Blockages: Theory vs. History, The Search For An Economy Of Principles, Part One

I find it difficult to answer when people ask me just what it is that I study. Of course if I thought about it, I might have to admit that I find it difficult to answer just about any question, at least with any sense of brevity. Which is the sense, I think, in which people expect an answer to that very question. Case in point: after having taken the time and the calories to to write the second and third sentence, above, and after re-reading my initial sentence, I am finding it hard to get over the growing conviction to qualify or expound on just what I mean by “study.”  Perhaps “study” isn’t the right word, or What do I mean by “study?” See what I mean? I won’t go there, as they say, but I will take this opportunity to voice my hope that in apprehending this tendency I have come to an at least a slightly better understanding of (just what) “dialectical writing” (is), if indeed Frederic Jameson’s assertion that it is a mode of writing in which it is “as though you could not say any one thing until you had first said everything,” is true (306).

But what are one’s options, when choosing an object of literary study? And what does one do when those options are also something like blockages?


Once, while attending a seminar on Milton, I heard a student remark to her friend something along the lines of “I’m so glad that we’re in this class, where we can just study literature and not worry about all that theory baloney.” It immediately evoked a memory of my very first philosophy instructor, who pointed out that the assertion “philosophy isn’t *worth* anything” was itself a philosophical statement. And while the point isn’t that it is impossible to make a non-theoretical statement about literature, it is that it is impossible to approach literature nakedly, from a neutral or natural, stable and objective (we should seriously be over this, shouldn’t we?) standpoint.  No scholar ever simply only studies literature. Ever.

However and however problematic it might seem, the sort of ethos evinced by the above anonymous student is what I think of as the object-oriented one- that is, one’s choice is of an object, the thing.  The orientation of this sort of scholar is provided for by its emphasis on whatever it is that she studies, delimited by any number of determinants: race, culture, geography, gender, time-period, the individual author, genre, etc. etc. So, student: pick one.  I’ve felt this pressure from day one, as an undergrad 100 years ago. I tend to think of this way of doing business as inherently conservative and, for the most part, unable to challenge existing structures of ways of thinking (and of learning) about literature, because it is itself ensconced in (/ probably has some sort of dialectical relationship with) the material reality of doing academic work, a material reality that has everything to do with market availability, the supplies and the demands and so on and so forth.  Curiously, it would seem that the final determinant re just what sort of work one does on these literatures is history – a fascinatingly (and brutally) abstract idea for something that wants so badly to be concrete.  And so, for all intents and purposes (#FAIAP), my first option is *this* history.

The other option is the “subjective,” “liberal” practice/s of theory. As the ostensible flipside to the above (specifically constructed, far from “pure”) practice/s of “history,” this is the way of doing things for whom the emphasis is played on the subject: the subject position of the scholar herself, the subject position of the human objects considered (authors, characters, readers), etc. etc. This emphasis tends to make its own way of seeing what it’s looking at the object itself of study.  So, if I study transgressive 17th century lesbian limericks “through the lens” of, say, postcolonialism, it is this postcolonialism and its troubles, the thises and thats of its own discourse, that wants to occlude the original “object,” the naughty limericks.  And maybe it’s safe to say that successful theories always occlude their original objects – and thus the specific truth-claims about said objects.

Also none of this is to say that theory is necessarily the “progressive” force to counter the above historicism’s “conservativism.”  Re said historicism I made the claim that it was unable to challenge existing structures of thought and practice because those two things – thought and practice, the way we think and the way our universities and departments are built – are “dialectically” intertwined.  Should theory be able to smash this? I don’t know if it should, but I don’t believe that it does – or has (yet, at best). Having made an object of its own epistemology (and not necessarily its mode or method), I think that most of these theories, most theory – regardless of its “liberatory” potential- simply becomes another object to be placed on the shelf – or within the organizational schema of “the way we” think/ work, and in this sense becomes something like reified, and also tamed.  Or something like this.

But of course “theory” can’t be defined simply as a coherent or static epistemology, through which any neutral reader might peek in order to find said theory’s truths re whatever text said reader is reading: all theory is deployed in certain ways at certain times for certain reasons – e.g. is political – and the good theory acknowledges this. But a(n attempt at a) definition of theory would be (too) neatly described as an Ouroboros – actually, a lot of theory itself could be described as such.  The problem is that the practice of “doing” theory simply becomes boring.  It doesn’t have to be, and it’s not intrinsically boring, and there is nothing inherently wrong with boredom, except when it presents itself as something like a symptom to that-which-is-exuding- boringness: common theoretical practices often involves a re-coding of, say, a narrative, within the terms consistent with said theory as either an explanatory model or a political apology. Neither of these things are, again, inherently evil or wrong or contrary to literary studies, it’s just that once one has a working grasp on the logic and vernacular of said theory – and often even before that – the theoretical response to any quandary is known before one is finished asking the question. In this way it tends to not produce new, useful, or stimulating knowledges, but contributes to the overall discourse in much the same way that “non-theoretical” work does.  So.  Theory, option two.

One of the biggest dangers here, (one of) the commonality(ies), between the two, is this sense that one already knows, or one already knows what one believes one knows (is true), re whatever it is one is working on.  Ergo “boring” leads to predictability and surety of method leads to the further reification of practices of research and pedagogy that leads to more boring or worse – stagnated and isolated fields or discourses of learning, humanities departments “in crisis,” etc., etc., and so on and so forth.

What I want to know is: (and I only mean to be a little disingenuous with this) what’s wrong with NOT knowing what you’re going to know – or even what you’re looking for – before you begin your work? My answer to the question of if not this or that then what is this: what’s wrong with inquiry?