Theory That Matters: What Practice after Theory?
University of Lodz
Department of American Literature and Culture
7-9 April 2010
“Theory is practice.”
— Michel Foucault
In his 1995 book-length introduction to literary and cultural theory, Peter Barry observed that while the 1980s “saw the high-water mark of literary theory,” the 1990s spawned much more critical approaches, and formulated both some radically skeptical responses and various ‘postscripts’ to the broadly understood field of critical theory. According to Barry, the mid-1990s brought a realization that the “moment of theory” had probably already passed. Well over a decade after his reflection, we would like to return to the “ticklish subject” of theory during an interdisciplinary conference that would serve as a platform for addressing the present-day efficacy of theory, its limits, uses, or, possibly, abuses.
Since 1960’s, the term “critical theory” has widened its scope. The changes taking place over several recent decades have introduced a shift in the understanding of the status of the literary text, the critical text, the function of the critic, and the ability of texts, and genres, to exchange identities. Such confluence may have been inspirational and enriching. Judith Butler claimed: “Theory is an activity that does not remain restricted to the academy. It takes place every time a possibility is imagined, a collective self-reflection takes place, a dispute over values, priorities, and language emerges.” For others, however, the burgeoning of theory may have invaded reading practices with academic dryness. In his 1992 essay, Richard Rorty complained that, in an anthology of critical readings of Heart of Darkness, “none of the readers had been enraptured or destabilized by [the novel].”
In relation to such conflicting perspectives, we are interested in how theoretical approaches and formations have been affecting the work of literary critics, writers, academics, scholars and practitioners who focus their research on texts, not only literary. We welcome presentations on the usefulness of theory. When confronted with the work of writers, artists, film directors, or with phenomena or processes of culture, is theory a revealing tool or does it sometimes appear as a too limiting professional frame? Does theory allow the critic to do justice to the object of the study, or does it abuse it, by depleting the text’s energy? Another question is whether engagements with theory help develop some new, specific approaches? Perhaps in the interpretive encounters of texts and “theory” new energy is released: textual, formal, artistic. If the theoretical moment at its most intense is now past, are there practices in our critical interactions and activities that have evolved from theory?