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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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Sunday, November 02, 2008

Derrida’s Obituary, or, Is Literary Theory Too Abstruse?

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 11/02/08 at 03:45 PM

(x-posted to The Kugelmass Episodes)

REPORTER: How do you answer the charge that you’re a fascist?
WILSON: What?
REPORTER: Your band, Joy Division, named after a group of women recruited by the SS for the purpose of breeding perfect Aryans. Isn’t
that sick.
WILSON: Have you never heard of situationism, or postmodernism? Do you know nothing about the free play of signs and signifiers?

-24 Hour Party People

One time after class I actually went up to the TA and asked him what postmodernism was. “Nobody really knows the answer to that,” he said. I think he’s teaching at Princeton now.
-
A friend, to me, five days ago

Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Philosopher, Dies at 74
-The New York Times, 10/10/2004

When I was in my second year of graduate studies at Irvine, Jacques Derrida died. The New York Times chose to summarize him as an “abstruse” philosopher, prompting many people at UCI and elsewhere to sign a petition of protest. Given Derrida’s immense philosophical legacy, as well as his devoted efforts as our teacher and colleague at Irvine, it seemed offensively callous to sum him up in such a dismissive way.

I did not sign the petition. I thought it a fair assessment, though one that sits poorly on the day after a man’s death. The Times could have used many other words—radical, groundbreaking, influential—that would have been kinder and just as apt. Yet as long as Derrida continues to be read, he will continue to be a puzzling and frustrating read, albeit a dazzling and seductive one for certain types of readers. That quality in his work leads us to a question that never seems far from the surface in discussions of literary theory and criticism: what are we to make of the last fifty years in criticism? Can it be summed up? Can it be comprehended fully? Must we refrain from “calling out” Derrida on the thicket of his prose?

In the comments following my post on Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, Valve contributor Rohan Maitzen asked the following:

There’s a lot of lit-blogging (and reviewing, and publishing) that goes on that disregards or is even openly disdainful of the conventions, contributions, or (dare I say) rigor of academic literary scholarship and criticism. But refuting (or complicating, or qualifying) literary judgments or interpretations is (or is it?) a different kind of game than ‘refuting specific factual inaccuracies’--though factual inaccuracies may sometimes be involved. Maybe these discussions, because they don’t have the same public stakes (not to mention audience) as “political scholarship” like Goldberg’s, should just be left alone--but then, do we professional lit-crit types not think there are better and worse (more or less responsible and legitimate) ways to do our kind of thing as well? Do we have any responsibility to get in the game, then?

Bill Benzon, also of the Valve, responded:

That’s a very good set of questions, Rohan. Has there been any attempt to present the results of academic literary criticism and scholarship to the general public? Sure, Harold Bloom has written about Shakespeare and about the Western canon, but he wasn’t presenting a popular synthesis of scholarship; he was presenting Bloom on those topics. Marjorie Garber has published a big fat book on Shakespeare that’s pretty general in nature, but based on a wide range of scholarship. But that’s one author, albeit, a central one.

Just around the corner from here I have a post presenting J. Hillis Miller’s reflections on how the profession has changed in 50 years. Has anyone attempted to lay out what we’ve learned about literature in the past 50 years? For surely we have learned a lot. And it would take more than one or three books and a dozen magazine articles to set that before the public. And, of course, there’s considerable contention within the profession about what we’ve learned. But that’s OK.

The discussion continued apace for a while; in response to a later comment by Bill, I wrote:

The problem here is language about language (e.g. literature). If somebody dumbs down Heisenberg and quantum mechanics enough for me, sure, I can see that the observer cannot be separated from the observed, and I can worry over the death of Schrodinger’s cat. But what I can’t do is important work in the field of quantum mechanics. Whereas that seems to be exactly the desire with synopses of literary criticism and theory: to reduce things down to inarguable truisms or clichés, and then to believe that’s actually preparation for reading in depth.

Bill answered: “If this is so, then reading ‘in depth’ has no value to anyone but the critics who do it. Might as well be Stanley Fish. BTW, language about language is built-in to language; Jakobson called it the metalingual function. Literary critics didn’t invent it in the 1960s.” As the discussion continued, tomemos wrote in to suggest that a primer on literary studies

would amplify our cultural misunderstanding of what the humanities are supposed to produce: when are we going to roll up our sleeves and get something done?  Bill talks about a book that would “present the results of academic literary criticism,” but obviously literary criticism does not have “results” in the scientific sense, and so a book that pretended that it does would not just be dumbing down the ideas of the field; it would be a complete distortion of the field itself.

Tomemos raises important questions. What is the nature of the field of literary criticism, given that it does not make “progress” in the same way the sciences do? Why do we consider summaries or popularizing explanations of theory and criticism to be inherently distortive?  Why is there so much demand for less technical, summary accounts of theory? The demand goes well beyond immediately affected graduates and undergraduates working on deadline.

I believe that most of the people who want a layman’s guide to thinkers like Jacques Derrida or Slavoj Zizek feel a mixture of intellectual curiosity and the anxiety of the outsider. Regardless of how much education they have had in English, they feel they are not up to speed with literary and philosophical terminology, and so have different requirements from “specialists” in the field. This is a model borrowed above all from the sciences: layman’s guides to astrophysics (A Brief History of Time), quantum mechanics, and evolutionary science (Stephen Jay Gould) have all sold quite well, and satisfy, in some measure, our desire to be able to explain the universe. To this we might add a secondary list that goes beyond text, covering everything from filmed explanations of game theory (A Beautiful Mind) to the various evocative, but inaccurate, models of the atom that children encounter in primary school.

In calling these to mind I am reminded of an astonishing poster a former roommate once had up in our bathroom. It was a thorough rendering of certain reactions among subatomic particles, all of which looked like billiard balls or tinker toys. At the bottom of the poster was written: “Notice: These drawings represent an artist’s conception of physical processes. They are not exact and have no meaningful scale.” In other words, the entire poster was little more than a fantasy. Although some correspondence exists between what the poster shows and what specialists in particle physics say to each other, the real goal of the poster is to use drawings to get us to take on faith something that cannot really be pictured. The same goes for most other layman’s guides to science: a great deal is affirmed rather than proved, and inexact analogies make the work intelligible, even though all of them have to be accompanied by weasel words. It is exactly this hidden cost of simplification that has lent credence to the claims that evolution is something students are expected to “take on faith,” and thus is no different from creationism. Fortunately, whether or not you believe in a particular scientific theory, it still applies in the real world -- it works -- so it doesn’t matter, in your day-to-day life, just how detailed your picture of certain invisible processes really is. My understanding of the machinery in my computer is full of gaps and guesswork; nonetheless, I am perfectly comfortable using the computer to write this post.

It just so happens that this very idea comes from a joke Slavoj Zizek likes to tell when he talks about ideology. A college professor has a rabbit’s foot on his door, and so a student asks him whether he really believes that the rabbit’s foot will bring good luck. That’s the amazing thing about it, says the college professor, whether you believe in it or not, it works. This is Zizek’s definition of our attitude towards something like the “free market”: we talk about it as though it was an imperfect human creation of which we are highly skeptical, but we act as though it were an immutable law of nature. Thus ideology is not like a computer: it’s not something you can use without fully understanding it. If you don’t understand it, it uses you.

Another way of putting this is that scientific summaries are indexical—they point at a functioning system not significantly altered by the summary itself—whereas philosophical or literary summaries are performative, and do alter what they describe because they are forced to re-create it in a certain way.

To imagine a series of good layman’s guides to the most influential literary theory and philosophy of the last fifty years is ironic because it establishes precisely the sort of top-down hierarchies that most of these writers detested, because they associated such hierarchies with the worst features of oppressive governments, colonialism, and capitalism. Relatively few such books require technical skills that would be very difficult to acquire outside of a course; the only one who comes immediately to mind is Hegel, who long pre-dates the 20th Century, and who wrote one book (The Science of Logic) that’s a little easier to read if you know calculus. Thus they are quite different from books that have to gloss over difficult equations. Most of the technical terms in modern works of literary theory and philosophy are invented and defined within those works themselves: you can track down the moment Michel Foucault coins the “episteme,” for example, and read it for yourself.

As a result of the simplifications that already exist in our culture, plenty of people already try to “cash out” thinkers like Michel Foucault or Jean Baudrillard by taking their pronouncements on faith, with predictably bad results. But perhaps even worse are the people who see executive summaries of philosophy as an opportunity to pick and choose, since you can easily refute a statement stripped of all its complexity and elaboration. How many times have we heard postmodern “meaninglessness” effortlessly refuted? Or Plato’s theory that all men act according to their notion of the good? Or Freud’s theory of Oedipal sexuality? How many people have confidently sent Nietzsche and his misguided “nihilism” running for the hills? When you summarize these texts, you completely destroy their power as works of provocation, and they turn into echoes of what people already believe or reject. One of the secret engines of the desire to “get” postmodernism in one sentence is the deep unpopularity of Marxist thought, which was the very air that 20th Century theorists breathed: in reducing them, we try to pry them free of their origins in conversations about Marx.

Naturally, there are writers who are simply labored, bad stylists with good ideas. We might put Jacques Lacan into this category, or Jean-Paul Sartre during the height of his Heideggerian phase. But the response to a very accessible writer like Zizek has been, at least in America, so identical that it becomes necessary to ask whether anyone is even trying to determine who is abstruse and who is not. Very well, one might answer, but what about the democratic principle? Isn’t it the responsibility of the intellectual, when she implicates all people in her text, to write in a way all people can understand?

I will end by answering this question in three ways. First, it behooves us to remember the sad case of Albert Camus, who wrote utterly transparent prose, and whose reward was that everyone thinks they understand him, though few actually do. Perhaps no 20th Century thinker has been so unfairly pigeonholed: we see Camus as a charming sort of teenage bohemian error, something lots of people adopt and then outgrow. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Second, our idea of democracy has changed for the worse since Jefferson’s time. His idea that a populace must be competent to govern was founded upon a highly idealistic belief in education. That is what reading literature, criticism, and theory is really about: the difficult, sometimes even frustrating process of educating oneself, and striving to learn the grammar of the present day well enough to influence it. Writers in the humanities are not putting into text an untranslatable technical skill, unlike Stephen Hawking. Their writing is accessible to anyone who takes the trouble to access it, a labor built into the very meaning of the text. Whenever I have taught Foucault to undergraduates, I have seen them go through, as I did, the same process of trying to make Foucault “fit” somewhere familiar before they are willing to tackle his radical ideas. Nor is this process of educating oneself ever over: a “specialist” in literary theory does not necessarily have an easier time with a new writer than anybody else. In its era, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was considered a pamphlet, and one accessible to virtually the whole of the literate population. It is not exactly to our credit that we might want him to be summarized for us now.

Finally, the overlapping universes of literature, philosophy, and literary theory meet in a garden of forking paths. This is particularly true of literary criticism, as opposed to literary theory, since literary readings are mainly interesting to people who enjoy the works or period in question. The greatest failure of that unkind obituary for Derrida was that it failed to see how intimate and personal his writings were, how their supposed opacity was often a result of Derrida’s insistence on writing for those people whose preoccupations were similar to his own, turning his back on that enforced universality which, so often, represents an attempt to make ideas work like money: good for all debts, accepted everywhere, transmutable into anything the occasion demands. We make our own way into the conversation about the world, and into the vast literary and philosophical library to which we are heir, and none of it is ours until we cease timidly surveying it, and choose, rashly, somewhere to begin.


Comments

I’d say (in opposition-is-true-friendship mode) that I find myself less in agreement with you on this one than I usually am, Joe.

Underlying this post there seems to me a valorisation of ‘complexity’, as if complexity is in itself an index of intellectual worth.  But surely not so; not so in several ways, or ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ would be a greater game than chess.  Whilst some ideas are ‘complex’ and hard to grasp, a lot of other very important ideas aren’t, really.  You say: ‘you can easily refute a statement stripped of all its complexity and elaboration’ and the words complexity and elaboration resound in the Marabar Cave of my brain-pan until they start to echo out as ‘qualification’, ‘hesitation’, ‘refusal to commit’ and ‘sleight-of-handing’.  Or if not the outright disingenuousness of this latter then at least ‘ass-covering’.  Herr Notable Philosophy can then say ‘I am not responsible for the uses the Nazis made of my work … you see I wrote in a deliberately abstruse manner, but they translated me into demagoguese.’ Now, we might of course think that when we have taken the trouble to master the intricacies of Herr Notable’s discourse it is Nazi, actually.  But if we don’t think so then the situation is even worse; because then the abstruseness enabled the demagoguery by providing no clearly articulated resistance.  Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the and so on.  The point is to change and so on.

By which I mean, surely any reading with even a little bit open to the shaping power of ideology is going to recognise that the skill to pick up and read a book by (say) Fredric Jameson with understanding and pleasure is something that we, in the academy, sell to the population at large.  Sell, moreover, for lots of money.  That we are institutionally invested in promoting the notion that obscure writing captures hard truths doesn’t of course necessarily invalidate the notion, of course; but it makes it much harder for people in our position to argue the case in a neutral way.  As with Scientology, by the time people get to end of a PhD programme they’ve poured enormous sums into the organisation; with every extra thousand quid it gets easier to believe that that expenditure was worthwhile, and harder to believe that it’s not.

Or, again: I myself continue to read Jameson with understanding and pleasure, but I also find myself thinking that it particularly ill-behooves a Marxist thinker to write in a way that is simply beyond the ken of ordinary working people.  I don’t mean that as a cheap shot, or by way of patronising ordinary working people – if Joe the Factory Worker spent seven years at a university mastering the necessary discursive codes then I daresay he too could engage with what Jameson says.  But why should he?  Marx wrote Capital, sure; but he also wrote The Communist Manifesto.  Or, to address the specific point from the post: Darwin’s could have written like Kant, or like Lacan, but instead he wrote in a way that any minimally education person can understand, a fact which did not prevent him from doing genuine research or from, you know, changing the world.

By Adam Roberts on 11/02/08 at 05:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A college professor has a rabbit’s foot on his door, and so a student asks him whether he really believes that the rabbit’s foot will bring good luck. That’s the amazing thing about it, says the college professor, whether you believe in it or not, it works.

The way I heard it, it was a horseshoe and Niels Bohr.

Most of the technical terms in modern works of literary theory and philosophy are invented and defined within those works themselves: you can track down the moment Michel Foucault coins the “episteme,” for example, and read it for yourself.

This is false many times over, both in itself and regarding the implicit comparison. It may well be true that most of the technical terms in modern works of literary theory have been invented in modern literary theory, but you’re being quite unspecific: it certainly is not the case that, for whatever modern work of literary theory or philosophy I read, the technical terms it deploys are defined in it.

And it’s not as if I couldn’t track down the work in which “quark” is proposed, or “monad” (in the category theory/compsci sense), or whatever. Likewise for important equations. I could, if I wanted, read Maxwell’s papers.

Granted, I won’t be in much of a position to understand them, but I doubt that I would be particularly well situated to understand Foucault’s introduction of “episteme” just in virtue of being able to read. In each case I want for preparation and competence.

By ben wolfson on 11/02/08 at 06:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"But the response to a very accessible writer like Zizek has been, at least in America, so identical that it becomes necessary to ask whether anyone is even trying to determine who is abstruse and who is not.”

I’m a little surprised by this, since to some extent I think of Zizek as a popularizer. Didn’t he write a layperson’s guide to Lacan (something like “Everything you ever wanted to know about Lacan but were afraid to ask Hitchcock” as I recall)?

In some cases (perhaps this is the case with Zizek) the demand for an introduction to thinker X might arise because he/she has a large body of work and people are wondering whether or not to invest the time, or where to start.

It also depends on the particular critic/philosopher in question. Someone wondering what Foucault is on about is probably best served by picking up the History of Sexuality V. I or Madness and Civilization, since they illustrate his geneological “method” at work and are quite readable. But what about Derrida and Lacan?

Derrida could write clearly when he wanted to, but much of his work is written deliberately in such a way as to frustrate the attempts of those used to ordinary prose to figure out what he’s saying. Even people who are open minded about it may need some convincing that it’s worth their while to make the effort, that they’re not being had. Ditto with Lacan, although in his case I’m not sure it was deliberate; I think he was just an awful prose stylist.

By on 11/02/08 at 06:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A point that I didn’t quite express above is that popularizations of literary theory are, despite similarities, in a different position than popularizations of science.

Aside from students considering going into physics, virtually no one who reads The Elegant Universe will go on to read technical accounts of string theory. But someone reading an introduction to Derrida or Foucault or postcolonial studies very well might go on to read some of the primary texts if they find the subject sufficiently interesting.

The point of such introductions shouldn’t be “Here’s deconstruction (or structuralism or whatever) in a few pithy bullet points” but rather “Here’s the general flavor of the subject, but this is necessarily simplified and if you really want to know what it’s about here are the major texts”.

I think there’s room for such a book(s). Obviously there are serious limits to the ideas that can be explained to someone who simply refuses to do any work in order to understand. But I think that the sort of person who would pick up an introduction to Derrida (or whatever) is likely to be willing to make some effort.

I wonder to what extent the tendency to valorize the difficulty of these works come from our own experience in first encountering them. There’s no doubt that there’s a certain amount of disorientation or alienation involved in coming to grips with some of these writers for the first time. In retrospect we tend to conclude that that experience was key to “really” understanding what they are about. But is that perception really accurate?

By on 11/02/08 at 08:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Building upon Adam’s thoughtful comment, this excerpt below from the editor of the Norton Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism, Vincent B. Leitch, from his book American Literary Criticism from the 30s to the 80s (Chapter Thirteen: “Leftist Criticism from the 1960s to the 1980s”):

“When the MLA put together its centennial issue of PMLA in May 1984, it commissioned Paul Lauter to write about the impact of society on the profession of literary criticism between 1958 and 1983. Lauter was a radical associated with the Movement in the sixties…. According to Lauter, the MLA between the fifties and the eighties had expanded and diversified immensely, yet ‘the hierarchy of the profession remains fundamentally unaltered, so—as yet—does the hierarchy of what we value’…. This conclusion was based on two surveys of hundreds of syllabi collected from around the nation in the eighties. Just as the reigning critical ideology in the late 1950s was ‘formalism,’ so the dominant mode of criticism in the 1980s was ‘formalism,’ however expanded to include hermeneutics, semiotics, and poststructuralism, all of which criticism ‘accepts the formalist stance by analyzing texts, including its own discourse, primarily as autonomous objects isolated from their social origins or functions’…. What most dismayed Lauter about such fashionable criticism were its alignment with linguistics and philosophy rather than history and sociology, its tendency to become obscurant self-referential metacriticism in a debauch of professionalism, its preference for a limited canon of elitist texts, its increasing abnegation of practical exegesis and humanistic values, and its deepening occupation of the core of the profession”…. [Even the rebirth of Marxist criticism in the 1970s deviated from “history and sociology” in that]: “What was odd about the Marxist criticism of this [1970s] Renaissance associated with the post-1950s new left and the Movement was its complete disregard of the old left. Mention was never made of V. F. Calverton, James T. Farrell, Granville Hicks, Bernard Smith, Edmund Wilson, or other Leftist Critics prominent in the thirties. The native tradition of radicalism stemming from the nineteenth century had been forgotten during the heyday of the new left….”

“In H. Bruce Franklin’s view, what was wrong with academic literary professionals was their thorough immersion in the bourgeois ideology of formalism, which itself was rooted in the counterrevolutionary antiproletarianism of the thirties. ‘In the present era, formalism is the use of aestheticism to blind us to social and moral reality’….”

“Rather than an instrument or weapon of ruling-class oppression, literature was potentially liberating [in the view of Louis Kampf], provided it was set within a living context close to daily life and removed from its sacrosanct place in the great tradition. ‘In spite of our academic merchants, literature is not a commodity, but the sign of a creative act which expresses personal, social, and historical needs. As such it constantly undermines the status quo.’ The task of the radical critic was to destroy received dogmas and procedures, letting literature be an instrument of agitation and resistance and a force for freedom and genuine liberation. ‘As members of the educated middle class, we must learn that our words should discredit our own culture. Those of us who are literary intellectuals and teachers ought to illustrate in our work that the arts are not alone available to those who are genteel…’.”

By Tony Christini on 11/02/08 at 10:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I have found this unfolding thread (including the chain of comments Joseph refers to from his previous post) interesting and a bit surprising: in my own head, when I was writing the comment Joseph quotes above, I wasn’t asking questions about popular (mis)understandings of literary theory: when I said “our kind of thing” I was thinking about readings of literary texts, of the sort that goes on in thousands of book/lit-blogs every day now. The speed with which a question about how to talk about Dickens became debates about how to talk about Derrida is ... well, interesting. Indicative, perhaps, but of what, I’m not entirely sure. I don’t mean, of course, that this conversation isn’t a good and fruitful one on its own terms.

By Rohan Maitzen on 11/02/08 at 11:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I will just repeat what I wrote in the last thread.

There are plenty of excellent introductions to literary methodology (Scholes’ trilogy, for example) and literary theory (Cullers’ work).  But theory is not literary scholarship, per se.  And methodologies are only a small part of scholarship itself.

What we rarely see is a good introduction or overview of literary scholarship.  This is no doubt because it’s a huge field that doesn’t invite summary.  The scholarship on Faulkner over the past few decades is one thing; the scholarship on Shakespeare another.  We could of course go back and say, “Hey, look, both bodies of scholarship are influenced by the new historicism,” but then we’d be back to summarizing methodologies or theory.

Now, any good story about how the scholarship in a particular literary area has changed will in part be a story about methods and theories.  But it would also be more than that.  It would be a story about how a body of literary objects have been interpreted over time.

I wonder to what extent the need for originality (as it is understood here) in literary scholarship has led to a neglect of such summaries or histories.  At the same time, the Cambridge Histories of American Literature serve this function pretty well, and no one has brought them up here.

It’s interesting to me that in response to Bill’s provocation to see a work that explains what English has accomplished in 50 years is answered by a post about Derrida, Foucault, and Zizek, none of whom were scholars of literature or even particularly insightful readers of it.

By on 11/03/08 at 12:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I want to echo ben wolfson here first and say that being able to track down a term’s first usage and understanding why that specific term is used are vastly different enterprises. Any text requires situating within a context/discussion etc. I’m sure this isn’t what you meant, but it is also an argument against assuming that just reading Speech and Phenomena is enough to understand it. It requires situating in the context of Husserl (obviously), Saussure, etc in order to be comprehensible. That a good introductory text could be written that would fulfill these needs in addition to explaining the larger importance/significance of Derrida seems both appropriate and doable. Arguments to the contrary worry me because (and I’m not saying this is the case here) they make me start wondering whether anyone actually understands them (a concern that those of us in philosophy sometimes have about those in literature who use philosophy).

Also, you’re certainly correct in that the caricature of philosophers is easier to dismiss than the actual works and that can certainly be frustrating; however I don’t take all philosophers seriously and all I do all day is read philosophy. Why should other people not? Not a taking Derrida seriously isn’t a crime it just means that someone has a different set of philosophical commitments.

By on 11/03/08 at 12:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

And in answer to the original question: of course literary theory is too damn abstruse! Derrida and Foucault (both of whom I’m uncomfortable calling literary theorists; Foucault was a philosopher/social historian; Derrida was a philosopher/maybe a literary theorist) were amazing prose stylists whose styles vacillated between the dazzling and the infuriating. Their styles also spawned countless less talented imitators who may even have had interesting things to say, but got stuck imitating an abstruse idiom. Their styles also encouraged many people to believe they understood them when they actually didn’t and discouraged others who should have agreed with them but did not (or at least read them).

By on 11/03/08 at 01:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The same goes for most other layman’s guides to science: a great deal is affirmed rather than proved, and inexact analogies make the work intelligible, even though all of them have to be accompanied by weasel words....

So Joseph, what I hear you saying is that, when I ask for laymen’s guides to various bits of Theory to match the laymen’s guides to various bits of physics (& biology, geography, history, architecture, etc.) that I’ve enjoyed over the years, and I’m told I can’t have one and I need to go back to the original texts… the fault isn’t in Theory, but in me? Specifically, in my delusion that these laymen’s texts in other fields have actually taught me anything? I’m not sure if I should take that as Schopenhauer XXII or XXXVIII, but either way: Way to make converts.

I’d submit that as a graduate student in English, you overestimate both the difficulty of equations and the ease—for the lay reader—of tracking technical terms in literary criticism back to their lairs. And I say this as a linguist-historian-writer who likes to think of himself as happily postmodernist.

By David Moles on 11/03/08 at 08:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Following on Rohan’s remark and Luther’s, when I made my initial remark in that other discussion, I didn’t have anything specific in mind. I certainly knew that the “obscurity” of Theory fell within the scope of my “provocation,” but that wasn’t uppermost in my mind. What was uppermost in my mind, in fact, was the particular example that Rohan had given:

I’m thinking, for instance, of a frisson of horror that rippled across some bits of the lit-blogging world when word got out that Dickens had said some scarily racist things in his letters--wholesale condemnation of his novels, including by people who hadn’t read them, was not far behind. There are better and worse ways to have that conversation, right?

I wasn’t aware of this incident, which is fairly specific, and doesn’t seem to call for anything particularly difficult as an intervention. But if such a commonplace revelation would seem to be so shocking, that suggests a widespread naiveté that implies the need for a new culture-wide conversation about literature and writers and canons, etc. I certainly don’t have an outline for this conversation, but ... And that ellipsis was pretty much what I had on my mind.

By Bill Benzon on 11/03/08 at 12:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

ben,

The way I heard it, it was a horseshoe and Niels Bohr.

Probably so; that sounds right to me. Ah, the oral tradition.

And it’s not as if I couldn’t track down the work in which “quark” is proposed, or “monad” (in the category theory/compsci sense), or whatever. Likewise for important equations. I could, if I wanted, read Maxwell’s papers.

Granted, I won’t be in much of a position to understand them, but I doubt that I would be particularly well situated to understand Foucault’s introduction of “episteme” just in virtue of being able to read. In each case I want for preparation and competence.

Several commenters have raised this point, and I have trouble understanding their faith in it. There is a vast difference between not knowing a particular $10 word and not having an entire skill set. If I don’t know what the “dialectic” is, I can get some idea by looking it up, and some idea through the context. If I don’t know how to do calculus, then a page of differential equations is going to be completely, utterly impenetrable.

Furthermore, if one was supposed to track literary theory terms to their “lairs,” those lairs would be found across thousands of years of text: Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Hegel, Spinoza, etc. So what begins as a layman’s guide to Derrida suddenly turns into a quick look at the entire history of philosophy. Even then, the joke’s on us, since Derrida (like other theorists) revises the meanings of words as he sees fit, and wouldn’t feel compelled to be Hegelian simply because he’s using Hegel’s word.

That’s not to say that you can’t be more or less prepared to read Foucault, because of course you can. But you can read him as a non-specialist in him, just as you can read Ulysses without being a Joycean.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/03/08 at 04:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s interesting to me that in response to Bill’s provocation to see a work that explains what English has accomplished in 50 years is answered by a post about Derrida, Foucault, and Zizek, none of whom were scholars of literature or even particularly insightful readers of it.

How did those figures manage to have such a strong influence on literary studies in spite of this?

By on 11/03/08 at 04:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Underlying this post there seems to me a valorisation of ‘complexity’, as if complexity is in itself an index of intellectual worth.  But surely not so; not so in several ways, or ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ would be a greater game than chess.  Whilst some ideas are ‘complex’ and hard to grasp, a lot of other very important ideas aren’t, really.

Adam, we know, in chess, that most beginners are told “the key to winning is controlling the center.” That never becomes an utterly false statement, but it is very difficult for a beginner to understand why the Nimzowich, which controls the center from the flanks, could possibly be as strong as the Scandinavian Defense, where the Queen is right there by black’s second move.

That is alright as far it goes for learning chess, but do we really want to peddle half-truths in the same way when the issues at stake are moral and political? You say that some great ideas are easy to understand, but I doubt this is really true; instead, I would say that some great ideas seem easy to understand because a) they give a frisson of pleasure, and that’s enough for us; or b) we assume they don’t really change anything; or c) they strike us as pretty bits of idealism that (once again) don’t have to pull any carts. Under (A) I would submit “maybe life is a dream.” For (B), “life is absurd but it’s the only life we got so we got to live with the absurdity.” For (C), “In a truly just society there would be no need for a state or laws.”

***

As for selling our ideas at a high price, I certainly would not wish to be credited with a sort of involuntary hucksterism, especially insofar as that makes all sorts of strong claims about my motives and experiences that are neither kind nor provable. None of us charge a penny for the Valve.

I do believe Will Hunting that you can get a pretty good education for $1.50 in overdue fees at the library, or that you could if you had enough time left over after work. But the reverse is not true: just because you have $1.50 in overdue fees doesn’t mean you’ve arrived. Whether you do it in a university class or on your own, education is a pleasurable but frequently tough enterprise.

Or, again: I myself continue to read Jameson with understanding and pleasure, but I also find myself thinking that it particularly ill-behooves a Marxist thinker to write in a way that is simply beyond the ken of ordinary working people.

Adam, I tackled this in the post itself. As I wrote there, I would venture to guess that Common Sense is now beyond the ken of many ordinary working people. That doesn’t mean that Jameson couldn’t write more lucidly; I’m sure he could. But it does mean that we should consider our public education inadequate, and our working week oppressive, before we consider stuff above the level of Newsweek to be abstruse.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/03/08 at 04:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam & AcademicLurker,

I happen to think that both The Communist Manifesto and Everything You Wanted To Know About Lacan... are great examples of useful downshifts in rhetorical register, and I’ll grant that my post does not sufficiently account for them, or for the role of introductions in exciting intellectual curiosity. Still, one look at a wonderful bit of lyricism like “everything that is solid melts into air...” should convince us that the Manifesto is a integral and eloquent work in its own right, and not just a watered-down version of Capital.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/03/08 at 04:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther & Rohan,

My observations have been focused on literary theory because I suspect that’s what people want summarized. I agree with you, Luther, that a summary of all criticism would be impossible, as silly as trying to comprehensively summarize fifty years of “journalism.” However, it is also the case that putting together self-contradictory volumes of good criticism relevant to a particular author is easily done, and Harold Bloom has personally overseen maybe 500 zillion such anthologies.

As I wrote in the other thread, when the issue has the specificity of the Dickens race issue, specialist expertise seems to me precisely the right antidote. That said, all this began with a discussion of Spencer and Kaufman and Goldberg, with Spencer playing a part that for another dissertation might easily be played by Nietzsche or Freud.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/03/08 at 04:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s interesting to me that in response to Bill’s provocation to see a work that explains what English has accomplished in 50 years is answered by a post about Derrida, Foucault, and Zizek, none of whom were scholars of literature or even particularly insightful readers of it.

Have to disagree with you there, Luther. Derrida is an excellent reader of Rousseau and Jabes, among others; Foucault is (to take just one example) an excellent reader of Artaud. Zizek is a good film critic, in ways not irrelevant to literature (nor are Foucault’s analyses of Velazquez and Durer irrelevant to literary critics).

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/03/08 at 04:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m sure this isn’t what you meant, but it is also an argument against assuming that just reading Speech and Phenomena is enough to understand it. It requires situating in the context of Husserl (obviously), Saussure, etc in order to be comprehensible. Arguments to the contrary worry me because (and I’m not saying this is the case here) they make me start wondering whether anyone actually understands them (a concern that those of us in philosophy sometimes have about those in literature who use philosophy).

Also, you’re certainly correct in that the caricature of philosophers is easier to dismiss than the actual works and that can certainly be frustrating; however I don’t take all philosophers seriously and all I do all day is read philosophy. Why should other people not? Not a taking Derrida seriously isn’t a crime it just means that someone has a different set of philosophical commitments.

Nobody is saying anything here about being forced to agree with Derrida, or having to take him seriously; why, I try to take four or five philosophers unseriously before second breakfast.

Colin, the “etc” in the first paragraph worries me. I mean, to understand Husserl you have to read Kant, right? YOU REALLY WANT TO DO A PHENOMENOLOGY WITHOUT KNOWING KANT? And then you are telling me you’re going to try to read Kant without reading Spinoza and Luther? So, in turns out that unless you read the collected works of a German monk who defied the Pope on the ritual of the liturgy, you can’t understand Speech and Phenomena. Or, alternatively, you could take the imperfect but still respectable option of sitting down and starting somewhere.

Certainly, anybody who works on literature is aware that philosophers wish we would just “stick to criticism” in some vague, New Critical way, because we don’t understand the other stuff. It is a sentiment somewhat lacking in charm.

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

So Joseph, what I hear you saying is that, when I ask for laymen’s guides to various bits of Theory to match the laymen’s guides to various bits of physics (& biology, geography, history, architecture, etc.) that I’ve enjoyed over the years, and I’m told I can’t have one and I need to go back to the original texts… the fault isn’t in Theory, but in me? Specifically, in my delusion that these laymen’s texts in other fields have actually taught me anything? I’m not sure if I should take that as Schopenhauer XXII or XXXVIII, but either way: Way to make converts.

David, what are you saying here: that you’ve learned something, or that you’ve enjoyed what you read? I sure you did learn something, but I’m equally assured that you didn’t become a leader in the field of astrophysics by reading a layman’s guide.

Whereas, from my point of view, it is eternally possible for someone to pick up Thus Spake Zarathustra or The Republic orTo The Lighthouse, read it, and say something of immense value to the humanities. But I doubt that they can pick up the Cliffs Notes for Woolf, read those, and then light the powder keg.

If, instead of that prospect, a reader prefers to be told that we’d rather they remain an entertained layman far below us, and only then will they convert, well, you know, “some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth; and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth; And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away.”

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

I have a hobbyist’s interest in philosophy and lit crit, and I’ve been able to find good introductions to some “abstruse” theorists.  However, professors and departments often don’t do enough to promote this secondary material.  I’ve been working through Derrida on and often for about four years, discovering Culler, Spivak’s preface to Of Grammatology, even Positions, etc at various points along the way, all material I could’ve used sooner. I have a certain appreciation for my quixotic trip through these disciplines but find that my readings are frequently… idiosyncratic at best due to misunderstandings that I could have avoided.

A bibliography or list of 30 texts is really useless and while some people are known for doing this stuff really well, most thinkers don’t have a clear-cut Jonathan Culler figure to introduce their work.  A careful, limited index of secondary texts would be valuable, as would some idea of what order to approach the primary texts in a given oeuvre.  It’s possible (probable) that something like this exists for many philosophers, but my ignorance demonstrates the problem under discussion.

By on 11/04/08 at 03:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph, if your criticism was only directed at the sort of person who thinks reading a layman’s book gives them the right to call themselves an expert, then I misread you, and I apologize. You could have made yourself more clear, but I agree that such people are idiots.

That said, I don’t understand what justifies the level of contempt required to generalize from “layman’s guide” to “Cliffs Notes”. It sounds like you’re saying that the only valid goal of any kind of study is to become an expert capable of advancing the field. Unfortunately, some of us are flighty dilettantes by nature, some of us are too old to look forward to the prospect of hitting the lovely academic job market Marc’s been posting about just as we hit middle age, and some of us are both.

So far, nonetheless, I remain stubbornly unconvinced that, even though I’ll never be a professional cosmologist or cultural philosopher, there’s no value in me trying to get a handle on what cosmologists and cultural philosophers think, so I keep reading Cosmic Variance and The Valve.

That doesn’t stop me, though, from being annoyed at the way the cultural philosophers—present company mostly excepted—seem so much less interested than the cosmologists in talking to nonprofessionals about what they do.

By David Moles on 11/04/08 at 07:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hmmm . . . . Time was when critics saw liberatory possibilities in literature itself. Has the locus of such potential now migrated to theory, and a type of theory that will never, as a practical matter, be read by most people who read literature?

By Bill Benzon on 11/04/08 at 07:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph,

Since you seem to be OK with Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Lacan... (I’m just picking that because it’s explicitly billed as a layperson’s introduction) I’m curious: what role do you see that book playing and how does it differ from the sort of Introduction to... books that you’re not in favor of?

By on 11/04/08 at 09:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A careful, limited index of secondary texts would be valuable, as would some idea of what order to approach the primary texts in a given oeuvre.  It’s possible (probable) that something like this exists for many philosophers, but my ignorance demonstrates the problem under discussion.

Anonymous, get thee to a pseudonym! Your point here is quite right, though I see such work as technical or even quasi-administrative rather than synoptic. There’s a huge difference between recommending Tarrying With The Negative to someone unacquainted with Zizek, and writing “What Zizek is basically saying is...”

On the other hand, what is wrong with idiosyncratic readings of Derrida? Do we really want those ironed out? I understand that it’s not good to be wrong—as I have been, so very frequently—but neither it is good for orthodoxies to impose themselves. Spivak’s preface to Of Grammatology is (of course) a decent reading, but it’s also her own, and imposes a potentially limiting structure on the reader.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/04/08 at 05:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph, if your criticism was only directed at the sort of person who thinks reading a layman’s book gives them the right to call themselves an expert, then I misread you, and I apologize. You could have made yourself more clear, but I agree that such people are idiots.

That said, I don’t understand what justifies the level of contempt required to generalize from “layman’s guide” to “Cliffs Notes”. It sounds like you’re saying that the only valid goal of any kind of study is to become an expert capable of advancing the field. Unfortunately, some of us are flighty dilettantes by nature, some of us are too old to look forward to the prospect of hitting the lovely academic job market Marc’s been posting about just as we hit middle age, and some of us are both.

David,

Fueling my post was deep frustration with people even in the field who think they already know that Hegel was a totalitarian thinker, or that the early Foucault is embarrassingly 60s-ish, because of a willingness to go along with summary descriptions picked up here or there.

To put my own cards on the table, one of my ambitions for my time in graduate school is to write a dissertation (one that wants to become a book) on Finnegans Wake that would make the book more accessible to new generations of readers. Naturally, my presentation of the book will be something of a “layman’s guide,” both because it will collate a variety of information from diverse sources, and, more importantly, because it will be written in plain English rather than in Joyce’s extremely knotty multi-lingual puns. But, in order to be a work of integrity, my writing will have to convey the fact that it’s not equivalent to the Wake—that if Joyce could have achieved the same effect simply by writing out a series of ideological statements and conjectures about history and myth, he would have. In other words, it will be something that wants to be supplanted by an experience of the book itself. Yet I know a ton of people who perhaps want some exciting bits of data about the Wake, but really don’t want to crack the thing open, and that’s the position I want to expose to challenge.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/04/08 at 06:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Time was when critics saw liberatory possibilities in literature itself. Has the locus of such potential now migrated to theory, and a type of theory that will never, as a practical matter, be read by most people who read literature?

No, but wasn’t it always a shared locus—if Gargantua and Pantagruel itself contains a mini-chapter on the deep wisdom of Socrates, are we really to call Rabelais liberatory and not say the same of Plato?

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/04/08 at 06:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Since you seem to be OK with Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Lacan… (I’m just picking that because it’s explicitly billed as a layperson’s introduction) I’m curious: what role do you see that book playing and how does it differ from the sort of Introduction to… books that you’re not in favor of?

Well, there aren’t any absolutes here, but for starters:

• Zizek is himself an expert in his field, and an innovator.

• It’s a book about one thinker, rather than a gigantic survey.

• It contains interesting and original readings of other material, such as Hitchcock’s films.

• The difficulties inherent in reading Lacan seem to spring not so much from aesthetic necessity as from a certain amount of literary incompetence on Lacan’s part. That doesn’t mean Lacan doesn’t have terrific moments that Zizek will accidentally squash, but that, in my opinion, an objective correlative can’t be found for every difficulty he introduces.

• I feel I can rely on Zizek to write in plain language without also simplifying the ideas, making them less counter-intuitive, easier to swallow.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/04/08 at 06:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

David, one other thought:

Unfortunately, some of us are flighty dilettantes by nature...

This made me smile, and by no means do I wish to rain on a parade of incidental enthusiasms. Yet there is still that voice that cries, in the middle of comfortable evenings, Man is something that must be overcome!

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/04/08 at 06:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

<irony>You da man, Joseph, you da man!</irony>

By Bill Benzon on 11/04/08 at 06:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

<irony>You da man, Joseph, you da man!</irony>

Um. Whatever.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/04/08 at 06:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yet I know a ton of people who perhaps want some exciting bits of data about the Wake, but really don’t want to crack the thing open, and that’s the position I want to expose to challenge.

You think that the desire to know something about the Wake without cracking it open is inherently wrongheaded and seek to drive people to either reading the book itself or remaining wholly ignorant?

Deliberately discouraging public interest in your work seems like an odd position for an academic to take, which makes me wonder what I’m missing.

By on 11/04/08 at 09:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You think that the desire to know something about the Wake without cracking it open is inherently wrongheaded and seek to drive people to either reading the book itself or remaining wholly ignorant?

Deliberately discouraging public interest in your work seems like an odd position for an academic to take, which makes me wonder what I’m missing.

Challenging a certain attitude, asking more from readers, does not reduce down to “read the book or else please remain wholly ignorant of it.” A fat lot of good it has done the Wake for people to read five pages of it, which is what almost everyone I know, academics included, has done.

I mean really, where does it end? Giving Person X an ice cream if they even know who Joyce is and where he was born?

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/05/08 at 04:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Could someone summarize this post for me so I know if it’s worth reading?  Then could someone else summarize the summary?

By Adam Kotsko on 11/05/08 at 08:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Anonymous, get thee to a pseudonym

As you wish, and thanks for your response Joseph. 

On the other hand, what is wrong with idiosyncratic readings of Derrida? Do we really want those ironed out? I understand that it’s not good to be wrong—as I have been, so very frequently—but neither it is good for orthodoxies to impose themselves. Spivak’s preface to Of Grammatology is (of course) a decent reading, but it’s also her own, and imposes a potentially limiting structure on the reader.

Sure, misinterpretation is potentially productive.  Failing to interpret at all, however, is rather useless and secondary material can intervene at this moment to provide some (limiting) framework that allows a reading to proceed.  Ideally, we’d all read Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics before Of Grammatology, but I didn’t and Spivak gave me some understanding of how Derrida uses Heidegger, a starting point that further reading and research can modify, distort, or iron out.  Good secondary material should, as you said, excite us to go back to the primary text. 

You can, of course, read Lacan with little knowledge of Freud or Saussure, and I know people who do so quite brilliantly.  Maybe he should only be read in a creative, aestheticized manner.  But you inevitably lose much of the argument if you can’t to some extent situate it in the history of thought, see what’s being retained, modified, or discarded. 

Many people find theory abstruse at moments when it’s really just referring to developments they aren’t familiar with.  I think it’s important to be able to separate the opacity that arises from stylistic or conceptual challenges and the opacity that arises from an insufficient knowledge base, and I try to address the latter with all available tools including, God forbid, even Wikipedia occasionally.  I’ll take a Spivak or Culler over 10 “introductions” too afraid of reducing or foreclosing a text’s potential to actually make a thorough, lucid attempt to explain what it’s doing.

By on 11/05/08 at 10:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

To imagine a series of good layman’s guides to the most influential literary theory and philosophy of the last fifty years is ironic because it establishes precisely the sort of top-down hierarchies that most of these writers detested, because they associated such hierarchies with the worst features of oppressive governments, colonialism, and capitalism.

Which is no excuse for not producing a series of good layman’s guides, and no defence of obscurantism. To paraphrase what Richard Feynman said of theoretical physics (including his own work in quantum electrodynamics, one of the very ideas resistant to analogous presentation in general or graphical terms), if you can’t explain it to a freshman, you don’t really understand it. Certainly, you would leave yourself open to that criticism.

I venture that while the public takes popularizations of science on faith, they offer it more respect as a rigorous field of study compared to much of the theoretical humanities because it invites you, dares you to challenge it and rebuild it from scratch if so you choose, whether you do so or not. That is the appeal of putting technical knowledge in terms that the non-technical can understand, so long as the layman’s reduction acknowledges its limitations. If you aren’t open to that, of course someone will suspect you’re hiding something. Philosophy may not accumulate or “progress”, but the connectivity of its arguments must still be retraceable.

To consider the writings of Derrida or whomever else as unsimplifiable (lest we “do violence” to the text)—to consider the “content” of the ideas inseparable from the words in which it was originally put—is not only a commission of the intentional fallacy in the extreme, but is not dissimilar from the appeals to authority by those who say you can’t translate the Qu’ran. It’s still important to read the original text and see Derrida’s gift for wordplay in action, but that doesn’t imply that one should never extract the ideas within.

I see no problem whatsoever in taking the ideas of writers who spoke against the conventional hierarchies of established language, putting them in the words of that language, and acknowledging that the reduction no longer practices what the writers preach. Big deal! After all, that’s exactly what is going on in most of the literary objects of study in these discourses, like the postcolonial literature of former British holdings written in English. If you try to step outside structure in an attempt to be counter-structural, you fail to communicate, period.

By Nicholas Tam on 11/06/08 at 03:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Many people find theory abstruse at moments when it’s really just referring to developments they aren’t familiar with.  I think it’s important to be able to separate the opacity that arises from stylistic or conceptual challenges and the opacity that arises from an insufficient knowledge base, and I try to address the latter with all available tools including, God forbid, even Wikipedia occasionally.  I’ll take a Spivak or Culler over 10 “introductions” too afraid of reducing or foreclosing a text’s potential to actually make a thorough, lucid attempt to explain what it’s doing.

I agree with your call for specific, idiosyncratic readings, and I also agree that it is useful to have introductions or similar material that situates a text. Cheers.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/06/08 at 11:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Which is no excuse for not producing a series of good layman’s guides, and no defence of obscurantism.

This pronouncement is not even tangentially related to my specific argument; furthermore, at no point am I championing obscurantism.

To paraphrase what Richard Feynman said of theoretical physics (including his own work in quantum electrodynamics, one of the very ideas resistant to analogous presentation in general or graphical terms), if you can’t explain it to a freshman, you don’t really understand it. Certainly, you would leave yourself open to that criticism.

You seem to think that the goal of the humanities, like that of the sciences, is an “explanation” of the world that can in turn be simplified and explained to freshmen. The goal is to represent the world, something not infinitely scalable. It’s quite important to introduce college freshmen to complex ideas in ways they can understand, but the context here is a culture where freshmen reading assignments are dropping to 10% of what they once were, in terms of length and frequently also in terms of complexity.

I venture that while the public takes popularizations of science on faith, they offer it more respect as a rigorous field of study compared to much of the theoretical humanities because it invites you, dares you to challenge it and rebuild it from scratch if so you choose, whether you do so or not.

No, reading A Brief History of Time does not entitle me to burst forth with my own “from scratch” opinions about black holes, something no scientist would take seriously for a second. Quite the opposite: aside from the pleasure they give to readers, such books mostly serve to standardize popular representations of black holes.

To consider the writings of Derrida or whomever else as unsimplifiable (lest we “do violence” to the text)—to consider the “content” of the ideas inseparable from the words in which it was originally put—is not only a commission of the intentional fallacy in the extreme, but is not dissimilar from the appeals to authority by those who say you can’t translate the Qu’ran. It’s still important to read the original text and see Derrida’s gift for wordplay in action, but that doesn’t imply that one should never extract the ideas within.

Don’t trivialize the losses sustained in translation, or conflate translation with simplication and summary.

I see no problem whatsoever in taking the ideas of writers who spoke against the conventional hierarchies of established language, putting them in the words of that language, and acknowledging that the reduction no longer practices what the writers preach. Big deal! After all, that’s exactly what is going on in most of the literary objects of study in these discourses, like the postcolonial literature of former British holdings written in English. If you try to step outside structure in an attempt to be counter-structural, you fail to communicate, period.

Who is trying to step outside structure per se? Where do I argue for that? Writing in a colonial language is an act that appropriates power; writing in a simplified language is an act that withholds it.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/06/08 at 11:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"To paraphrase what Richard Feynman said of theoretical physics (including his own work in quantum electrodynamics, one of the very ideas resistant to analogous presentation in general or graphical terms), if you can’t explain it to a freshman, you don’t really understand it.”

I’ve been thinking about bringing up Feynman Diagrams ever since Joseph’s initial subatomic-poster-as-fantasy example—there’s something about his winning a Nobel in part for those visual/graphic “fantasies” about subatomic particles that calls the example into question.  But I’ve been too busy to think through it.  I did find out, though, that this common quote attributed to Feynman may not have really been said by him.

But basically I agree that if knowledge is to be knowledge, it has to get past its original writer.  If you can only understand the concepts in Derrida by reading Derrida, then you’re not reading him for knowledge, you’re reading him as a literary text.

By on 11/06/08 at 11:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"But basically I agree that if knowledge is to be knowledge, it has to get past its original writer.  If you can only understand the concepts in Derrida by reading Derrida, then you’re not reading him for knowledge, you’re reading him as a literary text.”

I think this gets right to the heart of the matter.

(then again, blurring the distinction between philosophical and literary forms of writing is at least a part of what Derrida was up to...some of the time)

Joseph,

I think it’s confusing the issue to mix up the questions: “Are summaries/popularizations of complex ideas a good thing?” and “Should college students be required to read complex and difficult texts?”

The answer to both can be “yes”.

By on 11/06/08 at 04:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Challenging a certain attitude, asking more from readers, does not reduce down to “read the book or else please remain wholly ignorant of it.” A fat lot of good it has done the Wake for people to read five pages of it, which is what almost everyone I know, academics included, has done.

Consider the attitude of:

I hear that Finnegans Wake is many hundreds of pages of extremely dense and only marginally coherent prose.  But I also hear that a bunch of english professors say that it’s a masterpiece.  As an educated layperson, I doubt I have the capacity to fully grasp its awesomeness.  I might be able to improve my skills a bit, but I don’t have the time or the desire to go read a bunch of scholarly articles I probably won’t understand.  Is there any way for me to at least partially grasp the awesomeness of the Wake?

What good does asking for more do if there’s nothing more to give?  Maybe there is no meaningful partial level of understanding to be had, and it’s either years of study or more or less complete ignorance.  It seems implausible for literary studies to be uniquely irreducible, and it’s that implausibility that leads to the search of other explanations (e.g. maybe they just don’t actually know what they’re talking about.)

</i>I mean really, where does it end? Giving Person X an ice cream if they even know who Joyce is and where he was born?</i>

This is the disconnect.  I don’t want ice cream, or rather I’m perfectly capable of getting my own ice cream.  To the extent that I want anything, I’d like to know more about literary studies and criticism, subject to the limits of the amount of attention I’m willing to give it.

By on 11/06/08 at 08:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph Novak, a fabulous researcher on science education, has data on MIT students who cannot construct a coherent and accurate concept map of the relationships among various basic terms in physics.  What Novak discovered was that these rather simple maps are amazing pedagogical tools to pinpoint where a student is missing the point.  This way, the professor can begin to unteach the mistake before reteaching the correct relationships.

My point here is that simplifications, maps, summaries, paraphrases, dummy’s guides, etc., are *pedagogical* tools.  Of course, they are no substitute for the “real thing,” no matter what the real thing is.

But in literature, as well as literary theory or philosophy, a good map can make any first reading more like a second reading.  (I’m thinking of Foucault, I believe, who said something about there never being a first reading of Hegel, only rereadings.)

For example, I do something in my classroom of very obvious value to me but that other teachers often see as absolutely crazy.  Before a particularly difficult piece of reading, I often provide the class with a roadmap of it, in the form of notes, summaries, and questions.  Before teaching a Shakespeare or Chaucer to my high school students, I often give them a basic summary of the plot.  This way, students can attend to the more interesting rhetorical details in their first readings rather than simply trying to piece the story together. 

This, for me, is the importance of good summaries and guides in any field.  At their best, they provide us with the foundation to read better when we turn to the original text.  Even when the roadmap is over-simplified or not quite right, I find that students can question the map more effectively having used it than they could if they only had a first reading to go on. 

Ironically, that always seemed to me to be the point of Derrida’s work: to provide a reading—not a reduction but a distillation—of a certain aspect of a philosophical text, so that when we return to the foundational texts—Plato, Rousseau, Hegel, Heidegger, Descartes—we do so with fresh eyes, standing on the shoulder of a giant, so to speak. 

It’s odd that Joseph is defending the host/parasite binary in a defense of Derrida.

By on 11/06/08 at 08:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph - first of all, I feel pressed to clarify that I was directing my previous message generally, and did not mean to address “you” as you specifically, or accuse you of being an obscurantist in the vein of Butler or Adorno when that isn’t at all what you are doing. Sorry if there was any confusion.

With that out of the way, I echo Rich Puchalsky to the letter:

But basically I agree that if knowledge is to be knowledge, it has to get past its original writer.  If you can only understand the concepts in Derrida by reading Derrida, then you’re not reading him for knowledge, you’re reading him as a literary text.

And I also note how he successfully condenses the thrust of my position into two sentences without offending the “purity” of my argument. The ideas are the object of discussion, not the author.

As for your reply:

You seem to think that the goal of the humanities, like that of the sciences, is an “explanation” of the world that can in turn be simplified and explained to freshmen. The goal is to represent the world, something not infinitely scalable. It’s quite important to introduce college freshmen to complex ideas in ways they can understand, but the context here is a culture where freshmen reading assignments are dropping to 10% of what they once were, in terms of length and frequently also in terms of complexity.

I think you misrepresent the goal of scientific education, as distinct from the goal of the sciences proper. The goal of a freshmen’s reduction, in the sciences, is to explicate theories, their derivation as hypotheses, and the process of their empirical demonstration. That these theories “explain” the world is incidental to the students’ understanding of what those theories say at all. On the same grounds, one can teach a discredited theory in simplified terms - a theory that does not “explain” the world - just as one can teach a theory that still applies to its particular problem domain.

To me, that is no different from the instruction of theories in the humanities that “represent” the world. The relation between the theory and the world outside it is not what is at stake. The question here is what the theory is. And if that can’t be represented on a higher level of abstraction—if there is no “big picture"—of course people will question its relevance.

Mind you, I agree that any serious pursuit of any field beyond the introductory courses requires extensive apprehension of the primary texts. But introductions can exist. And introductions are more than capable of acknowledging their own limitations - in introductory terms.

No, reading A Brief History of Time does not entitle me to burst forth with my own “from scratch” opinions about black holes, something no scientist would take seriously for a second. Quite the opposite: aside from the pleasure they give to readers, such books mostly serve to standardize popular representations of black holes.

Clarification: “... because [science] invites you, dares you to challenge it and rebuild it from scratch if so you choose, whether you do so or not.” What popularizations demonstrate is that scientific theories are representable apart from the primary text of their origin. If a scientist doesn’t take you seriously regarding black holes, it isn’t because of your CV, it’s because of your argumentation. People who read popularizations challenge scientists with their questions all the time. Explications for general audiences, while reductive, bring new minds into the field - and I can’t see why that would be a bad thing.

Who is trying to step outside structure per se? Where do I argue for that? Writing in a colonial language is an act that appropriates power; writing in a simplified language is an act that withholds it.

Then why, I wonder, is it a standard expectation of histories, works of criticism, popularizations of science, or whatever else is written for general audiences in the sciences or the humanities, to provide extensive notes and bibliographies that invite further investigation? A simplification that “withholds” power has little credibility as it is - and that is well beneath the standard that actually exists.

Summaries don’t simply keep the rabble in their place, satisfied with the opiate of plain speech. No doubt that does occur, and no doubt there is a lot of under-informed pooh-poohing of deconstruction and string theory alike, but good luck changing that perception if you (again, a general “you") don’t blaze a trail to the source.

By Nicholas Tam on 11/06/08 at 09:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Maybe the beleaguered potential reader of Finnegans Wake could skip the scholarly articles and take a look at John Gordon’s Finnegans Wake: A Plot Summary, or William York Tindall’s A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake?

I myself have read Derrida in 90 Minutes by Paul Strathern. I found it useful.

By Amateur Reader on 11/06/08 at 10:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther writes:
It’s odd that Joseph is defending the host/parasite binary in a defense of Derrida.
-
Odd maybe, but I don’t find it contradictory.  Sure, reading is translation, ideas are thus portable.  A text can be consistently singular and/or stylistically unique while still differing from itself etc.  Derrida’s text does some interesting things that summaries don’t reproduce, I don’t think his logic precludes that possibility. 

In general, there seems to be consensus for engagement with the primary text buttressed by supplements where necessary.  This is fine for scholars or people like me who already like this stuff and accept its difficulty, but secondary material on its own has to be considered when we discuss broadening the audience.  I talk to a lot of people who are interested in philosophical concepts and thoroughly intimidated by actual texts.  I don’t think the Humanities can afford to ignore those coming from more distant disciplines or especially from outside the university.

I believe John Holbo has talked about mediating output in a different context, but we need to sort the supplementary material somehow because most of it either sucks or doesn’t do what it sets out to do. 

One problem is that the curators of Theory take for example Derrida’s arguments about translatability, or Deleuze’s reading/buggering, far too seriously.  Secondary work frequently claims to be a lucid but faithful introduction to X.  This is a contradiction when faithful mean reproducing the idiosyncratic methodology and style of the object.  There’s nothing wrong with this variety of reading, but it rarely helps the unacquainted.  Deleuze seems to attract ugly half introduction/half lovechild volumes that do neither effectively.  Zizek’s work I usually dislike, but can even his fans really recommend learning Lacan from him? 

There will of course remain an unavoidable tension between reinterpretation and summary, but this is really a matter of degree and we don’t need to be dogmatic about it.  We shouldn’t be so afraid to impose hierarchy and organization on a resistant text.  Some of the people who object to distilling Dissemination, ostensibly because they don’t want to “dumb it down,” implicitly assume the reader is too dense to observe the tension inherent in distilling something that claims no essence.  The reader can figure this stuff out, the lexical and syntactical challenges in Derrida are greater than the conceptual challenges, and he will forgive our heresy.

By on 11/07/08 at 04:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

...by no means do I wish to rain on a parade of incidental enthusiasms.

Joseph, that’s all I ask. (Though I would happily eat the Joycean ice cream if offered.)

As for the rest of my argument, I think Luther, Rich, Nicholas et al. have made it better than I could hope to.

But ditto Adam K, even though he was kidding. Maybe we should back up off this dirt road we’ve turned down, deconstruct the reading-Derrida/reading-about-Derrida binary, and figure out where we were trying to get to originally, before we run headlong into an aporia and blow a tire.

By David Moles on 11/07/08 at 05:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

From The New Yorker (hat tip to crack @ 34):

If the invention of derivatives was the financial world’s modernist dawn, the current crisis is unsettlingly like the birth of postmodernism. For anyone who studied literature in college in the past few decades, there is a weird familiarity about the current crisis: value, in the realm of finance capital, evokes the elusive nature of meaning in deconstructionism. According to Jacques Derrida, the doyen of the school, meaning can never be precisely located; instead, it is always “deferred,” moved elsewhere, located in other meanings, which refer and defer to other meanings—a snake permanently and necessarily eating its own tail. This process is fluid and constant, but at moments the perpetual process of deferral stalls and collapses in on itself. Derrida called this moment an “aporia,” from a Greek term meaning “impasse.” There is something both amusing and appalling about seeing his theories acted out in the world markets to such cataclysmic effect. Anyone invited to attend a meeting of the G-8 financial ministers would be well advised not to draw their attention to this.

By Bill Benzon on 11/07/08 at 11:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Josehph writes:

“To imagine a series of good layman’s guides to the most influential literary theory and philosophy of the last fifty years is ironic because it establishes precisely the sort of top-down hierarchies that most of these writers detested, because they associated such hierarchies with the worst features of oppressive governments, colonialism, and capitalism.”

And then later reveals:

“To put my own cards on the table, one of my ambitions for my time in graduate school is to write a dissertation (one that wants to become a book) on Finnegans Wake that would make the book more accessible to new generations of readers. Naturally, my presentation of the book will be something of a “layman’s guide,” both because it will collate a variety of information from diverse sources, and, more importantly, because it will be written in plain English rather than in Joyce’s extremely knotty multi-lingual puns. But, in order to be a work of integrity, my writing will have to convey the fact that it’s not equivalent to the Wake—that if Joyce could have achieved the same effect simply by writing out a series of ideological statements and conjectures about history and myth, he would have. In other words, it will be something that wants to be supplanted by an experience of the book itself.”

Now, granted, the Wake is not a work of literary theory or philosophy, not in the conventional sense.  But Joseph seems to be walking a very fine line between detestable, hierarchical layman’s guides and some other kind he hopes his dissertation will come to be regarded as. 

Some questions for Joe: 

How is making the Wake more accessible any different from, as you put it, enforcing a “universality which, so often, represents an attempt to make ideas work like money: good for all debts, accepted everywhere, transmutable into anything the occasion demands”? 

Which, in your opinion, are some existing examples of the kind of layman’s guide you’re planning?—the kind that will want to be supplanted by the work itself?

I’m just having a hard time reconciling your critique of layman’s guides with your avowed intention to produce one.

By on 11/07/08 at 05:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It is simply impossible for anyone to read deeply into the primary literature of all fields that they become interested in, because human life is too short.  I’m interested in literary theory to some extent, but I’m also interested in astrophysics, genetics, particle physics, climatology, visual arts, actual literary works—and I have to spend the large majority of my mental energy working in a field essentially unrelated to all of these things.  But an educated person generally wants to be grounded in all fields, to have some understanding of the breadth of human knowledge.

So books for laypeople are necessary, in the end, because death is inevitable.  It doesn’t matter that one can’t do physics from reading a pop physics book.  One will never have time to do physics in one’s life.

It’s ad hom, I know, but I associate a good deal of this with life stages.  Grad students are at the time when one is deeply learning some field, and would scorn a summary understanding.  Well and good, but that won’t last.  The idea of reading deeply into something because one is interested in it may only appear to be a cruel taunt later.

By on 11/07/08 at 08:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What? No mention of economic/institutional conditions?

It’s worth considering the likelihood that 90% of “introductory” texts were written by people who had no intention to write an introductory text—people whose editors insisted on calling them introductions (to increase sales) or people who were forced to pitch an introductory text to a commissioning editor because that’s all publishers want to publish.

I know that I’ll happily take an opportunity to publish an introductory text so that I can write what I really wanted to write—charges of dishonesty/deception or whatever be dammed!

The flipside is that there have surely been many good introductory texts written (I can name a couple of excellent ones) but given the huge numbers of these things coming out every day, they face disappearing without a trace.

By on 11/09/08 at 08:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Why is there so much demand for less technical, summary accounts of theory? The demand goes well beyond immediately affected graduates and undergraduates working on deadline.”

Is there really that much of a demand for summary accounts of “theory”?

By on 11/10/08 at 10:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes! From me. There’s only one of me, I admit, but I shout louder.

By David Moles on 11/11/08 at 04:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

’Is there really that much of a demand for summary accounts of “theory”?’

Definitely.  The philosophy section of most bookstores is full of “Theory in Pop Culture!” type intro volumes.  Esoteric, subversive material isn’t going to go out of style any time soon; there are plenty of pretentious people outside the university and many subsets of our culture value the ability to demonstrate some basic knowledge of theory.  Of course there are also plenty of non-academics genuinely interested in theory and the history of philosophy.  I don’t think the public (or the media) really perceives the distinction between the debate about the radical leftist university and the debate about theory’s validity/influence, so I don’t think the latter argument is affecting theory’s reception or popularity outside academe.

By on 11/12/08 at 09:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Okay, so if I want to learn about Zizek, where should I start?  I’ve seen some articles by him on the Internet, but nothing that gives me a real idea of what his real work is or seems especially interesting.  Do I have to read the whole oeuvre in order to learn anything at all?

By bianca steele on 11/23/08 at 05:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bianca—No, you can read one of his major works.  I recommend *The Sublime Object of Ideology*.  Unlike many theorists, who get their Hegel filtered through Kojeve, Zizek at least proves an interesting and original of *The Phenomenology*.

By on 11/23/08 at 11:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther,
Thanks.  But is “many theorists” meant to be a joke?  I’ve seen Kojeve mentioned as the natural way to approach Hegel only by Francis Fukuyama.

By bianca steele on 11/24/08 at 11:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bianca,

I second Luther’s comment and would add Zizek’s excellent Tarrying With The Negative. If you want to go as far as three books, The Ticklish Subject is also very good.

Although he’s perhaps not footnoted as much as he should be, Kojeve was enormously influential—for example, for Derrida.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 11/24/08 at 02:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I remember reading a list of those who attending Kojeve’s lectures on Hegel, and it’s like the old stories about the small crowd that attended the first Velvet Underground and Sex Pistols shows: small number, but they all formed a band.  Same with Kojeve.  His approach to Hegel influenced Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, and others.  The general privileging of the Master/Slave dialectic as a sort of microcosm of the entire Phenomenology seems to have started with Kojeve.

By on 11/24/08 at 08:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s hard to understate the influence of Kojeve’s interpretation of Hegel in France. Attendees at his lectures included Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Bataille, and Aron. There is no doubt that his lectures greatly influenced their reading of Hegel as well as their philosophy of history.

By on 11/24/08 at 09:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That makes sense.  For some reason I had the idea Kojeve was a generation younger than he was, and had learned about Marx and Hegel under the Soviets, then left for the West.  Though you still have to wonder, don’t you, about all these leftists being influenced by Leo Strauss’s good friend?

By bianca steele on 11/25/08 at 06:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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