Necessary fictions

The Myth of Theory
July 28, 1995

This wonderfully written, densely argued book takes as its subject literary theory and the practical criticism done in the name of theory. William Righter's purpose is not to replace discredited theories with a new one but to examine the process of theory construction and application to reveal their epistemological weaknesses and practical contingencies: "The grandest theoretical design becomes oddly evanescent and particular theories disintegrate in the circumstances of their use." Righter's claim is that all literary theories will suffer from such weaknesses and, consequently, his style of reasoning eschews the search for foundations on which to build theoretical edifices. As such this book, despite its particular theoretical object, will be of interest to those attempting to work out the implications of ordinary language philosophy and the renewed interest in pragmatism for their own disciplines (although rarely mentioned, the later philosophy of Wittgenstein is present beyond the text).

Literary theories are myths and those who apply theories are not doing what they think they are doing. Righter argues, however, that literary theories have proved to be very fertile, transforming the study of literature through provocative readings of texts rather than through the creation of coherent theories. Literary theories are "necessary fictions". Righter is concerned with the movement of theory, the displacement of one paradigm by another. The book is arranged as a series of case studies of "Anglo-Saxon" and "Continental" criticism against the historical backdrop of the revolution in the study of literature inspired for the most part by French literary theorists and philosophers.

Righter's first case study, a discussion of the exchange between Rene Wellek and F. R. Leavis reveals the contradictions within the latter's position which seeks, on the one hand, to narrow the practice of criticism through distinguishing quite forcibly between the task of literary criticism and philosophy and, on the other, to establish the importance of literature in the context of life as a whole. It is not so much that Leavis's method - local comparisons as opposed to the construction of theories - is wrong but that he does not make, in Renford Bambrough's words, "strong enough and wide enough claims for this technique of comparison". The way of going on that Righter proposes bears certain similarities with Wittgenstein's concept of family resemblances: the drawing of a map showing similarities and differences, recognising the contingency of culture, and exorcising the idea of a "golden nugget at the heart of it all".

Righter's case studies show Leavis's modesty to have pretensions to be only a literary critic to be misplaced. The asking of philosophical questions is intrinsic to the creation of the necessary fictions of literary theory. The desirability of such a hybrid is demonstrated admirably by the author who possesses the traditional skills of both critic and philosopher. Righter's own misplaced modesty is perhaps to assume his readers share these competences and knowledges - unfortunate given the relevance of his argument for other subjects.

While critical of both Anglo-Saxon and Continental traditions of literary theory, Righter reveals himself to be more at home, to have more of himself at stake, in his interpretation of Anglo-Saxon critics, William Empson in particular. He has some harsh words for both Barthes and Derrida while refusing to be content with the somewhat dismissive tone of much of the standard criticisms of their work. In the book's best chapters, Righter deftly traverses different critical traditions, laying them side by side, revealing differences and similarities while simultaneously providing a "model" for critical practice.

The critique of golden-nugget theories leads to a reversal of the relationship between theory and practice, in other words, a pragmatic conception of theory judged in terms of the thickness it gives particular descriptions of texts rather than in terms of generalisability. Righter names this "operational" pragmatism to distinguish his practice from "epistemological" pragmatism, "which sees the grounds of understanding vanishing in an endless chain of interpretations of interpretations". This distinction is a little brittle since it does not do justice to the operational aspects of Richard Rorty's work, reducing his thought to nothing more than scepticism.

The implications of an ironic attitude towards the development of literary theories seen as necessary fictions is not fully explored by Righter. One could argue that the fertility of these theories is connected to a lack of irony concerning the claims the theories make. Righter's commitment to plurality and contingency also involves a commitment to theory. There is a danger here of stretching the use of "theory" too far and of not pushing the critique of theory far enough.

John Downey is lecturer in communication studies, Coventry University.

The Myth of Theory

Author - William Righter
ISBN - 0 521 44544 2
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 221

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