The only genuine critical theory is that of no-theory, the only applicable abstraction the rejection of abstraction.
(McGilchrist 1982: 13-14)

Theory’s day is dying; the hour is late; and the only thing left for a theorist to do is to say so.

(“Consequences,” Fish 1990: 341)

One does one’s work first and theorises about it afterwards.
(Conrad 1924: vii)


To go after a thing is to follow it, to seek it out, or to hunt it down. Going after theory typically starts with going against theory, but never ends there. Ultimately going after theory fuses all three senses of after. In recent decades and years, many scholars have been going against theory and going after it, and in quite various tones and fashions. The present essay samples positions and practices, attempting not to unify a disparate and contingent assortment of more or less polemical statements, but rather to illustrate how many ways there have been to miss the boat. Critics have sought better theories, alternatives to theory, resources for dispensing with theory, but, as I shall be proposing, all in vain. I informally divide these writers into four postures, which I will call ex-theory, against theory, without theory, and post-theory. While examples don’t prove anything, they do add up, and will lead to what, in my view, they add up to, with historical roots in the two greatest intellectual figures of the Romantic era. You can disclaim or even decry the excesses of particular theorists, but theory, at bottom, is the consolidation of method, and you can’t dismiss theory “itself” without lapsing into incoherence. I conclude with a recent book that prefers politics to theory, but, in my view, gives up too much in the process.

Everyone seems to know when the against theory movement started. It started about when they were in graduate school. It doesn’t matter who they are and when they were in graduate school; that’s when it started. For me it started with Raymond Picard’s virulent attack on the young Roland Barthes, Nouvelle critique ou nouvelle imposture? (1965). For Vincent Leitch (2003: 57), the general editor of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, it “first appeared in the 1980s and early 1990s.” [1] Nicholas Royle (1999: 3), who completed his doctoral thesis in 1984, remembers a 1981 conference paper titled “Poststructuralism: The End of Theory.” [2] For others it may have started with The Pooh Perplex (1963) by the ex-Freudian Frederick Crews, or with John Ellis’s Against Deconstruction (1989), or with the ex-Lacanian Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen’s attacks on Lacan and Freud in the 1990s. Rita Felski (2008: 79,81) leaves the impression that the theory journals of the 1970s (Diacritics and Critical Inquiry, founded in 1971 and 1974, respectively) strangled what was of value in theory: “By the time I entered graduate school in the early 1980s,…literary studies had been freshly politicized….An entire cluster of terms–knowledge, reference truth, mimesis–vanished from the higher altitudes of literary theory.” Or perhaps against theory really did start with the ex-deconstructor Walter Benn Michaels’s jointly-authored 1982 essay “Against Theory.”

EX-THEORY. It isn’t always remembered that Michaels, like several of the others, was a theorist before he went after theory. He was a member of the Editorial Board of Glyph, founded in 1977 as the first journal in the United States to follow in the footsteps of Derrida, and he published a deconstructive essay titled “Walden’s False Bottoms” in its first number. Indeed, ex-theorists have always had theories to exit from. David Simpson (1993: 1-17 and passim) has traced the anti-theory movement back into the eighteenth century, and indeed into the genetic code of the English. In truth, we have never been post-theory, precisely because we have always been anti-theory. Theory and its Other; maybe that should have been my title. But I like my actual title better, because in its inherently deconstructive complexity it captures the simple truth. “Apprehend” is another English word that is primally antithetical: to understand theory is to imprison it. Don’t be apprehensive, though. Theory is always beyond reach.

As my initial list illustrates, ex-theorists are often the ones who go after theory most persistently. Stanley Fish may be the most persistent of all, and he will be my most intricate example. He made his name as a reader-response theorist. Reader-response criticism was a wonderful theory because it was a theory of everything. Fish (1989: 68-86) says exactly that in the 1981 essay “Why No One’s Afraid of Wolfgang Iser.” Reader-response criticism could be the account of the reader addressed by the text, as in Iser’s The Implied Reader, or the experience of reading the text, as in Fish’s Surprised by Sin, or the empirical reader in the reception studies of Hans Robert Jauss, or the spectrum of real-life readers, as in Norman Holland’s 5 Readers Reading, or the psychology of readers, as in Holland’s earlier Dynamics of Literary Response. All this had been debunked decades earlier, of course, by I. A. Richards, in Practical Criticism. Real readers, as Richards demonstrated with rare wit, read badly. But forget Richards, as all these subsequent critics seem to have done, or at least to verge on doing. [3] They offer us so many viable readers. The reader we address, the reader we construct, the reader we get, the reader we see, the reader we feel with–what more could you want? The problem was that the reader becomes so variable that the theory loses its bearings. For the later Iser it became pastoral and play. For Fish, though he hated to admit it, it became…deconstruction. [4]

Surprised by Sin in 1967 was followed in 1972 by Self-Consuming Artifacts. Here begins the theorizing of an ex-theorist. The book has 432 pages. The middle page, 216 out of 432, begins the section “Letting Go” (216-23) that concludes the chapter also called “Letting Go: The Dialectic of the Self in Herbert’s Poetry” (156-23). “Letting go”: what a great phrase–releasing and abandoning, energizing and decompressing at once. And so it is, or was. For in 1972, when this book was published, Herbert’s poetry was “determinedly inconclusive” (Fish 1972: 216). The opening of the Herbert chapter (157-58) is, in Fish’s fashion, clear-sighted in letting theory go. Herbert’s “poetics of tension,” he says, establishes “a resolving and dissolving insight” (157, his italics). Indeed, Herbert’s poetry creates the “relentless pressure” of such an insight. You may be puzzled that a dissolve could be relentless–a letting go that won’t let go–but so it goes in the ex-theory world. Fish calls Herbert’s insight a dialectic, though it’s a strange dialectic where resolution is not synthesis but dissolution. There are, Fish continues, three kinds of undoing constituting Herbert’s poetry: the undoing of the perceptual framework, of the self, and of the poem. They yield an insight that “renders superfluous the mode of discourse and knowing of which they themselves are examples.” And, lest you miss the point in all these ex-theory games, he concludes this chapter introduction by reiterating: “To read Herbert’s poems is to experience the dissolution of the distinctions by which all things are” (158). Paul de Man and his disciples might have smiled at this unmistakable foreshadowing of their soon-to-be canonical allegories of unreadability. For an earlier Fish, reading Paradise Lost was theoretically bracing; in that poem, back then, readers learned to make distinctions. No longer, in this ex-theory world. Now you don’t learn, you merely “experience.” Readers of Paradise Lost also experience the poem, but they don’t stop there: in this poem “the result is instruction, and instruction is possible only because the reader is asked to observe, analyze, and place his experience” (Fish 1998: 21). But for the ex-theorist who has fallen into a weak, untheorized version of deconstruction, experience is unending, it has, by definition, no determinate content. It just keeps on going and letting go.

That’s what happens when you start the ex-theory motor going. For to keep letting go, you have to have kept holding on. Self-Consuming Artifacts, however, was not the end of the line. Fish followed up with a wonderful book-length study of Herbert that has gotten lost in the shuffle, The Living Temple. Here the culminating chapter gets a resounding title, “The Mystery of The Temple Explained.” That chapter opens, “A new interpretation, like any other theory…” (Fish 1978: 137). This phrase, Fish-fashion, drops a quiet bombshell. Since when was an interpretation a theory? Haven’t we let go of theory right here? If a theory is no more than that, your reading against my reading, then it has no backbone. It’s as supple and as subtle as a serpent. The sentence continues: “A new interpretation, like any other theory, should have at least two advantages over its predecessors: it should be simpler…and it should explain more.” By simpler, Fish explains, he means it should have greater elegance. Theories are esthetic objects. Like poems. They are explanations, not structures of explanation; buildings, not frameworks; or finally, in Fish’s eventual terms, constructs without foundations. The book’s brief conclusion drives the point home. Fish wants to make it sound surprising, even (ex-)deconstructive, so he calls it “A Conclusion In Which It May Appear That Everything Is Taken Back” (170-73). In it he contends that theory is but a name for literary history and that interpretation is merely intuition pursued. Demonstration is another name for persuasion. That’s the tune he has played ever since. One of the essays in Doing What Comes Naturally is called “Anti-Foundationalism, Theory Hope, and the Teaching of Composition” (1989: 342-55). For a Miltonist, of course, hope is the theological “substance of things not seen.” Theories are foundations of knowledge. In attempted response, Fish’s anti-foundationalism is the theory that only practice really matters. It is, he says, “a form of theory [that] is not properly theory at all” (342). And that is precisely the situation of those ex-theorists who go after theory. They hope for a theory that is not one, and then they constitute their hope into a theory masquerading as something else. Fish goes after theory to go behind it, underneath it, or even, it sometimes seems, to go back to the golden days before theory. But “properly,” the anti-theory is still a theory. Had Fish known it, he could have been echoing this later published 1936 notebook entry by William Empson: “It is hard to feel that an adequate theory of literary criticism, if obtained, would be much more than a device for stopping inadequate theories from getting in your way” (Haffenden 2005: 193).

Fish may be the most open in acknowledging that to be against theory is to go after theory, in all three senses of the expression. To oppose a theory is to presuppose the theory that you oppose; to oppose theory in general is to offer a theory against theory; and to be without theory is to hope for an innocent reading that hides from view the substance of your practice. So he says about reader-response interpretation in the (subsequently withdrawn) 1971 Preface to the Paperback Edition of Surprised by Sin, “Surprised by Sin, although it nowhere contains any reference to such a theory of meaning, is nevertheless the product of it” (1971: x). An open confession of guilt paves the way to paradise.

ANTI-THEORY. Of course, there are other kinds of critics, not ex-theorists but anti-theory from the outset–critics who yearn to come before theory, fighting to abolish and even to forget it. “Structuralist, post-structuralist and deconstructionist theory is a confused and entangled body of material which, at its most extreme, enters the realms of dementia (as is shown by the sad case of one prominent advocate)….Broadly, in so far as these doctrines are sound, they are not new, and in so far as they are new, they are not sound” (Watts 1983: 22). [5] “Theoreticism” is “the most notable–and…the most noxious–change in academic intellectual style over the past quarter-century” (Crews 2005: 230). Let’s just get down to business, folks; forget all this new-fangled theory stuff. Let’s get back to the good old days, when we could just read. The bible for this wing of the profession is the 2005 anthology, Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent, edited by Daphne Patai and Will H. Corral. The first paragraph of the anthology’s introduction proclaims that “theorizing…increasingly seems to lead to a dead end” (Patai and Corral 2005: 1). In often paranoid tones, the editors call theories and theorists “inflated” (2), lacking “in the necessary philosophical foundations” (4), “recondite” (4), “nihilistic” (4), “paradoxical” (5), “arbitrar[y]” (5), “incoheren[t]” (5), “grandiose” (5), “absurd” (5), “preposterous and unreadably convoluted” (7), “intolerant” (8), “predictable” (8), “endlessly repetitive” (8), “otiose” (8), “repressive and alienating” (10), “bizarre” (11), “distressingly reductive” (11), “resolutely displaying political commitment and zeal” (11), “drifting” (12), “aggressive” (12), “incestuous” (12), “politically ineffective or plain frivolous” (12), “waging ersatz politics” (13), with both a “general lack of seriousness” (13) and (lest you have missed the point) “massive opportunism that is particularly glaring in the extraordinary indifference to or outright attacks on logic and consistency” (13). And that’s just in the introduction! Among the subheadings under “Theory,” the index offers the following: apriorism, Bad Theory, destroyed from within, deterioration of, as imperialist, as intellectual colonizer, as intolerant, jargon, lack of focus on literature, as opportunistic, political agenda, rejection of progressive ideas. [6] Back in the editors’ graduate school moment sociological theories were “new and promising” and “excitingly different” (7), by which they evidently mean seductive to impressionable young scholars. But it all went sour, subject to “political correctness” and “an accelerating postmodernist rhetoric,” geared to “waging an always antiestablishment ideological political struggle” (7). [7] If only–they might be thought to imply–if only we could get back behind the demon. How fair-minded and decent things must have been way back then, just before the editors were students! They might be thought to imply as much, but in fact they deny any such regressive nostalgia: “Our book does not propose a return to an ideal past (nonexistent, in any case)” (7). Still, their introduction dates the “inception” of “what is now called Theory” to the 1960s (1), with the Picard-Barthes controversy as the earliest identified response. Shortly thereafter, they date anti-theory writing to the period “since the late 1960s and in particular from the 1980s to the present” (3). Indeed, the earliest pieces included in the collection are from 1977 and 1979 (M. H. Abrams and Wayne Booth, respectively). That’s a long time ago, but it also just happens to be when the editors came on the scene; Patai earned her doctoral degree in 1977, and the earliest publication by Corral that I have been able to trace was in 1979.

Actually, of course, there was no golden age. I am far from the first to point out that “there never existed a time ‘before theory,’ when theory had not yet disrupted literature with its own, extraliterary concerns” (Carroll 2000: 118) [8]. There has never been a time free of theorists and safe from the “highly contentious nature of their premises” and their “poor standard of argumentation” (Patai and Corral 2005: 7). Bruno Latour has argued that we have never been modern, never culture-rich, never superior to nature. Nor, by the same reasoning, have we have ever been ancient, innocent, unconstructed. Impulse and system, intuition and regulation, talent and training, individuality and community, naive and sentimental–all these different names for theorylessness and theorization–they can never be disentangled. While Patai and Corral date the anti-theory movement to their graduate school moment–as almost everyone does–their introduction in fact also harks back to Boris Eikhenbaum (10: “more than eighty years ago”) and George Orwell in 1946 (4). For that matter, they could have gone all the way back to the writer cited by the OED as the first to use the verb “theorize” in a modern sense, George Innes (1644: unpaginated), in a short treatise published in 1644 called Militarie Rudiment, whose dedication “To the Loving Reader,” says “Nothing is so well understood by Theorie, as by Practick.” Anti-theory has been with us since the beginning, without making any visible headway.

WITHOUT THEORY. Could there, though, be a critic without theory? Could there be a critic who just reads? Is anything actually better understood by practick alone? No reading is utterly naive, after all. You have to know the language, for one thing. And you have to know the discourse. You couldn’t be a competent reader of sonnets without counting to fourteen. Even one of the Patai-Corral anthology’s antitheorists, Richard Levin (2005: 472), acknowledges the “general truth that every critical approach assumes a theory of literature.”[9] Similarly, in his introduction to The Limits of Theory, Thomas M. Kavanagh (1989: 2) writes that “limits” does not imply “taking a position against theory…. In fact, no consideration of literature or any other cultural artifact can take place outside an at least implicit theory that both sustains and shapes its critical discourse.” [10] But perhaps a theory of literature is different from a critical theory. And perhaps assuming a theory is different from swearing allegiance to it or from being a theorist. Anti-theorists live in a world of theories, but could one operate, as a critic, in a world or in a mode without critical theory? That is really the crux of the post-theory debate in its anti-theory guise.

The critic I know who comes closest to embodying the yearning for an innocent criticism is Helen Vendler. Vendler is a consummate close reader of poems from the birth of modern English to today. She trained under the guidance of Reuben Brower, the great postwar advocate of Harvard New Criticism, and she has always aspired to read as closely and accurately as possible. Brower rarely if ever used the term “theory” in connection with practice; he referred instead to his notion of “slow reading” as a “method,” notably in an essay called “Reading in Slow Motion” (Brower 1962). (Anti-theorists debate about whether New Criticism is theory or not, and hence whether it’s bad or good, but one type of account has it that New Critics “tried to sever the practice of criticism from theory and ideas” [Dickstein 2005: 63]. Morris Dickstein, the essayist, studied at Yale during the waning years of Cleanth Brooks and William Wimsatt, just as “theory” was coming in and its opponents were gathering. As it always is and they always are.) Vendler is only an occasional polemicist in her writings, tempered and not temperamental, and, like her mentor, she rarely refers to acknowledged theorists or even uses the word “theory.” At most, you can find this, in her study of George Herbert’s poetry: “An expressive theory of poetry suits The Temple best” (Vendler 1975: 5). But generally Vendler claims simply to be the voice of the poet. “In my emphasis on coherence, order, and resolution in the poetry I am following Herbert himself” (5). With Keats, her “conceptual frame” is “authorial choice”–understanding what the author wrote by imagining what he did not write (Vendler 1985: 5). In that connection, she recommends copying the poems in longhand (3). With Shakespeare’s sonnets, she moved even closer to identification by first memorizing the sonnets, and her book of sonnet-by-sonnet commentary concludes–inside the back cover–with a CD of her reading all of them aloud. No critic could claim more critical self-effacement than that. (Whether you regard it as personal self-effacement depends on your theory of acting. Not even that judgment can be made without a theory.) But even Vendler’s anti-self-consciousness has its limits. Exceptionally, the brief “Conclusion” of the Keats book quotes two accredited theorists. The first, Henri Focillon, authorizes Vendler (1985: 295) in her enterprise, which is the “replacement of [Keats’s] forms in their original material matrix of the poem.” Dangerous ground here, for how can originality be determined? Where is the line between re-placing the forms–putting them back where they belong–and replacing them and their original matrix with Vendler’s inimitable insights? And then, as if to challenge theorists on their own grounds, Vendler cites Foucault. “Commentary’s only role,” she cites, “is to say finally, what has been silently articulated deep down” (The Archaeology of Knowledge, cited in Vendler 1985: 295). Vendler then paraphrases Foucault, as follows, forecasting the Shakespeare CD and completely inverting the theorist’s meaning: “The end of commentary, then,” she writes, “is to recite the poem anew…” (295).

The end of commentary, it appears, is to end commentary. “Approach the sonnets…from the vantage point of the poet,” as she claims to do with Shakespeare (Vendler 1997: 17). Finally, just say the poem. Throw away the book and keep the CD. That’s the moral of the true non-theorist. But somehow, on the way, there are, all told, 672 pages of text and commentary. Few critics find more to say about a poem, more revealingly, than Vendler. She is surely not an ex-theorist, but is she a pre-theorist, or an anti-theorist, or a non-theorist? She has, in any event, a point of view. Let me repeat my last quotation, filling in the gap that I left: “Approach the sonnets, as I have chosen to do, from the vantage point of the poet.” Forget theory, and you are still left with method, with choice, with an angle on the poem, even if it is presumed to be the angle of the poet himself. Whether these acknowledgments and concessions and buried puns make Vendler a theorist I will leave to my conclusion. But it is clear, especially in the multifaceted introduction to the Shakespeare book, that, however catholic her taste and her canon appear, she is a methodist in spirit, and almost in spite of herself. Just reading, close reading, reading with the author; these are all labels, all methods, and–as I’ll say at the end–all theories. The end of commentary tries to make an end run around theory. But that’s just an illusion, or a rhetorical maneuver.

An even more prominent critic who adopted a similar pose decades earlier is Erich Auerbach. Employing a “procedure [that] takes the reader directly into the subject and makes him sense what is at issue well before a theory is expected of him,” Auerbach, too, pretends to be, as we say, just reading: “for long stretches of my way I have been guided only by the texts themselves” (1975: 491; 2001: 517; translation modified). Of course, Auerbach knew full well that Plato had coined a theory-word for following a way, “met-hodos.” He is without theory, but not without method–a “method which consists in letting myself be guided by a few motifs which I have worked out gradually and without a specific purpose” (1975: 484; 2001: 509-10). Did he work out the motifs in the course of writing his book, or did the method precede it? He fudges the question by writing at one point, “My interpretations are no doubt guided by a specific purpose. Yet this purpose assumed form only as I went along” (1975: 491; 2001: 517). But when he writes earlier of the “motifs which direct my investigation” (1975: 484; 2001: 509), it can be presumed that the motifs [or “motives”] began the investigation. To be sure, the translation has it that “the great majority of the texts were chosen at random” (1975: 491; 2001: 517)–though actually not quite at random, but, for “the great majority…on the basis of accidental acquaintance and personal preference, rather than in view of a definite purpose” (1975: 491; 2001: 517). But the translation is misleading. The “preference” is actually an “inclination” [Neigung], and the selections were not random, merely preferred, chosen selected “arbitrarily” (beliebig); that is, they were chosen with the purpose in view, though other passages might equally well have been chosen. He had a purpose, and it wasn’t indefinite, just broad rather than specific [genau]. He picked one example rather than another to suit his inclination in making the preferred (and not merely personal) point. And, for that matter, randomness is not a random category. It’s a favored category of Auerbach’s realism, invoked frequently throughout the book. His model here is Montaigne: “The obligatory basis of Montaigne’s method is one’s own random [beliebige] life” (1975: 261; 2001: 283). Auerbach likewise had a method with an obligatory basis. Indeed, despite Auerbach’s protestation, it has been evident to pretty much all readers that method here (as with Levin) is just theory writ small.

FINALLY, POST-THEORY. What, though, about those who now claim to be after theory? When books come along with titles like Thomas Docherty’s After Theory, Nicholas Birns’s Theory After Theory, D. N. Rodowick’s Elegy for Theory, Terry Eagleton’s After Theory and the collection edited by Jane Elliott and Derek Attridge also called Theory After “Theory,” we seem to be stuck in a circle. Docherty explicitly relies on the same pun as my title, and another pun as well: on his first page he proclaims his intention not to write in the wake of theory, and certainly not to write theory’s wake, but to wake theory, and later the book has a critique of the philosopher Richard Rorty and of neo-pragmatism in the vein of Walter Benn Michaels, with the section title “Against Against Theory” (Docherty 1996a: 59-68). For, indeed, theory keeps returning. And these authors are seeking theory, not abandoning it.

One example of the return to and of theory is a collection of essays Critical Inquiry, called “Things.” Things are as plain and immediate as you can get. The editor, Bill Brown (2001: 5), says in his introduction that things appear to offer “relief from ideas”; they lie “beyond the grid of intelligibility.” But his terrain is not “the thing”; it is, instead, the mysterious entity that Jacques Lacan called “the Thing,” using a theory-laden, capitalized abstraction (5). And so, Brown calls his introduction “Thing Theory.” His label, Brown rightly says, “sounds like an oxymoron” (5). But how do you make essays on “The Defecating Duck,” or “Fetishizing the Glove,” or “The Romance of Caffeine and Aluminum” interesting? “Things may be opaque,” says Jeffrey T. Schnapp (2001: 245-6) in the last of these essays, “but they are rarely dull.” The duck turns out to dramatize the boundary between mechanism and life; the single glove signifies the erotics of presence and absence; aluminum coffee makers become an allegory that links “intention and invention, fantasy and ideology, tradition and accident” (245). And that is where theory slips back in. For to make things interesting, you have to find and frame their meanings. In a subsequent reflection on things, Bruno Latour (2004: 157) calls for “renewing empiricism,” but he also calls for replacing “matters of fact” with “matters of concern.” Brute empiricism is a lifeless materialism; it gets you nowhere because, Latour (167) says, “critique [is] useless against objects of some solidity.” But matters of concern are not made of solid matter. Like all the best things in these essays, the matters that concern us are immaterial, critical, and reflective. Latour (171) calls them gatherings, using a term adopted from Heidegger, and he concludes that “the direction of critique [is] not away but toward the gathering, the Thing.” In this sentence, like Brown, he capitalizes “Thing,” making the thing no longer an object of perception, but an object of thought. The success of the collection as a whole reflects the drive even of the most material things to beget stories, stories to beget meanings, and meanings to capitalize on abstractions. Things come alive when they turn into theories.

Similar entanglements befall other recent impulses to get beyond theory. Notable have been the fads for distant reading and surface reading. These are not anti-theory movements; indeed, they present themselves as new theories. I call them post-theory because they claim to be leaving older theories behind. But you can’t leave the past out. What you deny continues to haunt you. Maybe not always; these are just examples. But these post-theorists, at any rate, remain haunted by the theories they want to supersede.
Distant Reading titles a collection of Moretti’s essays. In it, he concedes (2013: 44) that his title phrase “was meant as a joke,” a send-up of New Critical close reading. Depending on whether New Criticism is regarded as the beginning of theory or the last gasp of the pre-theoretical era, distant reading would then function either as the turn back against theory and toward quantitative objectivity, or as the introduction of a higher, more aware literary history. The label was a joke so long as it could be thought to point in two ways at once, toward more reading and toward less. The true tendency of distant reading, however, is toward formalization and hence toward theory. Moretti is explicit about his Janus-faced relation to theory in the new introduction to the 2005 essay “Evolution, World-Systems, Weltliteratur.” Looking back, he writes (122), he “realized that, beginning more or less around this time, both evolution and world-systems theory began to play a far less important role in my research….The decisive factor was…the growing importance of quantitative research” in his work, which “produced such a large new body of evidence…that the need for a new theoretical framework was for a few years forgotten.” Indeed, the 2000 essay “The Slaughterhouse of Literature” begins by portraying the masses of unread texts is if they were zombies haunting readers. But the headnote to the “Evolution” essay (122) acknowledges that for Moretti post-theory is only a way-station, for he goes on to express “a desire for a general theory of the new literary archive.” “Slaughterhouse” may suggest that readers are butchers, but in fact Moretti is more like a cook who rapidly tames the wilds of empiricism, as the theory learns “to recognize…the regularity of the literary field” (87). Distant reading wants to be more and better theory–the farthest thing from a quantitative empiricism.

But the past is never left behind. Distant reading in fact is the clearest case of after theory in all three senses at ones. Moretti’s most explicit statement of principle, from the essay “Conjectures on World Literature” (49), at one blow both celebrates and belittles theory: “Between the very small and the very large, the text itself disappears…. If we want to understand the system in its entirety, we must accept losing something. We always pay a price for theoretical knowledge: reality is infinitely rich; concepts are abstract, are poor. But it’s precisely this ‘poverty’ that makes it possible to handle them, and therefore to know. This is why less is actually more.” Moretti’s rhetoric is always wonderfully clever, and so it is here, standing E. P. Thompson’s headlong assault on Althusser, The Poverty of Theory, back on its feet. But in fact, theories don’t give knowledge; they give only the framework for knowledge. The knowledge of literary history comes from the encounters of concepts with textual facts. It comes from reading. “God lies in the detail”–so says the theorist of reductive distance–or at least “our understanding of culture certainly does” (“Planet Hollywood,” Moretti 2013: 105). And in another essay: “progress will only be possible through the good coordination of specific local knowledge”; “theoretical expectations will shape facts according to your wishes,” yet “facts…will finally be stronger” (“More Conjectures,” 115-16). [16] And how does the distant reader get his facts? In the case of “The Slaughterhouse of Literature” the detective confesses to his secret sin. To test his theory he had his research assistant collect around 150 mystery stories not by Arthur Conan Doyle and then–the truth will out–“I have read them all” (80). The distant reader is, as he has always been, a great close reader after all. [17] Far from being a truly committed post-theorist, Moretti the distant reader is actually a plus-theorist, aiming to marry systematics with hermeneutics. His dialectics always ricochet, in the hard-hitting style he favors, and his abundance is a lesson in giving more of everything: more reading, more thinking, more supporting empirics, more framing theory, indeed even the lesson of more less-ness. A kind of post-theorist, if you will, since this hobgoblin has never been prey to foolish consistencies. But post is anything but without. Theory remains an essential post on the way to the ever-distant goal.

Surface reading surfaced as a post-Moretti, perhaps also half-joking slogan in a widely cited 2009 special issue of the journal Representations (no. 108). Surface reading is more explicitly anti-theory than distant reading is. As an anthology, it is invariably less consistent in its methods and less uniformly articulate about its theories. But the repressed certainly returns here as well.

Surface reading looks back to Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Against Interpretation.” According to Sontag, depth reading simplifies and betrays works of art; it impoverishes them by reducing them to a single meaning. In place of interpretation, she calls for “a really accurate, sharp, loving description” to “reveal the sensuous surface of art” (Sontag 2011: 13). Sontag’s companion essay, “On Style,” quotes the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, in a neo-Kantian vein; through form and style, without regard to content, art yields “moral pleasure” via “the intelligent gratification of consciousness” (24). Form, style, surface are goods in themselves; we just need to learn to appreciate them. I’m not sure what form her loving descriptions or the recent surface readings are supposed to take. But I’m sure that no such readings are innocent. One case in point is the Representations essay by Christopher Nealon, called “Reading on the Left.” Nealon is unambiguous in his rejection of theory, as he understands it: he says that “‘theory’ tended to assimilate literary texts, not to politics, but to philosophical questions about necessity, or about universality and particularity” (Nealon 2009: 43). He wants a different program, drawn from contemporary Marxists but also, surprisingly, from Northrop Frye. “The more deeply we allow ourselves to understand literary texts as being written out of histories of struggle, of liberation, of toil, the less pressure we will feel to read them ‘theoretically'” (43). [18] The issue editors’ invocation of Sontag’s erotics of art obviously succumbs here to a defined guiding framework of understanding, impelled by the word Sontag would have hated, “deeply.” Indeed, throughout the collection surface reading is haunted by depths, as all purported non-theories are haunted by theory. [19]

Could there be a genuine post-theory? A liberatory and loving reading, free from preconceptions and fully respectful of the text itself? I don’t think so. Here I would adapt what Bruno Latour says at one point about postmodernism: “[Post-theory] is a symptom and not a fresh solution.” [20] The utopian yearning for a pure surface is but the flip side of anti-theory nostalgia. Even Patai and Corral think that a return is impossible, and so do I. So impossible, so vague, and so self-defeating does the aspiration seem that one must wonder how an anti-theory argument was even possible. To be sure, anti-theorists can be as articulate and forceful in their reasoning as their opponents. It isn’t the logic of anti-theory that I question, but its premises. Nealon, whom I have just quoted, is quite frank. The “philosophical questions about necessity, or about universality and particularity” that he calls “theory” constitute only one theory, for which Nealon wants to substitute a different theory, equally “deeply” felt (43). Indeed, Nealon puts the word “theory” in scare quotes–6 times!–to alert readers that his target is not theory in general but a particular understanding of the term. One can readily critique someone else’s notion of what theory should be. But how has it been possible for theorists to imagine that they have been critiquing theory in general? What is one against when one is against theory?

Rita Felski knows. Theory is not in the index of her most recent book, The Limits of Critique, but one moment identifies theory–actually “theory,” again in scare quotes–with critique (Felski 2015: 120). The book is written with an approachably aphoristic wit and an eagle eye for telling quotes; in those respects it is not unlike Eagleton’s (which I’ll come to later), but with a clearer mission. In “our” attachment to critique, she says–and I’ll put her co-optive “we” in my own scare quotes, as yet another, unacknowledged theoretical abstraction–“we remain faithful descendants of Adorno” (17). Felski wants to marry into a different clan. She wants to abandon critique in favor of alternate modes of apprehension. Her mantra is “affective engagement” (177), for which other terms are “love” and “attachment,” attended by “connecting, composing, creating, coproducing, inventing, imagining, making possible” (15-16). All these affiliating and enabling gestures are alternatives to the critical posture. And she works hard, with vast and lightly worn erudition, to de-theorize it all. Critique is really just “critiquiness” (a term she borrows from Christopher Castiglia). It isn’t even a method, but a “mood,” a “cultural sensibility,” and “attitude, ethos or affective stance,” a “manner,” a “disposition,” a “genre” (20, 47, 55, 73, 127, 187). That’s a lot of ways not to be a theory. If only that could be. But, alas, at last, it turns out that, despite Castiglia, “the difficulties of critique…are…not only attitudinal but also methodological and theoretical” (188). Critique is theory after all, and theory can’t deny its own nature.

But in rejecting critique, is one thereby also rejecting theory? Critique is skepticism and suspicion. The notion of suspicious reading comes from Ricoeur, though the term “plays only a modest role in his thought,” for which, she says, “I retain some sympathy” (30). Love thy enemy! In its suspicious guise, the critical stance or attitude inclines toward “paranoia…with overtones of pathology and manic obsession”; in its skeptical guise it acquires “an aura of loftiness and intellectual dignity” (36). By the time Felski gets to her snarling penultimate chapter, “Crrritique,” the delights of the chase have won out. “By now my more patient readers may be getting restive,” she begins; “Isn’t it time you stopped beating about the bush” (117). But she doesn’t. “Let us shuffle forward slowly, then, keeping our eyes peeled and our noses close to the ground” (120), and finally, “The elaboration of an alternative framework must await the next chapter” (146). But the mastiff smells blood, as she gets to the final chapter, “‘Context Stinks!'” In fact, Felski’s gusto is critical all along. The critical mode is defined at one point as “cock[ing] a skeptical eye” (44). But that’s just what Felski does all through: “Let us cock a skeptical eye” is her own watchword as well (23). She is engaged in a thoroughgoing, bracing “critique of critique” (190). And, as she admitted two pages earlier, you can’t do critique without theory. Indeed, even when her positive proposals emerge from the muck, they remain tarred: “The antidote to suspicion is thus not a repudiation of theory…but an ampler and more diverse range of theoretical vocabularies” (181). And so the final paragraph of her epilogue concedes, “we cannot help being drawn into the negative or oppositional attitude we are trying to avoid” (192). [20]

Why then try, I wonder. Critique is what critics live from. It is no more incompatible with affection, respect, and delight, than the hermeneutics of suspicion is from its dialectical antagonist, the restorative hermeneutics of belief, which Felski curiously does not mention. [21] They circle round one another, inescapably. My position is defined with respect to yours. And I do mean respect. There is no self without an other, no position taking without an element of denial, no fact or interpretation without a theory.

THE WAY TO THEORY. What, after all, is a theory? That is the root question. So far I have merely been giving examples of critics and theorists falling back into theory or its rough equivalent despite their efforts or intentions to get out of it. Giving examples is the critic’s job. I have been, so to speak, bushwhacking through a tangle of undergrowth, trying to make a path. Sorting the examples helps to move along. But to find the road, or the method, I need to see more clearly into the distance. That was Auerbach’s situation, starting with chance–but not actually random–examples, though he was willing to proceed only toward method and not step back to the broader view that would have formulated a theory of realism. That would not, after all, have been realistic in his eyes. Of course, he was scaling a much higher mountain than this essay attempts. But his method can still be inspirational.

I don’t think the question of theory is difficult to answer, and indeed my answer will be one for which there is long-standing precedent. But the question can be answered wrongly or one-sidedly. The one-sided answer is given by Knapp and Michaels in “Against Theory.” They define theory as “the attempt to govern interpretations of particular texts by appealing to an account of interpretation in general” (Knapp and Michaels 1982: 723). This definition is quoted by Fish in an essay in response, titled “Consequences,” and supported by a second formulation from E. D. Hirsch: “The only aspect of interpretation that has earned the right to be named a ‘theory,'” Fish (1990: 316) quotes Hirsch as saying, is one that “lays claim to principles that hold true all of the time.” If what you mean by a theory is something that is always true all of the time, that’s not a theory but a postulate, and you are back in the world of utopian ideals. Absolutist rhetoric runs rampant in the prose of “Against Theory.” A typical short paragraph bristles with “no doubt,” “all,” “all,” “no choice,” “all,” “must,” “only,” “must” (Knapp and Michaels 1982: 726-27). Nothing human could live up to such inflexible standards. If that is how you reason, you must inevitably be against theory–though, at the same time, you must equally well, like Docherty, be against against theory.

A more widespread misconception is that a theory is a tool. This too is a fixation, though of a different sort. We encounter it constantly when our students take someone else’s “theory” and “apply” it. If you apply a tool well, you are a good craftsman; if you apply it crudely, you risk breaking the object you meant to fashion. But in neither case are you a theorist. Theorists are the people who make the tools, not the people who make use of them–though of course you normally need to be able to use a tool to make it well. A theory may be an apparatus, but the theorist stands behind it, not underneath or inside it. Jean-Michel Rabaté has expressed the truism this way: “The more powerful a theory is, the more possibilities it will open in the name of concepts…which then are streamlined and mass-produced. No theory can establish itself without such conceptual tools, or without at least promising ‘handles’ which in their turn provide new ‘purchases’ on texts or cultural artifacts. But the novelty soon fades, and another gadget has to be invented” (Rabaté 2002: 99). Rabaté takes Derrida here as his instance of a true theorist, but the point is general: “[the theorist] requests precisely the contrary of such an instrumental reduction: his concepts keep only [sic] their relevance if they open to the event as event, that is precisely to an event that will exceed any program, a radical novelty incommensurable with protocols elaborated after having computed logical possibilities from which one will finally be chosen” (100). One can see here the impulse leading Auerbach to aspire to random inspiration; even when guided by motifs and inclinations, he needed to be open to the novelties without which there can be no real originality. Rabaté’s rhetoric can be hyperbolic; the force of “radical” isn’t clear, and it may arguably be a mere pleonasm. Still, principles that are always true generate only the truths–or only the kind of truths–that they always generate. If you want truths that change, that adapt, that develop, that emerge, then you need a different sense of theory. Without theory, properly understood, there are only degrees of sameness or resemblance. Without theory, no history.

HEGEL, THEORY, IRONY. That is the message of two outstanding recent books that have examined the history of “theory”: Elegy for Theory by D. N. Rodowick and The Birth of Theory by Andrew Cole. [22] Rodowick and Cole concur (anticipated by Rabaté) in considering Hegel the fountainhead of theory; their accounts are different but not discordant. In its original (Greek) sense theory means contemplation, as in a theater, where you watch a spectacle, and think about it. This is not the first English meaning given in the OED, but the various senses there are all first cited from the last years of the sixteenth century, without clear precedence.

Rodowick gives a nuanced account of theoretic tendencies in eighteenth-century science and aesthetics, where–simplifying his overlapping, rather fluid categories–theory could be more deductive or more speculative, more delimited or more all-embracing, more systematic or more exploratory. The fluidity is the essence. As embodied in Hegel’s philosophy, history is a narrative and transformational account; it tells how its matter is and how it came to be. It is not definitive, but “a protoconceptual thought that calls for philosophy” (Rodowick 2014: 46). A striking title that Rodowick might have invoked but doesn’t is Kant’s early essay “General History of Nature and Theory of the Heavens” (“Allgemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels,” 1755). In contrast to Bishop Burnet’s Sacred Theory of the Earth (Telluris Sacra Theoria, 1681/1689), which aimed to reconcile Biblical history with scientific knowledge, Kant’s notorious text is a pure natural history, suppressed for decades on account of its atheistic tendencies. The German word Himmel to this day means heaven and sky, without distinction. But in Kant’s account of “heaven” nothing is sacred; his theory there is both a speculative scientific reconstruction and also–and this is the key novelty–a history. Theory, as Rodowick portrays it, is thinking on the move.

Cole reaches back more systematically. He relates theory to Plotinian and medieval dialectic: whereas Plato and especially Aristotle advocated thinking through the opposing sides of a question, the later rhetoric contemplates essence in order to define its identity through differentiation. Thinking takes time and changes perception. The Hegelian phrase that Cole repeatedly invokes (along with Adorno, Lacan and many others) is “tarrying with the negative.” Rabaté, more playful and more hyperbolic, allies theory with hysteria, which is consonant with the others and with the tendency of the present essay so long as hysteria is understood to imply thought that is freely imaginative and daring. As Rodowick (2014: 168) writes–in a book whose tone is not in the least elegiac, despite its title–“theory is yet to come, always ahead of us…, envisageable but so far unattained.”

There is much rich thought that does not claim to be always true all of the time and does not appeal to principles of the greatest generality. More generously understood, a theory is simply a way of looking at the world, a frame, an approach, or, as with Vendler, a method. Karl Popper (1935: 37-8) put it this way, nearly a century ago: “theories are nets to catch what we call ‘the world’: to rationalize, to explain, and to master it.” Hegel represents its more formal, philosophical invocation, but it can be equally helpful to take recourse to his even greater contemporary, Goethe. Goethe’s (1959: 15) account of theory comes in the introduction to his largest book, his theory of optics, the Farbenlehre, or Doctrine of Color. “Experiments should be presented without any sort of theoretical binding, to leave the reader or the student at liberty to form a conviction at will. For simply staring at a thing has no merit. [Just surface reading won’t do.] Every look at something passes over into observation, every observation into speculation, every speculation into connection, and so we can say that we theorize with every attentive look at the world. But to do and undertake this consciously, with self-knowledge, with freedom, und, to use a bold word, with irony, that is the skill that must be drawn on, to render the abstraction that we fear harmless and the experimental result that we hope for truly vivid and useful.” [23] “Attentive” (aufmerksam, literally, looking up) is Goethe’s plain-language equivalent for the Kantian term for purposive looking, Anschauung (translated “intuition,” but only in the etymological sense of the Latin in-tueor, to direct one’s gaze at, to look) [24]. The attentive look pays attention, takes time, is underway to knowledge; irony is Goethe’s version of tarrying with the negative. There are excesses on all sides of the theory and anti-theory debates; dialectic understood as irony lightens the load and threads the needle to stitch them all together. And much later in the vast book Goethe (1959: 258) writes the following, in response to theory fear, or theory paranoia, or theory rigor. “Hitherto painters have shown a fear and a decided disinclination toward all theoretical reflections about color and what pertains to it, and they are not to be blamed for this. For what has been called theory before now was unfounded, unstable, and tending toward empiricism. We wish that our efforts may reduce this fear somewhat and may stimulate artists to test the stated principles in practice and bring them to life.” A theory unconnected with practice is not a true theory, not an actual contemplation of material facts or lived experiences; it is groundless, unreflected, and hence, by a curious reversal that nevertheless rings true, merely another name for empiricism, since in fact any such rigid theory can only be an observation that has been turned into a pseudo-law rather than into a thought. Irony, Goethe’s substitute for abstraction, is his name for what Adorno called critique. Theory is thinking without getting stuck or bound in your own systems. Theory, properly understood, has a fertile, dialectical relationship to practice. It requires a point of view, hence a method or perspective or thesis. But a method or perspective or thesis that is merely applied is a presumption, not a truly contemplative theory. Fish, at one point (1972: 408, “Literature in the Reader”), calls such an entity a “‘recipe’ theory.” Without testing–that is, without irony–theories are pale ghosts. Indeed, one theorist, Antoine Compagnon (1998: 12, 192)–celebrating what he means to critique–has even defined theory as “a school of irony” whose “aim is to defeat common sense.” [25] And because in this context thought and irony are names for one another, it is not surprising that the best accounts of theory do not seem able to get along without puns. Of which my current favorite is Vendler’s “re-placement.” “Gathering into the place” is Heidegger’s term for thought, echoed by Latour. As a community of practitioners of theory–whether listeners at a public presentation or, more virtually, as a community of readers–let us think together toward a happy future of theory, understood as a form of enquiry, freed of the rigidities of predetermined outcomes.

A method or perspective that is merely applied is a presumption, not a truly contemplative theory. Theory and method cannot be separated, and method cannot ever become an absolute such as the against theory theorists decry. I actually used the title “Theory Without Method” for my review (M. Brown 2003) critiquing (though also admiring) Vincent Leitch’s Norton Anthology of Criticism. But you can only truly be against theory if you have an alternative to propose, and that alternative is itself a theory, or a method, or a perspective, or an approach. Whatever you call it, it will do you good. You can come after theory, but you can’t come away from it. Despite being “a little weary of ‘post’ words,” Felski (2015: 12) finds “no fitter or more suitable phrase” for her enterprise than “postcritical reading,” and she devotes the last part of her last chapter (172-82) to the topic. She is right.

That inevitability is the simple moral arising from considering the against-theory movements and the anti-theory proselytizers. If you try to escape from theory, it will come back to haunt you. [26] Eagleton (2003: 221) puts it this way, in the conclusion of After Theory: “We can never be ‘after theory,’ in the sense that there can be no reflective human life without it.” There is, however, a more complex moral as well. Eagleton misses it in his many irreverent asides. “The anti-theorist is like a doctor who gives you sophisticated medical reasons for eating as much junk food as you can swallow” (54). I hesitate to call such zinging one-liners mere pot-shots, but they are at best criticism rather than critique. Eagleton comes closer to the dialectic of theory later, with the reminder that “the 1960s and 70s witnessed a great deal of highly sophisticated theory [that], ironically, was fascinated by what escaped theorizing altogether….What was needed was a theory beyond theory” (71). Eagleton’s irony here is not far from Goethe’s, and closing in on the idealism that, as Rodowick shows throughout his book, always shadows and drives the Hegelian dialectic. For all along hasn’t the more complex moral of my examples been that the movement against theory is part of theory? As the editors of one of the earlier post-theory anthologies put it (McQuillan, Macdonald, Perves, and Thomson 2016: ix), “The death of Theory is a persistent theme in Theory.” It fails its mission if it remains mere criticism. But it appears never entirely to manage that. Rather, it promotes, seemingly inevitably, at least some degree of reflection that reframes or refines the guiding principles of readings. “Against theory” has theory inside it. [27] So it is that Nicholas Birns (2010: 316), in the most clear-headed and massively informative after theory book, sums up his concluding chapter about trends in study “after theory” (a repeated characterization in the book) with a climactic section called “The Need to Theorize,” beginning “It is important to keep theorizing, in whatever way possible.”

For the return of theory is not so circular or regressive as it might seem. The more reflective theory that returns can never be the same as the theory that is critiqued. Scare quotes are in fact always in order: against theory can never be against theory (method, principle) in toto, but always only against a “theory” of some definite description. Those who pose as categorically against theory ultimately find themselves doing their thing and justifying it. Being against theory is not merely a contingent part of theory but actually a necessary part. It converts fixed “theory” into the thoughtfully open inquiry that makes you a theorist. The passage through the negative is essential. A mere assertion without an argument is a loose end; you can say what you are doing in the abstract, but you can only explain what you are doing in a context. The theory is the why of your doing, not the what. The negative component is the residual or resistant empiricism that Rodowick (2014: 238) in particular concedes in the Althusserian climax of his study: empirical facticity is covertly idealizing, and while Marxist analysis always aims to convert it into an operative, materialist understanding, ultimately “there is no pure theory or scientific state that can finally be achieved in a materialism that would be finally free of idealism.” At least in the sublunary world, theory is always contaminated with practice, ideals with facts, and theory always remains incomplete and under way. After all, the other ancient meaning of theoria is a mission or embassy. Go and have a look–an attentive look.

POLITICS WITHOUT THEORY: Joseph North’s Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History. As I conclude this survey, the most recent against theory book that has come to my attention is Joseph North’s Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History. This is a passionate book with a strong argument in which “theory” figures only briefly, and it deserves more sustained treatment than I can give it here, where a few details will have to stand for the whole. But the moral is important for my essay and particularly relevant to this journal.

North leans heavily on a British critical tradition that he traces from I. A. Richards through F. R. Leavis to his hero, Raymond Williams. In this genealogy, “the impoverished terms of ‘after theory'” are taken to be a historical aberration, politically confused and interrupting rather than transforming the history of literary and cultural studies (North 2017: 13). Achieving a critical stance of lucid vision and political soundness requires rejecting the tradition of Kantian idealism leading from New Criticism to pure theory; in its place, North (50) reaches back to William Morris for his “insight into the necessarily social character of experience, into the role of language in history, and therefore into the essentially collective and linguistic character of worthwhile historical change.” Collective and linguistic here parallel the terms he more regularly uses, scholarly and critical. He advocates, strongly and persuasively, a combination of factual information and thoughtful close reading, continuously correcting each other so as to stimulate a progressive understanding, a criticism on the left.

North is a subtle conceptualist, with illuminating fine distinctions, as among different types of close reading that, he contends, are wrongly grouped under a single label. He runs into problems, though, when he generalizes. Writing a concise history encourages using examples to represent tendencies, and he often acknowledges the decision to ignore nuances and complexities so as to discern patterns. And, in a complementary tendency, he undertakes brilliantly subtle close readings of critics’ prefatory gestures to bring out ideological ambivalences–”The Critical Unconscious,” as he labels his climactic chapter–without proceeding to scrutinize their practice. The result is a lack of self-scrutiny or, in other words, a failure to critique his own premises.

Following his practice, I will give two examples. The first is one of North’s summaries of Williams’s contribution which, in contrast to Adornian critique, he describes as “a clearing operation designed to sweep the field clear of idealist aesthetics so as to make way for an eventual reconstruction of the category [i.e., of aesthetics] in materialist terms” (134, the redundancy of clearing-clear being a minor instance of widespread imprecision in the writing). Throughout the book, North treats Kantian aesthetics as an inert category, overlooking that the Kantian symbol is a way-station toward morality. The New Critical close reading that North practices so well yet treats so badly is in fact far more alive than he lets on. With respect to Brooks (the frequent target here), one need look no further than the introduction to his first book on William Faulkner to see an expression of precisely the values that North advocates. Opposing both “sociologizing” and “symbol-mongering” or “symbol-hunting,” Brooks (1963: 8-9) pleads for a solid grounding in fact–”some knowledge of how life is actually lived (and has been lived) in Mississippi”–freed of “excessive literalism.” The question remains for another occasion whether Brooks’s brief credo here is implicit in his earlier studies of poetry, was developed from them, or represents a course correction. And surely any reader will agree that Williams’s practice was a richer reconstruction of the aesthetic than Brooks’s. Still, it is clear that North overgeneralizes when he restricts the critique of idealist aesthetics to “the left.”

And then, he reveals his bias (his “critical unconscious”) in the kind of defensive tone he is so adept at exposing in others. Here I need to quote a longer passage criticizing the eminent Victorianist George Levine.

“I note that critiques offered at the level of sensibility are sometimes read as ad hominem attacks, and I certainly do not offer mine in that sense–Levine was larger than this as a scholar, and no doubt as a person, too–but if we are to understand the core of the new aestheticism as a phenomenon, then the sensibility I question, as it extends across the median range of new aestheticist work, needs to be seen for what it is. For what we are looking at is, in the main, an aging centrist formation in the process of discovering that the left has gone too far and arguing on that basis for a conservative backlash.” (137)

For a critic who has just dismantled Levine’s disclaimers (on 135 North wryly quotes Levine writing, “my ‘anti’s’ are impeccable”), North’s own stand out. “Indeed, without wanting to be cruel, it is perhaps not unfair to point out…” (135-36). Perhaps not. Indeed. But the past tense in the discussion (“Levine was larger than this”) writes a premature obituary of an “aging” scholar who remains not just alive but very active. [28]
No doubt North is larger as a person than the ressentiment that seeps through here. But it is tempting to link the deficient introspection to the circumventing of theory. In this very earnest book, criticism lacks the negative element that can be identified either as critique or as irony. The insistence on a proper stance, always on the left, precedes and determines the search for a method. A politics without theory as I have been using the word–that is, without reflection, or method–is at best a positivism that winnows error from truth but does not find room for transformational thinking. Politics without theory is the practice of ideologues, as Jean-Paul Sartre (1968: 8) defined them: “intellectuals…who undertake to set the systems in order or to use the new methods to conquer territory not yet fully explored, those who provide practical applications for the theory and employ it as a tool to destroy and to construct–they should not be called philosophers.” [25] Or, as North’s (2017: 210) conclusion puts it, “the vast majority of academic radicalism is merely rhetorical.” And he is, indeed, highly sensitive to the introductory rhetorical fanfares in established critics–not just Levine, but others who are featured, including Stephen Greenblatt and Catherine Gallagher (88-92) earlier in the book and then, approaching his conclusion, David Damrosch, Wai Chee Dimock, and Patricia Yaeger (183-5). His own visionary epilogue (“Conclusion: The Future of Criticism,” 195-212) is not exempt. He concedes “that the discipline lacks a true paradigm for disciplinary criticism” and acknowledges “how long the road really is” to get from here to there (194). But there is no road map, no “methodos,” no “theoria,” only an imagined redemption “bent on pursuing modes of life deeper than any that the existing order is willing to allow” (212). A book like North’s can carry conviction, can inspire, can indeed illuminate, as his often does. But philosophy is a higher calling.
All those who go after theory, in whatever form and in whatever tone, claim a certain generality of perspective. The “theory” that they go after appears, by contrast, somehow limited. They do not, that is, really go after theory on the whole or theory itself (whatever that might be); rather they are always going after “theory” in scare quotes (or, as Crews had it in even more frightened quotes, “theoreticism”). Apart from the unformed hopes that conclude North’s book, the scholars I have surveyed oppose one position with another position, one choice (Vendler’s term) with another choice, one practice with another practice, or method, or theory. Even if they are without “theory,” they are not outside of the unscared because all-pervasive theory. It is time to take off the scary garment and acknowledge the essential universality of something less exotic and more natural. Whatever we do, or at least whatever we choose to do, we should remain within a human domain of evolving self-awareness called theory. It has many offspring, all those sometimes scary “theories” that we argue about. To debate is human, even to quarrel, and we should not be afraid of the inevitable disagreements. But, finally, to respect is divine. One umbrella covers all our knowledge practices, and theory is its proper name. The dialectical structure animating thought needs to be acknowledged, not rejected or contested.

It is an old truth. In Keywords, Raymond Williams (1983: 316) quotes–evidently from the Oxford English Dictionary–a version from 1687: “Theorie without Practice will serve but for little.” But George Innes (1644: 7) said it first and better, in the preface to his Military Rudiment:

This Author hee hath better Theoris’d,
That formerlie, hee hath the same practis’d.
And doubtless better now hee can practise,
That so well can his Practick Theorise.

  • An earlier version of this essay was published in Chinese in Frontiers of Literary Theory, no. 18 (2017): 1-23.


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1. Leitch’s first publication was in 1970, his first essay on theory dates from 1977.
2. The biographical information comes from http://cw.routledge.com/textbooks/9781405859141/royle_bio.pdf, consulted 1 Jan 2016.
3. Fish (1972: 411-15) discusses Richards, but dismissively, in Self-Consuming Artifacts.
4. Fish (1990: 68, 345; 1980: 305) has joined his name with Derrida’s in shorter and longer lists of anti-foundationalist critics, so for instance in “Why No One’s Afraid of Wolfgang Iser” (5 names), in “Anti-Foundationalism” (23 names), and in “Is There a Text in This Class?” (a list of 3 names taken from M. H. Abrams). But the affinity he recognizes is only general; the asserted differences are many and specific. For Derrida’s view of the “against theory” theorists, see below, note 23.
5. Watts’s essay, from an otherwise judicious and thoughtful collection, is not included in the Patai-Corral anthology discussed just below.
6. A similar paranoia, a little more deftly presented, besets Valentine Cunningham’s book Reading After Theory, from which a sample appears in Theory’s Empire. Cunningham (2002: 3) begins with his eyes open: “Reading always comes after theory. We all, as readers, trail behind theory, theory of some kind or another. We are all, always, post-theory, post-theorists.” But then, following four chapters of increasingly grudging praise, he declares, “Theorists are, as a class, bad readers” (59). And by bad he means that their work is, among other problems, “by and large appalling tosh” (99), “piss-poor” (109), “bluff” and “guff” and “cheery perversity” (117), and “dinkification” (128). He does come up with good examples, but does not qualify them by the maxim he quotes against Stanley Fish, “The plural of anecdote is not fact” (73), and, in discussing I. A. Richards’s Practical Criticism, he mostly reduces Richards’s (2004: 14, 12) nine “chief difficulties of criticism” to the fifth, “stock notions,” as if only theorists were prone to the first difficulty, the failure at “making out the plain sense.”
7. Another version of the “gone sour” story appears in Catherine Burgass, Challenging Theory. There is no pun in Burgass’s title; she challenges theory but does not find it challenging. Rather it is, in various instantiations–but this is just one page of the book–“as formulaic as more conventional formalism,” “vulnerable to charges of methodological incoherence and simple ignorance,” and prone to “encourage superficiality and dilettantism over depth of knowledge” (1999: 105). The villain in the book, however, is interdisciplinarity rather than theory per se.
8. To be sure, Carroll’s deconstructive understanding of theory as “disruptive” differs from the dialectical account given later in this essay.
9. Levin, a fine critic of Renaissance drama, was self-consciously a theorist writ small. See Levin (1971: x): “A particular critical approach, which might be called ‘structural,’ is adopted here, although I have tried not to make a big thing of the theory behind it.” Worth reading, too, is the conclusion to a later book of Levin (1979: 194-207), which pleads for testing of hypotheses; this is not anti-theory, but rather a preference for theory understood as procedure (or, as I shall say later in this essay, as “method”) over theory as construct.
10. The limit of theory–really only one limit–implied and sometimes insisted on throughout this heavily Lacanian collection is reality. So, notably, in Josué Harari’s (1989: 191) essay, “Nostalgia and Critical Theory”: “theory depends on a fundamental repression of reality.” I don’t see that there is any response here to a Kantian objection: what is “the real itself” (Kavanagh 1989: 15, my italics), apart from the conditions of its perception? Acknowledging the fundamentally conditioned character of the human world is where the present essay will wind up, though invoking Goethe and Hegel rather than Kant. Meanwhile, though, there is René Girard’s (1989: 234) rollicking essay “Theory and Its Terrors” to contend with: “Deconstruction is a weapon turned against the truth.”
11. Richard Jean So (2017: 671) puts it this way in “‘All Models Are Wrong,'” his contribution to the excellent PMLA collection of responses to Distant Reading: “Spotting and then reading outliers help us understand how the model is not working; then by identifying the distinctive features of such texts, we can rebuild our model to account for those features.”
12. Many of the PMLA essays address the need to read, albeit with different assessments of the relationship between reading and theorizing (or analyzing, or formalizing)–undoubtedly because while theory as such is not an explicit topic in the collection, it’s all over the map behind the scenes. Most depreciative of reading is Andrew Gladstone’s (2017: 638) “The Doxa of Reading,” which calls reading (for Moretti) “a means rather than an end.” So it is for all of us as professionals, of course; our professional ends are our teaching and our writing. In this sense computation is likewise a means whose ends are pamphlets, essays, books. But reading doesn’t seem secondary in the climactic line I quoted, which in full reads, “But I have read them all, and Figure 2 visualizes the results” (Morettis 2013: 80). Reading gives results; the graphs–so says Matthew Wickman (2017: 677)–are “picturesque” and “beguiling.”
13. Nealon has not been a consistent anti-theorist, however. In a lively earlier essay, “The Swerve around P,” (Nealon 2007) he argues for detaching theory–identified with thought–from interpretation: “the literary—and with it literary theory—is or should be alive and well, but only if we abandon our nostalgia for the primary suture of the interpretive itself, and turn literature and literary theory back to the multiplicity of uses and questions that characterize our engagements with other forms of expression.”
14. More recently, Representations published a collection of essays on description as a follow-up to “Surface Reading.” Avoiding any reference to theory, the editors’ introduction (Marcus, Love, and Best 2016: 2) pleads for recognizing description as a method, indeed, as “a core, if unacknowledged, method in all scholarship and teaching.” Mostly, though, they refer to “practices,” and they remain unspecific about how to distinguish “bad description” from “better description” that is “genuinely descriptive” (14-15). Description, they say, “can” do lots of things–”can produce pleasure, … can make us more attentive, … can allow us to see more and to look more attentively, more forcefully, and more selectively,… can take us out of ourselves”–and actually does one thing, “connects us to others” (14). But it’s not clear from the introduction or the prevailingly descriptive essays what turns the practice into a method that might identify goodness. Occasionally, though, the problem is confronted along the lines of the present essay. Lorraine Daston (2016: 67) points to the inevitability of formalization: “Standardization…is a prerequisite for a shared world.” And Michael Fried (2016: 144) concludes the collection with an even more forceful acknowledgment: “In the absence of [a] historical and theoretical…framework…,the individual observations…almost certainly would have remained meaningless, without further significance.
15. “Postmodernism is a symptom, not a fresh solution” (Latour 1993: 46).
16. More recently, in response to discussions of her work, Felski (2017: 389) writes with studied ambivalence, “I do not strive for a ‘clear map’ or a ‘method’ and do not think my arguments are well described as ‘literary theory,’ thought they do involve theoretical reflections on literature.”
17. There is an oblique acknowledgment of the hermeneutics of belief in Felski’s (2008: 22) predecessor book, Uses of Literature: “In the long run we should all heed Ricoeur’s advice to combine a willingness to suspect with an eagerness to listen.”
18. D. N. Rodowick, Elegy for Theory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014); Andrew Cole, The Birth of Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014). PMLA 130 (2015): 750-818, collects six essays responding to Cole’s book, accompanied by his reply. The essays, predominantly by medievalists, raise a number of questions concerning both the intellectual history and the social history in the book, but do not directly address the linkage of theory with dialectic.
19. Hans-Georg Gadamer (1986: 43-44) presents essentially the same view in an essay “In Praise of Theory” when he defines theory as “seeing what is” [Sehen dessen, was ist]. “What is,” here, is not merely what appears. “Instead of that which one wishes were the case” [statt dessen, wovon man wünschte, daß es sei], Gadamer has a deeper, more thoughtful seeing in view, a true theoria, in its Latin sense of contemplatio, dwelling “not with a particular being, but in a region” (nicht bei einem bestimmten Seienden, sondern in einem Bereich].
20. Goethe’s “attentive” is consonant with an idiom Docherty uses repeatedly: a proper criticism “attends to” its objects. Like Cole, Roderick, and Rabaté, Docherty (1996b: 4) traces theory back to Hegel, though his hyperboles are not playful and are insensitive to Hegel’s irony, speaking of “the frightening otherness of the object,” “a terroristic struggle,” and “a terrifying struggle.” Like Cole, he finds medieval roots of theory, though the promised “argument later in this book for Duns Scotus as a proto-postmodernist” (p. 12) never in fact emerges. Docherty, however, falls short of the others, in my view, by reifying his concepts, particularly modernism vs. postmodernism, to the point where John Donne’s poetry–like Duns Scotus’s philosophy–“can be considered…as the site where an incipient postmodernism impinges on the text” (p. 110). Docherty celebrates a kind of otherness so unbending that the essential contemplative nature of dialectic is lost.
21. Compagnon’s patient dissections of the limits of theories of literature, author, reader, etc., deserve more attention than I think they have received. Unfortunately, the chapter conclusions engulf irony (and common sense) in a paranoiac version of moderation; e.g., “That violent, binary, terrorist, Manichean logic so dear to literary thinkers…induces dramatic alternatives and sends us to bang our heads against windmills” (p. 101).
22. The haunting by theory is the theme of Marc Redfield’s sensitive and learned study, Theory at Yale. He calls theory pervasively phantasmatic (a thread linking this book with Redfield’s earlier work), in its visible manifestations mediatized, and, at the end, in its most surreptitious guises, metastatic, as deconstruction’s “radical critique of aesthetics…was able to metastasize past what one might have imagined to be its natural scholarly boundaries” (Refield 2016: 185). Theory, in this book, means “theory,” in the scare quotes often used for the scary Yale strain, but my point is that theory infects all our work, beneficially.
23. Paul de Man’s (1986: 19) essay “The Resistance to Theory” collapses the dialectic in its conclusion, “Nothing can overcome the resistance to theory since theory is itself the resistance.” The categorical formulations (“nothing,” “itself,” and the italicized “is”) have the same effect of foreclosure as those in the Knapp-Michaels essay. They are prepared by pseudo-resistant hesitation formulas earlier in the essay: “It may well be, however, that the development of literary theory is itself overdetermined by complications inherent in its very project…Resistance may be a built-in constituent of its discourse…It may well be, in other words, that the polemical opposition, [etc.,] are the displaced symptoms of a resistance inherent in the theoretical enterprise itself” (12). The “other words” are, self-evidently, almost the same words all over again, and the reification via the repeated “itself” again obstructs progress. Even earlier, de Man calls theory “a controlled reflection on the formation of method” (4); the effect of the essay is to give “controlled” a quasi-Foucauldian regulatory sense and not the scientific sense of validation through experiment. I prefer Jacques Derrida’s (1990: 87) wittier account of theory as a jetty (a disruptive stabilizer “thrown” into the sea of thought, not quite foundational nor quite anti-foundational, and ultimately linked to Heideggerian Geworfenheit): “What was at stake” in the resistance to theory–on p. 90 Derrida invokes specifically the Knapp-Michaels “against theory” essay–“was to exceed the theoretical rather than to hinder it and to take positions ‘against theory.'”
24. Levine published a small book about Thomas Hardy in 2017 and at least three substantial journal essays in 2018-19.
25. Hazel Barnes translates idéologues with “ideologists,” but the more conventional English term seems appropriate to me.
26. A complementary problem besets a book that reached me the day I was sending off this essay, M. A. R. Habib’s Hegel and the Foundations of Literary Theory. The foundational contention of Habib’s (2019: 12) lucid and knowledgeable study is that “literary theory is an implicit critique of capitalism” (his italics). At a polar extreme from Christopher Nealon, Habib (119) asserts that “the only totality that any of our theories posit (or can posit) is capitalism as a world system.” This presumes that theories exits to posit totalities. It can appear grounded if the only theorists you consider are more or less in the line of Hegelian Marxists. On quick inspection, the book appears genuinely illuminating in accounting for the Hegelian roots of a considerable number of those. But I hesitate to limit theory–or, indeed, Hegel–to this spectrum.