“Postmodern literary theory is now transforming itself so rapidly that Marxist, feminist, deconstructionist, and psychoanalytic critics (and others) are flocking back to the drawing board in droves as they search for new approaches to writing and teaching.
Indeed, some academics say that postmodern theory is on the way out altogether and that the heady ideas that once changed the way literature is taught and read will soon be as extinct as the dodo and the buggy whip.” —Christian Science Monitor It is becoming fashionable to say that postmodernism has lost its relevancy outside the ivory tower. Ironically, that might be seen in some circles as a very postmodern thing to say. No, actually, old-school humanists who find plenty ‘there’ in literature have been ‘anti-theoretical’ for decades. How did literary theory gain sway, then?
Postmodern literary theory is rooted in mid-century European philosophy, though it didn’t begin to catch on in America until the late ’60s; the Johns Hopkins University conference on “The Language of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” which featured Jacques Derrida and other master theoreticians took place in 1966 and is generally regarded as the theoretical equivalent of the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth Rock.
These were, of course, revolutionary times: The initial phase of the civil rights struggle was peaking, and serious opposition to the Vietnam war was getting underway. College students were chucking out their parents’ ideas about race, class, patriotism, sex, music, and recreational drugs the way they might toss a faulty toaster oven out an open dorm window: If it doesn’t work, ditch it.
Theory played right into this mind- set; it challenged lazy notions about what’s right and what isn’t and brought fresh air into a classroom full of mildewed literary practices.
The problem is that by the time theory’s anticapitalist, antibourgeois assumptions became standard fare in colleges and universities, the consumer revolution was in high gear…
A second problem for theory is theorists themselves. Fundamentalism is always ugly, and many of the secondgeneration professors who followed famed theoreticians like Derrida merely applied their ideas dogmatically, thus guaranteeing that theory would became static and stale. Eventually, theory’s freewheeling skepticism became as one-dimensional as the celebrations of objective truth it sought to replace.
Perhaps it was inevitable, it strikes me, that literary theory itself would have to become an object of study and deconstruction by the theoreticians. Although this article bandies about the term, it does not own up to the central role that Marxist ideology had in laying the groundwork for ‘literary theory’, IMHO. It would seem to me that subsuming the products of culture to the conditions of production in a modern society, as a dialectical materialist analysis prescribes, was a necessary and perhaps sufficient precursor to challenging the idea of an unambiguous and unimpeachable truth in a literary work.