If you studied the liberal arts in an American college anytime after 1980, you were likely exposed to what is universally called Theory. Perhaps you still possess some recognizable talismans: that copy of The Foucault Reader, with the master’s bald head and piercing eyes emblematic of pure intellection; A Thousand Plateaus with its Escher-lite line-drawing promising the thrills of disorientation; the stark, sickly-gray spine of Adorno’s Negative Dialectics; a stack of little Semiotext(e) volumes bought over time from the now-defunct video rental place. Maybe they still carry a faint whiff of rebellion or awakening, or (at least) late-adolescent disaffection. Maybe they evoke shame (for having lost touch with them, or having never really read them); maybe they evoke disdain (for their preciousness, or their inability to solve tedious adult dilemmas); maybe they’re mute. But chances are that, of those studies, they are what remain. And you can walk into the homes of friends and experience the recognition, wanly amusing or embarrassing, of finding the very same books.
If so, you belong to what might be called the Theory Generation; and it has recently become evident that some of its members have been thinking back on their training. They are doing so, moreover, in a form older than Theory, a form that Theory has done much to denaturalize and demystify (OK, “deconstruct”): the more or less realist novel, which describes individual lives in a fairly linear manner in conventional, if elegant or well-crafted, prose. Take, for instance, the protagonist of Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, a young woman named Tassie raised in rural Wisconsin, who describes the shock of her first term at her state university:
Twice a week a young professor named Thad, dressed in jeans and a tie, stood before a lecture hall of sunned farm kids like me and spoke thrillingly of Henry James’s masturbation of the comma. I was riveted. I had never before seen a man wear jeans with a tie.
The deadpan Midwestern humor, so pointedly stark in its syntax, brilliantly evokes the moment of initiation into Theory: spoken over rather than spoken to, Tassie can only, at least at first, receive Theory as a style. Thad’s read his Eve Sedgwick; Moore clearly alludes to the public controversy surrounding Sedgwick’s “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,” the 1989 MLA paper that became a touchstone for conservative think pieces about the decline of academic literary studies. That episode isn’t available to Tassie, however; for her it’s all just a conversation overheard — which encapsulates the constant state of Theory in the American classroom, where debates with concealed or unnamed interlocutors (Derrida with Marx; Foucault with Hegel) become a cacophony of crossed lines. What is audible to her is intonation, the grain of those theoretical voices. Put less metaphorically: the way professors dress and talk, the stylistic alternatives they offer.