Monday, October 17, 2005

the 800 lb. gorilla

Day 50
17 October 2005

Today’s class discussion in English was about critical theory. I agree that the question of whether critical theory should be taught in English departments (answer: yes) isn’t really a question any more; the profession has moved on to other questions, and some of these I find a little perplexing. Terry Eagleton, for example, seems to think that the point of the Humanities is to be proactive in instituting social change. This is not surprising given his Marxist background, but I confess that I don’t entirely see the connection between the Humanities and activism. This is not to say that there is no connection between literature and social issues, since there obviously is, and I am not naive enough to think that scholarship exists in a vacuum. But should we not all be activists, regardless of our field of study? Isn’t that a part of good citizenship? I don’t feel that the English department has a particular mandate to effect social change, any more than, say, the Biology department.

A question also arose from the discussion, about the difficulties of reconciling one’s religious faith with critical theory. This perplexed me as well. Maybe I don’t take theory seriously enough, but I’ve never really seen much of a conflict. When I took the undergrad critical theory class last year, we hit a few of the high points of Western philosophy and literary criticism, beginning with Plato and Aristotle, and working our way through to the twentieth century. In between we covered people like Sidney, Burke, Shelley, Arnold, Nietzsche (will I ever learn to spell that correctly?) Woolf, etc. representing a huge pantheon of wildly diverse ideas. One thing that immediately became clear to me as I read their work was that they could not all be “right.” Plato and Aristotle, for example, had completely opposite theories on the nature of the universe. So, what is a lowly undergraduate English student to think? Is the universe static or dynamic? Could it somehow be both, or neither? I think my ultimate response to those questions is, “Maybe I don’t know, but I’m OK with that.” I didn’t sign up for that class looking for answers about life, or the nature of the universe, or anything else, really. Understanding what each author was saying was an interesting intellectual exercise, but I didn’t find any of their arguments compelling enough to precipitate a crisis of faith. Did that class change my world view? Sure. Did it turn everything I knew upside-down? No.

We had a guest lecturer today who specializes in intellectual history (the same guy who taught my critical theory class, in fact). One thing he said that I found very interesting, is that critical theory is no longer about identity theory (feminism, post-modernism, queer theory, whatever). Instead he described something that sounded a lot like the study of philosophy. Well, OK, but don’t we already have a philosophy department? I haven nothing against interdisciplinarity, if it’s done well, but at what point have we encroached so far into another discipline that we are no longer primarily studying literature?

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