The Culture Wars divide, but they do not conquer THEORY Hyperbole from the right and isolationism on the academic left misrepresent both culture theory and literature.


November 01, 1998|By Laura Demanski | Laura Demanski,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

No doubt you've heard the scandalous news about literature departments these days: of Shakespeare being shunted aside to make room for Jacques Derrida and Jacqueline Susann; of pampered professors jetting to conferences instead of attending class; of the dumbing-down of a college humanities education to "ideological posturing, pop culture, and hermetic word games" (Roger Kimball's diagnosis).

These are some of the horror stories that have been circulating the last 10 or 11 years, ever since the 1987 publication of Allan Bloom's "Closing of the American Mind."

The literary-studies conflict that spawns such alarmist rumors is just one of the fiercely contested "culture wars," which also include debates over affirmative action and university speech codes. It is the conflict that most distresses Kimball, who became the alarmist-in-chief of the cultural traditionalists with his 1990 tract "Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education."

This combative book, by the managing editor of the noted conservative cultural journal the New Criterion, is lately available in a revised edition (Ivan R. Dee/Elephant, 246 pages, $12.95). In its pages Kimball gives the impression that he wouldn't long doubt it if you told him that English professors cooked and ate babies for breakfast. (To be fair, they might not doubt it of him, either.)

The culture wars shouldn't be so bloody. Conservatives should cease shooting off hyperbole about the threat to literature, and academics should cease using the ivory tower as a fort to insulate them from a wide reading public.

Informed by scaremongers like Kimball, too many witnesses have come to regard the culture wars as a rescue mission: a noble crusade to save a cultural heritage from deconstruction, historicization, politicization, and other dire consequences of a critical approach known as literary theory.

But the term "theory" has different meanings for those who fear it and those who embrace it. Most mainstream academics understand "theory" as simply what happens when one thinks abstractly about reading and writing - for example, when one pauses, while reading a novel, to ruminate on what it means to enjoy literature.

Anyone who has ever ruminated in such a way knows how intellectually stimulating it can be to ask why we read, where the pleasure comes from, through what alchemy of experience and language a fictive world is awakened. For the culture crusaders, to decry theory is to express an assortment of anxieties about the way that culture, and especially imaginative literature, is being taught and studied in American universities today.

Literary masterpieces like "Great Expectations" or Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality" transport and humanize their readers. Following James Anderson Winn, one might call this immediate response to literature "serious pleasure."

Winn coins the useful phrase in an eloquent new book lamenting the tendency of modern humanities professors to marginalize theater and music in favor of written texts. "The Pale of Words: Reflections on the Humanities and Performance" (Yale, 160 pages, $20) identifies problems in the academy that everyone can appreciate. It should interest readers on both sides of the political spectrum and make them feel less divided.

But literature has the power to do more than provide the "serious pleasure" that Kimball, and conservative critics within the academy like Robert Alter, fear has been sabotaged by the advent of literary theory.

The novels of Charles Dickens, for example, speak to the reader deeply about the historical circumstances in which they were produced, not just about a general human condition. And the more a Wordsworth poem lingers in the ear and mind, the better an occasion it offers to study how language achieves its most powerful effects and illusions.

From such uncontroversial observations stem two kinds of literary study - historicism and deconstruction, respectively - that often get conflated and branded "theory" in critiques of the academy. In that ominous guise, they then come to stand for the corruption of higher education. But "serious pleasure" does not need to be discarded when we read literature to illuminate history or the workings of language. Few literary critics ever leave it behind.

In and of itself, the move to theory is neither politically charged nor dismissive of literary value. Those who oppose it are reacting in part to the dominance of particular theories that have radical implications.

Many literary theories do look at language and history in revolutionary ways that will always meet resistance from conservative corners. But even the most radical theoretical orientations do not preclude literary love, while all worthwhile literary analysis does critically examine it.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.