Literary Theory and Pedagogical Praxis: De Man, Barthes, Jameson, and "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men"
Dunham, Matthew Phillip
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The following paper is an extended attempt to reclaim theory from the abstract. I believe that theory has regressed into itself since its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, which makes it extremely hard to teach in practical ways and almost obsolete beyond a tiny sphere of the most advanced graduate classrooms. Though as critics and students of literature we are "theoretical" when we read, this is intrinsic and not foregrounded by the pedagogy in many English classes. Knowledge of "Theory"--the overarching epistemological paradigms that have been anthologized and canonized--is expected of upper level undergraduates and all graduate students, yet it is usually taught on its own, separated from the primary works all students of literature read and criticize. The effect of this is to create a vacuum from which theory is impossible to extricate, making its relevance to all but the smallest percentage of academics suspect, at best. But theory, for all of its purported difficulty and abstruseness, is actually an invaluable tool in the study of literature, especially because so much academic effort has been expended over the last forty years to explicate and expand the various schools. That it is taught almost as an aside--as something necessary for advancement in academia but not worth the time it takes in class to read and parse dense theorists like Lacan or Derrida--is a detriment to the future of literary studies; the Humanities in general will be asked more and more to defend itself against the onrushing budgetary concerns of education in the twenty-first century, and theory provides English departments a concrete way of measuring their worth against so-called "harder" disciplines, like the natural sciences, law, and medicine. For that to happen, though, we need to have pedagogical strategies that involve more than simply thrusting theory devoid of any literary context at students. The aim of this paper, then, is to show how theory can be used in the classroom with a primary work to deepen students' understanding of both the theory in question and also the primary work. The work I am using is James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and the theoretical movements I examine are: 1) De Man and post-structuralism, 2) Barthes and structuralism, and 3) Jameson and Marxist postmodernism. I hope to show in a clear manner how pedagogy can harness these theories to improve the state of literary studies today.