SCE Thirtieth Anniversary Exchange
2006 MLA Meeting
Philadelphia, PA
27-30 December

Vincent B. Leitch
University of Oklahoma

Statement 1: "Theory Futures"


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Statement 1: "Theory Futures"
Vincent B. Leitch, University of Oklahoma

I was involved in the early development of the Society for Critical Exchange founded in 1976. I recall taking part, for example, in a debate during the 1977 SCE/Modern Language Association session on “The Function of Controversy,” which was taped and printed in SCE Reports #4 (June 1978). In 1980 I organized an SCE/MLA session “Deconstructive Criticism: Directions,” with a keynote lecture by Barbara Johnson and responses from five scholars, among whom were Andrew Parker, Joseph Riddel, and William Spanos. The proceedings appeared in SCE Reports #8 (Fall 1980), 108 pp., along with a separate Supplement--Deconstructive Criticism: A Selected Bibliography (Fall 1980), 54 pp., complied by Richard Barney. At the time I was completing my book, Deconstructive Criticism , published in 1983, and the SCE session and publication played an important part in that process. I recall also that during this period I set up formal links between SCE and the South Atlantic MLA with assistance from Ralph Cohen of the University of Virginia. I served on the first SCE Board of Directors from 1978 to 1983.

In those days the Society was a meeting place for the rising generation of North American literary and cultural theorists, providing emotional support, networking opportunities, conference and publication outlets, and a sense of mission. Among its main aims, in retrospect, were the professionalization, dignification, and mainstreaming of theory in the university world. The preferred approach to these goals was and remains critical exchange and collaboration. The SCE ethos, if I can put it that way, culminated for me personally during the six years I worked with a team of five other editors on the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism published in 2001. The aims of this project included the consolidation and monumentalization as well as pedogogical dissemination of theory in the context of the neoconservative culture wars that fulminated against theory starting in the 1980s and running right up to today in the U.S.

As concerns the future, I would like to see SCE continue five valuable projects: (1) retain its annual conference work with the national and regional MLAs and the Conference on College Composition and Communication; (2) maintain its project-focused independent conferences (going on since the early 1980s); (3) keep its commitments to publication as well as to collaborative research; (4) reenergize its online presence first set up in the 1990s; and (5) remain at the forefront of selected crossdisciplinary research and publication projects initiated by the membership. There are, of course, other possibilities and goals.

SCE might consider a formal project of institutional history. As I imagine it, this would entail compiling an archive of the Society's 30-year history and depositing it in a library, for example, at the University of California--Irvine where so many theory archives exist and are sought. It might extend to interviews, online perhaps, with key people as well as collecting letters, files, publications, records, and reminiscences. The point is SCE has played an important and telling role in the development of theory as an academic specialty and new interdiscipline of postmodern times. Future historians can be expected to write about it. There may be grant support for such an undertaking.

A related project would be an “SCE Reader” or a “Best of SCE” book collection that combs through past issues of SCE Reports (1976-82), Critical Exchange (1982-1990), the Electronic College of Theory (1991-99), and maybe past conference proceedings.

Given the strong antitheory currents inside and outside the profession, the Society might also contemplate ways to insure the long-term survival and health of the field, which itself keeps developing. Perhaps hold an annual or biannual one-week Summer Institute for Critical Exchange--half conference, half training school for both graduate students and postdocs (maybe offering Continuing Education Units or academic credits). This is based in part on the model long employed each June by the Marxist Literary Group. It is a matter of creating opportunities for rising generations.

Perhaps SCE should institute an online journal, for instance, a graduate student-oriented and -directed venture, with staggered short-term editorial boards composed of theory-oriented students from around the U.S., Canada, and the globe. That would be a productive way to initiate a future.

Theory is increasingly popular around the world, notably in East Asia, Europe, India, and the Middle East. Outreach is warranted.

As far as new SCE-designated research projects, there are plenty of possibilities depending on the membership. Topics like fundamentalisms, low-brow literatures, the disaggregation of national literatures come to mind. Opportunities will arise and need encouragement and support.

What lies in the future for theory? I'll make three predictions. First, theory will continue to be disseminated through innumerable specialties, periods, subspecialties, disciplines, and national contexts to the point of losing its identity in various settings. Second, challenges can be expected in North America to the now standard three graduate and undergraduate theory course offerings and requirements, namely Introduction to Theory, History of Theory, and Modern/Contemporary Theory. So let us be prepared to defend while continuously transforming these bread-and-butter courses. And third, theory must go global: it needs to include materials from Arabic, Chinese, Indian, and Japanese traditions, reaching back to ancient times and recontextualizing theory's lingering Eurocentrism.