Barbara Christian, “The Race for Theory,” for February 19, 2009


Barbara Christian

Barbara Christian


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?”



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19 responses to “Barbara Christian, “The Race for Theory,” for February 19, 2009

  1. Jason Sikma

    Barbara Christian discusses how critics have the power to decide what gets published, and thereby determine the ideas which are deemed valuable. Should people of color conform in certain ways to get published and have their ideas deemed valuable, or is it more valuable to fight to make ideas known that have not been influenced by the majority in the race for theory? Why?

  2. dmesick

    “And it may very well be that these are the reasons why writers are often seen as persona non grata by political states, whatever form they take, since writers/artists have a tendency to refuse to give up their way of seeing the world and of playing with possibilities; in fact, their very expression relies on that insistence.”

    Why then are writers and artists compromising their individuality to fit into a particular genre and attempting to appeal to a certain type of critic?

  3. Tyler Nakatsu

    In regards to the subjective publications of what is deemed worthy in literature. Could Christian’s remarks on this possibly solve our understandings of the canon? Is it through literary crititism which the canon evolves?

  4. Lana C

    This was a very enjoyable piece of literature and I was able to see understand Barbara Christian’s thesis and supporting information right off the back. Because of the current political and economical status of the United States how do you think Barbara Christian would respond to an author who supposedly did not compromised him/herself or their believes but were still ‘alive’ into the current literary world? Do you think that depending on the statues and race of this person that she would you them as an example as she does the French or Toni Morrison?

  5. Jennifer Kurz

    In the past, groups such as “The Black Arts Movement, and the Feminist Literary Movement,” fought for recognition by focusing on “reflections on their own lives.” Christian shows us “That Western scholars have long believed their ideas to be universal has been strongly opposed by many such groups.” My question is, what steps are currently and actively being taken to change the Western ethno-centric way of critiquing literature, besides writing away from those standards?

  6. Jenna Currie

    Christians argues that literary criticism is what holds the power to determine that which is “valuable”. Christians points out that artists will then change their styles creative ideas to better fit the critics definitions of literature that is “valuable.” If the power to determine what work is valuable was shifted from critics to another group of people, would artists change their sytles yet again to fit the group’s definitions, so their work could be remembered and published as a valuable text?

  7. Elliott Lamp

    Christian Talks about the “Center” I wanted to know what she thought by that, is she saying that the center is the literacy critics that abuse the writing of African Americans.

  8. Lindsay Nelson

    Christian states “There have been, in the last year, any number of occasions on which I had to convince literary critics who have pioneered entire new areas of critical inquiry that they did have something to say.” I think this is interesting because wouldn’t those literary critics who have original ideas and new ways of thinking be excited and willing to share their new ideas, instead of just presenting an opinion that many other people share?

  9. Eric Irvin

    What christian is discussing is the works of minority and how it is critisied on its value and worth. It states how critics aren’t concerned with the writer or his material but what others are commenting about it. We should focus on the center. what should a writer look for in critic’s that can center them for positive motivation??

  10. marissa m.

    Language appears to be an important aspect of Christian’s essay. In her discsussion of the restricting nature of literary criticism, Christian focuses on not only the transition to the use of academic philosophical language instead of literary languange, but also how critics are using language as a means to “define” African American literature. My question is how does this transition to academic language, versus creative language impact the interpretation of African American literature? How is language being used as a means to limit the depictions and perceptions of American American life and literature?

  11. Whitney Harmon

    Barbara Christian says, ” As I lived among folk for whom language was an absolutely necessary way of validating our existence, I was told that the minds of the world lived only in the small continent of Europe” (Page 352). I am wondering what people do not use language as a validity of their existence? Is this something that is exclusive to the African American culture? Also since 1987 has this changed? Or has the place where the minds of the world live just shifted?

  12. Katie Myers

    An interesting point that Christian makes is about how the artist changed what they see as “valuable” or “worthy” and basis their work on what the critics say is “valuable/worthy”. What kind of effect has this had on the creativity level or these artists?

  13. Katie Joseph

    Should people of color feel obligated to specify their race before publishing their work or should it be ignored?

  14. Ernesto Armendariz

    If all these artist and writers have somehow conformed in order to become famous or get published; are these “real” and “true” artist or are the real artists the ones we’ve never heard of because they didn’t conform in their writings?

  15. Leslie Lambert

    Christian talks about “value”. I agree with her point about this.

    Though critiques can degrade the literature, how does one define what is valuable in terms of literature?

  16. Barbara Christian mentions how “the folks who speak in muted tones are those who are people of color” the ones who are marginalized and the ones who are considered minorities by Western writters, what did she mean by muted tone? and i understand why she says that she is tired of being the one who is asked to write literacy on black feminism literature because she is black, are whites or other writters incapable of understanding how black writters really feel while reading the literature that blacks write, does there always has to be a black representative?

  17. David Hagen

    On page 352, Barbara Christian voices her disdain for the new literary critical theory. She states, “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…” She says this in arguing that “literature is political”. My question is this: aside from enabling those who currently control the critical scene to maintain that control, what does this accomplish? What is there to gain from having such control? It seems to be that it is a matter of exerting power for no other reason than because one can, and that to me shows no productive motive, for either those in control or those seeking to gain influence in the field.

  18. Andrew Frei

    There is always more than one way to analyze literature. Does Barbara smith limit herself by focusing only on literature as a projection of the authors’ black femininity?

  19. Jeff Gugliotto

    Barbra Smith asks: “For whom are we doing what we are doing when we do literary criticism?” In asking this she challenges the Western philosophers who have become separated and therefor “less qualified” to be literary critics. In essense, she believes that it is important everyone becomes critical of work, and not just people who are “qualified” to be critical.

    My question is: is if everyone’s opinion on a topic was to be considered, would there ever be forward moving dialogue possible? (Think about class for example, if EVERYONE raised their hand with a different opinion)

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