Slapstick meanings

Literary Theory

June 19, 1998

Anthologies are the written equivalent of greatest hits: not all your old favourites will be there. But if someone offered you a 1960s compilation that did not have a single track by the Beatles, you would think it rather odd. Well, it is the same here; there is nothing by either Roland Barthes or Paul de Man. Why, then, is this book called Literary Theory? You might well ask. Out of its thousand and odd pages barely a fifth mention, let alone engage with the idea of literature. In one sense this is not surprising since one of the effects of theory has been to destabilise categories like "literature" but that only makes the title more misleading.

At least the title is complete, unlike the rest of the book. We jump from page 394 to 4 which means that Baudrillard's essay, "The system of objects", though listed in the contents, does not appear. Here is a genuine instance of an absent text. There is also a good example of the repetition compulsion, for Jacques Derrida's essay, "Plato's pharmacy", appears twice in the anthology. This throws a whole new light on the great equivocator's claim that "repetition is that without which there would be no truth" and that it is also "the movement of nontruth". And when he tells us that "these two types of repetition relate to each other according to the graphics of supplementarity" he does not know how right he is. Still, this encore at least makes up for him being cut off in mid-sentence, in another essay, while pithily explaining why differance is "neither a word nor a concept". Which means that Derrida never finishes what he has to say; but since, as he himself claims, you cannot ever do that anyway, I do not suppose it matters very much.

These editorial blunders are extremely serious but they do have their funny side since they dramatise, in slapstick form, theory's pre-occupation with absent, interrupted and fragmentary texts. Another comic element in this book is that, even as the editors declare with the contributors that "all categories lie", they are busy constructing classifications which are meant to show that there is no such thing as theory, only theories. The overlap between the various sections would suggest otherwise; all, for example, share assumptions about the importance of the marginal, the mediated nature of experience and the multiplicity of meaning.

On a more practical level students, at whom this volume is aimed, will no doubt find it helpful that the editors have tried to order the material into discreet units. For there can be no doubting that Marxism, psychoanalysis, post-structuralism, feminism, post-colonialism, queer theory and so on have had an impact on literary studies. Unfortunately, this is not evident from the extracts themselves. What is needed is some commentary that explains in what way, for example, an essay on "The psychological birth of the human infant" is relevant to the study of literature. The absence of any guiding argument or indeed of any commentary that links the various sections together gives the volume a rather directionless air. Indeed, it resembles Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's conception of a book, that it is "neither subject nor object". Consequently they do not ask "what a book means" nor do they look "for anything to understand in it". Instead they ask "what it functions with", what its use is. This is an approach common to the other contributors but it represents a narrowing of literature, which also requires an openness and receptivity if its effects are to be truly appreciated.

Theory distinguishes itself from traditional literary criticism by the fact that its insights are more radical and more subversive of the social order. Let us examine that. First what are the claims of theory? That language creates reality. It is there in Leavis. That meaning is multiple? It is there in Empson. In a recent article in The Times Literary Supplement Antony Easthope offered as an example of a theoretical reading of Hamlet, Jacqueline Rose's claim that femininity in the play is split between a "degradation and an idealisation". Woman as Madonna and Woman as hoar eh? Haven't heard that one before. Second theory, far from being oppositional, has provided an alibi for free market ideology. This is evident from its resolutely economic idiom: key terms and phrases such as "production", "performance", "circulation", "surplus", and the "economy" or "free play" of meaning evoke, unmistakably, the language of market capitalism. Deconstruction flourished along with deregulation. Post-structuralism did to the text what privatisation did to the economy, dissolved structures to "set free" creative energies.

Theory, like Mrs Thatcher, disdained Marxism and, as result, lost a valuable means of analysing the complex relations between literature and the economy. The result has been a blindness to its own complicity in the growth of real inequalities and the impoverishment of thought. For example, it has characterised culture as the making of meanings. But is culture not also about being able to discriminate between meanings, between simple and complex ones, desirable and undesirable ones? For theorists the answer is generally "no" because there is no transcendent position from which to make such pronouncements. And yet, in the same breath, they talk about the struggle over meaning. Contradiction as well as complicity characterises theory. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the contrary meanings assigned to difference which stipulates that identity is at once relational and substantial. It is relational because it is based on language - a system of differences without any positive terms - and it is substantial to the extent that aspects of feminism, post-colonialism and queer theory posit notions of essentialism, authenticity and expressiveness. The self-cancelling nature of difference compares unfavourably with the dialectic where the clash of thesis and antithesis at least results in a new synthesis.

A more disturbing trait of theory is its romanticisation of the schizophrenic as a rebel who refuses to have the richness of his or her desire diluted by submitting to the representations of capitalism. This view is found in Julia Kristeva and Gean-Francois Lyotard but most famously in Deleuze and Guattari who declare that "a schizophrenic out for a walk is a better model (of resistance) than a neurotic lying on the analyst's couch". The sad tale of care in the community where schizophrenics have proved a mortal danger to themselves and others shows the fatuity of such rhetoric.

Literature, as Richard Hoggart put it, is "irredeemably of the earth" and the study of it ensures a more responsible attitude to language. Criticism is an attempt to come to terms with the unique work, to find a means of registering its "minutely organised particulars" and a way of communicating its concomitant significance. By definition, therefore, criticism is always challenged. And this is as it should be, for literature is the place where language can breathe and expand, where words dazzle and created horizons beckon. Theory, by contrast, promotes the same in the guise of difference. It does claim to be literary but here there are real differences. Theory imposes worlds, it does not create them. It generates conformity, theory does not promote thought. It reifies where literature vitalises. All binary oppositions are false. But you do not need theory, especially such a big book as this, to tell you that. Literature does the job much better.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English and cultural studies, De Montfort University.

Literary Theory: An Anthology

Author - Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan
ISBN - 0631 200 282 and 200 290
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £60.00 and £15.99
Pages - 1,130

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