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Wednesday, January 23, 2013


I discovered a way of explaining why I don't like "applications" of theory, while reading Paul Julian Smith on Lorca and Bernarda Alba. Smith is one of the major figures in my own field, and has written many books. I welcome his contributions when they support my ideas about getting past traditional Lorquismo with all its sentimentality, kitsch, etc... His use of the Foulcauldian "author-function" is a good idea. He told me he liked my book, so in my book he is a good guy.

Yet Smith is really well known for those "applications." Adela is the subject of Foucauldian surveillance, knowledge / power, etc... The theory works really well, even. I cannot object to it. Yet I still feel that it is hermeneutically poor. It doesn't explain why Lorca is important in the first place. This what I wrote in my chapter this morning about this:
Unlike Smith, I am not looking forward to the end of humanism: not only is it impossible to suppress “the insistence of the humanist order,” but to do so would be to ignore the wrenching effects of the modernist fracturing of the subject itself. It is interesting that Smith sees an affective response to Lorca as a kind of “displacement.” A displacement of what, we might ask? His own Foucauldian reading of La casa de Bernarda Alba in The Body Hispanic, does manage to avoid certain naive pitfalls of Lorca criticism, but at a very steep price: Smith, while theoretically sophisticated and astute, is not at all receptive to any aspect of the play not already explainable by Foucault’s theory of power. Lorca does not tell him anything not anticipated by the theory he is deploying. By reducing the tragedy of Adela’s subjectivity to a Foucauldian mechanism of surveillance and knowledge, he erases the affective reasons the ways in which the play engages with its audience.

Of course, it is Smith’s overt intention to move beyond the traditional humanist justifications for literary criticsm, and he is very clever at showing how this can be done. The problem is that model of “theoretical application,” so prevalent in the 1980 when Smith’s book came out, does little to explain why we should care about Lorca in the first place. Why are there “no fewer than 26 pages in which elegies and homages are listed” in a standard bibliography of Lorca criticism? (The Body Hispanic 110).


Professor Zero said...

I agree but you know here is a shocking fact: Wellek and Warren said this. Literature should not be used as confirmation or proof that a theory is valid. They said it about non literary theories, i.e. if there were a theory that were purely literary then presumably it would be OK (going on what they say), but their main point was that literature was not secondary.

Disgusting to find oneself in some agreement with these old guys, I know, but ...

Jonathan said...

Intrinsic and extrinsic theories of literature. That distinction seems to have gotten lost.