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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Archives | Theory's Empire

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Gee whiz, I slept through the whole thing

Posted by John Holbo on 08/09/05 at 02:23 AM

So that’s why I wasn’t tangled in Sean’s thread with everyone else. (In case you were wondering whether I was exercising personal restraint or something. No.) But you can’t spell ‘going postal’ without the post, so I guess this sort of thing just has to happen sometimes. OK, lesse what I can do to clean up after the wild party. I see Rosanna Warren left a comment before the deluge, explaining that in the Boston Globe interview she said she reads the Valve but not blogs generally. (So that clears up Jonathan’s McCluhan question.) Troll of Sorrow, mysterio, J.G. Kindly behave yourself or don’t come back, if you would be so kind.

Having previously engaged in back-and-forth with some of those crazy Long Sunday kids, let me try to point out - in as irenic a tone as I can muster; I do irony more convincingly; maybe you’ll settle for complex ireny - hey, you know what? Let’s skip it. Let’s move on to the positive portion of the program.

A commenter to someone’s post or other (oh, there it is) linked to this page, which contains a link to a piece by Ian Hunter, “History of Theory, Notes For A Seminar” (PDF). I haven’t had time to do more than skim, but I more or less agree with the following bit from near the start. (There has been a certain amount of skepticism expressed as to the very existence of this monster. I, like Hunter, believe in it.)

It is understandable, then, that some commentators should have declared the contents of ‘theory’ to be so diverse as to make the term unusable. From the standpoint of intellectual history, however, that fact that this term — together with its cognates ‘structuralism’ and ‘poststructuralism’ — has been used to nominate a series of intellectual developments taking place from the 1960s is itself something to be investigated. If it was not a single object or a single theory, then what was it about the elements of this diverse series that prompted both its exponents and opponents to acquiesce in a single nomenclature for them? In beginning to answer this question, we can suggest that if the various developments referred to in the ‘moment of theory’ are unified neither by a common object nor by a single theory they can, however, still be viewed as participating in a shared intellectual attitude or deportment, albeit to different degrees. This is an attitude that is sceptical towards empirical experience (in a more or less Kantian way), but also towards apriori formalisms — which it regards as foreclosing a higher-level experiential immediacy — and hence cultivates openness to breakthrough phenomena of various kinds. It will be argued that this attitude is characteristic of a particular kind of intellectual persona sustained by a certain inner discipline, and that providing an account of this persona and discipline is central to historical reflection on the ‘moment of theory’. Our first encounter with this attitude, and with its prime philosophical discourse, will be paradoxical, however. For it will be an unavoidable (but in the end helpful) encounter with the doctrine that the history of theory is an impossible undertaking.

Like I said. I haven’t read it yet. But that’s no reason why you can’t. Please discuss profitably.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

About “Us” Conservatives and “Our” Politics: A Case of Mistaken Identity

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 08/11/05 at 06:48 PM

In a thread that’s almost become an institution, CR identifies the brand of conservatism ostensibly practiced by contributors to the Valve:

for “us” no politics = bad politics

Shortly thereafter, he elaborates:

I’d love to hear [Sean’s] proposal for a mode of literary criticism true to the establishment of socialism in our time.

I take this to be the strong version of the more general argument that literary criticism ought to further the cause of social justice. 

Continue reading "About “Us” Conservatives and “Our” Politics: A Case of Mistaken Identity"

Friday, August 12, 2005

You must try again till you get it right

Posted by John Holbo on 08/12/05 at 11:43 AM

I'm late already getting on to The Literary Wittgenstein, but let me take one last swipe at sorting what seem to me obvious basics - but that other people obviously don't find so obvious. Some of this I've said before, but maybe I'll say it better. Then I'll try to say some interesting things about what Theory is and isn't & etc. Time permitting I'll add some notes on the history of Theory tomorrow.

Continue reading "You must try again till you get it right"

Sunday, August 14, 2005

An End To Empire

Posted by John Holbo on 08/14/05 at 12:22 PM

Our Theory's Empire event has most likely overstayed its welcome - if not clean jumped the shark. Let's say that, as of tomorrow, it's duck-rabbit season: The Literary Wittgenstein is fair game. I'll try to work something up. Anyone else wants to start in, go ahead. I'm still arranging some details, but never you mind about that. Just start, if you care to. (I had a sequel to last night's post drafted. But I think I should just sit on it a couple months. Plenty of time to come back when the mood for discussing such things is healthily recovered.)

Friday, October 07, 2005

On “The Kind of Critical, Obliquely Ontological Investigation of Some Sort of Self”

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/07/05 at 05:50 PM

Two long posts, both concerning theory, both beginning with a quotation of a previous discussion.  Serendipity?  The constitutional inability to resist having the last word?  Doesn’t matter.  Also unimportant: the experiment I concocted whereby I would post this here and ask Mark to post it on Long Sunday to see whether the two crowds would treat the material differently in some meaningful way.  But I digress.  (Despite not even having started yet.) Ahem: I accused Mark Kaplan of reading Foucault’s account of historical interest naively.  I quoted this bit as proof:

So, for example, the sexual practices of ancient Greece – were these not, for Foucault, partly a way of thinking his way outside modern notions of ‘sexuality’ and the historically ingrained ‘regime’ supporting them.

And followed with this assessment:

I think Mark’s severely underestimating Foucault’s congenital pessimism, both about historical change and, more importantly, the idea that we can understand the discourses which saturate our lives in the moment that we live them.

He responded, quite rightly, that I glossed over Foucault’s notion of “the critical ontology of the self,” the practice he (Foucault) identifies with Kant’s Aufklärung, which my Oxford Duden German Dictionary tells me means something along the lines of “clearing up,” “solution,” “elucidation,” “explanation,” “a reconnaissance plane” or “the Enlightentment.” Some of these things are not like the others.  I’ve wondered why the English translation of the essay—"What is Enlightenment?"—failed to capture the reference there both in Kant’s German ("Was ist Aufklärung?“) and Foucault’s French ("Qu’est-ce que les Lumières?“).  Might this slight tic in the English be indicative of some abstractive impulse at the heart of Anglo-American Theory?  (Yes, I capitalized it, but for reasons which will eventually become apparent.) I’m not too inclined (yet) to attribute such a thing to American Theory because Kant’s work, as well as Foucault’s gloss of it, speaks directly to the problem of philosophical thought reflecting on the present moment:

Continue reading "On “The Kind of Critical, Obliquely Ontological Investigation of Some Sort of Self”"

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Way We Argue Now: Amanda Anderson and Theoretical Dissent

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 11/28/05 at 07:47 PM

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.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

hix dixerit quispiam - or, you must try again until you get it right, part MCXVII (or whatever)

Posted by John Holbo on 12/07/05 at 09:55 AM

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)"

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Theory Dead, Heidegger Dull, The Chronicle Reports

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 12/13/05 at 01:52 PM

[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.]

Monday, January 09, 2006

Sign of the Times?

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 01/09/06 at 05:24 PM

Back in July I suggested that this book is best read as a companion to this one.  I’m not the only one who thinks so. 

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, January 17, 2006

And Now For Something Completely Different

Posted by John Holbo on 01/17/06 at 08:24 PM

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"

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Demanding Assent

Posted by Daniel Green on 02/08/06 at 01:51 PM

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"

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Conceptualization and its Vague Contents

Posted by John Holbo on 04/06/06 at 04:06 AM

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, April 26, 2006

Arguments about Higher Eclecticism, as Illustrated by Two Paintings with One Name

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 04/26/06 at 09:26 PM

[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"

Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Two Are Not One

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/09/06 at 10:36 PM

[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.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

For the Historical Record: Cog Sci and Lit Theory, A Chronology

Posted by Bill Benzon on 08/24/06 at 11:09 AM

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"
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