Archives | Theory's Empire
Thursday, May 12, 2005
The Literary Wittgenstein and Theory’s EmpireAs mentioned a few days ago, I am planning a few Massive Multi-Thinker Online Reviews on the lines of the China Miéville event at CT. This post gives some advance detail, in case you want to do your homework early.
Tuesday, May 31, 2005
Book Event Info: Theory’s Empire and The Literary Wittgenstein
I'm trying to arrange our two book events. Obviously we want to pick dates that are agreeable to participants, but we don't know who will participate yet. But when I write to invite, I have to have a date. So we'll just pick.
See this post for some basic info about these anthologies. And Amardeep helpfully compiled a bibliography if you want to get access to some bits of Theory's Empire without shelling out. We are hoping for some freebie PDF downloads of bits of the Wittgenstein book. We'll see if that pans out.
If I get a large number of responses from folks who are interested but don't like these dates, I'll consider shifting. As readers who may want to show up and comment, or as bloggers who may want to opine from your own platforms, please feel free to say whether this scheduling is good. Also, if you are a smart and qualified someone - blogger or not - who would like to be invited to be a roundtable participant, I'm accepting submissions. You don't have to be an academic, but presumably it will help since these are academic books. Go ahead. Submit a thoughtful review or discussion piece or critical essay. Email it to me a week before the event at the very latest, with a sensible subject line and basic biographical data. Send it ready to be posted as a blogpost or, if that is beyond you, send as MS-Word attachment with formatting that won't give me a headache, turning it into a blogpost. A certain amount of informality is fine - preferably of the brisk, engaging sort; I'm not interested in ill-mannered or gonzo stuff. I'm not planning on extending guest-posting privileges to anyone I don't know. But your post, if accepted, will be posted on your behalf. (If I already know you, better yet. Email me and tell me you are planning to participate.)
I want these events to be maxi-reviews/mini-conferences. I'm not exactly sure what that means. Something like those Crooked Timber events - the Miéville roundtable; the recent Steven Levitt go-round. I know I want to collect a number of serious reviews. I know I want to get a number of the volume contributors to respond. Back and forth. Beyond that, we'll see. Massive Multi-Thinker Online Review. At the end I'll collect all the pieces and 'publish' them together in handsome PDF format. Neat. I hope.
Monday, July 11, 2005
Theory’s Empire Event Starts Tomorrow
The Valve’s first book event starts tomorrow. Our text is Theory’s Empire. See table of contents here. Amardeep made a handy bibliography, telling you where you can access some contents elsewhere - Project Muse, your local university library & etc.
Originally the plan was to dedicate three days exclusively to the event. We’ve switched to a more logistically relaxed two-week (or so) time frame. Couple days on Theory's Empire, then back to our regularly scheduled para-academic persiflage, interspersed with however much more TE material we get, until everyone is tired; then we declare victory. All contributions will eventually be collected and lightly edited into one handsome, stylish PDF document and released under Creative Commons – an unofficial critical companion to the volume, in effect.>
The contributors to the volume have been invited to participate, and I hope at least a few of them do. I have lined up several non-Valve bloggers who will be holding forth from their respective platforms. So far, Michael Bérubé has a critical response to Mark Bauerlein's B&W article on the volume. John McGowan has just posted a long review. And Jonathan Mayhew has a pair of interesting posts up here (in response to Bérubé) and here.
If you are a blogger who would like to join the discussion, I’m planning to do link round-ups as appropriate. Make sure I know your post exists. Consider the comment box to this post a Theory's Empire open thread.
Finally, let me thank Jennifer Crewe and Meredith Howard, of Columbia UP for their support for our little experiment.>
Theory’s Empire - Making Sense of the Theme
Our Theory's Empire event started early, with Mark Bauerlein's B&W article and Michael Bérubé's vigorous riposte. Let me join the discussion by way of introducing my general thoughts on the value and coherence of the volume's theme. (John McGowan posted his review just as I was finishing writing this. He takes sort of the same line as Bérubé. Later I'll respond to some of his specific points.)Continue reading "Theory’s Empire - Making Sense of the Theme"
Theory’s Empire: Ersatz Theoretical Ecumenicalism & Criticism qua Criticism
If asked to defend the publication of Theory’s Empire in twenty-six words, I’d write:
“The Politics of Theories of Interpretation,” pp. 235-247
E.D. Hirsch, Jr.
“Is There a Politics of Interpretation?” pp. 248-258
Walter Benn Michaels
“The Politics of Interpretation,” pp. 259-278
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
Pilfered from the September, 1982 Critical Inquiry‘s table of contents, those twenty-six words represent the value of Theory’s Empire far more eloquently than I will.Continue reading "Theory’s Empire: Ersatz Theoretical Ecumenicalism & Criticism qua Criticism"
Tuesday, July 12, 2005
Theory’s Empire--Wrestling the Fog Bank
If you’re even slightly simpatico, you’ve got to feel bad for the editors of Theory’s Empire. There’s no more basic feature of “theory” in the literary academy than its committed antiformalism and its hostility to definition of any kind. Despite John McGowan’s suggestions to the contrary, there seems to be pretty universal agreement—among defenders as well as opponents—that for some decades now there has indeed been an identifiable fashion (marked by rhetorical style, ethos, and commonly invoked authorities, however eclectic) that all agree to call Theory. But good luck getting its defenders to articulate core principles, methods, or topics. As Thomas Nagel says, arguing against Theory is like wrestling a fog bank. So putting together a critical anthology that would be both comprehensive and structurally coherent must have been quite a task for Daphne Patai and Will Corral.Continue reading "Theory’s Empire--Wrestling the Fog Bank"
As the author of Theory of Literature (long considered the primary theoretical pillar supporting the New Criticism), Rene Wellek surely exemplifies the imperative to separate theory from Theory that John Holbo has been discussing. Wellek cleary believed in the efficacy of theory--which he defines as “concerned with the principles, categories, functions, and criteria of literature in general"--but as early as 1982 he feared that literary theory was undermining the very assumptions on which literary study had been based. Were his fears (at least about the kind of theory then being promulgated) well-founded? I think not.
His essay,"Destroying Literary Studies,” reprinted in Theory’s Empire, contends that Theory (primarily deconstruction and reader-response theory, but also extending as far back as Northrop Frye) was threatening “the whole edifice of literary study” in an “attempt to destroy literary studies from the inside.” In retrospect, this seems an absurd charge to have leveled against the likes of Derrida, Frye, Stanley Fish, and (!) Harold Bloom, and seems to vindicate the counter-charge that New Criticism was an especially narrow and insular movement. If even Frye and Bloom couldn’t be countenanced as serious-minded rivals, wasn’t it New Criticism that was doomed to destroy itself “from the inside”?
Probably so. Wellek is the only scholar associated with first-generation New Criticism to be represented in Theory’s Empire, so perhaps it would be unfair to take his remarks as representative of the attitude to Theory of the New Critics as a whole. (The editors of TE seem to present it as such, however. There are only two references to Cleanth Brooks in the whole book, a few scattered references to W.K. Wimsatt--mostly summarizing “The Intentional Fallacy"--none at all to John Crowe Ransom.) And it is indeed disconcerting (to me) to come across such pronouncements as these from someone famous for having made the distinction between “extrinsic” and “intinsic” approaches to literary criticism: that Theory “refuses to acknowledge that the relation of mind and world is more basic than language”; that Theorists “refuse to understand that words designate things and not only other words, as they argue”; that Theory represents “the rejection of the whole ancient enterprise of interpretation as a search for the true meaning of a text.”Continue reading "Hostilities"
Wednesday, July 13, 2005
A Respose to “The Deconstructive Angel”
This is a guest post by Adam Kotsko, graduate student at the Chicago Theological Seminary and proprietor of The Weblog. He is on vacation from blogging this week so he can blog at the Valve.
I wish to take issue primarily with one sentence in M. H. Abrams’ contribution to Theory’s Empire, “The Deconstructive Angel”; it is exemplary of the register in which Abrams’ misreading operates:
Continue reading "A Respose to “The Deconstructive Angel”"
What is distinctive about Derrida is first that, like other French structuralists, he shifts his inquiry from language to écriture, the written or printed text; and second that he conceives a text in an extraordinarily limited fashion (202).
Why I love theory / Why I hate theory
Why I love theory
Theory is a large subject for me, because it has been a part of my intellectual life in the profession for more than twenty years. In graduate school I took several theory classes: narrative theory, theory of the lyric--even a course just on the work of Roland Barthes. I have been heavil influenced, at one time or another by theorists like Barthes, Kenneth Burke, Maurice Blanchot, Walter Benjamin, Charles Bernstein. I have pondered the question of why so many theorists have last names starting with B. (Any ideas, Michael Bérubé?) I have taught courses in theory as well. I have spent many profitable hours with Epistemology of the Closet, a work inflected with Derridean interpretive modes and devoted to the close reading of canonical texts of literature. I think the story of the development of theory from Russian Formalism (which I love) to the present day is fascinating. It is the story of how intellectuals have incorporated the ideas of their time into the study of literature. I love watching how Kenneth Burke uses Freud and Marx to develop an idea of literature as symbolic action. How Barthes in his brilliantly dilettantish way tries to develop a “science” of literature from whatever intellectual currents were available to him. I love how current theorists use Wittgenstein or Gadamer to explain how we understand poetry.
So I love theory. How could anyone be against theory in general? Il n’y a pas de hors théorie.
See below the fold for why I hate theory.Continue reading "Why I love theory / Why I hate theory"
On Mark Bauerlein’s “Social Constructionism: Philosophy for the Academic Workplace”
As there was travel-induced delay in receiving the book, I decided to write first about an article that’s available online for everyone to read. Later, I will post some comments about the volume in particular, with specific reference to the question of its audience and in what type of class might it be assigned.
Bauerlein argues that social constructionism has gained prominence in the humanities (a too-general term he frequently uses, but once qualifies as mostly applying to literature and -studies departments) because its unquestioned assumptions allow for the mass-production of scholarship in an age of scholarly overabundance. I’m sympathetic to parts of his argument, puzzled by others.
I agree, along with everyone in scholarly publishing (and the official statements of the MLA as I recall), that the overemphasis on the quantity of scholarly production, particularly books, in English and affiliated departments is neither sustainable nor sane. (I should indicate here that I have rarely heard anyone, when observing the poor quality of today’s books, include their own.) Bauerlein doesn’t talk much about the cause of this problem, however. If he followed his materialist analysis to its conclusions, I suspect he would address academic labor conditions and status envy in more detail.
Few would disagree that, if people were able to take more time writing and researching their books, they would be better than they currently are. While uneasy with the specifics of Bauerlein’s description of social constructionism, I agree that the canny will make intellectual choices that they might otherwise avoid if their entire future is at stake. There are two things to note here, however: 1) What Bauerlein calls “social constructionism” is thus only a symptom and 2) his analysis of institutional pressures applies even more accurately to the New Criticism.
GI Bill. Expansion of universities. Baby boom. Ready-made critical template. De-emphasized time-intensive contextual investigation. Superficially easy to teach. It’s a familiar bit of institutional history. And is the philosophical underpinning of the New Criticism much different from social constructionism? One, perhaps, overemphasizes objectivity. The other, in Bauerlein’s version, impatiently denies its existence. I don’t think that’s accurate or fair. But there’s a more important problem.
What can be done to change institutional standards about scholarly publication? Bauerlein often speaks wistfully about times before the BFT. Did they exist at UCLA in the 80s? At Emory at any point since he’s been teaching there? I’d guess not. I suspect the only solution is for the departments and institutions regarded as elite to unilaterally abolish the BFT (or B2FT). Though I have an estimate of the plausibility of this ever happening, I will first invite reader speculations.
I am reluctant to discuss “social constructionism” as presented in this essay because I don’t think it’s the main point. There’s a brief mention of “science studies,” but there isn’t any analysis of the Edinburgh school, to take one important example out of many. An uncontextualized soundbite from Heidegger on Newton. Roger Kimball calls something “sophomoric.” Ian Hacking has written lucidly on the topic. His The Social Construction of What? and the essays collected in Historical Ontology are both valuable and accessible resources for anyone interested in the philosophical issues too briefly treated here. But the essay addresses an important question about the social construction of academic standards. I wish that Bauerlein would have spent less time with social constructionism and more investigating the history of the “quantification system” that “stands as the academic wisdom of the age.”
Theory’s Empire: Activity Elsewhere
A quick update on posts about Theory’s Empire that aren’t up on this site. First, there’s Mr. Berube‘s contribution on the same Bauerlein article Jonathan discusses below. (Why that particular article’s such a lightning rod should be the mandatory topic of the next post written about it.) Then there’s Tim Burke‘s discussion of Theory’s cultural moment and how Theory’s Empire confronts its legacy. Finally, there’s Scott Eric Kaufman‘s discussion of the now infamous “erudition exchange” and how it’s led a little boy astray in the wide, wide academic wilderness. (Not to ruin the ending, but...he dies.)
UPDATE #1: John McGowan‘s response has yet, despite our best efforts, to garner the attention it deserves. Chop chop, people! Chop chop!
UPDATE #2: John Emerson has a piece, taking a book entitled The Empire of the Text to task for being unprofitably Theory-encrusted. Sort of a case study in how trickle-down metaphysical mannerisms can hurt, rather than help. - the editor
UPDATE #3: Ray Davis has a piece up at Pseudopodium about how Theory’s Empire probably is, and is not, a topic worth getting in such a lather about. - the editor
If I’ve missed any of the other articles, it’s entirely out of malice. Still, you may want to email me with a link to your contribution.
Thursday, July 14, 2005
Four Challenges to Postcolonial Theory
At a general level, Theory’s Empire seems to me like a very useful anthology. It gives a voice and venue to a few American critics whose contribution was quite substantial, but who fell from grace after the advent of Literary Theory.
Admittedly, it’s far from a complete text, as the discussions of the book on and off The Valve have already shown. In order to place the contributions from M.H. Abrams or John Searle to the anthology in context, it’s necessary to know (and know fairly well) the full shape of the debates that transpired in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s around Theory. Many prominent literary theorists – Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller, and Jonathan Culler chief among them – scarcely fit the stereotype of politically correct, canon-leveling philistine that is often associated with the ‘Theory’ of the early 1990s.
But full contextual documentation is probably too much to ask from an anthology, especially one that has a polemical program alongside its historical, recuperative one. Like other polemical ‘theory’ anthologies, including The Empire Writes Back and Fear of a Queer Planet, Theory’s Empire will be remembered more for its title and for its editors’ introduction than for their specific choices or the arrangement of essays.
Big anthologies like the ones mentioned mark events in the academic life-cycle. But what is the event here? No one is advocating going back to a pre-political or pre-linguistic New Criticism; no, the effects of French theory have been dispersed too widely for that to be feasible, even if it might be desirable for some. Some are talking about depoliticization, and some are arguing for less ‘culture’, more literature. All are legitimate demands, though it might be that what is really wanted is something other than what is asked for – not less politics, but a more balanced and thoughtful kind of politics; not less culture, but a different kind of culture.
Though some reviewers will probably end up seeing this as an anti-Theory event, its significance is probably still up in the air to a much greater degree than as happened with the other epochal anthologies named. The results might end up being rather modest—the general recuperation of earlier generations of scholars who have, in recent years, gone on a kind blacklist for being overly ‘naïve’ or ‘pre-theoretical.’ Some of the ‘boring’ scholarship that was done before 1977 could be very useful to us today, and in the future. I’m often looking for models to help my graduate students (and indeed, myself) learn how to make extended arguments (such as one writes in a dissertation), and M.H. Abrams might be it: it doesn’t get any cleaner than The Mirror and the Lamp.
I’ll hold off on further comments on the general shape of the volume for now, since I haven’t read every essay and anyway I doubt I have anything original on that score after so much has already been written by my peers.
In the following essay I’ll make detailed reference to essays four essays that challenge postcolonial theory specifically. The essays by Erin O’Connor and Meera Nanda are from Theory’s Empire. In both of these essays, there is much that is genuine and productive – much to take quite seriously – though there are also troubling instances of rhetorical overreaching. A third essay is “The Postcolonial Aura” (1994) by Arif Dirlik, is generally critical of the term “postcolonial,” the kinds of people who study it, and the work they do. Though Dirlik is probably the harshest general critic of postcolonial theory, by an unusual kind of irony he himself has been drawn into the fold; his work is widely assigned in postcolonial literature and theory courses as well as anthologized in ‘postcolonial studies’ readers. Finally, the fourth essay I will refer to is actually a text that is on the surface quite sympathetic to the postcolonial project. It is Priya Joshi’s introduction to her book, In Another Country, and it levels criticisms against some of the major major voices in postcolonial theory that are as sharp as O’Connor’s, without taking a confrontational tone. I also mention her example as a kind of postcolonial scholarship that succeeds as a research project, avoids the pitfalls and traps often characteristic of ‘postcolonialism,’ and makes useful ‘internal’ criticism of the field.
Theory’s Empire--It’s the Institution Stupid
A consensus appears to be developing among at least some of us talking about TE that the major issues are institutional and sociological. The problem (to the extent we agree there is one) is not any ideas particular to Theory, in other words, but the academic celebrity system, the tenure review process, and/or the guild process of professional training.
If that is an emerging consensus, it’s one I find both encouraging and disheartening.Continue reading "Theory’s Empire--It’s the Institution Stupid"
Theory’s Empire: More Activity Elsewhere
Before you ask: Yes, I too fear redundancy. Just not that much. So as not bump Sean and Amardeep’s excellent posts down, I’m linking to my adventures in fact-checking--you can too have adventures in fact-checking--and John McGowan’s history of criticism and theory, in which he compliments the Valve on the civility of its tone but expresses disappointment about the number of participants in the Big Event.
Guilt that I may’ve bumped Amardeep off the page overwhelms. Read his essay. Click here.
Proust, whom I have been reading on my family vacation, sometimes sounds like a contributor to Theory’s Empire: in the final volume of In Search of Lost Time, Proust says things like “I began to perceive that I should not have to trouble myself with the various literary theories which had at moments perplexed me”; “Authentic art has no use for proclamations of this kind, it accomplishes its work in silence”; “And it is perhaps as much by the quality of his language as by the species of aesthetic theory which he advances that one may judge of the level to which a writer has attained in the moral and intellectual part of his work. Quality of language, however, is something the critical theorists think they can do without, and those who admire them are easily persuaded that it is no proof of intellectual merit, for this is a thing which they cannot infer from the beauty of an image but can recognize only when they see it directly expressed”; and “A work [of art] in which there are theories is like an object which still has its price tag on it.” These are peculiar suggestions for Proust to make, since they come in the middle of sixty or so pages of literary theory. Inside the novel is a substantial work on the theory of the novel. The culmination of this sequence of novels, the telos of thousands of pages of fiction, is the moment when Proust at last realizes how a novel should be written.Continue reading "Theorizing Novels"