25 February 2008

British Theory

Here is an old lecture (1989), dated but perhaps still useful to students of literary theory:

An Unreconstructed Filipino Deconstructionist in Thatcherite Country, or Travels in British Theory 1988


Like Britain, British literary theory today is divided into three parts, limply labelled feminism, structuralism, and cultural materialism. Typically British, British feminism has little to do with American feminism, despite Gayatri Spivak of Pittsburgh’s non-stop transoceanic voyages. Instead, British feminism wears French clothes, designed by the French Feminist Trinity of Helene Cixous, Julia Kristeva, and Luce Irigaray, and marketed by Toril Moi, formerly of Oxford’s Lady Margaret Hall. Similarly British, British structuralism, being marxist, is the exact opposite of rightist, formalist, synchronic Yale deconstructionism. More identifiably British because indigenous is Raymond Williams of Cambridge’s cultural materialism, given new life through his sudden death on January 26, 1988, and through the continuing productivity of his disciples Terry Eagleton of Oxford’s Linacre College, formerly of Wadham College, and Sussex’s dynamic duo of Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield.

We can say that Scotland with Strathclyde is cultural materialism, Wales with Cardiff is feminism, and England with Southampton is structuralism, though we can just as adroitly draw the theory map with Strathclyde’s literary linguists keeping structuralism alive, Cardiff’s Terence Hawkes canonizing cultural materialism by commissioning a volume on it in his widely- influential New Accents series, and Southampton’s feminists attacking both patriarchy and the academic aristocracy. But then again we can start with Cardiff’s Christopher Norris championing structuralism with a straight deconstructive face. Theoretically, we would never stop redrawing the map, drawing maps being Hawkes’ favorite metaphor for theorizing. No matter how we juggle the pieces to fit England, Scotland, and Wales, however, one odd piece remains: the Northern Ireland of theory, Reading’s Patrick Parrinder, whose movement against theory is a theoretical movement in itself.

Like tracks on the London tube, the paths of the three trains of theoretical thought constantly intersect, appearing to run parallel at times only to merge at unexpected moments. Today’s senior British feminists used to be the young radicals of The Marxist Feminist Literature Collective. Those who used to call themselves structuralists now prefer to be known as post- structuralists, though in a pinch, they would rather drop the root word altogether in favor of the more deceivingly neutral term “theorists,” meaning, in British theory English, marxists. Marxism, of course, is the genre to which cultural materialism belongs, though Dollimore and Sinfield, in insisting that homosexuality must be problematized within the marxist agenda, have effectively collapsed sociology and psychoanalysis, bringing the British theoretical world back full circle to feminism, through which Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan entered, first surreptitiously, then rowdily, British academic life.

My lecture, as envisioned and demanded by the Alfredo E. Litiatco professorial chair fund, is not in three (or four) parts, but merely in two. This first part consists mainly of a name-dropping account of my grand tour of Britain, a kind of intellectual home movie for which I am thankful I have an audience of masochistic friends. I intend merely to give information in today’s sense of that term; that means I shall be playing the game of Literary Theory Trivial Pursuit. Pursuing literary theory aptly describes what I actually did for the five months I stayed in England as a Senior Fellow of the British Council, a signal honor that allowed me to be collected from the airport, to collect generous amounts to spend on fish and chips and on British publishers, and to be wined and dined by the Council’s Harriet Harvey-Wood and John Green. To the British Council head office in London, to its various regional offices particularly the one in Oxford, and to Manila representative Hugh Salmon, I offer sincerest thanks. To them I owe the most recent of the radical changes in my theorizing.

In the second part of my Litiatco lecture, which I shall deliver next month in my own language, I shall illustrate what each of the three theoretical strains can add to our repertoire of reading skills, particularly in our reading of Balagtas’ Florante at Laura. I choose English now because the discourse of the authors I shall mention is in English; I shall use Filipino then because my text will be in Tagalog.

To carry on, then. What is happening in British theory today?

First, Britain is losing some of its best theorists. Moi, who was strangered by Oxford’s patriarchy, forcing her to accept the directorship of the Centre for Feminist Research in the Humanities at the University of Bergen in Norway, now spends half the year at Duke University, the great and successful American pirate of theorists. Duke has also dangled the dollar carrot successfully in Dollimore’s face. Also half the year out is Norris, who bilocates at Berkeley. Strathclyde’s Derek Attridge and Sussex’s Cora Kaplan have joined Rutgers. Still rooted in merry olde England are Eagleton, Manchester’s Antony Easthope, and Cambridge’s Elizabeth Wright, but all three do the British Council lecture circuit, being globetrotting academics straight out of David Lodge’s novel Small World. It’s only a matter of time before the feelers sent to these three, as well as other critics, will turn into luscious offers, and then, who knows? The British government’s drastic cutting of university budgets, the dropping of tenure, and the continuous attrition of feminists and marxists from Oxford and Cambridge have all made Thatcherite country a place to drain brains from. America, though former colony rather than colonizer as in our case, seems to be just as attractive to British intellectuals as it is to our own writers.

While driven theorists are being driven out of the country in droves, theory itself may be said to be driving itself out of existence. It was not unusual for me to hear the remark, in the words of Ann Jefferson of Oxford’s New College, that “the moment of theory has passed.” Symptomatic of the sense of an ending (as Frank Kermode -- who I did not meet -- might put it) is the publication in 1988 of Easthope’s British Post- Structuralism since 1968, a summing-up if we ever saw one. The book’s first chapter is entitled “Beginnings: On the Left,” and though the last chapter is not entitled “Endings: On the Right” -- Easthope, in fact, in an appendix, protests that “post- structuralism is nowhere near an orthodoxy, still less a hegemony in English intellectual life” -- literary competents can easily provide the closure code. Kent’s Bernard Sharratt protested even more violently when I called him a literary theorist; he had left literature, he said, ten years back. At Essex, of course, which used to be the breeding ground of Machereyian marxists like Soledad Reyes, the 1986 Literature, Politics & Theory marked an institutional closure, though current plans include a revival of the famous Essex conferences, with New Historicism trumpeting in a new series in 1989. Interestingly enough, the convenors of the conference, Francis Barker and Peter Hulme, are thinking of inviting not only non-theorists, but anti-theorists as well. The commonsensical realists have scaled the wall, or the wall has turned out to be illusory.

If the moment of theory, after much scrutiny, has indeed passed, what has taken its place? Cultural value theory, of course, though old-fashioned aesthetics in Eagleton’s hands -- he is said to be preparing his magnum opus and in fact delivered two Kant-like lectures in quick succession last summer (if British summers can be called summers) -- and image studies in other people’s hands are emerging as well to challenge the dominant radical forces. There is always fiction writing, of course, a course that Eagleton has tried, following Williams.

Theory being a phoenix, however, having shown its resiliency since 1,000 B.C. by rising and falling and rising again in China, Greece, and Italy, cannot so easily be marginalized in footnotes. In Williams’ Wales, a Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory has been established at the newly- merged University of Wales College of Cardiff, boasting a First Five that can outplay any team outside of Duke: Catherine Belsey, Hawkes, Norris, Chris Weedon, and Peter Foulkes. It was Belsey, of course, who wrote the 1980 Critical Practice, which came as close to orthodoxy as any anti-orthodoxy book could. Hawkes not only edits New Accents, but keeps coming up with new ways of reading Shakespeare. Norris writes books in his sleep, and his latest on Paul de Man, defending rather than attacking, seems guaranteed to keep other people awake nights. Weedon and Foulkes I did not meet personally, in contrast to the rest of the critics (save Kermode) I have mentioned, who met me at lunch or tea or both to argue or to agree about the lapsed or relapsed moment of theory. From their books, however, the two seem to be comfortably enshrined among the biggies. Cardiff has, for some time, been publishing the leading journal in literary theory today, Textual Practice, and is set to hold in September, 1989, the biggest theory bash since Strathclyde’s 1986 Linguistics of Writing.

Back in England, the Critical Theory Group at Nottingham are still going strong, though much of their time is taken up by teaching. Similarly teaching-oriented are the staff of Warwick’s Graduate School of Comparative Literary Theory and Literary Translation. Because they are not based in only one university, only the Modern Critical Theory Group can afford to ford continuously their non-English, therefore non-hegemonic, way into theory, and their journal entitled Paragraph seems unlikely to fold.

Who are the big names in British theory today? Eagleton is still considered the most equal of the equals, though feminists at his own Oxford are starting to feel unhappy over his afeminist books. About his life, they cannot be as unhappy, since he recommended young feminist Jeri Johnson to take his place at Wadham, and he acknowledges his friendship with Moi in his prefaces. He also happens to edit the Rereading Literature series (second only to New Accents in influence), where Belsey’s latest feminist reading of Milton appears. Lesser stars, but just as crucial leaders in their own firmaments, are Nottingham’s Douglas Tallack, Southampton’s Robert Young, Lancaster’s Raman Selden, Middlesex Polytechnic’s Peter Widdowson, and Warwick’s Susan Basnett.

Foreign theorists remain, as always, on top of the most-admired list. Still the most quoted is Jacques Derrida, though less blindly adulatory now than earlier. At his heels are Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard. If Eagleton is to be believed, however, Habermas and the Germans may stage a comeback anyday now. For feminists, still on top are the French Trinity, though there’s Spivak, who remains primarily a feminist rather than, despite her latest book, an anti-orientalist discourse theorist. At the July Warwick conference on translation, Spivak argued against her own earlier denunciation of Derrida and urged all sisters to give up the name of Woman; her paper was received in stunned but obviously impressed silence.

One last piece of trivia should finally make everything unclear. Manchester University Press’ well-intentioned and excellently-conceived Cultural Politics series, featuring offbeat readings of various texts, was being edited by Dollimore and Sinfield. Manchester, however, censored the volume on homosexuality, causing the Sussex Two to resign last September. Considering Britain’s long tradition of intellectual freedom, the scandal should have been as serious as America’s discovering that Martin Heidegger and Paul de Man supported Hitler, but only amused giggles met the incident. The three parts of Britain and its multicolored train lines may merge and emerge, but Thatcherite rightism draws the line at the third sex. Gender remains a binary opposition in strict structuralist or post- structuralist fashion; gay marxism is still a bit too offbeat in the land of Oscar Wilde.

Instead of drawing the line, we should probably be redrawing our map, to return to Hawkes’ metaphor. What I have tried to do in this first part of my Litiatco lecture is to draw a map of literary theory in Britain. It is a high-tech map, a laser-drawn hologram, constantly changing colors, yet remaining forever British.



(First delivered as an Alfredo E. Litiatco Professorial Chair Lecture on 4 February 1989 at De La Salle University, Manila, Philippines)

1 comment:

M. Ramirez Talusan said...

I would love to read the lecture on Florante at Laura in Filipino. I had no idea that contemporary theory was being taught in universities as early as the 80's.