An End to Theory

First, let me attempt to reconstruct a twitter conversation for you.

Cuchlann  The writer of a work may be dead, but as the work implies a reader, so, too, must it imply an author.

lelangir@cuchlann not always. what about “the word”? street anecdotes ‘n such.

lelangir@cuchlann well then I guess it doesn’t count as “a work” in the institutionalized sense.

Cuchlann @lelangir no, it still implies an author. It had to come from somewhere.

lelangir@cuchlann can’t you just fabricate something? “he said that”, where “he” isn’t really anybody. who’s the author there?

Cuchlann @lelangir what is said still implies an author different from another. Also, it’s theoretically better: it’s either that or a null.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to literary studies lately.  I finished my MFA thesis (and thus, if no surprises are waiting for me in the wings, I am finished and have an MFA); with the thesis out of the way, I was free to start worrying about my dissertation years before anyone would expect me to.  So I’m reading for it now.  Woo.  

Anyway.  The reading, the conversations, the free time, they’ve all come together to lead me to a new perspective on this thing we do.  The preceding conversation is simply an outgrowth of that.  I was once described by Daniel as someone who gets the “dead author thing,” and I believe I still do.  I just have a new perspective on it, and some other things.  

The twitter conversation was sparked by my reading of a piece by Stanislaw Lem called “Todorov’s Fantastic Theory of Literature.”  The short version of how I came to it goes this way:  The Kitty Meister wrote her term paper on Lem, and checked out a book of his essays (translated from Polish, obviously).  I, meanwhile, started Reading Gothic Fiction:  A Bakhtinian Approach by Jacqueline Howard.  In the introductory theoretical chapter she references Todorov and adapts his theory of the fantastic.  I got interested in Todorov, whom no one had heard of before — a professor of mine who always seems to have read everything (who will also come into this story again later) hadn’t heard of him.  Last week Kitty Meister handed me the Lem essays and pointed me to the Todorov piece.  So I read it.

Oh dear.  Lem is, ah, less than pleased with Todorov.  He opens the essay by quoting a French writer, Pierre Bertaux, who wrote,

At one time it was hoped that the beginnings of a formalization of the humanities analogous [to that of the "diagonal" or "formalistic" sciences] could be expected from structuralism.  Unfortunately it appears today that precisely the loudest advocates of structuralism have let it degenerate into a mythology — and not even a useful one.  This chatter that is now called structuralism has apparently dealt a mortal blow to that rudimentary scientific beginning.  (209-10, insert Lem’s)

Essentially, the structuralists didn’t pull off their goal, and later adherents, not noticing, have made a morass of useless conjecture.  This isn’t unique to structuralism, or even the study of literature.  

In short, structuralism was meant to make a science of the study of literature.  It didn’t work.  “Structuralism,” Lem writes, “was to be a remedy for the immaturity of the humanities as manifested in their lack of sovereign criteria for deciding the truth or falsehood of theoretical generalizations” (211).  This may sound familiar, at least in realm of discussion.  Lem then proceeds to tear Todorov apart.  Some few bits of the essay are pertinent to our discussion still.  

For instance, Lem claims the act of “classification,” that is, of proscribing what is, say, fantastic and what is romantic, what is realistic, et cetera, creates a “feedback loop.”  “To describe limitations on creativity thus amounts to drawing up a self-defeating prognosis.  What could be more tempting than to write what theory prohibits?” (214)  Every entry into discourse alters the discourse.  If you say X is impossible in physics, your colleagues are honor-bound to go out and try their damnedest to prove you wrong.  The same is basically true in any field.  The thing is, in art, nothing’s really impossible, just not yet done.  

I’ll take this moment to deal with “dead authors.”  I’ve read Barthes, as most of you know, I’m sure.  I like the standpoint of the author as dead, in the sense that the author has no input on the work once he or she stops actively creating it.  However, that is no longer the only way the dead author conceit is used.  It is now often used to efface the fact of a piece’s creation from its own history.  Instead, many writers on the topic replace the author with the culture that spawned the writer.  Fine, as far as that goes.  However, there’s a dilemma there:  if you truly believe the “author” is “dead” — that is, gone from the equation — and you replace the person who wrote the book with the culture that created the person, then the culture is “dead” as well.  It doesn’t come into the equation in the same way the individual does not.  

The fundamental use of the author’s death is to exclude the Word of God.  The text must stand for itself (so, if you have the urge, visual artists, to stand next to your paintings in the gallery and explain them, go fuck yourselves).  

Structuralism attempts to interpret the text independent of the author’s intent.  Great!  I love it.  I preach it to my writing classes.  Keep in mind, though, that even that is one way of interpretation.  Looking at the author’s intent is just as valid, I simply believe the problems inherent in killing the author are less important than those inherent in keeping him or her around.

Here’s the last bit that comes directly from Lem’s piece, and it’s what sparked the immediate concern over the author: Todorov, unsurprisingly, forbids talking about the author,

but if one is free to recognize, as Todorov does, that a text implies a reader (not as a concrete person but as a standard of reception), then in accord with a rule of symmetry one should recognize that it also implies an author.  Both of these concepts are indissolubly connected with the category of messages, since a message, in information theory, must have a sender and a receiver.  (228-29, emphasis mine)

For a few years now, since my first theory professor told my class about it, I have used a scale of textual direction — mostly in composition, as that’s what I’ve been teaching.  I will use it in literature, and have used it without writing it directly when I taught poetry writing.  Here it is:

  • Writer
  • Narrator
  • Implied Narrator
  • Text
  • Implied Reader
  • Reader
  • Audience

It approaches the same sort of concept Lem is espousing — that there is a reality of both a writer and a reader, both real people, but when discussing literature they aren’t all that useful to consider.  The text, though, implies both a writer and a reader of some kind, more or less strongly, and those are important, just as the text might imply a genre (“A Modest Proposal” is a great example of this concept in action, as Swift takes advantage of every level of the scale).

Now I hope you’ll pardon me for making a sudden jump, but there’s a related topic of greater interest I wanted to tackle as well.  It’s much more important, but because of its breadth I am (paradoxically) left with less to say.

Here it is:  there is no such thing as literary theory.

I know, you want more.  I can provide a little more.  That professor I mentioned earlier (the one who seems to have read everything) said basically that over lunch last week.  There is no such thing as literary theory.  That doesn’t mean there’s no study of literature, or even a form of writing that is not directly based on literature but is still in the same realm — it means the word “theory” is absolutely the wrong one to use, and leads to wrong-headed ideas (like what I spent the post up until now talking about).  A “theory” is essentially a scientific concept, that will be universally applicable or, well, it’s wrong.  This is why quantum physicists and not-quantum physicists get into hypothetical fistfights.  But anyway.  Gravity, that’s a theory.  If there were any one instance of gravity not working in the way it is predicted to work, a new theory would be required.  That may sound drastic, but it’s the scientific norm.  I read recently that a handful of scientists were actively trying to disprove Einstein’s theories of relativity, because it’s what good scientists do.  It’s what Einstein, in his turn, did to Newton.  No worries.

But when it comes to literature, that sort of thing is impossible, for much the reason Lem describes — I’m referring to the bit about writers who hear a theory and then go to disprove it.  Let’s continue taking the death of the author as our example (I would remind you again, at this point, that I like the concept).  Fine.  It’s been around for a while.  Suddenly, writers started to dick around with it.  It might be virtually impossible to discuss Borges without talking about the man himself, not only because of the structure of his stories (though that’s a reason as well), but also because he’s often the main character of his stories — though the term “main character” might be a little misleading.  

What about Nabokov’s Pale Fire?  And House of Leaves?  To a greater or lesser extent, both works toy with authorship, playing with what it means for the authors involved in both the fictional and real construction of the works to be removed from the equation.  

As a tool to help avoid biographical criticism (Yeats was in X when he wrote Y, so it means Z) the death of the author is great.  As a theory it doesn’t work.  It’s never going to cover the bases all the time.  No literary “theory” is going to do that.  So “theory” is simply the wrong word.  

I mentioned, over that same lunch, that “criticism” is the other common word, which I dislike because it implies to people who don’t live with it that the author of criticism dislikes the work being written about, which is almost always untrue.  No one is going to devote their entire life to studying James Joyce if they hate his work.  I wouldn’t be planning to write a dissertation on the Gothic in Science Fiction if I hated either the Gothic or Science Fiction.  I don’t hate myself that much.  

So, uh, what words are we left with?  Someone at the table (I wish I could remember who — it was probably the professor) suggested “methodology.”  Perfect!  It works in the same way as the word “theory,” providing the same sense of “system of examining and thinking” without implying it is universally useful.  Alongside that, a literary writer can use his or her methodology to write “analysis.”  I am not as sure about the latter term, but it does stand as a better option than “criticism” for the reason I already provided.  Now, I am likely to continue using the word “criticism” myself, as I know what it actually means to say and most of the people I deal with are comfortable with it.  But I am a hair’s-breadth from adopting “methodology” instead of “theory.”


Work Cited:

Lem, Stanislaw.  “Todorov’s Fantastic Theory of Literature.”  Robert Abernathy trans.  Microworlds: Writings on Science Fiction and Fantasy.  Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.  San Diego:  1984.  209-232

Leave a comment


  1. Ultimately the reason I like the dead author thing is probably to do with religion: the Bible (the Christian one, at least) is a set of texts which have been wrenched away from their human authors and cultures-of-production, and if you’re brought up in the Protestant habit of using the Bible, turning the text to your own ends can become second nature. Augustine touches on this in De doctrina christiana, and he also suggests that whatever is good and useful in all texts apart from the Bible is basically God’s (God owns all truth, he says: wherever you find truth, it must be God’s), so you can do what you like what God wants with that, too. The author’s death is supposed to be the death of patriarchy, of the sanctimonious churchman, of the stuffed-shirt literary critic who extolls the moral value of Shakespeare, of Blake’s ‘Nobodaddy’, but in its Augustinian formulation it’s more like the destruction of idols (human authors) to clear a path to the recognition of the real author (something about that feels rather imperialist) — the replacement of the metaphorical sense of ‘the Word of God’ that you find on its TV Tropes page with the real thing.

    I first encountered Barthes’s article when I was seventeen. It was only in the last year or so that I linked my early and sustained contact with Protestant reading habits to my sudden recognition, when seventeen, that what Barthes was talking about was much closer to my reading experience than the stuff we were doing in class (which was mostly focused on the author’s intentions).

    (On a more practical note, I also think it’s often very convenient for someone blogging in English, with little or no knowledge of Japanese culture, to throw author and culture-of-production out of the window when he or she wants to say something about anime.)

    I’m not entirely sure I understand the comparison of literary theory and scientific theory. Are you saying that scientific theories are falsifiable while literary theory doesn’t seem to be? Or that literary theory is falsifiable, can be proved wrong by exceptions — Borges’s work being an example of an exception here? I would expect a good reader-response (for want of a better term) critic to talk about how the reader’s knowledge of historical facts about Borges might affect his or her experience of the man’s work, but that seems obvious, so I’ve probably missed your point a bit there. (In my experience reader-response readings and biographical readings are both about creating a character — the fit reader or the author — and perhaps that ties back into the ‘scale of textual direction’ above. I’ve seen said scale in textbooks, but never been taught it.)

    Interestingly enough on my degree course the compulsory first-year literary theory module calls literary theory ‘literary theory’, while the compulsory second-year how-to-write-your-undergraduate-dissertation module calls literary theory ‘methodology’. Maybe there’s a gap between theory(!) and practice there?

    • Cuchlann

       /  2 May 2009

      The patriarchal reading stuff is a good point, but I sometimes think the “stuffed-shirt literary critic” has been replaced by the equally closed-to-other-opinions modern critic, which I would caricature as the low-buttoned, bohemian literary critic, who, as you point out with anime, wants the author’s death to be universal so they don’t have to learn anything and just attack the text with their opinions.

      Well, the comparison was the structuralists’, originally. They wanted literary criticism to be scientific. For that to be useful, the author was discarded, as science doesn’t look at the “author” of evolution, just its effects. But in practice structuralism isn’t any more scientific than biographical criticism, or reader-response criticism, or even myth-criticism. It’s just another methodology of looking at stuff. Which is great, but not scientific. Basically, structuralists, and critics following that school’s ideology, want criticism to be “theory” because that means they will be, unequivocally, right. And I, at least, don’t believe that’s possible. I hope that makes some sense of the science/literature comparison I made.

      I noticed that as well, that I have to have nine hours of “methodology” for my Ph.D., rather than “theory,” even though everyone calls them “theory” courses here. The distinction may be an incredibly fine one — if I remember rightly, in science one derives methodology from one’s theory, so it’s possible that the term change I propose would simply move us a little farther from the source, rather than shifting away from it entirely. It’s just the best idea for a replacement I’ve heard. I still wonder if there are even better ideas.

      • Hopefully the better class of bohemian critic is doing it for the lulz, knows it, and makes it clear to his or her readers that that’s what’s going on — for that matter, I suspect there were stuffed shirts who went about their business tentatively and with a lot of wit (I should probably read some AC Bradley and find out for myself, or something). I see what you mean, though.

        Structuralists, right. I think when I reached the end of the post (and this says a lot about my internet-reading attention span) I’d forgotten where we began. I should read more carefully. That does make more sense. I’d almost agree that criticism can’t be unequivocally right. I think some pieces of criticism can be right, once and for all, but we’ll never actually know for sure, and so we should avoid behaving as though we do know — which probably boils down to the same thing in the end.

    • Kaiserpingvin

       /  2 May 2009

      I’m not entirely sure I understand the comparison of literary theory and scientific theory. Are you saying that scientific theories are falsifiable while literary theory doesn’t seem to be? Or that literary theory is falsifiable, can be proved wrong by exceptions — Borges’s work being an example of an exception here? I would expect a good reader-response (for want of a better term) critic to talk about how the reader’s knowledge of historical facts about Borges might affect his or her experience of the man’s work, but that seems obvious, so I’ve probably missed your point a bit there. (In my experience reader-response readings and biographical readings are both about creating a character — the fit reader or the author — and perhaps that ties back into the ’scale of textual direction’ above. I’ve seen said scale in textbooks, but never been taught it.)

      Scientific theories are generally held to be verified, unfalsified explanations – hypotheses – of phenomenae reached through the scientific method. Basically, it goes like so (forgive me if I say the patently obvious, I only touch the pertinent parts):
      1. You collect data.
      2. You form a hypothesis regarding the data.
      3. You experiment, trying to falsify the hypothesis. Thus it is very important the hypothesis only states falsifiable things – unfalsifiable things are, always, unscientific.
      4. When this is seen as being done to sufficient degree, the hypothesis is now a theory.
      This is quite hard to do when it comes to literary science; most, if not all, readings will have strong unfalsifiable strains (to take an easy example – Code Geass spoiler, skip to next paragraph, people who do not wish to read it-; there is good enough data to say that he is dead as well as not, either statment will be unfalsifiable).
      Literary science (if one can call it such) is not very concerned with that; it is more about ways of experiencing, than what is experienced. Ignore that last very sweeping and false generic statement.

      • Kaiserpingvin

         /  2 May 2009

        And with “he” I mean who you think I mean, somehow I managed not to write it rendering the sentence an unspoiler. Go I.

    • In my case it was CRITIC1 and CRITIC2, with the course taught as a historical survey starting from Formalism and ending with New Historicism.

      I wonder what other approaches can be used to teach this.

  2. Kaiserpingvin

     /  2 May 2009

    This is all true.

    For some reason, despite being one of those insufferable fools who can spend pages decrying the lack of comprehension on what “theory”, “hypothesis” and “evidence” really means regarding the scientific method, I never found the term “literary theory” at any case annoying – to me, the “theory” did not mean anything, “literary theory” was but a word with space in it. To me, er, it seemed like everyone thought so, but that was surely mere arrogance on part of being overread in epistemology (us philosophy students can get so cocky regarding this, since it is one of very few fields where what we say have any practical application whatsoever).

    So ur. Good to see it jotted down. I was actually reading up on all manner of epistemology specifically to write a post on it here, seems you stole some of my work and put it better than I ever could, leaving me free to indulge more in Popper’s thoughts on induction and similarly exciting matters.

    • Cuchlann

       /  2 May 2009

      Yeah, I’d never really thought about it either, until this conversation and the following reading. If questioned I certainly would have differentiated between scientific theory and literary “theory,” but I was never really questioned until my professor jumped at my chance use of it in conversation.

      No no, write your post anyway. We can have a complete recursive set, Pontifus’s, yours, mine, then yours again. We’ll just have to convince Pontifus to actually write that second post he promised, which I suppose will involve dragging him from the depths of an espresso machine.

      • Kaiserpingvin

         /  2 May 2009

        Oh I do intend to write it, I find it great this post ‘ere was done, since I can refer to it and write more on other things I find interesting instead.

        Professors are good, I should discuss more with mine. It would mayhaps lead to me actually understanding the importance of the Gettier debate.

      • Pontifus

         /  2 May 2009

        Or a blender. Fuck frappuccinos.

        At any rate, I do plan on writing that other post. Also, I’ll go ahead and wrap this up so I can comment more substantially below.

  3. Back in uni, those who enjoy the study and practice of literary criticsim enjoy calling it ‘methodology.’ Those who don’t, lazily call it theory. Obviously I’m of the former, and since I minored in philosophy, I wanted to call it literary philosophy. I daresay it fits, but philosophy is such a loaded word that it may end up confusing people rather than making things clearer (Philosophy of/about literature vs. Philosophy found in literary texts).

    there is a reality of both a writer and a reader, both real people, but when discussing literature they aren’t all that useful to consider.

    I’m quite sympathetic to the Intentional Fallacy. I shudder a bit when reviews mention the authors/creators/studios a great deal, i.e “what are they thinking? fffffffffffffff,” “the writer just pulled that one out of his ass,” “the writers tried to get away with x but failed.” While there is probably textual evidence to support such claims by a reviewer, the reviewer sounds more like a workshop panelist. I do think that the discussion of the ‘craft’ of writing, as well as the criticism of forms have a place in a review. However, I don’t particularly enjoy reviews written like that, especially without familiarity with the intentional fallacy and assumes too much familiarity with the authors’ process to the point of being to second-guess the editorial decisions with impunity.

    I had read recently (Umberto Eco) that the narrative, however does have an intention. I intuited something like this and have done my (close) readings with it in mind. For example, I think it is legitimate to say that the intention of the Macross narratives to portray 2 distinct storylines: a personal one in the form of love triangles, and a ‘universal’ one involving space wars. Spoiler example: It is the intention of the narrative of TTGL to ‘kill’ Kamina to provide ample ‘space’ for Simon to emerge as a powerful lead character. (It’s 4:30 am when I started writing this comment so please make allowances for mistakes in examples).

    In any case, I need to read more on Eco’s literary reading methodology.

    • Cuchlann

       /  2 May 2009

      Regarding the text’s intention, I think you’re totally right. In fact, when I write papers I generally phrase assertions in that way, that the text attempts to do X or Y. It’s the same, on one level, as saying the writer/painter/whatever tried to do X, but on other levels they’re very different statements, in that (usually) it can be demonstrated that the text *does* attempt X or Y, through the markers one identifies within it. It allows the text a life of its own, which jives a little more with reader-response, in that it’s the text and the reader together.

    • “literary philosophy”, I guess it does fit at least in some sense since I had the same idea while reading the OP.

  4. Pontifus

     /  2 May 2009

    Well, as long as I think that literary opinions are just that, and have no ultimate foundation in the observable physical universe, and are thus neither good nor bad, true nor false, I can’t disagree with you here. I like the idea of the author being dead mostly because I personally, as a reader of fiction, don’t get much out of mulling the author over, but even my own experience has shown that biographical criticism is by no means dead and gone. My Joyce professor, who seemed to be an advocate of death of the author et al., had to admit that Joyce’s connection to his works is such that we’d be missing out if we didn’t at least cursorily consider his life, so the Joyce-centric class I took read up on Joyce’s life — not much, considering the amount of actual criticism we looked through, but that factor was there for all of us. Hell, I used it once or twice in my papers, in minor ways, and I don’t think I did so unreasonably (i.e. I never made leaps of logic like “In Ulysses there is x, therefore Joyce must have been y”).

    In short, if a theory exists, it exists, and that’s all that can really be said for any literary theory. The author can be dead and alive at the same time. And speaking of theory, I’ve also wondered if it’s the most appropriate term, though it’s never especially rubbed me the wrong way. “Methodology” is good insofar as it implies something more personal (to me at least), and, well, I guess I just like that.

    Oh, and I do like structuralism, even if it failed to do what it set out to do. The problem, I think, is that it was too universal, which is to say not personal enough, which is to say its initial goal was and is impossible beyond pure arbitrariness, but arbitrariness has some use of its own. I’m not sure what state it’s in right now, but I think I can fix it. Give me a few years to mull that over, though, before you ask me to explain.

    • Cuchlann

       /  2 May 2009


      Also yes.

      Look into the New Aestheticists. : )

    • Kaiserpingvin

       /  2 May 2009

      The author can be dead and alive at the same time.

      So in other words, the author is not dead, he is a zombie?

      I like that.

      • Pontifus

         /  2 May 2009

        You, sir, have just won literary criticism.

        Your next post should be “Undeath of the Author.”

  1. Lies and Truth, Epistemology and Semiotics, to Know Mugi is to know God (Yuri-ka!), The Quixotic Quest of Language; and OH YES Eureka 7 « We Remember Love

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 372 other followers

%d bloggers like this: