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Sticks, Stones, Words

The academic study of literature is theoretical.

Aug 23, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 46 • By JAMES SEATON
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The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism

Sticks, Stones, Words

Vanessa Redgrave, Madeleine Potter in ‘The Bostonians’ (1984)

Almi Pictures, Courtesy of the Everett Collection

edited by Vincent B. Leitch, William E. Cain, et al.

Second Edition
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.

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