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Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

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Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

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

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Tuesday, May 03, 2005

An Undisciplined Discipline?

Posted by Sean McCann on 05/03/05 at 02:16 PM

A few days ago in a thread that followed one of my posts, Jonathan and the admirable A. Cephalous got into an interesting debate about disciplinary distinctions.  (See their posts here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.) Though the issues got a full and frank airing, I think they’re too significant to let them just fade away amid a pretty much unrelated discussion.  So this is my bid to resusciate the disagreement and open it to other players.  (Sorry guys.  I don’t mean to be poking a stick in a hornet’s nest or anything.  I thought it was an interesting conversation.)

The gist of the debate comes down to the question of what weight to give disciplinary boundaries. 

Jonathan’s position appears to be that we should begin with the presumption that they’re invidious.  As he puts it, “The disciplines in the humanities and social sciences are only administrative conveniences.” A. Cephalous argues that a lot of what parades as “interdisciplinary” work is substanceless. Quite often, he suggests, it doesn’t depend at all on an effort to bring together the knowledge and perspectives prevalent in different academic specialties.  He sees rather cherry picking, or one field scoffing at the other in the guise of critique. 

Props are due the headless one--along, of course, with his interlocutor--for commenting so seriously about what is, I agree with him, a big problem for literary study.  It’s not hard to see some merit to both positions here.  Jonathan is surely right that academic disciplines are professional associations with built in interests in defending their turf--and that patrolling those boundaries easily can become narrowing and even irrational.  But Aceph is also surely correct that not all such complaints are merely credentialism.  There are bodies of knowledge and wisdom built up in academic disciplines that, even as they may need stirring up, can’t reasonably be treated with cavalier dismissal. 

I think Acephalous is on surest ground when he suggests that the problem that concerns him is not so much a lack of expertise as it is a sheer lack of interest.  If, e.g., Gayatri Spivak invokes psychoanalytic accounts of human psychology, but can’t be bothered to explain why they’re superior to, say, behaviorist arguments, then the problem isn’t so much that she lacks expertise as that she doesn’t really care about the question of which models are superior.

But that’s not my main concern here.  I want rather to draw attention to Acephalous’s suggestion that bad interdisciplinarity is a hallmark of current literary studies in particular.  I take it that Jonathan would doubt that this is the case, but I think the headless one has got a real point here.  If he does, why so?  What is it about literary studies that has led it to the pass where a cri de coeur like Aceph’s seems not just possible, but inevitable?

My inclination is to say that a lot of the problem is actually due to the history Jonathan highlights.  The postwar academic professionalization of the humanties has produced many an unfortunate consequence, one of which has indeed been an obsession with methodology and expertise.  But because modern literary scholarship is also profoundly indebted to romantic aesthetics--and in that vein to the idea that the literary imagination is a power superior to all classification--a weird synthesis has resulted.  Literature became the discipline that specializes in doubting disciplines, the specialty that surpasses all specialization, the anti-scientific science, etc.

That paradox--or just plain contradiction--shows up in the New Criticism, with its stress on both rigor and the superior wisdom of poetry, but it’s also apparent when say the advocates of Cultural Studies cast it as “aggressively anti-disciplinary,” even as they invoke several “major bodies of theory” (“from Marxism and feminism to psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, and postmodernism”).  This is not “codification,” they stress, but something closer to “alchemy.” It’s also apparent when the, er, practitioners of New Historicism defend their own determined theoretical salmagundi as an effort “to subvert a programmatic analytical response” in favor of a “quasi-magical” encounter with “the real.” To characterize what these two programs share as charitably as possible, I think you could say that both seek to use expertise against itself.  What’s being described isn’t so much scholarship as avant-gardism as it’s been classically defined.  The aim is less to build knowledge than to undermine the institutional boundaries that divide art from life.  In keeping with this goal, the purpose of theoretical eclecticism isn’t really to draw on diverse bodies of expertise; it’s to undermine (or perhaps better to trump) the grounds of that expertise altogether.

Jonathan, I assume, would endorse at least something of that program.  I’m more of A. Cephalous’s mind.  I think the references to alchemy and magic above are not incidental.  In my view, much of the pretense to interdisciplinarity in current literary studies doesn’t reflect an admirable broadening of the terrain, but an addiction to an old and doubtful notion that literature surpasses and casts doubts on all other forms of knowledge. 

Now that I look over what I’ve written, I see that I’ve put that case in perhaps exaggerated form.  Oh well, maybe it’s not so bad to overstate the argument.  Have at it.


Whenever people talk about literary critics crossing disciplinary boundaries, I’m reminded of Plato’s Ion, in which Socrates grills a hapless rhapsode about what exactly he’s an expert of.  Socrates questions him about a series of topics represented in Homer’s poem.  Are you an expert in Chariot Driving?  No.  Medicine?  No.  etc.  Finally, he gets Ion to admit that in fact he doesn’t know much about anything and that he’s merely an irrational, inspired ranter.  I think that John Bruce, in his discussion with Sean McCann in that last thread, maybe thought of literary critics in this way.  Although John Bruce was certainly no Socrates.

Anyhow, the obvious response to this dialogue is to argue that literary critics are in fact experts in literary form and rhetoric, and thus Ion is perfectly justified in talking about Homer’s representations of chariots, medicine, the art of war, etc., without knowing much about any of these things.  But few critics, with the exception of the New Critics, have been fully satisfied with this solution.  Even the New Critics weren’t, at least not the early New Critics.  I.e., think of John Crowe Ransom or Allen Tate’s various rants about scientific theory, the economics of the South, etc., none of which either of them really knew much about.

My point is that straying into other disciplines is inherent in the practice of literary criticism itself.  However, Acephalus is absolutely right that it leads to an immense amount of BS - Spivak, Bhabha, all of the other familiar bullshit artists of the academy.  There isn’t a good solution to this, except that critics have to make sure that they actually immerse themselves in the topics they write about.  I.e., they should immerse themselves to the point where they can actually talk intelligently with a person of the field they are straying into without sounding like too much of an idiot or alien from outer space (literary critics sound this way when they talk about Lacan to psychologists, for whom Lacan is an absolute nobody).  This means that literary critics should also have a certain degree of humility when they stray into other fields - i.e., not assume that because they’re trained in Derrida, etc., that they automatically have access to a “critical understanding” of economics, psychology, sociology, etc., unavailable to people in those fields.

By on 05/03/05 at 04:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What grounds do you have to make the statement, “x didn’t really know anything about y,” if you yourself don’t really know anything about y (or maybe that much about x)?

It is a good thing to know what you’re talking about, but the principle has to be applied consistently.

By Jonathan on 05/03/05 at 04:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think anyone objects to literature scholars borrowing from other disciplines.  Rather, the objection is to doing it badly. 

I suppose defenders of literature departments will say that, on the whole, they are doing a pretty good job of borrowing.  Critics will say that, on the whole, they are doing a pretty lousy job. 

In short, it’s not really a theoretical debate, it’s an evidentiary one.

By on 05/03/05 at 06:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment


That objection doesn’t seem as disabling to me as you suggest.  It’s hard to judge someone’s knowledge about a field if you don’t know it well, of course.  But it’s far less difficult to judge the sincerity of their interest in it.  I take that to be one of A. Cephalous’s significant points.  The problem with some avowedly interdisciplinary work isn’t only ignorance of some body of knowledge.  It’s indifference to the questions and problems that have been important to an area of inquiry (psychology, say).  I haven’t really argued the point, of course.  But I think the implication of the remarks I referred to above isn’t merely to acknowledge that indifference, but to brag about it.

By on 05/03/05 at 07:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t mean to give the impression that I don’t think this happens. It does. A lot. We all know it. Have you ever seen unself-conscious posturing? But I don’t know if we can talk about it coherently in general. As blah suggests, we’ll have to look at specific cases to advance the discussion.

I think everyone at the Valve should do what I did with the Social Text post but perhaps be more detailed and critical. Using an on-line journal such as PMC would increase the accessibility factor, but it sadly couldn’t be limited to those.

By Jonathan on 05/03/05 at 07:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

At my URL I have my opinion up on closely-related questions (specialization and methodology vs. generalism and eclecticism). There’s an additional link to a more philosophical development of my idea, which I decided was too tedious to post, but in fact is a little like academic debate.

The gist of it is that I think that expertise, specialization, and methodology have been pushing so hard against eclecticism and generalism that most academics think that eclecticism and generalism are just plain bad, mediocre, fuzzy-headed, and wrong. This, philosophy defines itself as a science and literature defines itself as a kind of expertise.

I argue that generalism can be done either badly or well, and should preferably be done well, and that eclecticism is a good thing when discussing topics which have not been successfuly algorithmized, methodologized, or paradigmaticized. And unsurprisingly, generalist questions are, in fact, best treated eclectically.

My belief is that holistic / eclectic / generalist “disciplines” should be philosophy, literature, and history.

The main project of my site is to develop this kind of thing independently of the university, which I have not found to be terribly receptive.

By John Emerson on 05/03/05 at 09:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think Blah has a point that the debate is largely evidentiary, but I don’t think we can simply determine the state of the field with a quick count of how many interdisciplinary projects are “done well” and how many are “done poorly.” Consider Randall Knoper’s “American Literary Realism and Nervous ‘Reflexion’", in which he argues that “Scholarship has not attended to realist writers’ interest in sciences of the brain and nervous system or explored the effect of rapid developments in neurology and brain biology on these writers’ conceptions of mimesis.” I’d consider Knopper’s a legitimate interdisciplinary project, not only on its face but also because it unseats the results of what I’d consider an illegitimate interdisciplinary project: “My history here of the intersection between literature and neuroscience in the late nineteenth century is offered partly as a rethinking of American literary realism, in order to put back into the cultural configuration that includes literary realism the physiological psychology that was more or less dashed from view in the early twentieth century by behaviorism and psychoanalysis.” Knopper aims to correct 60 years of psychoanalytically-inflected interpretations of realists’ mimetic claims.  Do I need, as Jonathan suggests, credentials/expertise in fin de siecle neuroscience to evaluate Knopper’s claims?  Perhaps.  But I don’t need credentials/expertise to recognize that Knopper’s discussion of pre-Freudian theories of “unconscious cerebration” is productive of facts about the realist movement; whereas a psychoanalytic account would be productive of a psychoanalytic account of what critics now think the realist movement was really about.  In short, some interdisciplinary work produces information about the object or objects studied; other interdisciplinary work produces information about, well, about the ways in which a given theoretical apparatus produces information.  A Freudian interpretation of a C.P. Gilman novel won’t tell you a lick about the novel itself, but it’ll tell you more than you’d like to know about the conclusions Freudians draw when confronted by a C.P. Gilman novel.

I second Sean’s claim that the teleological nature of “theoretical ecclectism” is largely to blame for the worst examples of “interdisciplinary” work.  To draw from American Literature again, Herbert Spencer himself would blush at the number of teleological references Sharon Harris stuffs into “‘A New Era in Female History’: Nineteenth-Century U.S. Women Writers." All the “complementary” work she discusses “advances” the field; but it can be advanced further still if scholars “looked at women’s implication in and resistence to nineteenth-century imperialism, colonization, and empire building.” She’s no doubt correct that more work needs to address, say, popular and literary responses to the Spanish-American War; but consider the pretext for her admonishment: “Look!  There’s a new interpretative apparatus in my field!  It must be built upon the last!  We should adopt it!  What?  We haven’t adopted it yet?  Why not?  Adopt already!  ADOPT!” The assumption behind her claim is that postcolonial theory should be brought to bear on the study of nineteenth-century U.S. women writers because it exists.  Not because it’s methodologically sound, mind you, but because it’s there; and if it’s there it’s meant to be there; and if it’s meant to be there, it must be an advancement.  Harris’ (otherwise smart and informative) article demonstrates how deeply buried an evaluative determination about the appropriation, applicability and actual use of methodologies from other disciplines is, not to mention how powerful whatever it is that binds theoretical ecclectism to old school intellectual teleology is.  (Think I could chock-a-block more being into that sentence?  Next time I criticize someone’s prose feel free to shout “kettle Kettle KETTLE!")

I’m interested in that “whatever it is” I mention above because I’m not entirely sure I understand, um, what it is.  I don’t know why the uncritical adoption of a methodology originating outside literary studies is so damn viral within it.  It’s as if the enthusiam your Intro. to Philosophy professor created about whatever philosophical system he or she tabled that week has become a professional mandate.  Just as the Kantians of Week 9 would embrace Hegel in Week 10 without having the background necessary to understand the implications of dispensing with the old or adopting the new affiliation, so too do many self-proclaimed “interdisciplinary critics” adopt methodologies they’re unable to defend and unfit to practice only to discard them in favor of another methodology they’re unable to defend and unfit to practice. 

So I wrote all that, pasted it into an email, let it simmer in my inbox for a while, and realized it still doesn’t say what I want it to say.  But I’ll put it out there anyway because it says a lot of what I want to say.  Only not particularly well and incompletely.

By A. Cephalous on 05/03/05 at 09:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If you can believe it, I accidentally omitted something from my previous comment that I really wanted to ask:


Why are you associating interdisciplinary work with what’s published in Social Text and PMC.  Granted, those journals publish much of what I’d consider the most irresponsible or in-name-alone interdisciplinary work.  To return to our original conversation (because there’s not enough in the air already), in which you made the sensible and pragmatic suggestion that we all ought to read what we condemn and see if there’s anything “useful” in it, it would almost seem as if you associate interdisciplinary work with journals that, you suggest, house collections of random but occasionally useful facts.  Because if this is the case, then your argument would be more (but still not all that) palatable to me; i.e. that interdisciplinary work is analogous to a place one can expect to find some “found art.” Except with arguments.  I’m not sure how I’d feel about disciplinary apparatus productive of nothing but the occasional “found claim,” but it’s preferable to the willful ignorance Sean discusses above.

By A. Cephalous on 05/03/05 at 09:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This discussion reminds me of a professor I had at Western Ontario, where I did my M.A.  He was a hard core deconstructionist, although one of the little guppies in the decon pond whom the big fish paid little attention to (i.e., he wasn’t a student of De Man).  I can’t remember his name anymore.  Anyhow, when he wasn’t writing about aliens in Kant’s Anthropology (they are, apparently, the alien supplement to Kant’s three critiques), he was working on a project on two-headed babies.  Yep, he was applying Derrida and Judith Butler to bio-ethical questions about whether Siamese twins should be separated at birth.  Thank god we have people like this man!  If me and my wife ever decide to have babies (have no fear, we have no such plans), and give birth to a two headed baby, I want to make sure that the surgeon has read that professor’s article.  “But wait, I can’t sever that extra head.  It’s part of a body that matters!  I am trapped in the undecidable moment of decision.  Nurse, pass me my copy of Dissemination!”

By on 05/03/05 at 11:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Since you’re “Stephen,” I thought you might have quoted the relevant line from Ulysses, alas.

By Jonathan on 05/03/05 at 11:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Cryptic much?  While I appreciate the witty anecdote, I’m not sure how it’s germane to this discussion.  Which is another way of saying that I don’t think this thread ought to be murdered by absurdity.  There’re published essays enough to mutter, murgeon and muddle over without people monkeying desperate CNN jockeys who see the “next Schiavo" in every nursing home.  Just because I’m happy for that particular firefighter’s family doesn’t mean I’m reversing my position based on a single one anecdote, no matter how entertaining it is.

By A. Cephalous on 05/03/05 at 11:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A “single one” anecdote.  Such are the dangers are trying to proof comments stuffed with code.

By A. Cephalous on 05/03/05 at 11:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not sure why I ought to spend much time worrying about bad and mediocre scholarship, interdisciplinary or interadisciplinary, whatever.  There’s enough good scholarship in stock to keep me busy for ever.

Possessing expertise in a field has nothing at all to do with whether one can think and write intelligently and usefully about it.  I don’t think Thomas Hardy knew much about how it feels to be a woman.

By on 05/03/05 at 11:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Such also are the dangers of snapping “Submit” instead of “Preview.” Yes, the joke’s on me.  However, please continue the conversation. 

P.S.  “Stephen” who isn’t Stephen, please don’t spend the night re-reading “Oxen of the Sun” unless you really, really want to.

By A. Cephalous on 05/03/05 at 11:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I may be temperamentally grim and inclined to see doom and despair everywhere, but, Jonathan, your way of describing the issue doesn’t in my view do the situation full justice. 

You say, yes, bad interdisciplinarity exists, but we can’t talk about it coherently in general.  In fact, though, haven’t you already talked about it in general?  Your initial comment that sparked this discussion--“the disciplines in the humanities and social sciences are only administrative conveniences”--is a pretty sweeping proposition, and it amounts to a presumption in favor of anything that calls those conveniences into doubt.  In effect, along with your most recent comment, that remark suggests that we view the current state of avowedly interdisciplinary literary criticism as all pretty good, while acknowledging that there are bound to be exceptions. 

That of course will be the case in any area of scholarship.  There will always be bad and mediocre stuff, and it will outweigh the good.  But I think Aceph and I share a stronger view--that there are salient examples of programmatically bad interdisciplinary scholarship.  That was my motivation for the admittedly truncated references to Nelson, Grossberg, and Treichler and to Gallagher and Greenblatt above.  I think in both cases you see a version of what Stephen pointed to—that “straying into other disciplines is inherent in the practice of literary criticism itself.” But this isn’t just straying, if I understand it correctly; it’s arrogant straying.  Both suggest not that they can merely learn from other fields, but that they will adopt what they find to undermine bureaucratic restrictions and to pursue a kind of “quasi-magical” experience unavailable elsewhere. 

If you hold the view that disciplines are truly _only_ administrative conveniences (or worse, as Nelson et al. suggest, forms of Foucauldian confinement), then it may be that there’s no reason at all to be concerned about this kind of thing.  But, if you believe there’s any rational purpose served by academic specialization, then remarks of this sort should give you pause.

That both Cultural Studies and New Historicism are influential, programmatic plans for being non-programmatic is, of course, ironic.  That was the irony I meant to point to in my initial post, and I think John Emerson nicely reframes the point in his comment, though I’d put things just a little differently.  (Apologies, John.  I’d meant to mention your ideas about all this in the original post, but put it up in haste.) John says: “expertise, specialization, and methodology have been pushing so hard against eclecticism and generalism that most academics think that eclecticism and generalism are just plain bad, mediocre, fuzzy-headed, and wrong.”

That seems absolutely true to me, but also half right.  (hmmm.  that was badly said.) What you see in Cultural Studies and in New Historicism and in many other places is in fact genuine frustration with the limits of expertise and specialization and a desire to surpass those limits.  But, as John suggests, you also see the simultaneous addiction to methodology.  Hence the aptness (and the weirdness) of the analogy to alchemy.  The appeal is to a method against methodology, expertise that subverts expertise, a program against the programmatic. 

That looks like an unreasonable and incoherent aim to me.  I think its bound to produce stuff quite different from the kind of eclecticism that John calls for, and that Aceph invokes, I believe, in his references to a serious interdisciplinary scholar like Knoper.

By on 05/04/05 at 06:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Some of the interdisciplinary work discussed seems like attempts to beef up literary studies with something more methodologically impressive and specialized. From my point of view this would not be eclecticism, but just another case of methodologization, or the colonization or subjugation of generalism by specialists.

By John Emerson on 05/04/05 at 08:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment


Not only is the university “terribly unreceptive” to your ideas, my university internet access won’t even let me call up your domain.  I’d love to read your “more philosophical discussion” of your ideas, however, and I don’t think they’d be too tedious to post.


Once again you’ve said in three short paragraphs what I could only dance around in seventeen very, very long ones. Future readers should substitute the phrase “programatically bad interdisciplinary scholarship” for my extended discussion of Harris.  I also think your post counters some of what Pollyanna says in her pollyannish comment.  There is good scholarship out there, no doubt, but there’re also shelves and shelves of scholarship that would be substantially improved if bad interdisciplinary tendencies could be curbed.  Examples of excellent scholarship hampered by the intrusion of strangely general claims from other disciplines abound.  I spent the 11 minutes I wasn’t commenting here yesterday frustrated by Mark Seltzer’s Bodies and Machines, a damn brilliant book marred only by the unstated and unquestioned assumption that the development of French social and political institutions (via Foucault and Bordieu) is directly applicable to American culture circa 1900.  It’s not that Foucault and/or Bordieu belong to the theoretical pantheon that bothers me about their appearance so much as the uncritical belief in their universal applicability; and they’re considered universally applicable because in literary studies they’ve been applied universally; and they’ve been applied universally because Foucault was imported into literary studies by people too mystified by the structural elegance of his arguments (at least in Discipline and Punish) to consider the possibility that his claims were both historically and culturally specific. 

The example of Foucault works not to discredit Theory but to show how one generation’s bad interdisciplinary work, once institutionalized, becomes the universally applicable Theory of the next.  Practitioners of New Historicism, if they can resist the (admittedly seductive) temptation to turn everything into a Balinese cockfight, come closer than devotees of other literary analytics to producing what I’d consider acceptable interdisciplinary work.  While that might not sound like all that insightful an insight, I think it points to a possible answer: scholars who study works written at a particular historical moment in concert with the philosophical, political, aesthetic, etc. theories of that particular historical moment are more likely to produce sound interdisciplinary work.  I could (and will) discuss this in more detail, but it occurs to me that I teach in a little less than an hour and my students would probably appreciate it if I showered.

By A. Cephalous on 05/04/05 at 09:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

We’re having a problem at the moment with comment notification on this thread. This message is a test to see if we’ve corrected the issue.

By Valve Administrator on 05/04/05 at 10:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I actually did post my tedious version, just not on the front page. It’s at:

Generalism vs. Specialization II

My snappier version is at my URL.

I do have a few sentences up which might be regarded as offensive content, though I just bowdlerized most of them. If worst comes to worst I could email someone.

But perhaps the big academic mafia thinks that I’m a corrupter of youth. I only wish.

By John Emerson on 05/04/05 at 10:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I must apologize in advance for being brief. Sadly, I don’t have as much time as I’d like to spend with these fascinating questions.

My post above the puer senex might be relevant here. Is it that we first must master A (the text) before moving on to B (gold standard, New Deal Politics, potatoes)? And since that alpha has not yet been attained by mortals, scholars should not attempt, like Stanley Kubrick, to transcend that which they don’t understand. (There’s some book I bought when I was young about Stephen King which claims that Kubrick’s adaptation attempted to “transcend a genre he didn’t understand.” I’ve always found that very amusing.)

Now I’ve always subscribed to the Lynn Thorndike/Frances Yates view of alchemy as a nascent experimental science. I also think that, since consciousness is a mystery, understanding very complex manifestations of social consciousness through artistic creation is even more mysterious. Therefore, I have a lot of patience with experimental and syncretic approaches to literary studies. We can’t know where it’s going, or if it will ever lead anywhere, so we should try to learn what we can from any given instance.

If I find myself being impatient with what seems to be a given scholar’s ignorance or misrepresentation of something, I look to what I can learn from the piece. Since we can’t know who’s a genius, I treat all errors as volitional or at least as potential portals of discovery. I’ve never read scholarship which didn’t tell me something new.

I should also note here that I’m not tenured or even in a tenure-track job, and I’m using my real name. So even if I were inclined to attack someone’s scholarship by name, which I’m usually not for the aforementioned reasons, I’m not going to do so here.

By Jonathan on 05/04/05 at 12:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, I’m no doubt older, crabbier, and more censorious than you, Jonathan, but really, you’ve never read scholarship that didn’t tell you something new?!  You are an extraordinaly fortunate or a remarkably generous person.

But if you’re gonna be generous, be fair too.  No one here has suggested anything like: we must first master A before passing onto B.  That’s just a misleading suggestion.

Similarly, though alchemy may well have once been a proto-experimental science, that surely has little to do with the way it’s used by the editors of Cultural Studies.  If they wanted to call on analogies to experimental science, there would have been more obvious examples ready to hand.  The more likely point of the reference was to invoke what Foucault called “subjugated knowledges” and in this way to have the promise of a methodology that could also seem subversive, quirky, anti-disciplinary and, perhaps, promsing of extraordinary transformations.  That just seems totally bogus to me.

And, yes, it’s true that consciousness remains an unresolved problem.  What I object to, though, in references to alchemy or magic is the suggestion that mystery trumps other forms of knowledge.  To go back to Stephen’s point, that doesn’t seem to me vastly different from Ransom and Tate calling on the higher authority of poetry to rebuke materialism.  It’s a variant on the romantic notion that imagination puts analysis in the shade.  To my mind, a lot of literary criticism continues to restage that drama (the cripplingly limited confines of ordinary scholarship vs. the transcendent or subversive force of the literary/theoretical imagination).  It’s practically cultic.  We should get rid of it.

By on 05/04/05 at 02:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Could you give an example of an article or book you read that you learned nothing from?

Though you haven’t, I do think that some people here, in the American League Championship Series, and elsewhere have argued that we must first learn the power of alpha. People do disagree about extents. I’d be more in hearing about your personal trajectory vis-à-vis Benn Michaels and the New Historicism, certainly.

I only advocate critical pluralism. A dictatorship of ideas that masquerades as such (which is what I think you’re accusing the “subjugated knowledges” of) is not endorsed. But what existing critical knowledges are you speaking of, exactly? I’m not being deliberately obtuse; I just am not sure who you referring to as a positive example.

By Jonathan on 05/07/05 at 01:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan, I’m sorry I just don’t understand the gist of any of those questions. I’ve listened to many a paper and lecture and read many an essay or book from which I learned little or nothing.  (I’m not going to count learning that I learned nothing as something learned.  I hope that’s not what you mean.) If you really think it’s important, I’ll give an example.  But why is the question necessary?  Do you doubt my sincerity, or my judgment?  Does it seem so unlikely that I would’ve learned nothing from papers or books that I would need to provide evidence for the claim?

And why should what people in the ALCS have argued matter to this discussion?  Your question about A and B suggested that, because myself and others had criticized one type of scholarship, we were by default left advocating an indefensible attitude.  But I never came close to advocating that attitude, and I understood myself to be making clear why from my perspective it’s not anything like necessary.  (As I say, the threshhold criterion of decent scholarship in my view would not be mastery of some field, but sincere interest in it.) So, even if others _have_ sought to defend the indefensible, why should that matter?  They’re just mistaken.  Nothing particularly important is revealed by their mistake.

I can’t see how my personal trajectory matters here.  But if you’re wondering I wasn’t trying to offer covert apologies for past sins or anything.  And whether or not a dictatorship of ideas exists seems equally immaterial here.  I’m accusing the people I quoted of willful incoherence and mysticism. Nothing more.

By on 05/07/05 at 09:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I ask about your personal trajectory because I’ve read a good deal of your stuff, and I’m trying to relate it to what you’re talking about here, which I’m increasingly failing to understand.

I--without being disingenuous at all--learn considerable amounts from nearly every student paper that I read, much less published scholarship. I think this is a logical consequence of the infinite diversity of critical readings. (I’m also very interested in response, which you might not be as much.) So yes, it does puzzle me.

It’s not so much that I endorse willful obscurity as that I think we have to apply a kind of Monte Carlo approach because we just don’t know what we’re dealing with. In terms of method, I think there’s been almost no progress at all in literary criticism. Methodological anarchism would seem to follow from that, though I reject any particular claims of priority or progress (for the most part).

That’s not as clear as I’d like to be, but I’ll try to explain it better when I have more time. Perhaps you can give a more detailed statement of your position.

By Jonathan on 05/07/05 at 09:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m delighted, of course, that you’ve read some of my stuff Jonathan.  I’d like to believe it’s not bad, of course.  (Not that I’m not well aware of flaws.) But even if I’m wrong, I hope what I’m saying here makes sense anyway.

I’d also like to believe that what I’m saying is not mysterious.  I’m disappointed to find that you think it is.  Here’s another try: some of what passes for interdisciplinary scholarship in academic literary scholarship is quite bad; it’s bad because it reflects indifference to the subject matter it treats or the fields on which it draws; that indifference is not incidental but the product of an attitude that takes for granted the superior discernment of the literary/theoretical intelligence; a key, and disabling, feature of that intelligence is a widely shared doubtfulness about the very activity of forming judgments or making distinctions as its practiced in other fields. 

That’s the gist of my complaint.  But this is all abstract, so a more concrete example.  I’ve had a good number of conversations with aspiring young literary scholars who, as current fashion demands, emphasize that their work is historicist.  It’s not unusual, though, to find when you ask them to name what historians have been important to them that they can’t think of anyone.  On several occasions, I’ve heard people say that a major authority for their sense of the history of the U.S. is Fredric Jameson. 

No disparagment of Jameson here intended.  But if you claim to be a historicist, and the only historian you can think of is a literary theorist, than something is clearly very wrong.

I agree with you.  No progress in literary criticism (which is not at all the same as saying there isn’t good and bad, intelligent and foolish).  But that shouldn’t necessarily demand methodological anarchism--unless by that you mean, like John Emerson, that we shouldn’t be concerned with a method for literary study at all.  But as John E. also notes (wisely, I think) a lot of what passes as methodological anarchism also reflects an effort to find newer, better methods.  _That’s_ what’s wrong with the alchemy of Cultural Studies and its grabbag of “theories.”

By on 05/07/05 at 10:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree that what you describe in the second paragraph is a bad thing. I don’t agree that it accurately describes, for instance, Practicing the New Historicism. We’d have to get more specific to discuss this profitably, I think, and it’d be easier to use journal articles available from the major databases for examples.

I think Jameson would be horrified to learn that he was being quoted as an authority on American history rather than literary historicism. I don’t think he or any responsible historicist literary scholar would claim that their superior theoretical insight renders mere history superfluous.

So far as what you describe claims unwarranted methodological authority, I agree with you. I’m probably more disposed to ignore such claims as convention, however.

By Jonathan on 05/08/05 at 03:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Great.  We’re agreed then.  Our only difference is how wide spread the problem is. I’m with A. Cephalous.  It’s common. 

Now that we’ve resolved the confusion and acknowledged that there are at least some examples of the kind of problem I’ve pointed out, there shouldn’t be any need to imply that people who point to the problem are making unreasonable claims or are asking for indefensible approaches.

By on 05/08/05 at 09:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment


When you say “I--without being disingenuous at all--learn considerable amounts from nearly every student paper that I read, much less published scholarship. I think this is a logical consequence of the infinite diversity of critical readings,” you convince me that you’re an excellent teacher.  What, however, would you have learned from the theoretical tripe I produced as an undergraduate?  (The answer is an adamant “nothing.") I’m throwing myself out there as an example because at the time I was a product of the “little bit of this, little bit of that, impenetrable thicket of nonsense” school of literary criticism.  In other words, even if I grant the existence of an “infinite diversity of critical readings,” my younger self is proof that they’re all not necessarily of equal value. 


I want to know more about this place where current fashion compels young scholars to emphasize the historicist quality of their work.  Even if these young scholars’ ideal historian is Jameson, it’s better than the rabidly anti-historicist sentiments I hear on a daily basis.  This is the second time I’ve heard this claim; however, the other time it came from the mouth of a strict formalist, so this is the first time it has any credibility. 

I know that many postcolonial thinkers and cultural studies folk use history, but I don’t think polemical claims based on the selective criteria suspect evidence qualifies as genuinely historicist work.  That’s a broad indictment, and obviously a caricature; but since many critics, esp. in cultural studies, base their historical claims on the works of social historians without consulting the normative histories those works supplemented, I don’t think it’s wholly inaccurate.

By A. Cephalous on 05/08/05 at 09:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It depends on what it is that people are claiming fits this description and what they intend to do about it, I think. There’s a lot lurking in those details, and quick-and-dirty generalizations deserve my prior criticisms.

By Jonathan on 05/08/05 at 09:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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