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Who murdered critical theory?


As Anna Kornbluh writes in her review of The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet, the “theory novel” has become an established genre, but one with a misleading moniker. These novels don’t so much do theory as they deride and undermine it for its much-discussed pretentiousness, self-importance, and deliberate opacity. But Kornbluh argues that this is a missed opportunity. Rather than employing critical theory to serve merely as the butt of jokes, the theory novel could show how to do theory in a new way, using the resources of literature to examine questions of language, identity, and politics. But alas, many theory novels eschew this approach for cheap laughs, and Binet’s The Seventh Function of Language is no exception, writes Kornbluh. Read an excerpt from her review below, or the full text at Public Books:

“The theory novel” has begun to be recognized by literary critics and historians of the present as a newly prevalent genre in its own right, which Nicholas Dames defines as “a strangely conservative and undialectical postmodern utopia” intent on reducing theory, once “key to all the world’s things,” to “just another thing-in-the-world.” Far from an occasion to rethink how literary form might itself be a sibling of theory—in de-instrumentalizing language, propounding critique, projecting better worlds—theory has appeared to novelists ranging from Jonathan Franzen to Zadie Smith as a shortcut to milieu, a byword for esoterica, a joke. And now the ultimate theory incubator, French academia, has coughed up its own homicidal roman à clef, killing Roland Barthes for a laugh.

Laurent Binet is a literary darling (winner of the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman for his novel HHhH) and a professor of French literature (University of Paris III), so it is, sorry to say, befuddling that he has produced a work of so little art and so much anti-intellectual snark. The Seventh Function of Language spins a detective story from the banal traffic collision that ultimately claimed Barthes’s life, pitting a hard-boiled right-wing gumshoe against the namby-pamby antics of semioticians and queers.

Image via Public Books.