Thursday, December 12, 2013
December 12, 2013: Semester Recaps: Approaching Theory
[Wednesday is my last day of classes, so all week I’ll be highlighting some AmericanStudies takeaways from the Fall 2013 semester. Add your thoughts and fall recaps in comments, please!]
On what literary theory doesn’t do very well, and what it does.
Nearly two years ago, as part of a series on the upcoming spring 2012 semester, I wrote about how my AmericanStudies perspective had informed my work in creating and teaching a course far outside my scholarly wheelhouse: a graduate Introduction to Literary Theory. This semester, I had the chance to teach for the first time our undergraduate equivalent: Approaches to English Studies, a departmental gateway (sophomore-level) course that generally focuses in large part on introducing different modes and forms of literary theory and criticism to our majors and minors. I used a modified version of the graduate syllabus I described in that prior post, including the same back and forth between primary literary texts and theoretical readings and movements. And I’m ending the semester feeling, even more strongly than in the grad course, two very distinct but equally salient (to my mind at least) things about lit theory.
One is that much of the time, literary theory has been and remains a separate conversation, one focused more on its own debates than on applications to, y’know, actual works of literature and art. More exactly, many of the authors and works that tend to be defined as “lit theory” in anthologies and the like (Freud, Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Butler, Deleuze and Guattari, Spivak, many others) are really far closer to philosophical, intellectual, humanist theories that were never intended as specific to lit and art, and are thus very difficult to connect in any specific and practical way to those genres. Of course there’s value in reading and considering such figures and theories—but it seems to me that their prominence (even dominance) in lit theory anthologies and courses is not the best way to produce such engagement, both because of the ostensible job of these courses (theorizing about literature) and because as a result it’s harder to take, appreciate, and engage with these theoretical works for what they are, rather than for what we’re trying to do with them.
I suppose that’s most especially a critique of the lit theory anthologies I’ve seen, and their emphasis on such non-literary figures and theories. On the other hand, I can’t recommend highly enough the texts in Bedford’s Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism (or the parallel Case Studies in Critical Controversy) series. What these texts do extremely well is demonstrate how theoretical frames and questions can be applied to particular literary works, and can help open up different approaches to those works than might otherwise be recognized or considered. If we treat lit theory as simply another part of our critical arsenal, a tool to be employed when and how it makes sense and helps us think about a work—like close reading, like engaging with biographical or historical contexts, like thinking about what fellow scholars have had to say—then, this class once again demonstrated for me, it feels far more meaningful to a group of students working to develop their own voices and ideas, rather than simply trying to figure out those of others. Not sure anything we do in a classroom is more important than encouraging such work.
Next recap tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Fall classes, work, or other happenings you’d recap?