The turn to ethics: political commitment after theory
Wrighton, John (2013) The turn to ethics: political commitment after theory In: Philips, Deborah and Shaw, Katy, eds. Literary politics. Palgrave. ISBN 9781137270139
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Terry Eagleton, celebrated Marxist critic and acclaimed author of Literary Theory: an Introduction (1983), now argues that “the golden age of cultural theory is long past.” As he makes clear in his 2003 book After Theory, however, this isn’t to say that we can all sigh in relief and “return to an age of pre-theoretical innocence.” On the contrary, Eagleton, as we have come to expect, seeks to re-vitalize the field of literary criticism: “What kind of fresh thinking does this new era demand?” he asks; but there is a parallel question too that he omits, “How do we teach literature after theory?” For students of the 21st century, it is not simply that theory has become frumpy rather than sexy (or perhaps that frumpy is no longer the new sexy), or that political ideology has been flattened (as parties crowd the centre ground). These things are true, but our political commitment is as vital now as it was at the zenith of High Theory. My essay argues that the urgency today is to re-charge the English curriculum and to re-think how we teach literary theory; to re-articulate what we do as we simultaneously defend our discipline against wide-spread financial cuts. The essay begins by outlining the history of “theory” with specific attention given to the popular cross-over of critical theory, politics, and art in America through the 1960s (archive material from the Alternative Press Collection at University of Connecticut Dodd Centre is used as illustrative of this). The essay then turns to the role of theory within the evolution of English literature as a subject of undergraduate study. Rather than, to use Eagleton’s words, “trading on the past”, my essay proposes that the “turn to ethics” made possible in Emmanuel Levinas’ philosophy may be one site for a possible re-invigoration of literary studies. A movement neither to a left, right or center politics, but to an ethical commitment against totalization, our pedagogic responsibility is to teach our students how to read in the now after theory.
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