The Trauma of Theory: A Cautionary Tale

I had my first run-in with literary theory in the spring of my freshman year. I was halfway through my first college English class and thought I knew everything; I figured that because I’d read Paradise Lost and was increasingly able to follow along when I heard graduate students talk about their work, I’d be able to listen to a faculty member I knew give a paper on a panel concerning a topic in which I was interested, and know when to smile and nod. I let some people talk me into attending this panel, and I knocked off my work-study job to stand in the back of an overflowing auditorium, full of optimism and full of myself.

And boy, was I sure mistaken. Not only did I not understand the poem the speaker was discussing when she passed around photocopies of it; I didn’t understand a single word she said about it. I don’t remember, today, what the title of the talk was, or what argument she might have said she was intending to make; I only remember blank incomprehension, and confusion, and shame. I remember becoming increasingly worried and upset as I failed to grasp anything, failed to understand why what the speaker was saying was important to an understanding of the poem, failed to nod or chuckle with the rest of the audience. I ducked out before the end of the panel, too ashamed of my lack of understanding to drink the coffee, pick over the fruit tray, and say hi to the people in the audience whom I knew. I went home and cried. Though surely no one in the audience even noticed me, much less knew how confused I was, I felt as if I’d been exposed as a pretentious fool, and I realized how ridiculous I’d been to think that half a semester of intro lit could have prepared me for the rigors of professional literary criticism, or indeed the realities of the professional academic world. A few English classes and theory talks later, I have learned enough to watch the people in the audience whom I think are clever and nod when they nod; I have learned to stay for the fruit tray and let myself be introduced to people no doubt wondering what this awkward undergrad was doing at their talk; every so often I can grab hold of a sentence out of the paper which relates to something I’ve read or learned from a class, something which reminds me that the speaker isn’t talking in a foreign language after all. And I have come to accept that, as an undergrad, as not even an English major, as someone of merely average intellect who hasn’t read the theorists the academics make use of in their talks, there is no reason why I should understand the strange language they speak, their inscrutable methods of making sense out of a text which to the uninitiated sound quite all Greek (or perhaps all French, given the context, except that I actually do understand French, and what they say doesn’t sound like any of the French I know). Even if I can cope, now, with this incomprehension—enough to keep masochistically putting myself through the routine, in the hopes that someday I will understand—that afternoon at that first panel remains one of the most frightening and embarrassing moments of the first half of my undergraduate career. For someone such as me whose sense of self-worth is rooted nearly entirely in the degree to which she’s taken seriously by professional academics, there is nothing quite so awful as it being so matter-of-factly demonstrated to you what an outsider you are.

I was reminded of this episode today not only because, with twelve days to go until I’m back on campus, I can think of nothing other than the academic world; but because I read Adam Kirsch’s brief obit of Frank Kermode in Slate. Kermode is one of the people whose name has entered my sphere of awareness through the academic conversations on which I habitually eavesdrop; like so many such names, I’ve never actually read his work, a fact which, like it does with so many other such names, never fails to produce a distinct feeling of shame. The point, however, is that I can’t comment on Kermode’s views of the state of literary criticism today except through Kirsch’s interpretation of them, which will no doubt expose me as a charlatan far more obviously than my failure to understand theory talks does; however, what Kirsch says does have some bearing on that very problem of failure to understand theory talks. According to Kirsch, Kermode expressed considerable concern about the inaccessibility and hyperspecialization of literary theory, and the modern habit of scholars of literature of keeping the public (like me) unable to understand what it is they do—due, I suppose, to their reliance on a particularly inscrutable and difficult set of secondary literature. Kirsch pays tribute to Kermode’s status as a consummate generalist and a popular critic in the London Review of Books (which he helped to found) and other publications, labeling this manner of practicing lit crit a dying breed in favorable contrast to the theorists.

And, well, it’s difficult not to sympathize with this perspective. As cognizant as I am that my failure to understand theory is probably due either to my own stupidity or my lack of initiative at studying on my own the fundamental theory texts which would help my understanding of that world, I must to some extent think that the sense of alienation I feel isn’t entirely my fault. I’ve taken a number of English classes for someone who isn’t a major, have dabbled in theory, have done my best to understand what it is my friends and my colleagues in my sister department do. And I have come to believe in the relevance of theory to understanding our world: when it’s explained in a simplistic way for undergrads to understand, I’ve gotten excited by it; I’ve seen firsthand the transformative power of, for example, queer theory on a queer person’s understanding of hirself and the world, and that’s a good thing. But I do find myself agreeing with Kirsch (and perhaps Kermode, though as I said, I don’t have a good sense of how much Kirsch is quoting Kermode, and how much he’s offering his own take) that what the academic practice of literary criticism and theory so insulates itself from the world of people who don’t have advanced degrees in the subject, we have a serious cultural problem which matters a great deal.

But why does it matter so much? After all, one Ivy-League-brat-with-self-esteem-issues’ self-absorbed feelings of alienation are probably not that important in the scheme of things. Recasting the language of literary criticism such that someone who hasn’t read a single post-structuralist could still engage with the process of thinking about literature won’t help to eliminate world poverty and hunger or stop global warming or bring relief to the flood victims in Pakistan. But a citizenry which sees the practice of humanistic inquiry as part of its time could restore reason and civility to the political sphere. It could find in itself a desire to reinvest in education and the arts in the name of the next generation. It could, regardless of whether there is such a thing as narrative or such a thing as reality or such a thing as authorial intent, become interested in scrutinizing the claims of politicians and pundits who take even more fast-and-furious approaches to Truth than do literary critics. Because, see, the fact is that we need the humanities. The practice of the close study of texts makes us better citizens, better thinkers, perhaps even better people. But if that study is not just hidden in an ivory tower, but hidden behind a wall of words, it’s going to be very difficult indeed to make the case for its survival to a public which cannot understand what it is that humanists do.

Of course, it would be lovely if we lived in a world in which people said, “I do not have the knowledge or cultural capital to understand your work or the culture in which it exists, and yet I will take your word for its importance.” But, as we all know by reading daily news which attests to the systematic defunding and vocationalizing of higher education, this is not the world in which we live. We live in a world in which intellectual culture must be rigorously defended as a good in itself, and in which a discourse which can bridge the gap between the closed circle of the academic conference panel and the larger western culture of anti-intellectualism is yet to be outlined. In order to do this, it seems to me as if it is necessary to rethink academic culture into something which is not dedicated to separating insiders from outsiders, and to rethink literary studies in particular into something which does not reward mere inscrutability and punish and induce shame in those who are not members of the club. This is not to say that theory has no place in the practice of understanding the world and its texts (or films, or music, or art, or culture), but rather simply to point out how difficult it will be to make a case for the humanities going forward, if the Frank Kermodes of this world really are such a dying breed. We have our work cut out for us—and I especially. Not only do I feel as if I need to begin to consider what it means to belong to the next generation of humanists still in the process of learning what it means to be engaged in this project of understanding the world through its texts; I need also, I feel, to do the reading and listening necessary such that I can loiter unseen in the back of an auditorium, listen to a scholar speak, and not feel quite so hopelessly, shamefully left out of a culture in which I want so desperately to be taken seriously and to belong. Once I feel I have moved beyond the stage of twenty-year-old charlatan, perhaps I can start to articulate a humanism I can call my own—but is it too much to ask that the theorists should meet me halfway?

One thought on “The Trauma of Theory: A Cautionary Tale

  1. honestly how can you let your world get so small its almost like you live inside a list of academic footnotes if you don’t care enough about kermode’s work to read him just ignore it why in god’s name would that make you “ashamed” what is this fetishism you have of contemporary american academic culture its just about as small and out of the way a world as you could find???

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