March 7th, 2013 / 11:44 am

Everyone must be at AWP.

For those of us who like theory, what’s the most productive theoretical work you’ve ever read? (Interpret that however you like.)


  1. A D Jameson
  2. rawbbie
  3. Nathan Goldman

      Tie between Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose (which I discovered thanks to you, AD!) and Kant’s Critique of Judgment. But I really haven’t read much yet! Will be keeping an eye on this comments thread.

      What’s yours, AD?

  4. A D Jameson

      Last spring I spent a good amount of time working on an essay concerning those two texts. I wrote it for a contemporary poetry seminar I took with Jennifer Ashton. I submitted several drafts and she said I came up with some interesting ideas, but I’d have to go back and retool it in order to make it a real paper (I agree with her). Still eager to continue working with those two texts at some point, maybe next school year… (That said, if you’re interested in where my thinking ended up, I’d be happy to send you the most recent draft.)

  5. A D Jameson

      [Ugh, I tried replying with a version of the below that included links to all the texts, but Disqus ate it. Here it is again without the links…]

      Theory of Prose, for sure. It’s the book that taught me how to write fiction and do literary criticism (inasmuch as I can do either). Glad to hear you found it useful! I discovered it thanks to Dalkey (thanks, Dalkey!).

      After that, to a greater and lesser extent:
      Karl Marx, Capital (1967)
      Roman Jakobson, “The Dominant” (1935)
      Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936)
      Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation” (1966)
      Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood” (1967)
      William H. Gass, “The Concept of Character in Fiction” (c. 1972)
      David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson, Film Art (1979–present)
      Steven Knapp & Walter Benn Michaels, “Against Theory” (1982)
      Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction (1987)
      Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991)
      Nicholas Brown, “The Work of Art in the Age of its Real Subsumption Under Capital” (2012)

      At least, those are the works that spring most quickly to mind, and that I feel the most influenced by, although some are more present in my mind at any one time than are others.

      Obviously my background is in Marxist/formalist criticism :)

  6. RedCarpetInn

      I prefer to read criticism, which isn’t always the same as theory. Here are three works of criticism I’ve recently enjoyed:

      1) Mieke Bal, “Narratology”
      2) Jennifer Fleissner, “Women, Compulsion, Modernity: The Moment of American Naturalism”
      3) James Nagel, “Contemporary American Short Story Cycle: The Ethnic Resonance of Genre”

      Fleissner’s book is a must read for anyone interested in American Literature and women writers. Book description from Amazon:

      “The 1890s have long been thought one of the most male-oriented eras in American history. But in reading such writers as Frank Norris with Mary Wilkins Freeman and Charlotte Perkins Gilman with Stephen Crane, Jennifer L. Fleissner boldly argues that feminist claims in fact shaped the period’s cultural mainstream. Women, Compulsion, Modernity reopens a moment when the young American woman embodied both the promise and threat of a modernizing world.

      Fleissner shows that this era’s expanding opportunities for women were inseparable from the same modern developments—industrialization, consumerism—typically believed to constrain human freedom. With Women, Compulsion, and Modernity, Fleissner creates a new language for the strange way the writings of the time both broaden and question individual agency.”

  7. Richard Grayson

      What is theory? I went to grad school in the early 1970s.

  8. A D Jameson

      I’m not using “theory” all that specifically. I’d include criticism.

  9. A D Jameson

      Oh, you had it then, too. Maybe you just called it something else :)

      I’ve just spent the past two hours rereading Wimsatt and Beardsley’s “The Intentional Fallacy” (1954) and Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” (1966).

  10. RedCarpetInn

      I’m admittedly resistant to the word “theory”–it harkens me to that dark period of “criticism” in the 80s and early 90s (even though I was too young then to know any better). Thank God.

  11. A D Jameson

      I can understand/appreciate that :)
      Note that Knapp and Michaels’s “Against Theory” (1982) is one my picks for an important and influential works of theory/criticism.

  12. RedCarpetInn

      Haven’t read that one. And, just to be clear, I do realize that criticism is a kind of theory. Terry Eagleton rightly says that opposition to theory is itself theoretical. The word just makes my skin crawl for various reasons, so I prefer criticism!

  13. A_Witt

      It is gratifying to see the promotion of Fleissner here. She is a thoughtful, articulate, and careful reader–nearly the inverse of Walter Benn Michaels, whose readings often underwhelm me with their nuance and overwhelm me with their rhetoric (this is true of Against Theory, but stunning in his article on The Plot Against America). When I think of where to go for productive theory, I think of the journal “New Literary History”; looking at each issue since its inception (even if only skimming at first) offers a deep and broad historical overview of the impact of theory (especially from abroad) and its impact on literary studies in the US.

  14. Barry Johnson

      But… these aren’t the books that Christopher Higgs recommends…

  15. A D Jameson

      I read them better than he does, obviously.

      No, more seriously, Chris and I share a lot of common interests. But we come to some very different conclusions. And that said I think I’m more interested in Marxism/Formalism than he is, while he’s more interested in Continental Theory/Poststructuralism. Though he might consider that an unfair characterization?

      Here’s two lists he recently made: one on theory, one on criticism.

  16. A D Jameson

      Ugh, I misread your comment—thought you said these were the books Chris recommends. Something must be wrong with my eyes, apologies…

      As far as I know, Chris likes the Sontag and the McHale (he did his Master’s with McHale). He might also like the Gass? As well as the Benjamin—he does like Adorno (as do I), so he might like other Frankfurt School writers; unsure.

  17. A D Jameson

      I’ll disagree somewhat. “Against Theory” is a rather difficult essay, but I think it’s pretty thoughtful, articulate, and careful! Well worth working through (and I’ll admit that it took me a while to get it).

  18. RedCarpetInn

      Thanks. She’s probably not “cool” enough for a lot of the readers of this site–one populated by “cool kids”–so I was thrilled to see your reply.

  19. RedCarpetInn

      Definitely. Oh, if only I could be a “real” critic like Christopher Higgs….this thread is totally beneath him.

  20. Richard Grayson

      Seriously, I never heard the word “theory” in regard to literature until the 1980s, by which time I’d been teaching English on the college level for 7 or 8 years. We did have “criticism,” but in my M.A. program and the lit classes in my M.F.A. program, the teachers just taught the texts, and that’s how I learned to teach. Yes, we did read criticism — like Northrop Frye or Leavis or Eliot — but not much, and the term “theory” was unknown to me. Of course my professors would now be between 80-110 years old. I picked up a little stuff over the years, but in recent years I’ve taught literature a lot — mostly introductory world literature and the introduction to lit classes, but I’ve taught also advanced classes like Cold War lit (at two universities), the American short story, American and British 19th century lit, and science fiction, and I don’t really mention “theory.”

      To be honest, when I decided to go back to school after teaching college for 16 years in the early 1990s, I went to law school because a Ph.D. in English would have meant reading theory. I couldn’t take it. I don’t understand it: I became a writer because I like storytelling and using language in maybe interesting ways like the writers I liked. I have zero interest in “theory.”

  21. deadgod

      There’s momentarily-exciting productive and lasting productive.

      There’s personally-causal productive and historically-effective productive.

      There’s change-in-oneself-that-one-recognizes productive and mostly-subterranean productive.

      There’s agreement productive and contempt productive.

      There’s haven’t-gone-a-month-without-impingement productive and resurfaces-with-unaccountable-intermittence productive.

      And so on.

      The first thing I thought of when first playing this game was, ‘What would I give to someone who asked me for a “theory” book to read?’

      (Yes: ew.)

      “On Plato’s Dialectic”, which is the first ~half of Gadamer’s Plato’s Dialectical Ethics.
      Viking Portable Nietzsche (with both Zarathustra and Twilight of the Idols whole). [This is probably cheating.]
      Karl Marx: A Reader (ed. Elster). [A true anthology; not cheating, and best–maybe only–“productive” as propulsion further into Marx and revolution.]
      Spinoza’s Ethics (in fact, a book of foundational and systematic metaphysics and epistemology).
      Gadamer’s Philosophical Hermeneutics. [The Gadamer Reader: A Bouquet of the Later Writings is as solid and exciting.]
      Kenner’s The Pound Era.

      If someone wanted evidence that theory and literary greatness can be found together, I would first recommend Plato’s Thrasymachus (the first book of The Republic, and rejected by many as ever to have been or now to be a stand-alone piece). If they wanted evidence that talk of poetry can be as good scholarship as it is sensitive to poetry, I’d suggest Carson’s Economy of the Unlost (about or ‘about’ Simonides and Celan). If they wanted an example of practical use of theory–the presence of theory in real life–, I’d recommend Peter Brown’s biography Augustine of Hippo. If they flatly denied that theory, when it’s really ‘theory’, can be literarily fine, I’d insist that Galeano’s Book of Embraces is, without being systematically philosophical, ‘theory’… too.

      The rumor is that women, people of color, and non-Europeans (or those not Eurocentric) do theory as well as the writers on this list who are Euro-centered males. Maybe so!

  22. A_Witt

      I’d be interested to hear what parts exactly you find “thoughtful, articulate, and careful.” I just reread it (not as slowly as I’d like, but I wanted to at least look it over before I replied) and found it just as philosophically sophistical as ever. Do you think they got Hirsch right? What about Paul de Man? Is one example from one essay by de Man enough to establish that his views correspond entirely to the pigeonhole they’ve assigned him? And what, beyond the end of theory (as they’ve narrowly defined it) would it mean to declare that a text means what its author intended it to mean? (I realize I’m setting myself up for you to say that it means it is the end of theory, just as they say, but I’m hoping you might go beyond that easy answer).

      On a different note, Fleissner herself takes on Walter Benn Michaels in Women, Compulsion, Modernity, specifically his study on naturalism (The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism: American Literature at the Turn of the Century). She tweaks his idea of the gold standard and argues that “the girl standard” was actually more important (see pg. 231).

      Of course, we both may be biased, as Michaels is faculty at your institution, and Fleissner at mine. I was underwhelmed by Michaels though, even as an undergrad in the nineties. You will not have been the first to try to convince me Michaels has his merits, but perhaps you will be more convincing?

  23. RedCarpetInn
  24. rawbbie

      yeah, that would be awesome. I’ve never put them in conversation outside of my own head and practice as a writer, so yeah, I’d love to see it. rawendeborn at gmail dot com

  25. A D Jameson

      I…have…sent it!

  26. A D Jameson

      Hi A_Witt,

      You wouldn’t happen to be Alicia Witt, would you? Just curious:)

      I’m glad I got someone to reread “Against Theory”! Thanks for revisiting it. And I haven’t read Fleissner’s work, so you have me at a disadvantage there. I will definitely check her out as soon as I can, probably over spring break (and thanks for the summary/page #).

      I don’t think “Against Theory” is sophistry, no. I’d be happy to go through the argument, but think that would require a post, not a comment. I just wrote something that works through Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” (should be up sooner or later), and perhaps I can follow that up with something on “Against Theory.”

      What strikes me as most relevant about the paper is the argument that to do interpretation is to ask what a text means, and that what a text means is what its author intended it to mean. And I do think that would signal the end of a lot of theory, inasmuch as a great deal of theory is (by its own admission) uninterested in authorial intent (e.g., Barthes’s death of the author, and any reader-focused approach to understanding a text, such as Fish’s work, or Language Poetry). Those theoretical approaches then become what Knapp and Michaels call response, not interpretation. (So, for instance, Chris Higgs is quite right to say he’s uninterested in interpretation and meaning, if he’s interested instead in critics simply responding to artworks by dancing in front of them.)

      Theory of course can still be done (and has been done). There’s nothing “wrong” with theory, except inasmuch as it mistakes itself to be an interpretive practice. Interpretation consists of seeking meaning / authorial intent in a text. That may seem a slight or minor distinction, but what really matters is the consequences that spill out from that. Suffice to say, they are vast. Michaels would of course later sync this argument up with the one made by Michael Fried in “Art and Objecthood” (1967). Thus, interpretation lines up with Fried’s account of art (formalism), and theory lines up with Fried’s objecthood (non-formal or anti-formal artifacts inviting only subjective response).

      As a demonstration of that, the series I’m currently working on, regarding the difference between a concept and a constraint, is directly related. Speaking broadly, I’m arguing that concepts are on the objecthood side. This is why (again, broadly speaking) the works produced by conceptual art are meaningless and shouldn’t be interpreted. This is not to say that those texts don’t have significance, but they don’t have interpretable meaning, because they are non-formal or even anti-formal (or a-formal) objects. Constraint-based writing, however (and again speaking broadly) is formal—the constraint is a formal element—and therefore those texts are interpretable (and mean what their authors intend them to mean). Again, that’s speaking very broadly—there’s a reason why it’s taking me three posts to tease all that out. (Part 2 is mostly done and I hope to post it in the coming week.)

      It would be my pleasure to run through this in more substance in a later post or three (or over email, if you prefer that). I’ve been thinking that there will come a time when, to continue doing the writing I’m doing here, I’d have to start invoking Michaels & Fried.


  27. A D Jameson

      My whole interest in theory/criticism is whether it’s productive. Does it help me become a better writer/reader/critic? I have some colleagues who seem to enjoy it more in its “pure” sense, and they’re welcome to that enjoyment, but at the end of the day I’m concerned with practice.

  28. Richard Grayson

      Oh, that’s different. Reading theory can help you get tenure.

  29. RedCarpetInn

      Your colleagues (including Chris Higgs) are bullshitters if they believe criticism has a “pure” sense that transcends critical engagement with texts.

      Let’s be honest: there are some major league bullshitters on this website, usually people who rely on this facade of hipness or experimentation to be lazy artists and thinkers. Chris Higgs belongs in that category. No other way to sugarcoat it.

  30. RedCarpetInn

      Your colleagues (including Higgs) are bullshitters if they believe criticism has a “pure” sense that transcends critical engagement with texts.

      Let’s be honest: there are some major league bullshitters on this website, people who rely on this facade of hipness or experimentation to be lazy artists and thinkers. Higgs belongs in that category. No need to sugarcoat it. Not getting on your case, but playing bad cop to your good cop, because you’re a little too generous at times.

  31. A D Jameson

      I do try to be as generous as possible. But I wasn’t thinking of Chris when I wrote the above (though I don’t mind applying it to him). When I take seminars at UIC, some of my colleagues there—very bright people, mind you—seem to get off more on the theory/criticism than I do. Whereas I tend to be mainly into the theory/crit inasmuch as it helps me do something, like read a particular novel.

      For instance, I like Brian McHale’s Postmodernist Fiction largely because it contains so many good formalist readings of so many books. The observations McHale makes are really sharp, and help me read those novels. Same thing with Bordwell and Thompson’s Film Art—it taught me a lot about watching films (one way to watch them, mind you, but a good way). So I find those texts very productive. I read them and since then I’ve been able to do things with them, both in my own writing and filmmaking and reading/viewing (by which I mean reading/viewing for whatever reason)

      I’m not very good at metaphor, but I might say that my interest in theory/criticism is comparable to applied mathematics. Others strike me as being more interested in theoretical maths. I have no problem with the latter, and I find it interesting in principle. I don’t think applied is necessarily “better” than theoretical. But theoretical isn’t really what I do. Even my own “theory/crit” posts tend to consist of me applying theories and critical ideas devised by others to texts that interest me. That’s probably because, at the end of the day, I consider myself a fiction writer / poet first, and a critic / theorist second. I go to theory and criticism in order to do something, not as an end in itself. Again, this is my personal behavior, and not something I consider necessarily “right.”

      Of course there are a lot of people out there spouting bullshit, but one will always have that. Just like how there’s a lot of bad art out there. One has to learn how to navigate it all. I don’t think the bullshitters invalidate those who are doing genuinely interesting things with theory. For instance, no one has inspired more nonsense than Roland Barthes. But I still love reading Roland Barthes. I don’t agree with all of his ideas, but he was a beautiful writer and a powerful thinker. (I find some of his ideas useful and some of his ideas impractical.)

  32. RedCarpetInn

      I mentioned Chris because he’s said himself that he claims to read criticism for the experience of reading criticism independent of its genre…as if that were actually possible. It’s like saying you can read a novel without realizing you’re reading a novel. It’s just another example of someone covering his ass so he doesn’t have to do any real work.

      In your first paragraph, are you referring to the kind of “cultural” theory that can be applied more broadly? I can see that, though even those texts respond to other texts if we assume that a text isn’t limited to a book.

  33. A D Jameson

      I guess I meant more theory that’s about theory, or about language or the like. Abstract writing that isn’t necessarily engaging any other works directly. I know folks who are really into reading very abstract works that usually don’t interest me, but they seem to be better people for it, so who am I to judge? I think the field should be as broad as possible, honestly.

      When I write and think critically/theoretically, I tend to be very analytic and like for there to be lots of examples and set terms and clear references and close readings. I switched from math to English in college and never though that a stretch. (Of course there are limits to analysis and heavily analytical stuff is only going to get one so far. Analysis definitely fuels my fiction and poetry, but it’s not the only thing going on in there.)

  34. RedCarpetInn

      I understand your approach–I just don’t see how the approaches different from yours are any less productive or rigorous if approached in an honest way.

  35. A D Jameson

      Some theory I like regardless of whether it’s useful or not. Wittgenstein, for instance. He’s such a great writer that I could read him purely for pleasure and not worry whether his ideas make any sense (though I also find them practical). And there are other critics or theorists who are just beautiful writers, and who could be read just for the pleasure of their sentences. Barthes and Nietzsche and Marx are all just plain good writers, regardless of what one thinks of their ideas.

      Generally though I find good thinking and good writing go hand in hand. The worse the writing is, the less inclined I am to trust the author’s thoughts. That may be incorrect of me, but it’s a real bias that I have.

  36. RedCarpetInn

      I’m defining “useful” flexibly. I might read work outside my aesthetic with no intention to change my aesthetic, but reading that work was still useful, even if it doesn’t show up noticeably in my work.

  37. A D Jameson

      I’m probably describing the limits of my own understanding, then.

  38. A D Jameson

      Yes, useful is as useful does.

      Actually, I get just as much use out of the things I dislike as I do the things I like. Everything is useful, really. One just needs to use it.

  39. A_Witt

      Hi Adam,

      Sorry to disappoint, but I am not Alicia Witt. I wonder, though, if she has read “Against Theory” or even HTMLGIANT.

      I will watch for your full-length post on “Against Theory”. I hope it considers the responses to the initial essay all bundled together as a book (editor: W. J. T. Mitchell) and an article in the Minnesota Review that asks whether “A T” is really a pragmatism ( ).
      I realize, though, that this is quite a bit of reading and that you are probably restrained by time and other commitments. Perhaps by the time you get to writing that post I will have looked at Fried more closely.