The Persistence of the Resistance to Theory

Readying the week’s classes, the radio in the background, I overheard a snippet of an interview with Clive James that gave me pause for thought. Around the 18 minute mark he observes—prompted by the interviewer’s interest in James’ “scathing” judgement of contemporary academe—that “encouraged by European theorists usually French or German” the university sought “to raise or supposedly raise the study of culture to the level of philosophy” at the expense of  “plain spoken good sense.” Of course, he is referring to the advent of Literary Theory in the 1970s, but the way he words his opinion brings to mind a much older dispute whose roots still cause rifts in contemporary Anglo-Saxon poetic culture, especially in Canada.

That older dispute is the debate between René Wellek and F. R. Leavis.  Wellek had reviewed Leavis’ Revaluation in the March, 1937 number of Scrutiny, a review which prompted Leavis’ “Literary Criticism and Philosophy”, a title which, here, speaks for itself. Wellek, no slouch of a literary scholar (perhaps, tellingly, later the founder of the comparative literature department at Yale) wishes in his review that Leavis “had stated [his] assumptions more explicitly and defended them systematically.” Leavis, in his reply, suggests that Wellek makes this wish “because Dr Wellek is a philosopher” and that he himself is no philosopher but a literary critic, “[l]iterary criticism and philosophy [being] quite distinct and different kinds of discipline.” The virulence of Leavis’ distinction is summed up in the title of a later collection of essays The Critic as Anti-Philosopher. It may well be James’ opinion was formed during his studies at Cambridge, as his deployment of ‘philosophy’ to denote abstract or conceptual thought in general would suggest.

Such a distaste for or distrust of Theory, philosophy, or conceptual labour persists in certain poets and critics in Canada, the United States, and abroad. I would argue, however, that if ‘philosophy’ is used in the way I take it be used here, then James, Leavis, and the like-minded are guilty of a wilful blindness or disingenuousness. Paul de Man was hardly the first or last to observe (in his essay “The Resistance to Theory”) that “even the most intuitive, empirical and theoretically low key writers on literature [make] use of a minimal set of concepts (tone, organic form, allusion, tradition, historical situation, etc. ) of at least some general import,” this list of concepts varying from writer to writer. That is, there is no reading of or reflecting on literature that is not more or less explicitly guided by and expressed in concepts and conceptual ratiocination. It does not follow, mind you, that every reader methodically follows a fully-articulated system of said concepts or that he or she need develop such a system; indeed, whether such a system can in fact be developed and applied consistently is an open question. As early as 1798 Friedrich Schlegel remarked that “it is equally fatal to have a system or not to have one at all. It will therefore be necessary to join the two” (Athenäum fragment 53).

Now, before I get automatically placed on team “Theory” let me register my agreement that much of what came to be termed Theory was and remains nonsense. The reception of especially structuralist discourse in the English-speaking world, from Jonathan Culler’s Structuralist Poetics (1975) onwards is a study in perverse misunderstanding. Despite Saussure’s emphasis that language is not a lexicon, for example, many continued to assume that language is essentially a wordhoard of names. It is hardly surprising that the attempt to assimilate technical vocabularies as diverse as those of structuralist linguistics, psychoanalysis, Marxism, hermeneutics, and, yes, even philosophy, especially while these discourses were in the process of articulating new insights, essaying new methods, and undergoing constant revision, all in questionable translation where the articulation of this new thinking was even translatable, should have led to a garbled articulation and application. The conflation of “word” and “sign” or “signifier/signified” with “word/meaning,” monstrous expressions, such as “chain of signifiers” or “deconstructionist poetry,” or the perversely Idealistic misunderstandings of Derrida’s maxim “Il n’y a rien en dehors du texte” are cases in point. The on-going controversy about “the subject” inspires winces among those whose reading is a little broader than the run-of-the-mill  grad school syllabus. The problem was compounded by the dilution and further distortion of these discourses as they were passed down by successive generations of professors and teaching assistants, few of whom seemed motivated to search out the primary texts and the context of their initial articulation and to come to terms with them for themselves. In the case of structuralism, semiology or semiotics, the problem was compounded by the incoherence of the movement’s founding text, Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, an incoherence hardly lost on the master himself or diligent scholars of Saussure, such as Boris Gasparov.  Little wonder then that intuitive, empirical and theoretically low key writers on literature or even those critics who became embroiled in the the Theory Wars from the beginning, such as Harold Bloom or Christopher Norris, should express virulent impatience with the nonsense of the Schools of Resentment or certain strains of Postmodernism.

However, to dismiss conceptual reflections on poetry, recent or not-so recent, because of the muddle that most scholars make of it is analogous to dismissing poetry because of the legions of tepid versifiers whose work floods the publishers’ lists, periodicals, and internet. On the one hand, Theory (here understood as a conceptually articulated reflection on poetry, whether informed by philosophy or other disciplines), if pursued with curiosity, some solid background, and no little brow furrowing is bracing, eye-opening, and vitalizing. One quickly learns, for example, that American Deconstruction is the logical outcome of New Critical close reading, stripped of certain of its ideological underpinnings, as the critical practice of William Empson demonstrated. Less well-known is that Literature as we know it and Theory as a kind of philosophical reflection upon it are twins born at the end of the Eighteenth Century. The proof of this birth certificate and its consequences for criticism have been matters of serious research and speculation for over a generation, as the work of Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy in French, Dieter Henrich or Manfred Frank in German, or that of Andrew Bowie and others in English attests.

Anyone who would sneer at such reflection on poetry as a waste of time would do well to hunker down with the work of Friedrich Hölderlin for while and see how far their “plain spoken good sense” gets them with a poet whose deserved canonicity is beyond question and a philosopher whose thinking arguably surpasses at points that of his two room mates at the Tübingen Stift, Hegel and Schelling. And just here is no little irony. One of James’s great achievements is his translating Dante’s Commedia, but anyone with even a passing familiarity with The Divine Comedy or Dante’s corpus will know the absolutely essential importance Lady Philosophy had for Dante, how the soaring, Gothic, and technical complexities of Scholastic philosophy were his sole study for years and how that philosophy both underwrites and appears on the pages of his great poem and others of his works. With the undoubted achievements of Dante and Hölderlin testifying to the relevance and value of philosophical reflection on and for poetry how one could use ‘philosophy’ so disparagingly is difficult to understand.

Of course the accusation of Theory’s being “nonsense” springs from its breaching the decorum of  “plain spoken good sense.” The absolute value accorded “plain spoken good sense” is, as those on the Continent would say, a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon tic. This staid dogma that identifies what Wittgenstein writes in his Tractatus, that “what can be said can be said clearly,” with “plain spoken good sense” would appear blind to the fact that clarity is always contextual (think of jokes that depend upon a knowledge of chemistry or binary code for their humour) and that to obfuscate this radical contingency of clarity is also an ideological gesture that reserves “good sense” and its attendant clear-eyed perception of truth and value to one group that is then justified in ignoring all competing claims as nonsense. This division of “plain spoken good sense” from “nonsense” is the intralinguistic version of the ancient Athenians’ characterizing speakers of foreign languages as sounding like dogs barking, hoi barbaroi. Indeed, one can hardly miss the xenophobia that accents suspicious dismissals of those “European theorists usually French or German.” Such foreigners, such as Roland Barthes (in Writing Degree Zero) or Theodor Adorno (in many places), have written most trenchantly on just such “plain spoken good sense.”

Transparency occurs where understanding has become reflexive, where questions are cut and dried and the dust of controversy or that raised in the trail of exploration has long since settled. New thoughts and the process of thinking that leads to their initial expression is necessarily only ever semi-articulate. What’s new, even when it appears fully formed, is strange. The task then is perhaps to eschew the settled clarities of all existing schools and their varieties of moribund, perspicacious nonsense, to risk the anxious uncertainty that always accompanies learning or, for that matter, creating, to enter on a nomadic way whereon one is always a foreigner, never quite understanding or being understood, living by one’s wits, alive to what the next, new moment brings.

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