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Monday, April 16, 2018

The Stifling Uniformity of Literary Theory


From Quillette:
In 1976, the Nobel-prize winning economist, F.A. Hayek, published The Mirage of Social Justice, the second volume of his magnum opus Law, Legislation and Liberty.1 Despite being widely regarded as the definitive critique of social justice, today one would be lucky to find advocates of social justice in the academy who are familiar with the name ‘Hayek’, let alone those who have read him. Among classical liberals, libertarians, and conservatives alike, Hayek is one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century whose The Road to Serfdom represents one of the most powerful arguments against socialism ever written.2 But those in the academy who have perpetuated socialist ideas since the 1980s have practically ignored it. 
In this article, I will argue that this unwillingness to engage with the ‘other side’ is not only endemic in the radical intellectual schools that have overtaken literary studies, but also that it is symptomatic of their entire way of thinking which, being hermetically sealed and basically circular in its argumentation, has no language to deal with critics beyond reactive moral condemnation. 
Many universities and colleges currently advertise literary theory courses which purport to introduce students to a range of different approaches to literary texts. On paper, it looks like as many as ten or fifteen different approaches. The labels proliferate: new historicism, cultural materialism, materialist feminism, ecofeminism, postcolonialism, deconstruction, structuralism, poststructuralism, race theory, gender theory, queer theory, postmodernism … the list might go on. 
This extensive list of labels seems to signal genuine range and diversity; however, in terms of their ideas, these approaches are somewhat narrower in scope and focus than one might expect. Virtually every approach listed here lays claim to be ‘radical’, which is to say politically of the left or even hard left – with roots in Marxist theory – hostile to capitalism, the Enlightenment, classical liberalism, liberal humanism, and even to the West itself. Virtually all are also committed to ‘social justice’. It must be noted that, since about 1980, these labels accurately register the genesis of literary studies as a discipline, but what they do not register is that, as they were rising, dissenting voices were systemically hounded out of the academy. 
For example, in 1985, Sir Roger Scruton – now famous as a philosopher and public intellectual – wrote a book called Thinkers of the New Left in which he was strongly critical of continental theorists such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan, and others.3 In stark contrast to the sometimes-wilful obscurantism of those he critiqued, Scruton wrote in plain prose and expressed ideas with clarity. Perhaps precisely because it laid the ideas bare, the book was greeted with howls of derision, and viciously attacked by scholars who had become disciples of Foucault et al. 
The publisher, Longman, was threatened with boycotts and risked being sent to the academic equivalent of the gulag if they did not stop selling the book, going as far as withdrawing copies from bookshops. As far as I can see, one thing that the episode did not produce is an intelligent response to any of the criticisms Scruton raised or, indeed, a single moment of critical self-reflection from any of those who had reacted so angrily. In effect, he was shut down and chased from academia.
GO READ THE WHOLE THING.
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