After Theory, by Terry Eagleton… Anyone who served on the academic front of the culture wars in the closing decades of the twentieth century is likely to prick up his ears and experience a kind of mental salivation at this conjunction of author and title. “Theory” (with a capital T, and/or scare quotes) is the loose and capacious term generally used to refer to the academic discourses which arose out of the impact of structuralism, and more particularly post-structuralism, on the humanities (or “human sciences” as academics in continental Europe, where it all started, prefer to call them). Key figures in its evolution were Ro-land Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault, who subjected the methodologies of the founding fathers of structuralism, such as Saussure and Lévi-Strauss, and the work of other seminal modern thinkers like Marx and Freud, to a scrutiny that was at once critical and creative. One might say that Theory began when theory itself began to be theorized—or, in the buzz word of the day, “deconstructed.”
In due course the movement’s center of gravity moved from France to America where it was developed and promulgated by writers like Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller, Geoffrey Hartman, Jonathan Culler, Barbara Johnson, Gayatri Spivak, Frederick Jameson, and Edward Said. On both continents it assimilated and theorized the nascent movement of feminist criticism. It extended the scope of traditional literary criticism to take in the whole range of cultural production, and it spawned a number of new, nonaesthetic approaches to this material under a bewildering variety of names—the New Historicism, postcolonial studies, subaltern studies, queer theory, and so on, each with its own jargon, periodicals, and conferences. Most of these projects were seen, and saw themselves, as belonging to that even looser and larger phenomenon known as “postmodernism.”
One very controversial effect of Theory on the academic study of literature was to undermine the authority of the traditional canon and to install in its place a set of alternative subcanons such as women’s writing, gay and lesbian writing, postcolonial writing, and the founding texts of Theory itself. It found its warmest welcome among smart young recruits to the academic profession, eager to try out this bright new methodological gadgetry with which they could dazzle and disconcert their elders. Not surprisingly Theory met with considerable resistance from those with a vested interest in more traditional modes of literary scholarship. There were many struggles over the curriculum, appointments, and tenure.
In England the most celebrated of these was the so-called MacCabe Affair of 1981 when a young lecturer at Cambridge University, Colin MacCabe, who had written a book about James Joyce much influenced by the new Parisian ideas, was denied the Cambridge equivalent of tenure. He and his supporters broadcast their belief that an injustice had been done, and the case seemed to tickle the fancy of the press,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.