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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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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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Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Citations & The Damage Done; or, How Much Lacan Before I Resort to Insult and Violence?

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 11/02/05 at 09:29 PM

A critic establishes trust with his or her readers by citational proxy.  Who cites and is cited by whom means everything when evaluating contemporary criticism.  So when I run across an article about Nella Larsen’s Passing which cites seven works by Jacques Lacan, three by Freud, ten glosses of Lacan but only five citations from the rich critical history of Larsen’s novel, I hardly need to read the article to know that I do not trust this critic’s ability to evaluate his or her sources.  (All that talk of gazing and yet so myopic.  Sigh.)  A critic who don’t know merde from cirage à chaussures (that sounds so much snappier in English) cannot expect the majority of readers to consider the points he or she forwards with the seriousness befitting academic discourse . . . and by "the majority of readers," I only mean "all those who don’t share the critic’s supremely constricted set of assumptions." 

It is outright unnerving to read criticism in one of the profession’s flagship journals which defiantly refuses to engage the critical history of a novel written about so freqently.  Does this critic suggest that only four of the 642 articles and reviews available via Project Muse and JSTOR alone even obliquely address his or her argument?  (Before you ask: only four of the five aforementioned articles could be found in a database because the other non-psychoanalytic entry was the introduction to the edition of Passing cited in the article.)  One certainly does.  The critic’s citation of it begins:

Judith Butler directly engages paranoia and Passing in terms of Freud’s analysis . . .

Did I mention myopia?  To put it another way:

Q:  What are the odds that this particular scholar would not have found Passing a cornucopia of psychoanalytic conundrums?[1] 

A:  Zero. 

The odds of me trusting that this critic’s reading of Larsen’s novel dimish with every passing Lacan . . . . because the article is not about Larsen so much as it is a recitation of ontological talking points.  Needless to say, while I would rather my criticism altogether empty of psychoanalytic position statements, due to recent interactions with intelligent people I have abandoned my hard-line snickering dismissiveness.  I can now handle the occasional reference to psychoanalytic concepts with fruitive effects on the literary reading.  ("Leslie Fiedler!" Luther Blisset said.  "Leslie Fiedler!")  So yes . . . . Leslie Fiedler!  But Fiedler’s Freud appeared in the service of literary explication; his Freud did not function as the principle of selection behind the literature he analyzed.  Selecting works which further flatter the assumptions you have committed your self and career to flattering does not incline your readers to trust you.  Passing may exemplify some psychoanalytic hobby-horse, but the fact that Quicksand hardly merits mention leads this reader to believe that it fails whatever litmus test this critic applies to works before he writes about them . . . and that mode of scholarship seems outright Rovian.  I feel comfortable saying that such scholarship has all the intellectual substance of spin.

The intended point of this post involved glossing the appearance of Kenneth Deffeyes’ Beyond Oil in Michael Klare’s article in the latest n+1.  Normally I associate those who scream "Peak Oil!  Peak Oil!" with scaremongering libertarians . . . but I trust Deffeyes’ judgment implicitly because of the intellectual honesty he displayed in John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World McPhee’s book is riddled with statements by Deffeyes’ like:

"You have to deal with partial information.  In oil drilling, you had better be ready to act shrewdly on partial information.  Do physicists do that?  Hell, no.  They want to have it to seven decimal places on their Hewlett-Packards.  The geologist has to choose the course of action with the best statistical chance.  As a result, the style of geology is full of inferences, and they change.  No one has ever seen a geosyncline.  No one has ever seen the welding of tuff.  No one has ever seen a granite batholith intrude." (133)

Deffeyes’ intellectual flexibility—his determination to fit his theory to the facts and not the other way around—should be a model for humanistic inquiries as much as scientific.  A theory should fit the facts it purports to explain; instead, the facts chosen for explication are chosen because they fit the theories the critic intended to flatter all along.  This situation saddens me more than anything else.  If my tone seems combative, understand that when I see such wanton manipulation I want to scream my cords raw and tendons bloody . . . to invent the next generation of sanguineous parasynthetics.  (I link that not to condescend but because I understand that not everyone shares my fascination with all things dictionary.)

[1] Quick note about the word "conundrum."  Apparently the plural is "conundrums" instead of "conundra" because it is a nonce-word, a linguistic relic of some Oxford prank from the 1580s.  The fact that it retains English pluralization despite being a parodic Latin term astonishes me.  You would think that by now someone would have inflected it in accordance with Latin grammar.


Comments

Scott, can you really be saying you don’t need to read what somebody writes to decide whether it’s any good, all you need to do is look at their footnotes?

By on 11/02/05 at 11:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, and since it’s Collegiality Week, I ask that you at least name the subject of your vituperation. I was curious enough that I looked through Project Muse and found an article from MFS that seemed to be it, but then wasn’t.

Also, in the spirit of Collegiality Week, I’d suggest always assuming that the author of any given piece of criticism is at least as intelligent and well informed (allowing for chronological differences) as you are.

By Jonathan on 11/03/05 at 12:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Colleague Jonathan might want to consider that his accusation sounds rather odd, given that Scott’s post does not contain anything about the critic being unintelligent or uninformed.  The Colleague might also want to consider that posting this kind of criticism of Scott is hardly collegial, especially since it could equally well have been sent by Email.

By on 11/03/05 at 12:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s really Rich, in light of “ I hardly need to read the article to know that I do not trust this critic’s ability to evaluate his or her sources” and the entire second paragraph.

By Jonathan on 11/03/05 at 12:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Being constricted by one’s set of assumptions, and therefore defiantly not engaging with critical history and losing the reader’s trust in your ability to evaluate sources is a symdrome that has nothing to do with either intelligence or how well informed one is.

I think that your running joke about collegiality isn’t going to last the week very well, Colleague.

By on 11/03/05 at 01:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Laura,

I’m not saying that at all; what I’m saying is that there’s a certain type of article, one which I’ve come to know through experience, whose intentions I can determine from its works cited page.  I did indeed read the article--and have, in fact, read many like it--and it did conform to my initial impressions.  I’m not a hack, you know.  At least not on Wednesdays. 

Rich,

Thank you for pointing out that I in no way attacked the intelligence of this critic, only his or her intentions in writing this article.

Jonathan,

I thought it’d be obvious that the omission of the author’s name was intentional, since I didn’t want to disparage the intellect of a particular scholar so much as identify a trend whose underlying assumptions I found wanting.  If you’d like, you can send me an email and I can forward you a link to the article in question.  I thought it’d be apparent from what I had written that my representation was a good faith, anti-ad hominem version of this critic’s argument . . . but if you believe that I’m involved in invective here--that I’m misrepresenting the article in question--I can rectify that with an email.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 11/03/05 at 01:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Also, Jonathan, I don’t mean to be punctilious, but “I hardly need to read the article” implies that I have, in fact, read the article, but that reading it has confirmed my initial assumptions about it.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 11/03/05 at 01:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

So it is a symptom, then, to be enjoyed. Very meta.

By Jonathan on 11/03/05 at 01:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

What is “it”?  How is “it” symptomatic?  How do I “enjoy” “it”?  Seriously, if you want to step to the table, then step to the table.  I’m tired of having to divine your position with a shoot.  ‘Cause you know, shoots don’t grow on trees . . . or whatever, you know what I mean.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 11/03/05 at 01:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Would the author of the article accept your characterization? I think not.

I think that if you’re going to snipe at something like this, which is, let’s be clear about it, exactly what you’ve done here, you should identify the article in question in the post itself so that others may judge for themselves and so that even the author may find it and perhaps choose to respond.

By Jonathan on 11/03/05 at 01:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I do think the author of the article would agree with my characterization of it.  He or she would say, plainly, that “Yes, I was more interested in explicating something about Lacanian psychoanalytic theory than I was about saying anything about Larsen’s novel, and yes, I think that’s an important thing for scholars to do.” I don’t think I diminished that or sniped at all in this post.  I said “This is an essay about psychoanalysis which has as much to say about things outside of psychoanalytic theory as Rovian spin does about things outside of White House politics.” Yes, I think it a waste of a sound mind . . . but I don’t insult the intelligence behind the article so much as indicate that I, personally, think it pointed in a supremely unproductive direction. 

(That said, for what it’s worth, I know the author of this article, and I know that he wouldn’t think my characterization of it unfair.  Yes, this is Miers’ nomination logic, but still.)

But all of this is beside the point.  Either you 1) believe my representation of the works cited reliable (i.e. you trust that I can count) or 2) you don’t.  If you do, we can continue this discussion.  If you don’t, we can’t.  I think this article representative enough of a general trend and that we can address said trend as a trend; but for reasons you have, in the past, outlined, I would rather not be specific as to the author of this article.  If you want to spend two minutes with a database and two keywords ("Larsen" and “Lacan"), this will be one of the first articles that pops up.  (The first, actually, in the database I use.) But I would rather speak to the trend than seem to attack an individual scholar whose intellect I respect but whose methodology I take issue with.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 11/03/05 at 01:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

And of course, as I’ve mentioned, I’m more than happy to provide a link to the article via email.  You can read it and see whether my accurate account of the article’s intentions is, in fact, accurate; and then, I hope, we could continue the conversation.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 11/03/05 at 01:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think that Scott’s criticism is in some way related to Holbo’s criticism of the Higher Eclecticism.  There was a bit in the last Holbonic piece about the philosopher known as “Z” concerning professional standards and what scholarship really was.  As I said then, I think that this line of criticism doesn’t really work, because standards of scholarship are so contested.  Normally I’d think that if someone is going to write criticism that bothers to cite 25 sources, they should cite a wide range of sources ... but if you’re doing a specifically Lacanian reading of a work, who knows whether that is really necessary? 

In a time of ever increasing specialization, choosing only works which favor a Lacanian reading and using only Lacan to read them may be as good as anything else.  Who’s to say that any other approach is more valuable?  And of course no one really knows what more valuable would mean.  Within a Theoretical framework in which physical science is assumed to produce “knowledge” that is primarily about society rather than about the field of study, literary criticism can not be said to produce any knowledge at all.  So I don’t think that this argument really can convince anyone; if you already agree, you agree, if you don’t, you just write another article.

By on 11/03/05 at 01:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"In a time of ever increasing specialization, choosing only works which favor a Lacanian reading and using only Lacan to read them may be as good as anything else.”

Or to put it differently, we have no idea whether anything in criticism is any good or not, so fuck that shit. (As a crank I can say that non-collegial kind of thing.

Regarding McPhee, my brother the field geologist has told me that all the numbers he needs are 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000, 5000, 10,000.... Results are acceptable within an order of magnitude, or maybe two.

He could probably leave out 2, 20, 200, etc. except that English grammar makes it seem monstrous to use 1 to approximate 2.

By John Emerson on 11/03/05 at 09:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree with John Emerson (although, John, Deffeyes did generalize too much with the crack about physicists.  Astrophysicists often use only orders of magnitude). 

Academic literary criticism has an obvious status-setting function.  Industry requires a continual supply of college graduates who know how to read and write a complex sentence, and English Departments exist in their current size in order to teach this to freshmen.  But since they are part of academia, they need to set their internal status hierarchy via “research” publication.  Showing that one is capable of an involved Lacanian reading demonstrates intelligence and command of a particular abstract system, even though it produces no knowledge or art in itself.  Colleague Jonathan’s misperception of what Scott was saying is really quite illustrative in this respect; he thought that Scott was making a status challenge based on denigration of intelligence and received knowledge.

The same analysis of scientific research and publication as purely status-seeking (including the social sciences) fails because the sciences are always eventually brought up short by comparison with reality.  With literary studies in its postmodern incarnation, no such comparison appears possible.  So the motivation for a change in what is done appears to be fashion.  Eventually, Lacanian readings are insufficent to demonstrate individual qualities because they have been done too often, and people start to cast about for new systems.  That appears to be the historical moment that we are currently in.  When an academic star supplies an arbitrary but complex new system, people will rush to it and forget Lacan.

By on 11/03/05 at 10:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It is outright unnerving to read criticism in one of the profession’s flagship journals which defiantly refuses to engage the critical history of a novel written about so freqently.

While I suspect, Scott, that I would share your frustration with the article you describe, I’m not so sure I agree with the bit just reprodueced.  Some useful and important interpretive labor gets done by folks who engage the critical history, of course.  But some useful and important interpretive labor also gets done by folks who really don’t care what their famous or not so famous colleagues down the hall might think.  Are you really prepared to disagree?

By Zehou on 11/03/05 at 10:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

If the criticism is so Lacan-focussed, then how can it be characterised as being done by someone who doesn’t care what famous people think?

By on 11/03/05 at 01:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Some useful and important interpretive labor gets done by folks who engage the critical history, of course.  But some useful and important interpretive labor also gets done by folks who really don’t care what their famous or not so famous colleagues down the hall might think.  Are you really prepared to disagree?

I am.  You may not care what your illustrious forebears think, but if you’re writing an article on the novel’s titular substance (Passing), either you 1) imagine that your Lacanian approach entitles you to dismiss all non-Lacanian readings of the novel, because all you’re really interested in is Lacan, or 2) admit that the novel may be more complicated, make work in more registers, than Lacan can account for and then make a studious, informed and possibly still Lacanian reading of the novel.  The engagement with earlier critical scholarship lends weight to the conclusions you draw, and a work which steadfastly refuses to lands somewhere between intellectual laziness and arrogance.  (Note to Jonathan: not unintelligent.) Standards of quality assurance should demand that familiarity with the critical history of the work being analyzed; but the profession (as Rich and John have said more eloquently than I will) instead has this infatuation with wiping clean the slate, with reinventing the wheel.  When the slate’s cleared of all its burdensome “research” every couple of years, you end up reading scholarship with all the weight of the ephemera it is.  No depth of engagement; no studious consideration of approaches contrary (or merely different) from your own; no sense of the meaningfulness of this particular text outside of “I found this on my desk one day and put it through the Lacanian meat-grinder.” The fact that is in this article, the author claims Larsen’s text works in this way, but only talks about one of her two novels, indicates to me that Quicksand didn’t slide through the grinder so neatly as Passing, that it contained gristle inimical to the Lacanian machine.  And that’s a good thing.  Literature, as a product of life, is more complex than the systems with which we account for it (no matter how abstruse they may be).

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 11/03/05 at 01:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott: “Standards of quality assurance should demand that familiarity with the critical history of the work being analyzed; but the profession (as Rich and John have said more eloquently than I will) instead has this infatuation with wiping clean the slate, with reinventing the wheel.”

I have a slight disagreement with the emphasis of this statement.  When one writes academic literary criticism, it seems to me to be primarily a performative utterance rather than one that is intended to communicate content.  It says “Look at me, I am tenure-worthy.” Therefore familiarity with critical history isn’t just neglected due to time constraints or something, it’s actively discouraged.  Putting in much about non-Lacanian interpretations would spoil the flow of the paper and depict its author as a plodding pedant.  Even putting non-Lacanian works in the reference list would be a kind of ideological disloyalty, a kind of reference to the rules of chess while one is playing Go.

One answer to this is to say, as Tony Christini has been saying (in my opinion, anachronistically) in another thread, that of course literary criticism communicates content.  Well, what content would that be?  Contemporary literary theory directs a barrage of critique at the very idea that there could be “content” that is not more about politics, or about the personal world of the individual reader, than it is about the text.  I don’t see how you can hold to this and still treat academic literary work seriously.  It would be like having academics write poetry, but telling them that the poetry only counted as helping their career if it didn’t have any aesthetic value (assuming that no one really gets aesthetic enjoyment out of reading these papers).

By on 11/03/05 at 02:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

While some posts here at the Valve drive me mad, like Tuesday’s broad brushstroke tarring of theoretical/cultural studies scholars as not caring about individual works, I found myself in general agreement with Scott’s post. At the very least it reminds me of my encounter in a lit seminar with an essay that applied Laura Mulvey’s psychoanalytic model of the gaze without once considering the fact that in literature people don’t actually look at one another in any literal way. I’m a little more Theory friendly than the Valve posters tend to be, but I think Scott’s right that scholars positing Lacanian readings of literature should do so to illucidate the literature (or more broadly a literature-society nexus) itself. I can even get behind those for whom the literary text is mere illustration of some general point, but then they should explain why they’re using Nella Larson’s Passing as evidence and not something that, say, is not part of the literary studies canon. In the film/media realm, Baudrillard, for instance, uses Apocolypse Now or An American Family to make some larger point about the collapse of the signifier in postmodernity, but it’s clear all the while why these texts are privileged ones.

By Chris Cagle on 11/03/05 at 02:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I myself am, generally speaking, very Theory-friendly. I suspect that everyone who posts here has a different opinion on this issue, but that only a few could be regarded as completely Theory-unfriendly.

The lesson here is to get annoyed, if need be, with individuals, not the site itself.

By Jonathan on 11/03/05 at 02:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Standards of quality assurance should demand that familiarity with the critical history of the work being analyzed.

So one of the “standards of quality assurance"--one an editor might appeal to as a sufficient reason for rejecting a submitted article--"demands" (that authors demonstrate by means of citation?) “familiarity with the critical history of the work being analyzed.”

That’s a bit strong to my ear.  ‘x is unoriginal’ (says what has been said before in the critical history and offers no new arguments) is a more modest sufficient reason to reject, since a submission could be original even if its author is unfamiliar with the critical history (or maybe even, perhaps, partly because of that unfamiliarity, since exploring the critical history may sometimes involves adopting biases pervasive in it).

Or how about:  ‘x fails to present evidence that blocks the temptation to prefer an alternative reading’ (that happen to have been offered before in the critical history)?  That, too, is more modest, since it is possible for an author to present compelling readings that tell against other readings, even if the author is unfamiliar with those other readings.

By Zehou on 11/03/05 at 02:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I have no use for Lacan, so the Lacanian frame is all I need to see before assuring myself that I do not want to read the article. 

Passing is a mediocre piece of melodrama that got elevated to a major text for policital reasons. 

I am doubly uninterested.

By on 11/03/05 at 03:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think that Theory-friendliness is not really the issue: it’s not like the attempt to put literature back into a box is going to succeed. I think that if you accept Scott’s criticism that the field is too interested in restarting from a blank slate, you also have to accept that wherever the field goes from here is going to have to build on major elements of the Theory that has already been done.  But some kind of choice among those elements is going to have to be made; the Higher Eclecticism bit is in many ways about that desire not to choose, not to go anywhere.

By on 11/03/05 at 03:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott, I basically agree with you about the critics’ need to *know* the critical history of a text.  But I disagree that a journal article needs to discuss in any detail this criticla history unless it adds something significant to the critic’s argument. 

Also, you should check out the standards of publication for that journal.  Many journals want highly footnoted articles with references to past critical work; many others just want the a argument, and rely on highly informed peer reviewers to make sure that an article is an original contribution to the particular field.  Even dissertations more and more don’t include a those long-ass footnotes about past criticism, because most of it ends up jettisoned for the article or book manuscripts.  The key, it seems, is to situate your reading in a scholarly conversation, not to prove one’s mastery of the MLA database. 

Same goes for the critic’s neglect of *Quicksand* in the article.  This could very well be a result of the conventions of that particular journal.  For example, *Novel* will *only* publish articles that cover a series of novels.  Other journals tend to want single text foci in the articles they publish.  Furthermore, we’re dealing with severe space limitations.  My dissertation gives 80 page readings of individual novels.  I might briefly point to similar or divergant rhythms in other texts by that author, but I personally don’t think that one can do justice to a single literary work in under 20 pages.  Which is also to say: perhaps this guy’s article is part of a longer manuscript that *did* treat Larsen in general, and the conventions of the journal necessitated a single text focus.

But what’s wrong with trying to simply explicate one novel?  Why must a critic’s ideas hold true for all the work by a given author?  If *Quicksand* diverges, well, fine then.  Then one could argue that *Passing* displays different dynamics than *Quicksand* (and I’m not Larsen scholar, but isn’t that one of the received critical angles on Larsen—that the two novels are quite different?).  I mean, if I were to write about Djuna Barnes’ *Nightwood*, I’d be hard pressed to map the psychodynamics of that novel onto, say, *Ryder*, with its hollow, satirical characters. 

So Scott, I agree that certain Theory-heavy readings end up burying the literary texts; and I agree that it’s annoying when a critic simply restates earlier criticism and tries to “shine a turd’ by adding a bunch of Lacan to make the argument seem new.  But I don’t think that the lack of in-depth attention to critical history or the single novel focus are necessarily bad things (or even things that can be attributed to the author of the artcle).

By on 11/03/05 at 03:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich,

When one writes academic literary criticism, it seems to me to be primarily a performative utterance rather than one that is intended to communicate content.  It says “Look at me, I am tenure-worthy.” [...] Contemporary literary theory directs a barrage of critique at the very idea that there could be “content” that is not more about politics, or about the personal world of the individual reader, than it is about the text.

While that may be true of some critic’s work, I don’t think it characterizes say, my own, or Sean’s or my advisor’s.  (And you can read a bit of both of theirs here.  All three of us are fundamentally concerned with the content of the literary works...and, to differing degrees, how that content interacts with the formal, i.e. literary, properties of these works.  (Here’s a brilliant example of my advisor doing just that.) So while I agree with you that some academic criticism tends in that direction, I don’t see the work I do as necessarily tending so. 

...you also have to accept that wherever the field goes from here is going to have to build on major elements of the Theory that has already been done.

I meant to mention this myself earlier: it’s not as if, as a practioner of the responsible scholarly methodology I preach, I’m allowed to skip those works which have a Lacanian approach.  Posts like this one typically originate in my doing just that: I’m annoyed that I can’t force myself not to read this or that article, and so I plow through it to see 1) what is interesting and/or useful about it and 2) whether that material can survive once divorced from its original context, or whether it’s so context-dependent that, when stripped of its theoretical frame, it falls. 

Chris,

I can even get behind those for whom the literary text is mere illustration of some general point, but then they should explain why they’re using Nella Larson’s Passing as evidence and not something that, say, is not part of the literary studies canon. In the film/media realm, Baudrillard, for instance, uses Apocolypse Now or An American Family to make some larger point about the collapse of the signifier in postmodernity, but it’s clear all the while why these texts are privileged ones.

So well put it demands repition.  The blurred objectives of an article like the I describe are in large part responsible for the problems I have with it.  Had this been published in The American Psychoanalyst by a working psychoanalyst, I would understand; but to have been published in a preeminent literary journal? 

As for my relative theory-friendliness, I’m far more theory friendly now than I was when I first started posting here, due on the one hand to the intelligence of my early critics and on the other to the month I did little else but read back issues of Critical Inquiry.

LB,

Good points, but I’ve got to run.  I’ll address them later.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 11/03/05 at 04:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott: “While that may be true of some critic’s work, I don’t think it characterizes say, my own, or Sean’s or my advisor’s.”

Well, yes, I was overgeneralizing.  Some people hold to other ideas of scholarship, as clearly you do or you wouldn’t have thought that this was worth writing a post about.  But I think that there is an important question in whether that form of scholarship can really be normative.

By on 11/03/05 at 08:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott (and Rich)—maybe I’m living in a parallel universe, from which I can communicate with you all but within which people do entirely different scholarly work than the scholars in your universe.  But.

Isn’t Szalay’s work an example of the cultural dominant in today’s literary academy?  It’s called historicism, right?  Here’s the recipe:

1.  Take one literary work.
2.  For extra spice, add some extra-literary texts (modernist chefs prefer a dash of noir to darken the broth)
3.  Choose a major historical event occuring at the same time as the literary work.  (Or, if yer a New Historicist, choose a minor historical event, like the King tying his bow-tie.)
4.  Show how (1) and perhaps (2) reflect (3).
5.  Repeat and serve at room temperature.

I’m being bratty, but such work isn’t some radical deviation from Theory.  It’s the new paradigm, especially among Americanists, 18th century novel scholars, Romanticists, and med/Ren folks.  I love this work.  But let’s not pretend that it somehow pays more attention to literature than Lacanian readings do.  Most historicist readings of literature would fit into a contemporary history journal moreso than into a 1950s literature studies journal.

So why is being a historian better than being a psychoanalyst?  --when both are tenured in English, that is.

By on 11/03/05 at 08:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, Scott has objections to psychoanalytic criticism that I’m not particularly invested in except insofar as they involve pseudoscience, but my general description of “find an arbitrary system, apply it, gain attention, avoid other methods until it wears out” works just as well with the historicist formula that you cite.  It probably applied equally well to the pre-Theory New Criticism.  I don’t think that there is anything particularly Lacanian about it, except insofar as methods named after individuals are almost always more restrictive than others.

By on 11/03/05 at 09:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

LB,

I basically agree with you about the critics’ need to *know* the critical history of a text.  But I disagree that a journal article needs to discuss in any detail this criticla history unless it adds something significant to the critic’s argument.

That’s certainly true, but without being able to quantify exactly what it is, I’ll put forward this bold statement: I can tell.  When someone has done the research, they address problems in a particular, informed matter; when someone hasn’t, they address each “new” problem as if it’s “new.” Later in the week I’ll pull out some Huck Finn essays I have lying around in which the issue of homosociality in the novel--the very issue at the core of Fiedler’s analysis of it--is treated as if it has never before been recognized.  There’s a...thinness to such work, a lack of knowledgeability about the arguments that have come before which manifests in the critic’s rhetoric.  Again, difficult to quantify, but very much there. 

Now, I see how this could become oppressive, something which confounds genuinely new thought about a text by drowning all the scholars who would work on it in historical minutae...but at the same time, I think once you have an idea, it’s your responsibility to do to the research.  But there’s a scholarly culture (more on which in my response to your next response) which doesn’t think that, as evidenced by this particular article appearing in a recent PMLA

The rest of what you say--consider the journal in which the article appears, &c.--is eminently sound, and something I haven’t thought about but really should as I start to think about sending chapters out.  You know, after I write them and stuff.

Scott (and Rich)—maybe I’m living in a parallel universe, from which I can communicate with you all but within which people do entirely different scholarly work than the scholars in your universe.

Mine’s called “Irvine,” and it resides in the even more parallel-y universe of “Orange County.” The world you live in has stuff like culture and cars more than a year old.

Isn’t Szalay’s work an example of the cultural dominant in today’s literary academy? [...] I’m being bratty, but such work isn’t some radical deviation from Theory.  It’s the new paradigm, especially among Americanists, 18th century novel scholars, Romanticists, and med/Ren folks.  I love this work.  But let’s not pretend that it somehow pays more attention to literature than Lacanian readings do.  Most historicist readings of literature would fit into a contemporary history journal moreso than into a 1950s literature studies journal."

I don’t think Szalay’s work fits into that paradigm, largely because of its focus on the formal elements of the literary text.  For example (and I’m quoting a thesis instead of an argument because it’s shorter, but the close-reading to back these claims is there):

This kind of nostalgia for “artistic independence” misses entirely the significance of those formal and stylistic developments brought about by the rise of both state and corporate patronage--misses, in other words, the transformations undergone by American modernism as it impacted with the New Deal. Stevens’s poetry in particular does not dramatize the antagonism between private independence and public support so much as it demonstrates how the rise of corporate patronage facilitated and was perfectly consistent with a relocation of poetic interest, already in progress, from the private “I” to the public “we.”

Szalay’s book focuses on the effect of these cultural changes on the formal properties of the literary work, its status, and how those two were imagined by writers at the time.  In other words, I don’t think it could appear in a history journal because its focus is on exclusively literary matters.  This is what I aim to do as well: demonstrate that the way in which literature was imagined to be literary, via realism and naturalism, cannot be disconnected from the various evolutionisms bandied about the time; but note that my focus there is on the literary (and, because they’re almost coterminous at this point in time, the cultural) imagination. 

So why is being a historian better than being a psychoanalyst?  --when both are tenured in English, that is.

I would say that the historian who works with literature to demonstrate points about the cultural moment in which a given text arose is still superior to the psychoanalyst who uses literature as an occasional to further elaborate his or her pseudo-science because it produces verifiable knowledge about that cultural moment.  Whereas another Lacanian reading produces...another Lacanian reading, one no more nor less verifiable than the other.  Which is another way of saying that I believe there’s a place for academic historians in the academy, but not for academic psychoanalysts.  Practicing, yes, but academic, no.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 11/03/05 at 09:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Clearly the article was not intended to be read.  Clearly.[1] So why blame the author for the fact that you foolishly read it?  Perhaps this desire to read the unreadable relates to your Oedipus complex, or your object a, or something. 

It strikes me that there is something appalling about the existence of those 642 other articles, as well. 

[1] Indeed, Lacan himself explicitly claims that his writings were not intended to be read—so it’s especially true in this case that the article was not intended to be read, though I was also attempting to make a general point about literary criticism.

By Adam Kotsko on 11/04/05 at 01:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, you dunce, it’s all about the “object petit a.” I desperately want my desire to, you know, desire things and stuff, but I lack “un grand objet,” so I’m stuck not following the advice of my tenth grade chemistry teacher and “sweating the small stuff.” For this, I blame Lacan.  One day we’ll do Thunderdome and Lacan’ll learn the real meaning of “I think with my feet.”

(Apologies for the quotation marks.  The Valve’s Beast won’t let me use italics.  C’mon, John, I’ve already fed it twice this month...)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 11/04/05 at 04:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

An enhanced version of the original thesis would be that the Lacanian version of Lacan’s version of Freud is all wrong and just plain no good, and that it ruins everything it touches. There’s nothing intrinsically impossible about this idea. Most of us would probably reject out of hand a Paracelsian, Swedenborgian, LaRouchie, or Scientologist interpretation of literature. What’s in question is whether Lacan belongs on the list.

By John Emerson on 11/04/05 at 01:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Why would you “reject out of hand a Paracelsian, Swedenborgian, LaRouchie, or Scientologist interpretation of literature”?  Whenever literary studies people use scientific concepts, they always say something about (to quote Rolando Pérez from the essay linked here recently) “no post-modern thinker ever claimed (1) that there was no external reality, and (2) that what he or she was doing was ‘science.’” Pérez emphasizes this with a quote from Elie During: “The authors he quotes and criticizes for abusing scientific jargon (Lacan, Deleuze, or Baudrillard) are in fact not interested in scientific theories as such, nor in their capacity to describe ‘reality,’ but in the concepts they provide, and their possible reappropriation for other purposes.” So what does it matter whether they reappropriate science concepts or pseudoscience concepts?  I really see no difference; it’s all grist for the mill.

By on 11/04/05 at 02:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I would like to hijack this thread by proposing that if cognitive science and especially evolutionary psychology attempt to infiltrate English departments, the tattered remnants of Theory’s Empire should form a strategic alliance with the plucky rebels in order to decisively defeat cog sci and ev psych.  I can think of nothing worse for literature than the application of something that thinks of itself as an actual, real-live honest-to-goodness science.

By Adam Kotsko on 11/04/05 at 02:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam: “the tattered remnants of Theory’s Empire should form a strategic alliance with the plucky rebels in order to decisively defeat cog sci and ev psych.”

Poor Bill Benzon!  But it’s too late.  In living proof that the Higher Eclecticism isn’t going to let this one pass by, Z is already mumbling about the apogee in today’s brain sciences, and it looks like his extensive readers are going to have to learn to muse thoughtfully over impressive-looking brain scans.

By on 11/04/05 at 02:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I. In order to understand a Paracelsian or Swedenborgian reading, you’d have to spend months or years learning their systems. Rather than do that, you’d normally just ignore the reading. (Specialists in Blake or in renaissance literature do have to learn some of the terminology, but as far as I know none of them become Swedenborgians or Paracelsians.)

As far as I know, no one still believes that Paracelsus has any real validity. One small church still believes that Swedenborg does. At this moment, Lacan is a wildly different case—rightly or wrongly.

II. Because LaRouche and Hubbard are batshit crazy, that’s why.

Rich, if your point is that every single interpretive framework is just as invalid as every other one, I can’t follow you.

I personally think that everyone everywhere in every discipline should be eclectic and use the various methods as they seem useful, and I think that the enforcement of any paradigm whatever is wrong.

By John Emerson on 11/04/05 at 02:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, alchemical ideas have had a strong influence on various literary texts, and I think that a Paracelsian reading might be quite useful in explicating some of them.  As for a Scientological interpretation, I’d say that as more Scientologists write literature, it will become more important.  I see no innate difference between a Scientological interpretation and a Christian one other than the number of people influenced by each.  And if that’s the important criterion, then I would guess that there are more people in the world who take Scientology seriously than those who take Lacan seriously.  I could easily imagine a form of criticism that saw itself as clearing metaphorical engrams from texts, or looking for hidden references to characters’ extraterrestrial past lives.

My point is not that every interpretive framework is equally invalid, my point is that since there are no standards for judging the validity of interpretative frameworks, they are all equally untroubled by validity.  I don’t see why literary studies people shouldn’t pick whichever one they want.  They’re probably even better off with something that doesn’t sound like an actual science than something that does, because then they don’t get annoying scientists telling them that they’re getting it wrong.

Scott points out that there are people following a different, more classically broad and careful ideal of scholarship.  But I don’t see how he can convince others that his form of scholarship is better than theirs.

By on 11/04/05 at 03:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, you should look at Alan Richardson’s bibliography of this type of work. I doubt much of it is what you think it is.

There’s also the matter of structuralism.

By Jonathan on 11/04/05 at 03:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I thought that it was generally agreed that a man’s prejudices are his castle and that they should not be disturbed.

By Adam Kotsko on 11/04/05 at 03:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It may be too late to stave off the cognitive and evpsych invasions. For example, Mark Turner is Dean of Arts and Sciences at Case Western and gets to set up his own department of cognitive science, focused on the arts & chaired by Merlin Donald (who is a more interesting thinker than Turner is). The cognitive folks are now having conferences and they’re quite interesting.

As for evpsych, when applied to literature it is, so far, pretty dull stuff. But this Sunday the NYTimes Magazine has a feature organized around *The Literary Animal,* a book about which I am deeply skeptical:

http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/literary_animals/

http://www.entelechyjournal.com/billbenzon.html

By bbenzon on 11/04/05 at 04:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, I was not talking about making an alchemical or scioentologist reading of texts written by scientologists or believers in alchemy. I was talking about taking scientology or alchemy as a privileged window on reality and using their insights to intepret literature of all kinds. That’s what Lacanians do, and if the Lacanian paradigm is worthless, those readings would be worthless.

While I agree that there’s no conclusive decision procedure for validating or invalidating approaches to literary study, I think that it’s still possible that certain approaches, including presently popular ones, are no good, whereas others are very good. And it’s reasonable to assert your judgements, and maybe people will agree and maybe not. “All are equally good, equally bad, and equally neutral” is ludicrous.

http://www.wfu.edu/~cyclone/

By John Emerson on 11/04/05 at 05:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, I would certainly never stop someone from asserting judgements, and personally I fairly closely agree with Scott about what kinds of approaches I think are good and what kinds aren’t.  But bringing up shortcomings in scholarship, as John Holbo and now Scott have both tried to do, reminds me of one of those TV shows where someone is approached by a vampire and brings out a cross to drive them away, only to have the vampire laugh and say that vampires don’t believe in that stuff anymore.  There’s not much else you can say at that point.

I try, instead, to follow logical consequences.  If a Lacanian says that they have a privileged window on reality, they can be proved to be wrong—that’s not very difficult, in concept anyway.  But if a Lacanian is canny enough to deny that they think they have a privileged window on reality, and instead say that they are simply reworking concepts, I don’t see what I can say to contradict the validity of their approach.  That’s the point of the Perez quote I cited above.  After Sokal, most Theorists have it somewhere in their bag of justifications.  One answer to it is to take them seriously and say, in that case, why not Scientology?  The only answer appears to be that reworked psychological concepts retain a seriousness that reworked pseudoscience ones do not.  That is clearly invalid.  So, to be consistent with this answer, they need to explicitly confront that they are saying that the nature of the system that they use is arbitrary.  That is a better answer, in my opinion, to the question of why it is bad for them to stick to one system without addressing other methods of interpretation.

By on 11/04/05 at 06:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John: I can’t figure out what you’re trying to say.

Rich: I think your argument cuts the other way.  One can find insights in Augustine or Kierkegaard, without being a Christian.  A peculiarity of the twentieth century is that some people pour all of their thoughts into a psychoanalytic mold.  But still, there can be something to their insights, even if you reject their theoretical framework.

By Walt Pohl on 11/05/05 at 12:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I no longer am sure what Scott and Rich are disagreeing about.

My own opinion is that Lacan is of purely historical interest, like Swedenborg and Paracelsus, and that if your field of study is anything other than “Humanities in Europe and America at the turn of the millenium”, you are well advised to avoid Lacanian writing.

I now suspect that Rich is using Lacan as a wedge to get at some other (relativist-like) opinion of Scott’s, and that Rich does not actually believe that a Lacanian reading is as good or as bad as any other.  However, I doubt that I agree with Rich.

In general, I believe that the kind of peremptory, arbitrary dismissal Scott makes is permissible and often commendable, even though Scott could not have known for sure, and could not have proven to anyone else, that his dismissal was justified. It’s rather like voting, when you’re asserting your opinion without the obligation of proving anything to anyone else. If Scott were to take power in the MLA, he’d be at risk of wrongly ending some hapless Lacanians’ careers, I suppose, but here and now it’s probably Scott’s career which is most placed at risk.

My eclectic, anti-methodological committments would probably require me to defend the Lacanians, were Scott to become the MLA czar, but this would seriously conflict with my anti-Lacanian committments. These hypotheticals are in the grue-bleen zone as far as I’m concerned. If Scott were to become czar, my opinion would still be irrelevant.

By John Emerson on 11/05/05 at 01:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"I doubt that I agree with whatever Rich actually does believe”.

By John Emerson on 11/05/05 at 01:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Walt,

I concur.  It’s only once these systems become, as psychoanalysis has, the dominant mode of accounting for psychological complexity in literary studies that I’m inclined to complain.  As Bill points out, alternative models have started to infiltrate, but 9/10 the choice is between a naive appeal to “common sense” or psychoanalysis.  I’m not fond of those alternatives (nor am I that fond of overt psychologizing, but that’s meat tossed to a future post). 

Rich and John,

It sounds like you’re making variations of the same unfortunate point: there seems no way to avoid sending the baby out with the bathwater.  I think there must be, but whoever comes up with it will have to be tons sharper than me, you know, ‘cause like that person will be attacked on all sides by all parties, and will have to muster a justification for the yea or nay he or she decides about everyone’s pet projects.  This person may well have to be God.  He knows, I don’t envy Him…

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 11/05/05 at 02:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott, your link above to “I concur” is pretty funny—we all had this same discussion in June.

Well, not quite the same discussion.  Speaking for myself only, I thought that scholarship was a better argument then than I do now.

John, I’m not disagreeing with Scott’s belief, I’m disagreeing with his tactics.  If the object of literary criticism is, as Luther said in that past thread, to produce interesting readings (or, as Walt says in this one, to produce insights that don’t depend on their theoretical framework), then I don’t see why you can reject Lacan, even though I think that Lacanian thought is probably BS.  In order to do so, you have to find some different goal for literary criticism, and I don’t see one handy.  In the previous thread I did some handwaving about the critic’s responsibility not to popularize pseudoscience, but I don’t think that argument really has much force.

So I’m left with a different style of argument, which consists of pointing out that the logical implication of accepting Lacanian criticism is the defense of any arbitrary critical method that can produce interesting readings, and asking if people are really comfortable with that.  I think that getting to that stage would be an advance, since typically literary studies people love to muddy the waters about whether they are really claiming some kind of scientific backing for methods like Lacanian criticism or not. 

I also think that pointing out the arbitrary quality of the formal rules of the Lacanian system is a possible argument for why people shouldn’t restrict themselves to it even if they agree with it, which is what Scott was complaining about in the first place.  Being able to play a really good game of chess is an impressive skill, but if writing a Lacanian interpretation is like playing a game of chess (e.g., Scott’s mention of “the critic’s supremely constricted set of assumptions”, and the expansion of this into the idea of a critical formula) then this is a role that I don’t think that literary studies people are ready to assume, even if they don’t care about scholarship.

By on 11/05/05 at 05:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Isn’t the elephant in the room here the uncritical belief that Lacan’s work is in any way akin to Scientology?  I think someone here needs to do the careful, painstaking work of criticizing actual Lacanian ideas

You might argue that it was the responsibility of Lacan and his followers to do hard scientific experimentation.  But that ignores the billions of dollars needed to actually do such work.  So you can say that Lacanian psychology is moot, but that’s about all, unless you actually criticize the meat of Lacan’s work.

Cuz the bottom line is that, while I can’t quite see the need for Lacanian criticism, I also don’t see that it is in any way far-fetched.  Lacan’s work seems much more grounded in social observation than much of Marx or Foucault, for example.  Is there any difference, ultimately, between the scientific status of the mirror stage and the scientific status of commodity fetishism?

By on 11/05/05 at 06:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I would add: How much of this is, at bottom, an objection to Lacan’s writing style, which most reasonable people would agree is in fact quite annoying and over the top? 

YET he did actually see patients and even helped a lot of patients (almost certainly more than Freud), including many who were pretty far gone.  Lacan’s Ecrits was a best-seller in France not because the French are idiots, but because so many people had been helped by analysts following Lacan’s techniques.

By Adam Kotsko on 11/05/05 at 06:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t really know what Lacan has to say about the mirror stage, but I do know the self-recognition in mirrors has been a hot topic in psychology for, say, two decades: when can children do it? why can apes do it, but not monkeys? And what’s the mechanism?

In recent years - the decade or thereabouts - so-called “mirror neurons” have been hot in neuroscience.These are neurons in a monkey’s brain that fire when it observes another monkey doing something that it has done in the past. See:

http://www.interdisciplines.org/mirror

http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/ramachandran/ramachandran_index.html

Now, just howl far we can go toward Lacan’s mirror stage riding the mirror neuron boom, I don’t know. But I pretty much assume that there are folks out there who are working on it.

By bbenzon on 11/05/05 at 06:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

LB,

I think someone here needs to do the careful, painstaking work of criticizing actual Lacanian ideas.

I’ve done that.  I’d copy-and-paste my own work on Lacan--two undergraduate essays, three seminar papers--but then they’d be on the web.  I’ve mentioned this before (see link above) but once upon a time I was a hard-core psychoanalytic critic of the Lacanian variety.  The best way to prove this may be to link to some of my undergraduate advisor, Patrick McGee’s, work.  This is the man who directed my honors thesis, who wrote the letters that landed me in graduate school, and who influenced my initial path into the profession.  As you can tell, he’s profoundly interested in Lacan; as a student of his, so was I.  That’s what brilliant, energetic and charming professors do: get you interested in the way they think.  If you mean I should do such criticism here and now, well, I suppose I could, but there’s a problem with debating Lacanians: you can’t.  Any point you make is evidence of denial.  To quote from my parody there:

What if I were to say to you, “You’re don’t believe Gangesa’s Tattvacintamani--that classic text of fourteenth century Sanskritic philosophy, that foundational text of Indian ‘New Logic’--you don’t believe it germane to contemporary life on the Continent or in the States? You suffer from the very resistence to ‘New Logic’ Gangesa himself diagnosed in his work on upadhi, ‘the inferential undercutting condition.’ You’re a charlatan, an intellectual fraud, and a waste of taxpayer dollars.” You would respond--for once in your life, correctly--"You are absolutely incorrect. Just because I don’t favor your epistemological account of the world doesn’t mean you can squeeze me between the pincers of a logic which, while internally coherent, is utterly unrelated to the world in which I live. Then you’d know why the people who prefer “thinking” to your sad, reductive version of “theorizing” laugh whenever you “trap” us with Lacan.

So while I could engage in that debate, I know it to be pointless ahead of time.  That’s part of the appeal of Lacanian theory for those who practice it, believe me, I know; but it’s also what separates them from deconstructive or Foucauldian thinkers with whom one can, productively, argue. 

Adam,

“How much of this is, at bottom, an objection to Lacan’s writing style, which most reasonable people would agree is in fact quite annoying and over the top?”

From my perspective, none of it, and this point’s easy to prove: Freud’s one of the most engaging writers around.  Even when you think he’s bat-shit crazy, as in Ego and Id, his works are still utterly compelling reads.  And you know what?  I dismiss Freud for the same reasons I dismiss Lacan.

Also, I don’t think the best defense of Lacanian thought is through his work as a practicing psychoanalyst.  I seem to remember there being quite an uproar about his treatment of female patients and his ideas about truncating sessions.

Rich,

More later.  Must work now.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 11/05/05 at 07:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"So I’m left with a different style of argument, which consists of pointing out that the logical implication of accepting Lacanian criticism is the defense of any arbitrary critical method that can produce interesting readings”

The real question is whether a given method can provide a relevant or appropriate reading. Anyone can offer an “interesting” reading by saying anything and everything. But is it a reading that can be supported by the text itself--that reveals something necessary to the text?

By Dan Green on 11/05/05 at 07:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think someone here needs to do the careful, painstaking work of criticizing actual Lacanian ideas.

This is a function of the Lacanian institutionalization in contemporary discourse. Everyone dismisses many thinkers out of hand unread. For example, I personally think that everyone should read Justus Buchler, Keiji Nishitani, Jeremy Hayward, Michel Meyer, Takeo Doi, and Chaim Perelman, but no one has to justify their refusal to do so. If I ignore Lacan, I’m equally justified, but by doing so I exclude myself from a whole community of discourse.

I agree with Scott about Freud, too. I’m not sure what it is I think I agree with Rich about.

By John Emerson on 11/05/05 at 08:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Alright, I guess it’s not an objection to the writing style as such in your case.  And you’re right about Freud.

By Adam Kotsko on 11/05/05 at 08:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John writes: “In general, I believe that the kind of peremptory, arbitrary dismissal Scott makes is permissible and often commendable” and “Everyone dismisses many thinkers out of hand unread.”

I think that you’re misinterpreting what Scott is trying to do, John.  He’s not trying to make a peremptory, arbitrary dismissal of an unread Lacan.  I would say that he’s not even directing his objection in this post to Lacan specifically, although he does have additional objections to Lacanian criticism.  He’s describing an example of a type of scholarship that he dislikes.  (For instance: “Selecting works which further flatter the assumptions you have committed your self and career to flattering does not incline your readers to trust you.  Passing may exemplify some psychoanalytic hobby-horse, but the fact that Quicksand hardly merits mention leads this reader to believe that it fails whatever litmus test this critic applies to works before he writes about them . . . and that mode of scholarship seems outright Rovian.")

By on 11/05/05 at 08:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther and Adam, I think that I’ll leave specific attacks on Lacanian thought to Scott, who has certainly read him much more extensively than I have.  But I’ll add a generality.

If you assume that psychoanalysis is in some way scientific, then you have to say that as a general principle, sciences change over time.  (I think that “progress” or “advance” are perfectly defensible verbs to use instead of “change”, but I don’t want to have that argument right now.) And part of this change involves concepts becoming embedded into the science as a whole and losing the attachment to a particular person. 

So, for instance, Luther compares the Lacanian mirror stage to Marxist commodity fetishism.  There are very few economists today who describe themselves as Marxist economists.  Marx was a great economist of his time, but there are elements of his thought that are now regarded as being flatly wrong, and other elements that have been complexified past his development of them.  If Lacanian ideas are part of a science, then at some point some of them are just going to be referred to as being part of psychology, and others of them are going to be rejected or replaced.

So the danger in using the scientific aspect of Lacanian thought as a justification for Lacanian literary criticism is that you’re fossilizing a particular historical moment in a science.  Even if you assume for the sake of argument that the Lacanian ideas used in literary criticism are both scientific and “correct”, this is only temporarily true.  In general, I think that this is a problem with the use of *any* scientific ideas within literary criticism—unless the critic reads and understands as many of the professional journals as an actual scientist in that field does, they are always going to be retailing past-spoil-date material.  But it’s worse for something like Lacanian thought, which has steadily diverged from psychology as a whole.

By on 11/05/05 at 09:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dan: “The real question is whether a given method can provide a relevant or appropriate reading. Anyone can offer an “interesting” reading by saying anything and everything. But is it a reading that can be supported by the text itself--that reveals something necessary to the text?”

Could you describe in greater detail what “necessary to the text” means?  I assume that any interesting Lacanian reading would not overtly contradict the text, would in some sense be “supported” by the text (assuming that you agree with Lacan), and would appear to be relevant and appropriate to people who liked Lacanian readings.  I thought it was a literary studies commonplace that interpretations were underdetermined; that any particular text had a large number of possible interpretations that appearing to say something important, and that these important things were not purely characteristics of the text itself.

By on 11/05/05 at 09:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, I don’t trust psychology or economics departments to make those decisions, though I do basically trust departments within the hard sciences to do so.

I know that problematically sets me up as final arbiter of truth in the human sciences, but I for one would view psychology as much more philosophical than scientific.  On the other hand, it seems to me that economists today are making up theories that apply perfectly to people who don’t actually exist, so starting from a position of generalized skepticism, I don’t know of any reason other than an argument from authority that would incline one to think that thinking of all humans as rational self-interested actors is any more or less plausible than commodity fetishism. 

In short, down with progress!  Just because the University of Chicago prefers to hire people who say it doesn’t make it so!

By Adam Kotsko on 11/05/05 at 09:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich: Not “overtly contradicting the text” seems to me different than being “in some sense. . .supported by the text” (Although what room for error in that “some”!) You could say something fatuous or silly--"the characters in this novel are like walking emanations of the collective unconscious"--that wouldn’t necessarily contradict the text but would add nothing to one’s encounter with it. The text wouldn’t support that claim because it isn’t relevant to it except at the most extreme level of abstraction--so extreme as to be meaningless.

Surely a text could be underdetermined enough to support a Lacanian reading, but if that reading is only (truly only) “interesting” to “people who liked Lacanian readings,” (which I take you to mean people more interested in Lacan than in literature), it’s not of much use as literary criticism. It wouldn’t seem a necessary insight (an insight that should be permanenly incorporated into one’s understanding of the work at hand) to those more interested in literature than Lacan.

By Dan Green on 11/05/05 at 10:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

”...thinking of all humans as rational self-interested actors ...”

But behavioral economists are moving away from such a view.

By bbenzon on 11/05/05 at 10:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But did Marx or even Adam Smith ever hold such a view?  I don’t see how this represents “progress” per se.

By Adam Kotsko on 11/05/05 at 10:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dan, when someone says that Lacanian readings provide necessary insights ("an insight that should be permanently incorporated into one’s understanding of the work at hand”, as you write), and also say that they are more interested in literature than Lacan, I’m not sure how to dispute their statement.  Certainly there do appear to be Lacanian readings that do not seem to overtly contradict the text, yet do not appear to be so abstracted as to be meaningless.
Let’s take an as example what I think is the most famous Lacanian interpretation, his piece on Poe’s The Purloined Letter.  Would you be able to say that if you think that Lacanian thought is invalid, then this piece does not include any necessary insights?

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

Adam, I think that all the branches of the tree that you’re choosing lead to the same result.  If you want to treat those fields as nonsciences, then you can’t claim scientific support for Lacan.  If you do want to treat those fields as sciences, then pretty much by definition the current consensus of the field is what the science is.

By on 11/05/05 at 11:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich: I found Lacan’s essay on Poe mildly illuminating of Poe, but more illuminating of Lacan’s own version of psychoanalysis. For that reason, my subsequent reading of Lacan has been fitful, at best. I wouldn’t wholly dismiss Lacanian criticism as worthless, however. But if you think his approach to psychoanalysis is invalid, presumably it would not strike you as particularly valuable as literary criticism, either. (Although. . .Freud’s own version of psychoanlysis no longer seems valid as science, but it did indisputably (in my opinion) motivate some very valuable literary criticism--Harold Bloom, for example.)

If someone claims to be attracted primarily to literature but also finds Lacanian readings necessary, all I can do is make a judgment as to whether I agree about the latter. In particular cases.

By Dan Green on 11/06/05 at 12:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Dan, that’s pretty close to where I am—even though I think that as science, Lacanian thought is probably invalid, I’m not willing to say that this means that Lacanian criticism is necessarily always unilluminative of the works that it studies.  But I don’t see the essential difference between this use of “necessary” and Luther’s use of “interesting” to describe a reading, or Walt’s
“there can be something to their insights, even if you reject their theoretical framework.”

By on 11/06/05 at 01:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich: I don’t have a problem with “interesting,” as long as it continues to mean “an interesting text-based analysis.”

By Dan Green on 11/06/05 at 01:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott, I read through the comments section to which you posted, and so I can’t blame you for having raised hackles over anything Lacanian. 

At the same time, that blog doesn’t reflect the Lacanian thinkers I’ve met in the academy (again, this weird parallel universe I live in!).  What that blog seems like is a bunch of graduate students in a mutual admiration party, where they sit around comparing schlong sizes only to conclude that yes, they all have rather lovely dongs. 

I myself have never completed much study of Lacan; what I’ve come across has been via the work of Lacanians.  But it rarely sounds far-fetched—that’s my only point.  In the past five years, I think I’ve come across more far-fetched historicist readings of literature than far-fetched Lacanian readings (in part, of course, because historicism has displaced Lacanianism). 

And Rich, your point about science seems to put all knowledge at a stand still.  It’s Popper’s falsification standard taken to the degree zero: because all scientific knowledge *could* be falsified, we should assume it probably *will* be falsified, so the very fact that something is scientific should lead us to avoid it.

Historicism is its own worse enemy: every historicism must be historicized.  So that the very historicism that suggests that a Lacanian idea was a historical symptom rather than a scientific fact itself needs to be historicized, and so on and so forth.  Historicism, though, can only tell us for what reasons an idea came to be.  It cannot tell us if that idea is true or false.

By on 11/06/05 at 04:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I note that the words “science” and “knowledge” are not synonyms. In his recent book Franco Moretti manages to make some interesting observations without ever talking about science whereas, by contrast, some literary Darwinists prattle about science all the time and never manage to rise above banaities—and, often enough, they don’t even manage that.

How would this conversation change if the word “science” were banned?

By bbenzon on 11/06/05 at 07:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther and Bill, the difference between science and knowledge often comes down to how the material is used within literary studies.  All sciences have a body of observational knowledge that generally is never quite “falsified”, although better obsrvations are taken.  Imagine late 19th century physics used as contributor to literary studies.  If someone incorporated some kind of observation explained by Newton’s Laws into literature or literary studies, that would likely never be falsified—Newton’s Laws still work perfectly well for the kinds of events that people encounter in day-to-day life on Earth, and probably always will.  But it’s more likely that some kind of pseudo-philosophy based on Newton’s Laws would have been incorporated into literary study: something about the universe being deterministic, perhaps.  That gets falsified.  Or if early astronomy was used for literary purposes, anything observational about phases of the moon and so on would still be fine as knowledge, but explaining human character or fate according to the stars would be false.

To turn to Lacan, I’d say that according to current science as I understand it, “the unconcious is structured like a language” is doubly false.  First, it’s false because people don’t seem to have an unconcious in the standard meaning of that word, although they often behave as if they do.  There the situation may be analogous to physical behavior of objects described by Newton’s Laws.  Second, they don’t really behave as if this unconcious is structured like a language.  There the situation is more like that of astrology.  It’s (describing it charitably) outdated science turned into observationally contradicted pseudo-philosophy.

By on 11/06/05 at 08:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

So I would assume, then, that Kant’s philosophy has been contradicted now that Newtonian physics has been superceded.

The bald assertions about the unconscious are brilliant.

By Adam Kotsko on 11/06/05 at 10:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yeah, Rich, I don’t quite buy that “science” has disproven the existence of unconscious mental processes.  And I think the idea of something massified—*the* unconsciousness—is a misreading of Freud and Lacan.  There’s no *thing* or place with a sign reading, “Unconsciousness, Pop. Unknown.” We’re dealing with activities and processes, urges and impulses. 

To be specific, the Real is not structured like a language.  The Symbolic *is* itself langue-as-unconsciousness.  Lacan’s point here has always seemed quite simple to me: whatever “natural” urges and instincts we might have are never recoverable outside of the way they are socially structured before we are reflexive subjects.  This is the point where desire and ideology meet.  Whatever it is we really want, we can be sure it’s not really an Oscar de la Renta suit.  Or a woman in knee-socks.  Or five buff guys in g-strings chasing us with erections.  Or the next season of *Veronica Mars* on DVD. 

That doesn’t sound crazy to me.  It sounds like an easily observable behavioral pattern: compulsive consumerism, for example.  If you hang out at a mall for a few hours and still don’t believe that people do all sorts of things without really knowing why they are doing them, then . . .

By on 11/06/05 at 02:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

. . . whatever “natural” urges and instincts we might have are never recoverable outside of the way they are socially structured before we are reflexive subjects. . . .

Yes. We’re responsive to external stimuli before we’re born. And, of course, as soon as we’re born, we’re being socialized.

That’s one reason so much time is devoted to studying primate behavior. It’s not that we’re so very interested in the ways of monkeys and apes, but that studying them is a way of seeing what “we” might have been like prior to symbolically mediated culture. One of the things we’ve learned is that chimps have culture too, though obviously not so richly developed as our own.

By bbenzon on 11/06/05 at 04:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t see the point in getting into an argument about what cognitive science / psychology really says about the Freudian / Lacanian unconcious.  Adam can call these kinds of statements bald assertions, but they aren’t mine to defend.  I will say that of course science hasn’t “disproven the existence of unconscious mental processes”, as if everything that our brains do is concious—it’s just that the nature of these mental processes does not appear to have much in common with the Freudian / Lacanian notion of the unconcious, which even if not “massified” is still a coherent scientific model (though incorrect by modern standards).

And once again, I’m not arguing about whether scientific change is progress or not.  One can at least say that it is change.  Writing something like “whatever “natural” urges and instincts we might have are never recoverable outside of the way they are socially structured before we are reflexive subjects” completely ignores evolutionary and cognitive science, which have a different framework.  The whole false dichotomy between “natural urges and instincts” and “social structure” wouldn’t be addressed in the same way.

By on 11/06/05 at 07:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think it’s amusing (if tiring), Scott, that you hold here to the idea that debating someone who studies Lacanian psychoanalyis is impossible.  I think you are absolving yourself of your own responsibility in the matter.  Hurling invectives at people is not likely to open up the space of a productive debate, and, generally, offering something up to the table beyond negative critique helps a bit too.

If Lacan is to be your favourite whipping-boy, it really would be a decent idea to offer us one of your critiques of his thought and/or practice.  Then an honest and constructive debate might become possible.

Adam, you’re certainly right about Lacan’s `writing style’, which is more often than not really a “speaking style”, and, more importantly, speech delivered to communities of analysts.  Lacan’s approach was NOT to speak as an analyst, but as an analysand - so that the receiver of his speech would take up the role of analyst in deciphering the message(s).  So yes, it’s maddening, but that’s part of the training of analysts.

By RIPope on 11/08/05 at 06:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Richard,

Did you read what I’ve written here?  (This is the same article which sparked the conversation on Long Sunday, after all.) I did no hurling of invective here; explicitly didn’t insult the intelligence of the author in question; only suggested the provenance might be a bit skewed.  Where do I say talking to someone who studies Lacanian psychoanalysis is impossible?  I said that I thought talking to you about Lacanian psychoanalysis impossible, because you take the rhetorical tact of many psychoanalytic critics in which “denial of the truth of psychoanalysis” is validation of the very truth denied.  You can see this in the post itself, in which I note:

Needless to say, while I would rather my criticism altogether empty of psychoanalytic position statements, due to recent interactions with intelligent people I have abandoned my hard-line snickering dismissiveness.  I can now handle the occasional reference to psychoanalytic concepts with fruitive effects on the literary reading.  ("Leslie Fiedler!” Luther Blisset said.  “Leslie Fiedler!") So yes . . . . Leslie Fiedler!

How, exactly, am I saying that I can’t talk to Lacanian critics?  I seem to be saying the exact opposite, that my experience here has made me rethink my position, and while it hasn’t brought me back to this place, I’m certainly a lot more open than I had been before. 

Also, I know you like to feel embattled, but I already specifically addressed the question of Lacan’s style Adam asked: “How much of this is, at bottom, an objection to Lacan’s writing style, which most reasonable people would agree is in fact quite annoying and over the top?”

I replied:

From my perspective, none of it, and this point’s easy to prove: Freud’s one of the most engaging writers around.  Even when you think he’s bat-shit crazy, as in Ego and Id, his works are still utterly compelling reads.  And you know what?  I dismiss Freud for the same reasons I dismiss Lacan.

That seems a fairly definitive statement about why I (and many of the other readers here, I believe) think Lacan suspect.

That said, I will take up a more detailed critique of Lacan as soon as time permits.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 11/08/05 at 08:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

No, I’m not saying you hurled invectives here, but you linked in the comments here to our exchange at CPROBES as a sort of evidence that one cannot really talk to Lacanians.

I do not know if my saying so will change your mind, but I do NOT simply believe that any critique of Lacanian psychoanalysis is evidence of resistance (and so proof of the very theory of resistance).  However, I do think that if anyone critiques Lacan without actually engaging his works, then they leave themselves open to the charge of being dismissive.  Our exchange at CPROBES began as a result of my frustration at this very phenomenon (and since I have read Lacan, as well as the Anglo-American and French appropriations of him, I don’t think I am myself dismissive in critiquing such appropriations).

My comment to Adam was not against yours; it was just a comment to Adam (and whoever else here is interested in why Lacan ‘wrote’ the way he did).

By RIPope on 11/08/05 at 10:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The discussion late here in this thread of the content of Lacan actually loops back to the substantive point that Scott makes. I think you can actually justify in some consistent sense a form of criticism which simply uses texts as totemic occasions for reconvening an existing theoretical conversation within a closed discursive community.

I just find the justification distasteful, as does Scott. Coming to the text as a mere occasion for convening a critical model poses the question: why? The theoretical model in this mode of criticism does not depend upon the text itself as a demonstration of the theory, only as a sign of its legitimacy, a justification for theorizing. It is natural to ask, “Why not just go straight to the theory?” And it correct to suspect that the inability to go straight to theory demonstrates a kind of high-order parasitism, that the theory-work needs to convene itself on the site of a given text in order to legitimate its presence within a practice called “literary criticism”: that this is a genre-form, not a substantive claim.

It’s also right to be vaguely irritated simply by having to read through such a work of criticism if you are not already its audience, because in some sense it is not intended for you, merely placed in your path by its inclusion into some publication form to which you feel a disciplinary obligation: it is in the wider constitution of a discipline, and so must be encountered, because that is what the discipline is. But there is nothing there for you to find, no surprise, no knowledge-making: there is only a flare sent up into the night, a theoretical bat-signal to which you are either responsive or not.

The thing of it is that a certain mode of theory-writing licenses all interpretations convened on the body of a given text and so in some sense kills the possibility that the text will ever surprise the interpreter, that it will contain something unanticipated by the theory convened in its body. Almost by definition, the text cannot: to surprise, to be the stimulus to theory rather than the occasion of it, the text would have to be something rather than everything.

By Timothy Burke on 11/10/05 at 11:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Almost by definition, the text cannot: to surprise, to be the stimulus to theory rather than the occasion of it, the text would have to be something rather than everything.”

Yes, exactly.  But since no one wants to admit to this, whenever it is brought up you get a long equivocation about whether texts really determine meaning and to what degree.  Mostly what certain people do is say that you aren’t considering the text closely enough if they disagree with you and that meaning doesn’t reside in the text if you say that their reading conflicts with the text.

I think that disciplinary points are at the heart of what Scott is complaining about.  He’s saying that he has to read the Lacanian criticism because he feels a disciplinary obligation to read everything (i.e., he holds to a model of scholarship that demands that you consider different readings of a work).  At the same time, the person who wrote the Lacanian criticism in this case didn’t do the same thing; they didn’t read criticism from competing traditions.  I agree that the Lacanian can say something like, “well, I never signed on to your idea of scholarship—that’s your problem”, and the field can justify in a coherent sense the Lacanian’s ability to do this, because after all no reading can be proven to be better than any other, and therefore it’s not clear whether multiplying them gets you anywhere.  You and Scott (and I) may find this justification distasteful, but if someone says that they don’t, well that’s a matter of taste, not disciplinary standards.

So really the argument has to be directed against Lacanian pretention to scientific support.  Without that, Lacanian criticism is no different than a school of criticism based, say, around the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  Which is not invalid, any more than Lacanian readings are invalid (since you certainly can’t prove a negative in this case) but which I don’t think that people are really ready to embrace.

By on 11/10/05 at 11:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The theoretical model in this mode of criticism does not depend upon the text itself as a demonstration of the theory, only as a sign of its legitimacy, a justification for theorizing. It is natural to ask, “Why not just go straight to the theory?” And it correct to suspect that the inability to go straight to theory demonstrates a kind of high-order parasitism, that the theory-work needs to convene itself on the site of a given text in order to legitimate its presence within a practice called “literary criticism”: that this is a genre-form, not a substantive claim.

That’s why criticism needs a literary canon. The canon carries great cultural authority. That authority then extends its penumbra through the reading itself. What’s being legitimated is not so much the critical model—whether Lacanian or Derridean or New Critical or Evolutionary—as the assertions about life and politics and beauty and gender and ethics and so forth that the critic makes in the course of his or her reading. Above all else it is the critic who needs authority.

Even before we get to Tim’s (rhetorical) question—“Why not just go straight to the theory?”—we have a prior question: Why doesn’t the critic offer his or her opinions on whatever directly, without resort to reading them out of (or is it into) a canonical text? Because few people have or are willing to assert so much on their own personal authority, at least that’s not the convention of professional literary criticism. There are of course people who do that sort of thing—they fill the op-ed pages, for example—but there are so many of them as there are PhD literary critics (at least I don’t think there are).

As I indicated, this has nothing specifically to do with Lacanian criticism. It’s just how the critical game is played. I really don’t know whether Lacanian thinking is more insular than other modes of criticism, but it does seem to me that, once an explicit body of theory is added into the critical mix, the authority dynamic gets more complex. Is the Theory-driven critic drawing both on canonical authority and Theory to support his or her ethical and aesthetic judgments? Of is the Theory-driven critic using canonical authority both to support his or her judgments AND the theory? In the abstract both are possibilities.

By bbenzon on 11/10/05 at 11:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m conscious of coming to this discussion-thread very late.  I’m also conscious that what I’m about to say may date me horribly provoking cries of ‘leave it out, Granddad!’ or whatever the equivalent argot would be Stateside.  But does nobody read De Man anymore?  The whole os this discussion—its resistance, indeed, to Theory—seems to me to rehearse and circle about exactly the arguments of The Resistance to Theory.  Or is De Man now impossibly dated, like Smilies and Loon pants and Poodle Perms?

By Adam Roberts on 11/11/05 at 12:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I can’t believe that you would recommend that we read that Nazi, whose entire theory was based on wanting to disconnect our words from reality because he felt guilty for doing Nazi propaganda.

At least that’s what I read about de Man in some comic book (literally, in a comic book).

By Adam Kotsko on 11/11/05 at 12:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, it’s certainly hard to defend him personally; tho’ he was a collaborationist rather than being—like Heidegger, or the present Pope—an actual member of the Nazi party.  We might say that he did have the good grace to feel guilty about being a Nazi collaborator, and he stopped doing it in 1942.  But, yes, he was a Nazi collaborator for all that.  Louis Altuhsser strangled his wife.  Plus I understand that Jefferson kept slaves, and John Lennon used to beat up his women.

I could, actually, be persuaded that his personal history is a reason for disregarding De Man now.  And there issomething icky in playing the game of relative culpability when we’re talking about Hitler and Hitlerites.  But Heidegger, whose star seems never to have been higher, did worse things, and was much more closely associated with the Nazis, a party in which he, even if only temporarily, found a concrete expression for his thoughts on Dasein.  Why might Heidegger be OK today, and De Man not, I wonder?

By Adam Roberts on 11/11/05 at 12:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hey, look—Adam R. is referencing De Man while *I’m* referencing the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  (Commence snickering, eye-rolling, juvenile smirking, (hopefully) choking, etc.)

The difference, from my point of view, is that I don’t think that Scott’s original post was really about Lacan per se or even Theory per se.  I could (especially after Dan Green’s recent post—sorry, Dan) imagine the same exact argument being made against too-restricted devotion to the New Criticism.  Lacan keeps getting brought in because Scott has additional, specific objections to Lacan, because his original example used Lacan, and because Lacanians make claims for scientific backing that bring in yet another set of issues.

By on 11/11/05 at 12:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Which Lacanians make scientific claims?  Lacan himself says that psychoanalysis is not yet a science, pretty late in his career—who among the Lacanians think they have surpassed The Man Himself and finally pulled off the science thing?

By Adam Kotsko on 11/11/05 at 01:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Resistence to theory . . . . perhaps. It is quite clear to me that at least some current interest in approaches grounded in evoliutionary psychology and cognitive psychology does stem from “resistence to theory.” The idea is to somehow do an “end run” around the difficulties of language by basing your criticism on a somewhat newer and ostensibly more scientific brand of theory.

The trouble with invoking “resistence to theory” in the general case, however, is that it is a self-fulfilling defense and thus potentially insular. Maybe Theory is not the best way of dealing with the problems which have given it its energy.

By bbenzon on 11/11/05 at 01:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

By ‘resistance to theory’ de Man meant ‘resistance to reading’ in the fullest sense, because, he argued, theory reveals the terrible truth that ‘that literature is not a transparent message … that the grammatical decoding of a text leaves a residue of indetermination that has to be, but cannot be, resolved by grammatical means, however extensively conceived’ (quoting from RtT).  Which is to say: the notion that any given ‘science’ (Spaghetti-Monsterist, Psychoanalytical, or whatever) can ‘decode’ a text, or indeed that any given text can be used as straightforward evidence for a pre-existing belief system, is a simple misunderstanding of the ways texts figure.  Not that literary scholarship should be tossed completely out of the window:  [This from early in the book: ‘scholarship involves at least two complementary areas: historical and philological facts as the preparatory condition for understanding, and methods of reading or interpretation. The latter is admittedly an open discipline, which can, however, hope to evolve by rational means, despite internal crises, controversies and polemics.’] But the best way to ‘do’ criticism, says de Man, is a deconstructive close attention to the ways the text generates its meanings, its aporias and discontinuities: a method that can be as usefully applied to the Lacanian text or the Spaghetti-Monstrous text as to any given novel.  Although the fact that Lacanian psychoanalysis, as a discourse, advances the notion (to adapt the quotation) ‘that the analytic decoding of the psyche always leaves a residue of indetermination that has to be, but cannot be, resolved by analytic means, however extensively conceived’ I guess there are deconstructionists who are more sympathetic to Lacan than they might be to the noodly one.

By Adam Roberts on 11/11/05 at 01:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It occurs to me that my preceding post might come across as me trying to teach my grandmother, or grandmother-Valvians, to suck eggs.  Sorry, if so.

By Adam Roberts on 11/11/05 at 04:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think that I see what you mean, Adam R.  You’re saying that one can use a sort of De Manian deconstructive argument against Lacanian criticism, by saying that “the notion that any given ‘science’ (Spaghetti-Monsterist, Psychoanalytical, or whatever) can ‘decode’ a text, or indeed that any given text can be used as straightforward evidence for a pre-existing belief system, is a simple misunderstanding of the ways texts figure” and that if “there are deconstructionists who are more sympathetic to Lacan than they might be to the noodly one”, then this is an unmerited sympathy.

I don’t think that this really quite covers my argument (I can’t speak for anyone else) because De Man, as you point out, has a positive program of his own, in which he “hope[s that methods of reading or interpretation can] evolve by rational means, despite internal crises, controversies and polemics” and in which “the best way to ‘do’ criticism, says de Man, is a deconstructive close attention”.  But how can he speak (in your paraphrase) of the best way to do something for which he has just admitted that every method must be insufficient?  And as for rationality, let me quote, out of context, Michael Berube from the comment thread here:

“But see, I don’t think there is a discourse that can settle things once and for all.  I do wish (as I hope I’ve made clear on this resolutely secular blog) that more people would agree to adjudicate disputes by means of rational, reciprocal, intersubjective exchange, but there are still plenty of people for whom reason is subordinate to something else, and what are we going to do about them?”

Yes, what are we going to do about them?  My answer to Berube was to tell them they are wrong, but that’s because we were discussing brute facts and science (which has a certain pragmatic defensibility), not methods of interpretation of literary texts.  If the Lacanian, like the vampire in my earlier analogy, chooses not to be impressed, you’re at a loss.

Which brings me to Adam K.  Adam writes “Which Lacanians make scientific claims?  Lacan himself says that psychoanalysis is not yet a science, pretty late in his career—who among the Lacanians think they have surpassed The Man Himself and finally pulled off the science thing?” That is a classic overreading: no one in literary studies claims to be doing science.  But people like Luther and Adam K. (both of whom are not Lacanians, yes I know) have written in this very thread “YET he did actually see patients and even helped a lot of patients (almost certainly more than Freud), including many who were pretty far gone” and “You might argue that it was the responsibility of Lacan and his followers to do hard scientific experimentation.  But that ignores the billions of dollars needed [...] Lacan’s work seems much more grounded in social observation than much of Marx or Foucault, for example.” There is a penumba of scientism that hangs about Lacan’s work and makes it look more respectable than Scientology or Flying Spaghetti Monsterism.  Lacanians make full use of this, even if they deny “doing science” (which could not hold up in any case).

By on 11/11/05 at 04:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The following comment was recently posted to a psychoanalytic list I’m on. It’s one in a series of notes about the late Paul Roazen.

Paul Roazen was responsible for one of the most interesting historical “takes” that I’ve ever heard on Lacan, at a conference at Penn in April of (I think) 2000, analyzing concepts like lack and sufferance in the context of French Catholic self-abnegation.

Dr. Willis Salomon
Associate Professor of English and Renaissance Studies
Trinity University
1 Trinity Place
San Antonio, TX 78212-7200
210-999-7556

By bbenzon on 11/12/05 at 02:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It continues:

From: Don Carveth
Subject: Re: [Fwd: RE: Fw: Paul Roazen]

Yes, on a few occasions Paul and I discussed the thinly disguised Roman Catholicism that is Lacanian theory.  Lacan’s brother was a Benedictine monk.  A central concept is the-name-of-the-father (hear “in the name of the father, the son,and the Holy Spirit").  Another is the concept of the cure as “acceptance of castration” (read crucifixion--"lack" as holes in the hands, the feet, the side).  So many Lacanians seem to be ex-Catholics, ex-priests, ex-nuns (though some, like William Richardson, are still active in the priesthood).  Often these folks don’t seem to like it pointed out that Lacanism is Roman Catholicism filtered through de Saussure and Sartre.  Who can blame them?  They want to be psychoanalysts and psychoanalysis has not always been very friendly to us Christians.  Meissner seems to have survived by splitting his identity as analyst from his identity as Jesuit priest, keeping them in air-tight separate compartments.  Leavy only announced his life-long Anglo-Catholicism after he retired as an analyst.  My generation seems to have it a little easier, though in the process of my becoming a supervising and training analyst I received a bizarre telephone call from the Chair of the Institute Membership Committee occasioned by the fact that during a cocktail party I held at my home, at which the doors were opened to my home office, someone spotted a King James Bible in my consulting room.  Naturally my secular humanist colleagues were concerned that I might be using the clinical setting, not to bring people to secular humanist ideology as they do, but to Jesus.  Finally, embarrassed to have been forced to ask these questions (which I can’t imagine anyone asking a Muslim or a Buddhist, or perhaps even an orthodox Jew, for fear of human rights violations), my colleague admitted he too had a Bible in his consultin! g room, a Jewish one, and we discussed matters of translation. As a social scientist, Paul Roazen was a man who understood the ideological nature even of our own ideologies.  I wish more colleagues got this point.

Best,

Don

By bbenzon on 11/12/05 at 04:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I just read through this post and thread of Scott’s and found something attributed to me that I can’t recall ever saying or posting - something that I wouldn’t say, as stated. If anyone knows how to use the Valve search engine better than I do, you can check to see whether or not I misspoke:

Rich P. wrote:

“One answer to this is to say, as Tony Christini has been saying (in my opinion, anachronistically) in another thread, that of course literary criticism communicates content.”
http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/c/#5112

One of the relevant points that I’ve made in other posts is that imaginative literature, especially fiction – not necessarily literary criticism - is shaped experience (shaped content, if you like, but a “content” of course that in addition to anything concrete, or informational, or sensory may consist greatly of abstract ideas and ideals as well). Sometimes this experience (or content) is shaped essentially to express. Other times it is shaped essentially to communicate. One of the most interesting and lively things about imaginative literature to me is that usually there is a large focus on both expression and communication, as well as a significant mixture of the concrete and the abstract. And I think readers should treat this experience – idea laden or not - as they would any other experience.

As for my thoughts about literary criticism, it’s my understanding that traditionally criticism has been produced primarily as a means to communicate, not express; and as a means to communicate ideas primarily and any experience secondarily – which is arguably NOT entirely the flip of what imaginative literature has traditionally largely been produced for. Though I think their emphases – the one on experience, the other on ideas – have been often traditionally different. And I think that holds for their somewhat different emphases on expression and communication, as well. Though again, clearly, quite a number of highly accomplished works of imaginative literature have very often traditionally been produced largely for communicative and critical purposes.

Of course literary criticism can be virtually wholly abstract, parsing definitions of “is” in particular works and sentences and in general until the cows come home. I think it’s worthwhile for society to support this sort of criticism. It’s basically an abstruse form of philosophy, as I see it. On the other hand, there’s plenty of content - information, in particular - in the sort of criticism that, say, Terry Eagleton writes in his very thoughtful recent Introduction to the English Novel.

So my view is that literary criticism may communicate plenty of content but it need not necessarily – it very well may not - contrary to what has been attributed to me in this thread - it may do any of this, and it does.

Rich goes on to state that “When one writes academic literary criticism, it seems to me to be primarily a performative utterance rather than one that is intended to communicate content.  It says ‘Look at me, I am tenure-worthy.’ Therefore familiarity with critical history isn’t just neglected due to time constraints or something, it’s actively discouraged.  Putting in much about non-Lacanian interpretations would spoil the flow of the paper and depict its author as a plodding pedant....”

I agree that this is often the case and it renders criticism as more of an expressive art. Unfortunately I find such work often to be poorly wrought as expressive art, and frequently it is purposefully obscurant rather than purposefully illuminating. I think it is frequently obscurant because whereas the author is actually creating expressive art, he or she is trying to pass it off as scholarship, that is argument – reason coupled with evidence (for purposes of publication or a degree in scholarly realms). So what you can get is a dishonesty coupled with a glittering vacuousness. Or as James Wood says regarding, what I see as, a similar phenomenon occurring in ambitious ostensibly social novels: “all shiny externality,” in which there is no there there, what I’ve called elsewhere a quintessential corporate product, in regard to such novels. Someone steeped in academia could no doubt come up with a corresponding name for such criticism, a name which I think might not inaccurately also be largely derived from corporate-state influence of power and politics upon academia and culture in general.

This doesn’t mean that there is no room in critical realms for exercises in abstractions that have a large expressive quality. It’s nothing new in the world, and practice of it no doubt can prove interesting, and lead to insight.

By Tony Christini on 12/04/05 at 04:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

”. . . whatever “natural” urges and instincts we might have are never recoverable outside of the way they are socially structured before we are reflexive subjects. . . . “

Mostly true, but as someone pointed out earlier we can study apes to help us in this regard. We can also do cross cultural studies, so at least the only cultural “noise” we pick up will be that of cultural neccessity ( features of cultures that are neccessary.)

By on 02/12/06 at 12:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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