• What Happened in the 80s? On the Rise of Literary Theory in American Academia

    Jane Gallop in Conversation with H. Aram Veeser

    Jane Gallop, Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, was interviewed by H. Aram Veeser in Vancouver, on January 9, 2015.

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    H. Aram Veeser: What were the big events in the history of theory, the turning points, the defining moments?

    Jane Gallop: There was one very particular thing that happened in the United States in the late 1970s and early 80s that seemed really, really important, which is that as deconstructionist reading started becoming more widespread, disseminated in the United States, a lot of people noticed the similarity—rightly so—between the reading style and New Criticism because of the close reading and the attentiveness to language. That was a major thing that happened that actually influenced the course of English study in the United States for a couple of decades—and, actually, still.

    We’re still in the wake of that, I think, even though it seems very far away. One of the things that happened is that some of the English Department adopters of deconstruction were people that were still reading canonical English literary texts; they were reading texts of Romanticism, as you know; the Yale school was exemplary of this, but they are not the only people. It’s very clear that there’s a complete continuity between New Criticism and that kind of reading. At the time I thought, this is the least interesting use of deconstruction that I could imagine, because it seemed to me that it was just more close reading of literary texts. Now, I have never been a big close reader of literary texts, so that seemed not so interesting to me. But it had an enormous effect because it allowed post-structuralism; it allowed it in. It was like a Trojan Horse. Because it didn’t look so radically different even though there was all this hoo-hah about it. It was relatively easily assimilated to what people do in English departments because it just looked like—it revivified close reading.

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    HAV: Was the New Criticism still going strong?

    JG: New Critical close reading was already dying, because of the 60s and social movements and New Criticism, and it gave it new energy so that it went on for another 15 years, although now it was called deconstruction. And I think that that made Theory, because there were all these words, you know there was post-structuralism, there was theory, there was French theory, there was deconstruction—and they were all of these kind of like vague signifiers that nobody knew what they referred to. But there was the kind of work that, like de Man and Hillis Miller were doing at Yale, looked completely like New Criticism but also looked like deconstruction, looked like theory, looked like post-structuralism, and it allowed a lot of theory that was really different than New Criticism to become kind of what people were doing in English departments. It was this weird, gradual transformation. It was not a revolution. It was something quite different.

    And all this stuff happened over the course of the decade of the 80s; I would say that as much as people were complaining about deconstruction, it was like English graduate students throughout the country were starting to do these, you know, deconstructionist readings of canonical texts. And it looked like it wasn’t such a radical change. But it was connected to this whole other body of theory that was actually much bigger and less and less something that could simply be applied to a bunch of canonical literary texts. This is a little bit vague. But so I see that something there just kind of changed and that some of it looked like, “Oh, here’s like a way to revivify close reading and make it, you know, more lively and edgy and a little new and with a little French accent,” or whatever. But then under the name of theory or post-structuralism, some people started doing some quite other things that really looked quite different. So that is my sense of what happened over the course of the ’80s. Then, the New Historicism came in by the end of the 80s. It was also another new way of doing close reading, in some way, but by changing the kind of text we were looking at, or that we were putting in juxtaposition and all of that sort of stuff.

    New Critical close reading was already dying, because of the 60s and social movements and New Criticism

    HAV: So did the New Historicism sustain theory all through the 90s?

    JG: My sense is that the era of Theory was really gone by the beginning of the 90s or was on the way out. Although it started in the late 60s, its high point was probably the mid-70s to about 1990: it was about 15 years. And by the 90s, the discipline of English had completely changed. The canon was gone. The canon as it was just completely normal in the 70s was really gone by the 90s; it is a completely different canon. There’s a lot more people in it, but there’s also a lot more reading of various kinds of non-high-literary texts. It moved in every direction, as you know. We started reading women. We started reading men of color. We started reading people from outside of Europe. We started reading things that nobody thought of as literature. So it went in every direction. So that started in the 90s, and it was abetted by post-structuralist theory, which gave the kind of intellectual rationale to these moves, so that it seemed that it wasn’t just a popularizing move. But it was like a strong theoretical move.

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    It’s funny because the first theory that caught on here was a kind of deconstructive reading of the most canonical texts. But that sort of opened the door. I am amazed by both how much Theory seems in the past and how much it still is in the present. I want to say that because otherwise it is kind of hard to see it. So to me the era of Theory, the high era of Theory, was on its way out by the time we reached the early 90s, and it kind of like was going out through the 90s, and seemed gone by the end of the 90s. But it’s not actually gone. It just has a really different place. I think its place is, it’s become actually foundational. Which is a weird place for it to be since it’s kind of an anti-foundationalism, right [laughs].

    There’s not an English department I think in the country that does not teach a course in theory both at the undergraduate and the graduate level. And those courses weren’t there in the 70s, right? And they’re still there, right! And so people are still trying to figure out what the latest theory is, and they’re doing economic theory, or they’re doing what—but they always trace back their work to some post-structuralist of the 70s, one or the other. So you see it. It doesn’t have the kind of consistency it had. It doesn’t seem like a movement anymore. Because it’s kind of like moved to the background. I think it changed the way people in English departments think about the work they do and work, in a way that I just absolutely see the lasting influence if you see the random work that people do in lots of different ways. I feel like the era of Theory was one in which Theory was something new, that was seen as this thing, and now it’s probably what literary theory was before, which is to say that it’s some of the like the intellectual background of the work that people do; I think it’s gone back to being that, although it’s a different set of texts than it would have been before the 70s.

    HAV: How did you come to be involved with literary theory?

    JG: I started grad school in 1972. I started in French at Cornell. I didn’t start at Cornell because I was interested in theory, but my notion of theory was very much shaped by that. Because the journal diacritics, which came out of the department in which I was a graduate student, was a big force in promoting theory in the US. I was at the time a radical lesbian feminist who for some reason was interested in French lit, I’m not sure why. I’d been a lesbian feminist as an undergrad and went to grad school thinking that I was going to write a dissertation on the lesbian in French lit. That was my plan. This was very early 1970s feminist criticism, pre-post-structuralist for sure. My first year there I encountered post-structuralist theory, and I encountered in particular the work of Lacan and Derrida. There were a number of people teaching in that department who were interested in Lacan and Derrida. The way that I for years told the story was that I went to grad school as a lesbian feminist but I came out a post-structuralist. And that felt like a really big transformation.

    By the end of my first year of graduate school I was really excited about reading Lacan and Derrida; I was still a feminist, but it was kind of different from the feminism I had come in to grad school with. I remember discovering at the time that there were other feminists grappling with, particularly with, Lacan and psychoanalysis, Juliet Mitchell, Luce Irigaray—people would tell me about them because I was trying to figure out how to be a feminist and a Lacanian at the same time. And that I always felt like I was just lucky. My formation included the intersection of two really big intellectual movements, second-wave feminism and post-structuralism, or something like that; there were a lot of names for it; I didn’t necessarily call it post-structuralism in 1972. I was one of the first people in America working at that intersection, so it meant that there was a lot of interest in my work that wouldn’t have been there for someone just coming out of graduate school working on whatever. So my sense of theory in the American academy is somewhat skewed by my not having been in an English department until 1990, but my having been in a French department. And in a French department, theory really was French theory or the German theory that French theorists read, and it was, “This is what is going on, this is the intellectual life of France, and this is what you have to know if you’re going to be in French.”

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    I feel like the era of Theory was one in which Theory was something new, and now it’s probably what literary theory was before, which is to say that it’s some of the like the intellectual background of the work that people do.

    HAV: They didn’t do close reading in French.

    JG: Well they did, but they did like explication de texte. They are different traditions of close reading. But I had not read the New Critical texts until much later in my life. New Criticism was not a big influence on French. This is how it looked to me, in this very particular place, where this thing hit me and took over my life. And I don’t think you can just generalize from that. I think that may be true of anyone who lived through it. It’s like the Stendhal novel that he’s at the Battle of Waterloo but he only sees what’s going on right around him.

    HAV: Yes. Would you say, for example, that the personal encounters with these theorists that you mention, Kristeva and so on, was more important to you in some way than reading their work?

    JG: I remember in grad school. First Foucault came for two weeks, and then Kristeva came for two weeks, and then Cixous came for two weeks, and this was before people in English departments, except maybe at Cornell, knew these people were important. But they were part of what we learned as graduate students, intellectually so much more exciting than anything I had ever encountered. They were about the same things I was interested in as a lesbian feminist; they were interested in Lacan and the relation between language and sexuality and culture. But they had a much more interesting way of thinking about it. They just seemed really difficult, and smart, and really edgy. There was something about their edginess of, their lack of piety, something like that that really spoke to me, that I felt that this made sense. I remember going to dinner with Kristeva. My then-boyfriend, who was a graduate student in French, and I took Kristeva out to dinner, because she was there for two weeks and she was like available. And I could already see that there was no shortcut to understanding her work. She was a real person, she was in town, she was happy to have people entertain her. She was friendly and she was charming and we were trying to be charming, but there was no social route or personal route to her work. The work was just hard. I think I was turned on by how hard it was to understand, and yet how it seemed to be about things I cared about, and the relation between language and culture and sexuality.

    HAV: Do you remember any breakthrough moments? Epiphanies you had?

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    JG: One of the big breaking moments, but I’m now, like, a dissertator, it must have been about 1974 or 1975, and I read Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text, I read Le plaisir du texte—because I was reading it in French—and it had this amazing effect on me, which is that it made me feel like I could talk more directlier about what I was interested in; I had found Derrida, and Lacan, and Foucault, and Kristeva more intimidating; I felt like I had to write in this very high theoretical language, that I was half mastering and half not mastering. But there is something about Le plaisir du texte; I think it is still my favorite book, because it liberated me from a certain kind of high structuralism, high theory even though Barthes was a theorist, by saying, “No, you could do something more experimental, more playful, more open, more literary.”

    I remember reading that thinking, Oh, I could do something, I don’t have to like just show how smart I am; I mean there was something going on with Barthes in that moment, and I came to that a little later, after Lacan and Derrida, as he was moving from structuralism to post-structuralism, he was moving to something more writerly, more reflective, and it opened up the possibility for me of a kind of directness or writing or playfulness or whatever that was real formative for me. But mainly I experienced it as, Ohhhh—I don’t have to be so just like so rigorous and strict and abstruse. So for me the best part of post-structuralism was not—although the difficulty of the theory is what attracted me—the best part of post-structuralism—and for me it is exemplified by something like Le plaisir du texte, although there is also a text of Derrida that exemplified it, and there’s also Lacan’s crazy style that exemplified it, was the opening up to the fact that this was also a form of like very edgy, very smart play, and not just like you know smart ideas and systems. I mean it was really very different from reading Kant, for example, because there was something other than the high seriousness of it all.

    I remember reading that thinking, Oh, I could do something, I don’t have to like just show how smart I am; I mean there was something going on with Barthes in that moment, and I came to that a little later, after Lacan and Derrida.

    HAV: So was your work always playful? Your book Reading Lacan seems like straightforward exposition. And yet it has already some of your freewheeling style or experimental writerly interest evident in it. Was that your first book that incorporated writerly playfulness?

    JG: No. My work from the beginning, probably from the beginning of graduate school, had this kind of weird playful—to me, I had a tendency toward a kind of edgy humor, in which you’re being kind of irreverent, or you know poking fun at certain pious ideas through humor, and there’s something about that that is probably family background, personality, et cetera, and I was very responsive to things that I was reading, these very smart theoretical texts that seemed to have some version of that; I definitely started writing like that as soon as I could; I think I got much better at it over time; it was kind of hard to pull off, but it was—I always had a kind of hatred of a certain kind of seriousness, and for me the kind of theory was the kind that I never liked was the theory that said, “Here is how it works and here is how it all fits together,” because I thought that that was not only pompous but also wrong, always wrong, inevitably wrong. I was always attracted to a kind of theory that was busily kind of calling into question certain pieties or presumptions or something like that.

    HAV: So people must have been a little surprised by your eccentricity as a writer?

    JG: It seemed perfectly normal to me. It seemed I was just taking this stuff seriously by trying to write this way. That trying to write something that wasn’t simply from the position of this kind of like mastery et cetera seemed to be only taking seriously what it was we were all reading, and so I didn’t think there was anything odd about it. And I remember being surprised when I was sending articles off to journals that like they didn’t get what I was doing at all. I was so formed by this very immediate context of diacritics and this kind of passion for post-structuralism in the department I was in that I didn’t really understand that the rest of the profession had not really like accepted this kind of writing. I think I still kind of don’t get it. [laughs] I’m always shocked and possibly slightly offended when you see people who are various kinds of interpreters of post-structuralism that do it in this mode of high seriousness and trying to lay out and map what the knowledge is as if you can have this position of mastery. Seems to me it’s not getting it. It doesn’t make sense to me.

    HAV: What were your most important interventions?

    JG: Okay, I’ll try to list them. They are more ideas than things; they are themes, but that can be an intervention. I think that my first and possibly the only intervention that most people know about me was to really intervene and make a strong case for a post-structuralist and psychoanalytic feminism and one that was strong enough so that people by the 80s—I made this intervention in the late 70s—by the 80s there were a lot of graduate students in English departments starting to think that was the way to go. That whole moment disappeared by the late 80s. That’s an intervention: basically, being strongly a feminist, yet being strongly psychoanalytic and post-structuralist, and suggesting that that was actually a really productive way to actually be a feminist. That I would say is my first intervention. These are not chronological. But that is the one that is really restricted in time because the whole thing of post-structuralist feminism and French feminism kind of disappeared by the end of the 80s as a thing. Except it’s marked on history.

    I would say my second intervention was the real insistence on the close reading of theoretical texts, and I would say consistently across my work, not literally everything I ever wrote but pretty much most everything I ever wrote was involved in performing a close reading of a theoretical text as a way of getting theoretical texts to open up into thinking rather than into the soundbytes that everyone was presenting then. And I feel like that is the thing that I most believe in across my work, is that idea that theoretical texts are texts, and that the best way to learn from them and to think with them is to read them, and to read them as texts rather than as a précis of their main ideas.

    That to me follows so naturally from the kind of formation that I thought I was getting as I first encountered post-structuralism. I was shocked by how many people did the opposite, which was, let’s give an account of like the imaginary in Lacan; you know, we’ll do that. I think it was my application of Derrida’s reading of philosophical texts in that very close reading mode, in the mode that’s deconstructive. And that it wasn’t about not taking them seriously as philosophy but it was about like looking at their textuality. And I think I understood that you could read any text that way, but for me it was most interesting to read various types of theoretical texts that way. And I still do that. I think that’s what I did this morning.

    That’s an intervention: basically, being strongly a feminist, yet being strongly psychoanalytic and post-structuralist, and suggesting that that was actually a really productive way to actually be a feminist.

    HAV: Would it be fair to say that you read the theoretical text as a kind of poem, or at least as a work of literature?

    JG: It would be fair but I wouldn’t say it. And so there was for a while the phrase, “theory as a literary genre,” which was sort of recognized. I could do that, and people often classed my work into that category; this was a category around in the 80s or 90s or something like that, and I think that my resistance to it, which is a little silly, is the following. I believe that I am taking Theory really, really seriously, as ideas. And I think the way to take it as seriously as possible as ideas is to do a close reading of it as a text, because to me the thinking happens in the text and not somewhere behind the text, that is just reported by the text. What’s interesting is that I never liked Derrida’s readings of literary texts. I don’t find them interesting, I don’t like them; I just think they’re a philosopher trying to do literary criticism. It’s his reading of Rousseau and of Plato, it’s his reading of philosophical texts, in which, as he gets into the language, you feel the ideas like open up and get really complicated and interesting and lively. So I think that the idea that you are reading philosophy as a literary text implies, Oh, you’re looking at how beautifully it’s formed and all of that. Whereas for me it’s really, I’m interested in the thinking, but for me the thinking doesn’t happen behind the text, it actually happens in the text. And you get access to that thinking and are engaged with that thinking when you are doing that kind of close reading.

    HAV: Was your style a consequence of your theoretical involvements?

    JG: Yes. I can’t remember saying, Oh, I will do this, and working it out. I really loved the theoretical texts in which really interesting things happened, in which there was wit and play and crazy stuff in the language, and the ideas seemed much more multidimensional, I really loved that and clearly I wanted to be able to write like that. And I felt like those things were just more interesting and stronger. I have like no tolerance for dry, boring theoretical texts. I feel like there’s nothing more energetic than thinking, and I feel like dry, theoretical texts like kind of congeal that thinking.


    Rebirth of American Literary Theory and Criticism by Aram Veeser

    From Rebirth of American Literary Theory and Criticism by Aram Veeser. Used with the permission of Anthem Press. Copyright © 2020 by Aram Veeser.

    H. Aram Veeser and Jane Gallop
    H. Aram Veeser and Jane Gallop
    H. Aram Veeser is a Professor at the City College of New York (English Department) and the CUNY Graduate Center (Middle East and Middle-Eastern American Center) who is best known for his founding role as a theorist of new historicism and his extensive research on the historiography of critical theory. Veeser is the author of Edward Said: The Charisma of Criticism (Routledge, 2010) and editor of four volumes on the work of celebrated literary theorists, including Confessions of the Critics (Routledge, 1996) and The Stanley Fish Reader (Blackwell, 1999). He has contributed to numerous books on literary theory and culture, including, most recently, The Bloomsbury Handbook of Literary and Cultural Theory (2018).
    Jane Gallop is a theorist known for her contributions to feminist theory and queer and sexuality theory. She taught in the French Department at Miami University in Ohio, was the Herbert S. Autrey Professor of Humanities at Rice University, where she founded the Women’s Studies program, and served as chair of the Department of French and Italian. She has also taught or served as a Visiting Professor, at Gettysburg College, Emory University, the University of Minnesota, Dartmouth College, Johns Hopkins University, and the Chicago Psychoanalytic Center. She is a Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee, where she has taught since 1990. While the topics of her work vary, her writing can be understood as the consistent application of a close reading method to theoretical texts.

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