College Week

The Death of Literary Theory

Is it really a good thing?

Click here to read more from Slate’s “College Week.”

Hugh Blair was the very first English professor. His official title was the regius professor of rhetoric and belles lettres at the University of Edinburgh, and when he was appointed in 1762, almost no one in the world did what he did: formally teach literary works written in English. A few years earlier, Blair had been shown a manuscript of some ancient Gaelic verse, a fragment of an epic by a third-century poet named Ossian. The fragment—translated into modern English—was called “The Death of Oscar,” and it recounted a heroic past in which the Scots had defended the British Isles against foreign invasion. “The Death of Oscar” thrilled Blair, and in 1760 he helped finance a trip into the northern Highlands to recover more of what he was now calling “our epic.” Blair didn’t know that, even as he was bankrolling its painstaking restoration, “our epic” was being composed in the apartment directly below his. The Ossian fragments were a fake, a miscellany of oral ballads and Irish saga cycles and Viking lore that had been cleverly patched together to flatter the tastes and expectations of—well, Hugh Blair, whose enthusiasm helped make them an international sensation. (Napoleon carried a translation in his vest pocket; Goethe incorporated sections into The Sorrows of Young Werther.) The first professor of English was, in other words, a sucker. Why should he have been the last?

For most of the 240-odd years since Hugh Blair, English professors have been suckers, and for the same reason Blair made such a glorious one: No one knows what an English professor does. In waking up each day only to rejustify their entireexistence—to jealous colleagues, to class-shopping undergraduates, to the administrative purse strings—professors of literature invoke the literary past in whatever way will most advance their own institutional self-interest. Blair’s was simply the most aggravated instance of the case. As the first English professor, he needed a work of literature in English, sufficiently venerable to justify teaching it instead of the Greek and Latin classics, but not a work of English literature, which would only confirm to him and his students their second-class status as Scottish provincials. In Ossian, he wish-fulfilled into existence an entire Scottish epic past.

At each subsequent stage in the history of the modern university, English professors have repurposed literary history to suit expedient needs. When English classes were one way of carrying forward the religious mood of schools once devoted to educating a ministry, literature was made an occasion for conversion or homily. “I escaped from the gall of bitterness and the bond of my philistine iniquity, into the kingdom of light,” is how William Phelps, the man who pioneered the modern English class at Yale, colorfully described his discovery of Tennyson. Meanwhile, Irving Babbitt, the great Harvard professor of the ‘20s and ‘30s, cleansed the great books of their incest and gore in a font of anodyne moralism. “[Babbitt] almost succeeded in giving Sophocles and Plato the aspect of pious English dons,” said Edmund Wilson, an avowed nonprofessor. “[He] has turned Sophocles into something even worse and even more alien to his true nature; he has turned him into a Harvard Humanist.”

For all its pretense to being a grand irruption, the great age of literary theory was not so different. It started with New Criticism in the ‘30s and ‘40s, which, if you think about it, was less a literary movement than one of the great public works projects launched in the wake of World War II, by which the teaching of literature was democratized to fit the needs of a rapidly expanding university system. New Criticism is always described as a method of close reading (mostly of poems) that assumes no historical or biographical facts about the author. But its great virtue was as a mass-scalable method of teaching, as it assumed no biographical or historical knowledge on the part of the student. It was, in short, a reading technique that could be taught to any bright learner, whatever his or her cultural background. By flattering students for their aptitude and not their moral or aesthetic sensitivity, New Criticism allowed the English department to grow alongside a newly meritocratic and increasingly professionalized university.

With New Criticism, literary history was still being customized to fit the professor’s expedient needs. In were the Augustans and the Metaphysicals and T.S. Eliot, whose poems supposedly reward close reading; out were the slovenly Romantics, whose poems supposedly don’t. But something had started to change. The English professor himself was slowly evolving. The key to that evolution was what is sometimes called “the linguistic turn.” Language is of course the necessary medium for all advanced learning; but after Wittgenstein, the default position of the tenured philosophe has been that only withinlanguage can we order and experience human reality. If the English professor is the expert in charge of understanding how we use language—how metaphors shape history, how history shapes our metaphors, etc., etc.—he holds a position of enormous intellectual authority on a college campus. For a brief period, climaxing with the reign of terror of the Yale Deconstructionists, the English professor appeared to have arrogated, not only all of literary history, but all possible knowledge to his own powers of interpretation. The English professor had completed the transition. He was no longer a sucker. He was now a con man extraordinaire.

The end of the era of the English professor as con man, and his return to sucker status (at least in the public imagination), can be dated with some precision. In 1996, a physics professor at NYU named Alan Sokal submitted an article to the then cutting-edge journal Social Text in which he argued that the idea of an external world obedient to invariable physical laws was an Enlightenment fiction. Sokal went to great lengths to make the editors of Social Text appear as inane as possible: In support of an outrageous thesis he offered only banal recitations of trendy Post-Modernist dogma, and a lot of what he asserted in the name of science was either absurd or demonstrably false. Sokal had designed his bogus arguments to flatter the editors of Social Text in much the same way another trickster, 250 years earlier, had designed Ossian to flatter Hugh Blair. The con man’s game is always the same: sensing what the gull most wants to be true. Sokal knew that a respected physicist admitting that the scientific method is itself a social construct—subject to the same protocols of interpretation as King Lear or Lamia—would complete the English department’s grab for intellectual pre-eminence. The same day the issue of Social Text appeared, Sokal announced in the magazine Lingua Franca that his article had been a prank. Fustian know-nothings have been celebrating ever since.

I started graduate school a few years before the Sokal hoax, when what was still transgressive and sexy about literary theory was fighting it out with the sheer ay, caramba factor of such pronouncements as “E=MC2 is a sexed equation.” By the time I exited grad school, the feeling of an era being over—however meretricious in some of its particulars the era might have been—was unmistakable. These days, no think tank pundit would bother to denounce literary theory; its biggest stars, by way of generating some final headlines, have publicly disowned it; and no fresh cohort of terrifying intellectual charismatics has crossed the Atlantic to revive it.

Great critics continue to write brilliantly about novels and poems, both within the academy and without. But something was lost when the English department relinquished its status as the all-purpose intellectual nerve center on the American college campus. In its weakness lay its great strength: For not knowing exactly what an English professor does, the English department, though vulnerable to charlatanism and dupery, was also the last great repository for the nonutilitarian hopes of the university. These Cardinal Newman had in mind when he wrote in The Idea of a University that “intellectual self-possession and repose” should be the ideal of a humanist education, and thatthese lie prior to any specific vocational end. Newman railed against the insistence that higher education must “at once make this man a lawyer, that an engineer, and that a surgeon.” Though intellectual repose was hardly what the editors of Social Text had in mind, it’s worth remembering that it wasn’t Sokal who came out best in his eponymous hoax, but an English professor. As Stanley Fish gently explained to professor Sokal in an op-ed to the New York Times,

What sociologists of science say is that of course the world is real and independent of our observations but that accounts of the world are produced by observers and are therefore relative to their capacities, education, training, etc. It is not the world or its properties but the vocabularies in whose terms we know them that are socially constructed—fashioned by human beings—which is why our understanding of those properties is continually changing.Distinguishing fact from fiction is surely the business of science, but the means of doing so are not perspicuous in nature—for if they were, there would be no work to be done. Consequently, the history of science is a record of controversies about what counts as evidence and how facts are to be established.Those who concern themselves with this history neither dispute the accomplishments of science nor deny the existence or power of scientific procedure. They just maintain and demonstrate that the nature of scientific procedure is a question continually debated in its own precincts.

Did Post-Modernism—in this instance, some twilit mélange of Gadamer and Lyotard and Habermas and Kuhn and Latour, many of whose original beachhead in America had been the credulous English department—overreach in taking on science? Maybe. But on its way to producing a new generation of lawyers and engineers and surgeons (and risk arbitrageurs and pharma lobbyists), was it so wrong for a university to indulge one department whose time was spent agonizing over the entire mission of knowledge production itself? By never firmly establishing what it itself was for, the English department cultivated habits of withering self-reflection and so became one mechanism by which the university could stay in touch with its nonutilitarian self and subject its own practices to ongoing critique. Did the theory era produce bullshit by the mountain-load? Of course it did. But by allowing “literary theory” to turn into a pundit’s byword, signifying the pompous, the outmoded, the shallow, the faddish, we may have quietly resolved the argument over what a university is for in favor of no self-reflection whatsoever.