Presentation Details

The Second International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities

The Un-Free Radical: Theoretical Extremism and the Cost to the Literary Text

Randi Caryn Shapiro.

Literary theory, perhaps because it is “theory” and thus aims at comprehensiveness, tends towards radicalism, either totalizing, as in deconstructionism, or specializing, as in gender, race and queer criticism: in the one, distinction is lost and meaning exploded; in the other, the tree is considered the forest. Both undermine the experienced “integrity” of the object of study, the “literary” text—in actual application, the work is too often rendered inert, and the study of literature becomes no different from the study of less privileged language.
Totalization, as exemplified by deconstructionism, logically concludes in outright de-specialization of the literary. Meaning is of “relative indeterminacy,” according to Derrida, and as such, the literary text cannot be said to be experientially immediate.
The tendency to specialize, on the other hand, attempts to reconnect literature to the material world in order to demonstrate both the necessity of the extrinsic to the text and its direct relevance to the world at large. This is well-intentioned; nonetheless, the scope of such attempts is definitionally narrow. The text is either established as performative in a single sense, with its other facets left to stagnate, or it becomes merely the product of context, bereft of any autonomous puissance. As Hartman says, obsession may lead to trivialization.
The proposed paper will examine the shortcomings of these competing theoretical impulses as they pertain to literature, evaluating them in relation to their effects, and will finally propose a pragmatic solution wherein the various theories are used conjointly to combat reductive interpretations.


Randi Caryn Shapiro  (United States)

Wellesley College

Randi Shapiro is a senior at Wellesley College, pursuing a major in English literature. She is currently writing an honors thesis on the various modes of justice explored in Shakespeare’s drama.

  • Literary Theory
  • Literary Criticism

(30 min. Conference Paper, English)