It’s been a hallmark of the culture wars in the last few decades for politicians and opinionators to rail against academia. Professors of humanities have in particular come under scrutiny, charged with academic frivolity (sometimes at taxpayer expense), willful obscurantism, and all sorts of ideological crimes and diabolical methods of indoctrination. As an undergrad and graduate student in the humanities during much of the nineties and oughts, I’ve witnessed a few waves of such attacks and found the caricatures drawn by talk radio hosts and cabinet appointees both alarming and amusing. I’ve also learned that mistrust of academia is much older than the many virulent strains of anti-intellectualism in the U.S.
As Yale Professor of British Romantic Poetry Paul Fry points out in an interview with 3:AM Magazine, “satire about any and all professionals with a special vocabulary has been a staple of fiction and popular ridicule since the 18th century… and critic-theorists perhaps more recently have been the easy targets of upper-middle-brow anti-intellectuals continuously since [Henry] Fielding and [Tobias] Smollett.” Though the barbs of these British novelists are more entertaining than anything you’ll hear from current talking heads, the phenomenon remains the same: “Special vocabulary intimidate and are instantly considered obfuscation,” says Fry. “Reactions against them are shamelessly naïve, with no consideration of whether the recondite vocabularies may be serving some necessary and constructive purpose.”
Maybe you’re scratching your chin, shaking or nodding your head, or glazing over. But if you’ve come this far, read on. Fry, after all, acknowledges that jargon-laden scholarly vocabularies can become “self-parody in the hands of fools,” and thus have provided justifiable fodder for cutting wit since even Jonathan Swift’s day. But Fry picks this history up in the 20th century in his Yale course ENGL 300 (Introduction to Theory of Literature), an accessible series of lectures on the history and practice of literary theory, in which he proceeds in a critical spirit to cover everything from Russian Formalism and New Criticism; to Semiotics, Structuralism and Deconstruction; to the Frankfurt School, Post-Colonial Criticism and Queer Theory. Thanks to Open Yale Courses, you can watch the 26 lectures above. Or you can find them on YouTube, iTunes, or Yale’s own web site (where you can also grab a syllabus for the course). These lectures were all recorded in the Spring of 2009. The main text used in the course is David Richter’s The Critical Tradition.
Expanding with the rapid growth and democratizing of universities after World War II, literary and critical theories are often closely tied to the contentious politics of the Cold War. Their decline corresponds to these forces as well. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent snowballing of privatization and anti-government sentiment, many sources of funding for the humanities have succumbed, often under very public assaults on their character and utility. Fry’s presentation shows how literary theory has never been a blunt political instrument at any time. Rather it provides ways of doing ethics and philosophies of language, religion, art, history, myth, race, sexuality, etc. Or, put more plainly, the language of literary theory gives us different sets of tools for talking about being human.
Fry tells Yale Daily News that “literature expresses more eloquently and subtly emotions and feelings that we all try to express one way or another.” But why apply theory? Why not simply read novels, stories, and poems and interpret them by our own critical lights? One reason is that we cannot see our own biases and inherited cultural assumptions. One ostensibly theory-free method of an earlier generation of scholars and poets who rejected literary theory often suffers from this problem. The New Critics flourished mainly during the 40s, a fraught time in history when the country’s resources were redirected toward war and economic expansion. For Fry, this “last generation of male WASP hegemony in the academy” reflected “the blindness of the whole middle class,” and the idea “that life as they knew it… was life as everyone knew it, or should if they didn’t.”
Fry admits that theory can seem superfluous and needlessly opaque, “a purely speculative undertaking” without much of an object in view. Yet applied to literature, it provides exciting means of intellectual discovery. Fry himself doesn’t shy away from satirically taking the piss, as a modern-day Swift might say. He begins not with Coleridge or Keats (though he gets there eventually), but with a story for toddlers called “Tony the Tow Truck.” He does this not to mock, but to show us that “reading anything is a complex and potentially unlimited activity”—and as “a facetious reminder,” he tells 3:AM, that “theory is taking itself seriously in the wrong way if it exhausts its reason for being….”