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Home Uncategorized Talk about a Revolution

Talk about a Revolution

Kevin Power
The Meaninglessness of Meaning: Writing About the Theory Wars from the London Review of Books, London Review of Books, 134 pp, £5.99 What the hell was literary theory anyway? Jouissance. The death of the author. Phallogocentrism. The metaphysics of presence. Binary oppositions. Hegemonic discourses. Subaltern narratives. Necropolitics. Biopower. Bentham’s (or is it Foucault’s?) Panopticon. The male gaze. The cultural logic of late capitalism. The unconscious is structured like a language. There is nothing outside the text. Are any of these ideas useful, or true? There exists a whole alphabet of textual warriors, from Althusser to Žižek, to tell you that they might be both. There also exists a whole panoply of university departments to tell you the same thing. On the other hand, the twenty-first century has already brought us books with titles like After Theory (Terry Eagleton, 2003), and Criticism After Critique (ed Jeffrey R Di Leo, 2014), and The Limits of Critique (Rita Felski, 2015). Are we finished with theory? Is theory finished with us? Did theory change the world, while it had the chance? Did it even manage to change literature? Novelists of a certain vintage have tended to endorse a rather florid scepticism about theory. In AS Byatt’s Possession (1990), Roland Michell – a humble Romanticist and devotee of old-fashioned archival research – misses out on a job that goes instead to Fergus Wolff (note the surname) who is “in the right field, which was literary theory”. (Later in the novel we find ourselves privy to Fergus Wolff’s idea of a love letter: “Did you read Lacan on flying fish and vesicle persecution?”) Delphine Roux, the prying, puritanical villain in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain (2000), is a literary theorist who graduated from the École normale supérieure. “Isn’t he a structuralist?” asks Sefton Goldberg, the protagonist of Howard Jacobson’s Coming from Behind (1983), of one of his academic rivals; the insinuation is that such a man exhibits a slavish vulnerability to intellectual fashion and is therefore not to be trusted. Chip Lambert, the “well-published” theorist in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (2001), exhibits a similar vulnerability, and pays for it heavily. Contemplating his volumes of theory, Chip (the author of a PhD thesis entitled “Doubtful It Stood: Anxieties of the Phallus in Tudor Drama”) remembers “how each of them had called out in a bookstore with a promise of a radical critique of late-capitalist society, and how happy he had been to take them home”. The problem is that all of these critiques…

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