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Thursday, May 5, 2011

More on Nuanced Theory

Here are some more suggestions about using theory.

(1) Don't always go for the cartoon version of the theory, the most common use. In other words, don't cite Benedict Anderson just to make the point that nations are "imagined communities." That Derrida "deconstructs Western logocentrism. That Foucault shows that knowledge is power. These are theoretical commonplaces, like the topoi of medieval/renaissance culture. (Carpe diem, or ut pictura poesis.) Instead, look for the theorist's arguments, the surprising things in their thought. Oftentimes the real substance of the theory does not correspond very much to the popular understanding. I've heard some versions of Judith Butler that are so simplistic that they are actually the opposite of Judith Butler. For example, if I hear someone say that Butler proves that gender is socially constructed, then I would say that this person has not understood anything, since that is a position taken in feminism before Butler. What she is saying, among other things, is that not only gender, but sex itself is socially constructed.

(2) As Andrew Shields said, read the theory as you would the literary text itself, with as fine a degree of scrutiny. The theory itself has be to read, interpreted, evaluated. What are its strong and weak points? What are the limits of its applicability?

(3) Make sure you know the theory well enough so that you could explain it in your own words, without using any of the specialized language of that theoretical school. When you write, make sure it's your voice we're hearing, not a mimicked theoretical voice.

(4) What are the nuances of the material that you are working on? How are these nuances preserved / lost in a particular kind of theoretical reading?

(5) Is the theory something you believe in, or a heuristic? Do you have the difference clearly in your mind? How would someone not already sympathetic to your approach respond?


Andrew Shields said...

Excellent points. Many people apparently never consider point three: say it in your own words.

Our version of that while preparing for our theory exams at Penn around 1990 was to parody the theorists. We discovered that if we could parody them, that helped understand them.

The silly part of that was the nicknames we gave them: Freddy Niche, Jackie Dairy, Mickie Fucky. Is that all I remember about them now? :-)

Shedding Khawatir said...

Thank you, this is quite helpful.

Clarissa said...

As somebody who is also sick and tired of reading platitudes about power in Foucault, I believe that the only justification for using theory in your work is if you have managed to bring something new and different to the theory or have attempted to look at it in a critical way.

I always tell my students that if they cannot do that, I'd rather they didn't use any theory at all. The world really doesn't need a one hundred and first study of Goytisolo through the prism of Benedict Anderson or 2001st study of El mismo mar de todos los veranos on the basis of the reigning Queer theory.

Andrew Shields said...

Again, so much has been said about MF that the interesting thing to do is to show how particular works you are studying disrupt his models.

Vance Maverick said...

So, naive question: Terry Eagleton argues (with a familiar quotation from Keynes) that if you work without theory, you're really in thrall to a theory whose constraints and implications you don't understand. This is obviously overstated (like everything in that book) -- but don't you have to do at least some "signposting" to make your philosophical assumptions and rhetorical goals clear?

Andrew Shields said...

Vance, I've heard that argument before and I'm tired of it. It's not about "working without theory" and hence being naive. You can be very aware of your own theories and how you are working with them and what their goals and constraints are without wasting a single line about "positioning" yourself with respect to capital-T Theory.

And even if you are going to do such positioning, you don't have to signpost it except in the very limited way of saying "So-and-so aaid ..., but ..." And surely that's not what people really mean when they are talking about "signposting."

matt said...

It seems to me that a productive way to talk about these helpful complications of understanding theory is to say: Theory is not some"thing" to be applied to texts.

Jonathan said...

The issue of signposting, per se, and the use of theory are separate ones, in my view. You could discuss theory all you wanted to without using rhetorical signposting in your essay, telling the reader exactly what you are doing in too explicit a way. I agree with Andrew to that extent.