Radical Literary Theory

John Ellis

  • Fraud: Literary Theory and the End of English by Peter Washington
    Fontana, 188 pp, £4.99, September 1989, ISBN 0 00 686138 5

When theory of literature first began to make claims upon the attention of literary scholars and critics several decades ago, the meaning of the word ‘theory’ was clear enough from its use in other fields: it referred to a consciously analytical scrutiny of the concepts and practices of literary criticism, which is what anyone unfamiliar with criticism but familiar with the meaning of the word ‘theory’ in other contexts would have assumed. To be sure, the theorists of that era were in practice often allied with the New Criticism, and so they were generally critical of the prevailing historical and biographical orthodoxy. But the fact that theoretical analysis tended towards revision of the status quo was natural enough, and it was again consistent with what theory did anywhere. More recently, however, the term ‘literary theory’ has begun to seem not to refer broadly to the activity of analysis, but more narrowly to a distinct viewpoint, even an ideology. This is a strange development, since now we have a particular set of assumptions and assertions – in fact, an orthodoxy – as the reference of a word which used to be about the business of analysing such things.

Peter Washington’s book is a polemic against the viewpoint which is often spoken of as if it were quite simply modern theory of literature rather than the particular critical ideology that it is. While his title accepts the identification of theory with this position, his preface immediately separates them when he explains that he is not taking aim at theory of literature per se, but only at the fruit of its ‘irregular union’ with radical politics: ‘Radical Literary Theory (RLT for short)’. To be more precise, the irregular union is one of deconstruction, Marxism and feminism.

It must be said right away that Washington’s argument is uneven, and that he has allowed his intellectual opponents not a few opportunities to point to things which they will be able to use to justify their ignoring his book. At its best, the frankly polemical style presents his arguments with vigour, clarity and directness, but it can also degenerate into mockery and logical carelessness as he begins to enjoy his polemic too much. It would be a pity if this meant that his argument were not to get serious attention, for it does raise important questions in an honest and courageous way; and for the most part it has the virtue of being clear-headed and well-written.

The structure of the book is simple enough: Washington first introduces the major themes of his analysis in an introductory chapter, and then gives us four further chapters dealing separately with the different contributory factors which go into RLT: Structuralism, deconstruction, Marxism and feminism. His most fundamental disagreement with RLT is soon announced. Colleges, he says, ‘are not the place for inculcating doctrines but for examining and criticising them. They constitute our best public arena in which ideas can be tested without regard to particular interests.’ By contrast, RLT makes political rectitude central, and it has an inclination to become merely ‘crude indoctrination in pseudo-technical jargon’. For this reason it is a threat to intellectual honesty in the academy.

He is well aware of the standard RLT counter to his position: that there is no such thing as disinterested knowledge. But it is here that he diverges from the ineffective attack mounted by unthinking conservatives like George Watson in his recent The Certainty of Literature.[*] Rather than argue that there really are certainties, and thereby offer an easy target for anyone who knows perfectly ordinary modern theory of knowledge (as Watson does not), Washington concedes the point, but then uses it to show that it should lead to an entirely different conclusion: ‘it is precisely because knowledge is largely conditioned by interests, and ... subject to conflicting demands and powers, that the cultivation of detachment, rational enquiry and scepticism (in the general sense) are absolutely essential.’ His clinching argument is that if knowledge is irretrievably and simply conditioned by political interests and power, then politics itself becomes irrational and pointless. Surely, he is right: the pursuit of political power is only of interest when it is backed by a rationale and a programme; if that programme is simply the accumulation of power per se, then political life is reduced to the question of who managed to subdue whom, which is an uninteresting question even from a political point. (This is why the concept of power becomes meaningless in Foucault’s hands, and why RLT’s obsession with Foucault is not an encouraging sign.) Later in his argument Washington rubs salt in the wound he has inflicted on RLT here when he points out that the notion that interests are everywhere at stake is not a radical discovery, but a piece of classical liberalism. Again, he is correct: the framers of the US Constitution were obsessed with the idea. What is much more characteristic of radical thought (including RLT) is the utopian impulse which is drawn towards absolute ideas of equality and justice that are immune to suspicion about the interests they serve, and which demands their perfect implementation.

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[*] Harvester, 213 pp., £25, October 1989, 0 7450 0645 0.