Critical Tools and Theoretical Machines


“Critical tools” was a phrase I’d hear from time to time, back in the academy. No one ever said exactly what it meant, but you got the idea. Analyzing narrative structures, tracing patterns of image and metaphor, looking at strategies of voice and tone and address—feeling your way through the form of a work, to see how it makes its meaning.

The trouble was, criticism wasn’t very fashionable by the time I got to graduate school. Theory was the word, and theory seemed to work very differently. (To give you an idea of how fast things were moving, the first week I got to school, I discovered that my seminar professor was a “New Historicist,” a term I’d never heard before. The next week, someone assured me that it was the latest thing. The week after that, someone else said, “New Historicism? Oh, that’s over now.”) Theory didn’t start with a work and grope its way around it; it started, well, with a theory—Marxism, feminism, psychoanalysis, deconstruction, postcolonialism (Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, Butler)—and fastened it down on the work. Lo and behold, the theory “fit”—which was hardly a surprise, since the text had been bent to its shape. A critical reading taught you something new about the work. A theoretical reading only reaffirmed the theory.

It occurred to me, eventually, that if criticism is a set of tools, theory is a series of machines. Tool-work—craft—which responds to both the grain of the material and the sensitivity of the guiding hand, is always unpredictable, always unique, and always bears the traces of the craftsperson. Machine-work—manufacture—is always predictable, uniform, and impersonal. You just feed the lumber into the mill. Tools extend the human; machines replace it. And that’s exactly what literary theory does: the work goes missing; the author, famously, is dead; and art, the highest expression of the human, is effaced. The rebarbatively alien jargon in which theory is inevitably couched sounds like nothing so much as a conversation among machines.

Of course, machines have their virtues, especially if you want to get your career up and running. They allow you to process a lot of material as rapidly as possible, and they are very easy to operate. Craft is hard, and tools take a lifetime to master. They insist on patience, humility, and respect for the elders who have learned their use—three things that no contemporary graduate student is going to allow themselves to feel. Theory, which thinks itself an instrument of liberation, represents the logic of mechanization as applied to the realm of the spirit. It also is the enemy of thought. As in everything else, so, too, in literary studies: the more sophisticated our machines, the dumber we become.

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William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here. He is a contributing editor of the magazine.


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