Jonathan Allan: Writing in the Shadows of Theory


Joe Adamson very graciously provided a lengthy response to my initial posting “Finding Frye” and highlights yet another level of the history of ideas and Frye’s place in these ideas.  I distinguished myself from Bob Denham’s experience in the 1960s, and now Joe has rightly pointed out another side of this history – coming of age during the theory boom in the early 1980s.  Though we all think we have unique positions, what is striking is our relation to theory: before theory, theory, and after theory.  Well, I do not believe in an “After theory” because we are always theorizing as we read; but, the High House of Theory seems to have reached its potential, or perhaps it is in search of a renaissance of sorts.  Recently, I read that the last great book of theory was written in the late 80s, early 90s; the author of the article cited Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet, which is, at the very least, one of the finest examples of the potential of close reading alongside a practice of critical theory.  Sedgwick was a rare critic – she had a political intention, but also a fidelity to textuality.

As some readers are likely noting here, there is a sympathetic tone in my writing when speaking about theory.  It is a tone of respect, I imagine.  I respect theory but I also feel committed to not being committed to theory.  When I started graduate school (actually, when I started university), the major movers and shakers in my discipline almost seemed passé, for they were part of an historical process that seemed complete.  Fredric Jameson, Jacques Derrida, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, Judith Butler, and the list goes on and on (as readers of the Norton Anthology of Criticism can attest), had published works which were no longer “new” but rather were “commonplace.”  I had always read text alongside theory, theory alongside text.  There was never a time when I wasn’t aware of theory as a scholar of literature.  I had no canon from which to depart, even literary history was in doubt.  “The author is dead” was one of the central claims that I had heard time and time again…strangely, the “pleasure of the text” seemed lost. Hostility toward theory hardly seemed revolutionary – theories are, in many instances, always already hostile (often with one another).  To borrow from Frye: the academic stock market is always at play and the New Critics, Structuralists, and Northrop Frye (of course), were not trading well (but they were trading as the Collected Works of Northrop Frye suggests).

My work has, at least recently, tried to negotiate working with theory rather than against it, but always from a position of deference.  Theory is theory and I understand it as such but as I learned with my experiences of studying Frye, wholesale dismissals are never really the answer.  Frye was widely rejected and dismissed, but those who study Frye see a different Frye.  Likewise, a dismissal of critical theory makes no more sense than a dismissal of Frye.  What we seem to lack, in some regards is close reading of critical theory. What happens when deconstruction is deconstructed, queer theory queered, new historicism historicized?  Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick at one point did just that when she critiqued Fredric Jameson’s famous dictum Always historicize! (from The Political Unconscious, originally delivered by Jameson in his capacity as Northrop Frye Professor of Literary Theory as a series of lectures at the Centre for Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto), she writes: “Always historicize?  What could have less to do with historicizing than the commanding, atemporal adverb ‘always’?  It reminds me of the bumper stickers that instruct people in other cars to ‘Question Authority.’  Excellent advice, perhaps wasted on anyone who does whatever they’re ordered to do by a strip of paper glued to the bumper of an automobile!” (5)  Thus, while our impulse might lead us to dismiss theory, it seems – at least to me – that the better approach is to read theory critically, to use the master’s tools to deconstruct the master’s house.  In this regard, as critics, we begin to hold theory accountable to itself.  Indeed, I’m not arguing against theory at all.  Instead, theory – Frygian or otherwise – must be read closely and questioned based not on the perspectives of another theory but at a metatheoretical re-reading.

Ultimately, as readers we make decisions about our approaches to text and we cannot engage with a text alone.  Northrop Frye rightly points out in the Anatomy of Criticism that, “the centre of the literary universe is whatever poem we happen to be reading.  One step further, and the poem appears as a microcosm of all literature, an individual manifestation of the total order of words” (121).  It is, I think, in the centripetal and centrifugal movements of reading that we account for theory; theory and text must be read centripetally and centrifugally.

To read Frye today, it seems one must read his work closely but also look closely at the misreadings (a very Bloomian term here) of his work.  The reason for this is because Frye’s influence is ultimately profound.  In some regards, my own misreading here would be that literary critics must function in the mode of archetypal criticism in which “the poet’s conscious knowledge is considered only so far as the poet may allude to or imitate other poets (‘sources’) or make a deliberate use of a convention.  Beyond that, the poet’s control over his poem stops with the poem.  Only the archetypal critic can be concerned with its relationship to the rest of literature” (Anatomy 100).

I imagine this reading of critical theory may not enamour all literary scholars, but I am adequately convinced that theory, like text, must be read critically – and strangely, the place of value judgments with respect to theory is one that is wholly displaced.

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One thought on “Jonathan Allan: Writing in the Shadows of Theory

  1. Peter StirFrye Yan

    Paradigm Shift Shift

    As Frye said, the present revolution in criticism must exhaust itself, before the subject can be coordinated again. Too many contemporary theorists dismiss Frye because they want to fight…Marxist Crit, Feminism, Post-Structuralism are militant criticisms which bags whatever targets it tries to hit; and when the game is short, they turn their target to literature…Frye’s criticism sees literature as the language of love…Kuhn was right in a way that may have surprised him…if every age produces a paradigm which shifts, than Kuhn’s Paradigm Shift is itself a paradigm which has shifted…and the direction is back to what Frye said all along…knowledge has continuity and repetition…if only the warring schools of criticism would drop their swords…


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