Do We Need New Mormon Literary Theory?

[Cross-posted earlier this week at Dawning of a Brighter Day]

“There is always a surprise in store for the anatomy or physiology of any criticism that might think it has mastered the game, surveyed all the threads at once, deluding itself, too, in wanting to look at the text without touching it, without laying a hand on the ‘object,’ without risking—which is the only chance of entering into the game, by getting a few fingers caught—in the addition of some new thread.”—Jacques Derrida, Plato’s Pharmacy
In literary studies, the word “theory” usually functions in one of two ways. First, it suggests a collective of ideas that have contributed—whether we realize it or not—to how we think about the world. For students, this is the kind of theory that either makes them groan or get all intellectually giddy inside. It goes by names like “poststructuralist” or“queer” or “feminist” or “postcolonial.” Rarely does anyone feel lukewarm about this kind of theory.1
The other kind of theory has to do with making an informed guess about how something functions or ought to function.2 This is like the kind of theory TV shows like Lost inspire, but on an arguably more sophisticated level.3 Scholars sometimes associate this kind of theory with methodology—which can make things confusing when the methodology goes by the same name as the collective of ideas.4
Mormon literary studies, of course, have already produced both types of theory.5 Our friends at Ships of Hagoth, in fact, have linked the best-known examples of these texts to their website, which itself is a kind of Mormon theory mill-in-the-making, but others exist buried deep in the digital archives of DialogueSunstoneBYU Studies, and blogs like this one, A Motley Vision, and probably even By Common ConsentFeminist Mormon Housewives, and Times and Seasons.6 The undigitized archives of Irreantumalso likely contain theory, as do books like Tending the Garden and Marden J. Clark’sLiberating Form, which I recently picked up at Deseret Industries for two dollars.
As theory, these texts either contribute to the way we think about the world—particularly the Mormon world—or suggest ways to A) read and interpret Mormon literature7 or B) use Mormonism to read and interpret the world and its culture.8 Embedded in this project, I would add, are also attempts to define “Mormonism” and “Mormon literature.”9 Again, to a certain extent, we see this sort of thing happening—along with the application of non-Mormon theory to Mormon literature—in places like A Motley Vision, Ships of Hagoth, and here, although I occasionally sense we feel some hostility toward theory—or, at least, the idea of it.10
What I really want to get at today, though, is not so much how we feel about theory and the myriad critical methodologies currently used and abused in literary analysis, but rather our relationship with our own theory. Admittedly, I haven’t read the whole of the Mormon theory canon, although I’ve read or skimmed much of the deliberately literary-centric stuff. Nor have I been the best about applying it to my own criticism of Mormon literature in any meaningful way. The same, I expect, is true for most of us who consider ourselves critics. We’ve read the essays, maybe quoted from them, but haven’t really applied them to anyone’s satisfaction.
Why is that? First, while I think we’re doing a lot of great informal criticism online,11 I don’t think we’re doing much to polish it up and take it to the next levels—whatever the “next levels” might be.12 Second, I wonder if we aren’t due for a new batch of Mormon literary theory —new ideas and methodologies to replace or update those proposed in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s.13 I mean, it may be that we’re not using what we already have because what we already have does not speak to our times, our Mormonism, and even our Mormon literature anymore. Obviously, Orson F. Whitney’s “Home Literature,” with its fusion of literature and evangelism, seems a little outdated, but what about Richard Cracroft’s Mantic/Sophic approach outlined in “Attuning the Authentic Mormon Voice”? It’s an excellent, foundational essay with interesting ideas, but does it take us in a direction we want to go in 2012?
More importantly—possibly—does it give a non-Mormon critic who is interested in doing scholarship on Mormon literature an adequate inroad? Or does it come off as too insular, too much like a Mormon talking to other Mormons?
Having never been a non-Mormon scholar, I can’t say. But I do think we ought to be keeping our Gentile brothers and sisters in mind as we pave the way for the next twenty years of Mormon literary studies. Personally, I think we owe a nice, up-to-date body of literary theory to anyone who wants to write about Mormon literature—something these scholars can work with as they keep Mormon literary studies alive.14
Finally, to stir things up a bit, I’d like to end with my thoughts on the future of Mormon literary theory:
  1. Mormon literary theory should not try to be totalizing in its approach to theorizing Mormon literature.16
  2. Mormon literary theory, as well as the criticism it fosters, should encourage the development of other Mormon literary theories.
  3. Mormon literary theory should enrich our understanding of old and new Mormon literary texts.
  4. Mormon literary theory should not limit Mormon literary criticism to the tiresome task of uncovering of the good, the virtuous, the transcendent, the beautiful, the true, etc.17
  5. Mormon literary theory should not be based on essentialist notions about Mormon identity.18
  6. Mormon literary theory should be aware of and make creative use of Mormon history and thought.
  7. Mormon literary theory should not presume to have the Final Answer for the world’s epistemological debates.19
  8. Mormon literary theory will inevitably be influenced by ideas outside of Mormonism.
  9. Mormon literary theory should be as much for Mormon as non-Mormon critics of Mormon literature.
  10. Mormon literary theory, as a largely secular endeavor, should not be grounded necessarily in revealed truth.20
I list these commandments here as an invitation to debate them, of course, but also as an incentive and a plea to pick up individual Mormon creative works and begin the process of Mormon literary criticism. Let’s read, let’s write, let’s theorize, let’s interpret. And, while we do so, let’s not forget these words from Henry James’ “The Art of Fiction”:
“Art lives upon discussion, upon experiment, upon curiosity, upon variety of attempt, upon the exchange of views and the comparison of standpoints; and there is a presumption that those times when no one has anything particular to say about it, and has no reason to give for practice or preference, though they may be times of genius, are not times of development, are times possibly even, a little, of dulness. The successful application of any art is a delightful spectacle, but the theory, too, is interesting; and though there is a great deal of the latter without the former, I suspect there has never been a genuine success that has not had a latent core of conviction. Discussion, suggestion, formulation, these things are fertilizing when they are frank and sincere.
[1] I should take that back. Plenty of people love this kind of theory. You can recognize them by their hair shirts and cilices.
[2] I’ll note here that Jonathan Culler’s Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction has helped me think through these distinctions. In my experience, the word “theory” is often tossed around without much effort to clarify its ambiguity. You’ll see in this post that I eventually give up trying as well.
[3] As a devotee of American cultural studies with anti-elitist predilections, I’m already arguing with myself about this statement.
[4] To add a little more confusion to the mix, this kind of theory can also be considered the other kind of theory if it comes from France or proves even the slightest bit influential.
[5] I debated calling the fusion of both kinds of theory “t(t)heory,” but I didn’t want people thinking I was trying to be pretentious.
[6] I say “probably” because I’m not an avid reader of any of these blogs, but I’m familiar enough with them to know that theoretical writing happens on them that could be applied to literary analysis.
[7] I’m tempted to add the words “and culture” here, but I’ll refrain (and likely regret it later).
[8] Some even do both.
[9] See Michael Austin’s “How to Be a Mormo-American; Or, the Function of Mormon Criticism at the Present Time” for what is likely the best-known and most thorough attempt.
[10] Here’s I’m assuming that we ought to, which is probably a questionable enough assumption for another post. My belief, however, which is forming as I write this, is that theory is an inevitable part of criticism—that even when we don’t think we’re using it, we’re using it, because we have acquired it unconsciously—maybe in high school or college or on “the streets”—and have become so used to it that it’s now second nature. Think about it: how much of your own analytic acts are founded in the close reading strategies of formalism, the New Criticism of the 1930s and 40s? That New Critical methodology is informed by a body of theory. Anyway…feel free to object to this assumption. I’m sure there is at least one “born critic” out there.
[11] I had a student this past quarter quote an interview from A Motley Vision in her term paper on Angela Hallstrom’s “Thanksgiving.”
[12] Personally, I would like to see more literary criticism in Irreantum, Dialogue, BYU Studies, Sunstone, and the rest. I’m sure the editors would as well.
[13] It seems to me James Goldberg’s “Wrestling with God: Invoking Scriptural Mythos and Language in LDS Literary Works” (Irreantum13.1, 71-82) is already a fine addition to this new batch of theory.
[14] I could, out of respect for Kevin Costner, insert a nice “If you build it [i.e. Mormon literary theory], they will come.” But I don’t want to alienate anyone with a reference to a PG rated film.
[15] I’m still shopping around for a catchy name for this new body of theory. Please send suggestions to scotthales80 at gmail dot com. I’ve never been very good at coining literary terms.
[16] I see Mormon literary theory taking the shopping mall rather than the Wal-Mart approach to hermeneutics.
[17] I would also ban food or agricultural metaphors from future Mormon literary theory.
[18] Nor should it get caught up on trying to define “Mormon.” Call it “Mormon” and be done!
[19] Mormon literary theory, after all, is not Mormon doctrine. Conflate the two at your own risk.
[20] At the same time, of course, Mormon literary theories can originate in revealed truth. There’s possibly no way even to avoid it.

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