Sunday, September 23, 2007

Theory vs. Theory

Remember when Jeremy was talking in our seminar about the need at Princeton for a course that traces the history of literary theory from Russian Formalism through French structuralism/poststructuralism and American deconstruction and into its current phase of disciplinary/international diaspora? Well, I just came across such a history, in miniature, and admittedly from a partisan position, by Raymond Williams. It's taken from the appendix of The Politics of Modernism, which is the transcript of a public conversation between Williams and Edward Said in 1986. Whether you agree or not with the polemical points of Williams' narrative (and probably none of us really know enough about the subject to be sure about that yet; certainly I don't) I thought it might be interesting to read an account of the rise of theory from a decidedly non-reactionary viewpoint (i.e., not Harold Bloom's). In particular, Williams' idea of formalist theory's historical delay in reception that led to its being in effect used as a weapon against a more fully developed version of itself is really provocative, ironically calling to mind some of Derrida's writing about autoimmunity and parasites. And with its 80s-eye view of the situation and typical Williams clarity and toughness, it makes a good companion piece to Rabaté's equally useful Gallic perspective in The Future of Theory. Anyway, here goes (I've highlighted some key terms and sentences to make it easier to read schematically):

"[Russian] Formalism was a reaction against what was called in the early stages a crude sociologism, which never really looked at the work at all but looked at elements which could be extracted from it and handled in other transferred ideological terms, or else simply related a text to the conditions of its production. Now the first phase of the response to that is to say that however important those questions may be, we also have to look at what the work specifically is. And this insistence has to be understood within the context of the debate. We need then to look at the second stage of the formalist argument, in the mid and late twenties, in works which have received much less publicity. Works with that tangled authorship of Bahktin, Voloshinov, Medvedev are much less well known in the West … than Shlovsky and Eikhenbaum and so on. It was agreed: let us look at what is specific in the text. But looking at what is textually specific does not rule out, rather it encourages, new ways of exploring the relations between the creation of something very specific and these more general conditions. Then, as against the previous practice which has not looked analytically at the work but which had gone straight to what was extractable as ideology or as general social conditions of authorship, let us indeed go specifically to the text as a way of finding new methods of analysing the relations between its precise composition and these conditions.

"Now this kind of work is what has been called, in Britain especially, Cultural Studies. I mean the break of Cultural Studies in the fifties from an earlier kind of sociological and indeed so-called Marxist study was precisely that it started from the close analysis of works. The contrast couldn't be more marked with earlier positions which had postulated a bourgeois economy and then a bourgeois ideology. Whereas, [Cultural Studies] starts from the texts themselves … But what it does not do, what it refuses to do, is to stop at that point. Now precisely the version of formalism that was imported and intensively propagated was to say 'and when you have done that, there is no more to do.' [Here's where I'd place the early Marjorie Perloff, circa The Poetics of Indeterminacy, whose Russian Formalist-influenced re-reading of Modernism is still so influential.] Although in fact the second stage of the formalist argument that was lost from the late twenties, and that is still not properly perceived and understood, was that when you have done that, you then have the problem of finding ways in which to analyse those specificities of the work or text, which uncover new kinds of evidence that weren't available by other methods. Then you can ask in new ways, how is the specific kind of literariness produced? How are certain forms produced? How do certain negations and absences which can be well identified by formalist methods constitute themselves in the social and historical structure? And suddenly you're into a new kind of inquiry."

OK, here's the really crucial part:

"But just at the moment that this work was making progress, back came — in a fifty-year historical delay, going via the United States and France and reappearing intensively propagated there — the old first stage of the argument, as if there had been no more move beyond it either by that Leningrad School of the late twenties, or in many of the developments in Cultural Studies in the West. The new formalism started as if it were fighting an enemy which no longer existed: the enemy which did not start analysis from specificities, but postulated the big abstractions of a society and economy and ideology, on a base-and-superstructure model, and then deduced the work, leaving many of the facts of the composition of the work unaddressed. And then we were asked to choose in this absurd way between work which was very specific within the texts and which said it didn't interest itself in other questions, and work which was still projected as talking only about reading publics, audiences, social conditions of writers or the most general facts of history. Yet in fact the other real work had been done.

"One is then very sad when the kind of propagation of theory that went on — including incidentally the reference to Saussure which was almost entirely misleading, even at times fraudulent, because it was never the representation of the whole of what Saussure had said — takes over from the development of actual new work. It's a very long and difficult job, how to carry through this powerful task, which is to see how, in the very detail of composition, a certain social structure, a certain history, discloses itself. This is not doing any kind of violence to the composition. It is precisely finding ways in which forms and functions, in very complex ways, interact and interrelate. That was what we were doing. I think the interruption is now over [wishful thinking, clearly], but I do want to say that I think it has been extraordinarily damaging, especially since theory — so-called — is much easier than this actual analytical work. You only have to read the five points of formalist technique or the three distinguishing marks of a dominant ideology; I mean you can write it in a notebook and you can go away and give a lecture on it the next day. Or write endless books about it. It's an extraordinarily easy intellectual practice. Whereas this other analytic task is difficult, because the questions are new each time. And until the last few years [?] there was this very complicated business of finding your way around what was called Theory [a still critical business, which now seems to be considered the preserve of "legitimate autodidacticism," at least at Princeton]. It failed to understand what kind of theory cultural theory is. Because cultural theory is about the way in which specific works relate to structures which are not the works. That is cultural theory and it is in better health than it is represented." (The Politics of Modernism, 183-185)