Sunday, 4 December 2011
British Association of Literary Theory
‘The advantage of being old’, as F.R. Leavis remarks in his late writings, ‘is that you can say, “I was there”’. And in a more modest way middle age has that privilege too; for I can say that I was there, as a postgraduate student of Terry Eagleton’s at Oxford in the early 1980s, as wave after wave of newly translated work by Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Hans Robert Jauss and others came across from Europe and transformed the foundations of literary studies in this country. Thus the genre of ‘literary theory’ was born here – heady days indeed!
Now, however, we are more likely to hear of the ‘death of theory’ than of its birth, a slogan which means various things. First, that the exciting polemics of the early days are long since over, with literary theory now routinised as a core element of undergraduate English literature syllabuses. Second, that the grand projects of theory are seen as suspect and a ‘return’ to supposedly new versions of formalism or humanism is called for. Third, that many of the founding European and American theorists are indeed now dead or on their last legs.
Are we mourning literary theory, then? Well, perhaps; but as Freud argued, mourning is an active work not a passive condition, as nicely summed up in Samuel Beckett’s formulation: ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on’. So I suggest that we ‘mourn’ theory as actively as we possibly can, and one good way of doing this will be to establish a British Association of Literary Theory (BALT), a professional association to match those we already have for such academic fields as Romanticism, Victorian Studies and Modernism. And if we do set up BALT, we shall surely find that, as with Mark Twain, reports of literary theory’s death have been greatly exaggerated.