The Decline of Literary and Critical Theory

In response to yesterday’s quote of the day on the decline of literary studies, Jonathan Allan commented:

I think this is a debate that is needed, but at the same time, I appreciate and enjoy literary theory. Whenever I hear the “death of the discipline,” I always, for one reason or another, feel a need to rebel. I don’t think it is “theory” that killed literary studies or devalued literary studies, and yet, I am not certain what is the cause of this devaluation.

The problem with the term “literary theory,” is that it has come to mean anything but literary theory: what passes as literary theory is sociology, or linguistic theory, or psychoanalytic theory, or history, or queer theory, feminist theory, even evolutionary theory now, as Scott Herring alludes to in his article. None of this is, properly speaking, literary theory, which would be a theory of literature as an imaginative form of communication that is distinct from other uses of language. This is all laid out in the opening chapters of Words with Power, where Frye distinguishes the logical, descriptive, and rhetorical uses of language from “mythological” or “imaginative” uses of words. The same goes for the term “critical theory,” which is not in its current use a theory of (literary) criticism at all. The latter can only be, according to Frye, a theory concerning the principles of literary criticism, the contexts of which he attempts to outline in Anatomy of Criticism: historical criticism (theory of modes), ethical criticism (theory of symbols), archetypal criticism (theory of myths), rhetorical criticism (theory of genres).

What Lynne Cheney and the radical left (as it has manifested itself in literary studies) have in common is an ideological bias that cares little for literature as an autonomous activity of imaginative recreation, as Frye understands it. By “autonomous,” Frye does not mean that literature is “pure” of historical or ideological content, but that what most matters in literature is the imaginative shaping of that content. This aspect is also the genuinely “critical” aspect of literature that gives it its authority and has the power to remind us of how far, how grotesquely the world we have created departs from a world that makes human sense.

In that light, I do think we can speak of a deterioration, if not the death, of a discipline, when so many of its practitioners are seduced and distracted by principles belonging to other academic or scholarly disciplines than its own, and especially when the approach subordinates the study of literature and culture to socially and politically activist agendas, right or left. It is in fact in pursuing his theory of literature and criticism as an autonomous activity and discipline that Frye came to produce at the same time cultural and social criticism of a very high order–not because he turned for his insights to the worlds of sociology and history.

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15 thoughts on “The Decline of Literary and Critical Theory

  1. Veronica Abbass

    “I do think we can speak of a deterioration . . . when so many of its practitioners are seduced and distracted by principles belonging to other academic or scholarly disciplines than its own, and especially when the approach subordinates the study of literature and culture to socially and politically activist agendas, right or left.”

    A good example of this is a lecture, in Peterborough (2009), by Joseph Carroll on Literary Darwinism where Carroll examined Jane Austen’s _Pride and Prejudice_ using literary Darwinism.

    I am certainly pleased I read Jane Austen’s novels before literary Darwinism got its hooks into them.

  2. Michael Happy

    Your insights, Joe, are expressed with enviable precision and economy.

    The only thing I can add (not so precisely or economically) is that literature, according to Frye, gives imaginative expression to existential concerns that can be observed in all literature everywhere. In Frye’s expansive survey of literature, these archetypes of what he calls primary concern provide what is missing from the relativism of post-structuralist theory. As Frye concisely puts it in Words with Power: “literature will reflect the ideological concerns of its time, but it does so in the context [of the primary concerns] of making a living, making love, and struggling to stay free and alive.” If, as you say, the imaginative expression of these primary concerns in literature is what confronts the inadequate ideological conditions of the society it addresses, then they also provide the critique that post-structuralism claims for itself, but without denying the inheritance of shared concern across history and through any number of cultures.

    And this is at the heart of the difference between the imaginative vision of literature and the program of ideological verbal structures: ideology compels, literature does not. Ideology is a structure of required belief that demands assent and obedience. Literature is an imaginative expression of concern that does not compel assent or belief but invites, without demanding, recognition. How we respond to that recognition of our shared primary concerns is entirely up to us. It’s why history, as Joyce puts it, is a nightmare: it is ideologically driven rather than voluntarily entered into. Literature is the only verbal structure that offers any real alternative to free us from ideological compulsion, whatever form it takes – including the unsafe post-structuralist assumption that ideology is formative of all human relations.

    Literature is, in a word, prophetic. All other verbal structure are compulsory.

    This, by the way, following our most recent thread, illustrates Frye’s problem with McLuhan: his outlook is, according to Frye, “deterministic.” Literature frees us from determinism and opens up unrestricted opportunity; we choose to recognize primary human concerns or we do not. Because we tend not to, our world is suffused with injustice and cruelty as though they were necessary conditions of existence. The literary critic, therefore, is a prognosticator, not so much of the world to come, but the world we might make for ourselves if only we choose to do so. The principle is not difference, as post-structuralists claim, but recognition of and identity with the literature we encounter and the primary concern it reveals.

  3. J. Allan

    I fear that despite my best intentions I may have become a post-structuralist in that the act renouncing an ideology is an ideological act. A set of beliefs is a set of beliefs. Literature is, as Michael writes, “an imaginative expression of concern that does not compel assent or belief but invites, without demanding, recognition.” But to my mind, that “imaginative expression” is also necessarily an ideological expression, which I may choose to recognise or not as a reader. Literary theorists opt to look for these ideological expressions or what the text might say about ideology.

    I would agree with Joe that a problem we do face is dogmatism in literary studies, which is to say, I’m a Marxist and I’m going to teach from a Marxist position (bully pulpit) and I’m going to do a Marxist reading of every text, each and every time. Indeed, this is a problem. But this is true, it seems to me, of any theoretical position. Harold Bloom has long referred to theory as the “School of Resentment,” but that is ultimately, I think, an ideological position. Bloom tells his reader what is “good” and what is “bad” literature.

    Again, I don’t know and I’ve been struggling to put together a set of thoughts since Joe posted this. Maybe I’m a lousy student of literature, but I read a text, see what it says to me as a reader, and go from there…and in my scholarship, I’m as likely to draw on Eve Sedgwick as I am Harold Bloom, Northrop Frye, Adam Phillips, Linda Hutcheon or Paul Ricoeur. That is, I don’t commit to theory, I flirt with theory.

    1. Michael Happy

      I’ll leave it to Joe to pick up on your other points, Jonathan, but I will say that the “imaginative expression of literature” is not, as you suggest, already an ideological one. The reason, as Frye points out, is that there is nothing to believe in literature and there is no compulsion to do anything in response to it. (I am not required to believe in ghosts when I read Hamlet, and I am not required to believe in Catholic theology when I’m reading Dante or Graham Greene–and I am not required to do anything in response to any of them.) Taking a “literary” critical approach to literature is therefore more rewarding and illuminating than any ideological one, however well intentioned, because ideology does require belief and does compel an already coordinated response: it is from the start limited in a way that literature itself is not.

      As Joe observes, Frye was capable of extraordinary social commentary from a literary perspective. That is at least partly because all ideological verbal structures are fundamentally literary structures. We should therefore be reading ideology literarily, rather than literature ideologically. We should but we don’t. And that has emphatically been the case for the last generation especially. That’s why literary studies are slipping into irrelevance outside of the scholarship industry. There’s little point in the long run in taking on literature from a Marxist perspective because it means you’re a Marxist rather than a literary scholar. And if you take an ideological position, there are going to be a lot of people whose own ideological response is going to be, “I don’t believe that and I’m going to do something about it.” Which is pretty much what is happening.

  4. Prof. Mondo

    I started grad school in the late 1980s, during the Theory Wars (I’ll show my white feather, if asked, and the whole business ran me out of the academy for six years), and I’m very happy to see that theory is now viewed less as a choice of Hills to Die On and more as a possible toolkit.

    Like J. Allan, I tend to choose my theoretical stance after I’ve read something and noticed what I’ve noticed, which may be another way of saying I hold the various approaches in abeyance as I read. I think I lean toward Frye more than other styles because I incline toward eclecticism, and because I’m also a creative writer. I tend to see the patterns and similarities as I read and write — X does Y like Z — and so NF and his efforts toward a synoptic view tend to be the tools for which I typically reach.

    Where I agree with Joseph is where I read him as suggesting that my job as a teacher/reader/writer of literature is to focus first on the literature as literature, as an end-in-itself, rather than as primarily as a means to the end of some sociopolitical project. For me that distinction between means and end is the difference between exploitation and love. And somehow, I still love literature.

    Although I don’t comment here often, I’m loving this discussion.

  5. J. Allan

    Thanks Michael. Not to be ideological, but the ideology of literature is that literature itself is the ideology insofar as I must believe that literature has some intrinsic value, regardless of whatever ideology may be present in the literary text. Or, is this literature for literature’s sake?

    1. Michael Happy

      Does this help, Jonathan? Frye seems to make a distinction between an ideogram and an ideology. The first is undisplaced metaphor, the second is applied myth — that is, a system of compulsory belief. Given that metaphor is the basis of all verbal structures, they — including ideological ones — are primarily literary in nature. Again, that is why we ought to be reading ideology literarily and not the other way around. Somehow we never really learn how to do that consistently.

      Literature is not really in a Wildean “art for art’s sake” situation. But it is, as Frye says, a verbal structure existing for its own sake in a state of play. Literature is both “disinterested” (that is, possessing no element of compulsory belief) and also concerned. A concern is not ideological. A programmatic response to it is.

  6. J. Allan

    Yes, Michael, this does help and thus turns me to Roland Barthes’ Mythologies, which, in a sense, would seem to share much in common with your claim that “we ought to be reading ideology literarily and not the other way around.”

    I have to think more about this and get back to you.

  7. J. Allan

    Thanks for the links, Michael.

    “In today’s university, no one is any longer in a position to say which books are or aren’t fit to teach; no one any longer has the authority to decide what is the best in American writing. Too bad, for even now there is no consensus about who are the best American novelists of the past century.”

    Whenever I hear or read words like “the best,” I rebel. Who determines this, by what measure, according to what logic, etc.? It is part of the reason that I found Bloom’s Western Canon such a thrilling book — my reactions were profound. Frye writes that “a selective approach to tradition, then, invariably has some ultra-critical joker concealed in it” (Anatomy 23, CW XXII.24). But what Bloom was for me at the time of reading The Western Canon was a sage, someone I wished more people were reading, because I had completed two degrees in Spanish, and the only thing I knew about Quixote was that it was an important book but one that we had not read.

    So, while I wish I had have read a canon, my concern is about how that canon was constructed, by what logic, etc.

    Frye, of course, became the other great writer that I read, at around the same time I read Bloom. They both, at that time, spoke to me as a student trying to figure out what precisely literature was and what I ought to be reading as a student of literature.

    And now, I think, we have arrived at a different question of: what should we teach and how should we teach?

    1. Michael Happy

      It’s always worth remembering that Frye says criticism cannot be founded upon value judgments, such as “the best” or “the worst” or “the most relevant.” (And it’s always worth repeating also that Frye does not mean that we do not make value judgments, only that they are incidental to criticism itself.)

      As to what and how we should teach, the clue, I hope, is literature as literature, and not as a trunk line for “great ideas” or the “intellectual milieu.” The tragedy of literary criticism is that critics themselves seem to have a helluva time recognizing that literature represents a unique verbal authority that absolutely should not be subordinated to other verbal structures. It’s not just wrong, it’s completely backwards. Generation PoMo was as guilty of it as any that preceded it, and we’re paying a particularly heavy price for it.

      Finally, I know you’re a Bloom fan, so I apologize in advance for the post that will be going up tonight. It’s just a coincidence.

  8. J. Allan

    Literature as Literature — I want to think about this further, but being a child of Generation PoMo, and having learned theory at the same time as “literature”, my immediate response is: but what is literature? As Sartre might ask, or as he writes: “Thus, one must write for one’s age, as the great writers have done. But that does not mean that one has to lock oneself up in it. To write for one’s age is not to reflect it passively; it is to want to maintain it or change it, thus to go beyond it towards the future, and it is this effort to change that places us most deeply within it, for it is never reducible to the dead ensemble of tools and customs; it is in movement; it is constantly surpassing itself; the concrete present and the living future of all the men who compose it coincide rigorously within it.”

    For Sartre it would seem the role of the author is ideological insofar as the author hopes to maintain or change; for Frye this is intrinsic to the text. In other words, the author may very well indicate another possible world, but the reader need not adopt that possible world as a political or ideological goal (even if that is the purpose of writing for the author).

    I fear that I am going in circles and have now complicated the matter even further with questions about teaching, what is literature, and now, seemingly, what is an author?

    Joe’s post and all of the comments have given me a great deal to think about. Thank you!

    I look forward to the post!

    1. Michael Happy

      Perhaps you start with Frye’s proposition: literature is an imaginative verbal structure that exists for its own sake in a state of play; it is disinterested, but it is also existentially concerned, and that disinterested concern is manifested as recurring archetypes that can be found in all literature throughout history and across cultures that are as remote in space as they are in time.

      Whatever an author’s intention, the centripetal pull of literature’s imaginative context will be the primary means of communication. T.S. Eliot was an anti-Semitic, Anglo-Catholic royalist. Whatever he thought he was doing or intended to do through his writing, his beliefs and prejudices ultimately matter very little when reading him — although, admittedly, most scholars these days would likely strenuously disagree. But if you take Frye’s good-faith outlook as a starting point, all of sudden literature is communicating everything you need to know without ever telling you what to do, let alone what to believe.

  9. Clayton Chrusch

    I don’t think we can answer the question of literature’s relation to ideology by insisting on some view of what literature essentially is. A piano is essentially a different object depending on whether you approach it as a pianist or a music critic or a composer or a piano maker or a piano tuner or a piano mover.

    A literary critic, in Frye’s sense, will see literature as the product of a properly literary order, and will see that literary order spilling out of literature into the rest of culture, organizing culture including ideology and science and so on along the lines of literary structure. A cultural critic will see literature as the product of ideology. In a world where everything is interdependent, determinism goes in every direction. Every discipline, as Frye says, is the centre of the intellectual universe.

    If we do not understand interdependence, we will take the lens of our particular discipline and insist without any possible justification on its primacy. There is nothing wrong with seeing literature as shaped by ideology. There is something wrong with the arrogance that denies that a literary order exists or that it has an effect on the world starting with literature itself.

    But every discipline commits this kind of reductionism. I see it in physics and mathematics and computer science and economics and sociology and neurology and evolutionary biology and philosophy and theology. Literary criticism, unfortunately, has come out on the bottom of this jostling.

  10. Michael Happy

    If I’ve understood Frye correctly, Clayton, he does go so far as to suggest that consciousness itself is metaphorically constituted, and that this primal condition for language is indeed elementally literary, inasmuch as it is a hypothetical proposition of identity whose basis is always human concern.

    Ideology, meanwhile, is militant metaphor and, as Frye notes at least once in a review of Paul de Man, to deconstruct ideology (whatever else deconstructionists thought they were doing) is to reveal the underlying archetypes of human concern all metaphor represents. At the level of literal metaphor in essay two of Anatomy, for example, the “concern” seems to be the power of expression itself; identity manifested as the Gestalt perception of verbal communication as such. The dialectic of verbal symbolism Frye goes on to describe includes, of course, the descriptive and the conceptual phases of language, but their roots lie in the Gestalt of literal metaphor, and their reach is toward the anagogically metaphorical revelation of fulfilled concern; the human apocalypse, man’s revelation to man, as Frye calls it.

    Such a view of language doesn’t necessarily mean that it is reductive, any more than to posit that the entire universe is derived from a singularity is reductive. What Frye calls the “verbal universe,” as he conceives it, is as expansive as the physical universe. The singularity of Frye’s verbal universe is unmistakably metaphor, the paradoxically simultaneous expression of the “is” and “is not” that metaphor embodies.

    The power of concerned metaphor is also apparent in the conception of interpenetration that you cite. And why shouldn’t it? Interpenetration suggests the anagogic perception that we are all one, the “is” and “is not” of metaphor apparently reconciled, once again, as the human apocalypse inherent in the dialectic of metaphor’s limitless power of identification.


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