Archives | Theory's Empire
Friday, November 21, 2008
How not to use Theory’s Empire
Scanning through the critical literature on Kafka—the dissertation finished, I’m free to pursue old ideas—I run into an essay which uses Theory’s Empire in the very manner the anthology’s critics assumed everyone would. I will, however, Google-proof my exasperation by replacing all mentions of Derrida and things Derridean with cognates of the word carrot. The essay begins:
The 2005 volume includes major reassessments of poststructuralist theory, notably [The Carrot’s] . . . . The emphasis on “undecidability” in Kafka can be viewed as symptomatic of the influence of [Carrot] Theory embraced by the American literary academy in the 1970s and 1980s . . . . But [lowercase-c carrot’s] skeptical effect undermined the certitude that Kafka was a politically important novelist. For its detractors, the [carrotist] view that there is “nothing outside of the text” ignores that texts like Kafka’s have shaped human lives and human history.
Reductive enough for you? No? How about this?
Wellek, who helped to introduce [Carrot] theory to American literature departments, now asserts that [carrots] have destroyed literary studies, while Frederick Crews argues that “[the Carrot’s] judgment that ‘there is nothing outside the text’ automatically precludes recourse to evidence.” In Crews’s view, “both [the Carrot] and his myriad followers think nothing of appropriating and denaturing propositions from systems of thought whose premises they have already rejected.” Thomas Nagel goes further in condemning “post-modern relativism” as a “quick fix” which puts reason to sleep. In Theory’s Empire, [the Carrot]’s language is described as a “maze,” a “prison house of language,” a “limbo of combined attention and nonassertion."
These assessments appeal to raw authority. Crews and Nagel hate on [the Carrot] and rightly so. Why? Because [the Carrot’s] language is as empty and invidious as that of Kafka’s bureaucrats:
[T]o what degree do [the Carrot’s] rhetorical devices and ingenious language games resemble the language of the Courtiers who torture Joseph K.?
Care to guess what conclusion the author draws? I take comfort in the thought that everyone will admit this is an awful appropriation of the thought forwarded in Theory’s Empire—that it is to academic argument what posts on Kos are to nuanced political thought—but remember that this sort of anti-intellectual response is exactly what the anthology’s detractors warned would follow if it ever gained traction. While I think this falls under “the abuses” instead of “the uses” of the collection, I still feel the queasy creep of wrongness starting to settle in . . . .
Wednesday, December 05, 2007
Framing Theory’s Empire - Event and Text
I’ve got a book out! Framing Theory’s Empire [amazon]; or support your local independent publisher by buying direct. You can buy the paperback or download the entire book as a free PDF from the Parlor Press site. UPDATE: and it’s been marked down! Now Parlor direct is cheaper than Amazon. $17.60 vs. $22! A bargain! I’m still waiting for my paper copy to show. (Any of you contributors out there gotten yours yet?) I think the cover is rather handsome. But, then: a father should love his child. The lovely Belle Waring and I designed it together.
A book, eh? See here! What’s all this about? ‘Theory’? Yes, exactly! In the English/humanities department sense: the idiomatically ofless sort, you might say; as in, ‘I do theory’. The stuff that started in the 60’s, got really big in the 80’s. Then either went away or is still hanging around, depending who you ask. (If you ask me: it’s still hanging around.)
If you spent late 2005 in a coma and missed all the glory, we staged a ‘book event’, round-table reviewing the Patai and Corral edited Theory’s Empire (Columbia UP, 2005). See the sidebar for link. Framing Theory’s Empire contains contributions to that event, cleaned up, polished up, edited. (I’ve written an introduction, talking about these issues. If you care to read it.)
The contributors are: Scott McLemee (he generously contributed a preface), John Holbo, Mark Bauerlein, Michael Bérubé, John McGowan, Scott Kaufman, Sean McCann, Daniel Green, Adam Kotsko, Tim Burke, Amardeep Singh, Jonathan Mayhew, Jonathan Goodwin, Chris Cagle, Christopher Conway, Kathleen Lowrey, Brad DeLong, Matthew Greenfield, Morris Dickstein, Jeffrey Wallen, John Emerson, Mark Kaplan, Jodi Dean, Kenneth Rufo, Daphne Patai, Will H. Corral. (Patai and Corral were kind enough to contribute an “Afterword”. At the moment Amazon is giving them erroneous prominence, in the author line. I’ll have to see whether I can get Amazon to correct that. Not that I mind so very much. They themselves will probably be even more annoyed, because it might create some product confusion with Theory’s Empire itself.)
It’s the perfect stocking stuffer for the humanities graduate student on YOUR list!
I think it turned out to be a really great book. In addition to several posts that turned out to be just plain really solid essays, there is some lively, sharp conversation between several participants. There’s intelligent back and forth, actual addressing of critical points and hashing of differences, which is not something one always gets in themed anthologies. I think the informal quality of many of the pieces turns out to be a real virtue as well. It suits the topic. But you tell me. What do you think of the book? What do you think about our event, two years on?
I’m glad to get this done as well because, frankly, my Glassbead Books efforts for Parlor haven’t been quite rolling off the assembly-line, as I had originally hoped. It turns out making books is incredibly hard and time consuming, and folks don’t do stuff when you tell them to, and it’s hard to get folks to commit to helping out. Academics are always busy. I’m hoping that, with a grand total of TWO titles out now we’ve actually got a series. That is, a line, not just a single point. Anyway, next comes our Moretti book - I think. I want to get these things rolling out a lot faster.
Friday, February 02, 2007
‘Theory’ for me but not for thee
I don’t know how I missed this at the time. Last year Jodi Dean wrote a piece for Bad Subjects, on “Blogging Theory".
At any rate, missing from nearly every account of blogs and blogging is the genre of academic blogs, and its even smaller subset, the theory-minded blog—no doubt because the number of such blogs and their readers is small and their discussions specialized if not downright esoteric—Badiou, Benjamin, Blanchot, Heidegger, Zizek. There are of course a couple of very popular academic bloggers—Glen Reynolds of Instapundit is a law professor and Michael Berube teaches English at Penn State. But both, Reynolds more than Berube, tend more to punditry and political commentary than theory. They don’t blog primarily about their academic work. Their aims, audience, and impact are significantly larger than those of most academic and, more specifically, theory-oriented blogs.
The theory blogs—and I am thinking primarily of about thirty or so interconnected blogs—generally combine personal and theoretical explorations, discussions of culture and politics, reflections on academic practices, and anything that strikes the blogger’s fancy. So, while they share a thread of theoretical concerns, they also differ greatly.
Compare this with Dean’s response - not so many months earlier - to our Theory’s Empire event, in which the very employment of ‘theory’ - without any ‘of x’ - is taken as more or less dispositive proof of the worst sort of lazy anti-intellectualism and anxiously craven careerism.
Matt Christie and Mark Kaplan have picked up a discussion of ‘theory’ that has been circulating over the past month or so. Both rightly take issue with the reductions (the elimination of an object, say--theory of what??--and the application of the term to particular thinkers thinking since 1965) necessarily part of the operation of the anti-theory polemic. Other than their posts, I haven’t paid close attention to the blog discussion, although I have talked about Theory’s Empire and the discussion around it with academic friends. From my vantage point as a political theorist in a political science department (as opposed to a scholar working in literature and the humanities), what appears to me as the reductive thinking about theory seems the result of displacing real anxieties over the academic job market onto a fantasied image of their cause (Theory!) and a recoding of tired critiques of so-called ‘postmodernism’ into the popular (and faux populist/read ‘nationalist’) terms of today’s anti-intellectualism.
It strikes me that this is a pretty good proof-by-example of one of the contentions of several posts during our event: namely, that discussion often grounds out, unsatisfactorily, due to tediously transparent denialism on the theory side. (See also: the history of neocon apologetics.) The term, ‘theory’, is not just understood but voluntarily employed - and with a quite fine degree of precision and nuance - by those who ‘do theory’. There is such a thing as a ‘theory blog’, which will be marked by a distinctive style of appropriation of, and attitude towards, a more or less specifiable set of (mostly European) thinkers. Dean herself clearly takes it to be obvious and not in need of much explanation, let alone conceptual defense, that ‘theory blogging’ will not include most philosophy blogs, of which there are, of course, scores and scores; let alone other academic blogs, including academic blogs about politics and culture and so forth. It won’t include Michael Bérubé because, even though he is sympathetic in many ways, he doesn’t clearly ‘do theory’. The piece drops the heavy hint that there is not just something importantly distinctive but distinctively good about theory blogging. But how could this be due to anything but the distinctive, good character of theory? And if it makes sense to assert it is distinctively good, can it really be nonsense to consider that it might be distinctively bad?
UPDATE: I expect I will soon have it pointed out to me that the conception of ‘theory’ Dean is presupposing is tendentious; that is, it isn’t really clear she is drawing the line in the right place. Yes, for what it is worth, that is certainly true.
UPDATE the 2nd: Jodi Dean responds. I think she misses the point. More peculiarly, she credits Kotsko with the comic insight that my posts are ‘send ups’. Good heavens. As Empson says: “surely we can take some things for granted.” If Dean thinks she has ever once seen me with a straight face, it’s a miracle she didn’t accuse me of being insane instead of just mistaken. Perhaps she was being polite.
And as to the kerfuffle. I really don’t think that Adam and Rich should talk to each other any more. And am henceforth pursuing a no-fault deletion policy, at the suggestion of the omni-fault-finding John Emerson. (I guess it’s one of those ‘only Nixon could go to China’ things.) No obviously profitless abuse allowed.
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
I’m in the process of editing our Theory’s Empire event into a book, for Parlor Press. I have two questions for you: what should these books look like? What should the editorial goal be? I’m more or less going for: most of the posts, but not all; authors can re-write what they wrote for the final version. Links to the rough and tumble original event, so those curious to see it in the raw can find it easily. This approach may risk falling between two stools, however: not a record of an actual event, because it’s been polished; not fully polished academic work, because it’s basically still blog posts. I’m not actually worried that it won’t be a good book. Rereading the posts I’m really quite proud of how it went. We have several excellent essays. But, in general, what do you think my approach should be?
Which brings me to question two: I decided not to dig into comments and attempt to cull those for publication. I stuck with posts. But maybe that’s a mistake - and one I still have time to correct. Does anyone care to offer up candidates for ‘excellent comments to Theory’s Empire event posts’ deserving of inclusion in my fine book? If so, feel free to drop them in comments to this post. A distributed editorial effort would not only save me work but be, in some sense, a better measure of the sorts of comments people actually find valuable. Then there are potential copyright problems if I want to publish someone’s work. Would it be fair use? Well, I’ll worry about that if I decide to go with this best-of-the-boxes plan.
For ease of dropping in the box, you needn’t bother making links. Just cut and paste the text of the comment and give the permalink.
Tuesday, October 17, 2006
How Not To Trap (Academic) Game
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Thursday, August 24, 2006
For the Historical Record: Cog Sci and Lit Theory, A Chronology
Back in the ancient days of the Theory’s Empire event I contributed a comment paralleling the rise of Theory with that of cognitive science. That parallel seems - at least to me - of general interest. So I decided to dig it out from that conversation and present it here, in lightly edited form. The parallel I present does not reflect extensive scholarship on my part, no digging in the historical archives, etc. Rather, it is an off-the-top-of-my-head account of the intellectual milieu at the periphery of which I have lived my intellectual life.
I take 1957 as a basic reference point. That’s when Frye published his Anatomy; that’s when Chomsky published Syntactic Structures. 1957 is also when the Russians launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to circle the globe. The Cold War was in full swing at that time and Sputnik trigged off a deep wave of tech anxiety and tech envy. One consequence was more federal money going into the university system and a move to get more high school students into college. So we see an expansion of college and university enrollments through the 60s and an expansion of the professorate to accommodate. Cognitive science (especially its AI side) and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Theory rode in on this wave. By the time the federal money began contracting in the early 70s an initial generation of cognitivists and Theorists was becoming tenured in, and others were in the graduate school & junior faculty pipe-line. Of course, the colleges and universities couldn’t simply halt the expansion once the money began to dry up. These things have inertia.Continue reading "For the Historical Record: Cog Sci and Lit Theory, A Chronology"
Sunday, July 09, 2006
The Two Are Not One
[Inspired by arguments absent from this civil exchange.]
In “The End of the Poststructuralist Era,” from Follies of the Wise, Frederick Crews charts the hasty marriage and slow estrangement of poststructuralist thought and New Left activism. His argument, and its implications, may surprise you.
You see, the Yale School of deconstruction’s “manifest aim was ... to bring a spirit of erudite whimsy into the discussion of familiar [canonical] books, which would be rendered only more endearing by the discovery that their meanings were more multitudinous and undecidable than anyone had yet surmised” (308). Too true, too true.
Only, why would the discovery of even “more multitudinous and undecidable” dimensions to canonical literature open up the canon to previously marginalized voices? Wouldn’t deconstruction have the opposite effect? Hillis, speaking here in his 1986 presidential address, certainly thought so:
As everyone knows, literary study in the past few years has undergone a sudden, almost universal turn away from theory in the ordinary sense of an orientation toward language as such and has made a corresponding turn toward history, culture, society, politics, institutions, class and gender conditions. (283)
Color me confused. Here I thought theory necessarily entailed the commitments it so recently acquired. Here I thought older modes of criticism possessed the retrograde politics. Here I thought a lot of things a little historical perspective shattered. Why? Because the explanations were conceptual.
Because they’re always conceptual.
Poststructuralist thought always allies itself with a progressive politics, and poststructuralist thinkers always fold the latter into the former. The result? Opposition to poststructuralist thought necessarily entails an opposition to the progressiveness of its immanent politics. Now I can complain that those politics aren’t immanent, that no textual orientation contains an immanent politics, but I will be shouted down by those who experience as natural their political and theoretical commitments, who cannot disentangle them because, well, because no one can offer a convincing reason that they should.
For the better part of two decades, literary critics have used a poststructuralist theoretical approach to generate a body of progressive thought, so of course the two appear inseparable. Factor in the overwhelming number of conservative critics who fancy themselves poststructuralists, then think about it:
If everyone who does what they do shares the same politics, and everyone who doesn’t, doesn’t, why would they question a connection that feels so natural to them? They have no reason to.
So they haven’t. I have, but from the wrong direction. I started in the ‘70s moving forward, from the moment when the former radicals gained purchase in the discipline. All this time, I should have been looking at it from the other direction, from the ‘80s moving backwards. To point out, as Hillis does above, that “theory in the ordinary sense” existed independently of the commitments it eventually acquired.
Conceptual arguments be damned, I say, I have history. The two are not one, not naturally. They may be one of this lot, but more than likely not. Just a simple couple whose marriage, while productive, is neither permanent nor necessary.
Wednesday, April 26, 2006
Arguments about Higher Eclecticism, as Illustrated by Two Paintings with One Name
[What follows is a version of my initial response to the Spivak event. It seemed inappropriate earlier. I lacked the time to edit my complaints constructively last week, and still do. But I post them nonetheless, if only to deflate some preposterous claims forwarded elsewhere. I hide it all below the fold since it likely bores the lot of you. That said, it contains many pretty pictures, which we can discuss in isolation from the silly words which surround them. This will, however, be my final word on the matter.]Continue reading "Arguments about Higher Eclecticism, as Illustrated by Two Paintings with One Name"
Thursday, April 06, 2006
Conceptualization and its Vague Contents
A passage from John Searle, "Literary Theory and Its Discontents", in good ol’ Theory’s Empire (pp. 147-9):Continue reading "Conceptualization and its Vague Contents"
Wednesday, February 08, 2006
Peter Berkowitz’s review of Theory’s Empire in the Hoover Institution’s Policy Review is mostly the usual sort of argument made against Theory by conservatives (cultural and political): Theory is just a cover for various kinds of leftist political crusades, it represents an attack on the inherited principles of the Enlightenment, etc. If people like Berkowitz really do want to reform academic literary study to make it more literature-friendly, as he insists he does, they’re going to have to come up with a new set of arguments about what’s gone wrong beyond these overblown denunciations. I am myself sympathetic to the notion that literary study has become literature-unfriendly (as a number of my posts here have illustrated), but if I also find Berkowitz’s kind of analysis shrill and reductive, who, exactly, is he hoping to convince? Certainly not literary scholars who might be in a position to alter the discipline’s focus from the inside, who understand that blanket condemnation of Theory and the ritual invocation of Derrida as deconstructive demon aren’t very helpful since they can’t be taken seriously.Continue reading "Demanding Assent"
Tuesday, January 17, 2006
And Now For Something Completely Different
TLS (which has got itself a TypePad account and set up some blogs) has a rather critical review, by Simon Jarvis, of Theory’s Empire.Continue reading "And Now For Something Completely Different"
Monday, January 09, 2006
Sign of the Times?
The Little Womedievalist returned from Michael Clark’s Criticism 220A seminar and informed me that they’ll be reading from both books this quarter. (I’ve mentioned this particular seminar before. It’s been resurrected. Huzzah!) I won’t comment on how Clark intends to use it until, well, until I know how Clark intends to use it. Expect updates. (Unless I’m the only person this adoption interests...and I know I’m not.)
That said, a few more threads with the intellectual substance of this one and I could’ve skipped Clark’s course altogether.
Tuesday, December 13, 2005
Theory Dead, Heidegger Dull, The Chronicle Reports
[Note: Title intended to needle John and is not representative of the substance of either article.]
From the article:
It may be neither fair nor accurate, decades after Theory hit its high-water mark, to keep using it as a whipping boy for everything that has gone wrong with literary studies. “The problem of the humanities is funding, lack of institutional support, lowering enrollments, lowering numbers of hires, the rise of part-time labor,” says Andrew Parker, a professor of English at Amherst College. “This is the real crisis, not whether we have theory with a capital T or a small T.”
Many others interviewed for this article echo those sentiments. “I was astonished when Theory’s Empire was published,” Paul H. Fry, a professor of English at Yale University, writes in an e-mail message. “Literary theory is now a topic that interests a few people as a matter of intrinsic importance and matters to a few more as an object of historical research. Why continue to view it as a national threat? What empire?”
In branching out, or reaching out, theory risks losing some of what made it powerful and seductive in the first place. In his essay “Theory Ends,” Mr. Leitch offers up one final definition of theory: “a historically new, postmodern mode of discourse that breaches longstanding borders, fusing literary criticism, philosophy, history, sociology, psychoanalysis, and politics.” The result, he says, is a “cross-disciplinary pastiche” that falls under the increasingly wide banner of cultural studies.
This post does not constitute an endorsement. John’s thrown these balls in the air. I’m only here for the show. Another article on literary aesthetics may also be of interest.
[Updated links to the free versions of both articles.]
Wednesday, December 07, 2005
hix dixerit quispiam - or, you must try again until you get it right, part MCXVII (or whatever)
Another of my famous Theory posts. First, under the fold, clarifying repetitions of things I've said before. This frames part II which is contains notes for a draft of a history of Theory I am writing, which I'll post tomorrow. Part II is fairly new. Part I may give you déjà vu. (Tomorrow I'll turn it into a PDF but for now I can't be bothered completing the bibliography.)
I'm writing a book about Theory. This won't surprise you, but there is a consequence I would like to make explicit. In response to past posts I've gotten comments: why so obsessed? My focus is perceived as blindness, or possibly an attempt to refute continental philosophy on the cheap. The answer is: I'm writing a book. I quite understand that if I were discussing, say, continental philosophy in general, quite different things would need to be said. People write books sometimes. So read on if interested. This really is a chapter draft, incorporating old bits, with just a bit of shin-kicking postiness stuck on the bottom.Continue reading "hix dixerit quispiam - or, you must try again until you get it right, part MCXVII (or whatever)"
Monday, November 28, 2005
The Way We Argue Now: Amanda Anderson and Theoretical Dissent
Do scholars come any sharper than Amanda Anderson? Now that I’ve finished The Way We Argue Now: A Study in the Cultures of Theory, I doubt it. (I’m not alone.) The introduction is available to all. “Debatable Performances: Restaging Contentious Feminisms“ (included in The Way) and an earlier essay, “Cryptonormativism and Double Gestures: The Politics of Post-Structuralism,” are available to JSTOR subscribers and those who ask politely. Here’s her description of her conclusion:
The final chapter presses this reading of Habermas further, suggesting how we might view the ostensibly abstract and impersonal practice of postconventional critique and proceduralist democracy as an ethos in its own right. This chapter revisits Lionel Trilling’s Sincerity and Authenticity so as to provide a larger context for understanding the divergent trajectories of poststructuralist and proceduralist political theory. I claim that poststructuralism is in crucial respects the inheritor of the authenticity concept that Trilling saw as coming to dominate over sincerity in the modern period. Proceduralism, by contrast, as a provocative reframing of the sincerity concept, makes it possible to imagine the ways in which cultivated practices of reflection and argument can themselves be articulated as an ethos, at both the individual and collective levels.
What this final chapter attempts, then, is a displacement of the tendency to oppose reason and ethos, precisely by claiming an ethos of reason and argument. In doing so, I am also pressing for a culture of argument skeptical of the trumping claims made on behalf of the more limiting, antirational conception of ethos--variously conceived as charismatic critique, pregiven identity, or accommodating tact in the face of claims to the primacy of culturally specific systems of belief. This is the most provocative claim of the book: that the dominant paradigms within literary and cultural studies have had an adverse effect on the fostering of public-sphere argument precisely insofar as identity has come to seem the strongest argument of all.