The warping effect of the resistance to theory

I can’t claim to understand all of what I have read thus far in the Paul de Man essay collection The Resistance to Theory (“Hypogram and Inscription” is particularly obtuse to me). Nor do I have a strong enough background in philosophy and literary theory to properly contextualize or situate his arguments. But in the grand Mormon tradition of prooftexting, I’m going to lift a passage from the title essay because I think it explains a lot about literary criticism in general and Mormon literary criticism, in particular. Ostensibly, the essay was supposed to address the teaching of literature and especially of theory and especially in relation to the theoretical turn that literary studies took in the 1970s (and even more in the 1980s), but de Man broadens the scope to take a look at why there has been so much resistance to theory. It is a defense of sorts, and he points out that much of the resistance to it is “based on crude misunderstandings,” and yet it’s not fully a defense of the excesses of theory. He writes:

It may well be, however, that the development of literary theory is itself overdetermined by complications inherent in its very project and unsettling with regard to its status as a scientific discipline. Resistance may be a built-in constituent of its discourse, in a manner that would be inconceivable in the natural sciences and unmentionable in the social sciences. It may well be, in other words, that the polemical opposition, the systemic non-understanding and misrepresentation, the unsubstantial but eternally recurrent objections, are the displaced symptoms of a resistance inherent in the theoretical enterprise itself. To claim that this would be sufficient reason not to envisage doing literary theory would be like rejecting anatomy because it has failed to cure mortality. The real debate of literary theory is not with its polemical opponents but rather with its methodological assumptions and possibilities. Rather than asking why literary theory is threatening, we should perhaps ask why it has such difficulty going about its business and why it lapses so readily either into the language of self-justification and self-defense or else into the overcompensation of a programmatically euphoric utopianism. (13)

I wonder if one of the major tensions in the Mormon literary world, even when the theory being done isn’t on an academic level, but rather consists of readerly or writerly reactions to the issues of the field (including that pesky Shakespeares and Miltons quote), is that we get hung up on self-justification or overcompensation, and, yes, programmatic utopias. We seem to expend quite a bit of energy slipping around in the mires of what the boundaries are, of what the futures are, of what the major figures are and what they mean, of what “should be done.” These are natural debates to involve ourselves in and seem to be especially endemic to minority /minor literatures and, as de Man explains, are simply inherent to the field.

Or to put it another way: it’s hard to define and evaluate Mormon literature because it’s, well, literature.

But just because it’s difficult, doesn’t mean that it’s invalid (in both senses of the word). And perhaps we need to be about our business more and worry less about the justifications and the overcompensations.

8 thoughts on “The warping effect of the resistance to theory”

  1. .

    Do we spend that much time justifying or compensating? I suppose we do. Engaging in a bit of self-analysis, I can see I used to. I’ve left that argument behind though, considering it self-evident.

    In other news, anyone who uses the word “envisage” is not likely to sell me their book. George Orwell and E.B. White would not approve.

  2. Hey, it’s Paul de Man — and the early ’80s. This passage is actually one of the more easily intelligible ones in the book. And who’s to say that envisage isn’t a perfectly cromulent word?

    Besides: Orwell and White are pre-theory modernists.

  3. Um, I’m pretty sure that me and my nine-year-old bachelor’s degree don’t really get this but I’m still commenting.

    First, prooftexting is a new word to me and it is awesome.

    Second, for me I indulge in the habit of talking about literature and writing (and theory, to a much lesser extent) rather than producing literature and writing (I produce no coherent theories) because it’s easier than doing the actual writing. And because it’s fun.

    And I guess I’ve just proved the warping effect of theory resistance. Er, whatever.

  4. 1. Theory in the sciences serves to expand the realm of scientific knowledge and its practical applications. Theory in the humanities serves primarily to further the pursuit of more theories in the humanities. Creators and consumers of literature will go on doing so regardless.

    Though I agree with Laura that it is fun.

    2. It’s hard to define and evaluate Mormon literature because it’s, well, Mormon. Strip away the Mormon labels and context, and in power law fashion, you automatically lose a good 80 percent of the “difficulties” right then and there. (The remaining 20 percent will persist in any case.)

  5. “Overdetermined” is my favorite word choice. Every time I try to use it in my own writing it comes off a little funny.

    “We seem to expend quite a bit of energy slipping around in the mires of what the boundaries are, of what the futures are, of what the major figures are and what they mean, of what ‘should be done.'”

    I think this is well put, and it’s certainly a problem in Mormon literary studies. I think these are easy debates to have because everyone interested in the issues generally has a strong opinion about them, so it’s not hard to let them get in the way of more meaningful criticism.

    You’re right: we need to think about Mormon literature as literature and not a novelty. As critics, we need to approach it like we’d approach any other work. Of course, in doing so, we can’t strip away its Mormonness, because that’s obviously an essential part of it. But if it gets in the way of the literary analysis–becomes a distraction, the main focus–what’s the point?

  6. I don’t pretend to know what de Man was talking about. (He’s one theorist I managed to largely avoid in my abortive graduate program.) However, the main reason that I see for systemic, visceral resistance to theory is the contest over who owns literature: readers or theorists.

    Like Eugene, I don’t see the practice of theory in literature as having much to do with literary production in a practical sense, any more than the study of linguistics has to do with speaking and writing. That is to say, literary theory is the scientific (I’ll grant de Man that word) study of a human practice, but hardly necessary or important to that practice. In fact, there’s reason to doubt that studying literary theory actually helps you to be a better writer — unless your goal is to write works that appeal to theorists.

    Having said that, I’m now going to go ahead and disagree with it, however, largely on the grounds that it sets up what I think is a false dichotomy. The model I find closer to reality isn’t a tension between theory (theorists) and practice (practitioners), but rather a notion of literature as being embedded within communities, each of which wants — and tends to generate — literature that comes from within itself, that appeals and conforms to its own concerns, values, and strictures. Which means that there’s a community of people obsessed with theory who study certain texts and tend to generate not only theoretical but also literary texts that interest them, and another group interested in the hard sciences who tend to generate and think and talk about science fiction, and a different group who tend to read and talk about mysteries — and not one but many groups of Mormon readers who tend to generate and talk about works that interest them.

  7. What Paul de Man is referring to is less the tension between theory and practice and more the backlash against theory by critics of the humanities e.g. the culture wars.

    But, I completely agree with the idea of literature as being embedded within communities.

    I would also note that Eugene’s contrast between science and the humanities is interesting and technically correct when viewed only through the lens of scholarly publication, but since people keep on teaching and talking about narrative and language, the question is less of whether theory is of practical value in the humanities and more about what effect theory has on the conversations taking place.

  8. The backlash against theory by critics *of* the humanities? Or by critics *within* the humanities? It seems to me that I’ve seen at least as much of the latter as of the former… In any event, regardless of source, most of the anti-theory sentiment I’ve seen seems to spring from a place where reading is seen as more transparent, and theory thus as an innately perverse exercise. In short, it’s done in the name of defense of the text against what is described as a theory-based attack that removes the text from relevance. But maybe the arguments I saw weren’t the ones de Man was talking about.

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