Theory: some notes

by Jeff Oaks

When I was a graduate student I read every craft book I could, but I also read as much theory as I could, taking a classes in it, going to talks by and about a variety of writers of it. I came to love some writers (Barthes, Benjamin, Cixous most especially) more than others. I recently read Barthes’ Mourning Diary, the scraps of paper he wrote after the death of his beloved mother, and I thought it was really helpful in articulating certain experiences of grief. Cixous’ Three Steps on the Ladder to Writing reinvigorated my experience of reading and writing, and I still recommend it to students as a place to enter into the mysteries of theory, a field they sometimes feel requires them to be too intellectual or too unfeeling or too distant from their own writing and so will sever the sometimes fragile umbilicus between the writer and his or her work.

One of the ways I got acquainted with some of the key features of literary theory was by reading in other disciplines. The writer who helped me the most in grad school was Stephen Jay Gould. I read book after book of his essay collections; it was in them that I began to see how certain ideas I’d inherited about race, gender, progress, and change might be in need of re-appraisal and adjustment. He broke down the large “metanarratives” that often interfere with scientists’ thinking and led them into theories that were then used to justify things like eugenics or creationism. Reading him was like finding a secret teacher, into whose office I could disappear for an hour and reemerge significantly and gently rewired.

It wasn’t that I hated theory but that it so often highlighted how timid I was in my thinking and I hated that feeling. As a person who had no ability to debate, who was hardly brave enough to speak out loud about things I could then just barely articulate, I couldn’t face its challenges publicly without feeling the most keen embarrassment about my own intellectual deficits. Especially in the late 80s when theory was everywhere and seemed important to master, classes in it were largely debates, not the discussions I needed. In the quiet of my room, however, I could see where I had swallowed hook, line, and sinker some terrible ideas, ideas that would have been devastating to own up to in the public arena of the classroom.

After I realized I could get much of what I needed to know about theory from an evolutionary biologist, I began to see theory in a number of other places besides just literary theorists, which is what I thought theory concerned itself with. It wasn’t, I could suddenly see, just a fad of bored academics, which is how it’s still often described. I began to see how visual artists, art and dance critics, book reviewers, psychiatrists, and journalists all participate in this way of thinking.

Which is not to say that anything marked “theory” is automatically good or even interesting. One learns to be suspicious of categorizing. I feel the same about anything marked “poetry” nowadays. Or the word “queer”. It points toward a kind of reader who can stand (withstand?) a lot of ambiguity or ambiguous behavior. Theory, poetry, and queer more often than not seem to mark a boundary between practical or utilitarian writing (a newspaper review of a book, a historical essay, a re-consideration of evidence, something that assumes an audience or is interested in conveying information or an experience) and something that doesn’t yet have a name, that’s more like dreaming or playing or going out on a tangent. What’s the point? ask the detractors of all three words. There isn’t always a clear one. Or a simple one.

I love to teach the craft of writing, as we often call exercises in engineering the language toward specific effects–line breaks, stanza breaks, image, metaphor, diction, syntax. It feels like I’m teaching students “something real.” But I often wish I could better teach dreaming, theorizing better; there doesn’t seem to be much of it in my undergraduate students lately. They’re right now so nervous about following orders, meeting objectives, and counting grade points because they think that this will save them in a world that feels more and more outside their control and their parents’ predictions. Dreaming, queering themselves and their thinking, trying out new formulations sometimes for the sheer fun of it, seems terrifying, irritating, even infuriating to them. I want to give them an impossible book like The Writing of the Disaster by Maurice Blanchot and send them away for a while to be quiet, to find a little space to be wrong.