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Theory in chaos

Viewing literature through the lens of some "ism" seemed revolutionary in the 1960s. Today, many are calling it an irrelevant approach.

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A n old joke used to ask, Where are the last bastions of Marxism? Answer: the Kremlin and the Duke University English department. But now that the Soviet Union has dissolved, the last defenders of Karl Marx's ideas may indeed reside on a pretty, Gothic-style campus in the pinewoods of North Carolina.

For literary traditionalists, the riddle is apropos. They have long bemoaned the effete nature of postmodern literary theory, calling it as hopelessly out of touch with both reality and literature as was Lenin with real-life economics.

But theory's impact on the study of literature in the US has been pervasive if nothing else. Large numbers of the last two generations of English majors have been instructed not to experience novels and poems directly, but rather to view them through the lens of some kind of theory - Marxism being one of the most popular.

The idea was to move away from viewing literature as having any innate "truth" of its own, and rather to study it in relationship to larger schools of thought. But the approach left many students complaining they spent more class time with dry theoreticians than with the great authors they had hoped to encounter.

Today, however, such complaints may be on their way out.

Postmodern literary theory is now transforming itself so rapidly that Marxist, feminist, deconstructionist, and psychoanalytic critics (and others) are flocking back to the drawing board in droves as they search for new approaches to writing and teaching.

Indeed, some academics say that postmodern theory is on the way out altogether and that the heady ideas that once changed the way literature is taught and read will soon be as extinct as the dodo and the buggy whip.

According to some, theory has been losing its grip on academia for years now. "For me, theory reached its apogee in the early 1980's and has since been declining," says Roger Lathbury, professor of American fiction at George Mason University. Today, he says, it's a matter of "the pendulum swinging toward the center."

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