The Hitch on Literary Theory

Christopher Hitchens reviews The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism, 2nd edition, edited by Michael Groden, Martin Kreiswirth and Imre Szeman, in the New York Times:

A professor at the Ecole Normale Superieure is popularly supposed to have said: ”I agree that it works in practice. But how can we be certain that it will work in theory?” In the course of the past few years, sections of the literary academy have had to endure a good deal of ridicule, arising from this simple jest. The proceedings of the Modern Language Association, in particular, have furnished regular gag material (gag in the sense of the guffaw, rather than the less common puke reflex) for solemn papers on ”Genital Mutilation and Early Jane Austen: Privileging the Text in the World of Hampshire Feudalism.” (I paraphrase only slightly.) The study of literature as a tradition, let alone as a ”canon,” has in many places been deposed by an emphasis on deconstruction, postmodernism and the nouveau roman. The concept of authorship itself has come under scornful scrutiny, with the production of ”texts” viewed more as a matter of social construct than as the work of autonomous individuals. Not surprisingly, the related notions of objective truth or value-free inquiry are also sternly disputed; even denied.

A new language or ”discourse” is often considered necessary for this pursuit, and has been supplied in part by Foucault and Derrida. So arcane and abstruse is the vernacular involved that my colleague James Miller, dean of the graduate faculty at the New School, wrote a celebrated essay inquiring ”Is Bad Writing Necessary?”

More here.