Unsatisfying textual encounters

January 10, 1997

Robert Waugh concludes that literary theory leaves many students with more thinking and reading than they can digest and a huge gap between their critical beliefs and their critical performance.

My first taste of "literary theory" came from catch-all theory "readers", and it was almost irresistible. Their first chapters allowed me a knee-jerk reaction against everything my school taught about English - years of dull classes could immediately be dismissed as being permeated with "empiricism-idealism".

Reading further, they also allowed me to retreat into the impenetrable cants of feminism, psychoanalysis and deconstruction while giving the impression that only users of these theories could truly understand any kind of language use. Best of all, the less able members of the class could not understand them at all.

Unfortunately, when I tried to apply the impressive concepts I was sampling, I realised I did not understand them either. Time constraints, and the fact that "theory" was taught separately from the bulk of my English literature course meant that my fragmentary impressions of various theories amounted only to an opposition to any kind of concrete statement about literature.

The principle that meaning is a slippery thing was the strongest idea I took away from my first brush with Derrida, Barthes, Foucault et al, and it left me wary of putting any meaning whatsoever into my essays. Woe betide the unwary student who used the word "author" without layer upon layer of qualification.

The problem was that you could give the appearance of "knowing" deconstructive theory and its various stablemates with a minimal effort, whereas to do so took a gargantuan one. Feminist theory, psychoanalysis and post-structuralism take a lot of time to understand, and I and most other undergraduates of my acquaintance did not take that time.

The proverbial bad undergraduate essay where the student reads half the book and the Penguin introduction is infinitely better than the modern version where the student reads half the book and half The Death of the Author. My empty, thoughtless essays sounded much better filled with words like "transgression", "patriarchy" and the delicious "phallogocentrism".

Time passed, and some theoretical ideas began to pass into my mind on this tide of jargon. I even read some primary theoretical texts beyond Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.

I began to be interested in New Historicist approaches to Renaissance texts, such as those of the American critic Stephen Greenblatt - but it soon dawned on me that however much I wanted to investigate the historical milieu of texts, time restricted me to regurgitating existing New Historicist criticism.

Even the rigidly textual deconstructionist approach tended to be experienced secondhand: my more progressive tutors would merely give me the chance to admire Paul de Man's treatment of Shelley, rather than to formulate my own. To "deconstruct" away from the guiding hands of de Man et al required a degree of engagement with the texts that the breakneck speed of undergraduate study did not allow.

Even worse, the pressure to demonstrate knowledge in finals led to me writing a variety of half-baked essays that used the highlights of the canon only to pay homage to my "theoretical" masters. Those reading my finals papers must have been surprised by the number of literary leading lights who seemed to have been unconsciously infusing their work with Foucauldian discourse theory.

I did, and still do, believe in the legitimacy of the various aspects of "literary theory". However, my time as an undergraduate gave me the feeling that they leave many students with more thinking and reading than they can digest, and with a huge gap between their critical beliefs and their critical performance. I can also never forgive those in my class who decided they did not much like theory, kept their noses well away from the deconstructive grindstone, and still got the same mark as me in finals.

Robert Waugh graduated from Oxford University in 1995 with a BA in English language and literature.

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