Who's Afraid of a Little Literary Theory?

05/01/2013 10:29 pm ET | Updated Jul 01, 2013
  • Evan Gottlieb Associate Professor of English, Oregon State University

When I tell people I'm an English professor, I frequently get one of several responses. When it's "You're not going to correct my grammar, are you?" I can reassure them that I won't (even if I can't help doing so in my head). Then, depending on the nature of their memories of high school or college English classes, I often hear something along the lines of "I always liked/ hated a) reading novels, or b) writing essays about them." Those who disliked English are usually satisfied when I respond sympathetically; those who remember such activities fondly are generally happy to reminisce about them.

But there's a harder question that sometimes follows, especially from those who don't have good memories of English classes past: "So what do you do, exactly?"

Depending on the tone in which it's asked, I try to guess what's behind this kind of question. If the person seems genuinely interested, then I think what I'm really being asked is something like: "How is what you do different from what I do at my monthly book club meeting?" But when the tone is suspicious, then I wonder whether what I'm really hearing is: "Why do English professors often talk and write about novels, poems, and plays in ways that I don't understand?"

In this case, the question I'm really being asked, however indirectly, is about the role of literary or critical theory in the study of literature and culture.

I can understand people's confusion. After all, I study, teach, and write about things that non-English professors also encounter every day: words and images. Unlike scientific disciplines like astrophysics and biochemistry, or even social sciences like sociology and psychology, English -- understood in its broadest sense as encompassing rhetoric, writing, cultural studies, and film studies -- deals not in data, equations, or experiments (although the "digital humanities" movement is changing some of this). We think about the same elements of language and visual imagery that people engage with whenever they write a report, read a book, or go to a movie.

Yet when English profs and graduate students teach these materials in the classroom, and especially when we write about them in academic journals or scholarly books, we sound different. We might use specialized terms drawn from narratology, the study of narrative, like "focalizer" and "heteroglossia" -- referring, respectively, to the character from whose point of view a narrative is implicitly or explicitly relayed, and the way some novels present a variety of voices without submitting them to a hierarchy of authority. Or we might use foreign-sounding concepts from critical theory -- a hybrid of philosophy, sociology, history, and political science -- like "subaltern" and "aporia." (These denote, respectively, a character who is oppressed or marginalized due to her or his racial or ethnic status, and the moment in a text where its meaning becomes undecidable due to its internal contradictions.)

I understand that such terminology is unfamiliar. Even in highbrow journalistic outlets, it is frequently denounced as jargon. But when I read such denunciations -- often couched as condemnations of bad academic writing or, worse, deliberate attempts to intimidate or confuse readers -- I often suspect that what's really being expressed is a kind of reflex anti-intellectualism. "How dare you use strange terms and fancy paradigms to talk about literature and culture? What are you trying to do? Whom are you trying to fool?" This kind of suspicion seems especially strong when it's directed at academics in the Humanities, who frequently stand accused of "bringing politics into the classroom." As if politics, even when understood broadly to include questions of what it means to live a good life in common with one's fellow humans and the environment, is something to be quarantined in the ballot box or legislature, lest it escape and color the rest of our lives -- which of course it does whether we talk about it or not.

What's also interesting about these denunciations of "jargon" in English departments is that they don't tend to be leveled at academics in other disciplines. Nobody expects that when civil engineers or epidemiologists publish in their scholarly journals, they must do so in language that will be immediately or easily comprehensible to laypeople. Nobody seems to begrudge neuroscientists or linguists their specialized vocabularies and concepts to advance the state of knowledge in their field, or to speak about things that stand outside the mainstream of everyday communication.

I do think that academics in English, and in the Humanities generally, can and should do a better job of explaining to the public what we do and why we do it. But when we're writing for each other, or teaching our students -- that is, when we're producing new knowledge, intervening and moving forward academic conversations, or stimulating our students to expand their knowledge and horizons -- should we also simultaneously be expected not to sound different from anyone else's conversations on similar subjects? It seems to me that, since literary texts and cultural phenomena are public goods -- both in the sense of being available to everyone, and in the sense of being "good" for our cultural breadth and depth -- there is room for them to be treated as objects of enjoyment and as subjects of academic study. To claim that it must be one or the other is to force a false choice on academics and the general public alike.