Over the summer I pulled a copy of the journal n+1 off the shelf at Barnes and Noble (and read it while pacing the store with a baby Moby-wrapped to my chest, cause that’s how I rolled this summer). The article that caught my eye was Nicholas Dames’s “Theory and the Novel.” It turned out to be one of those rare pieces of writing that span not only the significant gap between scholarly and popular, but also that much wider chasm between insight and humor.
Dames opens with a kind of diagnostic offering. Have you ever been invited over to the home of a new acquaintance, and spotted on her bookshelves all-too familiar artifacts of a graying education in literary theory? “That copy of The Foucault Reader with the master’s bald head and piercing eyes, emblematic of pure intellection; A Thousand Plateaus with its Escher-lite line-drawing promising the thrills of disorientation; the stark, sickly-gray spine of Adorno’s Negative Dialectics. . .” Do you turn to your guest, and see in her face a mix of guilt and embarrassment, as if saying, College, you know. And please don’t ask me about them, because I can’t even remember which ones I managed to read. Do you give your host a knowing, sympathetic nod?
This is the plight of the theory generation. Educated in English departments between 1980 and 2000 or so, these graduates consumed a steady diet of literary and critical theory. And whereas in those early years these texts came as a radical challenge to notions of narrative, power, gender, person, etc, it wasn’t long before theory rhetoric became the new orthodoxy. The litany of Continental authorship was as essential to the interview for a tenure-track position in lit-crit as the funky black glasses and the thin tie or opal scarf.
Despite the jabs, the author is not at all dismissive of Adorno, et al. Rather, he is critical of the way the discipline pandered to and molded itself around them. And he notes that the winds are changing. A group of new novels are returning to grand, coherent narratives of realistic fiction—a form that theory claimed to have killed off years ago. Novels like Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot and Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, to name two (the article is in fact a review of six such novels), are doing what theory once taught us was no longer doable. More importantly, though, the authors of these new novels are consciously engaging in implicit arguments with the theory texts—or, more accurately, the English departments from which they graduated, and the fundamentalist attitudes toward Of Grammatology and The Order of Things. This conscious debate sometimes makes it to the surface of the narrative, as in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, when Chip Lambert sells off his whole collection of theory in order to impress his girlfriend with expensive dinners. Franzen is careful to name the authors he sells off, as well as their total worth—which turns out to be $115. The point, at least in Dames’s reading, is a satisfyingly clever one, equal parts philosophical and practical: Franzen needs to move his narrative forward in traceable, coherent, realistic fashion—he needs, that is, his character to hatch a plot to raise the money. To do so, he comes up with a plot that both allows Lambert to get what he wants, and allows Franzen to challenge the notion that literature has no use any longer for traceable, coherent, realistic plot movement. Thus Franzen and co. are going where an earlier generation dared not go: challenging the radicalism of theory in order to construct new, post-post-critical novels.
Now as a theologian trained in a good bit of theory, I left my reading that day with two insights that may seem—but are not, I think—at odds with one another. First, it was refreshing to hear that the days of unquestioning allegiance to this family of French and German criticism are ending in English departments. While theology is in many ways a much more varied discipline, there is certainly a visible stream within it that has considered the writings of Foucault, etc., to be sacra pagina, even at times allowing these texts to stand in for pre-critical scripture and the writings of the Fathers as the new revealed texts. Some still popular schools of secular theology, having given up the notion that theology serves the church, tend to assume that theologians ought to craft their accounts of God in light of the latest bulletin from the Sorbonne. And if this academic orthodoxy is losing ground in English departments, then theology—which so often comes late to the trends in the humanities—will soon “catch up.” This was my first response.
On the other hand, though, the aging of theory may present theologians with an opportunity to do something they could not do, or could not very easily do, when theory was all the rage. We can continue to read Greenblatt and Deleuze for the insights they provide for theological analysis, rather than because they’re terribly important and of the moment. In my own work, for instance, I am trying to think through an account of revelation according to which God encounters creation not with a violent rupture, but in a mode of engagement that is intimate with our culture, history, and memory, even as it remains a supernatural gift. Foucault, Deleuze, Zizek and Badiou, among others, have been a real help in thinking toward something like this, and I suspect they will continue to be, even when, as is inevitable, “no one reads Foucault anymore…”
And this may be the reason that theory will live on in theology as it cannot in the other humanities departments. Ironically enough, there is an orthodoxy that dominates the mood and syllabi of these arts and humanities that cannot (or ought not) really take hold in theology. A Melville scholar must adapt her arguments to the current mood of the Melville industry; a theologian cannot ignore current conversations, but still answers something that evades trends. Our role is not to bring Saint Paul and Gregory of Nyssa into conversation with whatever is hot in Europe, but rather to illuminate Paul and Gregory in a way that will serve the church. And so if it is a mistake to sell all that we have in order to buy up the field wherein the treasures of theory are buried, it is also a mistake—or at least an unnecessary step—to sell off our libraries of theory so that we can go on being theologians. Franzen’s character—perhaps Franzen himself—must do this so that he can escape the hold that dogmatic theory has on him. But theologians have, I hope, never pledged allegiance to any methodology or school of thought, so there’s no excess of baggage to sell off so that we can go on doing our work.
So, if brave new novelists are challenging the lingua franca of critical theory with their plots and character constructions, perhaps young theologians can turn to, for instance, Difference and Repetition as a mid-twentieth century text that once challenged the stability of the familiar and can continue providing (ironically enough) suggestive analogues for our theological constructions, rather than as a contemporary mapping of the ontological terrain which one should imitate in structure or (God help us) in style. These texts may not be hot any longer, and they may not be "correct" in whatever sense we once took them to be. And that fact alone will allow us to make free and liberal use of them.
Anthony D. Baker
Anthony is a theology professor at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, and a co-founder of The Theology Studio.
Good question Adrian. I'd like to think some sort of diverse theological conversation-gathering is possible--and not just the fan club approach. Maybe something the Studio can help do? Maybe part of the "ecumenical" task involves bridging the Continental/Analytical divide that informs theology?
“a theologian cannot ignore current conversations, but still answers something that evades trends.” Your thoughts and particularly this line compelled me to think. The way you write and the people you engage are so foreign to the way I myself have been taught and the line of thinkers I pursue as relevant to the task of theology. It is funny in one discipline (Theology) there can be so many different pockets, so many niche markets. Each of those markets seems to have their own fan club, idols, and rules of engagement such that competing fan clubs tend to battle for more market share. Can there be a way of bringing these diverse ways of speaking together? Is that to be desired? Or ought we to settle into “a” way of speaking, cozy up to “a” fan club, and join in the worship of “a” select group of idols?
a theologian cannot ignore current conversations, but still answers something that evades trends.