The Australian state of Queensland, three times the size of France and
mostly flat, arid and empty, is an odd place to brawl over
French-inspired literary theory. But after a campaign by a national
newspaper, the state’s education minister felt compelled to vow to
remove post-modernist “mumbo-jumbo” from its classrooms.
The Australian presented to the scandalised minister a child’s essay
about the famous Grimm Brothers fairy tale, “Rapunzel” — of “Rapunzel,
Rapunzel, Let down your hair”. Here is how this macabre little story
“Even the title Rapunzel is not left without the gender assumption. For
example, the story title Rapunzel is in fact the name of a vegetable,
therefore reinforcing the gender roles of women as a vegetable, can be
linked with cooking chores deemed to be a woman’s profession.”
With reading, especially amongst boys, in a losing race against video
games and TV, wringing feminist morals out of classic children’s
literature looked like an utter waste of time to Mr Welford. The
literary criticism underpinning this was a “marginal theory”, he fumed:
“Nothing will leave this department that I don’t understand.” Without a
report on the minister’s IQ, it is hard to tell whether this is good
news for the Queensland education system. Nonetheless his determination to expunge
post-modernist literary theory was greeted with whoops of joy by many
parents and teachers.
At first glance, post-modernist literary theory might seem merely a
fusty academic interest. In fact, apart from the Iraq war and Rafael
Palmeiro’s steroids, there is almost nothing more inflammatory for
lovers of the humanities. Let me explain why the decision by a minister
in Queensland is good news and why this literary bunfight really is
The key concepts
Since the 1980s literary Theory (always written with a capital T, like
the G in God) has captured English department after English department
in universities throughout the English-speaking world. The fact that
high school students in rural Queensland are regurgitating it
now reflects a generation of indoctrination in colleges and universities.
Theory resists definition. It is not monolithic, but fissured and
fractured into scores of squabbling schools. But here are ideas which
nearly all of them share:
- All reality is constructed. That is, since we cannot, with any
certainty, know what exists outside our own experience, we cope by
constructing frameworks which we project upon reality. Consequently, a
text does not contain the author’s meaning; it merely reflects the reader’s
- There is no such thing as truth; all opinions are relative. Living in
a world with no fixed boundaries, no absolute definitions and no
ultimate truths could be a fearful burden. The ingenuity and
playfulness of Theory teaches us to cope.
- The job of the reader-critic is to identify the prejudices inherent
in a text. The task of analysing a text in this way is called
“deconstruction”. The critic’s job is to dismantle it and show what it
really means — which may be a far cry from the author’s intention.
- Everything is a text, from Shakespeare and the Bible to "South Park"
and Harry Potter to billboards in Las Vegas and the New York skyline.
One of the best-known shibboleths of Theory is the French phrase "il
n'y a pas de hors-texte": there is nothing outside of the text.
- Theory’s usefulness is not exhausted by literature. Since everything
is a text, it can be deployed to analyse everything in our culture.
Ultimately it is a political commitment.
- The author’s intention is irrelevant. In its most radical form,
Theory proclaims the death of the author. Persons literally disappear,
becoming merely relations of intersecting texts in a vast cultural
conversation. Most theory is resolutely anti-humanist.
No doubt the accuracy of my account would be described as bumptious
ignorance by an academic Theorist. But it’s close enough, especially for a theory in which it
is axiomatic that there are no definitions.
The roots of Theory stretch back to Friedrich Nietzsche, the German
philosopher who demolished the stifling rationalism of great 18th and
19th Century thinkers like Kant, Mill and Hegel. He defied what he
regarded as their smug confidence that all of reality could be ordered
and grasped by the human mind, and asserted that there are no truths,
just interpretations. “Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are
illusions, worn-out metaphors now impotent to stir the senses, coins
which have lost their faces and are considered now as metal rather than
currency,” he wrote.
Nietzsche was an obscure and contradictory figure, but independent,
poetic and insightful. His offspring unto the fifth and sixth
generation inherited mostly the obscure and contradictory bits. They
first emerged in the “Anglo-Saxon” (to use a French turn of phrase)
literary world as figures like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Roland
Barthes, Jacques Lacan and Paul De Man. Initially the main players were
French, which was a enormous handicap amongst the Colonel Blimps of
English academe. But the adroitness with which they interpreted texts,
the startling freshness of their insights, the secret language of their
Gallic jargon, their sexual adventurousness and political rebelliousness appealed
to a younger generation of critics. In what seemed a blink of the eye,
their disciples stormed the ramparts of English departments everywhere.
I witnessed this generational change myself in a small provincial
university where I was scraping and bowing and tugging the forelock in
the hope of securing a badly-paid tutoring job. When I made my first
approach, greybeard members of the Department were still teaching
survey courses in the American novel, Shakespeare, Jacobean tragedy,
Modern Poetry from T.S. Eliot to Robert Lowell and things of that sort
— a conventional historical approach to the classics. I warmed to the
environment, because it was very much like the department where I had
done my undergraduate work. “Don’t read the critics,” my tutor had told
me. “They soften the brain. You can read them in graduate school.” I
investigated one survey course in great critics but it looked
suspiciously like hard work and I decided he was right. I gorged myself on novels instead.
By the time I actually landed a job a year later, nearly all the
greybeards had vanished and the survivors were scrambling for places on
life boats. A younger set of lecturers had set a new syllabus, with
critics and works I had never heard of: “recuperated” women writers,
American slave writers, gay and lesbian writers… The classics, now
gently mocked as “the canon”, seemed to have been shelved. Instead of
gorging themselves on literature, the students were gagging on
criticism. (Some confirmation of this can be found in Google. Type in
“Michael Foucault” and you will get 729,000 hits. “T.S. Eliot” scores
634,000. “Jacques Derrida” produces 363,000 and “Alfred Lord Tennyson”
149,000. “Roland Barthes” produces 338,000 and “William Butler Yeats”
Meanwhile, the staff were filling critical journals with disputes over
the latest applications of Jacques Baudrillard’s hyper-reality and
Judith Butler’s notion of gender performativity as citationality. It
was 20th Century scholasticism — mediocre minds
bickering over the choicest morsels of less mediocre minds. At least
the original scholastics speculated about useful things like angels
dancing on the head of a pin. These guys were hairsplitting the precise
meaning of Derrida’s pun on the French word “différance”. It
rather dreary. It had taken the mediaeval scholastics 300 years to
lapse into decadence; it took the post-modern scholastics only 30. The
flatness, aridity and emptiness of the state
of Queensland turns out to be a good metaphor for the state of
It has always seemed to me that the principal purpose of Theory was ultimately to give English
departments a sense of purpose and keep at bay the terrifying thought
that humanities didn’t really matter in cash-strapped universities. But
if Theorists also wanted to make literature more relevant and to
persuade their students to read more, they have failed. According to a
survey released by the US National Endowment for the Arts, fewer than
half of American adults now read literature. Overall there has been a
10 per cent decline in literary readers, with the steepest fall amongst
the youngest age groups — 28 per cent.
Reports of the death of Theory
So you can see why rumours of the death of Theory have been
greeted by reactions ranging from I-told-you-so smirks to delirious
joy. Apparently the slide began a few years ago. In a 2003 conference
sponsored by the journal Critical Inquiry, some of Theory’s American
hotshots — including Stanley Fish and Frederic Jameson — concluded
that it no longer cut the mustard in the real world. The great era of
theory was over and its practitioners had entered a period of timidity,
backfilling, and empirical accumulation.
But not being an habitué of the warrens of Theory, the first news of
its dissolution came to my attention with the publication last year of
After Theory, by the English critic Terry Eagleton. His 1983 book
Literary Theory: An Introduction was a textbook for several generations
of students and has sold 800,000 copies worldwide. That’s small change
for J.K. Rowling or Dan Brown, but for a literary critic, it is very impressive. But Eagleton, it seems, thinks
that there has been a big mistake:
“Cultural theory as we have it promises to grapple with some
fundamental problems, but on the whole fails to deliver. It has been
shame-faced about morality and metaphysics, embarrassed about love,
biology, religion and revolution, largely silent about evil, reticent
about death and suffering, dogmatic about essences, universals and
foundations, and superficial about truth, objectivity and
Well said, Terry. It’s just what I would have written about the anti-humanising,
anti-intellectual blight of Theory, if I could write as well as
And the second bit of good news came a few weeks ago with the
publication of an anthology of antagonists of Theory, Theory’s Empire.
This is a door-stopper of a book with essays by eminent and often angry
critics, philosophers and social scientists. The selection is a bit
uneven, with some contributors dating back to the 1960s. But it is sure
to give ammunition to Theory’s opponents and to sap the confidence of
its defenders. Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa calls it “a
magnificent collection of essays that returns sanity and rationality to
literary criticism, rescuing it from the esotericism, jargon and
delusions under which it had been buried."
My guess is that the Empire of Theory is breaking up much as the Evil
Empire of Communism did, to filch a phrase from Ronald Reagan: suddenly
and noiselessly, like a sand castle melting into the beach. The
question is what will follow it. Something will. Something must, for
man is an interpretive animal and cannot abandon the habit of
interrogating what he reads. Theory has not been completely useless. As Eagleton rightly observes, the door is now
shut on the naïve belief that language is transparent or that
interpretation of texts can be completely impartial. And thanks to
Theory, too, readers’ minds have been scoured clean of the foolish
Romantic belief that literature is a kind of mystical, redemptive
experience which introduces us to Higher Truths.
I don’t know what will follow. And at the moment, I don’t care. It’s
time once again to gorge myself on novels and leave the critics for
later. If I wait long enough, I might not have to read them at all.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.