This anthology of essays and extracts from books edited by David Lodge dates from 1988 so it is hardly the latest word on the subject. Nevertheless, its contents include many of the names I keep coming across in my more general reading, and since I feel like starting to engage with the theorists and not just the theories, it seemed a good place to start. And as I worked my way through the first couple of pieces, I realised it would help me sort out my response to what I’m reading if I wrote about it. So over the next few weeks, however long it takes me to work my way through the 28 pieces, I thought I would have a go at blogging the book. At this stage I have no idea if it will work, or if I will come up with anything remotely resembling a coherent response to the contents, but it’s worth having a go.

To set the enterprise in context, a quotation from Lodge’s introduction:

‘Theory’ has more than one meaning in this context. Structuralism has generated in literary critics a much greater interest in, and anxiety about, the theory of their own subject (what is sometimes called, after Aristotle, poetics) than was formerly the case, at least in Britain and America. But the recent theorization of literary studies has borrowed its terms and concepts very largely from other disciplines – linguistics, psychoanalysis, philosophy, marxism. In the process, literary criticism has been drawn into the vortex of a powerful new field of study in which all these disciplines are merged and interfused, and which goes under the general name of ‘theory’. The aim of this collective enterprise would appear to be nothing less than a totalizing account of human consciousness and human culture (or else a tireless demonstration of the impossibility of such a project).

Apart from hesitating over the description of marxism as a discipline, that seems to be a fairly clear and straightforward account of what I’ve encountered when I’ve read about Theory. It is, if Lodge is to be believed, as sort of Grand Unified Theory of culture (and it is worth pointing out that within Theory human culture and human consciousness appear to be the same thing; culture, in other words, is whatever we turn our mind to). But I notice also the somewhat sceptical tone of Lodge’s description (‘would appear to be’), and the fact that its aim would appear to be either this Grand Unified Theory or its opposite; so Theorists are having it both ways. That also is something I’ve felt in my readings about Theory, though I’ve never been entirely sure whether this is actually the case or just a product of my decidedly imperfect understanding of the topic. I’m hoping that one of the results of reading through this collection will be a clarification of this issue.

I’ll keep all my posts on this topic under this title, and I’ll probably put most of them behind a cut so you can avoid them more easily.

For the sake of precision the text I am working on is: David Lodge (editor). Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. London & New York, Longman, 1988 (10th impression 1997).

First published at LiveJournal, 28 February 2009.