I can’t claim to understand all of what I have read thus far in the Paul de Man essay collection The Resistance to Theory (“Hypogram and Inscription” is particularly obtuse to me). Nor do I have a strong enough background in philosophy and literary theory to properly contextualize or situate his arguments. But in the grand Mormon tradition of prooftexting, I’m going to lift a passage from the title essay because I think it explains a lot about literary criticism in general and Mormon literary criticism, in particular. Ostensibly, the essay was supposed to address the teaching of literature and especially of theory and especially in relation to the theoretical turn that literary studies took in the 1970s (and even more in the 1980s), but de Man broadens the scope to take a look at why there has been so much resistance to theory. It is a defense of sorts, and he points out that much of the resistance to it is “based on crude misunderstandings,” and yet it’s not fully a defense of the excesses of theory. He writes:
It may well be, however, that the development of literary theory is itself overdetermined by complications inherent in its very project and unsettling with regard to its status as a scientific discipline. Resistance may be a built-in constituent of its discourse, in a manner that would be inconceivable in the natural sciences and unmentionable in the social sciences. It may well be, in other words, that the polemical opposition, the systemic non-understanding and misrepresentation, the unsubstantial but eternally recurrent objections, are the displaced symptoms of a resistance inherent in the theoretical enterprise itself. To claim that this would be sufficient reason not to envisage doing literary theory would be like rejecting anatomy because it has failed to cure mortality. The real debate of literary theory is not with its polemical opponents but rather with its methodological assumptions and possibilities. Rather than asking why literary theory is threatening, we should perhaps ask why it has such difficulty going about its business and why it lapses so readily either into the language of self-justification and self-defense or else into the overcompensation of a programmatically euphoric utopianism. (13)
I wonder if one of the major tensions in the Mormon literary world, even when the theory being done isn’t on an academic level, but rather consists of readerly or writerly reactions to the issues of the field (including that pesky Shakespeares and Miltons quote), is that we get hung up on self-justification or overcompensation, and, yes, programmatic utopias. We seem to expend quite a bit of energy slipping around in the mires of what the boundaries are, of what the futures are, of what the major figures are and what they mean, of what “should be done.” These are natural debates to involve ourselves in and seem to be especially endemic to minority /minor literatures and, as de Man explains, are simply inherent to the field.
Or to put it another way: it’s hard to define and evaluate Mormon literature because it’s, well, literature.
But just because it’s difficult, doesn’t mean that it’s invalid (in both senses of the word). And perhaps we need to be about our business more and worry less about the justifications and the overcompensations.