Literary Theory

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Epic prankster Alan Sokal

Just The Facts

  1. Literary theory is the practice of talking about why a book is good or bad.
  2. Articles explaining literary theory are usually thick with what's usually described as bad writing that makes it inaccessible to most sane people.
  3. Incredibly, this helps people to take it seriously.

Why You Should Never Get a Graduate Degree In the Arts

Grad students in the sciences have it hard. They have to formulate a thesis, develop an experiment, perform that experiment, deliver their results, and defend their results in front of a board of crotchety scientists who will attack it from every conceivable angle.

But they also have the advantage of hard data. Students in the arts don't. If they want to actually make art, that's great, but they also have to be able to fit that art into some form of theory, because you want art to be classified, pinned, mounted and defined. And if they simply want to teach art, God help them, because they not only have to actually be able to make art, they have to be able to both absorb and generate truly epic amounts of bullshit.

If you've ever wondered why academics want to talk about racism in Indiana Jones movies or insist that Spider-Man is a Jesus allegory, sure, they might actually believe that, but it's a lot more likely they have to write something or get fired. This is where an ancient academic axiom comes into play:

"If you can't dazzle them with brilliance...baffle them with bullshit."

Publish or Perish

The problem is essentially this: how each person views an artwork is a distinct, personal experience that can border on the religious and actually break your brain (see: Stendhal Syndrome). Colleges want this distinct, personal experience, deeply wrapped up in your view of the art form and informed by personal experiences that you may not even remember in about fifteen pages written in AP format.

And they want you to pay six figures for the privilege.

Sure, there's something to be said for discussing how and why a writer of a certain novel or a painter makes choices; that's why we've got DVD commentaries and author forewords. And there's something to be said for looking at where a work fits into history, society and culture. The problem is, all the good stuff worth discussing has been picked over repeatedly. You've either got to find a way to turn the bad stuff into good stuff, or find a way to talk about something in such a way that nobody will dare call "bullshit." To do so successfully, you need a theory. Theories lead to papers. Papers lead to jobs. Jobs lead to tenure. Tenure leads to the dark side...but enough about working in administration.

Inside the Bullshit Machine

The key weapon in any academic bullshitter's arsenal is post-modernism. Post-modernism as an actual theory springs from the ongoing struggle between our ever-advancing scientific knowledge and our complete inability to actually use the stuff we invent for anything but the most retarded uses.

The best part about post-modernism is that nobody agrees, at all, on what it is, what it means, or what it involves. Even better, it includes philosophers like Derrida, who will forever sit in hell, editing student theses about the gender dynamics of "Two and a Half Men", for saying: "Complex concepts can only be expressed in complex language." Yes, he really said that.

Derrida also introduced "deconstruction". The idea behind deconstruction is to take apart a text, working strictly within what the text provides, show that every possible way of interpreting it makes you a bad person for liking it in as many polysyllabic words as possible, and then dismiss it.

The key problem is that "intepretation" is almost inevitably dragging a whole bunch of personal issues into it.

Most academic theory work is a game of chicken; you know you're full of shit, but everybody else is full of shit too, so nobody is going to call you on your shit in any sort of a direct manner. So you can insist that Punky Brewster is politically subversive, and nobody's going to scream "What a load of garbage! You're intentionally overcomplicating the interpretation of a children's show!" because they're afraid somebody might realize their exploration of the Holy Trinity allegory of "Three's Company" might come under fire next.

If you want proof this is true, just look up Alan Sokal. He put together a bullshit article which nearly changed the face of bullshit before he admitted the truth.