April 26, 2003

UNSPURRED

The Latest Theory Is That Theory Doesn't Matter (EMILY EAKIN, April 19, 2003, NY Times)
These are uncertain times for literary scholars. The era of big theory is over. The grand paradigms that swept through humanities departments in the 20th century — psychoanalysis, structuralism, Marxism, deconstruction, post-colonialism — have lost favor or been abandoned. Money is tight. And the leftist politics with which literary theorists have traditionally been associated have taken a beating.

In the latest sign of mounting crisis, on April 11 the editors of Critical Inquiry, academe's most prestigious theory journal, convened the scholarly equivalent of an Afghan-style loya jirga. They invited more than two dozen of America's professorial elite, including Henry Louis Gates Jr., Homi Bhabha, Stanley Fish and Fredric Jameson, to the University of Chicago for what they called "an unprecedented meeting of the minds," an unusual two-hour public symposium on the future of theory. [...]

A student in the audience spoke up. What good is criticism and theory, he asked, if "we concede in fact how much more important the actions of Noam Chomsky are in the world than all the writings of critical theorists combined?"

After all, he said, Mr. Fish had recently published an essay in Critical Inquiry arguing that philosophy didn't matter at all.

Behind a table at the front of the room, Mr. Fish shook his head. "I think I'll let someone else answer the question," he said.

So Sander L. Gilman, a professor of liberal arts and sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, replied instead. "I would make the argument that most criticism — and I would include Noam Chomsky in this — is a poison pill," he said. "I think one must be careful in assuming that intellectuals have some kind of insight. In fact, if the track record of intellectuals is any indication, not only have intellectuals been wrong almost all of the time, but they have been wrong in corrosive and destructive ways."

If only Richard Hofstadter had lived to see this moment, we'd do the Icky Shuffle right in front of him. Posted by Orrin Judd at April 26, 2003 7:29 AM
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