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What is the point of literary theory?

The question has been raised – what is the point of Literary Theory? As a matter of clarification (or obfuscation as the case may be) let me suggest that a problem with the question is that it needs a bit of analysis, that there are multiple questions concealed therein, depending on perspective. To begin with to ask “what is the point of theory” may be asking either of two questions, depending on what we mean by “point”. [There are other questions we might be asking, of course. Persons desiring to ask such questions are invited to write their own essays.] We might be asking “what object is served by theory, i.e., what goal is being achieved?”. Or we might be asking “What value does theory have?” The distinction is one between action and result of action. And we must remember that value does not exist in isolation – we are always speaking of value (among values) to people.

That said, we can distinguish between economic value, cultural value, and personal value. Literary theory is not principally a consumer good – at least it is not presumed to be although it might be interesting to consider in those terms, the market being gullible young would be intellectuals. We may assume that it has personal value, at least for some people, since it is so assiduously pursued in certain circles. In other words it is a neat thing to do, interesting, challenging, stimulating, gratifying, what ever. It is a cultural matter, I suppose, whether the pursuit of privately gratifying interests needs must have a publicly defendable value. In any event it is the individual that bears the cost of activities which have a personal value.

Or rather, it is the individual who bears that cost unless he or she can persuade others to chip in on the expenses which brings us to the realm of cultural values. People do things which do not fall directly into the realm of commercial activities. They build cathedrals and pyramids, they play and watch sports, they put on plays and watch them, write books and read them, and on and on. There are three sets of people involved with these activities, the supporters, the performers, and the viewers. The supporters are those who foot the bill. The performers are those who build the cathedrals, whatever. And the viewers are those who, in some mode, appreciate the result. Each group, of course, has its own set of values, the result being a collaboration of social interactions.

The interesting thing here is that there is, more or less, a common perceived value (or language of value) among the participants. More than that it is not generally a economic or rational value. More precisely, such activities and artifacts have two sets of values, one direct and one a set of rationalizations. Thus a cathedral is pretty, awe inspiring, an inducer of religious experiences, etc. At the same time it has a rationale – a theory that explains why this is a good thing to do It should be noted that said theory is not important in its own right – it can be utter hogwash or a transient cultural phenomenon – but it is important to the supporters and the performers, providing a rationale for their actions.

Now the practice of literary theory is a supported activity, being principally conducted within the environs of the academy which in turn is supported by the tax collectors of the state and such generous alumni as can be induced to lavish monies on the institutions that mis-educated them. As such it needs its supporting rationale, the appropriate myths whereby the supporters can be induced to support and the performers can believe that what they are doing is serving a higher purpose.

That is the question at hand: What is the myth? Each age has its own set of myths whereby it rationalizes its non-economic activities. In an earlier age we had the well-educated gentleman who wore his educational achievement as a mark of class distinction. Conversely we had the yeoman-farmer-citizen whose education prepared him to be a better citizen in an ever improving democracy. There is the ever useful religious myth, wherein learning and study is a service to God, latterly conducted much in the same style as a bull services a cow. There are a collection of myths revolving around helping others – collection being a particularly apropos term since these myths are propogated by the numerous organizations sending out solicitations for contributions.

The individual performer, practioner does not necessarily need the service of such myths. It may well suffice him or her that the activity is gratifying in its own right. The actor does not ask “Why should plays be put on.” Rather the stage itself calls. Even so the myth services – there are explanations to account for why this choice rather than that is appropriate.

But even though an individual need not need the service of the myth, still it must be there. There are competing claims of activity against activity, of funding levels, of choices made by individuals to enter this field or that, and so on. More than that, such myths serve as reassurance and validation to the performers, certification and explanation as to why what they are doing is worthwhile doing.

So the question remains: What is the myth?

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This page was last updated December 15, 1996