I conceived of Interpretation: Theory: History while writing my monograph, Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety. The idea for that book started with the first Matrix film, when after a couple of viewings I noticed that The Matrix was yet another permutation of Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein in a long line of permutations: R.U.R., Metropolis, I, Robot, A.I., Bicentennial Man, Stealth. The list could go on. Once I noticed the pattern, my first question was why? Why has the Frankenstein story persisted so tenaciously from Shelley’s day to the present? The western creative imagination consistently expects disaster, apocalypse, and rebellion should we ever create a life form that is fully self-directed — intelligent, creatively reasoning, learning, and independent, something that thinks as we can think.
I called this expectation Creation Anxiety and soon realized that William Blake was Shelley’s predecessor, explicitly embodying this anxiety in his mythological works of the 1790s, especially in The [First] Book of Urizen and The Four Zoas. I originally intended to write chapters on Blake, Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley (Promethus Unbound), and William Wordsworth (because he is the most free of Creation Anxiety of any of the English Romantics), but soon Blake took over the project.
Blake, however, does not yield his own theoretical lens. Blake conceptualizes his philosophy and theology in aesthetic terms: his God is a Poetic Genius and his only ontology is a phenomenology. I lacked a theorization of anxiety but didn’t want to draw on any theorization that fit. I sought a theorization of anxiety proceeding from a figure responding to a historical and cultural milieu similar to Blake’s. Søren Kierkegaard‘s The Concept of Anxiety fit my needs, theorizing anxiety from a cultural, political, and intellectual history that he shared with Blake. I identify tensions between monarchy and democracy, science and religion, and nature and artifice as motivating both Blake’s creation myths and Kierkegaard’s concept of anxiety, while I identify similarly motivated modifications of the Socratic tradition as part of their shared intellectual history.
So in practice, my book attempted to simultaneously theorize history and historicize theory. But I felt that I had few precedents though I had a few fellow travelers, and I felt that I wasn’t in control of the process. The nature of Blake criticism doesn’t help, which until recently has been intensely divided between theoretical/conceptual approaches and historical approaches, perhaps even more so than in the case of many other authors. Schorer vs. Damon or Yeats, or Erdman vs. Frye seem to represent irreconciliable approaches to Blake. What I wanted to discover was a way to consciously theorize history while historicizing theory, to discover principles guiding a Hegelian synthesis of these two processes.
Added to these considerations has been my experience teaching upper division literary theory classes over the last several years. I have always been drawn to both literature and philosophy, and as you see my work combines both (along with history), but I chose literature as my field over philosophy because I believe that the concrete and particular is more real than the abstract and conceptual. However, when I teach theory, the difficulty of the material along with the seduction of learning advanced concepts often effaces the literature that theory is meant to illuminate. Furthermore, students tend to invest so much time and effort mastering the difficult texts presented in my theory classes — I teach from primary texts even in upper division undergraduate classes — that they never evaluate them critically. I have also been bothered by the tendency of theoretical approaches to reduce literature to a series of conceptual templates yielding pre-determined results, erasing the particularity and individuality of the most sophisticated literary works, even in published scholarship.
I believe that a cure for many of these ills is to historicize theory. I do not seek to trivialize theory by reducing it to its historical contexts, but to recognize that its development was motivated by human beings acting in response to very specific cultural and historical pressures. Sometimes these pressures are self-evidently represented in the work itself, as is the case with Gayle Rubin’s work. But more often it is much less so. I seek by historicizing theory to rehumanize literature: from T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” to Barthes’s death of the author to Derrida’s deconstruction of the metaphysics of presence literature has been dehumanized and departicularized in a great holocaust of authors. We have not been killing authors’ bodies but their authorial identities, and our understanding of literature suffers as a result.
I am not advocating here for a return to authorial intent as a guiding principle for textual interpretation. Historicizing theory leaves theory intact, which therefore continues to function independently of any literature not written with theory in mind. However, I have for the present abandoned the hope for a Hegelian synthesis in favor of Blakean contraries: theory and history remain discrete, independent, autonomous, and in dialog, so that with these contraries there can be progression. I look forward to what more I can learn from contributions to this volume.