Literature, recent, Top Stories

High Theory and Low Seriousness

Saul Bellow (1915–2005)

Sixty years ago today, just as Henderson the Rain King was going to print, Saul Bellow penned an article for the New York Times in which he warned against the perils of deep reading. Paying too close attention to hidden meanings and obscure symbols takes all the fun from reading, he wrote. The serious reader spends an inordinate amount of energy trying to find profound representations in the most trivial of details. “A travel folder signifies Death. Coal holes represent the Underworld. Soda crackers are the Host. Three bottles of beer are—it’s obvious.”

Moreover, deep reading is such an imprecise game that numerous dull and contradictory interpretations arise from the same passage. “Are you a Marxist? Then Herman Melville’s Pequod in Moby Dick can be a factory, Ahab the manager, the crew the working class. Is your point of view religious? The Pequod sailed on Christmas morning, a floating cathedral headed south. Do you follow Freud or Jung? Then your interpretations may be rich and multitudinous.” One man, Bellow wrote, had volunteered an explanation of Moby Dick as Ahab’s mad quest to overcome his Oedipus complex by slaying the whale—the metaphorical mother of the story.

Instead of this tedious attitude to literature, Bellow urged that people take after E. M. Forster’s lightness of heart. Forster had once remarked that he felt worried by the prospect of visiting Harvard since he had heard that there were many deep and serious readers of his books there. The prospect of their close analysis made him uneasy. In short, for Bellow and Forster, the average academic critic tried to understand literature and thus ruined the enjoyment of it.

The low seriousness that Bellow lamented has only increased since his complaint. Today, literary scholarship is home to some of the most impenetrable gobbledygook ever put on paper. The main culprit is easily identifiable: literary theory. Literary theory, a school of criticism with little hold outside the universities, has captured whole colleges and threatens to extinguish students’ love of reading. Imagine the dejection a student about to begin university, eager to read the best that has ever been written, feels when they are told to examine some heavy tome of unreadable theory. It drains all the fun from reading.

Solemn readers—especially within the academy—take the view that novels must be read in the same manner that philosophers read Principia Mathematica, namely, by “interrogating” the text’s underlying logic. Theorists see themselves as philosophers of literature. For them, the task of understanding any piece of prose or poetry means developing an array of theories, much like philosophers try to explain reality through formulised conjecture. And just as philosophers have specialised lingo to aid their job, literary theorists also require their own jargon. Hence whole dictionaries now exist to help students navigate near incomprehensible passages. Opening my Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism more or less at random, I’m met by the following sentences:

The phenotext is constantly split up and divided, and is irreducible to the semiotic process that works through the genotext. The phenotext is a structure (which can be generated, in generative grammar’s sense); it obeys rules of communication and presupposes a subject of enunciation and an addressee. The genotext, on the other hand, is a process; it moves through zones that have relative and transistory borders and constitutes a path that is not restricted to the two poles of univocal information between two full-fledged subjects.

This is not an unfairly selected quote. Literary theory is often written in language that is not much more transparent than this. To offer one more example; Fredric Jameson delivers this inscrutability:

The operational validity of semiotic analysis, and in particular of the Greimassian semiotic rectangle, derives, as was suggested there, not from its adequacy to nature or being, nor even from its capacity to map all forms of thinking or language, but rather from its vocation specifically to model ideological closure and to articulate the workings of binary oppositions, here the privileged form of what we have called the antinomy.

Hegel hardly wrote anything more muddled. Of course, there are literary theories free of pseudo-philosophical gibberish. But some of the most prominent theorists write in this cryptic style. Martha Nussbaum (herself a lucid writer) criticised the prose of a celebrated theorist by saying that her elliptical and obscure writing “creates an aura of importance” but also “bullies the reader into granting that, since one cannot figure out what is going on, there must be something significant going on, some complexity of thought, where in reality there are often familiar or even shopworn notions, addressed too simply and too casually to add any new dimension of understanding.”

In a sense, unintelligible writing is an insult to its own discipline because it suggests that it is not important for the reader to understand the content. Surely an author with something insightful to say would take care to make herself comprehensible. Why convey a thought at all if it need not be understood? Only those with nothing to say can afford to revel in opacity. In short, cryptic writing may create an aura of importance but in fact it advertises its own lack of value.

Badly written scholarship is a negative in itself, but worse, it is also an opportunity cost for it crowds out the reading of good criticism. A seminar spent discussing Althusser or Derrida is one which could have focused on Samuel Johnson or James Wood. Worse still, the examination of turgid theories takes time from truly excellent works of literature. I can remember attending a seminar on Virginia Woolf’s Orlando where the tutor seemed to view the book as an excuse to discuss Judith Butler’s theory of “gender performativity.” Something has surely gone wrong when literature is used to further theories rather than the other way around.

The problem with literary theory is that it is not proper “theory.” At best, it is hypothesis without predictive value. There may be some descriptive capacity in literary “theories,” but they do not predict anything about prose or poetry. (What future literary developments can be anticipated by reference to Harold Bloom’s theory of “the anxiety of influence”?) In contradistinction to literary theories, scientific and philosophical theories are open to refutation. Science is tethered to reality and scientific conjectures can thus be refuted by empirical evidence. Literature—being fictional—cannot. This allows literary theorists to gain adherents whilst being free from worries of rebuttal. The consequence is an ever swelling canon of contradictory deepities.

“To the serious a novel is a work of art,” wrote Bellow. And since “art has a role to play in the drama of civilized life”—a very grave business—the serious treat novels with the same sombre attitude they bring to bear on politics. Taken too far, this mirthless view of literature becomes a danger to the joy of reading. The idea that significant studies must be buttressed by significant sounding terminology is simply bunk. It is high time that theory be done in the manner Oscar Wilde said all serious things of life should be treated: “with sincere and studied triviality.”


Gustav Jönsson is an undergraduate philosophy student at the University of Glasgow. You can follow him on Twitter @GustavNJonsson


  1. Wondering who that dude is in the photo at the top of the article (in the photo right above that of Saul Bellow)?

    That’s the renowned queer scholar and PoMo enthusiast Judith Butler, one of the giants of gender performative theory.

    Here’s Mr. Butler at her most lucid: “The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”

    I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who talks or writes like that, but then I don’t know a lot of super smart people like Miss Butler.

    • Amelia says

      @ New Radical Centrism

      Oh, I see what you did with that.

      A gender performative performance!

        • Amelia says


          Not necessarily. The type of gender fluidity in that comment is something that someone like Butler would approve of. The gender studies crowd thinks you can be a guy in the morning, but by the afternoon, maybe you’re feeling more like a girl… or something in between…

          It’s not like gender is set in biology! Only the truly unwoke believe such nonsense!

      • Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says


        You saved me the trouble of pointing that out. The boss was performative indeed and normalized colonial hetero-patriarchal structures of oppression thru the use of such word-violences as ‘Miss’ and ‘Mister’.

    • Hm. To try to re-write that quote:

      “We used to think that social structures were shaped like capital structures.”, or maybe “we used to think that power was proportional to [determined by?] wealth”.

      “Social structures are path-dependent.”

      “Social structures inherently change over time.”

      “This change is self-reinforcing.”

      “You can’t reason about current / static social structures in isolation.”

      “Having power now and having control of the direction of change are tied together.”

      “This can be viewed as a form of hegemony.”

      Or to just take the general gist of it: “We figured out the details of *how* power begets power.”.

      All of those are approximate. All of those have to assume things and leave things out. All of those were originally passive statements about the history of her field, not the active statements of fact I turned them in to.

      That kind of writing is intended for people who are familiar with the jargon used. It’s not for day-to-day use, it’s for detailed technical discussions.

      The core idea — that power *inevitably* begets power — is a statement of observable fact that needs real-world observations backing it up. But, the lack of such observations isn’t the fault of the writing style.

      • Tim,

        There was a discussion online a few months ago about the essay from which that passage is taken, and someone on the discussion thread wrote that he had to read that essay once in a grad school class. He said he told the professor that he couldn’t figure out what the essay was about, and the professor said something to the effect that “maybe it’s not about anything.”

      • Damian O'Connor says

        The core idea — that power *inevitably* begets power — is a statement of observable fact

        I think Charles I might disagree with you there.

      • Alistair says

        I speak enough PoMo to (roughly) figure out what the post is saying without “translation”.

        It’s horribly written. The ideas in it could be stated in much clearer and simpler fashion. The writing relies too much on jargon. The writing relies too much on obscure or unnecessary words. The sentence structure is too long and too complex. There are too many separable ideas within a sentence. Parts of the writing seem deliberately obscurantist.

        The PoMo / grievance studies areas are notorious for this sort of thing. There was a post here, a year or so back, where some PoMo commentator linked an English essay which he thought was profound. What struck me (apart from the obvious Marxism) was how badly written it was in an English sense.

        Let us be frank; many of us think the Eng. Lit. types write this way because they desperately want to appear clever and profound when they don’t have anything new interesting to say.

        They should Learn to Code!

      • ccscientist says

        Tim: With all due respect, I don’t think you know what it says. I am pretty smart and regularly read philosophy, sociology, history, economics. I view the sentence as gibberish. If I can’t figure out what it says when it is about communication and society, then it is poorly written.

      • Michael says

        That’s probably a decent stab at interpretation. Your closing remark is fair enough too: she hasn’t done anything, such as observation, to assess or advance or challenge the commonplace notions buried in the jargon. But the problem with the jargon is that it’s purpose built to conceal exactly that. And precisely to present what’s just a dull list of obvious ideas *as if* it were indeed a “detailed technical discussion”.
        You could summarise as follows:
        We Marxists used to think society was entirely controlled by Capital.
        Now we’ve noticed there are other social influences too.
        Stuff changes, and you have to study history to understand what’s happening now and likely to happen next.
        It seems that people in powerful positions have more influence over how thins change than other folks.
        Well, duh!

    • Emmanuel says

      A French philosopher whose name I unfortunately cannot remember wrote a very interesting essay on Judith Butler’s writings. Her main point was that most of Butler’s work was made of long and unintellegible arguments followed by limpid and easy to understand conclusions : Judith wants you to understand her view but not how she supports and justifies them. Even better, that method makes those conclusions feel like relieving revelations for the reader who can feel really smart because in the end he/she/zir fan feel good about himself/herself/zirself for understanding what sounded very complicated.

    • Lightning Rose says

      Meanwhile, a good electrician makes the lights come on. 😉

    • Hungry Hippo says

      Judith Butler’s appearance, 15 years hence, will bear a striking similarity to Richard Dawkins’ current appearance.

    • Andrew Mcguiness says

      @_centrism Well, that sentence from Butler is too long, but it does make sense. Not that I necessarily agree with it. Butler’s writing style makes her a target for criticism, but she has some good insights at times (and at other times she promulgates nonsense).

    • Song For the Deaf says

      *wipes tear from eye*

      Shakespeare couldn’t have said it any better

  2. So, there actually can be a use for work that would be unintelligible to an outsider. Some first-level and pretty much all second-level meta work for specialized disciplines (like my own software development) will look this way.

    The problem comes when that’s *all there is*. If it’s not directly in service to correcting actual observed deficiencies in the parts closer to the outside world, it can *very* quickly go down some rabbit hole and come out unrecognizable to anyone.

    I don’t see “unintelligible” work being a problem. I do see it being the *mainstay* of a discipline as a problem.

    • Stephanie says

      Tim, “unintelligible” work isn’t a problem per se, in disciplines with any merit such work is simply ignored, and no one suffers for it but the author. That that hasn’t happened here, and instead Judith Butler is lauded as a thought-leader, suggests something stinks.

      There was no actual jargon in this quote, all words convey simple, well-known concepts, although simpler words could have been chosen without compromising meaning, and many dropped altogether. The message conveyed, as you point out, is “power inevitably begets power,” a platitude with no real value.

      That so many words were wasted to make that point is purposeful. The needlessly complex prose is necessary because the ideas are not insightful or useful. The entire field is bunk, and hiding behind complex run-on sentences obscures that.

      • George G says

        @ Stephanie

        you’ve made your point succinctly and with clarity…. You’ll never make it as an academic with that attitude, I’d recommend removing all punctuation and throwing in the word “systemic” every 4 – 6 words.

        • Stephanie says

          Thank you, George, but fortunately I belong to a science that requires brevity and clarity, much more than I have currently mastered. I’m still a waste of taxpayer dollars, so thank you to all the Canadians and Australians!

      • Stephen says

        “There was no actual jargon in this quote, all words convey simple, well-known concepts..”

        “Althusserian theory”

  3. It’s a very poorly written, self-indulgent sentence no matter how familiar the intended audience is with the topic and the jargon. Starting with the fact that it is just one sentence.

    Calvin said it best when he told Hobbes, “I realized that the purpose of writing is to inflate weak ideas, obscure poor reasoning, and inhibit clarity. With a little practice, writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog!”

  4. Bubblecar says

    Artistic experience, for both creator and appreciator, tends to be “holistic” in nature, in that intellect, emotion and the senses are combined in powerful ways that can transform our normal apprehension of the world into an experience of heightened meaning, insight and beauty.

    While such experience can be empirically analysed and potentially described in illuminating detail, this is a task more helpfully left to cognitive science than to art theory or literary theory etc.

    This doesn’t mean there is no role for traditional critics, but they are of more use when responding to works as artistic experience, combined with relevant cultural context, rather than through this or that fashionable theoretical framework that sounds technical but owes nothing much to scientific understanding.

  5. Damian O'Connor says

    Only those with nothing to say can afford to revel in opacity.

    Nailed it. It goes for History too. Most of the Marxist canon on South African history falls into this.

    Damian O’Connor

    ‘A Short Guide to the History of South Africa 1652-1902.’

  6. E. Olson says

    Definitions of Literature Studies: 1) Finding the “deeper” or “hidden” meaning of well-written and easy to understand writings whether they accurately represent the inspiration or viewpoint of the author or not. 2) Finding the “deeper” or “hidden” meaning of poorly-written and obfuscated writings whether they accurately represent the simplistic or banal inspiration or viewpoint of the author or not.

  7. Gringo says

    A further complaint about literary criticism is that literary criticism is used to teach students composition. In high school I was assigned to write essays about literary criticism, so that I would become a Junior Literary Critic. This has been going on for a long time. In a conversation with hometown friends about our high school, I found out that their children were also forced into the Junior Literary Critic mold at my old high school.

    I did not like the Junior Literary Critic mold because I felt forced to make conjectures that I wasn’t sure about. I would write that the whale symbolizes rebirth, for example, because I thought I was supposed to make such conjectures, even though I was making a S.W.A.G. (scientific wild-assed guess.) I resented being forced to make such wild conjectures.

    As a result, I grew to hate writing assignments. I entered high school liking to write. By the end of high school, I came to view writing assignments with the enthusiasm I would view a visit to the dentist without resort to novocain. I was most contented in high school English classes when we were assigned to write in-class essays on topics far removed from literary criticism. That happened maybe once year.

    In Substitute: Going to School with a Thousand Kids, the author Nicholson Baker wrote about literary criticism being forced on schoolchildren.

    “Choose 12 chapters to depict through song,” said the rubric, downloaded from “You will need to identify the mood and tone of each chapter and then find one song that best represents that. For each chapter, fill out an analysis form.” The analysis forms were filled with blank lines, where students were supposed to write what they thought the mood of each chapter was, give quotations from the text that supported the assigned mood, give quotations from the lyrics of the songs, and offer an explanation of “how this song depicts the mood/tone of the chapter.”….
    I said, “For each chapter you have to fill out that same worksheet?” I hadn’t quite taken that in. “My god.”
    “Imagine my enthusiasm,” Brandon said.
    “I can only dream,” I said. “So how do you figure out the tone of something?”
    “I don’t know.”…..
    .Mrs. Kennett wasn’t to blame, though—she taught what the Language Arts Department at Lasswell High School told her to teach. And the Language Arts Department wasn’t to blame either—filling out analysis sheets about The Things They Carried was standard operating procedure at American high schools. The people to blame were educational theorists who thought that it was necessary for all students to do literary criticism. If you want unskilled readers to read, I thought, make them copy out an interesting sentence every day, and make them read aloud an interesting paragraph a day. Twenty minutes, tops. If you want them to take pleasure in longer works, fiction or nonfiction, let them read along with an audiobook. Don’t fiddle with deadly lit-crit words like tone and mood. And don’t force them to read war books about shaking hands with corpses.

    If you want to make students hate English classes, make them become Junior Literary Critics.

  8. Of course, you can read Moby Dick as an adventure book on whale fishery, with all the authentic details of men, ship, instruments and bad luck as experienced by the crew and captain. You can also see Ahab as the manager, as a Marxist might see it, nothing wrong with that. The wrongdoing only starts where you force the discipels or general readers to see what you want them to see, and to enforce your special metaphorical view.
    You can read Snowwhite and Hans and Gretel as such, and only such, but also as metaphores, that’s the fun of it. Most probably, childern will understand this (albeit unconscious) better than adults and literature teachers.

    • Lightning Rose says

      In its time, Moby Dick was popularly assumed to be a fictionalized account of the wreck of the whaleship ESSEX, stove in by a whale off the Azores. All the Rorschach-blot stuff came later.

  9. lloydr56 says

    At one extreme, you have theorists who make texts fit a theory; they have little interest in the text itself, they mainly use the fame of text/author as an entree to academic credibility. The result is of very little interest to anyone. At a different kind of extreme, you have writers who don’t want to be subjected to the dreary “study” stuff. Why not just have fun with good writing? I guess I favour both enjoying texts and studying them carefully–especially if there is good reason to think an author actually had a plan. Great writers may have good reason to think no critic will ever grasp the actual plan: in Gulliver’s Travels, the scholars who have worked on Homer and Aristotle are ashamed to meet these authors in the afterlife; they know they were in over their heads. To some extent Jane Austen recognized that the middle class was going to become richer and more respectable, and in some ways take over; she thought this outcome was more or less just; she wanted to educate the new people partly about how to think and behave when one isn’t simply pursuing a career. Some things could be learned from some of the old aristocrats; sometimes they present examples to be avoided. Does all this make Austen boring–reduce her to something didactic, when she actually always wants to tell a good story?

  10. GregS says

    Science is tethered to reality and scientific conjectures can thus be refuted by empirical evidence. Literature—being fictional—cannot. This allows literary theorists to gain adherents whilst being free from worries of rebuttal.

    Literary theory could not exist without a tether, so it found one: ideology.

    It has tethered itself to the grievance studies industry.

  11. Morgan Foster says

    For some obscure reason, 20-25 linear feet of bound copies of an obscure literary theory magazine published by an obscure university in another state …

    Somehow found its way onto the shelves of the reference section in my county library.

    Pulling a volume down one day, out of idle curiosity, I leafed through and found it filled with the kind of obscure dreck described in the above article.

    I believe that I am the only human being to have touched any of these volumes in the 10 years since they’ve been on the shelves.

    Thousands of sad, obscure English grad students churned all of that garbage out – apparently for the sole purpose of obtaining a teaching job in a public high school.

    What a waste of human potential.

  12. F. E. says

    “I don’t get it so it must be nonsensical.”
    Do Quillette commentators feel the same about books on higher mathematics? Physics? Medicine (yes yes, I see you anti-vaxxers.)? Jargon can obfuscate, sure, but it is also a useful extension to everyday-language when speaking about not-everyday-things. Be critical, but do not be lazy and dismiss outright.

    • Gringo says

      “I don’t get it so it must be nonsensical.”…Do Quillette commentators feel the same about books on higher mathematics? Physics?
      My experience from math or physics classes in high school or college is that teachers presented material that was logically coherent, that involved a great deal of proof. It was apparent to me early on that literary criticism- or social sciences criticism in general- consisted of conjectures. Proof versus conjecture. Proof versus BS.
      Recall the Sokal affair.

    • Somewoman says

      I don’t understand higher math in a similar way to how I don’t understand Chinese. I simply don’t understand what the symbols represent. But like I assume Chinese makes sense, I assume math makes sense. I’ve also had a few occasions of people explaining he steps of math proofs in graphical form and then I can at least somewhat follow the logic.

      I’ve had enough occasions of getting a math problem wrong, including steps of a proof, and then having someone show me the right answer and then understanding the right answer to give math proofs the benefit of the doubt when I say “I don’t understand this but it problably has internal logic that experts understand”.

    • Grumpy Bear says

      >>> Do Quillette commentators feel the same about books on higher mathematics? Physics?

      I’m an engineer and work with jargon-filled language every day. The difference is that we use jargon because everyday language does not have words to explain the subject. The point of this essay is that a simple concept (power begets power, apparently) is being described in a near-incomprehensible way.

      A skeptic (like me) might easily guess that it is either to hide the fact that the concept is bullshit, or that the speaker is trying to limit his/her audience to those who are already receptive to it.

      At work, at times, I will throw in a bunch of unnecessary equations into a presentation, to make sure the marketing guys keep quiet and don’t sidetrack the discussion – it is a deliberate (and effective) device to exclude, confuse, and silence part of the audience.

    • Lightning Rose says

      What it comes down to is this: If you want to be read, discussed, and especially understood and your ideas become mainstream currency, you must express yourself in the vernacular the public comprehends. This is incredibly well-known to those who write business correspondence and marketing blurbs; the challenge is ALWAYS to get your message across with perfect clarity using the fewest words possible. That’s even more true now in the digital age, with shortened attention spans the norm.

      If you’re speaking incomprehensible jargon, one of two things is going on:
      You’re showing off for your “in” tribe or, you’re trying to keep your thoughts a secret while passing yourself off as much, much “smarter” than your audience. Which basically insults them.

      Neither is a recipe for broad dissemination of one’s ideas.

    • Stephanie says

      Hahahaha, FE, do you really think no one understands this nonsense? We understand it too well, that is why we mock it. Along with everyone with moderate intellectual capacities.

  13. Alex P says

    The word “theory” should never be used in literary studies or any other branch of the humanities. It’s a simple attempt to steal credibility from the hard sciences.

    Atomic theory, theory of evolution, theory of relativity and other scientific theories are all true, and we know they are true because they have been tested by experiments under the scientific method. Thus rational people can trust them.

    There is no reason for rational people to trust “literary theory”, “critical race theory”, or “gender theory”, because the scientific method is not used to test them. Such pompous, vaguely-defined collections of beliefs should not be called theories, but their proponents use the word “theory” in hopes of confusing people into believes that they’ve been tested with academic rigor.

    • Morgan Foster says

      @Alex P

      In today’s academy, the literary is the political, so “literary theory” is simply “Political Theory by Literary Means”.

      Add “critical” to “critical literary theory” and you have “Consensus Political Theory by Literary Means”.

      Because, of course, “critical” does not mean “critical”.

  14. The process of analysing, digesting, and putting literature into perspective is important for prospective teachers to master. It’s a phase they’ll pass through as they learn to order priorities and cultivate insight.

    Kids tend to think their mothers are a little crazy for cleaning the house with such dilligence. Quillette readers who suspect things they can’t understand are nonsense should remember that. Dip into the International Journal of Theoretical Physics. You might not understand a word of it. But 10 or 15 years from now the world will be transformed by physicists looking hard at such “trivial” details of the physical world as the quantum hall effect.

    Writers today- in part due to the trickle down effect of work by pedantic thinkers- have tools for manipulating reader and viewer response well beyond those that Bellow- that prototypical curmudgeon- wielded.

    This site makes for a great sandbox for writers interested in guaging the effects of their prose.

    Responses to this exceptionally thoughtful article remind me of the story of the flustered, lost Macedonian tourist who was sent to a mental hospital in New York City. Everyone, police and doctors, assumed she was babbling incoherently. Happily, a Greek visitor to the asylum heard the woman speak and recognized her dialect. She was returned home.

    I suspect many Quillette readers would interpret her story as justification for bombing Macedonia. . .

    • Gringo says

      Dip into the International Journal of Theoretical Physics. You might not understand a word of it. But 10 or 15 years from now the world will be transformed by physicists looking hard at such “trivial” details of the physical world as the quantum hall effect.
      Which is NOT a point that can be made about a journal of literary criticism. Ten or 15 years from now such articles remain, for the most part, unread. They remain unread for good reasons.

    • Somewoman says

      My experience with literary theory is that in college I was required to take a class, literary interpretation, which was what this article discussed. We’d look at several Marxist, feminist, critical etc. analyses of the same Melville text.

      I thought the criticisms were densely written and lacking in logic and sometimes even lacking in any coherent content. But I got one of the highest grades in the class, indicating that supposedly I understood or could mimic understanding of the course materials.

      I understand the vast majority of the words in critical theory. Of the jargon words, I understand almost all of the root words and can figure out what the jargon is supposed to convey.

      I know some of these critical theory papers are nonsense because I actually do understand the words in the text, unlike higher level physics equations. But even then, I never once had the experience of writing out steps to a math problem while thinking the steps were nonsense. I either saw the internal logic or couldn’t do the problem. In critical literary theory class, I fully thought the material was either nonsense or could have been summarized in 2 sentences and still I aced that class. I was a little instance of the skocal phenomena.

      • MoreTemperate says

        That was my experience too. As a graduate student of Eng. Lit. in California in the mid-1980s, I discovered that PoMo jargon is pretty easy to mimic, albeit at the cost of sincerity. What finally pushed me over the edge and made me quit academia altogether was a seminar on modern poetry which began with the words “Well we won’t waste time reading the poem”.

    • augustine says

      By its concepts or argot, physics is not accessible to most people. The opposite is true of literature. Hence, I doubt we will see an article like this one directed at the “opaque” language of music theory or astronomy.

      Your comment is all bait, no hook.

      • Very little about “Literature” is understood by either readers or critics. Writers too are constrained by form. They aren’t dictating carefully digested real life experience directly to the page for our edification only. The rules of genre must be followed if publishing is the goal. Even criticism, especially criticism, is subject to such distorting guidelines. That those rules may get rather baroque, is, I guess the point of this, and many similar discussions in the Quillette.

        General readers connect to points of shared life experience, and may consider that literature is more accessible than physics, sure; and theorists often scour cultural works for evidence confirming their own apriori formulations. But understanding creative processes as a function of intellect intersecting physical and social realities is as complex as biochemistry. To look carefully at the cultural productions of other cultures and times reveals a lot about our own, about humanity itself, and about the very nature of intelligence.

        Literary and historical analysis, the study of the transmission of texts over millenia, as the languages they were written in have evolved and died, is a science. People think it’s easy to understand the Vedas or the Koran or the Bible. Hell, an untrained reader wouldn’t be able to catch a quarter of the cultural references in a serious American novel from the 1940’s. But people quote ancient religious texts in patently false ways to justify the most egregious actions. Certain that they understand the true underlying meaning. Yeah, right.

        Art, religion, and criticism are expressions of their own time. And as painful as it may be to students learning to use critical tools (and as ill-understood as those tools may be by even their teachers) critics are adding a wealth of contextual information for future scholars.

        The scientific study of the laws of information is just beginning. Intense criticism within the various disciplines is important. But using internal criticism to promote anti-intellectual attitudes is what the seminal thinkers of Maoism and theTaliban did, ain’t it.

        • Peter from Oz says

          Literary theory isn’t going to help you understand any of the things you think are necessary in this ”scientific” approach to literature.

  15. Morgan Foster says


    “Kids tend to think their mothers are a little crazy for cleaning the house with such dilligence. Quillette readers who suspect things they can’t understand are nonsense should remember that.”

    Yes, Mother.

  16. ccscientist says

    Here is where literary theory can be useful: Take something by Dickens. It is helpful to know about social conditions of his time, what London and Paris were like, to know that Dickens was a social activist and wrote about injustices he saw, to know about the orphanages and poor houses, the bad sanitation. It is useful to know about the state of the evolution of the novel format at his time. Some books were serialized in the newspapers and this affected how they were written. Some words meant different things back then. England was a world power and was often in conflict with France. All of these things help you understand the books. None of this is treated anymore.

    Some of the commenters here defend such writing by calling it technical. Here is the problem: it is using opaque language to make claims about the real world without ever offering proof of those claims or even the slightest evidence. One is supposed to believe them simply because of their clever phrasing and ponderous verbiage. The Butler passage makes a claim about power and about communication that should be subject to testing, but testing is avoided.

    • Morgan Foster says


      Mathematical theory is capable of verification, is it not?

      Literary theory, as practiced by the likes of Judith Butler, is anything but.

    • In The Annotated Alice (by an american mathematician and literary critic) these double meanings and unknown old words and meaning of texts or situations of Carrol’s time are explained, page by page, very instructive, you learn to enjoy the book much more.

    • Peter from Oz says

      You can do all those things when reading Dickens. But that has nothing to do with litereary theory. It has all to do with being aware of the history of the times and the culture then extant.
      Litereary theory doesn’t do that. It invents gobbledegook to tell what the theorist thinks it says. The theorist is usually pig ignorant about the times of Dickens or the conditions existing at that tiem. The throeirst just wants cut up the test into little chunks and give those chunks fancy names .
      The theorist wants to make the text mean something other than what it does mean. Like all left wing ideology, literary theory is an exercise in being contrary, and arguing against reality because you can.

  17. Albigensian says

    Perhaps it’s time to throw literature back in the gutter, where we might enjoy it again without worrying too much about its hidden, deep meanings?

    In any case, literary theory seems far more understandable if one views it as a valiant attempt to throw those damn querulous authors offstage already, so that theorists and critics may occupy stage center, under the twin spotlights of fame and academic glory.

    For what is this “literature” anyway, if not just some meaningless text until illuminated under the fiery magnificence of high-theory exegesis?

  18. There is actually a Marxist aspect to the story. They are on a “mad quest” to destroy a whale at all costs, similar to groups in industries that must maximize profit at all costs. There’s also a religious aspect to it, as seen in the names of the characters (like Ahab) and allusions to Jonah, the Leviathan, etc. As for Freud and Jung, it’s not so much some Oedipus Complex but literally a mad (i.e., insane) quest to destroy a whale; one can be imaginative and wonder what is taking place in Ahab’s mind.

    Notice, then, that these readings are not necessarily examples of inscrutable, high theory but theoretical nonetheless. That is, we’re making educated guesses that the story is also about this or that, and we can try to prove such by close reading. At the same time, they are based on theories from other disciplines: economics, religion, psychology. The reason for this is that this fictional account, like all stories involving human beings, involve these various aspects of human groups, if not the human condition. Finally, the purpose is probably not to much to take this story too seriously but to make it more fascinating. We have crew members who could have easily rejected joining Ahab on this mad quest, and yet they still do. The Biblical allusions leads to Biblical proportions, making this story epic in terms of scale. And yet even with an epic, we sense that each character lives in his little world, caught in Ahab’s mad quest to kill a way. For what reason? To seek revenge? Or seek closure?

    Given these points, the problem then isn’t so much literary theory per se but the manner it has been deployed in school. Since professors want to show that they are sophisticated, then they use what amounts to be metaphors to discuss their arguments, and the manner by which schools operate might have something to do with that. As more is said about _Moby Dick_ and others, and given the drive to publish or perish, then why should anyone be surprised by the results of scholarship?

  19. david of Kirkland says

    Clarity of language is tightly correlated to the clarity of thought. The less clear, more muddy, more muddled the text, ditto for the ideas. Of course, sometimes you just have to be an expert, but expertise in non-verifiable matters is rarely real.

  20. Patrick says

    It strikes me the impenetrable language that makes up the bulk of academic literary theory can be reduced to ” who whom”.
    Who weilds power in any given relationship, and how, over and above literature itself, can power be wrested away from those that currently have it..
    The real argument against the torturous language is those who employ it currently possess power, and are using it in a manner that’s bound to lead to their overthrow. In language that’s currently fashionable it’s just not sustainable.
    The theory is supported by gobbledygook, but the underlying foundation is anything but obscure.
    If politics is, at its purest, all about the accumulation of power, and if all politics is personal, well then all of life can be reduced to power, and all facets of life must deeply examined to understand how they support the prevailing power structure.
    Most of the criticism leveled against academic literary theory focuses on the Byzantine language, but the language is the time honored language of the bureaucrat, and this leads one to at least suspect that some, if not most of the critics, have little or no problem with the underlying assertions the labored language hides rather than highlights.

  21. Marxism is an economic theory. If it can’t successfully predict economic outcomes it shouldn’t be imported into other disciplines.

    Psychoanalysis is a therapeutic theory. If it can’t be used successfully to treat psychological problems it shouldn’t be imported into other disciplines.

    Literary theory has become the home for theories which failed to succeed in their own original disciplines.

  22. augustine says

    A pursuit of theory is about seeking increased understanding and insight. This can apply to fields where empiricism provides support and assurance, like the sciences, as well as literature and art. Where writing is concerned with discovery, the best results produce an entreaty like “Here is what I (or we) have found, and my thoughts on it, what do you think?”. It is an offering to an open process that sorts out what will be deemed valuable or less valuable over time. It generally works well.

    Jameson and Butler naturally couched their ideas in language of their own choosing. The opaqueness indicates that they lost sight of the meaningfulness of the message and used sterile, mechanistic wording to obscure this fact. A study or theory can have exactly zero meaning (or impact) and it should not be a surprise that fear of such an outcome for one’s work might generate cryptic and deflecting literary devices.

  23. Mazzakim says

    I see things haven’t much changed in the 25 years since I got my undergraduate degree in literature. Once I decided I had zero desire to be an academic, and did everything possible to avoid the theory classes, I rather enjoyed myself. If you can avoid going down the rabbit hole, literature can actually serve as a pretty good foundation for any number of different careers paths.

  24. Lightning Rose says

    If you can’t write clearly, and express your ideas in a way which compels people to keep reading, what’s the point off writing to begin with?

    So many pixels, so little time . . .

  25. These paragraphs seem put together by people who seek to demonstrate “intelligence” via their ability to accrete complexity. I know quite a few software coders (I refuse to use the term engineer) beset by the same disease.

    It’s a clever leveraging of the power imbalance between writer and reader. The writer has all the time in the world to layer on complexity, thereby making him appear “smarter”, whereas the reader is forced to confront the output all at once. It’s a clever trick akin to a cat turning sideways to an opponent to make himself look larger, or a chimp throwing his arms up.

    Of course complexity only equals intelligence to stupid people.

  26. Francisco d'Anconio says

    IN a similar vein, I offer everyone to go Google the Random Deepak Chopra Quote Generator. As the name implies, it takes words often used by Chopra and generates a quote which is indistinguishable from his usual nonsense. For example, todays generated quote is” The ego differentiates into existential opportunities”. Hours of fun !!

  27. This whole Ryan Adams thing that’s in the news lately can be tied in here somehow.

    I’ve tried to like the guy’s music in the past but could never buy in, and it seems to me that it’s because he’s the same sort of fraud as these people. He wants to “be” the thing more than “do” the thing. He wanted to be an alt-rock star, so he set about generating suitable enough alt-rockstarish sounding material to make that happen. These people want to “be” academics, so they need to generate suitable enough academic sounding output. The work is only a means to an end.

  28. X. Citoyen says

    Okay piece, but the author got a couple of important things wrong. English literature, as an academic discipline, was not founded on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, but on Aristotle’s Poetics, so “theories” are inseparable from the academic study of literature. The real problem with Butler et al. is that they’ve turned departments of English literature into ideological indoctrination camps, where literature has been reduced to a vehicle for the ideological message. A careful reader would’ve known that that was also Saul Bellow’s real target (Bellow was a close friend of Allan Bloom).

    The other error, which is repeated far too often in a forum like Quillette, is that the sciences are somehow immune to institutional capture by radicals. To the extent that’s ever been true, it hasn’t been true for at least 30 years, and the invasion of the hard sciences and medicine has been accelerating over the last ten. The Lancet—yes, that Lancet—published an article on “structural racism” a few months ago, and it regularly publishes comments and correspondence on all the progressive talking points (e.g., white privilege). Go and look for yourself.

    Janice Fiamengo has a short video on some recent goings-on in physics—yes, even physics:

    And if you think mathematics is immune, look at this piece of progressive propaganda dressed up as discrete mathematics from the Royal Institution—yes, mathematics, and yes, that Royal Institution:

    Time to take off the rose-coloured glasses because there’s a lot more where this comes from.
    On a personal note, many of us have tried to get hard scientists to help fight the good fight because the humanities was merely the bridgehead in the institutional invasion. “We hang together or we hang separately” was the plea. But we were told either “That can’t happen here, so I’m not sticking my neck out” or “I think it’s a good thing!” Now it’s your turn at the gallows and there’s no one left to back you. Enjoy the ride down. Seriously. You might prefer the noose when you find out what’s in store for you. We got to die with our boots on. They couldn’t break us, so they had to use institutional mechanisms to overwhelm us, and then exclude us or drive us out. Since they can’t get rid of you, they’re going to turn you into puppets who say things you don’t believe and denounce your more principled colleagues. We died on the field, you get to be slaves in the ideological salt mine.

    • Somewoman says

      I don’t understand much about math and physics but from I’ve heard from people that do, there are some academic cliques that support math and physics theories that might just be esoteric group think. And this isn’t just about areas affected by postmodernism. It can be seemingly non political sets of theories. For example, it could be that theorists that see evidence for string theory are collectively just making it up.

      I think this reflects a broader problem with academia in how they promote and select people. It’s a somewhat feudal system where the young have to parrot what those in power say is true in order to be awarded positions. But what’s the answer? Democratizing the field might leave it dependent on the general opinions of know nothings.

    • Kencathedrus says

      @X. Citoyen: as an English Literature Professor, I completely agree with you. I’ve protected my students as much as possible from ideology (both left and right-wing) and allowed them to draw up their own conclusions to the literature we cover in class. It’s hard to keep it out entirely though. One textbook I use with the class regularly conflates feudalism with anti-feminism in its latest edition. While I understand why the medieval period may be viewed as such to a minimal extent, I also have to explain to my students that the medieval period was no picnic for male serfs either and that men were more likely to die from gruesome injuries in battle.

      I don’t want gender theory in my literature classes. Not only am I not qualified to teach it, but it’s also presented in a way that brooks no disagreement or challenge.

      I do wonder where we’re going with all this and what the endgame is. I’ve left one colllege already because I fundamentally disagreed with its ideology. I’m thinking of quitting the profession altogether as I hate being complicit in such a system.

    • augustine says

      People with a more conservative disposition do not have the natural ability or cohesiveness to resist a dynamic, energetic phenomenon like modern liberalism. The Lancet article and related evidence shows that there is a thriving marketplace of competition in virtue-signaling within primary institutional leadership, something that relatively new. Much of this seems to be fashion show rather than substance, but it is still poison.

      Liberals are dedicated to transformation while conservatives are about formation. Their respective mindsets and motives are very different yet they can be complimentary under the right conditions, and over time. The former have convinced modern society that the progressive outlook is not only novel but inevitable and Good, and that theirs is the only alternative to the known horrors of history. People have bought into this and conservatives continue to be amazed. As a female Boomer friend said to me recently in all seriousness, all of human history before 1960 was horror!

      Well, if reason is out the window for the time being, that leaves guns and laws. After the choices of family and personal life, these are the strongest venues remaining in practical terms. They are “actionable”, even as ideas are more critically valuable in the long run. We have to work on all fronts simultaneously.

    • X.Citoyen

      I agree that science is not immune from PM propaganda. In fact, it seems to me a kind of shotgun marriage is being performed between the sciences and the humanities – and it’s become increasingly apparent who wears the pants in that family. This new arrangement can be summed up as the “fact/value” distinction. Science gives us the facts, we get to decide which facts are relevant as we make up whatever reality we want out of these facts. The sciences will continue to take it up the butt by PM ideologues as long as they remain oblivious as to who they are.

      It seems Academia today is defined by this dual perversion of knowledge.: Scientism and Postmodern relativism are not so much in conflict as they are two aspects of the fragmented modern mind. Both presume to know reality by taking it apart. Quillette spends a good deal of time exposing the excesses of PM thinking but seems to perpetuate a naive understanding of science.

      And I agree this article is, at best, okay. The author doesn’t seem to have much understanding of greater historical context. The problem with “literary theory” isn’t that it has no predictive value. Theory,as practiced today, is an assault on the very idea of literature itself. Literary theory is to literature, what rape is to love.

  29. Fit To Print says

    Like much of the critical writing on intellectual life here this piece strikes me as disingenuous. The opposition to Jameson and Butler doesn’t deal with anything substantive they say.

  30. Nietzsche already understood this type. Section 173 of the Gay Science:

    Being deep and appearing deep.—Whoever knows he is deep, strives for clarity; whoever would like to appear deep to the crowd, strives for obscurity. For the crowd considers anything deep if only it cannot see to the bottom: the crowd is so timid and afraid of going into the water.

    For the crowd, think pomo students.

  31. Chris Milburn says

    Reminds me of a great story from Mount Allison University.

    A professor of English who took herself and her views MUCH too seriously managed to get a governor-general winning author to come to and answer questions at one of her classes, the students having read his book.

    The book had ended with a scene of the protagonists sailing off into the sun together.

    The very self-important professor said something to the effect “I found this to be such a deep ending. It was obviously a metaphor to show how they were leaving their old life and starting a new life together”.

    The (very down to earth) author replied, in a cranky manner, “geezus no! They were just sailing away together. For god’s sake, it wasn’t meant to mean anything more than that. Christ!”

    The students managed to restrain outright laughter.

    • Sally says

      I have often thought about scenes like this when I see the light in literature being dimmed by some analysis a great thinker has thrown on it. I daydream about seeing an author’s reaction to the disection of his or her work. This scene was quite satisfying.

      The point of the article is that we should not choke the fun out of reading by over processing it, or drowning it in our own bias. Good luck if you’ve been through the public school system. It starts in Kindergarten when wonderful children’s stories are broken down to find story elements and children are taught to question every page. By high school, it’s a breakdown of every chapter. You can’t read without questioning yourself, “Am I doing this right?” By college, you’re likely thinking of what great ideas you can add to a work. None of this is fun.

      The first goal should be to let the story speak. Transformation should take place from the work itself, not the message someone demands we see or jams into it.

  32. Christian says

    “Literary theory, a school of criticism with little hold outside the universities…” No critical theory has any hold outside of universities, so that has little bearing on whether a theory is valuable.

  33. (This comment with 3 URLs was held back for moderation, which in one past experience never eventuated. So here it is with 2 URLs.)

    This is from a 1999 essay in which she critiques (my spellchecker rejects “criticises”) the writing of Judith Butler and cites, on page 4, the 94 word sentence quoted above (@a_centrism) which won first prize in the 1998 Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest: . She also provides a 41 word comprehensible version:

    “Marxist accounts, focusing on capital as the central force structuring social relations, depicted the operations of that force as everywhere uniform. By contrast, Althusserian accounts, focusing on power, see the operations of that force as variegated and as shifting over time.”

    The cult of incomprehensibility is discussed at including a passage from Ayn Rand’s 1973 essay “An untitled letter”, which gives a good account of how incomprehensible, pretentious, writing can be elevated, accepted and celebrated (but never understood and perhaps only rarely read) within a decade or two, as part of the machinations of academia.

    “Like any overt school of mysticism, a movement seeking to achieve a vicious goal has to invoke the higher mysteries of an incomprehensible authority. An unread and unreadable book serves this purpose. It does not count on men’s intelligence, but on their weaknesses, pretensions and fears. It is not a tool of enlightenment, but of intellectual intimidation. It is not aimed at the reader’s understanding, but at his inferiority complex.”

    Such machinations include a variety of lengthy and serious interpretations, clarifications, reconciliations etc. “The contradictory, antithetical nature of such interpretations will be ascribed to the book’s profundity — particularly by those who function on the motto: “If I don’t understand it, it’s deep.”

    Thanks clinton57 for the Nietzsche quote from 1882! I haven’t found an earlier statement of this principle. Does anyone know of an earlier one?

    Were all the Ancient Greek philosophers immune to the temptation to muddy waters in order to give the impression of depth? I don’t know enough about them to cite an instance of this, or of anyone at the time blowing the whistle on it.

  34. Oxyartes. says

    When I read stuff like this I think of Billy Mumphry, cockeyed optomist he is, getting caught up in the high stakes game of international intrigue. He just needed to be less enthusiastic…

  35. Itzik Basman says

    Subject to two big qualification I’ll mention in a minute, I was with you by and large until I read this:

    ….The problem with literary theory is that it is not proper “theory.” At best, it is hypothesis without predictive value. There may be some descriptive capacity in literary “theories,” but they do not predict anything about prose or poetry…

    How could a theory— a plausible general principle or body of principles offered to explain something—of literature, which in its case case can only be descriptive account of it, be predictive? What could it, or any theory of literature, predict? Wellek and Warren wrote the classic Theory Of Literature wouldn’t, I wouldn’t have thought, have made any claim for their theory having any predictive value. Neither, I’d say, would Frye.

    The first qualification is to distinguish between POMO literary theory or literary critical thinking and the New Criticism, which saw/sees literary works as marked by paradox, tension and often by deliberate ambiguity as they emerge from the way in which language is used and, so to say, build into a literary world, a coherent whole. Wellek and Warren say that in literature “world” is equivalent to “‘attitude toward life’ or tone implicit in the world…”

    They argue the need to see a literary work as a totality and for a view of form as naming “the aesthetic structure of a literary work—that which makes it literature…that which aesthetically organizes its ‘matter.’” For them, a literary work is a self defining totality with its own mode of existence, which is to say, is its autonomy: “the novelist offers…a…world…recognizable as overlapping the empirical world but distinct in its self-coherent intelligibility.” And it’s world view that Frye describes when he identifies form as “meaning holding the poem together in a simultaneous structure.”

    The second is that in the elucidation of form and meaning as one, students, teachers and critics are doing something rigorous and disciplined, something that, like anything taken seriously, is easy to parody. Sometimes parody is apt but it can facile and callow when the seriousness of the parodied project is actually worthwhile. The elucidation of the techniques and meanings of great works is worthwhile and it doesn’t exclude more casual reading and reviewing.

    So Bellow’s playful cri de couer fails on at least one big ground: he conflates the discipline of literary study, necessary but not necessarily fun, with reading and reviewing purely for enjoyment. The effects of the former can deepen the the joy of the latter.

    And, finally, this piece, while it is clear and correct in its critique of literary theory, suffers from failing to distinguish between on one hand, the New Criticism and the theory of literature it rests on, which wants to go to heart of works to understand them, all worthwhile, and, on the other, POMO literary theory, which reduces works to texts exemplifying somebody’s systematic (and always reductive) account of the way things are. In that, texts are vehicles for understanding that exemplification, and are secondary to it, next to incidental. Here the grounds are fertile for parody.

  36. “Something has surely gone wrong when literature is used to further theories rather than the other way around.”

    This mirrors my own thoughts and experience. And it’s the reason why some classes can be excruciatingly frustrating. These POMO theories reduces everything down to ideological chess pieces, and the only thing that remains is the propaganda potential. All that those theories can do is deconstruct and destroy and tear down but it can’t replace any of it with anything meaningful. It can’t build anything, so all that we’re left with is a nihilistic void.

    This word-obsessed, endless meandering can’t be good for anyone except the practitioners.

  37. JimBob5 says

    Footnote: That war book “about shaking hands with corpses” was “With The Old Breed” by E. B. Sledge. It was a pretty good read. And yes, the bit about Marines shaking hands with a dead Japanese soldier as they walked by was pretty memorable.

    Should a student be forced to read about it? The book certainly gives a realistic picture of the grim and ugly nature of war. I’d at least encourage high school kids to read it.

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