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Hefer '12: How I learned to stop worrying and love lit crit

Literary criticism ­- by which I mean the discipline practiced by the comparative literature, modern culture and media and other related departments - has its fingers in a lot of pies. Race and gender/sexuality studies are rife with critical thought. It seems that each of the humanities has picked up something from it, with the possible exception of classics and analytic philosophy.

Walking around campus, one has to try not to hear discussions about Derrida or see an "I heart Adorno" bag. Not everyone at Brown is so enamored. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics students sneer at literary theory and those who apply it. This attitude leads to charges that STEM students are too wrapped up in their own worldview or something else to the effect of, "You don't get it."

From what I've seen, literary theory makes proclamations that are either obviously true or absurdly false. As Searle and Foucault described it, the style is terrorist obscurantism. Everything is so obscure and slippery that you can't grab onto a single claim. When you do have something firmly in hand and criticize it, the response is "You misunderstand, you idiot."

Literary theory encourages a relativistic or constructivist view of things: Science is deeply embedded in our history, culture and language, so any conclusion found by science can only be said to hold for people from a specific group. It is all too easy to parody the claims of literary theorists: "Objectivity doesn't exist," "There is no Truth" or "A pernicious phallogocentrism is the cornerstone of Western thought."

Small wonder that STEM students are so hostile! The sciences get at important facets of the world. They offer us explanatory and predictive power that is too good to write off as a coincidence or simply a product of our culture. Cell phones and laptops work regardless of where you come from or what you believe. And we know this is because there are electrons and protons and all kinds of -ons doing their funky thing on the subatomic scale.

It was with this mindset that I fell into a state of puzzlement. How could such a large portion of our classmates and faculty be suckered in by something so clearly ridiculous? How could a discipline sustain itself when students and professors so openly deride it? In order to straighten myself out, I took some classes.

I stick by what I said about literary theory. But when we take a certain view of the discipline, we can see that it does not deserve the bum rep it gets. Literary theory is essentially an art - our first clue should have been "literary." It offers us interesting, but not accurate, ways to see the world around us.

On the one hand, this means we shouldn't take the claims of literary theory quite so seriously. When we come across a claim from literary theory that seems to conflict with science or common sense, we should realize that this conflict is only apparent. Instead, we recognize that it would be interesting if, say, logic were hopelessly hegemonic and better off abandoned.

On the other hand, literary theory is not a proper object of ridicule. Our friends who study literary theory are developing complicated "What if?" scenarios. This practice is no sillier than literature, film or any other art.

I suspect that some students of literary theory will not appreciate my characterization of the field as an art. If you've taken theory to heart, you have every reason to think that scientific statements have just as much claim to the Truth or objectivity as literary theory. It would be reasonable to go so far as to say that science and common sense have been fatally undermined, and literary theory should supplant them.

If this line of thought is attractive to you, then your work is not done. If literary theory is not an art, if it is making claims about the world that can be accurate or inaccurate, then you ought to be sure that your theories are accurate.

Why does science do such a good job of describing the world? Can we accept the pluralistic methods of literary theory? In short, you have to engage in some actual justifying and argumentation. As a consequence, the terrorist obscurantism is better done away with.

Contrarily, if you do see literary theory as an art, then you should be more forthcoming about its status as such. In this case, obscurantism is appropriate and may even be beneficial. However, you do a discredit to a perfectly respectable field by presenting it as something that it isn't.

Disciplines like race and gender studies that rely on elements of literary theory should set to work separating insight from artistry.

Perhaps I am being uncharitable, and my understanding of literary theory is terribly misguided or otherwise incorrect. If so, please clear the air for the rest of us.



David Hefer '12 is a philosophy and math concentrator who doesn't feel comfortable speaking for entire fields, appearances to the contrary.



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