Mark Edmundson’s personal (some will say self-indulgent) piece “When I Was Young At Yale” appeared in the Chronicle for Higher Education this weekend. [NB: Short “a” in At, very long “a” in Yale.] It is an updated God and Man at Yale, every bit as conservative in tone, except Edmundson defends the Establishment that Buckley derided. Instead, Edmundson inter the cryptic “Theorists” he once found intoxicating: Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault. If you can stand the prefatory excuses, it is well worth hearing the confession.
(With the quick, desperate smugness typical of my own alma mater, I note that for all his time among the theoretical giants at Yale, it was only by lecturing alongside Richard Rorty at the University of Virginia that Edmundson saw the light.)
Well into the twenty-first century now, have we seen Theory turn a corner? It is unfair to boil Derrida and Foucault down to the same substrate of transgressive nihilism. The transgressiveness of the now-quite-canonical Benjamin, which invokes the authority of promises made to past generations, is anything but nihilistic. The Frankfurt School has moderated: Habermas is not Adorno, and even Adorno took a famously conservative turn in 1968. Since then, Arendt has had her day. Beyond Rorty, there has been a resurgence of “pragmatism with a human face” in recent theories of deliberative democracy. Theory has more to it than literary theory in the 1970s would have one believe.
“Theory,” the way Edmundson uses the term (even restricted to “Literary Theory”) is an anachronism.