Skeptical Toward Theory

Paul Kincaid begins his latest Science Fiction Skeptic column at Bookslut with the following:

I am, as Adam Roberts would delight in pointing out to me, an amateur of science fiction. That is, in terms of this criticism lark, I am not an academic. This does, however, have its advantages. It means, for example, that I do not have to accept the various shades of critical theory as monolithic belief systems. I can, rather, take them as toolboxes into which I might dip as the fancy takes me to find whichever device happens to work in terms of any particular text. Now I know that this mix and match approach would have Leavis and Frye and Derrida spinning in their graves, but it can bring some interesting results.

As a working academic, I would like to contest a couple of presuppositions that lie behind Kincaid’s introduction.

One: Using various theories as toolboxes from which individual devices might be applied as they are found useful is the standard way that theory has been taught in every single class I have ever been a part of, either as student or teacher. I have no idea where the idea comes from that an individual must pledge him- or herself to a particular theory. Individual scholars may believe that certain theories have more relevance than others, but I’ve never heard of anyone who insists that literary texts must only be read through a single theoretical lens.

Two: Although Leavis was certainly a demagogue for a particular mode of reading, he was also not a theoretician. His positions were in fact fundamentally anti-theoretical, which makes him a strange namecheck. Ditto Frye and Derrida, although for different reasons, since both were great (and self-proclaimed) synthesizers of previous scholars all the way back to Aristotle and Plato. Both of them believed they had hit upon important insights having to do with the nature of narrative (Frye) and language (Derrida), but neither of them (especially Derrida) would have insisted that theirs was the only way to read.

Whatever these quibbles, I enjoy the column, and I’m glad Bookslut keeps devoting space to genre literatures and comics.

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