Response to Fabio Akcelrud Durão: “Responsible Reading of Theory”

By | December 7, 2021

This week, in a series of blog takeovers, we’re looking at Modernism, Theory, and Responsible Reading with posts from the collection’s contributors.

Guest post by Robert Baines

Fabio Akcelrud Durão’s essay “Responsible Reading of Theory” engages with a number of large and fundamental questions regarding the identity, purpose, and future of theory. The answers that it offers are so rich and complex that a responsible reading of the entirety of that essay would require a monograph. For that reason, this response will focus on just the first paragraph of the first of the essay’s three sections and consider how that paragraph defines the relationship between theory and literature.

Here is a condensed version of the paragraph in question:

Let’s start with a still common form of reading: Bakhtin without Dostoyevsky and Rabelais, Deleuze without Proust and Kafka, Derrida without Rousseau (and many others), Lacan without Freud, Freud without Sophocles… It won’t do to assume a moralist posture—“our students (or colleagues!) don’t read literature anymore”; it is much more fruitful to accept as a fact that for many scholars, students and even non-academics theory has an appeal of its own, above and beyond the objects it might be supposed to explain. … The most obvious case is the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, which extends to theorists the whole scholarly approach normally reserved to the literary monuments of the past. … There are, then, abundant signs that theory has lost its supposed ancillary role, its status as a subordinate discourse whose primordial mission would be to elucidate a given text. So here is a first idea, not so much a discovery as an observation of a state of affairs, though one that has not received as much attention as it deserves, namely that theory has passed through a process of (semi) autonomization and increasing self-sufficiency and self-referentiality.

(Durão 42-3)

In the second sentence, Durão argues that it is a “fact” that “for many scholars, students, and even non-academics theory has an appeal of its own, above and beyond the objects it might be supposed to explain.” What is conspicuous is the caginess with which Durão defines the relationship of theory to literature. He does not say that theory explains literature or that theory is supposed to explain literature but rather that theory “might be supposed to explain” literature. The approach of this sentence is very much in keeping with the approach of the essay as a whole. Durão observes that, “theory is always theory of something,” and yet, when the essay defines the bond between theory and literature, it prefers to do so in mediate and negative terms rather than simplifying that bond through the use of the term “literary theory” (Durão 43). For example, Durão argues that “theory has been converted into a problematically separate realm by demarcating a space which is strictly speaking neither that of philosophy nor that of literary criticism anymore, even though it is closer to the latter and may seem indistinguishable from it” (Durão 45). In striving for accuracy, Durão cannot help but complicate the relationship between theory and literature.

That Durão’s approach to that relationship is eminently sensible is demonstrated by the first sentence of the paragraph. There Durão offers examples of theory being read in isolation of literature: “Bakhtin without Dostoyevsky and Rabelais, Deleuze without Proust and Kafka, Derrida without Rousseau (and many others), Lacan without Freud, Freud without Sophocles” (Durão 42). It is certainly fair to say that the ideas of the five named theorists “might be supposed to explain” works of literature (Durão 42). Yet, when one tries to take a step forward by considering whether the ideas of those theorists are “supposed to explain” literary works, the matter becomes more complicated. All five were deeply invested in literature and produced significant works on that subject. At the same time, the writings of those theorists also engage with a number of other fields, such as philosophy, linguistics, and psychology. To try to wall off their literary works from their non-literary works, or, indeed, their literary ideas from their non-literary ideas, is a fool’s errand. Just as the distinction between literature and other disciplines is necessarily fluid so the same is true of the boundaries between the different aspects of each theorist’s thought. Derrida famously illustrated the latter point when he said, “every time I write, and even in the most academic pieces of work, Joyce’s ghost is always coming on board” (Derrida 149). Consequently, to assess the extent to which any one idea of any one of those theorists is “supposed to explain” any one work of literature, the best one can do is to look at the specific relationship between the idea and the work and then make particular judgements about relevance and intentionality (Durão 42). If it is difficult to define the literariness of theory, it is, as Durão’s examples demonstrate, no easier to separate theorists from authors. For instance, within those examples, Freud appears on both sides of the theorist/author divide: “Lacan without Freud, Freud without Sophocles” (Durão 42). While the idea of grouping Freud with the likes of Dostoyevsky and Kafka may initially seem counter-intuitive, when one considers the centrality of storytelling within Freud’s works and the richness of his prose, it becomes clear that Freud’s works operate as literature on multiple levels. What is also interesting about the second Freud example, “Freud without Sophocles,” is that it challenges the idea that it is theory that explains literature. In that example, a reference to the Oedipus complex, it is literature that explains theory. When viewed together, what Durão’s examples demonstrate is that it is no easier to draw a line between literature and theory than it is to define the relationship between the two.

As if the relationship between literature and theory were not problematic enough, there is another complicating factor, a third term that mediates their relationship: criticism. The terms “literary theory” and “critical theory” are often used as synonyms but there is a difference between a theory that “might be supposed to explain” a text and one that does the same for a reading (Durão 42). That being said, just as a theory that explains a text is criticism, so criticism can certainly be viewed as falling under the broad banner of literary theory. This problem is illustrated by one of the books that Durão cites as an example of theory’s independence, the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Norton evidently felt that they did not sufficiently hedge their bets with the title of this book and so, on their website, the description of the latest edition of that book begins by calling it, “The gold standard anthology for anyone who wants to understand the development and current state of literary theory” (The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism).

All this being so, one might ask how theory can have any degree of independence from literature. And yet it does. When Durão speaks of the semi-autonomy of theory, this accords entirely with my experience of theory as a student and a teacher. In that experience, theory is taught within the English department, but separately from literature. This was the case at the British university in which I first encountered theory as a student and at the Irish university in which I first taught theory as a teaching assistant, and it is presently the case at the American university in which I now offer my own theory course. When theory is first encountered as being separate from literature, it makes sense that it should continue to be viewed in that light. That being said, theory courses are no more precluded from showing how theory applies to literature than literature courses are. Yet the reluctance of each to do so is understandable. As Durão observes, it is not always useful to apply theory to literature:

For very often Theory functions as ready-made methodology, furnishing pre-prepared conceptual tools and argumentative gestures for textual analyses. The exercise in theory classes of adopting a reading position (supported by a plethora of manuals and critical editions) at the same time that it transmits content restrains the critical imagination.

(Durão 50)

Not only does such a method of interpretation result in limited readings, it also results in students feeling unable to claim ownership of their readings. Furthermore, while theoretical applications that go with the grain of a text can verge on redundancy – Do we need to use Marxist literary theory to read Brecht? – readings that go against the grain can give the impression that the teacher is denouncing the text under examination and so can cause students to feel that they should not engage with, let alone like or enjoy, a particular text.

Given that the relationship between literature and theory is one characterized by unity and division, utility and hindrance, one might ask how it should be defined. Durão offers a fascinating answer to this question when he writes that “for many scholars, students and even non-academics theory has an appeal of its own, above and beyond the objects it might be supposed to explain” (Durão 42). To speak of theory as having “an appeal of its own” opens up the possibility that what defines theory is not a particular set of principles or formal characteristics but rather the nature of its appeal to readers. When Durão defines the location of this appeal, he also offers its nature. As the essay goes on to explain, for Durão, it is not simply the case that theory’s appeal lies “above and beyond the objects it might be supposed to explain,” it is also the case that theory’s appeal is that of the “above and beyond.” This becomes clear when Durão writes:

Without a doubt number of theories, say Bloom’s anxiety of influence or Moretti’s distant reading, have been adopted and explored in different objects, but what is misleading about this promise is that it ignores that the really productive (and exciting) moment is that of its formulation itself. Applications are as rule derivative if not quite tedious. No theory without the promise of a broader scope of validity than itself; no interesting theory when such extension is realized.

(Durão 48)

Durão here states two preferences. The first is that he finds theory to be more “productive” and “exciting” in its pure form than its applied form. The second is that the theories he regards as “interesting” are those that are so pregnant that they refuse to yield to attempts at defining their scopes. From these preferences, one can see that what draws Durão to theory is its abstraction, its universality, its transcendence, rather than its capacity for manifestation. One might term this the Platonic appeal of theory. In identifying and explaining this appeal, Durão suggests not only what binds together the loose baggy monster of theory but also why it is so often characterized and treated as being separate from literature. There is a desire for something greater even than literature. For that desire to be fulfilled, theory has been created.

I find this to be a profound suggestion and I would add that the design of theory guarantees that it achieves the desired fulfilment. Its oeuvre has been shaped so as to include major texts from the greatest thinkers within a wide range of disciplines. To go back to the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, that book offers works by the key figures within such fields as philosophy, aesthetics, history, psychology, linguistics, and literature. Wollstonecraft and Saussure mingle with Spinoza and Woolf. Before such an array of titans, no one work or author or even discipline could do anything but kneel. What such a book demonstrates is that, rather than theory being subordinate to literature, literature has willfully subordinated itself to theory.

Bibliography

Derrida, Jacques. “Two Words for Joyce.” Post-Structuralist Joyce: Essays from the French,

edited by Derek Attridge and Daniel Ferrer, Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. 145–59.

The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. wwnorton.com, https://wwnorton.com/books/9780393602951. Accessed 10 July 2020.

Modernism, Theory, and Responsible Reading cover

Robert Baines is Associate Professor of English at the University of Evansville where he teaches twentieth-century British and Irish literature. He received his BA from Oxford University and his MPhil and PhD from Trinity College Dublin. He has published articles on James Joyce in journals including the Dublin James Joyce Journal, the Journal of Modern Literature, and European Joyce Studies. He is currently completing a monograph on the role of philosophy in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.

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