Nicholas Dames’ article about the generation exposed to Theory in the institutionalized context of the university classroom is not without some surprising parts. But at the heart of his essay is a consideration of the effects of Theory (he gives it an honorary capital, and so will we) on a life, which takes a tired criticism of the University—that it no longer adequately prepares its students for the “real world”—and makes it something worthy of serious consideration.
The most striking instance of this comes as an implicit question: Can a student take his education too seriously? Dames’ materials are six novels written by authors who grew up with Theory and semiotics as a dominating part of their university education, and so the answer for their doomed “bookish and diffident” characters is of course “yes.” Its effects can be comic and deleterious: a semiotics student in The Marriage Plotproclaims “I’m finding it hard to introduce myself, actually, because the whole idea of social introductions is so problematized.”
But the comedy is born out of serious considerations—”What kind of a person does Theory make? What did it once mean to have read theorists? What does it mean now? How does Theory help you hold a job? Deal with lovers, children, bosses, and parents? Decide between the restricted alternatives of adulthood?”–the kind of questions that Theory “could only recognize as regressive or naive.” The problem with Theory exhibited by these novels is that it is not of this world. It is too forward-looking, almost apocalyptic in the way that it prepares students, not for the world they will actually enter, but for “the different world to come: a world of genuine difference genuinely encountered… a world that would be more transparent and, as a result, less painful.” Dames calls it “utopian,” “a training in interpreting the world as a path toward changing it.” And so it is by “taking their educations so seriously” that these novels’ characters “disabled themselves from the supposed rewards of education.”
But could we not just as easily say that these characters are simply failed readers? It seems that it is not necessarily Theory, not a too-serious investment in what they were taught that has failed these “erudite misfits” but a misunderstanding in what interpretation of this sort is for. A good reading is productive; it reveals the ways in which meaning can be negotiated from a text. But this is precisely where Theory’s forward-looking character is most profitable: it points to the manifold ways in which texts, people, the world resist attempts at interpretation. If these novels’ characters are looking for a world that is less painful as a result of its transparency, of course they are disappointed and ill-equipped to encounter it. But if we look toward all of the endless generative means by which we can continue to encounter others and the world and even derive pleasure or fulfillment from our experience of seeing through a glass darkly, there should be no reason why we can’t also grasp these meanings and live a life that is both resolute in seeing the world as it is and intent on exploring its possibilities.