When I engaged with the different types of theory that are often used to interrogate literary texts, I noticed some trends that were either alarming or gave me cause to reflect on how things have developed since the introduction of these theories since the eighties. One of the first issues I have is the lack of engagement that students tend to have when they are introduced to the various types of theory. This happens because of a multitude of reasons which will hopefully become evident throughout this piece. However, on the surface, students end up rejecting many of these theories out of hand because they find them lacking or they can’t locate a theory that has a framework that they feel comfortable working in. They also pick up on the difficulties that have arisen as the current range of theories were settled upon.
They often find theory confusing too. This is likely because they are presented with a mass of disparate theories which appear labyrinthine. They appear very difficult to engage with because there are decades of baggage behind them and there is so much to absorb to begin to understand the nature of the approaches. The approaches are often quite simple underneath it all but they appear impenetrable from the outside. If explained simply people can often pick up the various theories quite easily.
Now I will move on to some of the problems that have arisen when it comes to how academics and students engage with theory and how they use it when analysing texts. One of the major issues I currently have is that there is a lack of engagement with other viewpoints or other potential methods of interacting with literary texts. Once people have gotten into any one framework, they then dig in to the point where they just do not engage with ideas outside that bubble. Thus there is often little development on some fronts because there is no interplay with many viewpoints and visions.
The approaches have also got a tendency to just revert to circular logic in its argumentation and a refusal to branch out and engage with any external criticism or arguments. This is particularly troubling to me because when casting your eye across the field, you will see ten to fifteen different approaches in theoretical approaches. Yet they all suffer from the same issue of circular logic and a lack of engagement with positions alien to their viewpoint.
Speaking of viewpoints, people working within any one approach often reach very similar conclusions when it comes to analysing a whole range of texts. Independent actors have often ended up saying very similar things for decades now, no matter what they are criticising. There isn’t as much scope or diversity of opinion that I could be satisfied with given that people are supposed to engage with a range of debate in theory . The viewpoints across the range of theory do tend toward similar viewpoints even though they purport to be coming from different standpoints and schools of thoughts. The variety of theories are often combined as they are often inter-meshing and aren’t all that different from each other. Though feminist and post-structuralist theory are different you can find them being combined quite a lot. Even if some of these viewpoints are not combined they can often reach similar conclusions anyway.
The fact that these approaches are similar in where they come from is highlighted by the fact that they all lead into answers that provide very hard binaries. They are straightforward and they often lack a lot of nuance for the most part. In a contradictory fashion, straightforward postmodern approaches often end up deconstructing those conclusions and binaries anyway. This shows the issue of some theoretical approaches which is that they don’t accept any conclusions of the other approaches.
One of the things that would help expand theory is to let students engage with a broader set of ideas by pitting competing schools of thought against each other. Not only that but the attempt to bring in different schools of thought to sit alongside the current set of theories to expand the horizon. Drawing on philosophy, history, psychology and other disciplines, new schools of thought could be brought into the arena. If different perspectives were cultivated, a thousand schools of thought could and would contend. This to me could only be a good thing because it would develop the range of thought in the humanities and social sciences.