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Talk about a Revolution

Kevin Power

The Meaninglessness of Meaning: Writing About the Theory Wars from the London Review of Books, London Review of Books, 134 pp, £5.99

What the hell was literary theory anyway? Jouissance. The death of the author. Phallogocentrism. The metaphysics of presence. Binary oppositions. Hegemonic discourses. Subaltern narratives. Necropolitics. Biopower. Bentham’s (or is it Foucault’s?) Panopticon. The male gaze. The cultural logic of late capitalism. The unconscious is structured like a language. There is nothing outside the text. Are any of these ideas useful, or true?

There exists a whole alphabet of textual warriors, from Althusser to Žižek, to tell you that they might be both. There also exists a whole panoply of university departments to tell you the same thing. On the other hand, the twenty-first century has already brought us books with titles like After Theory (Terry Eagleton, 2003), and Criticism After Critique (ed Jeffrey R Di Leo, 2014), and The Limits of Critique (Rita Felski, 2015). Are we finished with theory? Is theory finished with us? Did theory change the world, while it had the chance? Did it even manage to change literature?

Novelists of a certain vintage have tended to endorse a rather florid scepticism about theory. In AS Byatt’s Possession (1990), Roland Michell – a humble Romanticist and devotee of old-fashioned archival research – misses out on a job that goes instead to Fergus Wolff (note the surname) who is “in the right field, which was literary theory”. (Later in the novel we find ourselves privy to Fergus Wolff’s idea of a love letter: “Did you read Lacan on flying fish and vesicle persecution?”) Delphine Roux, the prying, puritanical villain in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain (2000), is a literary theorist who graduated from the École normale supérieure. “Isn’t he a structuralist?” asks Sefton Goldberg, the protagonist of Howard Jacobson’s Coming from Behind (1983), of one of his academic rivals; the insinuation is that such a man exhibits a slavish vulnerability to intellectual fashion and is therefore not to be trusted. 

Chip Lambert, the “well-published” theorist in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (2001), exhibits a similar vulnerability, and pays for it heavily. Contemplating his volumes of theory, Chip (the author of a PhD thesis entitled “Doubtful It Stood: Anxieties of the Phallus in Tudor Drama”) remembers “how each of them had called out in a bookstore with a promise of a radical critique of late-capitalist society, and how happy he had been to take them home”. The problem is that all of these critiques of late capitalist society have availed Chip nothing; fired from his tenure-track job for sleeping with a student, he is forced to sell “his feminists, his formalists, his structuralists, his poststructuralists, his Freudians, and his queers” in the Strand bookstore for $115 (having already “purged the Marxists from his bookshelves” for $65). Thereafter, Chip buys dinner in the Nightmare of Consumption, a high-end supermarket that has co-opted theory’s critique of late capitalism and ironically tracks its own projected quarterly dividends via an in-store digital banner.

This sequence neatly dramatises what we might think of as the liberal-pragmatic objection to theory: that it has failed to change the world, and that its various revolutionary insights have been swallowed so effortlessly by the omnivorous jaws of capitalist modernity that the whole project of critique boils down to nothing more than an embarrassing form of armchair radicalism (Chip is scandalised when his petit bourgeois father confesses that he “can’t see the point” of literary theory – but it is Alfred’s view, not Chip’s, that is borne out by the novel). So: according to a certain kind of novelist, literary theorists are (or were) wolfishly predatory, villainous, and hopelessly trendy (if they operated in bad faith); or (if they operated in good faith) politically impotent – devoted to a radical critique that has no hope of effecting radical societal change.

According to another kind of novelist – let’s just say it: a younger kind of novelist – literary theory is less a source of reactionary agitation than it is simply a part of the air that bright young people breathe, particularly if they have been, or are currently going, to university. Frances, the protagonist of Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends (2017), chills out with Gayatri Spivak’s A Critique of Postcolonial Reason (1999), though she admits that she doesn’t really understand much of what she reads in its pages; more to the point, her conversations with her friend and former lover Bobbi tend to deploy theoretical tropes in a way that is both ironic and serious, a habit that carries over into Frances’s inner life: “have I sometimes exploited a reductive iteration of gender theory to avoid serious moral engagement . . . yes.”

Ava, the twenty-two-year-old narrator of Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times (2020), is fresh from her BA, and hyperalert to any suggestions of racism or misogyny underlying the attitudes of people she encounters in the wider world. She notes that the TEFL school she works for in Hong Kong has a “racist” recruitment policy but that her employers approve of her coldness toward the children she teaches: “I found this an invigorating respite from how people usually assessed women.” Later, she remarks to her lover Edith that “not liking nice guys” is “such a misogynist trope”.

Unlike Frances, Ava does not speak the language of theory (no “reductive iterations” here). Nonetheless, she is transparently proceeding from various assumptions inculcated by a theoretical education. Outside of their novels, both Rooney and Dolan have made statements that draw on a hinterland of theoretical axioms. “Ethically I felt opposed to individualism, never mind market liberalism,” Rooney wrote in The Irish Times in 2017. And Dolan, in her own Irish Times appearance last month, remarked that “It is strange to me that anyone wants to know about my life just because I write novels […] I consider political, historical, social context; but I do not care about personal minutiae.”

Behind these statements lurk the ghosts of Marx (the great philosopher of anti-individualism, or, if you will, of “political, historical, social context”) and of Barthes and Foucault (the thinkers who hoped to sever once and for all the umbilical connection between author and text). These are thinkers whom Rooney and Dolan certainly encountered during their years studying English at Trinity – because they are thinkers encountered by anyone who undertakes an English degree in the Age of Theory (1966-Present[?]). All those radical critiques: have they made a difference, after all? If only to the ways in which intelligent young people think about themselves, their art, and the world? Is that enough? Is this what literary theory wanted, or promised?

The short answer to this latter question is No. But the long answer might begin with another question: Why would you expect literary criticism to change the world? Why literary criticism, of all things? Especially, when you get right down to it, a literary criticism that sounds like this:

Literature as well as criticism – the difference between them being delusive – is condemned (or privileged) to be forever the most rigorous and, consequently, the most unreliable language in terms of which man names and transforms himself. (Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading, 1979)

Or like this:

If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality. (Homi K Bhabha, The Location of Culture, 1994)

Or like this:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power. (Judith Butler, “Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time”, 1997)

These last two examples – the Bhabha and the Butler – took prizes in the annual Bad Writing Contest run by the journal Philosophy and Literature between 1995 and 1998, which aimed to celebrate “the most stylistically lamentable passages found in scholarly books and articles”. Certainly these bits of phrasemaking are obdurately undecodable, and not just to the lay reader. Tackling them gives rise to that characteristic feeling we have when we read pure theory: of swimming in a dark sea, from which elusive fish of meaning periodically emerge, displaying their marvellous, glittering scales, only to vanish once more in the murk.

This is the one thing that everybody knows about literary theory: it is difficult to read. The difficulty of theory has always been intrinsic both to its prestige and to its notoriety, a binary not-quite-opposition neatly dramatised in the scene from Conversations with Friends in which Frances reads, or at least holds, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason. Terry Eagleton, reviewing that very volume for the London Review of Books in 1999, spoke for many when he said:

Post-colonial theorists are often to be found agonising about the gap between their own intellectual discourse and the natives of whom they speak; but the gap might look rather less awesome if they did not speak a discourse which most intellectuals, too, find unintelligible. You do not need to hail from a shanty town to find a Spivakian metaphorical muddle like “many of us are trying to carve out positive negotiations with the epistemic graphing of imperialism” pretentiously opaque.

Pretentiously Opaque would perhaps have made a good alternative title for The Meaninglessness of Meaning, a slim volume collecting some of the LRB’s best writing on “the Theory Wars”, ranging from Brigid Brophy’s review of Colin MacCabe’s James Joyce and the Revolution of the Word (1979) to Adam Shatz’s essay-portrait of Claude Lévi-Strauss (2011), and touching, via essays on various gurus, on most of the key theoretical points in between: Pierre Bourdieu on Jean-Paul Sartre; Richard Rorty on Foucault; Michael Wood on Roland Barthes; Frank Kermode on Paul de Man; Judith Butler on Jacques Derrida; and Lorna Sage on Toril Moi, among others. Pretentious opacity is not, of course, the sort of thing you tend to find in the LRB – as Adam Shatz notes in an elegant introduction, “you’ll never see a piece of ‘pure’ theory in the LRB”, because the paper is committed to “the kind of lucid exposition of ideas that theorists have rejected in favour of a more Baroque, circuitous, self-consciously rarefied style”. The Meaninglessness of Meaning is therefore a partial (and inevitably lopsided) record of how theory fared once it ventured past the campus gates and found itself wandering the streets of the metropolis. More or less useless, I would imagine, to anyone who doesn’t already know something about theory, it nonetheless provokes some interesting reflections on the world that theory made – which is our world, whether we like it or not.

In its early, more combative, years, the LRB perhaps overdid its hostility to theory. Karl Miller, the paper’s first editor, announced in the inaugural issue: “We are not in favour of the current fashion for the ‘deconstruction’ of literary texts, for the elimination of the author from his work.” So speaks the old guard of liberal humanism, in 1975. We might note that Miller himself could have used a tincture of theory – just enough, perhaps, to stop him from assuming that all authors must be male. But this is to write with theory in the rear-view mirror. In 1979, the LRB looked as if it would offer aid and shelter to those among the literati whom theory made tetchy. Thus Brigid Brophy, reviewing Colin MacCabe’s James Joyce and the Revolution of the Word for the paper in 1980, has a high old time demolishing MacCabe’s pretentious opacity, wielding the wrecking-ball of common sense.

MacCabe, Brophy writes, has “no discernible literary talent”. His theoretical musings laboriously reinvent the wheel: “One type of discourse, he says, consists of ‘the object-language (the marks held in inverted commas)’. By this, it presently proves, he means dialogue.” And MacCabe frequently perpetrates his own version of the higher nonsense:

My own favourite among the theories Mr. McCabe redacts and reports on is one that originated with a French critic and maintains that in an epic the readers ‘know that the hero is good and the villain is bad’, whereas a novel ‘suspends these disjuncts for the course of the narrative – is the hero good or bad? – only to affirm a final identity and with this affirmation to retroactively deny the suspense produced by the narrative.’ [This is] a theory according to which not only is Vanity Fair (that ‘novel without a hero’) not a novel but the Iliad and the Odyssey cannot be epics, since the one has no hero and other has a hero whom the reader doesn’t always know to be good.

Match point Brophy. Of course, mocking cherry-picked gobbets of fatuous prose is one of the cheapest tactics available to the enemy of theory (or the advocate of one particular theory over another – Terry Eagleton, in his review of Spivak, assumes the stance of hard-headed dialectician, scolding the woollier postcolonial school for its refusal to face Marxist facts). Plenty of theoretical writing is pretentiously opaque (or, might, like McCabe’s book on Joyce, best be described as supererogatory). But to dismiss all of theory on the grounds of fatuousness or pretentious opacity – we might call this the bluff-empiricist objection to theory – is to shirk the responsibility of discovering what might be interesting or useful in the theoretical canon.

Of course, this raises the question of just what we might mean by “interesting” or “useful”. Interesting to whom? Useful for what? “Radical academics,” Terry Eagleton writes in his review of Gayatri Spivak, “one might have naively imagined, have a certain political responsibility to ensure that their ideas win an audience outside senior common rooms.” For Eagleton, the point of theory is clear: not to interpret the world, but to change it. And if that’s what you think theory is for, then it is sensible to propose that your theoretical analyses err on the side of intelligibility. (Although to anyone familiar with Eagleton’s own efforts in the theoretical field, his criticism of Spivak on grounds of unintelligibility has an inescapable tinge of irony: on finishing The Function of Criticism [1983], Eagleton’s book about the eighteenth century, a few years ago, I found it hard to dismiss the suspicion that I now knew less about the eighteenth century than I had before I started.)

Most theorists would probably accept the suggestion that their work is intended to be “radical”, and to have “radical” effects on its readers, and, through them, on the world at large. Radical: of the root. If academics don’t think about the roots of things, who will? On the other hand, the phrase “an academic question” is not just a piece of casual slander, and much of the comedy of the Age of Theory has arisen from the disparity between what theorists talk about (destroying late capitalism, reordering gender hierarchies, queering the future and so on) and what they actually do all day (look at documents; read books and talk about them). Twenty years ago, as an undergraduate studying English – fresh from the Leaving Certificate English curriculum, which was, in those days, still vestigially Leavisite – I used to wonder why so many of my lecturers appeared to be more interested in overturning bourgeois liberalism than they were in reading novels. If you wanted to be a revolutionary, I used to think, why did you become a professor of English?

This is, of course, was both a naive question and an extremely sophisticated one (though I was certainly being naive and not sophisticated when I asked it). Nobody told me this at the time, but I had begun my study of English just as the discipline was negotiating its way out of a forty-year-long identity crisis – the Theory Wars, as the LRB would have it. On one side of the wars stood the theorists, who sought, for complex reasons, to transform the English Department from a redoubt of dilettantish connoisseurship into a hotbed of revolutionary activism. On the other were people who felt that theory constituted an onslaught on both common sense and basic morality and that there was absolutely nothing wrong with a little bit of dilettantish connoisseurship: wasn’t that the essence of civilisation after all?

This is the conflict dramatised in the best novel about the Theory Wars, Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man (1975). Howard Kirk, the History Man of the title, is a lecturer in sociology at the fictional University of Watermouth, and a theorist avant la lettre. The History Howard embodies, or wishes to embody, is Marx’s History: the unstoppable march of the communist revolution. To bring about the end of bourgeois capitalism, Howard will stop at nothing. He lies, cheats, schemes, compels his doubting wife to swing, abuses his students, sleeps with everyone. Opposing Howard, in the novel’s moral scheme, is Jenny Callendar, an introverted and self-doubting lecturer in English. Howard seduces her of course. One of the lines he uses is from Blake’s Proverbs of Hell: “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.” Jenny points out that the proverb is a trap – that the “unacted desires” are the infant we should murder in its cradle. “So that’s what you do over there in the English department,” Howard muses. Thus Bradbury very neatly suggests that what Jenny does (spot the moral nuances in a text before they trip us up) represents a serious improvement on what Howard does (harangue his students on charges of “bourgeois individualism”; write a book calling for “the death of privacy”). That Howard seduces Jenny is a nice bit of allegory: Howard, here, is radical left-wing theory, and Jenny is poor old insecure untheorised literary criticism, helpless before the swaggering charm of History.

In 1975, the History Man was a sociologist. If the novel had been written a decade later he would have been a literary theorist – and he would have stayed a literary theorist thereafter if Bradbury had thought to update his book at ten-year intervals. The answer to the question “Who won the Theory Wars?” is, of course, theory. Not Jenny Callendar’s reticence but Howard Kirk’s radicalism has become the dominant style in university departments of English. But The History Man raises an interesting question: what is Howard Kirk, the enemy of bourgeois privilege, doing in a university in the first place? Why isn’t he out storming the barricades, or organising cadres of workers? Bradbury’s answer is sly: teaching in a university allows Howard to indulge his bourgeois-individualist desires for comfort and freedom while permitting him to remain politically right-on. This is the satirist’s answer, of course: theorists are hypocrites. And this is also the satirist’s answer to the question why would you expect literary criticism to change the world? You wouldn’t; but if you act as if you do, you might just get to have your cake and eat it. 

A more charitable answer to this question might point out that you would only expect literary criticism to change the world if you had already exhausted all the other options. If theory has appealed strongly to people who happen to be non-rich, non-male, non-white, non-cis, or non-straight (or all of the above), this may be because it has helped them to create powerful accounts of their lives, and because it is easier to change minds in the seminar room than it is on the hustings, or on the factory floor. Not every theorist is Howard Kirk (just as not every liberal humanist is Jenny Callendar). One of the recurrent objections to theory has taken the form of a complaint that it promotes moral and epistemic relativism. This objection has been voiced by highbrows (Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind [1987]), middlebrows (Michiko Kakutani, The Death of Truth [2018]), and nobrows (Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life [2018]). Bloom blames theory (he calls it nihilism) for the incuriosity and apathy of kids today. Kakutani blames theory (she calls it postmodernism) partly for the rise of Trump. Peterson blames theory (he also calls it postmodernism) for eroding traditional masculine ideals. As objections to theory go, this is among the more foolish, but it is also among the more sinister. The alternatives to moral and epistemic relativism are, of course, moral and epistemic absolutism; and when they argue for a world of nonrelative values, these thinkers are often expressing, whether they know it or not, a barely disguised hunger for a world where minorities knew their place and stuck to it. To the extent that theory has helped to drag us at least partway out of this world, it has been an unmixed good.

A version of this point was made by John Sturrock when he reviewed Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s Intellectual Impostors: Postmodern Philosophers’ Abuse of Science for the LRB in 1998. Sokal is a physics professor at NYU, who in 1996 submitted a hoax article to Social Text, then as now a prominent theoretical journal. Sokal’s article was called “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, and it was, as Sokal put it, “liberally salted with nonsense”, including the claim that quantum gravity was socially constructed. The editors of Social Text published the article, Sokal maintained, because it “flattered [their] ideological preconceptions”. The point of the hoax was that theorists were borrowing scientific ideas without grasping what they actually meant and using them to give their radical politics a patina of legitimacy; according to Sokal, if you couldn’t trust Jacques Lacan when he talked about topography, you would be an idiot to trust him when he talked about psychoanalysis. (It hadn’t occurred to him that the people who went to Lacan for his reflections on psychoanalysis were capable of understanding his topographical language as a metaphor.)

Sokal restated his argument in Intellectual Impostures, written in collaboration with another physicist, Jean Bricmont. Intellectual Impostures is fun to read for a chapter or two, but, as Sturrock notes, its critique of theory is based on a series of misprisions, and in place of imaginative thinking and writing it argues for a narrow scientism as the only legitimate way of understanding the world. Sokal and Bricmont complained that the theorists (to call them “postmodern philosophers” as per their subtitle, is to suggest that you do not know very much about either postmodernism or philosophy) preferred a tricksy “verbal veneer” to clear language expressing hard facts. Sturrock counters with the example of Jean Baudrillard, a writer for whom “the ‘verbal veneer’ is the very thing; so that to read it as a disguise rather than a display is to misread it in a particularly philistine and irrelevant way”. Sturrock’s larger point is that there is no imaginative writing without moral and epistemic relativism. Art is a free country, and so is thought; and the essence of that freedom lies in the recognition that there is always another point of view. You could call this recognition différance, if you happen to be a theorist; or, if you’re of a more liberal-humanist persuasion, you could simply call it irony, or play. It is hardly surprising that an intellectual movement founded on this recognition was taken up by women, people of colour, queer activists and so on; nor is it surprising that this should have caused some blowback from the more privileged parts of society. A more recent hoax, in which three right-leaning scholars submitted bogus articles on what they called “grievance studies” to various journals, ended up saying more about the flaws in academic publishing than it did about theory, but, once again, the unspoken message was reactionary in import – one of the hoaxers, Helen Pluckrose, is the author of a book complaining that theory has “made everything about race, gender, and identity”. Quelle horreur.

If l’affaire Sokal constituted a major skirmish in the Theory Wars, then the case of Paul de Man counts as a small war unto itself. Probably the best piece collected in The Meaninglessness of Meaning is Frank Kermode’s extended rumination on the posthumous disclosure of de Man’s wartime journalism. Writing in 1942 for the Belgian newspaper Le Soir, de Man – then in his twenties – published an article on “the Jews in modern literature”, which included sentences along the lines of this one: “it is sufficient to discover a few Jewish writers under Latinized pseudonyms for all contemporary production to be considered polluted and evil”. At the time of his death in 1983, de Man was the most celebrated of the Yale deconstructionists – the author of Blindness and Insight (1971) and The Resistance to Theory (1986), works distinguished, in Kermode’s words, by an “ever-increasing density and strangeness”. When de Man’s collaborationist journalism came to light in 1987, the theory-resisters pounced: here at last was irrefutable evidence that theory was rotten to the core; that its antipathy to bourgeois liberalism was fascism in a new dress; and that its expositors in the academy were not to be trusted. (It may have been the de Man affair that led the bestselling right-wing horror writer Dean Koontz to create, in his 2003 thriller The Face, a serial murderer whose day job is teaching deconstruction to university students.)

Kermode is properly severe about de Man’s antisemitic writings, observing that “the wartime writing is odious, that of a clever young man corrupted by ideas, and corrupted by war (for in wartime the intellect grows as sordid as the conflict), or merely opportunist, or a mixture of all of these”. But he is not so intellectually gauche as to imagine that it easily or simply discredits de Man’s later thought, or theory itself. Louis Menand, writing for The New Yorker in 2014, observed that theory “has never really recovered its reputation” in the aftermath of the de Man case. But the fact that theory has faded from public view may be less a function of specific scandals and more a function of theory’s inescapable absorption into the cultural mainstream – its gradual but undeniable de-radicalisation, as its language and concepts migrate from the graduate seminar and the peer-reviewed journal to the Twitter feed and the Op Ed column. When online ironists refer to “the discourse”, they are telling us that theoretical ideas are now part of our everyday armature of concepts; and as Louis Menand points out in his essay on de Man, the hostility to theory was always strange, because to express a preference for one text over another is already to hold a literary theory – the point being that theory, taken in toto, merely made visible certain things that we had in a sense been looking at all along.

The Meaninglessness of Meaning charts the gradual transformation of theory from exotic financial instrument to the pocket-change of the intellectual economy, a process that was more or less complete by the time the theorists themselves were becoming the stuff of respectful obituaries. Thus Judith Butler, memorialising Jacques Derrida in 2004, writes:

Derrida kept us alive to the practice of criticism, understanding that social and political transformation was an incessant project […] How is justice done? What justice do we owe others? And what does it mean to act in the name of justice? These were questions that had to be asked regardless of the consequences, and this meant that they were often questions asked when established authorities wished that they were not.

This is as eloquent a defence of theory as you could hope to find: a moving claim for its continued relevance in a world shaped, in constantly changing ways, by power and by those who resist it.

There are certainly problems with the world that theory has helped to create – it does sometimes feel as if we are stuck with an intellectual culture that, at its worst, devotes itself to finding misogyny, racism and capitalist greed in texts like prizes in boxes of breakfast cereal, and that in teaching us to see the politics in every text, theory has left us unable to see anything but the politics in every text. In her 2015 book The Limits of Critique, Rita Felski observes that in the contemporary academy, “Rigorous thinking is equated with, and often reduced to, the mentality of critique [i.e. Theory]. The result can be a regrettable arrogance of intellect, where the smartest thing you can do is to see through the deep-seated convictions and heartfelt attachments of others.” Or, as Susan Sontag noted, back in pre-theoretical 1963, “Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.” On campus, at least, things seem to be changing: Felski herself is an influential advocate of “postcritique”, a school of criticism that seeks to add ideas about emotion, affect, aesthetics and form to the theoretical menu. Which sounds oddly like liberal humanism to me – but there you go. As John Sturrock notes here, pace Sokal and Bricmont, “the more styles of intellectual discourse cultures find the room and time for, the healthier”. This should go without saying. But if theory has taught us anything, it’s that nothing – literally nothing at all – ever really goes without saying. Or, to put it another way: La théorie est morte, vive la théorie!


Kevin Power teaches in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin. His new novel, White City, will be published by Scribner UK in 2021.