Against (bad) theory

I don’t like literary theorists that take their thoughts more seriously than the integrity of the work under examination. Making a text dance to whatever tune you impose belongs among the Forbidden Curses. I remember some time ago telling Robert Coles I was considering dumping medicine and getting a PhD in literature. His apt response was decisive: “But I thought you LIKED books!”

I’m not dismissing theory outright. As Wiillard van Orman Quine makes clear in his so-called “underdetermination thesis,” no datum is self-interpreting. Every data set is read through the lens of prior assumptions. Those prior assumptions should, to the extent possible, rest on concrete experience and careful reflection, not on abstraction and speculation, though the latter may sometimes prove necessary. A careful theorist knows she’s smeared her interpretive lenses beforehand. The ideal, honest interpretive stance is neither feckless solipsism (“I only know can’t know anything”) nor aggressive eisegesis (“I know better than you or the author”) but epistemological humility (“I know precious little”).

I also don’t like writing bad reviews. I much prefer praising the good. On the other hand, a well-written bad review — especially one that rightly names academic language for the pretentious vacuity it so often is — can be both refreshing and salutary. I haven’t read the text reviewed here so I must exercise caution in endorsing the reviewers conclusions, but it’s hard to beat this opening paragraph for color and candor:

“This is a book that contradicts itself a hundred times; but that is not a criticism of it, because its author thinks contradictions are a sign of intellectual ferment and vitality. This is a book that systematically distorts and selects historical evidence; but that is not a criticism, because its author thinks that all interpretations are biased, and she regards it as her duty to pick and choose her facts to favor her own brand of politics. This is a book full of vaporous, French-intellectual prose that makes Teilhard de Chardin sound like Ernest Hemingway by comparison; but that is not a criticism, because the author likes that sort of prose and has taken lessons in how to write it, and she thinks that plain, homely speech is part of a conspiracy to oppress the poor. This is a book that clatters around in a dark closet of irrelevancies for 450 pages before it bumps accidentally into its index and stops; but that is not a criticism, either, because its author finds it gratifying and refreshing to bang unrelated facts together as a rebuke to stuffy minds. This book infuriated me; but that is not a defect in it, because it is supposed to infuriate people like me, and the author would have been happier still if I had blown out an artery. In short, this book is flawless, because all its deficiencies are deliberate products of art. Given its assumptions, there is nothing here to criticize. The only course open to a reviewer who dislikes this book as much as I do is to question its author’s fundamental assumptions–which are big-ticket items involving the nature and relationships of language, knowledge, and science.”


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