All texts are our province

January 30, 1998

Catherine Belsey applauds critical theory's expansion of the breadth of material studied in English departments in the third of our series on the impact of new methods.

When I first began to take an interest in critical theory, I was told that it was just a flash in the pan. "It's on its way out," a succession of well-established scholars assured me, "a fading star." Flashes and stars, I reflected at that moment in the mid-1970s, have the virtue of illuminating the darkness, however briefly, and I wanted to be part of the blaze before it went out.

Since then, the death of theory has been pronounced repeatedly, while in English departments theory has quietly transformed the content of the syllabus, the way we read and our understanding of what we do. Young lecturers take it for granted; students lap it up; and publishers seeking new material turn first to authors with credentials in critical theory. To insist that a state of affairs prevails in defiance of all evidence is, psychoanalysis would say, to reveal a wish. Evidently, a dwindling but vocal group of academics badly want theory to die.

What makes theory so dangerous that some want it dead? Well, there is rather a lot of it about now. It must gall senior academics to be upstaged by colleagues half their age, who reproduce the vocabulary of theory without thinking about it and thus grab attention at conferences. But after resolutely ignoring it for 20 years, they would have a good deal of ground to cover if they acknowledged that theory was here to stay and set out to catch up.

In English departments, the material of the texts we study is language. The critical theory that has so challenged our assumptions basically begins with language, and its starting point is simple and obvious. Language precedes the individual: in learning to use words appropriately, we learn to distinguish between objects and between ideas. We discover our own distinctions, that is to say, the differences our culture, inscribed in our mother tongue, takes for granted, whether between a bush and a tree or between democracy and dictatorship. And we internalise a value at the same time as we learn a meaning: democracy is good; dictatorship is what they do in other countries, or what they did in our own in the bad old days.

In this sense, writing is inevitably citational. Texts, in other words, reproduce the distinctions already circulating in the culture that generates them, though always, of course, with the possibility of a difference. Meaning is cultural, but it is not singular: democracy can define more than one form of political participation. And meaning is not fixed: definitions, and the values invested in them, change over time. Moreover, language permits the introduction of infinitely fine gradations of difference. Paradoxically, writing also modifies the culture that produces it.

To the degree that texts are products, and indeed instances, of culture, the discipline of studying English literature comes to embrace a form of cultural history and cultural analysis that takes us beyond the handful of "great works" that used to be selected for study in order to preserve good taste. To be worth reading, texts written by women, members of the working class or colonial and post-colonial authors no longer have to be measured by standards of taste established a generation ago in white, patrician and patriarchal senior common rooms. On the contrary, their interest lies in what they can reveal about tensions and anxieties besetting cultures where white, patrician and patriarchal values are, or have been, under threat. If Shakespeare remains special, that is because to a theoretically informed reader his work dramatises the conflicts and inconsistencies of an "early modern" cultural moment that was formative for our own.

As feminist, historicist and post-colonial criticism shows, English departments have benefited immeasurably from critical theory's justification of the view that all writing is now our province. We shall not go back to the narrow judgements of an unlamented past. To let theory die now would be to stay where we are, resting on our laurels. I do not believe the young will let us do that.

Catherine Belsey is professor of English at University of Wales, Cardiff, where she chairs the Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory.

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