that a person from one category should not or cannot speak about the experience of a person from another category. These'categories' are the modern equivalent of the 'estates' of pre-revolutionary France, or the 'classes' of traditional Marxism. Each individual belongs to three: white or non-white, male or female, heterosexual or homosexual. The first category in each case is perceived as dominant, the second as oppressed.
'Categoryism' can be defined as (1) the understanding of human experience primarily in terms of the identity-category of the experiencer; (2) the reversal of the previous power relations and the preference for the second within each pair of ca tegories. Thus if you are a heterosexual white male, categorism awards you three minuses (French theorists are given an honorary exemption). The phrase 'white male' is reminiscent of a police description or a zoological classification, and in categoryist discourse is almost always the prelude to abuse and denigration. Categoryism does not create equality, but merely reverses previous inequalities of respect. It perpetuates an atmosphere where certain kinds of people are preferred to certain others -all that changes are the actual preferences. To see a person primarily as a 'white male' or a 'gay female' is to diminish their humanity and their individuality.It suggeststhat their experience is contained within the group category, and is fundamentally (not just partially) distinct from the experience of those in other categories. It also minimizes the differences
within the category between individuals. Categories are seen as essentially different from each other, even though theorists consider 'essentialism' to be a heresy in other contexts.
Structures of preference among the categories of a population inevitably create resentment in those who am not preferred; they in turn put forward their claim to be oppressed and to have the order of preference changed obnce again. Males are beginning to think of themselves as the newest Victim group, denigrated in the media, discriminated against in family law, more liable to imprisonment, suicide, and early death, and condemned to the dirtiest and unsafest work. We need to remember that Nazism was an extreme form of categoryism, basing much of its popular appeal on the idea that Germans were discriminated against in their own country, undermined and exploited by Jews, Communists, homosexuals, and so on, as well as by the victorious Allies of the First World War. The Soviet state also officially identified its citizens by ethnicity and accorded different treatment to them on that basis. The only long-term solution to discrimination is a system of strict non-preference between categories,that is, treating people primarily as individuals irrespective of category.
Most societies have been based on a hierarchy among categories of class, ethnicity, and gender; where they have differed is on the order of preference. Only the liberal vision (approached but never yet achieved) aims to do away with the ladder rather than change the order of priority on it. The Marxist vision has classlessness as its eventual goal, but only after a supposedly temporary intensification of class struggle known as 'the dictatorship of the proletariat.' Categoryism rarely provides a clear vision of the future it desires, partly because of the influence of presentism, and partly because it cannot contemplate the weakening or virtual disappearance of categories which full equality would entail. Yet categoryism uses the liberal rhetoric of justice and fairness when it is strategically convenient.There is a tendency in contemporary activism to start with equality claims appealing to the liberal conscience, but then move on to an explicit or implicit claim of superiority. This claim can sometimes sound like the original prejudice in reverse. For example, in the 1950s and other periods it was held that women were unsuited to university education beca use they were less intellectual than emotional. Feminism first rightly denied this in a claim for equal access to higher education, only to reassert it in a different form in the claim that women are essenrtially more co-operative, more supportive, more related, less competitive, less hierarchical, and so on, and that instituitions should be'feminized' to reflect the superiority of feminine values. In fact, what universities need is to be humanized, rather than further divided by gender and other categories.
Each of the categories is reinforced by an external enemy which helps tocreate group unity through a feeling of being under constant threat. These threats are Racism, Sexism, and Homophobia (RSH). These are the contemporary forms of Evil. Like the Christian devil in the late Middle Ages, or Communism in the 1950s, these evil forces are felt to he menacing everywhere. However often they are defeated, they uncannily reappear. RSH represents the hidden hatred of the formerly dominant categories (whites, males, heterosexuals) which are suspected to be still lurking beneath the polite surface of official government or university discourse (here is the connection with the MFN 'hermeneutic of suspicion'). The new euphemistic category etiquette with its nervous proprieties is enforced by the implication that to use previously accepted terminology is 'insensitive' and 'inappropriate' (two key words in the new lexicon) and a step in the direction of full RSH. Any protest against exaggerations of the prevalence of RSH (categoryists are reluctant to admit that such exaggerations are even possible) can be swiftly silenced by an accusation of' sympathy with the devil.’
The anti-RSH bureaucracy of contemporary universities has to perform a delicate balancing act. Some progress in 'fighting' RSH has to be claimed; otherwise the Equity Officers and Harassment Committees are failing to do their work. Yet victory can never be claimed, because these offices and programs would then be closed, their task completed. The usual solution is to claim that some gains have been made, but that they have provoked. a dangerous backlash from white males. Thus the persistence of RSH is structurally necessary for the self-perpetuation of the bureaucracy. Yet the fact is that RSH is less prevalent than at most times in the past. Most people at universities are not racist, sexist, or homophobic now, though they may resent being put under suspicion. But to state this is to open oneself to accusations of complacency or worse. The anti-RSH bureaucracy is in place when there is less need for it, but·it was absent when it was more needed, say in the 1950s, when these prejudices were almost unchallenged. Just as anti-imperialism became prominent only after the virtual disappearance of British imperialism, anti-RSH appears when its enemy is much diminished. The truly dangerous prejudices are those that almost everyone shares.' But once they are only held by a shrinking minority, it becomes safe to oppose them, or to produce theatricalized replays of them. Incidents of RSH are needed periodically to show that the old devils are still alive, so some trivial instance of tastelessness or stupidity is blown up into a major crime, and used as evidence that nothing has changed. A theatre of retribution is created where history is replayed, but this time the malefactor is shamed and punished for the sins of the past.
Although group organization has played a major role in overcoming official prejudice, the change in public opinion over the last thirty to forty years has occurred largely through arguments based on liberal ideas of fairness to individuals, regardless (as it used to be said) of’class, creed, or colour.’ People have come to respect the claim for equal treatment and perhaps for that reason to resist claims for preferential treatment. Past disadvantages should be remedied by present equality, not by special new advantages. Categoryism should be dissolved rather than preserved in a new form. Treating people as individuals rather than category members is just as anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-homophobic as the group approach, and in the long run probably the best guarantee of security against discrimination.
Individualism is out of favour with theorists, who are enamoured of new versions of the collectivist ideologies of the 1930s and 1940s. But one of the 'most hopeful signs of its survival is the present popularity of biographical and autobiographical writing, both in the university and among the public. It shows an unwillingness to sacrifice the personal to the political and theoretical. It also shows that the concept of truth, however problematic, cannot be dispensed with. If Theory bans it in one area, it re-emerges in another. Individuality is no mere 'construct of bourgeois ideology,' but a lived reality for most people. The new 'life-writing' shows an almost instinctive refusal to be categorized. It responds to the fragmentation of late twentieth-century experience by attempting to find some pattern of coherence that will validate the sensed unity of the self. It refuses to accept the parcelling out of personal identity into subject positions collectivities, interpretants, interpellations of ideology, power, desire, and all the rest. The realization and liberation of full selfhood by each individual is the best hope for a free, open and just society, an ideal which Theory merely scoffs at.
Despite the stress on self-reflexivity, Theory has avoided facing the question of how it came to dominance during the triumphant advance of the New Right in politics, and conservative, business-oriented administrations in the universities. Why is the danger of being 'co-opted,' greatly feared by 1960s radical movements, no longer discussed? Perhaps because it has already happened. The ideology of Theory is in some ways well adapted to the contemporary managerial revolution in the universities. Theory combines the illusion of subversion with the actuality of a more or less harmonious working alliance with the top-level management of the universities.
The core shared belief by Theorists and Managers is that knowledge is 'interested': that is, it is created in response to various 'interests,' political in the first case, economic in the second. The categories seek to advance their perceived group interest through special programs of study or 'services' which in practice often have an ideological agenda, a collection of unchallengeable ideas, and a self-righteousness born of a sense of grievance. The administrators are concerned with supplying knowledge that is in the 'interests' of potential benefactors - for instance, corporations who need certain kinds of research done, or foreign governments who endow chairs for the study of their cultures but who might look askance at criticism of their human rights records. Thus administartors are already accustomed to creating and adapting programs for interest groups, even those that are not financial benefactors.
What is forgotten here is the liberal idea of ‘disinterested’ knowledge. These ideals are even criticized as elitist, ivory-tower, inward-looking, and unresponsive to society. But actually most people respect the liberal ideal of learning, and do not expect the university to market itself to please all comers. They expect accessibility, but not the current disrespect for the traditions academics are supposed to be protecting and preserving. Outsiders are amazed when they find that words like 'great,' 'literary,' and 'classic' are viewed as suspect. The liberal vision was to open high culture to more and more people; the new elitist populism lowers it to the level of mass culture, while contradictorily using a theoretical jargon that excludes the very masses it is supposedly validating. Theoretical criticism is almost entirely self-serving and inward-looking; very little is now being written for the general reader, and specialists and initiates are the only audience envisaged by Theory, despite its subversive self-image (the use of the word 'subversive' usually precedes a statement of impeccable orthodoxy).
Both theorists and administrators are neglecting the key values they should be nurturing: rational debate, constructive disagreement, respect for different opinions, independent inquiry, disinterested learning, emancipation from limited outlooks, intellectual freedom, scepticism about current pieties and clarity of though and expression. Between them they have created a Soviet-style 'watch-what-you-say' ideological conformity and corporate 'bottom-line' thinking, mixing the philistinisms of communism and capitalism. Both approaches see education as programming students rather than emancipating them to think for themselves, something that can only be learned by direct contact with classic texts. To deprive students of this lifelong benefit in the name of current ideological preoccupations is a betrayal.
Is there a way beyond the hegemony of theory? Usually a natural reaction sets in against any orthodoxy, even in systems which forbid dissent. Yet many of those who might create this renewal, those who in other periods might have become graduate students of literature,' are so put off by the hegemony of Theory that they pursue other paths, leaving more room for conformity and mediocrity to flourish. Theorists are formidably entrenched in most of the key Chairs in universities across the English-speaking world, and have a lockhold on new faculty appointments, on the type of graduate study permitted, and on the kinds of research to be funded. These powers may well be sufficient to stifle or marginalize dissent for decades, especially once the relatively free-thinking and loose-spoken individualists of the liberal era have taken retirement. The new orthodoxy could last as long as Aristotelianism in the late middle ages. Once the remnants of the disciplines have been swept away, Theory could reign supreme over the levelled playing field of the humanities, now renamed ‘Cultural Studies’. Freedom from ideology, perhaps the main reason for fighting the Second World War, will be abandoned without a struggle. Literature and philosophy will disappear into the swamp of Theory and Textuality. Classics will be treated on the same level as tv series; in fact, classics will be tv series, and tv series will be classics. Judgment and appreciation will no longer be arrived at by study, debate, and individual thought, but will be replaced by dogmatic, ideological value judgments imposed by authority masking itself in the language of subversion. Establishment pseudo-radicalism could ironically come to dominate the academic life of the West just as it has collapsed in the East.
The hope is that liberal values are still strong enough within individuals in the academy and in the society at large to overthrow the hegemony of Theory. The key to this would be to offer a vision of the future, both academic and social, which could win the allegiance of those who now accept or half-accept or pretend to accept the claims of Theory. This vision could obviously not be that of the post-war decades, which itself had the limitations of its period. In practice it was not fully inclusive either of all members of its own society or fully open to the culture of other societies. It was Eurocentric in outlook (though Theory itself often remains negatively Eurocentric). What is needed is the hill realization of the original liberal-humanist vision through inclusion of all people (as individuals as well as grouped by category of gender, ethnicity, and so on) and the inclusion of all cultures. Something better than Theory will be needed to order this vast field. The central feature of the approach must be the development of individual thought and sensibility in the study of world culture, not ideological programming. Its medium must be the clear, essayistic prose of individual inquiry, not the deadening jargon of dogmatism and authority. Only when we have reclaimed individual autonomy as our key value, and progress towards genuine cultural understanding as our vision, can 'the humanities ’once again make a valid contribution to the betterment of humanity.
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