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what before what: theory or literature

with 14 comments

I’m working on presumably the final revision of the book and I’ve done something a bit strange, something that feels to me both a) just what I want to do and b) bound to cause problems. Basically, if nearly every literary monograph with any interest in theory or theoretical questions starts with the definition of key terms via philosophy and then turns to the literature, I’m running things in reverse. I’ll develop working definitions of the key terms via little tour of literary history (broadstroke longview, more narrowing with the period in question) and then turn to the philosophical heritage in order to compare and contrast. At any rate, I just put in the following footnote. What do you think – too much?

If we have grown well accustomed to analyses that apply theory to literary texts – in order to understand or critique them, in order to shed light on their inner workings or the world that they represent – in my choice of trajectory here I propose to do something different. This work attempts to expose the theorizations of time implicit in the literary works themselves and explore these theorizations in (generally contrasting) comparison with what we might slightly reductively call the philosophical “conventional wisdom” on the subject. While any attempt to “forget theory” in writing about literature would either be naïve or haunted by invisible philosophical or ideological presuppositions, it on the other hand seems to be a disciplinary bad habit reflexively to consult philosophy in order to define our terms and only then to turn these terms to literary application.

In general, I simply don’t accept the reflexive necessity of consulting philosophy first. I don’t think of theory as a little machine that one builds in grad school, like a woodchipper or a blender, that one takes texts and runs them through, or at least that’s not how I think one should think of theory. I think that literature has as much to tell us – if differently – about so-called “philosophical” issues as philosophy itself. And I further believe that tons of theory is grounded in strange if not bad readings of literature… or even, more importantly, a kind of unconscious or unacknowledged “literariness” that haunts the answers developed.

Written by adswithoutproducts

August 23, 2011 at 8:15 pm

Posted in literature, theory

14 Responses

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  1. This sounds so eminently sensible. You develop the theory from the evidence, so to speak, held against the backdrop of previous work once the ideas have had a chance to form. On behalf of your future readers – thankyou.

    aelilea

    August 23, 2011 at 8:33 pm

    • strange slippage between ‘philosophy’ and ‘theory’ in this post … I would say that theory is a discursive domain where the priority of philosophy is not self-evident, and where the kind of move you are proposing (literature first) is silently permitted. I would suggest–somewhat mischievously–that your use of ‘philosophy’ rather than ‘theory’ in the first part of the post is a way to use theory as a straw man, whereas the move you propose is what most good, theoretically informed lit crit is trying to do. Anyway, I am keeping an eye out for the book.

      pieter

      August 23, 2011 at 9:45 pm

  2. Preface: my thesis proposal said something quite similar, so I’m favorably disposed toward this kind of gesture, and perhaps not the best critic. But it’s something that I wondered a lot about as well, and maybe some of my concerns will be helpful.

    I should relay a criticism from a much-smarter reader than I, which is: skepticism of the woodchipper-esque use of theory is, even if unspoken or unconsciously so, based in a certain New Critical methodology that is, itself, theory. So the disclaimer – that you aren’t trying to “forget theory” – seems a bit disingenuous. You are saying that theory doesn’t come first in this model, but there is a theoretical underpinning to this way of doing things – no? ie, unless you can ground the reading-first approach in actual reading…

    But the problem of immanence is a constant, and this criticism is on a different level than what you speak of – ie, criticism of writing vs. criticism of reading. So it is possible to say that theory comes first in the planning, but not in the specific investigation. Whether that’s contradictory is a question I’d offer, and not an answer.

    I do find your paragraph after the except much more compelling, but I suppose it is a blog context. And I would second pieter’s critique..

    w

    August 23, 2011 at 11:19 pm

    • I understood him to mean that (to abuse Heideggers fav example) you start with the piece of wood you want to work on, and then pick what you think are the appropriate tools for the job from your toolbox, as opposed to starting out by describing your latest neato hammer. This is distinct from “look! no tools!”.

      aelilea

      August 23, 2011 at 11:30 pm

  3. aelilea – thanks!

    pieter – rightly noted. I’ve had a bit of a problem with that all the way through the introduction that I’m (re)working on. Here’s the problem – and it speaks a bit to w’s ideas too. What I’m really talking about, in the end, is continental philosophy. I’m talking about the necessity of consulting at least a handful drawn from a bucket of names ranging from Heidegger through to Badiou. But here’s the problem – and you (pl.) have made this clearer to me. To use the words “continental philosophy” here sounds polemical, and while this project is in a sense quietly polemical, that’s polemical in the wrong sense. I.e. it sounds like I’m making a case against CP that’s ideologically driven or driven in favor rather of some other school of philosophy. I’m not. And while…

    w – …. you’re absolutely right about the fact that there’s always a “theory” in play, that obviously there are philosophical or quasi-philosophical preconceptions at work when I address the issues that I do, I still think it’s a) not simply “New Criticism,” as that’s always seemed a slippery term to me, one that we use to designate all manner of close reading that doesn’t really have much to do with any sort of particular school, even if it’s informed by them. (for instance, French lit scholars do all sorts of close reading, but they certainly don’t think of themselves as “New Critics”) and b) there is a difference – even if one has to be really careful – between the woodchipper model and whatever sort of, dunno, patent listening to texts that I’m doing. Urgh… it’s really hard. Obviously I know what you’re saying, w, but I also think that there is some sort of, dunno, demotic, vulgar “close reading” that is close enough to not-theory that it could be described as such.

    In a sense, isn’t the first move in the game of disingenuousness that quasi-Hegelian trick of calling everything that says it’s not theory just another theory. Or, to put it another way, aren’t we really dealing with the slipperiness of that term, Theory vs. little t theory. (If someone tells you that they specialize in “literary theory” you imagine – rightly – that they mean the figures in that continental bucket, not any old approach (little t-theory) of lit.

    It would make it a lot easier if I just posted a section from the introduction, but that would be impolitic given that we’re basically arguing out my readers report here.

    In the end, the problem is this: I have developed a (little t) theorization of literary problem X happening in period Y. The word X also happens to be a central preoccupation of continental philosophy, but vulgarly, it’s also just something that happens in literature. While I don’t mind placing and in fact intend to place my theory in relation to what’s been said by philosophers about X, and even arguing with them a bit about it, I resent the fact that before I roll out my analysis I have to clarify my terminology through reference to them, when it’s not really them that I had in mind when I came up with the theory. I had the books in mind, specific literary dynamics… and in the end a relation of all of that to certain wider historical issues during the period. The writers thought it through first, I noticed it (much later) – at no point did either of us consult Badiou.

    adswithoutproducts

    August 24, 2011 at 12:09 am

    • aelilea- I like that reading of it. I tend to agree with you – I subscribe to this sort of method myself – but the criticism given by my reader is out there, is rather pervasive and certainly is worth addressing, if only to distinguish one’s approach by relief.

      An example could be helpful, especially in addressing ads’ last graf. What comes to mind, to me, is the opening chapter of Auerbach’s Mimesis – mimesis/representation/etc is probably the most general and most commented-upon category of literary mechanisms, yet Auerbach begins by establishing his parameters by means of a comparative study of, hmm, what was it, the parable of Isaac/Abraham vs. an episode of the Iliad? Something like that… For this sort of text-first approach, Auerbach feels like a paragon to me – perhaps worth looking back at.

      w

      August 26, 2011 at 1:41 am

      • w- I think the criticism given by your reader is on a meta level compared to what ads was complaining about in his last graf:
        While I don’t mind placing and in fact intend to place my theory in relation to what’s been said by philosophers about X, and even arguing with them a bit about it, I resent the fact that before I roll out my analysis I have to clarify my terminology through reference to them, when it’s not really them that I had in mind when I came up with the theory.
        There seems to me to be absolutely no good reason why ads should not present his theory in any way or order he so chooses, for purposes of clarity and distinction. Of course (as ads also says) it is necessary to investigate one’s own (maybe initially unspoken) theoretical assumptions and place them in their disciplinary context, but forcing arguments into a certain straightjacket solely for purposes of academic legitimisation is rather sad.

        Something very valuable is lost by retrospectively shoehorning an independent line of argument into preexisting concepts: if nothing else the fact that an independent line of argument is interesting in its own right, even if it were to end up in a familiar place, or turns out to be isomorphic to one. At best one is obscuring.

        Thanks for the Auerbach reference, I must take a look at that.

        Anonymous

        August 26, 2011 at 2:16 pm

  4. But thanks to each of you – this is very, very helpful and the best case of what makes blogging so helpful sometimes!

    adswithoutproducts

    August 24, 2011 at 12:10 am

  5. I think I agree with you here!

    Toby Simmons

    August 24, 2011 at 12:39 am

  6. reminds me of Nicolas Royle’s book on the uncanny (and The Uncanny) where shows how literature encloses/explains/produces psychoanalysis and not the reverse.

    rick

    August 24, 2011 at 2:54 am

    • I will definitely have to take a look at that…

      adswithoutproducts

      August 24, 2011 at 9:47 am

  7. “”While any attempt to “forget theory” in writing about literature would either be naïve or haunted by invisible philosophical or ideological presuppositions, it on the other hand seems to be a disciplinary bad habit reflexively to consult philosophy in order to define our terms and only then to turn these terms to literary application.””

    The challenge, I think, will be to define these terms within the context of the literary work that produces them while keeping philsophical implications both in the discussion and at bay. In a sense, it seems your argument will have to move in two directions at once. The slippage between theory/ philosophy/ literary criticism and what we might call ‘literary writing’ is a fascinating and complex one and I wonder if you may find that your book also becomes an exploration/ meditation on the problem of language as it relates to certain problematic and inherently unstable fields/ discourses.

    Kalat

    August 25, 2011 at 10:37 am

  8. Not philosophy first but mediology, semiotics, rhetoric, history, psychology?

    lecolonelchabert

    August 25, 2011 at 7:24 pm

  9. Lately I think we should apply stories to philosophy. That is, if we can’t understand an idea (say Hegel’s dialectics) through a literary example then we don’t understand the idea at all. In other words I’m not interested in understanding literature through theory but the opposite.

    Douglas Lain (@DougLain)

    September 2, 2011 at 3:58 pm


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