I must confess a dirty little secret: I absolutely love literary theory. That being said, I now recognize one essential fact: literary theory is incredibly elitist.
We read books to better understand our own lives, to get at what it means to be human, to feel connected to those around us even as we are isolated in our own subjective interiorities. Words like “free indirect discourse” or “diegesis” are fancy jargon terms that serve to elevate literary studies. This elevation, some argue, is an insecure response to the devaluation of literature in our schools, our society, our culture. It is an attempt to separate and to differentiate. Not everyone can do literature the way we, as English scholars, do literature.
I understand that these technical terms do limit accessibility. But I can’t help but love them. Just this Thanksgiving break, I watched “Sharp Objects,” a miniseries on HBO. I read reviews of it in The New Yorker and will admit that I became altogether too excited. The writer in The New Yorker pointed out the director’s use of diegetic music. We, as viewers, only hear music when a character in the world of the story hears music. This happens when they put in earphones, turn on a car stereo or play a record. I was a child again, and this was my Halloween candy. This term, which I learned in my narrative theory class, was relevant to understanding a piece of art I was consuming for pleasure. It helped me to think about the series in a new way.
Yet my fangirling over obscure literary terms begs an uncomfortable question. Am I a flagrant elitist? How can my love of theory coexist with its inherent elitism? Should I just accept my position in the ivory tower of academia and ask that the uncultured masses remain at the base?
Cleary, the answer to this last question is no.
But these questions generalize beyond the field of literature. They ask us to engage with the difficult and irresolvable dialectic between the theoretical and the practical.
I ultimately want to assert the importance of theory as an intellectual playground. Literary theory is a place where scholars can begin to work out the problems of a text, a movement or even of a culture in simpler terms. It is through these more precise descriptions that we can begin to unpack how a text accomplishes what it does. We can look at Virginia Woolf’s use of free indirect discourse to understand her message about the mediation of one’s public and private life. And it is through this term as a framework that a scholar can begin to make broad and universal connections and can generate new ideas.
These new ideas pour out of a playground unhindered by pragmatic expectations and uses. Sure, free indirect discourse seems obscure and elitist. But sheer intellectual curiosity enriches the marketplace of ideas. The best of these ideas may even translate into practical uses. Perhaps they have the capacity to eventually improve the material lives of others. But they do not arise for this purpose alone. They arise because someone is interested; someone cares; someone wants to think about it.
For instance, my family and I recently debated a superficially foolish topic. We argued about whether my dog, Rudy, has metacognitive thoughts, whether he thinks about his place in the cosmos, about the fact that he has thoughts, about his embodiment as a dog. To me, this entire discussion seemed silly. It is highly unlikely that my dog, a small West Highland White Terrier, seemingly interested only in pooping, eating and chasing the occasional squirrel, contemplates his existence. But debating this with my family forced me to acknowledge that I do not know this for sure. In my opinion, it is probabilistically unlikely that he has this ability, but I can’t make a stronger claim than this. Consciousness and many other aspects of the brain remain a mystery to us.
Talking about this ridiculous topic in depth was both enjoyable and stimulating. I came out of it with a greater ability to argue my points — a valuable skill. I also realized how much I take for granted about the knowledge I have of others, even my own dog.
This debate, like literary theory, is pure intellectual playfulness. This debate, like literary theory, is ostensibly fun but with the capacity for real world application.
I don’t mean to say that this defense of theory erases the stench of elitism. It certainly doesn’t. Instead, I mean to explicate why I love it in spite of its problems. I relish this intellectual experimentation, this sheer joy of engaging with an interesting idea for its own sake.
Ultimately, I think there’s room for both theory and accessibility in literature. We must acknowledge that literary theory can function as an obstacle for a person who still wants to learn from literature but hasn’t been given the opportunity, for one reason or another, to study theory in detail. We must ensure that literature’s great gifts can find their way to these people, too. But I don’t think that should prevent me from discussing litotes or synecdoche in “The Tempest” with my professor.
However hard it may be for others to believe, to me, this is great fun.
Contact Emily Elott at elotte ‘at’ stanford.edu.