The relativity of theory

August 11, 1995

Mr Finney says that, far from being deleterious to academic freedom, critical theory is "about opening spaces for those who have been marginalised or disenfranchised by traditional approaches and practices in English studies and other disciplines".

Fine words. Unfortunately, in the manner of such political rhetoric, the reality is not as it is represented. The marginalised and disenfranchised are academics who feel that they have been denied position and power under the old dispensation.

Mr Finney does not use the term, but from what he says we may infer that "theory" is "empowering", as the phrase goes. It certainly is: it is a rhetorical strategy for obtaining power within the university structure. When one recalls that such power is exercised at the expense of colleagues, the claims of liberation seem paradoxical.

This is confirmed by Mr Finney's parting shot: academic unbelievers in the new gospel are to be excluded from employment on the grounds that one would not employ a mechanic who did not understand how a car works. This is a false analogy and reveals a breathtaking complacency, not to say an ignorance of what is sometimes called the literature of the subject.

Despite all the published evidence to the contrary, are we seriously to believe that older scholars lacked the understanding of how literature worked?


Leckhampton, Cheltenham

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