Was theory a gigantic hoax? On the contrary. It was the only salvation, for a twenty year period, from two colossal abdications by American thinkers and writers. From about 1975 to 1995, through a historical accident, a lot of American thinking and mental living got done by people who were French, and by young Americans who followed the French.
The two grand abdications: one occurred in academic philosophy departments, the other in American fiction. In philosophy, from the 1930s on, a revolutionary group had been fighting inside universities to overcome the “tradition.” This insurgency, at first called “logical positivism” or “logical empiricism,” then simply “analytic philosophy,” was the best thing going. The original idea was that logical analysis of language would show which philosophical problems might be solved, and which eradicated because they were not phraseable in clear, logical language. That meant wiping out most of what Hegel had left us, and Europe still understood, as philosophy—including history, being, death, recognition, love. Still brand new in the 1930s (Carnap, Russell, Ayer) when trying to develop its ideal logical language, it had only just become institutional in the analytic pragmatism of the 1950s and 1960s (Quine), in time to be cranked up again in the 1970 (Kripke), saved from termination by the reintroduction of naive assumptions rejected at the start.
They weren’t wrong, the positivists—you didn’t have to get very far into academic Idealism to see it was so much soft-boiled egg. The tragedy of analytic philosophy was the fact that it won so decisively in US philosophy departments—annihilating its traditionalist competition—at just the wrong time. It triumphed in the Sixties, when the actual convulsions of US society called for a renewed treatment of love, freedom, the other, politics, and history—“pseudo-problems” turned intensely real. It was nice to have John Searle so understanding of SDS at Berkeley, and Hilary Putnam chanting Maoist slogans at Harvard; but the kids in Paris had Foucault.
In fiction, nothing is so clear-cut. But the overall problem will be familiar. During the same mid-century decades when analytic philosophy vanquished all comers, the novel was exalted in American culture as having a near-scriptural power of assessment and prophecy. (Bellow on Chicago: “Terrible dumbness covered it, like a judgment that would never find its word.” But there in Augie March he had the words.) By the 1940s and 1950s, when newly professional critics ruled both the small literary journals and the universities, American greatness became a closed system. Because the critics had just solidified two different canons at the same time—an Old Testament of the American Renaissance (Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman), and a New Testament of American modernism (James, Eliot, Hemingway, Faulkner)—they didn’t need to step outside it. It was type and antitype, the 1920s speaking to the 1850s and vice versa, accomplishing all things, and contemporary postwar writers were left out in the cold. The demands on new novelists, for a “Great American Novel” in the vein of these Gospels, became too great to meet. The astonishing thing was that artists still occasionally delivered, as Ellison and Bellow each did once—but they were an end, not a beginning.
By the mid-‘60s something crippling was happening to fiction, still quite hard to explain: articulate writers blamed the sheer craziness of American life (Roth) or the “exhaustion” of forms (Barth). There was the pressure of criticism, which could lead even a dyed-in-the-wool critic like Sontag to declare herself “Against Interpretation”; others pointed to academic writing programs and the group therapy of the workshop. In short order, 1968 arrived, and the chaotic Seventies, an era which received—in place of Germinal or Sentimental Education orThe Possessed, or even The Grapes of Wrath!—Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and William Gaddis’s JR. One was a symbolico-enyclopedic epic unembarrassed beside Joyce, the other (in a mode stolen from the minor English modernist Henry Green, alternating dead-to-rights dialogue with brief descriptive passages of hallucinated brilliance, and elevated by Gaddis to demented majesty) a novel concerning nothing less than American capitalism. But in retrospect these books appear marginal where the “Great American Novel” was supposed to be central, heroic sighs of depletion instead of inaugural hymns.
Terry Eagleton once pointed out that the French theorists preserved the modernist tradition in literature when fiction writers did not. Verbose, allusive, experimental, but always to a purpose—declaring that certain thoughts could only be had in certain kinds of words—yes, that was theory. But the more significant thing is that theory took over the thinking function of fiction as well as the stylistic: it treated social theory in the way the novel always had, more for liberatory power than strict fidelity to scholarship, and offered wild suspicion as the route to personal enlightenment. It did the novelistic job of a whole period: it produced the works, at once literary and intellectual, that came to terms with the immediate aftermath of the Sixties.
Many of the classics of the era opened with feats of prose that American novels of the 1970s and 1980s rarely even attempted. Lévi-Strauss could describe a sunset in Tristes Tropiques for longer than a sun takes to set. Foucault did fourteen pages on a single painting, Velazquez’s “Las Meninas.” Then there was the drive and audacity of the History of Sexuality, Volume 1: “For a long time, the story goes, we supported a Victorian regime”—with the Proustian longtemps thrown off, with such brio, in a work of history! You could walk away from a book like that able to understand nearly everything in the newspaper, on the street, in a brand new way. Ah, so the discourses of sex and health, not repressed but proliferated, sustain the illusory modern “truth” of the self! It helped that the concepts of theory were so complicated that only a nineteen-year-old could understand them.
Where, frankly, were you going to get your diagnosis of society—from Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho? Lyotard did it better in Libidinal Economy, and was much scarier—without pornographic bloodshed. A civilization that may have punished less, but punished better, administering its surveillance from inside one’s own mind (Discipline and Punish), or replaced the real with a mediatized world of simulations (Simulacra and Simulation), or had an economic incentive to reconfigure disparate knowledge as commensurable “information” (The Postmodern Condition)—well, that was very clearly the world we lived in. Whereas the itsy-bitsy stories of sad revelations in Best American Short Stories 1989—that was some trivial bullshit.
The best and most exciting novels of the same period, the ones that made you think the notion of a “Great American Novel” hadn’t been misconceived all along, were openly responding to theorists. Don DeLillo’s White Noise brought in a theorist as a character. Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy (OK, she’s British), and especially The Eye in the Door, triumphed as a controlled experiment in the application of feminist theory to stories (of World War I) a whole nation took for granted.
Theory is only something that could “die” in the last five years because it was an import from a country, France, that had discontinued the model, while the most visible American inheritors were exegetes and epigones, translators and disciples—therefore mediocre. Theory’s death was also literal. Hardly any of the old heroes are alive. The exceptions are Baudrillard (alive, but cynical), Habermas (old and healthy, but German), and, incredibly, Claude Lévi-Strauss. Might Althusser be alive, imprisoned? No, dead. Pan-European successor candidates, the likes of Žižek, Badiou, Ferry, Virillio, Agamben, Negri, Vattimo, Sloterdijk, Luhmann, Kittler, seem somehow, well, small by comparison. Optical illusion? No, they really are smaller. Or up to something different.
The big mistake right now would be to fail to keep faith with what theory once meant to us. You hear a great collective sigh of relief from people who don’t have to read “that stuff” anymore—the ones who never read it in the first place. But who will insult these people now, expose their life as self-deception, their media as obstacles to truth, their conventional wisdom as ideology? It will be unbearable to live with such people if they aren’t regularly insulted.
And all of us who spent our formative years on a critique of the sign can’t only have gone into advertising. So theory will return in unexpected ways. The Corrections, a monumental renewal of the critical social novel, spent its first hundred pages in the skin of a teacher of theory. Chip ended up the house-husband of a successful doctor; Franzen himself took up the bigger task, and made something properly novelistic of phenomena that he, too, like Chip, like all of us, had looked to theory to explain.
Theory is dead, and long live theory. The designated mourners have tenure, anyway, so they’ll be around a bit. As for the rest of us, an opening has emerged, in the novel and in intellect. What to do with it?