Some Knotted Thoughts on Theory
1. When I was an undergraduate student in an American literature survey class, I wrote an essay on Susan Glaspbell’s one-act play Trifles (1916). The play’s main characters--several men, including a sherriff and an attorney, and two women, a neighbor and the sherriff's wife--are investigating the home of a woman whose husband has been found dead. What interested me, and what I tried to analyze, was the word play the two women engage in as they interpret the domestic scene; in particular, there’s a great play on the word “knot” as they discuss the absent woman’s quilting choices.
My professor returned my essay draft to me with a copy of Derrida’s “Différance.” I hadn’t taken the required literary theory class yet, and I’d never heard of Derrida, so I simply tried to read it as assigned. I didn’t comprehend the text, but I don’t remember being put off by it, either. As with a lot of reading assignments, I felt a kind of detached curiosity: what was this thing? Eventually I went to have a talk with my professor. I ended up with a revised essay in which I spent the first two pages trying to summarize “Différance.” I think I got a B or B+, a grade I wasn’t proud of but which I thought was probably fair. When my professor explained the grade with the comment that he didn’t know how the beginning of the essay contributed to the argument I was building, I remember thinking that I didn’t know, either.
2. That is a story I tell myself (and now you) when I think about theory, or when I try to think about how I met theory in literature. And it’s not meant as a cautionary tale for teachers; more likely, it’s a way for me to reflect on what I’m doing now as a student, in a graduate program. In this sense the story becomes about the difference between what I thought I was trying to learn and what I was learning about trying to think.
In other words, anything it means is still in word play. I can’t confidently explain deconstruction, but I can try to do it with sentences:
So can theory be just a kind of writing? Or if writing is recorded thinking with words, is theory just a style of thinking? Is theory the asking of the question? Why or why not?
(If I answered, “yes, both,” would that be deconstruction? Please respond in the form of complete sentences.)
3. Not surprisingly, given its title, apparently insignificant things become important in Glaspbell’s Trifles. Women’s skill in making material crafts is also their skill in symbolic communication. Unbeknownst to the men in the play, the textile is a text which is able to be written and read by those women in the know. And while there’s word play, in the imaginative world of the one-act, this isn’t a game without real stakes. Someone is dead and someone is accused. Questions of evidence and justice are asked, and someone needs to answer them. Verbal silence and indirect speech--which are usually taken as avoidance, as deferral, as impermanent--might be the best or only answers. Or they might be Glaspbell’s way of undermining her authority over the text and textile, shifting the questions of evidence and justice to the people in her original audiences in theatres nearly a century ago, or more recently to her readers and our discussions in classrooms.
If I were still an undergraduate student in an American literature survey class, trying to write an essay about the play, this is where I’d need to start bringing in some textual evidence to support my interpretive claims. This is where I would need to research other scholars’ work (spoiler: I would find out that I’m not the first to read the text like this) and theorize the deconstructive lens through which I was trying to see the text in a new way. I would need to cite Derrida and apply, rather than append, “Différance” to Trifles.
4. Theory should be more than a supplement to the real thing, to literature and writing: agree or disagree? Or do you question the premise of the question?
I think it might be useful (albeit strenuous) to think about theory in the context of what Judith Butler calls “citational politics.” And I think about Sara Ahmed, who recently posted, “Theory = what you are doing if you cite (those known as) theorists who cite (those known as) theorists” (original tweet) and “We need to bring 'theory' back to life” (original tweet). Which theory died, and which should live again?
I think about Audra Simpson and Andrea Smith’s 2014 collection Theorizing Native Studies; in the introduction, they deconstruct dichotomies between theory and truth, theory and community, and theory and practice. They trace an ongoing question of whose theory is validated as theoretical, and who does the validating. Who produces theory? Who and what is theory produced about? Who consumes theory? Who cites it? When, where, why?
I think about Jeffrey Nealon and Susan Searls Giroux’s The Theory Toolbox (2003, 2011), a book written for students, in which theory, among other things, might be just “asking reflexive questions about how things work and how they might work differently” (page 4 in the first edition). Just theory.
I think about phrases I’ve seen used to critique writing and projects of analysis: under theorized, over theorized. As if theory were making wagers in a game of gambling, as if theory was a performative act that needed to hit a certain style or mark: not too high, not too low. Just right. Maybe that’s it. Or maybe not.
-Aubrey Streit Krug