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1 Theatre, life and language: semiotics, phenomenology and deconstruction
3 Post-structuralism and deconstruction
2 Subjectivity and theatre: psychoanalytic, gender and reader-response theory
1 Psychoanalytic theory
2 Feminist and gender theory
3 Reader-response and reception theory
3 World and theatre: materialist, postmodern and post-colonial theory
1 Materialist theory
2 Postmodern theory
3 Post-colonial theory
I owe a great deal to a completely gratuitous act of generosity on the part of Herbert Blau in the early stages of this project. Talia Rodgers at Routledge guided my work from its inception - my title is a variation on one suggested by her. My basic understanding of theatre I learned from Skip Shand, who has given me years of encouragement. Linda Hutcheon showed much appreciated enthusiasm for an early draft of part of this book. The anonymous readers for Routledge have helped make my book much better than it would otherwise have been. Research was done mainly at the University of Toronto and at theatres in Toronto, Peterborough and Stratford, Ontario, and in New York and London. The University of Winnipeg kindly provided a discretionary grant to help pay the costs of the index, which was prepared by Elizabeth Hulse. I would like to thank my friends at Scarabeus Theatre, Daniela Essart and Søren Nielsen, for permission to use their photograph for the cover of this book. Faye Pickrem held my hand and gave me counsel through the long process. Finally, I dedicate this book to my parents, Charles and Gloria Fortier, whose unconditional love and support have helped me through life’s rough spots.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. 1
For questioning is the piety of thought. 2
WHY THIS BOOK?
We are fast approaching the end of a millennium, with suitably dire or utopian speculations on what the new age will be like: images of angels, cyberspace and global disaster weave their way through our cultural revery. What is less often remarked upon in such a momentous situation is that we are also fast approaching the end of a century, a century of great wars, technocracy and human mobility, among other things. What is even less frequently noted is that we are approaching the end of a half century or less of intense activity in the area of cultural theory.
Cultural theory, of course, began at least as far back as
ancient Greece. Our own theoretical era, broadly conceived, began in the nineteenth century with G.W.F. Hegel, Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche, continued into the early twentieth century with Sigmund Freud and Ferdinand de Saussure, and then into the middle of this century with, among others, Mikhail Bakhtin, Antonio Gramsci, Walter Benjamin and Simone de Beauvoir. But it is really since the 1960s that cultural theory, or just plain ‘theory’ as we now call it, has become a ubiquitous and dominant force in academic and cultural environments. Deconstruction, feminism, post-colonialism, semiotics, queer theory, postmodernism, and so forth, have come to define for many the most fruitful and appropriate ways of looking at culture, politics and society. Somewhat like Latin in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, theory has become the lingua franca which allows people in many nations and in such widely disparate fields as literature, history, sociology, architecture and law to find a common ground and vocabulary for their discussions.
Theatre is another area in which theory has had a powerful influence. There are learned journals rife with theoretical studies of theatre and many books which apply deconstruction, semiotics, psychoanalysis or some other theoretical perspective to various theatrical works. There is not so far, however, a book which sets out to introduce the theatre student to a broad range of theory at a basic or intermediate level. In the simplest and most obvious sense, this book is intended to be such an introduction. The primary meaning of its title points in this direction: for the student who simply wants to know more about theory’s possible relevance to theatre, this book is a systematic introduction of the application of theory to theatre.
All disciplines where theory has encroached have offered a degree of resistance: for some, theory is too abstruse, too jargon-ridden, too divorced from practicality. In theatre studies especially, theory has not had the open-armed acceptance that
Latin had as the lingua franca of an earlier era. Theory has often seemed too contemplative an activity to be more help than hindrance in such a practical pursuit as theatre. Theatre is not made in the mind or on the page. Moreover, much of the theory discussed in this book is often referred to, at least in literature departments, as ‘literary theory’. Why should this be so? After all, this theory comes from a broad range of disciplines: philosophy, linguistics, psychoanalysis, political economy, history, anthropology and so forth. To call these theories literary theory is in large part a misrecognition. It is, however, a misrecognition which reveals something about a great deal of theory.
Much of the theory under discussion - not all of it, certainly, but enough to indicate a degree of hegemony - stresses the importance of language as the basis, even the fate, of human activity. For instance, Saussure, in proposing a general theory of signs, argues that linguistic signs will serve as the master-pattern for all others; Jacques Lacan, bringing this linguistic emphasis to psychoanalysis, argues that the unconscious is structured like a language and the subject is a chain of signifiers; Jacques Derrida, positing an ‘arche-writing’ which underlies language, words and speech, proposes a ‘grammatology’ or science of writing which would dominate even linguistics. 3
Theories which are profoundly caught up in questions of language and writing have been more easily, more systematically and more fully applied to literature and other forms of writing than to art forms and cultural practices which emphasize the non-verbal. It becomes easy to think that activities involving writing are somehow at the heart of being human. Theorists of literature have appropriated language-based theories from other disciplines to such an extent that for many working in theory and literature all theory has become in effect literary theory. So it is designated, for instance, in the
recent encyclopedias of Irena Makaryk and Michael Groden and Martin Kreisworth. 4
What happens to more or less non-verbal activities in the face of this emphasis on language and writing? Can literary theory do them justice? Many involved in theatre have been suspicious of this verbal hegemony in recent theory. To treat everything as language or as dominated by language seems a distortion of the nature of theatre as rooted in the physical, the sensual and the visceral as much as it is in the verbal and ideational.
Those who study theatre make a commonplace distinction between drama and theatre. Drama is most often written language, the words ascribed to the characters which in the theatre are spoken by actors. As a written form, drama is easily appropriated by literary theory; it is understandable in the same general terms as fiction, poetry or any other form of letters. The affinity of drama and literature has produced a tendency for literary theory and literary studies to think of theatrical activity as drama rather than as theatre.
Unlike drama, theatre is not words on a page. Theatre is performance, though often the performance of a drama text, and entails not only words but space, actors, props, audience and the complex relations among these elements. Literary theory has often ignored all this. Moreover, if it doesn’t reduce theatre to drama, literary theory is capable of making an even bolder gesture in which theatre is brought under the hegemony of language and writing in another way. Here theatre becomes a system of non-verbal signs, non-verbal languages, non-verbal writing, yet dominated still by the hegemony of language and letters as master-patterns for the workings of the non-verbal. Theatre too is a literature. A big question remains: is theatre fully understandable when dominated by a linguistic model?
One side effect of literary theory’s domination of theatre is that, despite the assimilation of drama into literary studies and
despite the attempt to see theatre as non-verbal literature, literary theory ignores those who have made the most profound contributions to a specific theory of theatre: drama and theatre belong to literary theory but theatre theorists do not. For instance, neither of the encyclopedias by Mararyk and Groden and Kreisworth has separate entries for Bertolt Brecht or Antonin Artaud. To anyone involved in theatre theory, these omissions are nothing short of shocking, as much as if Saussure, Freud or Derrida were absent. But shock gives way to speculation: Brecht and Artaud think about theatre in a way that is profoundly different from the way literary theory does, perhaps in a way that literary theory has trouble recognizing.
Given these concerns, to those in theatre with a strong and entrenched antipathy to theory, my book is likely to be - although this is not how I intended it - as much an affront as it is an introduction. In large measure this is unavoidable. Although my purpose is not to shove theory down anyone’s throat (to use a Canadian turn of phrase), one of the key insights of much theory is that we cannot control how what we write or say will be taken by others - theatre people know this already in the context of performance. Those who are enthusiastic or open to theory, however, who are curious or merely willing to hold their judgement in temporary abeyance, might see in this book not an attempt to conquer theatre under the flag of theory, but rather an attempt to create a place for dialogue, exploration and questioning. For instance, one of the themes that runs throughout my discussion is the friction between language-based theory and the non-verbal aspects of theatre. For me, the point is not to reject language-based theory but to map the limits of its relevance with care and openness. Similarly, I think the relations between practice and reflection are not susceptible to easy demarcation. The word ‘drama’ comes from a word related to the Greek verb ‘to do’; ‘theatre’, on the other hand, comes from a word related to the verb ‘to
see’. Theatre, of necessity, involves both doing and seeing, practice and contemplation. Moreover, the word ‘theory’ comes from the same root as ‘theatre’. Theatre and theory are both contemplative pursuits, although theatre has a practical and sensuous side which contemplation should not be allowed to overwhelm.
This book, therefore, seeks in the engagement of theory and theatre questions to pose to each. Is theatre a kind of language or, if not, how does it escape this master-pattern? If there is something about the theatre which is different from language, how does this reflect on the hegemony of language and writing in theory’s understanding of the world? The resistance to theory offered by theatre, or put more benignly, the insistence that theatre have a voice in a true dialogue with theory, points to a second meaning in my title. Theory can be applied to theatre, but in the other direction, theatre speaks back to theory. This is especially so in theatre pieces which themselves enact or induce complex thinking. Much of Shakespeare, for instance, is highly sophisticated reflection on theatre, culture and reality. In this context, the title of this book also invokes such concepts as ‘fiction/theory’ or ‘performance/theory’: fictions or performances which are themselves works of theory 5(as distinct from performance theory or theory of performance widely conceived 6).
Suspicion about theory has come from other places in theatre studies. Bonnie Maranca, editor of Performing Arts Journal, which has been quite open to theoretical work, has recently questioned the use of theory in theatre studies. Although she rejects the separation of practice and production from thinking and reflection, she condemns what she sees as the knee-jerk and formulaic application of theory, a ‘dogmatic corruption’ of the openness that theory should entail. 7In an introductory volume, some simplification is necessary. But I have not, I hope, written a dogmatic work. Rather, I would like this to be
taken as an ‘interrogative text’. I take this idea from Catherine Belsey’s Critical Practice; according to Belsey, an interrogative text ‘invite [s] the reader to produce answers to the questions it implicitly or explicitly raises’. 8My summary of theories, issues and relations is always incomplete and regularly put forward as a set of explicit or implicit questions rather than a set of conclusions. Theories produce variant and often contradictory ways of looking at issues; I have tried to keep that space of disagreement open. There is nothing definitive about my accounts of theory or my readings of plays; the reader is encouraged to treat them as provisional and revisable. On the largest scale, I am not arguing for any necessary relation between theory and theatre. Readers will work out the relation for themselves. I am not opposed to answers being suggested to the questions I raise, but I prefer a more open-ended interrogation, in which answers never fully arrive. Like Antonin Artaud, I would like ‘not to define thoughts but to cause thinking’. 9
There is a large body of literature concerned with theories specifically related to the theatre. Bernard F. Dukore’s Dramatic Theory and Criticism: Greeks to Grotowski is a useful anthology, although it stops somewhat short of the present. 10Marvin Carlson’s Theories of the Theatre: A Historical and Critical Survey, from the Greeks to the Present, first published in 1984, expanded in 1993, is a monumental digest which maps to a dizzying degree the range of western theorization about theatre. Theorists not generally associated with the theatre - Freud, Barthes, Derrida, Lyotard - are represented inasmuch as they have occasionally produced essays on theatrical topics. 11
Dukore and Carlson are not specifically concerned with the relations of theory in general to theatre; however, other writers have taken up aspects of these relations: Mohammad Kowsar
has produced essays on Deleuze and Lacan; Gerald Rabkin and Elinor Fuchs have written essays on deconstruction and theatre; Keir Elam’s The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama is an overview of semiotic analysis related to plays; Sue-Ellen Case, Jill Dolan, and Gayle Austin have each written a book which introduces feminist theories to the study of theatre and drama. 12These are just a few of the works which take up the application of cultural theory to the theatre.
Most of these works tackle a specific area of concern: deconstruction, semiotics, feminism; there are works, however, which attempt to engage with the broadest possible spectrum of theoretical concerns. No individual has carried such an engagement further than has Herbert Blau who, in a series of complex and difficult books, has taken up ideas from marxism, psychoanalysis, feminism, deconstruction and phenomenology, and from thinkers ranging from Marx and Freud to Benjamin, Lacan, Kristeva, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze and Baudrillard. All of these theories are sent spinning through Blau’s particular perspectives towards a complex and inevitably contradictory metaphysical pessimism. Blau is not for beginners. 13A different approach is taken by the recent collection Critical Theory and Performance, which presents essays by different writers grouped under specific theoretical perspectives: cultural studies; semiotics and deconstruction; marxism; feminism(s); theatre historiography; hermeneutics and phenomenology; psychoanalysis. Each area is given a general introduction, but each section of the collection then proceeds into disparate and very particular applications of theoretical concerns. 14
Given, then, the extensive work in the fields of theory and theatre, which I can only begin to suggest, what does this book of mine have to offer? As summary, this book - like the recent encyclopedias mentioned earlier - takes advantage of its relative belatedness to look back on a field that has had
time to take on a certain shape. As the twentieth century draws to a close, twentieth-century theory begins to seem more set in its patterns than it did ten or twenty years ago. From this vantage I have attempted to grasp theory as broadly constituted. Unlike Carlson or Manfred Pfister, 15I am specifically concerned with theories that come from outside theatre; unlike Elam and Case, I have attempted to deal with theory as broadly as possible.
As an introduction, this book enters the discourse at a much lower level of complexity than does the work of Herbert Blau. Like Blau, however, and unlike Critical Theory and Performance, I speak in a single voice in an attempt to give the field the coherence that such a digestion allows. This is not to say that plurality and multiplicity of voice are not a deeper way of understanding theory, but perhaps plurality and multiplicity are not the best place to start.
WHICH THEORIES? WHICH THEATRE?
This is not just a book about theory; nor is it only about theatre. ‘Theory/Theatre’ implies a double articulation, which is evident in the structure of the following chapters. I have organized the discussion of theory and the theatre not around schools of theory or the work of particular theorists but rather around issues related to the theatre; theories are discussed inasmuch as they relate to the specific issue under discussion. These issues are grouped under three broad headings. Chapter 1 deals with the relations between the verbal and the non-verbal on the stage, with theatre as text and theatre as embodied, material event. Issues of signification, representation, meaning, understanding, words and silence, the stage, life, body and voice are explored. Chapter 2 deals with the people involved in theatre, with subjectivity, agency, author, character, performer, audience and the collaborations which theatre entails among all
those involved. Chapter 3 addresses theatre as an institution in the world and theatre’s relations with the world outside the playhouse; here the issues include the historical, economic and political forces which tie theatre in a highly specific way to a particular time and place.
Within each of these chapters, I have chosen to deal with the specific theoretical schools which seem most appropriate to the issue under consideration. Several caveats are in order. First, I have not undertaken an exhaustive discussion of cultural theory, but rather have tried to give a broad, general coverage of those movements that seem most relevant to the study of theatre. Second, I have tailored each school I do discuss to the concerns of a particular chapter, so that each school is presented more narrowly than it would be in a work devoted solely to doing justice to that school. For instance, feminism is dealt with in Chapter 2, on subject and agency. Although much of feminism is about the effect of gender on subjectivity, feminism is also deeply concerned with the subject’s relations with the world, and so could have been discussed in Chapter 3. I ask the reader to remember that each school I discuss has a broader range of interest and application than my structure enumerates. Also, I have dealt with individual theorists under the rubric of particular schools of theory. This is less of a distortion for some theorists than for others: Freud is obviously a psychoanalytic thinker. Many theorists, however, have hybrid interests. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, discussed here under post-colonialism, combines in her work marxism, deconstruction, feminism and post-colonialism. Julia Kristeva, discussed here under psychoanalytic theory, combines feminism, semiotics and psychoanalysis.
Similar problems of categorization are faced by anyone who attempts to give a systematic arrangement to the field of cultural theory: the editors of Critical Theory and Performance, for instance, raise similar fears of arbitrariness and distortion. 16
For the sake of a necessary expedience and a certain kind of clarity, I have imposed an order on these theories which cannot help but simplify the connections between them.
Given these caveats, the theoretical movements I discuss are arranged in the following order. In Chapter 1, on textuality and embodiment, I discuss semiotics, phenomenology and deconstrucrion. Among the theorists discussed in this chapter are Ferdinand de Saussure, Charles Peirce, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jacques Derrida, and Paul de Man. In Chapter 2, on subjectivity and agency, I discuss psychoanalytic theory, feminist and gender theory, including queer theory, and reader-response and reception theory. Among the theorists covered in Chapter 2 are Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Virginia Woolf, Judith Fetterley, Jill Dolan, Adrienne Rich, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Wolfgang Iser and Hans Robert Jauss. In Chapter 3, on theatre and the world, I discuss materialist theory, postmodernism and post-colonialism. Among the theorists in this chapter are Louis Althusser, Raymond Williams, Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault, Fredric Jameson, Linda Hutcheon, Jean Baudrillard, Jean-François Lyotard, Gianni Vattimo, Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, Trinh T. Minh-Ha, Homi Bhabha and Augusto Boal.
Each chapter, therefore, is divided into three sections, each dealing with a particular theoretical movement. Within each section there is an attempt to give an overview of that movement, a discussion of particular theorists associated with that movement, particular critics who have applied this theory to the study of theatre, and then an exploration of this theory in light of an application to particular works or questions of theatre.
Theory and theatre, as I have noted, can have a number of different relationships. Theatre can sometimes be analogous or equivalent to theoretical reflection; this is how, for example, I position the relationship between phenomenology and Anton
Chekhov, or deconstruction and Artaud or Blau. Closely related - sometimes interchangeable - are cases in which theatre enacts a theoretical position; here, for example, I would point to psychoanalytic theory and Hélène Cixous, feminist theory and Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine, or post-colonialism and the projects of Augusto Boal. Moreover, theory can be used to explain or elucidate theatre in general or particular works of theatre; Derrida on representation and presence is an example of the first, my deconstructive reading of Jerzy Grotowski’s Akropolis and postmodern reading of Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles examples of the second. Finally, theatre can answer back to theory, calling presuppositions into question and exposing limitations and blindness; the theatrical ‘desemiotics’ which questions the semiotic rage for finding meaning, the exploration of the way Peter Brook’s Midsummer Night’s Dream takes reader-response theory in complex new directions, or the way Shakespeare’s theatre troubles the simpler pieties of materialist analysis are all examples of the confrontation of theory with theatre. Often, of course, several relations are at work at once: Cixous both enacts and questions psychoanalytic theory. The most important point to make about this variety is that it would be fruitless and misleading to try and limit it, especially in an introductory volume which hopes to open up possibilities.
Earlier I drew a distinction between drama, as words on a page, and theatre, as enactment on stage. To this picture it is necessary to add the concept of performance. Performance in a narrow sense refers to certain para-theatrical activities - happenings, demonstrations, museum exhibits involving human participants, and so forth - which are related to theatre in the traditional sense. Performance more widely conceived refers to any performative human activity - everything from murder trials and elections to religious and social rituals, to everyday acts, such as a high school English class or shaving in
front of a mirror. Drama, theatre and performance are related activities. One way of thinking of the relationship is to see drama as a part of theatre and theatre as a part of performance. Seeing this relationship points out the difficulty involved in trying to separate a concern with drama from, say, a concern with theatre. To discuss drama is to discuss a part of theatre. Theatre studies are rightly wary that literature studies tend to reduce theatre to drama. This does not mean that theatre studies can study only theatre and not drama. A full study of theatre must be open to words on the page. Moreover, a study of theatre which does not see its relation to performance in general has made an artificial and limiting distinction.
My subject, therefore, is theatre, but this will often entail regard for the drama text and understanding of the place of theatre in a wider field of performance, as well as occasional reference to performance art and performances in everyday life. To stray too far into performance, however, would be to lose focus, while to dwell too much on drama would reduce this study to the narrowly literary. Nevertheless, the reader will note that dramatic elements play a large part in my discussion. This is in part because drama, as fixed and recordable, is the part of theatre most accessible to examination and analysis. Moreover, the drama text remains, especially in the western tradition, a seminal aspect of theatre. Herbert Blau has written, ‘I cannot imagine a theatre form of any consequence which does not hold discourse among the modes of meaning.’ 17I would say, rather, that some theatre of consequence has eschewed words and their residue, but more often words are not only one among several modes of meaning, but are given a place of prominence.
The examples I have taken from theatre are guided by a desire to reach a broad, general audience, and by my own expertise and limitations. Consequently, most of my examples are from Europe and the Americas; except for a large dose of Shakespeare, they are predominantly from the twentieth
century; many of them are canonical. Within these limitations I have tried to present a broad range of examples, some of which are newer or marginal works which challenge the hegemony of canonical norms. I do not offer this selection as definitive or as a discouragement to other applications.
WHO IS SPEAKING?
One of the foremost insights that feminism, especially, has brought to theory is the need to articulate the position from which one speaks. Who one is (one’s experience, biases and investments) is thought to have an inevitable effect on how one reasons. The actual import of such a positioning is open to question. How exactly does any position authenticate, detract from or at least inform one’s arguments? How necessary a bond is there between who we are and what we are able to think? At any rate, however, it has become imprudent and naive to ignore the position from which one speaks, and self-declarations have become commonplace in writing that takes feminist theory seriously.
The major difference, for instance, between the first and the expanded edition of Marvin Carlson’s Theories of the Theatre is that recent feminist theory is given an extended treatment in the newer edition. This treatment leads Carlson to declare his own positionality:
The materialist recognition that positions of theory, even of identity, are historically and culturally positioned means, as Jill Dolan has argued, that as a theorist she is challenged ‘to reposition myself constantly, to keep changing my seat in the theatre, and to continually ask: How does it look from over there?’ Such repositioning is perhaps even more of a challenge if one is, like me, culturally positioned on the dominant side of all the traditional discourses - a white, middle-class, academic, heterosexual male. 18
To position myself in a personal history, I, like Carlson, am a white, heterosexual male. Whatever privilege this affords has been joined with a personal and intellectual history of discomfort with this position. As to class, my life feels like a roller-coaster ride, and employment and financial security has been a long time coming. If simple homologies are at all compelling, one might see this personal history of privilege, uncertainty and disappointment played out in this project as the hubris of the undertaking itself and the questioning and doubt that inform the examination.
One aspect of personal history not covered by Carlson but worth mentioning is nationality. I am a Canadian. From a Canadian perspective, works by Americans or the English often seem blindly to take their Americanness or Englishness for granted. If nationality informs this study, it is in the way I try to leave open and unoccupied any sense of being at a centre which unintentionally marginalizes everyone from somewhere else.
But one has an intellectual as well as a personal history, and often this intellectual history is at least as relevant to how one thinks. Of the theories examined here, I am most invested, on the one hand, in the rigorous suspicion of deconstruction, and on the other in the historical and political insistence of materialist theory; somewhere, somehow, I also retain, especially as someone interested in theatre, an affinity with phenomenology’s involvement in bringing the world to light for embodied consciousness. I do not consider myself, however, a deconstructionist or a phenomenologist and, although I do consider myself a materialist, I do not cling to any dogmatic or even orthodox marxism.
Having noted these affinities, I want to stress that I have tried to hold on to a principle of pluralist openness in the following chapters. There is much doubt in recent politicized theory as to whether pluralism and neutrality are possible;
accordingly, sometimes introductory works like this one are written from an openly partisan position: Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory19or Jill Dolan’s The Feminist Spectator as Critic, for instance. Such a strategy has its own political and heuristic strengths, including focus and candor. There do, however, seem to be varying degrees of partisanship, and in many aspects of life we expect or hope that, despite their biases, people will attempt to retain some degree of neutrality. And so other works, Sue-Ellen Case’s Feminism and Theatre or Carlson’s Theories of the Theatre, for instance, attempt to maintain a more or less open stance. Pluralism has its limits both in its viability and in its usefulness; but it has its strengths too, especially in a work that aims to be interrogative as well as introductory.
Since this is an interrogative work, one important reason for pluralism is to maintain a healthy scepticism and doubt. There are many things, theoretical and political, about which I remain, and perhaps will always remain, uncertain. Moreover, I distrust people who are too sure of themselves. I believe that a book which is open to uncertainty, what in deconstruction would be called the incalculable and the undecidable, is truer to the questioning side of human reason, and is a more trustworthy guide because of this.
It also seems to me important to maintain plurality and neutrality in an introductory work. Eagleton’s introduction to literary theory is extremely engaging; however, it is hard to imagine that it would ever induce anyone to take up the study of phenomenology or any of the other movements that Eagleton ridicules or dismisses. In this book I extend introductions on the principle that the ideas presented are ones the reader might actually someday wish to know better. Otherwise, why bother with introductions at all?