Has deconstruction had its day in class?

October 7, 2005

The influence of theory over English studies - the subject of many acrimonious spats - is starting to decline in UK universities, according to leading academics.

The ideas of scholars such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault and theories such as deconstruction have revolutionised the field since the 1960s.

But a Times Higher straw poll of 163 faculty members in top English departments reveals that while 78 per cent believe theory has had a positive impact on the humanities, 44 per cent feel it is a waning force.

The survey reveals that passions run high, even though many believe the "culture wars" are over. What one academic regards as a "shot in the arm for English", another dismisses as "a pernicious orthodoxy"; one berates "charlatans" who support theory, another the "dinosaurs" who do not.

John McLeod, senior lecturer in English at Leeds University, said its application had opened up new ways to understand the relationship between literature and the worlds from which it emerges. But he acknowledged that it had passed its "high-water mark".

Only 12 per cent said theory had been a bad thing. John Sutherland, former professor of modern English literature at University College London, said:

"Theory, alas, is a millstone that has taken the subject down with it."

Another academic said it had "done a great deal of damage and elevated many plain buffoons to positions of serious influence".

Nevertheless, Willy Maley, professor of Renaissance studies at Glasgow University, said it was gaining strength: "Predictions that literary theory would peter out in a pall of professorships have proved unfounded, and all the apocalyptic talk of 'the end of English' in the 1980s is laughable now."

One academic said: "I think 'doing Derrida' will become for most students a chore akin to doing the dishes. But the subject will continue to draw energy from theory - social, philosophical, anthropological - even if Derrida, Foucault and Lacan loosen their hold on the academy."

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