In the Times Literary Supplement, Peter Brooks (author of Reading for the Plot) recently wrote of the conquest of academic literary study by "theory" that "the coming of theory actually rescued the study of literature at a time when it was threatened with sclerosis and irrelevance. In particular, it brought students back to literary studies with a sense that there was something exciting going on."
There are several things wrong with this contention, although I do not myself believe that "theory" of the kind Brooks discusses (he is reviewing a book centered mostly on figures like Foucault and Derrida, the "poststructuralists") was itself necessarily a bad thing for literary study. Much of Derrida's work, for example, is perfectly compatible with the kind of "old-fashioned" literary study focused on the close reading of literature for what it as literature has to offer us, and he could not have been happy when the notion of "deconstruction" eventually became, among some alleged "followers," essentially a synonym for trashing the place.
But I do have problems with idea that the study of literature needed to be "rescued," and I do not believe that the coming of theory "brought students back," since they hadn't gone anywhere in the first place and since every account I have read about the level of student interest in English or comparative literature or Romance Languages suggests that enrollment in such departments has only declined since the advent of theory. If Brooks has the graduate study of literature in mind, then bringing students into a field where finding a job upon completing one's study, no matter how "exciting" it may have been, has now become difficult approaching impossible performs a service for no one.
More to the point: literary study may or may not have become "sclerotic" pre-theory, but so what? If this means that literature professors were just teaching students how to approach works of literature--defined sclerotically as poetry, fiction, and drama--so they might read them more profitably, and were trying to point them to the kinds of novels or poems that might be worth their attention, then they were doing their jobs as efficiently as it could be done. Unless you think that studying literature in this way just isn't peppy and glowing enough and requires a dose of "excitement" in order to show it off in meetings with the Dean. But this is just another step in the process of making "literature itself" secondary to other more suitably "advanced" methods of academic inquiry, methods that have now become themselves the subjects of academic literary study, leaving literature far behind.
This yoking of literature to other purposes and other causes is equally typical of more traditional humanists who wouldn't otherwise countenance notions about the "subversive" quality of critical inquiry. In a recent essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 4, 2004), Vartan Gregorian pleads for a return of liberal arts instruction to higher education. In many ways, this essay is just the usual blather one would expect from a certain kind of college president, pitched at such a high level of generality that he really never even bothers to define what he means by "liberal arts." It's pretty clear nevertheless that included in Gregorian's liberal arts curriculum would be the study of literature, perhaps even as its centerpiece. But what Gregorian wants is "to integrate learning and provide balance," to "help our students acquire their own identity," to "provide a context for technical training" so students may "understand the general nature and structure of our society, the role of the university, or the importance of values." All worthy goals, I suppose, and if you wanted to include works of literature in an ethics class, or a psychology class, or a political science class, this might be a perfectly sound strategy. But if you set up whole departments devoted to literary study, and then charge them with helping to "understand the general nature and structure of our society," you're using extremely indirect means to arrive at results better pursued in other ways. And you're implicitly demeaning what literature might really do for individual readers quite apart from your social engineering scheme--although perhaps that's really the point.
Probably what bothers me most about Peter Brooks's claims about theory is the appeal to the potential "irrelevance" of literary study without it. I'm not even sure Brooks himself means to suggest that literature ought to be "relevant," given that immediately following the passage I've quoted he goes on to say that theory "was something that might in the long run turn out to be unsubstantiable, and perhaps unusable--but then most literary undergraduates aren't planning to build a career on how they have read either Milton or Foucault." Thus Brooks acknowledges that the study of literature is indeed irrelevant in the context in which universities generally function. A few students are in college or graduate school just to learn, literally to become "learned," less ignorant, but everyone will acknowledge they're a vast minority. Even fewer would like to become more skilled readers of literature. But this is really the only authentic consituency literary study has. Everything else is just defensiveness and empty rhetoric. Literature can't be relevant to civic responsibility and reform agendas except in defying them.
To be defiantly irrelevant. How subversive is that?