Barbara Christian, “A Race for Theory”

Christian, Barbara. “A Race for Theory.” Feminist Studies, vol. 14, no. 1, 1988,

pp. 67-79.

 

Summary of Work
In her article “A Race for Theory,” Barbara Christian outlines her concerns about the current academic need to constantly be creating theories to discuss old, canon literature and other critical theorists: “‘For whom are we doing what we are doing when we do literary criticism?'” she asks (77). In asking this question, she discusses how theory has subordinated looking at literature itself, and there are only an elite few who are being published because of their ability to create new literary theories to discuss older philosophers and critical theorists. This means that very few people are determining what the larger world of academia should find valuable and important to discuss. Consequently, this largely leaves out writers of color and current writers, instead always hearkening backward to older works of white, European literature.

By only allowing Western philosophical structures of critical theory, other forms of theorizing are left out. For black literatures, Christian states that “theorizing . . . is often in narrative forms, in the stories we create, in riddles and proverbs, in the play with language, because dynamic rather than fixed ideas seem more to our liking” (68). When such a form of theorizing is not allowed to be written about or explored in the academy, it silences many scholars who have much to contribute and instead allows for gross generalizations to abound in literary theory regarding various cultures and experiences. In place of such a structure, Christian suggests theorists should shift their focus “to the intricacies of the intersection of language, class, race, and gender in literature” that is inclusive of many different ways of reading literature, including literature currently published and literature from different cultures.

As academics have chosen to privilege the white, Western European and American works of literature, they have created a binary of minority and major or centered, and that creates a skewed view of literature. By refusing to accept world literatures as part of the major narrative, academics writing about literature have missed out on discussing many histories and messages, some of which they have recently come across even though the rest of the world has known about them for decades. Literature studies have recently decided to include more world literatures, but only a few, and has finally decided that literature is, in fact, political (even though it always was). And yet, perhaps because of the centering of the Western gaze, many academics have failed to ask important questions about why this change has occurred, why it is now okay to accept literature as political and influenced by social and cultural surroundings. Literary theories contribute to the problem by mystifying the process of that change through strange language that only an elite few can access. And as the focus has become more and more on discussing this mystifying language in critical theory, fewer and fewer scholars are discussing literature. Christian sees this as a response to the rise of minority literatures in our current cultural moment, and the focus on theory is a way to continue to exclude those literatures from academic study.

While she sees theory as necessary, Christian finds it problematic because it becomes very prescriptivist and elitist. Theory desires “to make the world less complex by organizing it according to one principle, to fix it through an idea which is really an ideal,” and often this “dehumanizes people by stereotyping them, by denying them their variousness and complexity” (75). Instead of creating such methods that require monolithic prescriptivism, Christian suggests that academics get back to the literature and learn from the history and language provided in that literature. A focus on literature means that each novel will require constructing a new critical approach rather than applying old philosophical, prescriptivist theories to novels without considering how the novel itself can teach readers how it is meant to be read and discussed.

Discussion of Work
This short essay details many of the previous concerns I’ve discussed in small groups with my colleagues: the academy does not value new scholarship unless it can be placed in the theories of philosophers like Foucault, Freud, and Derrida. Our choices for writing feel limited, even when we feel we have much to say, because we cannot break from the critical theory realm if we wish to be published in peer reviewed journals. Even areas such as gender and race studies utilize the same prescriptivist methods of theory to discuss works in a broad and generalized sense, spending more time with the theory than with the literature they are discussing.

I do not mean to suggest that this is the case with all theory, however. Since this piece was written, I have, in my academic reading, found many more discussions of Toni Morrison and other black female writers, and there have been discussions of the literature through close reading and a focus on language and culture rather than through specific theorists. Writing was coming out the same year that this was written which offered those tools, specifically thinking of Henry Louis Gates, Jr’s work Signifying Monkey. Still, when compared with White Western literature written in the same period as Morrison and Walker and other black and minority writers, there is far too little discussion and theory going on regarding these writers’ works, forcing them further and further into obscurity.

Morrison is the one writer who has largely escaped this lack of theoretical discussion, largely due to her worldwide acclaim from winning a Nobel Prize. And yet, shouldn’t other writers who have less acclaim than the top level awards also be given similar amounts of consideration? There are many white authors who are given just as much consideration as Morrison and have far fewer awards to their names. While there has been improvement in the field of academics regarding the consideration of what have been deemed “minority literatures,” many of the concerns Christian voiced are still large concerns within academia today, where teaching and discussion of literature is devalued in preference of critical theory creation and publication.

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