Escaping “the Pocket:” On Uses of Literature and Critical Theory

Reagan M. Sova, University of Louisville

Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory by Peter Barry is likely an example of what Valentine Cunningham refers to as “the exploding field of handy student handbooks and textbooks [in response] … to those proliferating university courses called ‘Theory’ or ‘Introduction to Theory’” (26 – 27). Barry himself acknowledges the surfeit of texts in this genre, and even comments on the spate of texts in the 1990s with titles like “Post-Theory” or After Theory. Despite this however, he maintains that his text is still an indispensible tool for helping students approach and use literary theory because theory, he claims, has ceased “to be the exclusive concern of a dedicated minority and [has entered] the intellectual bloodstream as a taken-for-granted aspect of the curriculum” (1). As a thus engrained part of the curriculum, the dominant way in which theory is currently taken up and ‘routinised’ in literary studies is one of my main concerns in this essay. My aim is to articulate what I perceive as the hegemonic usage of theory, in its application to literature, a practice which has persisted now for decades. In my view, this hegemonic interpretive procedure has led to further cordoning off of intellectuals away from matters of political and cultural import. In addition to this critique, drawing from traditions in anarchism, cultural materialism, and presentism, I will attempt to briefly sketch out some core features of an alternative, interdisciplinary path for literary pedagogy and scholarship, one that will cultivate interdisciplinary conversations and better enable scholars to contribute to the ever-crucial task of identifying power structures and evaluating their legitimacy.

            For at least the past thirty years continuing to the present, literary pedagogy, especially those courses early in the undergraduate major, seems to resemble a systematic and static procedure of application. In this hegemonic procedure, a certain selected theory is applied to a work of literature, which then produces a type of “reading.” In fact, we can see this interpretive procedure in play in the structure of Barry’s aforementioned text. In the table of contents, we find that the book’s chapters synthesize each major theoretical movement of the twentieth century and early twenty-first century – structuralism, post-structuralism and deconstruction, postmodernism, psychoanalysis, feminism, queer theory, Marxism, new historicism and cultural materialism, post-colonialism, stylistics, narratology, and ecocriticism – and the chapters discuss major thinkers relevant to those movements before concluding with some guiding remarks for students. These guiding remarks describe to the student how experts apply the theory that has been covered in the chapter; they indicate “What [insert practitioner of theory] do” – e.g. “What feminist critics do,” or “What poststructuralists do.” The persistence, for decades, of this dominant interpretive procedure in the discipline is likely why Barry’s book is now in its third edition and has remained relevant since its initial publication in 1995.

            For an example of the way in which this hegemonic interpretative procedure is taken up in the undergraduate classroom, we can turn to Paul Fry, who teaches “ENGL 300: Introduction to Theory of Literature” at Yale University. Fry’s lectures for this course are available on the internet courtesy of Yale Open Courses. In his introductory lecture, which as of July 25, 2014 has over 224,000 views on YouTube, he tells his students, “Very frequently, courses of this kind have a [literary] text … and then once in a while the disquisition of the lecture will pause, the text will be produced, and whatever theory has recently been talked about will be applied to the text” (Fry). Throughout his lecture series for the course, Fry demonstrates theoretical readings on a basic storybook for children, Tony the Tow Truck, so that his students may witness the application of a variety of theories on a simple subject. This pedagogical method also serves to instill a core feature of the hegemonic interpretive procedure in play; the diminishment of the literary object in favor of the primacy of the lens and the operation. Ralph Stevens of Coppin State University also has a similar series of videos. He instructs his students that the fundamental operational procedure of literary studies involves “taking a particular idea [the theory] and we’re saying, ‘Ok, how can we use that idea to understand literature?’” (Stevens). Stevens’ required text is How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies by Robert Dale Parker. Parker’s text, now in its second edition, takes a shape similar to Barry’s, in that it synthesizes major schools of thought and prepares students to apply those particular theories to whatever textual object is chosen by the student or instructor.

            In the novel Engleby, Sebastian Faulks seems to understand this dominant interpretive method which has set the terms of pedagogical and often scholarly operations in literary studies. Set in the 1970s, Faulk’s protagonist, Mike Engleby, muses about a scholarly trend in English called “Theory” that looked “briefly promising” and “was just coming in” (22). He observes:

“The point about Theory was that it didn’t matter if you read Jane Eyre or a fridge instillation manual: what you were doing was studying how you studied them, and the important thing now was not the (anyway unquantifiable) “value” of the original work but the effectiveness of the theory. Vanity Fair or Biggles was the guinea pig; the vaccine being tested was the –ism (22).”

Later in the novel, Engleby, doubting the legitimacy of literary studies and even mocking his former colleagues along the way (“Ah. Dr. Stanley. I presume. How’s Jane Eyre? Married yet?” [33]), ends up switching his major to Natural Sciences.

            Along with his understanding of the hegemonic interpretative procedure in literary studies, Engleby’s change in majors here is also significant when considering the historical tension between the humanities and the sciences. In Literary Theory: A Reintroduction, David Ayers reminds us that “Theory in its heyday [in the 1980s] was somewhat triumphalistic, and presented itself as a sort of enlightenment, a scientific dispersal of a mode of study previously mired in ideology” (55), even if, Ayers hastens to add, theory also produced the notion “that narratives of scientific progress should be regarded as themselves mythological” (55). Antoine Compagnon similarly points out in Literature, Theory, and Common Sense that all the way back in 1895 the French literary critic Gustave Lanson critiques the scholars who had preceded him because “they had no ‘literary theory’” (8) – a polite way, according to Compagnon, of saying that these preceding scholars “did not know what they were doing, that they lacked rigor, scientific spirit, and method” (8). This long-observed pretense to scientificity in English studies intensified in the late 1970s after the proliferation of the dominant theoretical methodology I have been describing, and it came to the fore of conversation in the discipline after the infamous Sokal Hoax in 1996, an event widely perceived, according to Barry, as a humiliation of postmodern theory (286). Charges of theory’s pseudo-scientificity continue to this day from prominent voices in academia such as Noam Chomsky, and in 2005, Columbia University Press published a whole anthology, Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent, which presents related critiques and which claims to appear at “a moment when not only have theoretical discussions of literature become stagnant but articles and books are published in defense of the conceptual stalemates that have led to this very immobility” (1).

            Beyond a seeming grasp for credibility (or viability) by the appropriation of scientific procedure – where one has a theory, an object against which to test that theory, and findings – Chris Hedges, in Death of the Liberal Class, further speculates that English departments have also gravitated towards theory and its methods of application as a way of avoiding controversy and politics. “Public values have been subordinated to torturous textual analysis,” writes Hedges, “There was nothing worth investigating, these poststructuralists insisted, outside of the text” (124). In essence, Hedges claim is that it is inside that space of inconsequential interplay, between theory and text, where academics may “hide out” so to speak, carrying on verbose analyses of texts, inaccessible to the uninitiated, not disturbing and hopefully remaining undisturbed by power structures on which they depend for their diminishing resources.

            On this point, we can turn to another example of literature which critiques the critical practice of literary studies. Don DeLillo, in his novel Underworld, likewise seems to castigate this self-enclosed, feedback-loop-state of literary studies with the language he uses to describe “the pocket” – an underground military lair used for “exploratory research” (DeLillo 401). DeLillo writes that “They named it the Pocket after a creature called the pocket gopher that lives in tunnels it frantically digs under the furrowed dunes” (402). Later, he describes “the pocket” as:

one of those nice tight societies that replaces the world. It was the world made personal and consistently interesting because it was what you did, and others like you, and it was self-enclosed and self-referring and you did it all together in a place and a language that were inaccessible to others” (412).

In Underworld, as with Engleby, we see contemporary literature that seems self-aware of the operational methods of its own criticism.

            With this dominant interpretative procedure at the fore of the discipline, our resources and enrollment numbers in English studies in the United States have been decreasing as it appears that many prospective scholars, albeit for a variety of complex reasons, are choosing other paths of study. For the remainder of this essay, I will attempt to briefly sketch out what I hope will continue to expand the ledge of discussion about alternative ways to study theory and literature. In the words of Jesse Cohn, “I do not intend to invent anything here; that is, I will not propose ex nihilo to establish some new variety of theory (an as-yet unexploited brand?) that would be called” (404) … “anarchist [literary studies].” What I hope to do, instead, is show how work in anarchist, cultural materialist, and presentist traditions could form the core features of an approach to literary studies that disentangles the hegemonic interpretative relationship between theory and text I have described and that also encourages interdisciplinary engagement, going beyond the “pocket,” to read and influence our ever-fluid contemporary situation(s).

            An initial underlying core feature of any alternative method of studying literature which hopes to address contemporary matters of import should be the distinct tendency to seek out and examine power structures with the goal of determining whether those structures are legitimate, or whether they should be changed or dismantled in favor of a thoughtful alternative. Rudolph Rocker identifies this tendency as a “definite trend in the historic development of mankind” (Chomsky), and Chomsky further articulates this tendency by arguing “that at every stage of history our concern must be to dismantle those forms of authority and oppression that survive from an era when they might have been justified in terms of the need for security or survival or economic development, but that now contribute to – rather than alleviate – material and cultural deficit” (Chomsky). If we as scholars and pedagogues do not propagate this underlying tendency, sometimes referred to as anarchism, we may well never rise from the inconsequential interplay between theory and literature, or worse, if we attempt to address contemporary matters of import, we may end up appropriating the power of literature to forward reactionary goals. Cultural materialism, which has been taken up in the United Kingdom to a far greater degree than here in the United States, crucially recognizes this aforementioned tendency as a core feature of its methodology. Brannigan argues that “cultural materialism privileges power relations as the most important context for interpreting texts … cultural materialists explore literary texts within the context of contemporary power relations” (9). (And while it is true that cultural materialism owes a great debt to Raymond Williams, and has roots in Marxist theory and in the Frankfort school, “some critics, such as Tony Bennett, have disputed the claim that cultural materialism is necessarily a Marxist theory” (Brannigan 96). Furthermore, David Graeber notes, “There is no reason why one couldn’t write Marxist theory, and simultaneously engage in anarchist practice” (106).)

            Another core feature of literary studies which hope to escape the “pocket” in order to address our ever-fluid contemporary situation should be the conscious orientation of concern with the present. Barry writes about emergent presentist critics in literary studies who “actively seek out ‘the present in the past,’ as we might call it, with the explicit aim of speaking with, or negotiating with, the living” (293). Terence Hawkes is the foremost presentist scholar, and he takes his cue from Benedetto Croce who once said, “All history is contemporary history” (Qtd in Hawks 3). Hawks goes on to add that “it is impossible for historians or literary scholars to ‘make contact with a past unshaped by their own concerns” (Qtd in Barry 293). In this sense, the desired ethic of situating one’s conscious orientation of concern in the present is one that seems to require only recognition on the part of the scholar because it is otherwise unavoidable. This is not to say though that one should remain interested only in contemporary events; here we can look to the work of anarchist writers and cultural materialist critics who are “invariably … interested in history as a way of dislodging conservative ideologies of the present” (Brannigan 98).

            Likewise unavoidable is the politicized nature of literary scholarship. An approach to literary studies which hopes to differ from current hegemonic methods will recognize as one of its core features the impossibility of resting cut-off inside a “pocket,” of remaining neutral to contemporary events. Drawing on sentiments expressed by Howard Zinn in Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology, scholars should recognize that “Surely, we want to be objective if that means telling the truth as we see it, not concealing information that may be embarrassing to our point of view” (6). However, Zinn rejects pretense to scholarly objectivity if that means claims of neutrality in power struggles, adding, “Indeed, it is impossible to be neutral. In a world already moving in certain directions, where wealth and power are already distributed in certain ways, neutrality means accepting the way things are now” (7).

            Hopefully, the overlapping and interconnected nature of these three core features of an alternative literary methodology I have briefly sketched out here is apparent. However, there is one final crucial attribute of such a program of study that scholars should consider. We can turn to Cohn’s work in cultural studies to gain useful considerations about the ways in which we as literary scholars and pedagogues can recognize our own limitations. He points out how “anarchist scholars decline to play the role of a Leninist vanguard dictating correct ‘theory’ to activists charged with ‘practice’” (417) and encourages scholars “to find ways to prevent or at least limit the conversion of anarchist work in the academy into purely symbolic goods” (416). Along with recognition of and attempts to surmount certain institutional limitations, we can look to Laura K. Hahn and Maxwell Schnurer’s essay “Accessible Artifact for Community Discussion about Anarchy and Education,” where they consider the power of narrative itself as a way of “[helping] students [to] recognize their own agency, and [to] see the limitations of the spaces we convene” (149).

            By adopting these core features – the tendency to question power, the recognition of the presentist and politicized nature of our work, and also the recognition of its limitations – scholars can position themselves to escape the systematized “pocket” of literary studies and instead interact with other disciplines towards the ever-crucial task of identifying power structures and evaluating their legitimacy. In this spirit, we can break with certain traditions to join with and draw from new or alternative interdisciplinary traditions such as anarchism, cultural materialism, geocriticism, and other movements of scholars inside and outside academia who use their abilities to read, critique, and hopefully to improve our ever-fluid contemporary situation.

 Works Cited:

Ayers, David. Literary Theory: A Reintroduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2008. Print.

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester, UK: Manchester UP, 2009. Print.

Brannigan, John. New Historicism and Cultural Materialism. New York: St. Martin’s, 1998. Print.

Chomsky, Noam. “Notes on Anarchism, by Noam Chomsky (Excerpted from For Reasons of State).”, n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2014.

Cohn, Jesse. “What Is Anarchist Cultural Studies? Precursors, Problems, Prospects.” New Perspectives on Anarchism. Ed. Jun, Nathan J., and Shane Wahl. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2010. 403-24. Print.

Compagnon, Antoine. Literature, Theory, and Common Sense. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2004. Print.

Cunningham, Valentine. “Theory, What Theory?” Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent. Ed. Patai, Daphne, and Will H. Corral. New York: Columbia UP, 2005. 24-41. Print.

DeLillo, Don. Underworld. New York, NY: Scribner, 1997. Print.

Faulks, Sebastian. Engleby. London: Hutchinson, 2007. Print.

Fry, Paul. “Introduction to Theory of Literature (ENGL 300).” YouTube. Yale Courses, 01 Sept. 2009. Web. 16 Dec. 2013. <>.

Hahn, Laura K., and Maxwell Schnurer. “Anarchism, Academia, and the Avant-garde.” Contemporary Anarchist Studies: An Introductory Anthology of Anarchy in the Academy. Ed. Amster, Randall, and Abraham DeLeon, Luis A. Fernandez, Anthony J. Nocella, II, Deric Shannon. London: Routledge, 2009. 147-158. Print.

Hawkes, Terence. Shakespeare in the Present. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Hedges, Chris. Death of the Liberal Class. New York: Nation, 2010. Print.

Graeber, David. “Anarchism, Academia, and the Avant-garde.” Contemporary Anarchist Studies: An Introductory Anthology of Anarchy in the Academy. Ed. Amster, Randall, and Abraham DeLeon, Luis A. Fernandez, Anthony J. Nocella, II, Deric Shannon. London: Routledge, 2009. 103-12. Print.

Stevens, Ralph. “A Brief Introduction to Literary Theory.” YouTube. Ralph Stevens, 27 Mar. 2013. Web. 16 Dec. 2013. <>.

Zinn, Howard. Declarations of Independence: Cross-examining American Ideology. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1990. Print.

Reagan M. Sova is a doctoral student in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Louisville. He works as the Assistant Director of Creative Writing at U of L.  Email:

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