The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.1589 Thursday, 4 July 2002
Date: Wednesday, 3 Jul 2002 19:46:54 +0100 (BST)
Subject: Literary/Cultural Theory
In our posts Sean and I separately touched an issue of recent
literary/cultural and interdisciplinary criticism. Here I copied and
pasted from the UK newspaper, the Guardian (25 June 2002), Jonathan
Dollimore's recent article on literary/cultural theory and criticism. To
save Hardy's time I suggest that SHAKSPERians should post their comments
on the online discussion group of the newspaper, whose URL is
if their posts are not associated with Shakespeare and/or his works
and/or life/lives. Happy reading!
'Clashes of culture'
Tuesday June 25, 2002
Some years ago I helped to set up an MA course on lesbian and gay
studies at Sussex University. Being the first of its kind it attracted
tabloid attention: we were asked if we donned leather and chains for
seminars, whether we had sex with our students as a matter of course,
whether we left our doors open during one-on-one tutorials.
In itself this trivialisation of our teaching didn't matter. Tabloid
ridicule is the closest most academics get to their 15 minutes of fame -
in an abject kind of way we almost enjoy it, cheering ourselves up with
Oscar Wilde's dictum: better to be slagged off than ignored. But it
would have been interesting had that coverage been countered by
something more engaged in the broadsheets. It wasn't. I think one Sunday
paper cast its supercilious eye our way, and that was it.
Last month a remarkable 1,100 people attended a public lecture at York
University by the founder of deconstruction, the French philosopher
Jacques Derrida. He who has on many occasions been derided in the media
as incomprehensible held that huge and diverse audience rapt for an hour
and a half.
Do I think we've received a bad press? Yes - but I don't especially
blame the media. The problem goes deeper - in fact it's inside our
universities as well as outside and can be focused in a simple question:
where did all those people become interested in Derrida? Our literary
and philosophical establishments have by and large ridiculed
deconstruction, and I can recall only a few patronising media references
The answer, I think, is indicative of the state of intellectual culture
in this country - or rather the lack of it in high places: the interest
in Derrida came from "below". I mean that it came not top-down, but the
reverse: initially interest in deconstruction and many other
intellectual perspectives misleadingly grouped together under the one
label, "literary theory", came from just-starting lecturers, graduate
students and, quite soon, undergraduates, all of whom found in theory an
intellectual challenge lack ing in their own disciplines. Even more
revealing is that these youngsters weren't in philosophy departments,
but departments of literature. It's from the latter that some of the
most challenging debates have been emerging in recent times.
For sure, "theory" could be pretentious and aspects of it have proved
fashionable merely. But more enduringly, theory has forced on to the
agenda a heady mix of politics, art and intellectual inquiry - an agenda
that was hitherto controlled by parochial establishment academics.
Questions about identity, sexual dissidence, colonialism, the relations
of art and politics, the place of radicalism in art - these are just a
few of the issues passionately disputed under the umbrella of "theory"
in literature departments. But they have only come to the attention of
the media rarely, or in distorted form.
At York Derrida argued for universities, and humanities departments
especially, to be places where there was an unconditional freedom to
both critically resist the powers that be, and to think beyond, beneath
and above them. This is of course an ideal. Right now, when
universities are being subjected to ever more compromising conditions
imposed by government, business and political correctness, it seems an
ideal further away than ever. An equally ideal media would help to
disseminate ideas, to create a climate of intellectual curiosity rather
than one of indifference and disdain.