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.

Washington devotes much of his analysis to examining RLT’s schizophrenia in this regard. There is a strong millenarian streak in RLT, he says: having borrowed all of the trappings of sceptical thought (warnings against failure to examine one’s own assumptions, against an unreflective belief in truth or in value-free judgments and knowledge that serves no interest) in order to attack the opposition, RLT then abandons them and asserts its own programme and values with an astonishing lack of caution or self-examination. Anyone who asks RLT proponents to look at their own assumptions is not treated as an intellectual soul-mate, but instead angrily denounced as a bigoted member of the old order. RLT brooks no opposition and no questioning. (Joseph Schumpeter’s dictum still goes unheeded: ‘Obviously, we cannot say everywhere else is ideology; we alone stand on the rock of absolute truth.’)

Washington looks at some typical RLT feminist arguments and concludes that they assume certain truths as quite objective ones: ‘based on a simple political morality of right and wrong barely concealed beneath their sophisticated cultural relativism. Liberation is right, oppression is wrong, radicalism is right, tradition wrong, equality is right, hierarchy wrong, and so on ... This leads to a curious muddle in which the oppression of women is announced as an objective fact in one sentence while the possibility of objective judgments ... is denied in the next.’ In similar fashion, Washington analyses the attempts of RLT to make so rigid and dogmatic a position as Marxism consistent with its required image of sophisticated self-awareness and scepticism. Jameson is his main target here, and it is hard to see how Jameson could defend effectively against the fundamental contradictions which Washington finds in his position.

Having dealt with the contradiction between RLT’s dogmatism and its claims to sceptical subtlety, and with the dangers of its advocacy of political correctness and activism rather than theoretical neutrality in the academy, Washington proceeds to look at a number of other dubious aspects of RLT. He throws doubt on the commitment to egalitarianism of those who produce such esoteric and intellectually remote writing; and he notes a high level of conformity and orthodoxy (not to mention intolerance of other points of view) instead of the professed open-mindedness. Even RLT’s assertion of a more activist involvement in the society at large is contradicted by the reality of its attitude, which he judges to be one of remoteness from the real world. He observes that its exponents are, on the contrary, sad examples of academic life’s notorious tendency to make its inmates institutionally-dependent, and that, far from working to change the world, their most obvious aim is to take over the academy and barricade themselves in. RLT’s kind of arcane systematising, he asserts, has always been associated with the worst aspects of academic life.

It is hard not to grant that there is at least some truth in all of this. While RLT dogma is officially opposed to the ivory tower image of the academy, its hostility to the outside world is also evident. The anti-bourgeois rhetoric is of course intended in good Marxist fashion as an attack on the privileged from a working-class perspective. But if so, its proponents have fundamentally misunderstood what they are doing. The use of the word ‘bourgeois’ as a term of contempt has its origin in the French aristocrat’s disdain for the common man, and the French intellectuals that English-speaking RLT finds so appealing are a part of that tradition; ‘bourgeois’ is an intellectually élitist jibe in their world, and decidedly remote from the spirit of egalitarianism. Nor is Washington impressed with the originality and diversity of the literary criticism produced by RLT: he says that literary texts are simply put on ideological trial and pronounced wanting or not, which means that criticism is ‘perpetually on the look-out for something whose identity is already known’.

Peter Washington is linguistically subtle and agile, and he generally makes his case with force and even elegance, which makes it all the more annoying when he seems to forget what audience he is writing for. Take this example, actually the opening sentence of his second chapter: ‘The theoretical farce has always been most engagingly played in Paris, where a whole troupe of ermine-clad feminists, Marxist uxoricides and polymorphously perverse professors stand ready to perform on any excuse.’ This might be well-designed to get a belly laugh from one’s coterie of friends in a bar, but in a book that should and often does seek to persuade a middle ground of the uncommitted by the force of its analysis it would invite rejection out of hand if it were the first thing that caught one’s eye. The title of the chapter on feminism (‘Girls on Top’) seems chosen to provoke and insult, and there are many other equally reckless and ill-judged sideswipes. Perhaps he has absorbed something of RLT’s styles himself, for the slash-and-burn mode of argument which surfaces from time to time often reminds me of Eagleton. But what was Washington’s editor doing to allow him to jeopardise the impact of a useful book in this way?

These are, however, superficial blemishes. It is more important to ask whether there are any notable gaps in Washington’s argument, and how it might be extended. There are several points on which I should have wished the argument to take a different turn. First, while Washington makes it clear that he does not care for RLT’s constant claim that everything is political, he does not find a clean and persuasive counter to it. The point, it seems to me, is not that this claim is wrong, but that it does not mean what RLT thinks it means, and that when correctly understood it does not support the RLT argument. Its force is really something like: ‘there is a political dimension to everything.’ RLT, on the other hand, thinks it has a much stronger force: e.g. ‘politics is the basis of everything,’ or ‘in the last analysis everything is political.’ What is overlooked here is that it is just as possible to say that there is an ecological dimension to everything, or a physical one, or psychological, economic, or even chemical. Different kinds of scholars looking at crop failure in the Soviet Union may focus on its political repercussions, on what it means for the world economy, or for global climate changes, or for the ecology of Northern Europe and Asia. ‘Everything is political’ only means that to do an adequate political analysis you cannot neglect anything. The logical point is that a framework of analysis is not defined by the kind of material it looks at, but by the kind of concerns it has; the same phenomena are of interest to many different kinds of analysis. Everything is psychological, or economic, or ecological too.

This is a fatal logical mistake, for it leads inevitably to many other problems. A political analysis which proceeds from a conviction that politics is what everything is really about will not be of much use even as politics. Single-factor analysis of complex situations is always reductive and distorting, and a politics which does not recognise that there are other real categories of value in human life will be a crude politics. This means that ultimately RLT’s insistence on the importance of politics scarcely matters; even if the point were conceded, it still has little to offer because its politics is a disaster of simple-mindedness. Its categories of political analysis are few and they are primitive. The word ‘capitalism’ is bandied about as an agreed reference-point for the source of all political ills, and as if a viable and tested alternative to it were obvious to everyone, so that there is no need to talk about what it might be. The concept ‘oppression’ seems to be the major tool of political analysis, but it is so undifferentiated that it can cover everything from slavery to marriage (though not the conditions of the peoples of Eastern Europe). Politics, surely, is the art of the possible, but RLT is not interested in the political process and in how relations between people really work in that process. Such matters tend to be regarded as the manifestation of corrupt and rigged bourgeois institutions. RLT politics is in the main limited to denunciation of the conspiracy which deprives us all of an unspecified but nevertheless assumed utopia of perfect egalitarian innocence. The implication would seem to be that an absolutely fair and just society would be easy to achieve, given the will to do so. In the real world, the formula for this has proved to be very elusive indeed, and a lack of understanding seems now more important than a lack of will.

Academic political scientists, certainly, do not seem impressed with RLT’s political pretensions: I have observed considerable mirth among them about the way in which literary Marxists are trying to avoid coming to terms with the collapse of Marxist social systems everywhere by changing the name of what they do to ‘Cultural Studies’ and carrying on as before.

When it comes to literary analysis – the ostensible reason for RLT’s existence, after all – the nature of literature itself almost guarantees that single-factor analysis will be disastrous. The diversity of literary texts has no limit: they are written by all kinds of people and about every conceivable aspect of human life and experience. This enormous diversity of theme is in practice reduced by RLT to one of two results: either a particular text shared in the prejudices of its age in matters of class, race or gender, or it deviated from them. Even that is further reduced: there is either oppression or resistance. But how many times does one need to look at different texts just to denounce racism and chauvinism? I wonder why exponents of RLT do not find it boring to say the same things over and over again about one text after another. Literature more than anything else is the repository of the limitless power of the human imagination: how depressingly limited and monotonous it becomes in this kind of treatment.

If RLT is primitive in politics and criticism, it is also bad history and bad feminism. A standard procedure is to look at earlier epochs to judge them from the standpoint of RLT’s own contemporary standards of political and sexual correctness, and it seems blind to matters of differing historical circumstances, even when those circumstances have changed in crucial ways. Take, for example, childbearing.

In former times the rate of infant mortality was, to use Braudel’s word, ‘terrifying’; now it is very low indeed in the developed countries. The result is that a woman no longer has to bear half a dozen children to be sure of raising two to maturity. Contraception now allows women to choose how many children they wish to have, a choice not previously available. Refrigeration now allows alternatives to breast-feeding: formerly there was no alternative for most women, and it was continued longer than is customary today for the same reason, and because of its contraceptive effect. Pension plans and social security make it easy for anyone to choose not to have children: it was most unwise to make that choice when it was assumed that this was the only way to provide for old age. One has only to think about all of these circumstances of former ages to realise that the amount of their life’s energy and time which most women had of necessity to devote to childbearing and rearing was not remotely comparable to that of modern women in the industrialised world. Their shorter life-spans must have seemed dominated by it.

All of this must be weighed when we think about what marriage meant to women in past times, about the ways in which the sexes related to and depended on each other, economically and otherwise, and about the differentiation of their roles. This is only one of the historical changes that need to be considered when we make judgments about the social structure of former ages, and about the place in those structures occupied by men and women: there are many others. Electrical energy, for example, has made upper-body strength differences increasingly irrelevant for us, whatever the evolutionary purposes those differences still served in former ages. Modern feminism is in part a necessary response to these changed circumstances; and when RLT goes back to the Middle Ages to denounce ‘Medieval misogyny’, ‘patriarchy’ and ‘male hegemony’ whenever it finds assumptions about differentiated roles which are not relevant or accepted today, it misunderstands not only history, but where we are today and why.

What is especially curious about this is that RLT prides itself on attention to historical context, in so doing separating itself from criticism which looks only at texts: but the lack of historical perspective is one of its major weaknesses. In its ideology of fairness it is clearly a child of the Enlightenment and thus of Western tradition. Yet it still looks on the Western tradition only as one of racism, chauvinism and colonialism, in so doing managing to ignore both the generality of these phenomena outside that tradition, and the fact that the gradual and recent rejection of these evils has been generally coincident with the spread of the influence of the ideas of the Enlightenment.

Why has a large segment of theory and criticism in the universities degenerated to this extent? To answer this, we must go back to Washington’s starting-point, RLT’s advocacy of a socially activist role for the academy. The point here is not the question whether there is or is not such a thing as value-free knowledge, or whether interests must always be involved in it. Washington’s analysis of the point is good as far as it goes, but there is more to be said. The real problem is this: before you can decide to do something you must simplify matters down to a choice of either this or that. Analysis is potentially infinitely complicated, but action is finite, and it requires that complications be set aside. For the social activist, sooner or later you are either part of the solution or you are part of the problem. Shades of grey do not count; there will be two positions, black and white, for or against. It is not the involvement in interests that corrupts academic thought, but being too close to practical choices. It is easy to see this happening in RLT.

In a recent anthology of feminist criticism, two critics took opposing positions on the relevance of the author’s intention to interpretation of a text. One argued that reliance on the author’s intent was inherently a male position, since this was an appeal to patriarchal authority, while another took the opposite position, that male critics trivialise or neglect the author because that author may be female. Here is a case where ideology and activism have corrupted thought. As a matter of historical record, the Intentional Fallacy has been discussed for some fifty years, and with vigorous participation of men and women on both sides of the question. It is inconceivable that anyone who looks at that record could say that either position appeals more to men than to women; and it is absurd to think that one of the greatest debates in theory of criticism should be foreclosed in this way. But the source of their silliness is clear: both these critics are so concerned to use the issue to denounce male criticism and to advance their political agenda that they do not give themselves time to look at the logic of the question or its history. The fact that one decides that intention can be categorised as ‘for us’ and the other that it is ‘against us’ shows how arbitrary and careless thinking can become when it is too concerned with immediate practical goals and with decisions that focus exclusively on what will help or hinder those goals. Indeed, it seems to me that the development of feminist thought is generally being hampered by the fact that anything less than acceptance of its arguments is quickly assigned to the category ‘against us’, and ignored, which effectively prevents the kind of refinement that can only happen through careful attention to the logic of adverse criticism.

The very alliance of Marxism and deconstruction in RLT again shows the same corrupting process. The joining together of these extremes of dogmatic truth and aversion to all dogma can only be based on the coincidence of what both are against – the bourgeois status quo; aside from this, the alliance has as much integrity as the Nazi-Soviet pact. And nobody in the RLT camp seems to have noticed that in the great and long debate in criticism over the utilitarian view of literature, they are on the same side as totalitarian regimes have always been, while artists and writers have generally been on the other side. The same holds for the rejection of a disinterested academy: in the debate as to whether the pursuit of knowledge should in principle be non-political, RLT’s allies include dictators of various kinds. Short-term political goals have again blinded it to the lessons of the long history of this issue. Perhaps what it will take to induce serious thought about those lessons is the kind of rude awakening experienced a few years ago by German radicals, who suddenly discovered liberal notions of academic freedom and a politically neutral academy when a conservative crackdown on radicals in the universities was begun. The real puzzle of RLT is how such primitive thought could seem so sophisticated to its adherents, and how such unreflectiveness could have been promoted to the status of theory.

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