You might be having a torrid secret affair with literary theory if…

November 12, 2007

“Poetics exists for oneself and for others, to produce, to quote Rachel Blau DuPlessis, ‘a permission to continue.'”–Robert Sheppard, “The Necessity of Poetics”

“Permission to continue? Most days I feel like I need a permission to begin.”


For most of my thinking life, theory has had a pretty bad name. Sure, it’s good fun when you and your friend who went on to wear a skirt to high school graduation even though he is a boy volunteer to give the presentation on deconstruction for your junior year Women in Literature class, and you get to shock your classmates with grave pronouncements about the inability of language to convey reality (the word “tree” is not a tree who knew!) and you get to feel really smart for knowing names like Derrida and Foucault and De Man. But later on, it starts to get on your nerves when for the umpteenth time you’ve been told why one of your favorite books actually means the opposite of what you always thought it did–you start to wonder why you bothered to read it in the first place, and suddenly it’s not so much a game as really kind of disturbing, and there’s a gap between everything you are trying to do and this force in the world that says that none of it means what you think it does… so you do the easiest thing, which is, ignore the theory. Read the books. Write the poems. A little later, you start hearing this line: “Grad school is about theory. Do not go to grad school if you love literature. Only go to grad school if you love theory.” (This is especially problematic if you went to an undergrad institution that tried to shield you from theory for your own good until it was too late to even really know that if you loved theory.) So, you have yet another good reason to hate theory: it’s keeping you from going to grad school, which you thought you would really like to do! Then, just to be more exasperating, theory seduces you in the second year of your MFA, and you’re like “wait, oh NOES, I just married library science!”

There’s only one solution, which is, have an affair with literary theory and hope it doesn’t break up your marriage to library science, because at least one of you has to pay the Powells tab on time, and the rent although that can seem secondary when one is in the throes of a passion that is at turns discursive, dialectic, and always always reverently specific and grounded in lived experience.

Really, all this started last spring, when Poco class coincided with the class I wrote all about Maxine Hong Kingston for–which meant that I was simultaneously learning more about the foundation of literary theory than I’d ever been exposed to before and reading Sidonie Smith’s A Poetics of Women’s Autobiography, which completely floored me. Here was this woman having something really to say about something that I really care about, and she was using theory to do it. Previously, I’d kind of lazily come to the conclusion that using theory = the opposite of saying something, and used that to justify not going out of my way to more of it into my head. What I came to understand is, my frustrations were real and the product of somehow never having come across a history of theory that I could appreciate–a history that connected theory to transformative practice, that explained just how many of these theorists were really not trying to bring me down but lift me up on their eagle’s wings of difference, possibility, critique of the often cruddy what is. (A metaphor too far, but maybe that’s what pop culture interference looks like when foregrounded, ha.)

I managed to put theory back into its academic box over the summer and focus on creative writing, but then it came back for me with its siren song as I started digging into multicultural southern lit, and since then it’s been all pretty much a pattern of deception and small betrayals of my supposed true purpose in my academic life, becoming a librarian. Like a faithful and boring spouse in a novel about middle class dissatisfaction, the prospect of finding a job in library world beckons me with promises of stability and low stress. Like a destructive love affair, all things literary beckon me toward further education promising nothing but adjunct servitude and years of financial uncertainty (of course, I’m falling prey to binary-dominated thinking here, but the description is emotionally apt).

So, as is my Libra way, I’m trying to balance all of these textual desires with a functional adult life… and usually, it doesn’t work out so well, but one of the ways that has started to work out lately is when I try to think about theory in terms of building a poetics, which I’m kind of thinking about in terms of the definition that Sheppard offers in the quote above and my own frustrations when I sit down to write these days. What/why am I doing here? If I feel like I can’t write today (not in the writer’s block sense, in the sense of feeling stymied amid conflicting artistic projects and goals), why is that? What gap or absence is my frustration pointing me toward? How can I use that to get started?

Not that I know think about theory as something that is entirely a good thing. I still have frustrations, but they become more specific and productive of speech rather than stifling it. Now, I’m more likely to use the gut response “this idea doesn’t jive with me” to get to the question “why not?” rather than simply getting stuck in the road.

With reason, I often ask myself why I even care about all this stuff in my head, but you know, in my head, it’s a very big deal. Maybe my permission to begin is simply to accept that.

And on that note, an open call to any of my peers who read this blog who may be interested in similar questions: would you like to participate in a group blog devoted to developing a poetics?


4 Responses to “You might be having a torrid secret affair with literary theory if…”

  1. S.O.S Says:

    Um, yeah! (to the last question) Actually, before I got to that question I was thinking, “man, I need to start sitting down with SJ on a regular basis and hashing out this theory stuff.” Thanks for that Shepherd link, as that was one of the things I wanted to look up after you mentioned it during your fabulous presentation. As for theory…we need to chat. I’m not anti-theory so much as theory is anti-S.O.S My exposure to it has been limited (which surprises me), but when I’m reading it, I may as well be doing the back stroke in 3 feet of muck. I find this rather depressing, as I’d like to be one of those writers who can work with theory and write (most of the writers I admire do both), but I honestly feel as if theory is always over my head and out of my reach, and so I hide behind my creative endeavors instead.

  2. SJ Says:

    Excellent! (You were my key demographic w/ that question.) More later, but for now I’m knee deep in my favorite theory, Countdown.

  3. Wide Lawns Says:

    Group blog – yes.

    I broke up with theory back in undergrad. Dumped it right on its ass. Broke its heart and made it weep. I kept trying to tell it it was over between us but theory is aggressive and frankly, more than a little creepy (I’m not just talking about Freudian Psychoanalytic theory either). Theory is stalking me. It won’t take no for an answer and it won’t leave me alone. I think I’m going to have to get a restraining order.

  4. SJ Says:

    I read this study about stalking that says the key thing is to prevent contact. For example, if theory calls you on the phone 80 times, and you answer on the 81st just to hang up, it will just call you 80 times again. But a restraining order is probably still a good idea.

    As is a group blog! Details to follow.

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