Theory in the Void

Theory in the Void was originally published in The Gadfly [1] and is reproduced here by kind permission of the author Brian Lee. In it, Mr Lee takes on the academic industry that goes by the name of ‘literary theory’, whose mills produce endless streams of chaff but never a grain of good wholesome wheat. His immediate target is Catherine Belsey’s Critical Practice, but what he has to say about the particular example applies no less to the whole enterprise, the success of which in taking over the literary departments of higher education institutions in the Western world goes a long way towards explaining the illiteracy of their finished products. Thanks are due to Mr Duke Maskell for scanning the text, which has obviated the laborious task of transcribing it.  R S

Brian Lee

If there is no common sense: what is there? The answer is: critical practice, a method (or rather a “new mode of production”) or with capitals, a book (or, preferably a text —but why should that be the automatic word?) that says that ” it is not immediately clear how to contemplate the alarming prospect of a world without ultimate determin­able meanings … .” [2]

Hard enough, for me, to contemplate these immediate meanings. Shouldn’t the word determinable have been determined, and if not, why not, or can you guess already? And isn’t the idea that meaning is undeterminable a determined idea? Or where was the proof got? Or what is it, otherwise? And how, if the ultimate meanings are unclear, are the immediate meanings so clear? What is the relation between the proximate and the ultimate? Between thinking that truth may be found, and the sense that the sentences you write down make? If you don’t know what you are aiming at, won’t your words start to go funny?

This sort of stuff drives me mad, but its author is appar­ently all right: for Catherine Belsey it all “only means” that the “new concepts” (no, not ideas) of Althusser, Lacan, Derrida, Barthes, Macherey,”are still vulnerable, still in many ways precarious” and that “there is more work to be done.” But whereto, if anything that might be an outcome is impossible by a foregone conclusion? Un­less it should be to strengthen those infinitely tender and infinitely suffering things, the vulnerable and the precar­ious—to make them strong and true. But that would be a contradiction, wouldn’t it?

Reading it, produces a physical sensation—an over-excitement and at the same time a mental fuzziness, like drunkenness without the pleasure, then a prolonged irrit­ability, as if I had her hangover. I take it that it has a similar, but not necessarily the same, effect, on others; for at the beginning of this year one of my mature students, fine, tall, keen and previously happy Mrs C, came out of the class at the end looking distinctly anxious and begin­ning to talk about giving the course up, and all because of this book or text. She’d spent the whole weekend trying to understand it, and she couldn’t, it made her feel stupid, it made her feel miserable because if that was what she was expected to read she knew she shouldn’t be on the course, and so she felt she’d better come and see me about leaving. But perhaps she’d let me have a look at the book first—in orange and mauve, with an “eyecatching logo” and the words ” NEW ACCENTS”—which had this on the first page I opened:

Through the presentation of an intelligible history which effaces its own status as discourse, classic realism proposes a model in which author and reader are subjects who are the source of shared meanings, the origin of which is mysteriously extra-discursive. It thus does the work of ideology in sup­pressing the relationship between language and subjectivity.

Just enough to make you laugh (unprofessionally, as it turned out)—a laugh in which I was joined by another mature student (older than me!) who said—”That’s the new scholasticism.” Yes—but where had Mrs C. (who wasn’t laughing) got this? Oh—the class confirmed—it had been recommended at their second lecture: held up with the words ” this has just come out in paperback “and the advice that “it’s easy reading.” Obviously, to A-level eighteen-year-olds, and a few adults coming back to “educaion”, the vade mecum. I had a quick look at the blurb, and had another laugh at this :

As an introduction to these new and often impenetrable critical theories this book is ideal.

—It’s just like “indeterminable”. “If they’re impenetrable, how has she penetrated them—how will you?” I asked. There were a couple of uneasy smiles. I was just another contradictory voice. If everyone said the same, even if it was wrong, everyone might know where they were. Hadn’t I complicated matters—was I—I was— laughing at a book, a book I had hardly read—was I serious? Go off and read Harry Coombes—but as far as they are concerned, why should they take one word rather than another, one teacher rather than another? As things are, they haven’t even got to the end of the course, where one used to hope (but what a hope now) that something might have made judgement a bit more secure. Talk about the common pursuit? All right for me to laugh?

She has an influence, does Ms Belsey (I expect it’s Ms, for these things tend that way, and also leftwards). The name has been in the background, and also in syllabuses and booklists and the correspondence columns—she pro­testing against “misinterpretation” and ex-Professor Holloway making an utterly feeble attempt at answering her. She seemed only likely to become the latest represent­ative bugbear, who is at the conference, where the newest excitements (mauve and yellow and in paperback) are asked to stand and speak. There’s always something better to read, until conscience tells you, you can’t avoid it: and then the significance seems to be deeper, the plight more desperate. Do we know what is sitting before us, in the form of students, and if we don’t what is getting in the way? Have we lost, somehow or other, our sense, or commonsense, sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch? How then should we use them for our closer contact?

On common-sense, Ms Belsey has a lot to say: the blurb brags that she “demonstrates” that “orthodox literary criticism” (does that mean everything that is not critical practice!) masquerades as it, whereas it is “the product of” a particular place and time. Sam Johnson or Ben Jonson? They aren’t in the index, or Pound, he of “How to Read”. So what does she want—something, some crit­icism, some theory, that isn’t of place or time, or (should one say) persons, who are of place and time? Something, out there in space, a floating scaffolding or structure of ” concepts ” connected by dexion strips, a bookshelf for notions in the void? Is her book a “precarious” little step towards that, out of her present in Cardiff and a bit of the literary world ? Then everything in the world before Saussure (who is, in Tillich’s phrase, the ground of her being), is ” commonsense “—and this is why I and Mrs C, however different we are, feel that we belong in different worlds than she. Nothing like this has happened before, has it? She thinks, yes she does, that all commonsense criticism has no explanatory force, or—not her word, be­cause she puts it into inverted commas; she puts mine in, I put hers—TRUTH. But all it amounts to, the determined idea which leads to indeterminability, is that ” it’s all relative.” And, you may ask, if that is so, how does she hope to make it not-so ? Why, by

a theoretical framework which makes a fundamental break with the propositions of commonsense, a genuinely radical critical practice.

There it is, the mental space-station, floating in the midst of relativity, a network, entirely of its own time and place, a mental organization, of struts and sub-frames, extensions and connections and relations and ropes and guys. Or an ideological oil-rig, at sea. Never mind commonsense, where is human personality, once you’ve got this in your head?

If Lawrence thought the world was going mental, here is the very skimming off the top of “brain”; and this is what can be “thought”:

There is no practice without theory;

Commonsense appears obvious because it is inscribed [that is one of the words they love, another is ” closure “] in the language we speak, [so];

The transparency of language is an illusion, [so];

Because of this theory [another theory; thereby links with theory to make (?) Theory, the Transcendental Signifier],the language used by the practitioners of theory is “usually far from transparent” in order to avoid “the tyranny of lucidity”,

and there follows, as it must, this defence of jargon:

To resist all linguistic innovation is by implication to claim that we already know all that we need to know. In this book I shall try to make the new theories as accessible as possible without recuperating them for commonsense by transcribing them back into the discourse of every day. The undertaking is in a sense contradictory: to explain is inevitably to reduce the unfamiliarity and so to reduce the extent of the challenge of the post-Saussurean position. On the other hand, I hope that it may prove to be a useful undertaking if it facilitates the reading of the principal theorists themselves.

—“Sneering” at “unnecessary jargon”, she says, is an “easy way” of evading “conceptual challenges”. So without the ghost of a sneer: this is not only contra­dictory tout court, it is transparent, perhaps because she’s having to use the common language, the language of everyday and commonsense. She slips out of what she thinks is a specific criticism of a particular form of lit.-crit, into an implicit criticism of everything that isn’t “critical practice”. If the whole world spoke jargon, there’d be no difficulty. Would you then have common-sense? When the “liberal-humanists”, and the “pluralists” and the “open-minded” sneer, she can answer in that modest tone, all hopes and tries and “in-a-senses “, all “modesty”, but no real modesty and no real con­fidence, either, and her counterparts wouldn’t be able to tell her so; that she can’t even think up a really bare-faced swindle, only a transparent one. She neither believes nor disbelieves in this stuff; it is merely “interesting” (that utterly contemporary evasion)—something she’s learnt. And the consequence is, the mere wreckage of argument, argument detached from all impulsion. What is often said about jargon is never what she says. No-one with any sense (perhaps the nearest to it was Swift, with “fix­ing”) ever resists “all linguistic innovation”. Jargon isn’t “all linguistic innovation”. There’d be no litera­ture, no private invention, no fun, no puns without it; no growth, no expression of new experience, probably no new experience. (You can see what life would be like should she ever manage to bolt her floating fabrication together tight). Her “all” is the naivest kind of giveaway, as is the sentence with the word recuperate in it (the literary flourish in the midst of would-be-scientific theory: and which is convalescent, commonsense or theory?) It de­clares what elsewhere she’s rather chary of making plain, that commonsense and the common language (“ordin­ary”, “everyday”, language) go together, and are continu­ous with literature, the literature without which she wouldn’t be able to have a theory [1] When she talks, what does she talk? Where does jargon begin and end? Isn’t the grammar, even, of that very necessary, very specialized scientific jargon, the same grammar as the grammar of ordinary speech? (They’re not discontinuous, like (pre­sumably) her talk and her thought.)

Unwilling, or half-willing (it makes little difference which) to have anything to do with the common language, this is what the thinking-Belsey thinks when she thinks that she is … no, not making things clear, but facilitating-the-reading-of. The objection to jargon, when there is one, is always that it has the effects that you can see here—if you have the eyes to see. You can’t evade the continuity of language (mathematics has a “grammar” and punctu­ation marks: see Susanne Langer). She’s not, conse­quently, in contradiction “in a sense”, but in her very self, and everywhere: she doesn’t know what she is say­ing. It’s no wonder, if she has no idea of any ultimate determinable meaning, if the immediate determinable meanings aren’t clear. Sentences don’t mean properly, can’t make the sense that won’t be dispelled as a require­ment. Language makes sense, before we ever enter it: from which she wants to escape, like an inverse enthusiast of Lagado, into her theory-construct, and at the same time come down and explain it too.

As there is a dissociation between her theory and her commonsense, there is one too between generalization and experience: the experience to which literature (upon which theory feeds) is so close:

One of the main thrusts of Romanticism is the rejection of an alien world of industrial capitalism, recurrently signified in images of death, disease and decay. Poetry claims to create a living world, fostered by nature but springing essentially from the subjectivity of the poet, from what Coleridge calls the Imagination, a mode of perception which endows the phenomenal world with a vitality and an intensity issuing ultimately from the soul itself: ‘O Lady! we receive but what we give,/And in our life alone does Nature live’ (‘De­jection: an Ode’). The Romantic vision, though it needs the phenomenal world for its realization, transcends and trans­forms the material and the mortal.

The Romantic rejection of the ‘real conditions’ is based on a belief in the autonomy of the subject. The ‘man possessed of more than usual organic sensibility’ greets in solitude the experiences he himself generates. But the escape, the trans­cendence, is rapidly seen to double back on itself: the higher knowledge proves to be a dream or a reversion to the very reality whose antithesis it was to represent. In the absence of an adequate theory of the subject as individual in society, a meeting-place of the network of linguistic relationships which articulate experience, the Romantics were unable to account for this doubling back, experiencing it only as loss or betrayal of the vision. Much of the poetry of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries constitutes a record of increasing despair as the contradictions in the Romantic rejection of the world became increasingly manifest. Unable to theorize the inade­quacy of its concept of subjectivity (and committed, indeed, to experience as against theory), the poetry can ultimately only present the subject as trapped between intolerable alternatives, the mortality of the material world and what Yeats calls the’ ‘cold snows of a dream’. Romanticism in poetry, like the posit­ivism of classic realism, provides, precisely through the deter­mination and integrity with which it pursues its project, evid­ence of the uncertainty of its own undertaking. The Romantic ode, celebration of the presence of subjectivity, moves towards a formal centre which is to be the emblem of its own theme, the embodiment of the vision which is its source. What it finds is a central absence, a radical inconsistency which leads either to elegy or to interrogation in the place of the awaited triumph at the moment of closure: ‘Fled is that music … Do I wake or sleep?’

The Lacanian subject is constructed on the basis of a split­ting which is irreversible. …

   Once again, it drives you mad—practically everything is questionable, for if anything was “constructed on the basis of a splitting” this is—a basis which is no basis : “These fragments have I shored against my ruins.” But still, the person who “modestly” admits to her own contradictions, has the advantage over the Romantics: she has theory, they didn’t, so they couldn’t understand them­selves as she, with her purely theoretical modern hubris, can “understand” them. (But it is much harder to under­stand yourself, than others.) But even there, what about “philosophy”?   Coleridge had that—and Wordsworth at least had the word theory (which occurs in his Preface). What about all the continuous thinking in continuous prose that went on until theory turned up, and prose split up into jargon and something you could only call pseudo-prose? And what about the remarkable thing Eliot said of Coleridge about the latter’s philosophy and its co­existence with his poetry : that he knew of no other such an advanced case of schizophrenia? And what about ask­ing whether, when Eliot said that, he wasn’t thinking about himself, as a modern poet, who has been a “philosopher”, and who had his own “theories”? Even so much is enough to make you think—make you know— that she doesn’t know anything of what she needs to know, in order to able to generalize properly. Knowledge should be part of the experience that compels assent. Or else she ignores her own ignorance. Or, fixed upon theory, she isn’t aware that she might be ignorant of something. Whichever it is, it has the convenience that she can just go on doing whatever it is she is doing. Finally, the possibility that she, entirely of her place and time, might be the representative of another and more advanced form of schizophrenia, can never cross the mind. Possible objections are never foreseen and incorporated into the argument— the sort of thing that would make it a real argument. As it is, there is “thinking”, isolated in the theoretical construct, head down in the library, or in a room with your name and qualifications on the door, on the fourth level of the arts complex on the precinct of the multiversity, or in the void.

If you weren’t sure within yourself that it was all mad (and so can laugh) you’d feel as if you were going mad, or wouldn’t know where you were. How else can such an idea as that one above—

Unable to theorize the inadequacy of its concept of subject­ivity (and committed, indeed, to experience as against theory), the poetry can ultimately only present the subject as trapped between intolerable alternatives ….

—be entertained? The “indeed” is merely the passing nod to an objection that is ignored. What poet, or artist of any kind, could possibly be “committed to theory”? The impossibility doesn’t strike her, because she can’t see the other impossibility: that even theory is unimaginable without experience. To her, they are essentially opposites: and that is schizophrenia, in its mild, bearable, chatter-y, hardly-recognizable version, that is the endemic disorder of the modern academic in ” the humanities “. Experience goes with the common language and commonsense. But the theoreticians think they are ” expert beyond ” it, in the words of Eliot, who knew as a poet what the experience was like of being trapped between intolerable altern­atives—he didn’t just prattle about it.

It is a mark of the desperate state of things that such thoughts can be thought at all, let alone published without hindrance, and then go into paperback. Commonsense should stifle them at birth, but commonsense is a ghost in academe and publishing and the reviewing-trade. It’s all of a piece, and of the times, and why on earth does she think it isn’t? (Or can you guess?)

After a lecture I gave saying some of these things—but only some—to our first-year students, another “mature student” (not Mrs C.) came up and thanked me—as if I was an analgesic—for the relief I had given. She had spent the whole of reading-week trying to understand Belsey’s facilitations-of-the-reading-of others who will probably-not-be-read. But she wanted to know why it was that other members of staff thought so highly of the book. I smiled, professionally, and said that I couldn’t answer that (two of my colleagues were in the audience). Smiled and said : I’m in contradiction, aren’t I? Such things make one an immediate witness to the mess, the truly dreadful mess we are all in when—it drives you mad—there is no commonsense.

  1. Vo. 8, No. 3, February – May 1986 (Brynmill).
  2. The work quoted in Mr Lee’s essay is Catherine Belsey, Critical Practice, New Accents Series, ed. Terence Hawkes, (Methuen).
  3. She thinks, too, that the old criticism was “parasitic” on literature. So literature on life? The relation of “critical practice” to literature and life is (no doubt) purely “explanatory“.