Since this has come up in comments to my dialogue post, some quick Saturday night thoughts regarding arguments to the effect that 'theory' is aristocratic.
In Lifemanship, Stephen Potter describes a mode of immanent critique: 'newstatesmanship', a strong variant on 'damned-good journalist play'', and a thing effectively supplemented by 'Rilking':
In Newstatesmaning the critic must always be on top of, or better than, the person criticised. Sometimes the critic will be of feeble and mean intelligence. The subject of his criticism may be a man of genius. Yet he must get on top. How? the layman asks.
By the old process - of going one better. Hope-Tipping of Buttermere had never really read a book since his schooldays, much less formed an original judgment. But he specialized in his own variations on the formula. He would skim some review dealing with the author involved, find the quality for which this author was most famous, and then blame him for not having enough of it.
H.-T. first made a name for himself in 1930 by saying that "the one thing that was lacking, of course, from D. H. Lawrence's novels, was the consciousness of sexual relationship, the male and female element in life."
Get the Hope-Tipping angle. Talk about the almost open sadism of Charles Lamb, or about Lytton Strachey as a master of baroque. "The deep superficiality of Catullus" is Hope-Tipping's, too. Never, by any shadow of a chance, was there a hint of cliché in the judgments of Hope-Tipping.
[Belle now chimes in over my shoulder: "It's true about Lawrence, you know. He really doesn't have any sense for the female element."]
Ergo, my proof that Theory is aristocratic. I'm much more adept at the Hope-Tipping gambit than either Derrida or de Man, who reinvented it as 'deconstruction'. (Derrida has no sense of 'play', and de Man lacks any insight into the nature of blindness, you see.) But the fact that Theory really is aristocratic makes the job even easier.
Here's another angle.
In part II of my dialogue, which I've chopped off because I'm pretty sure it should be turned into a plain essay, I discuss the quarrel between Quiller-Couch and F.R. Leavis, according to Eagleton. By his own account, Eagleton and 'theory' descend from Leavis, whose basic critical outlook has, “entered the bloodstream of English studies in England ... a form of spontaneous critical wisdom as deep-seated as our conviction that the earth moves around the sun." Next I quote Empson, pinning Eagleton and 'theory' by proxy by remarking – quite justly - that Leavis is so uncritically confident of his own sensibility that he thinks nothing of tearing up philosophical planks on which his claims rest:
Leavis has never shown any philosophical grasp of mind, and took for granted that he could strut about on the rest of the platform without ever falling through the hole. The effect has been to turn his intensely moral line of criticism into a quaintly snobbish one, full of the airs and graces of an elite concerned to win social prestige, though this is much opposed to his real background and sympathies.
In fact, this is why Leavis styles himself an 'anti-philosopher'. (He is not totally lacking in self-knowledge.) Mutatis mutandis, 'theory' can be described as an anti-philosophical sensibility; an intensely moral line foredoomed to decline into manneristic snobbishness.
‘Theory’ a tool of the same sort as Leavis’ ‘Life’. Leavis calls it a ‘necessary term’. Claims for the 'necessity' of Theory exhibit an analogous metaphysical pathos. Consider, for example, a recent book, life.after.theory. The editor explicitly aligns 'theory' with Leavisite 'Life', in an attempt to resuscitate it.
To talk of ‘life’ after theory is, in a sense, to come back to life since we have been there before, before theory, with F. R. Leavis, the Cambridge critic who from the forties to the sixties dominated literary criticism with his reverential and enigmatic talk of ‘life’. For Leavis, ‘every creative writer of the greatest kind knows that in a major work he is developing thought – thought about life.’
Note that, structurally, this requires that you have superior people handy to make the system run. Also, there is a point to be made hereabouts that relates to Me's vexation at analytic philosophers worried whether they have reasons to eat their automobiles or not. Her is Eagleton on the importance of Leavis. The critical wisdom Eagleton thinks Leavis has bred into his aristocratic bones and blood of literary studies is the notion that analysis must bear effectively on spiritual/cultural crisis.
What the Leavises saw was that if the Sir Arthur Quiller Couches were allowed to win out, literary criticism would be shunted into a historical siding of no more inherent significance than the question of whether one preferred potatoes to tomatoes. In the face of such whimsical ‘taste’, they stressed the centrality of rigorous critical analysis, a disciplined attention to the ‘words on the page’. They urged this not simply for technical or aesthetic reasons, but because it had the closest relevance to the spiritual crisis of modern civilization. Literature was important not only in itself, but because it encapsulated creative energies which were everywhere on the defensive in modern ‘commercial’ society.
Eagleton leaves out the hyphen in Quiller-Couch, but he's basically right about Leavis' temperament. The man strong assumes (at least for argufmentative purposes) that rigorous analysis will necessarily be culturally potent stuff. Conversely, anything that does not have potent effects must be whimsical and amateurish. And this is the theory mind-set, too. You 'do theory' to have potently transformative effects. But, as per Ari Krupnick's comment, this is quite unreasonable. Proper analysis sinks you into all sorts of infernally twiddly details. Proper analysis allows you to shave an intuition a little more finely, turns a vague thought into a precise thought. Most analysis does not tip the balance in any spiritual crisis of the age because it does not DO much because it merely says what is already there - but more clearly. Insistence on significance is deadly to analysis. It's a recipe for fudged analysis, which can only generate ersatz significance. So: if you care about analysis, dare to be trivial. And: if you just want to transform the culture, consider the possibility that you really don't care about rigorous analysis.
I'll follow-up these thoughts again tomorrow or Monday. I want to talk about how unhealthy determinations to achieve tremendous effects and significance through theory curdle into excessive and unnecessary pessimism about literary and cultural studies. (I'm not laying all this at Me's door. I have other folk I mean to quote.)