Which side are you on: literature or theory? I know it is not easy to choose. But do you know there are still many people who have already chosen their camp? Yes, I have seen many Facebook posts where people were fighting over this issue. I have then realised that this is not a new trendy argument of the 21st century. Rather, I remembered that the daunting thought of whether theory overshadows literature was rife in our academia at least since the last decade. In major cases, the doubt is often raised by academics, poets, and writers who firmly think that literature has a unique aesthetic code that only a sensible mind can understand.
Their position, which I completely disagree with, is literature is a creative act, whereas theory is merely an outsider ruining the inner logic of creativity. Moreover, they suggest that the aesthetic spells enunciated through a literary text have a great chance not to get properly articulated through interdisciplinary theoretical approaches, which tend to read literature relating it to today’s humanity, society, economy, culture, history, and politics.
But are literature and theory truly antagonistic? Or is this just an attempt to discard “theory” as a mere non-creative field? I think theory is not at odds with creativity; instead, as Professor Azfar Hussain said, those who tend to banish “theory” from being qualified as a creative discipline continue an epistemic error on the history of the creativity of theory. This discriminatory attitude towards theory and its creative history is one glowing example of how intolerance can be practised in cultural spheres. It is not a crime being an anti-theory. Still, those who take an anti-theory position only to defend aesthetics make an impression that they want to keep literature and art exclusively as the cultural identity of their own class.
We can associate the fetish for aesthetics with the creed of Art for Art’s Sake, in which art stands alone for the sake of its beauty, serving no political and social purposes. In this doctrine, art is not a social or a political act. Its main task is to produce transcendental feelings, prying open a spiritual realm separated from low life and banality. Interestingly, apart from writers, this is the belief held by many academics in Bangladesh teaching literature in universities. For them, literature is sublime that requires a sophisticated mind which can judge its aesthetics properly.
In another case, the obsession with purity and elegance frequently appears in a manner that the advocates of aestheticism define something as good literature. Aesthetics, only aesthetics becomes the yardstick to measure which literature or art is acceptable and which is not. Every literature and art should go through a sanitisation process to come out as perfect. So, anything that does not conform to this standard of “aesthetics” is jettisoned and criticised as having low esteem. This approach limits the functionality of literature, giving importance only to concerns for beauty and transcendence as if literature is a sacred product, disconnected and distanced from our everyday life, society, politics, history, ethics, and so on.
In today’s world, when everything is interpreted and read from multidisciplinary perspectives, the attitude practised by many academics and writers in Bangladesh is disappointing because it discourages an interdisciplinary possibility of a text. And when these admirers of aesthetics want to discard theory, they do not want to see that the possibility of polyphonic interpretations of a text would never have been possible if different theories after the 1950s did not emerge to intervene in the aesthetic realm of literature and art celebrated by the so-called flag-bearers of aesthetics. I have personally thought of why aesthetes might dislike intervention of theory and found three possible grounds: i) theory questions the high/low binary, ii) challenges the authority of aesthetics in understanding art/literature, and iii) allows polyphonic meanings of a text.
The disillusionment, that is, best literature is objective and transcendental, makes possible the hierarchical distinctions between classic, popular, and mass literature in society. It is those aesthetes who necessitate the high/low literature binary without realising that their binary thinking normalises the prevailing class stratifications and makes it look normal that lower-class or working-class people have no higher taste of artistic judgement. So the literature they read and the artworks they praise are obviously cheap and lame. It establishes the cultural monopoly of a small group over others, disseminating a message that Our aesthetics and taste are the best.
So, we cannot give full indemnity to this attitude. We need to look at how this idea of high/low literature is constructed in our society and justify the dominance of one culture over others. We also need to pay attention to why some literature/art is kept at a high pedestal in society. What is paradoxical is that we want to abolish rich/poor difference from this country and establish a pluralistic society where many voices can exist, but still when it comes to the question of art, literature, and entertainment, we become conservative by continuing to keep alive the weird demarcating idea of high and low.
Let me come back to the point I started from. Literature or theory? This question is useless and irrelevant because both can cohabit beautifully, and both can be theoretically creative and creatively theoretical. There is no conflict and contest between them; instead, they have a syncretic possibility as one always completes the other.