chapter  13
10 Pages

Theory

BySUSAN STANFORD FRIEDMAN

I am struck by the sense of irony-perhaps even injustice-out of which this volume arose. In his initial call for essays in 2005, Stephen Ross issued an eloquent apologia for theory as constitutive for modernist studies, puzzling at the “two-fold irony” that the ever-expanding boundaries of modernism evident in the new modernist studies have “come at the expense of a key area of inquiry that is both intimately linked to modernism and largely responsible for the rejuvenation of modernist studies: critical theory.” I couldn’t agree more with the foundational premise of this volume: that “critical theory” is fundamentally continuous with modernism and not a radical break from it, as the misleading but common terms “postmodern theory” or “postmodernism” suggest. But I want to probe the implications and possible limitations of Ross’s assertion in his call that “the massive rejuvenation of modernist studies was enabled precisely by theory’s confrontation with the predominant notions of the literary, canon formation, disciplinary formations, high and low culture, progress, civilization, and imperialism.” Ross’s initial proposition that “critical theory” or “theory”—the first term slides

imperceptibly into the second-is “largely responsible for” the rejuvenation of modernist studies is a big claim. It is softened somewhat in his impressive introduction, but nonetheless remains in his assertion that the “occlusion of theory” from the new modernist studies “ignores theory’s essential role in clearing the ground for a new approach to modernism”. What intellectual and political genealogies does this claim presume? Has “theory” performed the only “confrontation with the predominant notions of the literary, canon formation, disciplinary formations” that paved the way for the new understanding of modernism? What do we mean by “theory,” anyway? If “theory” is to get credit for dismantling the “old” and constituting the “new” modernist studies, then we ought to understand what “theory” means and presumably what it excludes: in short, what is “not theory” and does the opposition of theory/not theory have its own definitional politics based on the logic of inclusion/exclusion by which definition typically operates? The metonymic slide between “critical theory” and “theory” provides a starting point that links the diachronic and synchronic questions I have posed. In a narrow sense, “critical theory” invokes Critical Theory, associated with

the Frankfurt School. As Ross points out, Critical Theory develops alongside

modernism, going back to the founding of the Institute for Social Research in 1929 and including the work of such preeminent theorists of modernity and modernism as Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. Anthologized in the influential Aesthetics and Politics (1977), Benjamin and Adorno in particular remain centers of exciting new work in modernist studies, which assumes Critical Theory to be both contemporaneous with modernism and a resonant framework for reading it. In a broader sense, however, “critical theory” has a less certain meaning.

Sometimes, it refers to the philosophical and psychoanalytic theories of signification and the symbolic order associated with varieties of poststructuralism emanating from France since the 1960s. At other times, “critical theory” includes any theory that is critical of the social order, as James Bohman notes: “any philosophical approach with similar practical aims [as Frankfurt School Critical Theory] could be called a ‘critical theory,’ including feminism, critical race theory, and some forms of post-colonial criticism” (Bohman 2005).1