...but what a memorable performance

October 7, 2005

Not so long ago, theory was an unstoppable revolution that swept through English departments amid heated debates and furious polemics. But a straw poll carried out by The Times Higher suggests that despite overwhelming support from today's faculty, a large proportion believe that theory is a declining influence.

The great majority of the 163 faculty members who took part in the survey - 78 per cent - feel that on balance the many types of literary theory that have emerged since the 1960s - from feminism and post-colonialism to deconstruction and structuralism - have made a positive contribution to the humanities.

One academic says: "If the stratospheric rise of English as a subject and its enduring and unending appeal to students and prospective students is anything to go by, then theory has given the subject a shot in the arm."

Other faculty members talk of rejuvenation, greater rigour, an interdisciplinary outlook, awareness of concept and a helpful scepticism.

One says: "Theory asks questions about what we do, and stops us from being complacent in our approach." Another says: "In most forms, it is the application of general knowledge, common sense and an awareness that no cultural artefact can be fully understood without some knowledge of its context, its relevance to the society in which it was created, and power relations within that society."

A third adds: "Theory cannot any longer be separated out from the humanities as if the former were an invading agent and the latter a host body."

But many of theory's supporters agree that there have been downsides. Some say they are concerned about the way theory can be taught to undergraduates, suspecting that in some cases it has become "banalised and cliched", reduced to oversimplified catchphrases and indigestible chunks of dogma substituting for real analysis.

One respondent admits: "There is an awful lot of incomprehensible, jargon-ridden rubbish out there, merely making the right noises in a bid for intellectual seriousness."

But another notes: "Of course theory, like everything else, can be taught well or badly, but I've found it inspiring in my own work and I want to pass that along to students if possible."

Only 12 per cent of respondents feel that theory's overall impact has been negative. Among the minority, though, feelings run high.

"It initially encouraged a new wave of critical thinking," one respondent admits. "But it has settled into an orthodoxy far more pernicious than that it sought to challenge, and from which I regret to say I don't think a recognisable form of academic English will be able to survive."

Another complains that theory has substituted philosophically ignorant formulae for thought and response: "Literature is too elusive to be brought under any formula whatever - it demands things such as taste, intelligence, knowledge and empathy - and only charlatans pretend otherwise."

A third concludes: "Theorists already in post are like typhoid carriers in a kitchen: they will continue to do damage as long as they are there."

One academic predicts: "British academics will start to realise what asses they've been in about 40 years' time, when they'll have completely destroyed the tradition of good teaching we have in this country."

A supporter counters: "I've not heard a coherent or plausible refutation of the value of theory: criticism only ever attacks poor instances of 'theoretical' work, such as arcane vocabulary."

Despite the level of its support, 44 per cent of the respondents say theory is now a declining influence in UK universities. One academic says: "The high watermark of theory has passed, and rather than studying the key thinkers in themselves - Foucault, Spivak, Derrida - we are perhaps integrating their ideas and wisdom into our pedagogical decisions and scholarly practices."

In most universities there are fewer stand-alone courses. Instead, theory has permeated the whole syllabus and hence, some say, it has become more nuanced and less dogmatic, prescriptive and visible.

One respondent acknowledges: "No one would want to go back to the pre-theory times, and it is important that students and scholars know the debates. But I am glad we are much less doctrinaire about theory generally speaking, allowing it to ask questions rather than setting the terms by which we read."

The picture is patchy. Some universities embraced theory much earlier than others, and different theories have fared differently, apparently weakening at Oxford University, strengthening at Cambridge University while post-colonialism, for example, is thriving at Leeds and Durham universities.

Still, there is concern about talk of an anti-theory backlash.

One academic cautions: "I worry that when I hear my colleagues celebrate the end of theory - as I often seem to do - that they are keen on a kind of retreat from ideas into either antiquarianism or literary appreciation that is opposed to 'concepts'."

Another, though, declares the theory wars to be over as every academic under the age of 50 has had to engage with theory. A third predicts that theory would get stronger as "the last of the anti-theory dinosaurs cease to roam the campus", while a fourth says the best young academics at his university were "in direct opposition to theory".

Just 16 per cent feel that theory is tightening its grip, while 40 per cent either consider that it is holding its own or are uncertain.

"In some ways, I think it's getting stronger as it becomes an embedded part of people's thinking, and as students encounter theory in a variety of different guises," observes one respondent. "At the same time, it perhaps loses some of its power to shock or to pose a real challenge when it becomes merely another tool for handling texts."

Most respondents - 79 per cent - believe that theory is likely to continue contributing new ideas. Suggestions for potential future directions included eco-theory and theories of ethics and globalisation. A number reported a recent trend towards creative writing.

One academic contends: "There are significant areas of theory that are far from exhausted and they'll ruffle more feathers yet."

Another goes further: "If theory wishes to remain true to its radical beginnings, it must attack the very idea of the humanities. What theory should offer the humanities is a death sentence. The future lies in the posthumanities."

Faculty members in the top-rated English departments ranked by the last research assessment exercise were e-mailed four questions, with 163 responding.

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