Literary Theory (always with a capital T, like the G in God)
...Since the 1980s, literary Theory (always written with a capital T, like the G in God) has captured English department after English department in universities throughout the English-speaking world....
Theory resists definition. It is not monolithic but fissured and fractured into scores of squabbling schools. But here are ideas that nearly all of them share:
- All reality is constructed. That is, since we cannot, with any certainty, know what exists outside our own experience, we cope by constructing frameworks that we project upon reality. Consequently, a text does not contain the author’s meaning; it merely reflects the reader’s prejudices.
- There is no such thing as truth; all opinions are relative. Living in a world with no fixed boundaries, no absolute definitions, and no ultimate truths could be a fearful burden. The ingenuity and playfulness of Theory teaches us to cope.
- The job of the reader-critic is to identify the prejudices inherent in a text. The task of analyzing a text in this way is called "deconstruction." The critic’s job is to dismantle it and show what it really means—which may be a far cry from the author’s intention.
- Everything is a text, from Shakespeare and the Bible to "South Park" and Harry Potter to billboards in Las Vegas and the New York skyline. One of the best-known shibboleths of Theory is the French phrase "il n'y a pas de hors-texte": there is nothing outside of the text.
- Theory’s usefulness is not exhausted by literature. Since everything is a text, it can be deployed to analyze everything in our culture. Ultimately, it is a political commitment.
- The author’s intention is irrelevant. In its most radical form, Theory proclaims the death of the author. Persons literally disappear, becoming merely relations of intersecting texts in a vast cultural conversation. Most theory is resolutely anti-humanist.
- No doubt the accuracy of my account would be described as bumptious ignorance by an academic Theorist. But it’s close enough, especially for a theory in which it is axiomatic that there are no definitions.
The roots of Theory stretch back to Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher who demolished the stifling rationalism of great 18th- and 19th-century thinkers like Kant, Mill, and Hegel. He defied what he regarded as their smug confidence that all of reality could be ordered and grasped by the human mind and asserted that there are no truths, just interpretations. "Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions, worn-out metaphors now impotent to stir the senses, coins which have lost their faces and are considered now as metal rather than currency," he wrote.