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December 09, 2005



The recommendation of Eagleton is, actually, partly surprisingly. "The Valve" views itself as an "anti-Theory" vanguard. Especially the founder, John Holbo. See, for instance, their "event" on Theory's Empire.

ben wolfson

"The Valve" views itself as an "anti-Theory" vanguard

No, it doesn't.


My mistake: I must be confused by the continuous, prolonged and often painful diatribes against "Theory"! Mea culpa!


I noticed in some of the comments on other threads that there is a Long Sunday/Valve antagonism going on, so I'm not at all surprised that you commented, Craig---of course you're my most frequent reader and commenter anyway. :)

Yes, I frequent John Holbo and Belle Waring's personal blog regularly (I've even met Belle once, small world, eh?), so I know that they have a position against something called Theory. I like them particularly because I like their tastes in fiction. The seminar on Iron Council on Crooked Timber was highly entertaining. I even tried to follow parts of Holbo's arguments on Theory on his own blog. What I did understand from it, I was partially sympathetic to.

Since both sides of this coin seem now to endorse Eagleton as a book for beginners, if I discover I have time I might pick it up for the month-long break that I have.


Despite being (alternatingly) a "social" or "political" theorist (I try to hold myself at some distance from the terms used to describe what I do), I'm not entirely sure what "Theory" is. Mind you, I haven't read a novel in years, the ones I have read are mostly fluffy (Jim Crace, Arturo Perez-Reverte, Tolkien), and I dropped the only literature course I took as an undergraduate. As you can legitimately see: I'm not sure what is going on in English/Literature departments and what they read.

I do know that there is some sort of boogeyman lurking about called "Postmodernism" and "Theory", but I'm not sure what they mean. They seem to relate, somehow, to the radical idea that people other than dead white guys may have written books worth reading. They seem to relate, somehow, to something they call "political correctness" and "multiculturalism". But, like "Theory" and "Postmodernism", I'm not sure what "political correctness" and "multiculturalism" mean. There seems to be some distinction, in the mind of people who are against "Theory", that they are "the real left" as opposed to the "'left'" (note: double and single quotations) of "Theory" and "Postmodernism". Or, on the other hand, the "anti-Theorists" are happy to call themselves "humanists", "conversatives" or whatever. Not sure what any of those mean.

What I do know is that these fights regularly spill over into the educated layperson's press (and, of course, the ideological/demagogic press). I see diatribes -- that could have appeared in "The Valve" first -- in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Chronicle. I see them in Salon, the New Republic, Reason, and the Economist. And, I see that about half the links at "Arts and Letters Daily" are to these debates.

I also know that to the casual observer (and the ardent "anti-Theorist") that this occasionally spills over into my work. I get bundled in with "Theory' because, like them (apparently), I have read Marx, Freud, Foucault, Deleuze and Baudrillard. I get bundled in with "Theory" because, like them (apparently), I cite them in my work and have been known to write about them (exegetically and argumentatively).

This, of course, results in me being forced to refer to myself as a "post-Marxist" or "post-Structualist" or whatever -- even if, like the supposed "post-Struturalists" themselves have no idea what this means. (Foucault, Deleuze, and myself all agree that "post-structuralism" is an American concept and has nothing to do with them; they'd also agree that "Theory" has nothing to do with them.)

I find the whole debate confusing. On the one hand, there is the political matter: yes, I agree, people other than white dead guys have written interesting things and these things should be read (or watched or listened to); yes, I refer to the same texts as they do. On the other hand, I'm not sure how (and this is what I understand by "Theory") that the suggestion that there might be more to a text (or piece of music or art) than what is written, painted or played. It isn't clear to me how these have become fighting points.

I also know one other thing: the "Foucault" I see referred to in these debates is not like the Foucault I read; the "Deleuze" I see referred to in these debates is not like the Deleuze I read. And so on. It seems, possibly, that the major problem is that people in literature do not know how to read and, consequently, they do not know how to write. This goes, obviously, for both sides of the divide. On the one hand, the "Theorists" cannot read the "Theoretical" texts they are reading and, thus, when they write "Theory" they are unable to communicate outside of their own group. On the other hand, the "anti-Theorists" likewise cannot read "Theory" and what is put out by "Theorists" to the extent that when they write "anti-Theory" it looks even sillier than "Theory".

Why this is the case, I cannot begin to imagine. Like I said, I don't know anything about literature departments. But, I do remember back to when I dropped that literature class as an undergrad: the guy instructing the class repeatedly attributed Being and Time to a "German Nazi called Soren Kierkegaard". When corrected (by me) he insisted I was wrong. After all, he was the expert and I was but an undergrad. It seems symptomatic, at the very least. Another problem is likely that the teaching of "Theory" is haphazard and sloppy. At our undergraduate institution, "literary theory" was an optional half-course in undergrad (third year) and grad (M.A. level). Yet, lots of people (quick search in the library catalogue) produce "Theory" for their theses. Connection, maybe?

Now, one should not extrapolate from my comments that "social" and "political" theory is much better. It is marginally better. But that is something else entirely.


"But, I do remember back to when I dropped that literature class as an undergrad: the guy instructing the class repeatedly attributed Being and Time to a "German Nazi called Soren Kierkegaard". When corrected (by me) he insisted I was wrong."

Heck even I know that's funny :)


It was, as you might suspect, quite sad. Now, the English department in question is a real shitty one and the guy teaching the class wasn't faculty (only a quasi-faculty instructor -- "adjunct" to Americans, with a slight bit more job security), but I don't doubt that the loose grasp on essential facts -- especially in "Theory" -- is prevalant across the board.

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