Why, asks Jonathan Dollimore, is all theory so easily dismissed as irrelevant because of one or two bad ones?
In Maggie Gee’s latest novel, The White Family , there’s a sad character writing a book called Postmodernism and the Death of Meaning . The scenario is a familiar caricature of so-called theory: his book is arid, abstract, unreadable and anti-literature. Worse still, it’s anti-life, and in a way not unconnected with the fact that the character is also sexually frustrated. Finally he gets laid, an event that brings him back to life and makes him realise how awful his book is: good sex saves him from bad theory.
This is a tad romantic. It reminds me of a character in a William Faulkner story who, on the verge of a sexual encounter, is suddenly struck by the thought that those who can live do so, those who can’t, write about life. The fact that he had this thought when he did means, I’m afraid, that he was already condemned to be a writer.
My point, as a fellow romantic, is that the problem Gee dramatises - for want of a better description we can call it the affliction of self-reflective consciousness - isn’t confined to sad postmodernists. An acute sense of that affliction was at the heart of the philosophy of Nietzsche - one of the greatest influences on the modern intellectual. Arguably, it is unavoidable for anyone who writes.
Gee is not alone in promoting this caricature of theory by way of avoiding the problem: earlier this year, the Hampstead Theatre ran a play devoted to it, and hardly a week goes by but one or another review or journalist promotes it. There’s a shared sense that theory has taken ivory towerism too far - it’s not just arcane but positively harmful to the health of literature and life, and especially to the health of those of the younger generation who fall under its sway.
Let’s be clear about one thing: there is bad theory. Maybe most of it is bad. But the same could be said of novels, plays and journalism - the three areas in which we find this caricature so vigorously promoted. But here’s the difference: for most of us, the experience of bad novels or plays, or of hack journalism doesn’t lead us to write off the contemporary novel or play, or all journalism. Indeed, inside our disappointment there may be a sharpened sense of the importance of novel, play and journalism, at their best, and a wish to seek them out at their best.
Not so where the critics of theory are concerned. I could make my point “theoretically”: why in some cases but not in others do we feel the need to make the worst case definitive of the whole? We find it most strikingly in racism. For me to be caught stealing makes me a thief. For an Asian to be caught stealing confirms Asians as a thieving race. Why, in other words, are we allowed to relinquish the responsibility of discriminating in the positive sense of the word, and encouraged to start discriminating in its pejorative sense? But let me eschew theory and put my point more emotively, in the words of Germaine Greer speaking not long ago on Radio 4. What did she think of academics? She disliked them as a breed. But it was also true that the people she most admired, and from whom she had learned the most, were academics.
Consider some specific charges against theory. First, that it is academic jargon of no interest to anyone in the real world. Why then did more than 1,000 people attend a public lecture given by Jacques Derrida in York earlier this year? He held them rapt. How come Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory has so far sold about 1 million copies worldwide and is still selling 6,000 a year? How come so many students in the past few decades have voted with their feet and chosen courses in theory, much to the chagrin of its critics, quite a few of whose courses became seriously depleted as a result?
The hostility to theory goes deep, and the reasons for this should be of concern to all of us - the academic, the playwright, the novelist and the journalist. One reason is a deep British distrust of the intellectual and of anything in the humanities that seems counter-intuitive. Anyone who has heard Jeremy Paxman on Radio 4’s Start the Week getting aggressive with philosophers or anyone else with an argument that won’t compress into an instantly accessible soundbite knows what I mean.
A second criticism of theorists is that they write badly. I don’t defend bad writing, but I do distrust a prevailing assumption that good writing is a universal panacea. He writes well? That’s all right, then: let’s ask no more of him. Frederick Raphael reminds us that the English don’t like ideas very much. True, and there are some people, English and otherwise, who mistake new ideas for bad writing: if they are unfortunate enough to encounter a new idea, they see only incomprehensible jargon.
Here’s the theoretical crux: how do we distinguish between the necessary difficulty that comes with new thinking and the obscurantism that exploits this very necessity? There is no formula that decides this in advance, and we can all make mistakes. Schopenhauer believed his contemporary Hegel to be a jargon-ridden charlatan. Don’t get me wrong - it is consistent to regret that Hegel ever wrote while acknowledging that he was a brilliant thinker. The same might be said of many others, including Nietzsche, Freud, Marx and Darwin. One other point: Schopenhauer was also annoyed that students attended Hegel’s lectures and not his.
And what exactly is good writing? A writer conceals a shaky argument with some wonderful metaphors. Is that good writing? Probably. We are familiar with politicians being economical with the truth. Is Frank Kermode right when he suggests that good writing is a way of being beautifully economical with the truth? Possibly. Steven Hawking’s A Brief History of Time was a worldwide bestseller. And yet I don’t know anyone who has ever finished it, let alone understood it. So why doesn’t he get trashed for being incomprehensible? The fact is, where science is concerned we have infinite patience with the difficult and the counter-intuitive. Not so in the humanities, which are supposed to serve common sense, not question it.
A third objection: theory undermines the self-evident, foundational certainties of western culture. Apparently, the far-right British National Party believes exactly this about theory, with the additional caveat that it is part of a Jewish conspiracy (Derrida is an Algerian Jew). Well, I have news for the BNP: it doesn’t need the Jews on this one. Western culture, at least since the 19th century and probably before, has been undermining its own certainties as a condition of its fantastically rapid evolution. Not the least of our problems derive from this contradiction, which was described a century and a half ago, by the (now) most unfashionable theorist of them all who, come to think of it, was also a Jew:
“Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…”
Here is another of those difficult realities that preoccupy the theorist: all certainties must fail even though the conviction that they will not is a precondition for development. Knowing this, we tend to melancholy, as encapsulated in Gramsci’s famous maxim, coined from Romain Rolland: “Pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will.” Another of the difficult realities that interests the theorist is finely delineated in The White Family . Gee shows how the racism of working people is continuous with values we respect: decency, integrity, a sense of duty and a willingness for self-sacrifice. The racist isn’t just the nasty, screwed-up, inadequate individual; there are plenty of those about, and Gee has one in her novel, but to focus only on them allows us to avoid a difficult truth: history has welded together within us values and beliefs that may be inconsistent from an ethical or rational point of view. We live the inconsistencies as our culture, our very identities. In this sense, the crisis of racism goes deeper than our public, and politically correct, discourses allow. I venture to suggest, and even now anticipate the odd howl of derision, that Gee’s novel might be especially moving to someone who has engaged with post-colonial theory. But there I go again, harking back to theory: if only I could forget about it and just learn to write well, I’d surely be happy.
Jonathan Dollimore is professor of English at the University of York.