The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism
Norton, 2,758 pp., $75
The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism is the place to go to find out what sort of ideas and approaches are taken seriously in English departments—if not elsewhere. Because the NATC is the supreme canon-maker that establishes the framework of received opinion in its field, the appearance of a new edition, 2,758 pages long, is bound to reveal much about the current climate of opinion in English studies.
Despite its length, the new NATC is most revealing in its omissions, the most significant of which occurs in the title. The NATC claims to deal with “theory,” not with “literary theory” and with “criticism,” not merely “literary criticism.” One cannot help but be impressed by the effrontery expressed by the deletion of the qualifying adjective. The strategic omission of “literary” intimates (without explicitly declaring) that English professors who use the NATC are equipped to provide guidance to all those who employ any sort of theory, presumably including their colleagues in the social sciences, and even in physics and chemistry. Such pretension has not been seen since the heyday of the Hegelian system, which claimed the intellectual authority to give the law to every particular science and discipline, from physics to history and everything in between. “Theory” with a capital “T” deserted philosophy with the demise of Hegelian idealism early in the 20th century, but it seems to have reappeared in the unlikely precincts of the English department.
In the preface the editors blandly assert that the grandiose claims of the Theory taught in English departments are not only compatible with “questioning” and “skepticism” but are somehow derived from just those attitudes. “Contemporary theory,” they explain, “entails a mode of questioning and analysis . . . skepticism toward systems, institutions, and norms.” It also involves “a readiness to take critical stands and to engage in resistance. . . . [It can be] more descriptively termed . . . cultural critique.” The “Introduction to Theory and Criticism” explains that “critique calls for a critic at once suspicious and ethical, committed to a set of values different from, or directly opposed to, those expressed in the text.”
Once again, the omissions are revealing. Theorists, one is told, “engage in resistance.” Resistance to what? We are not told. The critic is skeptical toward “norms,” and yet, since he or she is (we are assured) also “ethical,” the critical theorist must endorse some norms. Which ones? No answer. At least we know the critic must have values “different from, or directly opposed to, those expressed in the text” he or she is studying. To be fair, this stance seems reasonable enough in studying some texts, such as Mein Kampf, but there are other texts, more likely to be encountered in literature courses, for which it seems less suitable. One wonders if it is absolutely necessary that the critic “engage in resistance” to the “set of values” of Middlemarch or The Ambassadors or Beloved in order to provide a theoretically sound interpretation. Perhaps it is Theory that should be “resisted.”
The editors recognize that the sweeping claims they make on behalf of their favored approach will not be universally accepted. The first paragraph of the introduction acknowledges that some might not agree with this “turn away from literature and its central concerns.” The NATC helpfully identifies these dissenters as “ ‘antitheorists,’ as they are called.” Called by whom besides the editors themselves? No answer. Once having defined anybody who dissents from postmodernist theorizing as opposed to theory of any sort, it is easy for the editors to dispose of the opposition by pointing out that “there is no position free of theory, not even the one called ‘common sense.’ ” True enough, and yet there is certainly a distinction to be made between those theories (like 19th-century idealism or the postmodernist theory of the editors) that reject common sense and those that attempt to clarify and refine it.
The first edition already skimped on criticism and ideas more than 50 years old, devoting almost half its 2,600-plus pages to movements after the New Criticism that flourished in the mid-20th century. This second edition, though more than a hundred pages longer, skews its selection even further, omitting many key texts found in the first edition, beginning with Plato’s Ion, a short, witty dialogue that raises almost all the central questions about literature. Plotinus’ Enneads is also gone, thus depriving readers of an acquaintance with the classic text of Neoplatonism, essential not only because of its own great influence but because an awareness of Plotinus’ interpretation of Plato allows one to better understand Plato’s own thought.
Other authors dropped from the new edition include Quintilian, Macrobius, Hugh of St. Victor, Geoffrey of Vinsauf, Giambattista Giraldi,
Ronsard, Edward Young, Thomas Love Peacock (whose satirical Four Ages of Poetry provoked Shelley to write his Defence of Poetry), Theophile Gautier, C. G. Jung, Kenneth Burke, Georges Poulet, and E. D. Hirsch (whose Objective Interpretation offered a rare union of good sense and hermeneutic sophistication). All these omissions allow the editors to devote almost 1,500 pages to developments after the New Criticism—including, especially, the rise of “Theory.”
The additions to the new NATC include a category entitled “Anti-
theory,” thus conveying the impression of an admirable willingness to provide space for voices opposing the anthology’s own raison d’être. Yet only two of the nine critics classified as “antitheorists” defend anything close to what the editors themselves identify as the core of the “antitheory” position: “a return to studying literature for itself.” Stanley Fish, listed as an “antitheorist,” is probably one of the best-known American proponents (that is to say, theorists) of what he calls “anti-foundationalism.” Gerald Graff is also listed as an “antitheorist.” But in his own essay he is an advocate, objecting to “the established curriculum’s poverty of theory” and arguing for a new curriculum in which “theory courses should be central, not peripheral.” The title of Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michael’s essay, “Against Theory,” suggests that its authors are taking on postmodernist Theory in all its ramifications; but the essay itself is much narrower, concerning itself only with “issues of belief and intention” and refraining from any call for “a return to studying literature for itself.” bell hooks’s [sic] essay is devoted to “exploring the radical potential of postmodernism as it relates to racial difference and racial domination.”
C. D. Narasimhaiah and Barbara Christian are the only critics listed whose ideas bear any resemblance to the editors’ description of “antitheory.” Narasimhaiah, it should be noted, does not criticize or even discuss postmodernist Theory at all, focusing instead on the relevance for the critic of Indian literature of “a fair grounding in Indian Poetics” and “familiarity with literary masterpieces in Sanskrit and Prakrit.” In her 1988 essay “The Race for Theory,” Barbara Christian observed that “critics are no longer concerned with literature, but with other critics’ texts” and objected strongly to contemporary theory’s
. . . linguistic jargon, its emphasis on quoting its prophets . . . its refusal even to mention specific works of creative writers, far less contemporary ones, its preoccupations with mechanical analyses of language, graphs, algebraic equations, its gross generalizations about culture.
Christian, no advocate of any “return to studying literature for itself,” argued that the true political impact of the new, supposedly revolutionary, theorizing was far from liberating: “The literature of blacks, women of South America and Africa, etc., as overtly ‘political’ literature was being preempted by a new Western concept which proclaimed that reality does not exist, that everything is relative, and that every text is silent about something.”
Perhaps the most inexplicable choice for the “Antitheory” classification is the most famous and influential theorist in Western history: Plato. No explanation is given, and the introduction to the Plato selections offers no clue, instead deepening the mystery by stating the undeniable: “A monumental figure in the history of Western philosophy, Plato looms nearly as large in the history of European literary theory.” One is driven to the suspicion that it is because the implications of Plato as consummate theorist are so unwelcome to the contemporary apologists for Theory that they feel compelled to classify Plato, against the evidence of the Dialogues (including those excerpted here), as a batter for the other team.
The parallels are straightforward. The most influential contemporary theorists are contemptuous of common sense, desire radical cultural and political change, and are confident that theory rather than literature provides the key to understanding human life. Plato likewise distrusted the commonsense ideas of his society and worked for revolutionary cultural and political change. Literature, he came to feel, was dangerous because it reinforced and intensified all the prejudices and attitudes he opposed. Plato was confident that it was theory, not literature, that should guide human life.
There are, of course, some important differences between Plato’s theories and contemporary Theory. Plato was the first and most influential “logocentrist” and “essentialist,” making him a target for the reckless deconstructive extremism of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida (NATC contributors all). Plato’s Socrates insisted in the Phaedo that the “true philosopher” would be “entirely concerned with the soul and not with the body,” while according to the “Issues and Topics” section of its “Alternative Table of Contents,” the new NATC includes 11 readings focusing on “The Body” but no readings in which the soul or the inner self comes up as a topic or issue. Plato himself was a literary genius whose key dialogues and myths remain compelling literary works, while an article written with ordinary clarity is a rare achievement for contemporary theorists.
A closer parallel to the contemporary theorists in the NATC may be the feminist protagonist of Henry James’s The Bostonians, Olive Chancellor, for whom “almost everything that was usual was iniquitous.” For some of the new contributors it is the political and economic order that is especially “iniquitous.” Lisa Lowe finds herself in a world where “the contradictions of the national and the international converge in an overdetermination of neocolonial capitalism, anti-immigrant racism, and patriarchal gender stratification.” Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri call for rebellion against “today’s real enemy” which, they explain, is no longer Western imperialism or even a putative American empire but simply “Empire.” Other contributors find the usual attitudes about sex iniquitously stigmatizing: Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner are troubled by American “national heterosexuality,” whose narrow judgmentalism sees to it that “promiscuity is so heavily stigmatized as nonintimate.” Gayle Rubin, on the other hand, speaks up for “the community of men who love underaged youth,” finding it unjust that “boy-lovers are so stigmatized.” Judith Halberstam opposes “male dominance and heteronormativity.”
At odds with the usual and normal, Henry James’s Olive Chancellor “felt more at her ease in the presence of anything strange,” and this seems to be the case with the new contributors as well: Their enthusiasms, if sometimes vague, are at least far from the conventional or usual. Lisa Lowe envisions “the formation of alternative social practices.” Hardt and Negri look forward to a time when “the multitude” will arise and establish “constituent assemblies of the multitude, social factories for the production of truth.” Berlant and Warner are enthralled by a display of “erotic vomiting,” commenting that on such occasions “sex appears more sublime than narration itself.” Objecting to male masculinity, Halberstam reserves her praise for “powerful and affirmative forms of female masculinity.” Gayle Rubin hopes for a society in which “homosexuality, sadomasochism, prostitution, or boy-love” are no longer “taken to be mysterious and problematic in some way that more respectable sexualities are not.”
The narrator of The Bostonians does not directly challenge Olive Chancellor’s views, and he gives her credit for being personally “distinguished and discriminating.” Granting that the contributors mentioned above possess similarly impressive personal qualities, and waiving any judgments about their ideas on politics or sexuality, one may still observe that literature plays little if any role in their arguments. That is understandable, since those who yearn for transformative change that will bring about a new world free from the attitudes, ideas, and institutions of the present must regard the most acclaimed literary works in much the same way Plato regarded Homer: as misleading and dangerous influences to be ignored or, if possible, suppressed.
In 2005, about midway between the publication of the first edition of the NATC and the second, Columbia University Press published Theory’s Empire, an anthology in which 49 critics, including such well-known figures as René Wellek, Anthony Appiah, Denis Donoghue, and Frank Kermode, offered powerful critiques of every aspect of contemporary Theory. The anthology is no compilation of “antitheory,” if that is taken to mean an attempt to avoid thinking about theoretical issues. If, however, an “antitheorist” is one who does not do battle with common sense but instead takes it as a starting point, then the contributors to Theory’s Empire should be considered “antitheorists.” The introduction explains that its scholars
have to spell out and reinforce some rudimentary arguments concerning facts and beliefs, evidence and truth, knowledge and opinion that should by right be considered commonplaces but are more often unfamiliar to most of our students.
A reader depending on the second edition of the NATC to learn about contemporary theory, however, would never learn that an anthology with contributions from many distinguished critics challenging the hegemony of Theory had been published by a major university press. Though many recent essays are added to the second edition, none of the additions are by any of the contributors to
There are other weighty matters about which a reader who trusted this volume for a full presentation of contemporary theory and criticism would remain ignorant. Readers who turn to the section titled “Marxism” in the “Introduction to Theory and Criticism” would never learn that Marxism has been the ideology of some of the most murderous dictatorships in history, or that Marx’s predictions about the future of capitalism and socialism have been discredited by the history of the last century. (Likewise, a reader of the “Psychoanalysis” section would never guess that the scientific standing of Freud’s theory is today almost as low among psychiatrists as Marx’s among economists.)
Such wholesale omissions tell their own story clearly enough. If, however, one wants to consider the debate over contemporary criticism and theory from a larger historical and intellectual perspective, there is no better resource than the work of René Wellek. Immensely learned in many languages, Wellek discusses, in his magisterial eight-volume History of Modern Criticism 1750-1950, the most disparate critical approaches with fairness and acumen throughout, always supporting his characterizations and judgments with generous quotations from the critic under consideration. Wellek and Austin Warren’s Theory of Literature compared the leading ideas of English and American critics with the most significant developments in European thought about literature, shaping several generations of critics.
René Wellek died in 1995, but there is little doubt as to where he would stand in the current debates about Theory. The coauthor of Theory of Literature was anything but an “antitheorist,” and yet that is where he would have to be classified if, by some chance, he were ever considered for inclusion. If the editors of The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism were to allow René Wellek to appear in the inevitable third edition, they would certainly be introducing a perspective on Theory almost entirely omitted from the earlier versions of the NATC. Readings they might consider include his 1983 essay “Destroying Literary Studies,” or the title essay of his The Attack on Literature.
James Seaton, professor of English at Michigan State, is the editor of George Santayana’s The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy and Character and Opinion in the United States.