My objection to the race for theory, as some readers have probably guessed by now, really hinges on the question, ‘For whom are we doing what we are doing when we do literary criticism?’
Christian’s essay is concerned with disrupting the hegemony of literary criticism, what she terms “the race for theory,” with its power to marginalize literatures, artists, and readers. Her critique centers around two main points. The first is that literary criticism has become an ends unto itself and has seemingly abandoned literature as the focus of its endeavor. She says, “Due to this new orientation, works (a word which evokes labor) have become texts. Critics are no longer concerned with literature, but with other critics’ texts, for the critic yearning for attention has displaced the writer and has conceived of himself as the center.”
Her other main point is that literary criticism has the power to determine that which is “valuable,” which creates the potential for creative artists to stifle their organic creative tendencies and replace them with moves that adhere to critics’ definitions of literature that is “valuable” and “worthy.” Especially for women writers and writers of color, Christian sees literary criticism as reproducing social inequities by denying the dynamic nature of difference, and the power of difference to empower both writers and readers.
Perhaps because those who have effected the takeover have the power (although they deny it) first of all to be published, and thereby to determine the ideas which are deemed valuable, some of our most daring and potentially radical critics (and by our I mean black, women, Third World) have been influenced, even co-opted, into speaking a language and defining their discussion in terms alien to and opposed to our needs and orientation.
Though she is critical against the hegemony that has been created around literary criticism, she is not against the use of theory as ways to deconstruct structures of power. “Let me not give the impression that by objecting to the race for theory I ally myself with or agree with the neutral humanists who see literature as pure expression and will not admit to the obvious control of its production, value, and distribution by those who have power, who deny, in other words, that literature is, of necessity, political.” Instead, she objects to theory that excludes through languages and forms which obscure conditions instead of confronting conditions.
For I feel that the new emphasis on literary critical theory is as hegemonic as the world which attacks. I see the language it creates as one which mystifies rather than clarifies our condition, making it possible for a few people who know that particular language to control the critical scene — that language surfaced, interestingly enough, just when the literature of peoples of color, of black women, of Latin Americans, of Africans, began to move to ‘the center.’
What do you see as the relationship between Christian’s argument and Henry Louis Gates’ argument? What would your response be to Christian’s question “For whom are we doing what we are dong when we do literary criticism?”