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Friday, March 02, 2007

A distinctive kind of spiritual exercise

Posted by Sean McCann on 03/02/07 at 12:18 PM

So, you were perhaps wondering what the “moment of theory” was?  In the most recent issue of Critical Inquiry the unusual Ian Hunter proposes an unconventional answer.  It can all be summed up quite easily Hunter claims. 

What was at stake was a cultural-political battle in the humanities academy in which the short-lived resurgence of neo-Kantian structuralism would be overcome by its neo-Husserlian rival.

Got that? 

In fact, the idea isn’t as wacky as it might sound.  And though the essay is in some ways belabored in prose style, sketchy in argument, and breathtaking in the sweep of its claims (house style at CI), to my eyes much of it looks suggestive and plausible.

Since I really don’t wish to reignite the Theory wars, though, let me just stipulate to a few things right off the bat: (1) There are significant parts of the argument I don’t follow; (2) I lack the expertise to judge it fairly; (3) I’m drawn to the essay nevertheless because it accords pretty closely with ideas about the subject I already hold (as expressed, say, here); (4) Hunter himself may not be fully fair to the object of his critique. 

Most significantly, Hunter looks to begin his consideration by presuming a distinction akin to John’s—between Theory and theory—and to assume that the difference lies in something like the fact that the former is not aimed at organizing empirical investigation.  That’s my inadequate paraphrase, but I think it would be fair to say that Hunter’s major premise is that Theory is not for knowing things.  (The evidence he tosses off in passing are examples of circularity in argument.)*

Rather, in Hunter’s view Theory is a variant of therapeutic philosophy—or as he puts it a style of “spiritual exercise” designed to cultivate “a specialized virtuoso persona.” Doing Theory, Hunter claims, is not about investigation, but performance:

It is something that individuals do to themselves when, as the result of their induction into a specialized form of self-questioning, they are already convinced of a fundamental ethical shortcoming—their closure within the dead “natural” forms of understanding—which can only be overcome by performing the inner work that will turn them into a certain kind of philosopher or theorist.

The way to understand its particular history, therefore, is to proceed from the example provided by the late Foucault and to consider Theory not as a body of knowledge, but as a form of spiritual discipline.  The pay-off of such an approach, Hunter suggests, is that it enables one to recognize the commonality that underlies the many, inconsistent intellectual and disciplinary streams that contributed to the phenomenon:

If the various developments referred to in the moment of theory are unified neither by a common object nor by a single theoretical language they can, however, still be viewed as participating in a shared intellectual attitude or deportment, albeit to different degrees. This attitude is skeptical towards empirical experience (in a more or less Kantian way), but also towards a priori formalisms—which it regards as foreclosing a higher level ("transcendental") experience—and hence cultivates openness to breakthrough phenomena of various kinds.

More specifically, Hunter sees two “key intellectual figures” in the “explosion of theoretical gestures” that remade the late twentieth century academic humanities: 

first, the figure of thought (and ascesis) in which the formalist calm is shattered by an irruptive event; and, second, the conception of history itself as hermeneutic revelation involving the sudden eclipse of structures of thought under the impact of a novel phenomenon.

Put more simply, what Hunter thinks all variants of Theory share is: (1) an emphasis on a kind of quasi-spiritual regimen that requires or enables the intellectual to be open to limit experiences which disable more conventional modes of understanding; and (2) a view of history that sees it as characterized by recurrent moments in which perforce closed cultural orders are remade by shattering events.

Still more controversially, if not combatively, Hunter thinks none of this is really very novel.  Interestingly, however, he doesn’t see the significant precursor being German romanticism in particular, so much as the “Christian university metaphysics” which he suggests preceded and fundamentally influenced even Kant.  Wherever it crops up, Hunter claims, Theory resuscitates the characteristic framework of that metaphysics (the contrast between “a domain of infinite omnitemporal being” and “all merely finite, time-bound viewpoints”) and the philosophical persona appropriate to it. 

Needless to say this is an argument awesome in its ambition, if not its hubris.  I haven’t even touched on some of the (what seem to me) truly striking and counterintuitive reinterpretations of philosophical and literary critical history Hunter tosses off or any of the almost bizarrely unorthodox comparisons he proposes (e.g., between Chomsky and Cassirer, Derrida and Habermas, Protestant pietism and F.R. Leavis).  And, in its sweeping claims and confident summaries, it might well look arrogant or unjustly contentious.

Still, unless I’m reading him wrong, Hunter is not necessarily dismissive of the spiritual exercise he sees in Theory.  My impression is that he does not see the genre (in the fashion some of us may have suggested) as a philosophical mistake or an aesthetic embarrassment so much as a variant on a central, unavoidable, and in some fashions appealing feature of modern moral history.  I suppose that might itself look like dismissiveness or faint praise.  I don’t know that that’s Hunter’s aim, but I’m fully prepared to admit that I could well be wrong about pretty much everything in this post. 

* E.g., of Derrida’s early adaptation of Husserl, Hunter writers, “it is enough to observe that this strategy cannot explain why anyone would adopt the ‘phenomenological attitude’ because it assumes that this attitude has already been adopted; that is, it presumes that nonphenomenological sciences are indeed claustral formalisms whose finite views of the world vainly foreclose the ‘infinite opening to truth.’"


Note 26 overstates its case, I think, as Ideology and Linguistic Theory overpersonalizes the intellectual history of contemporary linguistics. All of mathematical logic, similarly, is a more likely ancestor (even relational ancestor) to generative grammar than the metaphysical Stimmung of Cohen via Cassirer.

I like heterogeneous ideas yoked together by violence, however, and it’s the generative style of ‘T’heory, which I think is justification alone.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 03/02/07 at 03:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Perhaps we can paraphrase this by saying that Hunter is arguing for radicality as a form of stringent personal doubt, actualized through breaks, and projected onto history.

OK—but his reading of Habermas is very awkward. It is one thing to talk about Habermas’s desire for social reform, and quite another to lump the desirable norm of intersubjective discursive communities (Habermas) together with the personal peaks and valleys of questioning and radical epiphany (Derrida, perhaps, or perhaps Adorno, in this reading).

What’s your take on the relation of the essay to Habermas as a particular and influential theorist?

By Joseph Kugelmass on 03/02/07 at 11:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Wait, structuralism was neo-Kantian? Huh? Or maybe he’s referring to a structuralism outside of France, at some point other than the 1960s? Was there (since the 80s, I guess) a resurgence of structuralism that was different from the structuralism of the 60s in that it was neo-Kantian (and seriously, what would neo-Kantian structuralism look like)?

By Chris on 03/02/07 at 11:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Sean. I keep meaning to get back to this piece. I’ve corresponded with Hunter a bit about it. I feel as you do about it. It’s ambitious and tendentious in a lot of ways - including ways I don’t really feel competent to assess. I’m suspicious that the ‘university metaphysics’ thing is sort of Hunter’s hobbyhorse; and, in the manner of such riders, he is riding it too far. But there is something to it, for all I know. (What happens when German Romanticism impacts into academic culture, perhaps?)

The bits I like are the bits you focus on: the idea that Theory is a virtuoso spiritual exercise, and the centrality of the idea of ‘crisis’. The red thread running through is the idea of a limit experience. This is what allows him to get Husserl in there, and Derrida on Husserl. I find the Husserl-Derrida bit of the piece rather plausible. (There is the incidental problem that he is quoting late Husserl, from “Crisis”. But I don’t think that vitiates the point.)

I also don’t find Hunter’s alignment of Kantianism and structuralism to be all that counter-intuitive. It obviously isn’t a perfect fit. But the charm of Saussurean linguistics is a basically Kantian charm. It’s the charm of Kant’s categories. Saussure allows people to be linguistic idealists of a sort - you get a kind of conceptual relativism. (Obviously this is grossly oversimple, but I think it’s basically right.

By John Holbo on 03/03/07 at 01:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve heard structuralism described as a path between empiricism and Kant (I think Dews described it like that, but hell if I remember), but it seems odd to call a movement born of a deep skepticism of the very concept of the subject, and that treats any categories as the product of social structures, neo-Kantian. I guess it is in a way, though focusing on that fairly superficial aspect of it in a description intended to contrast it with its “neo-Huserlian rival” seems a bit… odd. I suppose I’ll have to actually go read the damn thing.

By Chris on 03/03/07 at 01:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree with Chris.  I’ve heard the term “neo-Kantian structuralism” before, and have always found it baffling.  As I understand it, Kant’s 12 categories don’t just float around in the ether, in this amorphous social “collective consciousness.” Rather, they are what make it possible for individuals to have experience (to make “judgments of experience”), at all.  Kant’s universalism is based upon the idea that by definition, to be rational is to make use of these categories. 

If there’s a linguist who has a similar model, I’d think it would be Chomsky.  Chomsky has a certain kind of mental “structure,” just as Kant does, but generally speaking, we wouldn’t link him to 1960s French structuralism (even if Levi-Strauss, say, read some Chomsky).  For Chomsky, there’s a sentence-generating machinery that is not to be located in “society in general” or in what Saussure calls “language,” but rather in the brain of each speaker.  And perhaps all speakers in the world, even speakers of different languages, have this same mental mechanism.  Hence the idea of a “universal generative grammar”—the linguistic categories, as it were, that all speakers must have if they are to speak at all. 

Now, Saussure’s “Course in General Linguistics” is an entirely different kettle of fish.  It seems that for Kant and Chomsky, you have to start with the rational individual before you get to the rational community.  Saussure focuses upon the community as the relevant entity.  Because the link between the signifier and signified is wholly arbitrary, he generally emphasizes the importance of the social collective, and especially of *tradition*, in making signs cohere.  In fact, it seems that for Saussure there’s a kind of rupture between the linguistic structure and the speaking individual (see the “Course,” page 19).  He has no coherent account of how individuals form sentences, which is what Chomsky called him on (and which is why professional linguists are surprised to see humanities people citing Saussure all the time—am I right about this?).  Anyway, language is not a rational system.  The “Course in General Linguistics” emphasizes culture and history.  I don’t know what the philosophical analogue to this would be, but it ain’t Kant. 

And I would make the same remark about French structuralism, which, as Chris says, tends to deemphasize the rational individual and emphasize systems, “epistemes,” whatever.  In fact, much 1960s structuralism seems like a riff on those two influential chapters in the “Course,” “Synchronic Linguistics” (the spatial arrangement of the system) and “Diachronic Linguistics” (how this system changes over time, in a non-teleological way that defies Western progressive myths). 

Here’s why I’ve gone on about this at some length.  I would think that for people committed to a Theory/theory distinction like Holbo and McCann, the distinction between Kant and structuralism would be important to preserve.  (I generally agree with the point that we don’t need to be overly confrontational and try to blast the “other side’s” arguments into oblivion, eg Long Sunday’s, but it’s good to know what we’re disagreeing about.) Kant’s contemporary heirs would seem to be thinkers like Chomsky and Habermas, however different their politics.  Meanwhile, many structuralist and post-structuralists seem committed to a counter-Enlightenment, arguably Romantic tradition.

For example, Saussure’s idea of the language-system has lent itself to the idea both of an impersonal episteme that determines the thought of individuals, and to the idea of a social totality that shapes and molds individuals in an oppressive way.  Meanwhile, Saussure emphasizes that the speech of individuals is wholly “momentary,” radically free, and unpredictable (and hence an inappropriate object of study for the science of linguistics, which should focus on “language”).  This model of the linguistic “structure/category,” and the speaking individual, seems homologous with McCann’s insight that much of post-structuralism’s emphasis on the oppressive totality presupposes a radically unmoored individual who is able to defy that totality through subversive performance or some sort of rupture of the social codes.  That is to say, the post-structuralist dualism that McCann’s “Do You Believe in Magic?” article identifies—the oppressive totality / the subversive individual—might be traced back to a basic incoherence in the “Course in General Linguistics,” since Saussure, as noted above, really has no coherent link between language and the speaking individual.  Kant, on the other hand, *does* have this link between his “categories” or “structures” and the individuals who make mental use of them.  And Kant’s resolution of the categories into an individual consciousness seems to inform the idea of universal humanity and provide the basis of a liberal political community—one whose codes are not merely “traditional,” “oppressive,” “conformist,” etc.  If Holbo is going to call structuralism “Kantian,” then he undermines this basis. 

Again, I’ve heard structuralism linked with Kant before, but this is how it looks from my perspective.  If there *is* a link between Kant and structuralism that we can all perceive, go ahead and enlighten me.

By on 03/03/07 at 02:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m a little suspicious of these grand synthesizing efforts to explain away a complex, international phenomenon like Theory or “the rise of Theory.”

Catherine Gallagher’s explanation for the rise of Theory in literature departments is still the most convincing to me.  Basically, she argues that New Criticism had providing a unifing practice for college teaching and research, but as its limitations became more apparent (its inability to address novels, for example) and as it got in the way of new research more than it generated it, professors sought out new methodologies.  Theory became the new paradigm.  It could deal with fiction as well as poetry (and it could deal with non-lyric poetry as well as lyric poetry).  In its cultural studies mode, theory opened up vast new realms for research, thus opening up new directions for dissertations, for journals, for book series, for new hiring lines, and new course offerings. 

It’s main limitation, I would argue, is that to do Theory well, the lit professor needs a lot of background in economics, philosophy, linguistics, and so on.  Thus the New Historicism, which gave lit crit folks a way of stitching together the scraps and fragments of knowledge they accumulated.  The rise of historicism in general attests to the limitations with Theory and need for yet another paradigm. 

So I don’t think it was anything intrinsic to Theory that led to its institutionalization—which is why Theory itself is an uneasy unification of various strands of thinking.  Theory provided some sort of institutional unification.  History provides it today. 

(And Barthes and Bakhtin have no interest in “limit experience.” So there.)

By on 03/03/07 at 02:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for comments. I don’t have time for a full reply this morning but here is a brief one: Chomsky’s theory is, at bottom, an empirical, scientific one (possibly a bad one, but - if so - then a rather conventionally failed hypothesis). Saussure’s theory is, at bottom, a quasi-transcendental one. Which is, at bottom, what Kant’s is (teetering, as it does, one the distinction between empirical and transcendental subjects.) This has to do mostly with both of them being theories of the conditions of the possibility of concepts, i.e. of kinds of things. Saussure’s theory is, in a way, a theory about the nature of the universe - namely, that the kinds of things in it are constituted by/constructed out of linguistic differences. His view implies linguistic idealism. This makes him like Kant. Chomsky’s view is not suggestive at all, in this regard.

By John Holbo on 03/03/07 at 08:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Obviously Saussure didn’t want his theory to have this peculiar, speculative character (I should add). Nevertheless, it has it. And it is this quasi-transcendental character that has, precisely, attracted many people to it.

By John Holbo on 03/03/07 at 08:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry all not to have responded to these excellent points.  I’d just add to John’s comments that Hunter has anticipated most of these objections. His responses may not be convincing--and the arguments are more sketched out than elaborated--but what he’s got to say is at least interesting and worth a read. 

Just one other quick note.  LB, Gallagher’s view is a variation on precisely what Hunter sees as the distinctive hermeneutic account of history common to Theory.  In her book with Greenblatt, they virtually make Hunter’s point for him by talking about a “quasi-magical” encounter with “the real.” The reason why I think in this particular instance Hunter’s account of the history (which emphasizes the jockeying of rival practices over a self-understanding that emphasizes the making and unmaking of paradigms) is convincing is that it seems doubtful that New Criticism ever supplied a unifying practice-- especially circa ‘66.  If you look at Graff’s history, for example or _The Pooh Perplex_ it seems pretty clear that, well before the heyday of Theory, everyone was aware that there was a diversity of inconsistent critical approaches and agendas.

By on 03/08/07 at 10:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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