Archives | Theory's Empire
Thursday, July 14, 2005
Thinking About Theory’s Empire
This is a guest post by Morris Dickstein, contributor to Theory’s Empire and author of many things. He has a new book out: A Mirror in the Roadway: Literature and the Real World. You can read a sample chapter here. Here is a review. - the editor
Because of the impressive scope and seriousness of the essays in Theory’s Empire, the book ultimately gives a devastating account of the academic literary culture of the last thirty years. To their credit, the editors excluded the many journalistic attacks on theory that came out in the 1980s and ‘90s. Most of them were based on little acquaintance with the work itself; instead they offered second-hand accounts of barbarisms of style, the preposterous titles of MLA papers, and the knee-jerk political bent of much of the writing itself. Theory’s Empire also leaves out politically motivated attacks by neoconservatives, invariably arising out of a biased and superficial familiarity with theory. Once in a while such critiques made telling points, usually in a satirical vein, and they helped make English professors the laughingstock of both the larger public and serious professionals in other fields. But they contributed little to the debate within literary studies itself, which, despite its political turn, had effectively opted out of the public sphere, acknowledging criticism within its own frame of discourse. Theory-minded academics saw little but retrograde ignorance, willed malice, and anti-intellectualism in these tendentious accounts, and it had no public language of its own to respond in kind.Continue reading "Thinking About Theory’s Empire"
Friday, July 15, 2005
The Death and Discontent of Theory
This is a guest post by Jeffrey Wallen, whose “Criticism as Displacement” appears in Theory’s Empire. - the editor
Reading through the very thoughtful posts about “theory” (with a capital T and/or a small t), about whether or not it exists (McGowan: “1) Theory with a capital T does not exist"), and whether or not it has been imperial and hegemonic, one irony keeps recurring to me. Most of the people I know, or at least most of the people I went to grad school with (the Humanities Center at Johns Hopkins, in the early and mid ‘80s), think that theory died, or rather was asphyxiated, some time shortly after the death of Paul de Man. The sorts of concerns and practices that seemed to be at the center of literary criticism in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s were now largely viewed as obsolete and tainted. The grand horizons for future deconstructive work projected by Paul de Man and Hillis Miller were mostly abandoned, and all of a sudden it became *very* difficult to get a job coming out of Yale in Comp. Lit.Continue reading "The Death and Discontent of Theory"
Saturday, July 16, 2005
Trilling’s Taste, An Instance
David Markson, on trying to find someone to direct his master’s thesis on Under the Volcano:
As a matter of fact I had to wander around the English department knocking on doors looking for someone to approve the project. I remember Lionel Trilling’s dismissal in particular: “What is all this drunkenness all about?” My whole object was to explain just that, obviously, but I decided to find less of a current to buck. Finally William York Tindall gave me a go-ahead.
I’ve written here before about the problem of seemingly inexplicable aesthetic judgments. You can’t explain Trilling’s failure to appreciate a work of such abundant genius as easily as the apparent motivation of the National Association of Scholar’s litany recited by Valentine Cunningham in his “Theory, What Theory?” article: “modernism” and “Chomsky” being among the hieratic keywords infesting the academy in today’s society (25-26). Szyslak’s well-known rejoinder to Simpson captures what is wrong there: “A car-hole!” (2F21) (I should note that Cunningham doesn’t exactly approve of the list.)
The Trilling case is more complex. If only very few readers can appreciate contemporary works which will later be acknowledged to be important, great, what have you, perhaps it is then maximally rational to choose books at random to champion. Though you can’t know for sure what’s going to be judged valuable, you do know that your own taste, constructed as it is by petrifying norms, is no reliable guide. But the value-judgments of the future are built on your own labor, complicating the matter even more.
Freedom is the recognition of the necessity of being wrong, of course, so pecca fortiter would be another worthy approach. Disputing the social construction of certain epistemological claims is one thing; who is willing to dispute the construction of evaluation? How relevant is evaluation to contemporary literary studies? John Ellis’s contribution to the volume has some remarks about on the subject, and I hope to conclude my posts about the book with some comments on them and on how I imagine a volume like Theory’s Empire might fare in the classroom.
Thursday, July 21, 2005
Teaching Theory’s Empire?
Many English Departments have an “Introduction to Graduate Study” course. The content of these classes varies depending on the school and who’s teaching it. I believe it was once more common than it is now for the course to be devoted to research methodology. Perhaps over the last twenty years, it has been used more as an introduction to the theoretical debates that shape the field. Theory’s Empire would have no place that I can imagine in the first type of course. Its essays are not exercises in literary theory or criticism; rather, they attempt to indicate the deficiencies of various contemporary approaches to these activities.
Supplemented by primary readings in the other texts being debated, TE would be useful in an introduction to the academic sociology of the English Department. I myself didn’t pay much attention to this sort of thing as an undergraduate, preferring instead to cultivate my aesthetic (or hide under some blankets and hope that somehow everything would work out), and I had to learn a lot very quickly about the profession when I entered graduate school. My first two seminars comprised a survey of a major author and an exercise in the practical use of theory. The bullshitting among my colleagues was far more intense in the second, through no fault of the professor, a singularly creative theorist. His attitude towards the books we were reading was that they should be used to generate ideas you could apply in your own work--an exhaustive study of Lacan and Hegel to evaluate the claims of one of these books, as seemed necessary to me at the time, was not in fact necessary for the purpose of the course, which was not to evaluate but to use.
Ellis wouldn’t approve: “Literary theorists find many useful ideas in adjacent fields, but to use them well they must master their meaning in the context of their origin. Because this mastery is rarely achieved, literary critics have always been prone to amateurish misuse of borrowed concepts” (95). One answer to this, and the one I received, is that the prospect of “mastery” is an illusion, one also fraught with considerable terminological baggage. There’s little point in denying that standards of mastery are relative. I get the feeling that few critics/literary historians/theorists/philologists alive now would fare well in tests of comparative mastery with the average 19th C German philologist, for example. You could attribute this to the actual Flynn Effect, or, more plausibly, to the exponential growth of knowledge. The logical alternative then to the chimera of mastery is a generative pragmatism: take what you can use, and run with it.
Anyone who uses any ideas from anywhere is subject to the charge of “amateurish misuse of borrowed concepts.” So much depends on the reader’s perspective. The study of literature encompasses many things. Its theories and practices are only incidentally pyramidical, inverted or otherwise. A problem with discussing general theoretical trends is that so much depends on their use. The essays in TE don’t deal with specific cases very often because they have been excised from longer works or larger debates. Some are content to evoke the snows of yesteryear.
Should then a class on academic sociology or professionalization be part of the required curriculum for any PhD program? An elective for undergraduate English majors who may be contemplating graduate school? If the choice is between that and a class heavy in bibliography and research methods, which is more important and why? I’m suggesting that the types of classes in which TE would be most logically taught would be just the very type that upset some of its traditionalist contributors.
Monday, July 25, 2005
Near Theory II (Bits and Pieces)This is the conclusion to "Near Theory (My creation, is it real?)", see above. It has been separated off for the convenience of those who like their punchlines without a lot of joke by way of lead-in. Well, really I suppose it contains the second punch-line. To get the joke you need to read just a little bit of the above post, but then you can quit in boredom and read this instead.
Near Theory (My creation, is it real?)
Little game. Get out your pencil. Provide the following (or just click and find out what I'm on about under the fold.)
1. Singular noun. Two syllables.
2. Verb. One syllable.
3. Plural noun. One syllable.
4. Singular noun. One syllable.
5. Singular noun. One syllable.
6. Plural noun. Two syllables. Must rhyme with the selection for 1.
7. Singular noun, two syllables.
8. Singular noun, one syllable.
9. Verb, one syllable.
10. Verb, one syllable.
11. Adjective, three syllables.
12. Plural noun, one syllable.
13. Plural noun, one syllable.
14. Plural noun, one syllable. Must rhyme with the selection for 10.
Tuesday, July 26, 2005
In “Literary Aesthetics and the Aims of Criticism” (included in Theory’s Empire), Paisley Livingston comes to this eminently reasonable conclusion about aesthetic experience:
An aesthetic experience of literature, I suggest, is an intrinsically valued experience occasioned by the contemplation of the qualities of a literary work of art. Such contemplation is what is lacking in nonaesthetic modes of reading. In the latter, the work or its text is read in a purely and exclusively instrumental spirit, or the intrinsic value attached to the experience does not fine its basis in an attentive and apt attention to the features of the work.
Livingston then renders his own description incoherent by sneaking “moral content” through the aesthetic back door:
Continue reading "Morally Sound"
. . .the moral content of a literary work should be acknowledged as being directly relevant to an appreciation of that work qua literary work, my principal reason being that in some contexts moral featues directly influence the work’s aesthetic function and value. Attempts to define the specificity of the artistic responses to works of fiction along purely formalist lines have been notoriously problematic. . .If, on the contrary, moral and political ideas are an intrinsic part of many literary works of art, their assessment would seem directly relevant to an evaluation of the works’ overall merits. What is more, since it is reasonable to think that our emotional (or quasi-emotional) reactions to works of fiction are directly relevant to the aesthetic dimensions of these works, moral considerations should be recognized as of aesthetic relevance. . . .
Theory’s Empire: Quick Hits
Behold! Yet another exercise in the fine art of the semi-topical link! I’ve penned two of them: the first responds to Sean’s comment on the value of structural homologies with a discussion of the Charleses Darwin and Babbage, Robert Chambers and monstrous births. The second is bi-semi-topical: it looks back to the issues I raised about Theory’s Empire by looking forward to the issues I will raise about The Literary Wittgenstein.
Michael Berube discusses the response to the Theory’s Empire event in this week’s installment of “Theory Tuesday.” An impressive discussion of Roman Jakobson and structuralism follows.
Kriston of the Grammar Police discusses the event and informs us that if we like Theory’s Empire we may also like the first two seasons of Saved by the Bell.
Prof. Camico--who’s excellent blog Academic Splat! is for some inexplicable reason not on The Valve’s blogroll [Done. - the editor] --confesses that while he’s not much of a theory-head, he may know the best way to learn theory.
ADDITIONS: Chris Cagle places himself squarely between Berube and Holbo over on Left-Center-Left.
As usual, if there are any posts I missed, email me and I’ll rectify the situation.
Wednesday, July 27, 2005
An Ambiguous Comment about TE’s Politics Expressed With One Linked Word; More Mark
I wrote about Mark’s ending before. Here’s Frank Kermode from The Genesis of Secrecy:
A main obstacle to our accepting “for they were scared” as the true ending, and going about our business of finding internal validation for it, is simply that Mark is, or was, not supposed to be capable of the kinds of refinement we should have to postulate. The conclusion is either intolerably clumsy, or iit is incredibly subtle. One distinguished scholar, dismissing this latter option, says it presupposes “a degree of originality which would invalidate the whole method of form-criticism.” This is an interesting objection [. . .]Now all interpretation proceeds from prejudice, and without prejudice there can be no interpretation; but this is to use an institutional prejudice in order to disarm exegesis founded on more interesting personal prejudices [. . .] Mark is not original. To be original at all, he would have had to be original to a wholly incredible extent, doing things we know he had not the means to do, organizing, alluding, suggesting like a sort of ancient Henry James, rather than making a rather clumsy compilation in very undistinguished Greek. (68)
Cf. Nietzsche: “It was subtle of God to learn Greek when he wished to become an author and not to learn it better.”
Neither remark is a sneer. Discuss.
Bill the Butcher As Educator
There's a Chron of Higher Ed piece by one William Pannapacker about the Valve in the latest issue (July 29). Their server appears to be down, so no access [I got it in email, so correct me if I'm wrong about anything.] Oh, and also there will apparently be a Boston Globe squib about the Valve this coming Sunday, in the Ideas section. Back to the Chron piece ...Continue reading "Bill the Butcher As Educator"
Thursday, August 04, 2005
Theory Friday: In Which Our Hero Discusses the Merits of His Heroism and Finds Them Wanting
What can I say? I want to be like Mike.
On to the show! I can’t contest Matt‘s claim that the introduction to Theory’s Empire declares the timeliness, nay! necessity of an anti-Norton anthology with a bombast the articles it introduces can’t support. But what about the introduction to The Norton? Are its sins of inflation as grievous as Theory’s Empire‘s?Continue reading "Theory Friday: In Which Our Hero Discusses the Merits of His Heroism and Finds Them Wanting"
Friday, August 05, 2005
There Be Monsters; or, Rosa Parks: Not Psychotic
I hope that title grabbed you and will persuade you to ruminate for a second over a dry question or two: was Jacques Derrida an apocalyptic thinker? And, if so, why should we care?Continue reading "There Be Monsters; or, Rosa Parks: Not Psychotic"
Monday, August 08, 2005
Hymns in Ad Hominem
New evidence that William Pannapacker (as described here) leapt too soon to his air of mild disappointment. Alphonse van Worden suggests that complaints against Theory are a variant of anti-semitism. Mark Kaplan calls it stupid careerism and tainted by “a rightest agenda." Jodi Dean adds that current criticism of Theory just manages to conceal its past racism, misogyny, and homophobia. Doesn’t matter if you think otherwise because “no matter what one intends, one’s position can be allied and is generally allied in ways beyond one’s choosing": if you’re a critic of Theory you’re perforce in the current of, or in the context of, or, what the heck, just conservative and anti-intellectual.
Update. New comments are disabled, but the old have not been deleted and can be found by clicking on the permanent link jump.
Lament for the Ad Hominem
I’m sure my colleagues at the Valve and readers alike feel like Michael Corleone right now. Just when they thought they were out, I drag them back in. My apologies to all for an unwise post.
I’ve disabled further comments and will disable comments to this post. I hope we can have more generous discussions on other posts and elsewhere.
Tuesday, August 09, 2005
Perhaps those of us who have mixed feelings about the Norton Anthology of Criticism and Theory should offer a constructive alternative. If you could publish your own anthology of exemplary literary criticism, what would you include in it?Continue reading "The Counter-Anthology"