Mar 5, 2010

The choice of theory

Literary theory, even back when it was just a theological thing, has always started with the idea that theory is not an option. You can't choose it or reject it. There is no un-theoretical, there's only the explicit or the hidden, the explained or the dishonest.

Terry Eagleton probably put it simplest when he wrote, "Hostility to theory usually means an opposition to other people's theories and an oblivion to one's own."

This is pretty well understood and accepted -- even Rick Warren, when he interviewed McCain and Obama, was using this argument ("Everyone has a worldview") as a way to legitimize his evangelical Christianity -- but part of the idea here is one that doesn't, I don't think, really get laid out very well or very clearly.

The thought, here, is that readings which deny their own theory will tend to be self-confirming, the yes-men of thinking, and that theory really fails unless it's self-reflexive, so that it's thinking about thinking, and to do that it has to be self-critical.

Theory, then, offers a choice, though not the one we might have thought. We choose not between theory or no theory, but between hermetically sealed dogma and self-aware, self-critical thinking, or, to switch the values laden in the terms, between complete, finished theories and anarchistic, nihilistic, unraveling ones. The choice is between self-affirmation and self-criticism.

This cuts, though, not between theories, but through them, through each one. If you're a Deconstructionist, for example, you have a choice. Either you will read so that everything everywhere confirms Deconstruction -- hey look! right again! -- proving endlessly and repeatedly your own goodness and rightness, or you'll use the theory as a tool of humility and careful thinking.

This is also the choice we face with religion, which is how Derrida drove me to faith.