Some Theoretical Declarations of the Death of Theory

        One sign that a theory or theories have obtained political power and canonical influence is that they become worth attacking to acquire some of their interpretive "capital" for the attackers' favorite competing theories.  From these descriptions of recent attacks on Cultural Studies and theory in general, can you tell the theoretical agendas promoted by their authors?  If so,  you are becoming theory-literate, which is the goal of the course.  Note that I have no "dog in this fight" as long as theory does not become so reactionary that only representatives of wealthy, white male interests get published.  They still occupy many of the chairs in literature departments and get the plum book contracts, but perhaps that is because they get some good ideas, too?  Besides, if you omit "wealthy" from my list, I am one!  See this 2008 edition of Critical Inquiry (30:2), one of the main post-NC journals of the 1970s-90s, which here collects a wide range of speculations about the future of theory and rumors of theory's "death."

Gerald Bruns, Tragic Thoughts at the End of Philosophy: Language, Literature, and Ethical Theory.  (Chicago: Northwestern UP, 1999) description: Bruns, perhaps one of most insightful of contemporary literary theorists, investigates the recent phenomenon of philosophers taking an interest in literature and literary theory. Beginning with the premise that philosophy and literature are internal to one another's histories, starting with Plato's "Republic", Bruns examines diverse thinkers and topics such as Stanley Cavell on Shakespeare, Donald Davidson on James Joyce and Richard Rorty on the Poetizing of culture. The book offers a view of what happens when philosophers begin looking at the world from the ground level - that is, as inhabitants, rather than as disengaged observers.

Terrence Eagleton, After Theory (N.Y.: Basic Books, 2004)

Publishers Weekly review: The author of the seminal cultural studies primer Literary Theory now levels an equally trenchant critique at the field in this brilliant and provocative reassessment. Writing in a valedictory mood, Eagleton traces the rise of cultural theory through its golden age (c. 1965-80), and bemoans its decline into a shallow, depoliticized preoccupation with sex and pop-culture ephemera. As grad students churn out "reverential essays on Friends," latter-day cultural theorists espouse a "dim-witted" postmodernism that dismisses as hegemonic claptrap all talk of common values, objective truth and coherent historical narratives; they have thereby, he contends, turned away from the great socialist project of collective action in support of universal human liberation, and aligned themselves with the nihilistic thrust of a capitalism they pretend to oppose. Alongside Eagleton's indictment of the sorry state of cultural studies is a ringing defense of its potential to address grander subjects than The Matrix or nipple piercing, which he demonstrates by weaving in deft and illuminating commentaries on such topics as Aristotle's ethics, the tension between law and morality in St. Paul and the link between the body and social justice in Lear. The book stands as both rebuke and example to the kind of academic writer who deploys turgid abstractions to flesh out meager ideas; virtually every paragraph crackles with fresh and compelling insights, conveyed in a style that's intellectually sophisticated yet lucid, funny and down to earth. In rescuing cultural studies from some of its less thoughtful practitioners, Eagleton confirms its continuing importance to our understanding of the world.

Stein Haugrom Olsen, The End of Literary Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008) description: The essays in this collection are concerned with the philosophical problems that arise in connection with the understanding and evaluation of literature - such problems as the relationship between the work and the author (authorial intention), between the work and the world (reference and truth), the definition of a literary work, and the nature of literary theory itself. Professor Olsen attacks many of the orthodoxies of modern literary theory, in particular the enterprise to build a comprehensive systematic literary theory. His own work is informed by a consistent perspective: the assumption that literature is a social institution governed by conventions, and that answers to problems of interpretation and appreciation can be found only through an analysis of these conventions. This is an important book for scholars and students of literary theory and philosophy, especially for those who see an ever-increasing cross-fertilization between the two disciplines.