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This article is taken from PN Review 41, Volume 11 Number 3, January - February 1985.

Post-Theory Nicolas Tredell

It looks as though theory, in literary studies, is here to stay. A canon of theoretical texts is forming, to replace the literary canon; there are literature lecturers who specialize in theory; courses and higher degrees in theory. There are even what might be called, on the analogy of festivals of literature, festivals of theory, in the form of conferences of literary academics. In England, of course, there is resistance; pockets of residual Leavisism; but, on the whole, it seems that the imperialism of theory is poised to conquer, to liberate us from that bourgeois mystification called literature. But it seems to me that the triumph of theory is illusory; that the expansion of theory is on the point of bringing about its downfall. The proliferation of theoretical options, and the increasingly obvious weakness of their claims to knowledge, is leading to a crisis, not in literary studies, but in theory. This may be temporarily disguised by the institutionalization of theory in the academy; but, as far as literature is concerned, we are entering an age of post-theory.

Not, let me stress, of no-theory. Some of the intellectual and ethical implications of the current emphasis on theory are welcome. It is indeed valuable and proper to try and bring one's implicit assumptions into the light, make them consistent and coherent, support them by rational, explicit argument, relate them to a systematic world-view, examine them critically, challenge and question them, open them to new perspectives, new data. This ...


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