Friday, September 30, 2005

On Being Anti-Theory

I'm trying not to write out the citations for my Tolkien Encyclopedia entry, so perhaps I'll blog this instead. Don't worry, Dr. Drout, I'll get it in on time.

The thread on my exchange with Michael Drout that has been running on The One Ring Tolkien fan site mostly features people struggling to make sense of what we are talking about. I am reminded of the scene in LotR in which Saruman and Gandalf are talking after Saruman's defeat by the Ents, and the observers felt like naughty children or servants at the door. Nearly every post has some caveat about "I haven't read all this theory" and "I'm not an academic, but..."

This is, I think, exactly the problem. One of the posters refers to Drout as being "largely anti-theory" which is I think an inaccurate description. Rather than speaking for Drout, I'll speak for myself.

I am very, very pro-theory. I would go so far as to say that if you don't have a basic understanding of literary theory, and more particularly the place of your own scholarship within the theoretical traditions, you probably should not be holding a PhD. Not that everyone has to know all the ins-and-outs of Said and Kristeva ... it may be enough just to have considered your own theoretical position. All professors and PhDs (the categories do not always overlap) should be in the business of creating knowledge. If you don't understand how knowledge is created (i.e., theory), you can't do that part of your job in a competant manner.

That being said, I think theory should be near-invisible. I am glad that my house has a good foundation, but I keep a hedge of riotous shrubs surrounding it to hide that same foundation. The foundation is useful and necessary, but ugly. When guests come to my home, they do not walk on my foundation ... they walk on the carpeting and flooring covering it. Does my desire to hide my foundation make me anti-foundation? No, I simply think that its purpose is best served in a hidden capacity.

All of which leads us to the purpose of foundations (or in the obvious metaphor here, theory). Foundations need to be applied to buildings. What would we think of architects who fetishized foundations to the point that they were laying foundations around the landscape, refusing to sully them by placing buildings over them? Naturally, we would think such a person mad or a fool. Yet there are those who refuse to apply their theories to actual works of literature. In some quarters (though it has gone out of vogue), you can still find people who haughtily reply that they "do theory," not literature, or even more pretentiously, "high theory." As a colleague of mine said recently, "We already have people who do that, and do a better job. We call them philosophers."

So, the upshot here is that I am not anti-theory, but that I think theory must always find its application to literary works, and that it must never obscure those works, but illuminate them. I suspect Drout's position is similar.

Remember my earlier comments about the posters striking the attitude of naughty servants listening in on the conversations of their betters? That's exactly the problem. The posters to the thread are obviously smart people, some of them apparently well-read, and yet they are shut out of the conversation. They seem to feel as if they have little right to talk about the literature they love. While it is true that English professors have more ethos to speak to these issues than they, it does not follow that they should be treated as eavesdroppers.

Gandalf breaks the fantasy that Saruman creates by laughing at his pretension. So, to my non-literati readers out there ... consider me laughing uproariously. Come in the door and join the wizards.


  1. My comments got a little long, so I posted them on my blog at

  2. Squire,

    Thank you so much for the honor of being the subject of your first substantive post. To help you along, I've added you to my blogroll.

  3. I just realized that a misreading of my Tolkien allusion could have me assigning the role of Saruman to Drout. That isn't my intention; the role of Saruman is held by an imaginary literary scholar who doesn't want amateurs interfering in his work.

  4. Are there other forums/blogs that are more specific for this topic? I have not found one.

  5. Just found this post today...the ending made me gasp. Wonderful.