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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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Friday, May 16, 2008

French Theory

Posted by John Holbo on 05/16/08 at 12:05 AM

I’m reading French Theory, by Francois Cusset, freshly translated by an old grad school friend of mine, Jeff Fort. Who has evidently landed on his feet as a UC Davis French prof. Nice work, Jeff!

It’s been given one of those very American subtitles characteristic of commodity histories. (’how the smelt saved Western Civilization’. That sort of thing.) In this case; ‘how Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & co. transformed the intellectual life of the United States.’ Rather an ironic commentary on the commodification of Theory, I suppose. (In French it was ’et les mutations de la vie intellectuale aux Etats-Unis.)

The book has been praised by Stanley Fish. (As linked here by Bill B.) And it has an effusive blurb from Derrida. (It was originally published in 2003, so he had a chance to read it before he died, I presume.)

“In such a difficult genre, full of traps and obstacles, French Theory is a success and a remarkable book in every respect: it is fair, balanced, and informed. I am sure this book will become the reference for both sides of the Atlantic.”

The book appears to be selling quite well. It’s ranked an astonishing 6,000 on Amazon at the moment. That’s really good for a book on this sort of subject.

The trouble is: the book makes the same damn simple mistake that these post-Theory books have been making for at least 15 years now. (But you knew I was going to say that.)

On the one hand, although various hints are dropped that it is terribly naive to think that Theory was ever anything like a empire, “the English department became a new Rome from which prodigious conquests were launched, crusades to evangelize distant territories” (p. 83).

On the other hand, although it is wrong for Theory’s enemies to characterize it as anti-rational, or as lacking in arguments, it would not be incorrect to say that what Theory seeks is “the possibility of a discourse liberated from the rational order: a fragmentary enunciation that would rise up against linear argument ... “ (105).

It’s not a bad book. It’s quite good, in a lot of ways. It’s certainly lively and readable. The author perfectly well sees that there is no way that one hand can know what the other hand is doing. Academic comedy of manners must result. Theory is a strange duck. But there is an obstinate insistence that critics of Theory have not been noticing these very problems from the start. In film studies, to hear Cusset tell it, the motive that philosophers like Carroll must have for being anti-Theory is ‘anti-intellectual backlash’. The only reason that philosophers could possibly have for cocking a suspicious eyebrow is that they are turf-protective logical positivists who are, per that famous bit from De Man, ‘resistant to language itself’. And they hate paradoxes. Historians who complain that Foucault’s research is sloppy must be unable to shake off the dead hand of positivism. It couldn’t be that any of the critics who appeared to have been saying, all along, things that Cusset himself is saying now, could really have been saying those things.

I’m oversimplying Cusset’s treatment of Theory’s critics. There’s a whole chapter about the ‘ideological backlash’ - Bloom and deSouza and Paglia and so forth. The Culture War, PC and the Canon Wars. But if I gave you the long version, it would come to the same. Cusset himself talks about how odd it is to argue by allusive quotation. How odd it is for so many texts to function by ‘bathing the audience in a clash of auras’ (he quotes that phrase approvingly from someone else); how odd it is to treat named Theorists as though they were sacred objects. But there is no consideration of the possibility that perhaps what philosophers and historians objected to, about the substitution for “argumentative logic” of “a newly enchanting crisscrossing of names” was just that they thought it was dodgy to substitute name-dropping for argument.

I suppose this is just the natural order of things. As William James said, the embattled establishment is bound to say of its critics ‘it’s all just nonsense, and besides we knew it all (always already)’. Theory became institutionally established, then intellectually embattled. Of course it is very tempting to present all telling criticism as arising in-house, as it were. But it does rather crab the presentation. Because part of Cusset’s story is that there has been a ‘dialogue of the deaf’. Critics of theory have not appreciated what Theory is really up to, and Theory hasn’t listened to its critics. But it’s a bit hard to know why Cusset thinks the critics should be listened to. Because he makes them all sound like narrow, sinister ideologues or perfect prize idiots. I wouldn’t listen to me if I were just an anti-intellectual 1930’s-style logical positist who hates anything that smacks of paradox, and ‘resists language’ to boot.

Cusset ends on a note we’ve heard before. See this post. Although he doesn’t quite come out and say it, he basically advocates ‘monumental history of Theory’, in Nietzschean terms. (As opposed to critical history.) Theorists must be presented as heroes, because a certain sort of heroism is a necessary dream. Or rather, Theory must be heroized, however many theorists turn out to have feet of clay.

Once extracted from its academic matrix, dislodged from its campuses, or at least freed from the grips of its professional commentators, theory can still offer its users a way to decipher all of the operations of power [all?] and the imposition of norms at work in the dominant discourse. Moreover, as a dream of a theoretical grasp of the world, an old academic dream but also an activist ambition, this history of French Theory is exemplary both of the process of modernity’s retreat (with which it is contemporary), the postmodern process of placing into discourse what remains of life, but also of a call to life, that pure desire for heroism that mediating intellectuals, anonymous transmitters of ideas, and all the commentators have always maintained, but without daring to take the risk it requires. For, in the university and beyond, French theory also embodies the hope that discourse might be able to restore life to life and provide access to an intact vital force that would be spared from the logic of the market and prevailing cyncisms. (p. 335)

This passage is specifically interesting to me because I am writing about how there is a continuity between Theory rhetoric and F.R. Leavis, the ‘anti-philosopher’ who advocated a ‘return to Life’, restoring Life to life. This passage sounds to me like vintage Leavis. And obviously there is something massively tendentious about mandating the view that the activity of Theory is inherently ‘heroic’. Yes, I noticed that, too.

On the last page, we get a kind of summation, in terms of an alleged opposition between those, on the one hand, who subscribe to a naive ‘magical’ theory of unitary meaning, ‘monosemic truth’, who are harshly dismissive of any “strange or foreign readings”; and those, on the other hand, who can appreciate the glorious prospects of “felicitious distortions” whose “blasphemous character is said to render them invalid.” This is the place Theory sought to inhabit: “a lawless zone between the original appraisers of meaning and value and future owners, a zone formed completely of interstices, within which, far from the guardians of the Work, texts themselves will be put to work.”

Well, you know what I’ll say. It is very doubtful anyone has ever occupied that first position. The New Critics may have been big on unity, but they were also big on paradox and irony, so they aren’t in Cusset’s target zone. And if you can’t get even the New Critics to fetishize the Work in the requisite sort of way, then who? The idea that a position manifestly too New Critical even for the New Critics is the only alternative to a field ‘formed completely of interstices’ is not very plausible. But you knew I was going to say that.


Comments

See, Theory was always already refuted:

<i>What can be seen here so visibly is a historically well-determined little pedagogy. A pedagogy that teaches the pupil that there is nothing outside the text....A pedagogy that gives to the master’s voice the limitless sovereignty that allows it to restate the text indefinitely.</a>

<i>("My Body, This Paper, This Fire").

By John Emerson on 05/16/08 at 08:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Theory is a strange duck.”

That’s because, as any damn fool can see, it’s actually a rabbit. Open your eyes, man! Rabbit! Rabbit! Rabbit!

(Little-known fact: Elmer Fudd’s character design was modeled on Joseph Jastrow. Thus the high collar.)

By Ray Davis on 05/16/08 at 10:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s twoo! It’s twoo!

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 05/16/08 at 11:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This is very funny. I’m actually working on a post about Elmer Fuddish looking characters as comics icons. I’ll have it up a little later.

By John Holbo on 05/16/08 at 11:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

See, Theory was always already refuted:

What can be seen here so visibly is a historically well-determined little pedagogy. A pedagogy that teaches the pupil that there is nothing outside the text....A pedagogy that gives to the master’s voice the limitless sovereignty that allows it to restate the text indefinitely.

("My Body, This Paper, This Fire").

HTML hates me.

By John Emerson on 05/16/08 at 01:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

& now for a tedio-academic belaboring the of obvious:

Jastrow is most famous for his work w/optical illusions, which is to say, drawings. Get it? Drawings, which is to say, cartoons. Get it? And where is a famous place where his famous duck/rabbit (get it, duck, rabbit! Note how Ray was able to present this same idea as a subtle joke & not some hectoring lecture) appears? Part II of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations!

Now go write that dissertation!

Srsly, the question from Part II that is still under my skin: why do we take this drawing for a face? Why do we construe a person from a few primitive scratches? (& the best cartoonists are able to get maximal construal from minimal lineaments. Cue the Herriman!).

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 05/16/08 at 03:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My “jokes” must be about as funny as Zukofsky’s “lyrics” are singable.

Lawrence, considering how quickly pre-verbal infants learn to treat two-dots-and-a-line as a face, isn’t the real mystery why anyone ever bothered getting more complicated?

John, Scott McLemee’s account makes Cusset sound considerably smarter. Is the book simply weaker on the virtues of the “backlashers” than on the vices of the “Theorists”? If so, I admit I’d also have a hard time trying to make Bloom, Paglia, or some of those ALSC manifestos sound broad-minded and reasonable. To paraphrase a recent comment from another thread, the Theory Wars are more a matter of institutional history than intellectual history. But if you do decide to treat the subject as a battle of Big Names, I think the canonical theorists are a sharper bunch than the best-selling debunkers.

By Ray Davis on 05/16/08 at 04:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Of course it is very tempting to present all telling criticism as arising in-house, as it were. But it does rather crab the presentation.

I invite the reader to imagine a similar procedure, applied either to liberal political theory or analytic philosophy.

By Adam Kotsko on 05/17/08 at 02:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ray D: “Scott McLemee’s accout makes Cusset sound considerably smarter.”

I did make a point of saying it’s ‘quite good’ but I didn’t follow through on explaining what’s good about it. It’s good for the reasons McLemee says. Cusset has a good sense for the institutional character of the whole story, and for the odd ways that has interlocked with intellectual history. I should have been kinder in my post, on that account. My point in the post was just that the book falls down when it comes to considering what critics of Theory have said. That’s only a small part of the book, of course. Cusset refers, if memory serves, to the ‘brilliant Dinesh DiSouza’. Then he points out, sensibly, that what DiSouza says was all messed up and pretty much just an ideological attack. And now you’ve generated the impression that even the ‘brilliant’ attacks against Theory weren’t very good. But it would be more sensible to go look for a better class of critics. Because I hope no one seriously thinks that the way to repair the ‘dialogue of the deaf’ Cusset complains of is to exhume old Dartmouth Review editorials from the 80’s. Surely we can do better than THAT. Why not read John Searle or Carroll and Bordwell against theory instead? (I’m just being a broken record here because, obviously, I’m committed to the view that a better class of critics was there the whole time.)

I did oversimplify in my post. It’s just a post. I could probably go back and find some point where he gives critics more credit. But, on the whole, it seems to me: not. And this is no accident: it has to do with the heroism thing that comes in at the end.

Cusset’s attitude seems to be (but obviously he doesn’t come out and say it) that it’s fine to notice the problems, but only in a positive way. That is, you can see and say that Theory is a strange duck, but you are obliged to see it also a duck that wants to be a butterfly. (Or something. Ahem.) Then you have to give it, as it were, half credit for being a butterfly. And somehow this is what the critics miss, allegedly. They don’t see the beauty of the dream. This is what leads to cases of Cusset saying ‘it would be naive to say this about theory’ followed by Cusset himself saying just that. He is not really saying the critics are wrong, but that they aren’t sympathetic enough in saying things he implicitly admits are correct. But that’s to demand a very high level of sympathy.

Adam K “I invite the reader to imagine a similar procedure, applied either to liberal political theory or analytic philosophy.”

Do you have some particular defenses of liberalism and analytic philosophy in mind, Adam? More generally: your point would be what, exactly?

For what it’s worth, liberal political theory seems very willing to listen to its critics. Analytic philosophy - well, I guess I’ll wait for you to tell me what your point is.

By John Holbo on 05/17/08 at 10:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Why not read John Searle or Carroll and Bordwell against theory instead?”

Based on your and McLemee’s descriptions, it might be because Cusset wrote a history rather than a search for logical flaws. Outside any community, noise beats nuance. That’s why you wrote about Zizek, right? This is just the flip-side of the complaints you received. The Searle / Derrida / Cavell / Bearn series was productive in ways that didn’t include Op-Ed invitations, guest appearances on talk shows, or Valve posts. It’s frustrating for the insiders and for those few eccentrics who value nuance for its own sake, but I’ve never had luck blocking oversimplified self-promotion from its reward of attention.

Besides, intra-tribal arguments do tend to be better informed and more effective than interruptions from outside. This has nothing to do with some scientistic need for a “technical vocabulary”—it’s simply a side-effect of extended social interaction. The danger, of course, is group-think, and that’s especially likely when tribal norms can be enforced by the sort of drastic power imbalances one typically finds in American higher education. But at the Big Name level, any tribe whose lines have been drawn to include Michel Foucault will obviously not lack for contention.

By Ray Davis on 05/18/08 at 11:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Besides, intra-tribal arguments do tend to be better informed and more effective than interruptions from outside.”

It seems to me this is actually an argument for my point. If things are in a healthy state, you should be able to acknowledge the attacks from outside, without needing to play them down, and still claim a healthy score for the home team. (Of course, ideally one should not make the whole business one of ‘winning’ and ‘losing’. I’m not encouraging this, just noting that it will play in.)

The rest of your point is reasonable as well, as far as it goes. But it seems to me it stops here: one would hope it was possible to write a history of an intellectual movement that ALSO searched for logical flaws. (We needn’t be narrow about ‘logical flaws’, of course. Generalize this to: substantive critical engagements with theories, arguments and ideas.) That is, one hopes history can be more than just a dramatic highlights and soundbites reel. We don’t want the history of Theory to be just the history of the most Jerry Springer-like moments in Theory history. I do think that Cusset is claiming to be better than that. That is, he is claiming to be giving us some substantive initiation into the ideas themselves, with a critical. My point about not giving the critics credit hints that he is, at least, not doing as well in that regard as we might have.

I should go dig out some part of the book I just plain liked, just for practice.

By John Holbo on 05/18/08 at 11:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"with a critical” was supposed to finish out in some more grammatical way. Possibly, “with a critical perspective”.

By John Holbo on 05/18/08 at 11:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It seems to me this is actually an argument for my point.

In this case, no it isn’t.  If intra-tribal critiques are better, then acknowledging outside critiques qua outside critiques inherently means regarding them as less good.  It’s not playing down—it’s just playing.

As for my previous comment, it seems to me that you often seem to view outside attacks on liberal political theory (which you identify with) and analytic philosophy (which you ambiguously dis-identify with but feel gets a bad rap) as at best replicating internal critiques.  Perhaps my sample is biased by the fact that you are, for various reasons, always talking about external critiques you find completely inadequate.  Perhaps there are some good external critiques that just don’t get mentioned in this context.

By Adam Kotsko on 05/18/08 at 11:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam K, this seems confused to me on several counts. First, intra-tribal critiques are not, per se, better. One just assumes that, if the situation is moderately healthy, they will tend to be better. Insiders had better know better than outsiders. You seem to be suggesting that deploying the following argument would just be playing the game: you are an outsider, so probably you are wrong. Therefore I am going to discount what you say, rather than consider whether it might be right. No, that is a bad way to play. The proper way to play is not just to police the disciplinary border. Surely you grant this?

As to the liberal attacks. It’s true that I have often said that Zizek’s attacks on liberalism just reproduce, in somewhat weak form, arguments that are already familiar to liberals. That is, he brandishes old hat as something new. But this is not a general truth about liberalism and its critics but a very specific fact about Zizek. In any case, I haven’t tried to establish it just by claiming, in the abstract, that it must be true because it is always true, due to the nature of liberalism. I have tried to provide close readings of Zizek that show this to be true in this case.

As to analytic philosophy, I hope you are not including me in your biased sample because I don’t think I am - or have been at any point - dismissive of attacks on analytic philosophy from outside. Can you point to any instance of me being dismissive of attacks on analytic philosophy on the grounds that those making them are outsiders? It is true that, to the extent I am an analytic philosopher (surely I am, to some extent) I must think analytic philosophy is a good approach. From which it follows that I must think the attackers are still outside, failing to get in. But thinking that an outside critique does not ultimately prevail is not the same as dismissing it because it is an outside critique.

By John Holbo on 05/18/08 at 12:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

One example of an “old hat” critique you attribute to Zizek is that we’re not autonomous individuals in the way liberal theory seems to presuppose.  Certainly such a critique has been around a long time.  Yet surely it wouldn’t keep coming up if liberal political theory sufficiently incorporated the non-existence of the monadic individual into their theory (though this might require it to become something other than “liberal").

Similarly, it’s really “old hat” to note that the subject presupposed by classical economics does not really exist—people don’t simply strive to maximize economic utility.  In this case, though, the critic shouldn’t be dismissed for repeating an old argument—the economists have failed, for a very long time, to deal with a very obvious problem.

I look forward to learning how my comments here are simply reinforcing your point.

By Adam Kotsko on 05/18/08 at 12:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think the main reason that Cusset doesn’t mention the critiques of Searle, Bordwell & etc. is that, for the most part, theorists didn’t really react to them (the Derrida-Searle dust-up being an exception) whereas they did react to the attacks of the right wing culture warrior types.

I think that Cusset does touch on most of what bothers many people about Theory. Reading Cusset’s description, I suspect that people who are already critical of Theory would often find themselves thinking “Yes! That’s exactly the sort of thing that gets on my nerves.” Cusset just maintains a largely non-partisan tone as he relates these things.

I would be interested to hear what a full fledged participant in the culture of Theory has to say about the book. Does it seem like an accurate account or is something crucial missing?

By on 05/18/08 at 12:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"I look forward to learning how my comments here are simply reinforcing your point.”

Oh, that’s easy!

“Yet surely it wouldn’t keep coming up if liberal political theory sufficiently incorporated the non-existence of the monadic individual into their theory.”

NEWSFLASH! stuff ‘keeps coming up’ that isn’t worth anything.

Does this surprise you? Don’t you read the blogs, man?

You are making a very circumstantial argument, which is fine as far as it goes. But it’s weak. You have to have more than that. You keep talking as though it’s fine to rest with this stuff. It’s like reverse argument from authority. The fact that so many outsiders keep saying the inside is flawed proves that the inside is flawed. So you are converting the outside into the inside.

That is, when you are the insider, you argue that you are right to raise the drawbridge. (Because why would you have the castle if you weren’t right?) When you are outside, you argue that the fact that the drawbridge is being raised shows that those on the outside are right (because why would those guys raise the drawbridge against you if you weren’t right?) Do you see the problem with heads I win tails you lose?

As to the Zizek: I am not just dismissing Zizek on the ground that what he says is ‘old hat’. Rather, the fact that he is presenting old points as though they were new, and then adding nothing new, shows that he does not understand the intellectual terrain he is entering into. He doesn’t KNOW they are old.

Suppose someone suggested that he had a bold new critique of classical economics: namely, that the subject presupposed by classical economics doesn’t really exist. Wouldn’t that suggest the person hadn’t exactly been keeping up with the debate? Zizek just doesn’t seem to know very much about liberal political theory. This is not exactly what you look for, in a critic of liberal political theory.

As to the classical economics case: I really don’t think it is very helpful JUST to say they presuppose a subject that doesn’t exist. Because they have, indeed, all heard that a hundred times and think they have sophisticated work-arounds of one sort or another. If you actually want to argue about it, there is nothing for it but to start chasing down the attempts to repair the thing with epicycles. So, in short, if an economist hears you say JUST that and doesn’t convert away on the spot, I think that’s ok. He can dismiss you, unless you are prepared to wrangle with his fancy attempts to work around. That’s the way argument goes.

By John Holbo on 05/18/08 at 12:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So you’re saying that insider arguments are per se better insofar as they’re more likely to persuade and, further, that insiders are justified in dismissing outsider arguments to a certain degree—or at least could not be reasonably expected to do otherwise.

By Adam Kotsko on 05/18/08 at 01:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"insider arguments are per se better insofar as they’re more likely to persuade”

No.

One hopes they are better insofar as they will tend to be more intellectually sound. Of course they may not be better at all, so they aren’t per se better. I’m not concerned with whether they are persuasive. It may be that the insiders have terribly unpersuasive, since technically incomprehensible (to outsiders), arguments. That’s neither here not there.

Look. If the chemists don’t tend to know more about chemistry than non-chemists, then the discipline of chemistry is pretty fucked up. Get it? So we tend to hope that the chemists know more. But this isn’t actually a very strong argument for any particular claim by any particular chemist, against a denial of that claim by some particular other person who says they know better.

If an outsider says a chemist’s professional competence has failed him, the chemist can’t just shoot back: you must be wrong because I’m a professional chemist and you aren’t. Surely you see the problem here.

“insiders are justified in dismissing outsider arguments to a certain degree—or at least could not be reasonably expected to do otherwise.”

No. They are only justified in dismissing arguments if they feel they have already answered them. Which is to say: they aren’t actually dismissing them. They are saying: I have already given a complicated response to this common objection. If you want to argue about it, address my complicated response. If you don’t want to address my complicated response, then obviously I can’t argue with you. Because the complicated response is the one I want to give.

Isn’t all this rather straightforward?

I really don’t get where you are coming from. You seem to be trying to come up one-size-fits-all grounds to dismiss insiders, if you are an outsider. And one-size-fits-all grounds to dismiss outsiders, if you are an insider. But why they hell would you want to have either, let alone both? Surely having a way to do both is an embarrassment of epistemic riches.

By John Holbo on 05/18/08 at 01:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I go away for 24 hours and its Theory Wars Part 327.  All this sounds like a problem with the genetic fallacy.  It simply doesn’t matter from where a critique comes.  Either the critique is valid (and the party criticized had better take it into account) or its invalid (and the party criticized can say why and continue along its way).

Regardless of Zizek’s knowledge of liberal political philosophy, either his critique of it is valid or invalid.  It might be unoriginal, in which case we had better alert his tenure review committee—too late.  But it’s either true or false.

If a monkey walks down the street, see a house being put up, and says, “Hey, I think that roof’s gonna collapse,” it don’t matter that he’s a monkey with no experience of building houses.  The motherfucker’s right or wrong.  Monkey or no monkey.  (As a builder, it might affect how seriously you take his ideas, but that’s your problem, not the monkey’s.  He’s gonna point and laugh when the roof collapses.)

By on 05/18/08 at 02:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In this particular episode of TW, the essential point is the one academiclurker made: it doesn’t really make sense to criticize the history of a phenomenon for leaving out things that weren’t germane to the history of the phenomenon. I made the mistake of going on to suggest reasons for the lack of effect—and now we see why people distrust nuance.

Luther, where a critique comes from may not modify its truth-value (if any), but it certainly modifies its social impact. The original topic was a matter of attentional focus rather than roof collapse—John H. wasn’t bothered by lack of arguments so much as lack of the proper names being attached to them. I admit, though, I haven’t any idea what’s at stake between him and Adam at this point.

By Ray Davis on 05/18/08 at 03:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Lurker’s point is, indeed, well taken - as is yours, Ray. But there is also something to be said for noticing the dog that didn’t bark. Truly I am beating my own tub for the umpteenth time, but if it is the case that people were offering cogent critiques, but the only critiques that got any play were the theatrical right-wing screeds, then a good way to write the history would be to point out that this is how it went.

Lurker is also right that Cusset takes a somewhat non-partisan tone. But that’s why I emphasized the ending, with its emphasis on the ‘heroism’ of Theory. Ultimately, I think the non-partisan tone and the desire to encapsulate the ‘heroic’ quality of Theory rub against each other. (But I would say that, wouldn’t I?)

By John Holbo on 05/18/08 at 07:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

All this discussion of of Cusset’s book and not one mention (aside from JH’s ref.) that Fish’s review of it generated in excess of 600 comments (and that Fish’s follow-up found room to cite me!).

Cusset’s attitude seems to be (but obviously he doesn’t come out and say it) that it’s fine to notice the problems, but only in a positive way.... This is what leads to cases of Cusset saying ‘it would be naive to say this about theory’ followed by Cusset himself saying just that. He is not really saying the critics are wrong, but that they aren’t sympathetic enough in saying things he implicitly admits are correct. But that’s to demand a very high level of sympathy.

And that is precisely the problem: concept-based or philosophy-based discussion is not just a matter of logic, not even for the opponents of Theory. Philosophy — as the term I will use to refer both to “Theory” and to its philosophically-based “opposite” (as distinct, for this argument’s sake from its “empirically-based opposite") — also has rhetorical dimensions (i.e. questions of style, etc) and politico-institutional dimensions (e.g. accidents of “fashion” and “fame”, etc.). And it has ethical dimensions, too, as JH’s remark about sympathy admits.

The clash between Theory and its Opposite*, in other words, emerges not just from differences in argumentation, etc., but also from differences in “attitudes” or “dispositions” or, simply, ethics. At its simplest, the difference can be characterised thus: for Theory’s Opposite what Cusset says “demand[s] a very high [i.e. unreasonable] level of sympathy”, whereas for theory (or at least, for the theory I value) such sympathy is utterly essential to the project of thinking.

*Of course, this is way too simplistic, and so everything that follows is the same. I make the typology purely for heuristic purposes.

By on 05/19/08 at 12:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"whereas for theory (or at least, for the theory I value) such sympathy is utterly essential to the project of thinking.”

But you know what I’m going to say, rob. (Now I thump my OTHER favorite tub.) Cusset isn’t writing a history of Theory, in the ‘any kind of essential thinking’ sense. He is writing about the history of an intellectual style that plausibly didn’t really exist before 1966. You cannot necessitate what he is writing about by defending the need to ‘think at all’. But Cusset really is doing this.

I didn’t know about Fish’s follow-up. I’ll have to follow that up.

By John Holbo on 05/19/08 at 12:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Glad I could bring the follow-up to your attention, John.

I have to confess I have no idea what your comment is objecting to. I’m not trying to mount a critique or an anything of your review but merely to use an off-hand remark of yours with the aim (i.e. my aim) of showing why the Opposite of Theory will (inevitably?) come into conflict with Theory.

You’ve said: “[Cusset] is not really saying the critics are wrong, but that they aren’t sympathetic enough in saying things he implicitly admits are correct” and you’ve said “that’s to demand a very high level of sympathy”. I’m saying, “For Theory, such levels of sympathy are requisite to thinking about things (i.e. in a manner which after the fact may well be called “theoretical")". Hence, those who see high levels of sympathy as being unjustifiable, simply won’t get theory.

By on 05/19/08 at 06:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, it’s interesting if it turns out that the hallmark of Theory turns out to be a kind of enthusiasm - especially since the enthusiasm is for a certain sort of ‘heroism’. 

If it turns out that we are believing in Grand ‘heroic’ Narratives, to defend postmodernism from its critics; if it turns out that we are writing Great Man history, to defend those who wrote about the death of the author; if it turns out that we are insisting that the center must hold, lest deconstruction fail ... I could go on. One must appreciate the Montaignean irony of the slow, dirigible turn of the vessel that has carried us gradually around like this, 180 degrees.

It’s just another form of the basic problem: how to go on being an anarchist after one has become the establishment. Which, to be fair, Cusset sees. But I don’t think he sees quite how many places it is cropping up.

By John Holbo on 05/19/08 at 06:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

If the long-standing reaction to Holbo can be treated as representative, what’s interesting about it is that, as far as I can tell, his detractors have never learned anything by disagreeing with him.  The basis of their disagreement always already was the necessity for the heroization of important Theory figures, although this was dressed up as having the proper grounding in continental philosophy, or understanding the necessity for a more leftist outlook: any other more adult-sounding pretext.  And now that the fashion has changed, this heroization is being dropped like a hot potato as its former carriers develop from grad students to postdocs, from postdocs to professors, and as new grad students fail to take their place.

The real problem is all of this “after Theory” business, which histories of it seem to contribute to.  (I haven’t read Cusset, but the impression from reading these reviews is one of historical review of something now dead.) We aren’t “after Theory”.  I think that it’s now impossible to have something like a contemporary literary studies that doesn’t have elements of Theory woven through parts of it.  So the question is, what’s going to be semi-permanent or even seemingly permanent, like the “close reading”, and what turned out to be a bad idea and isn’t?

For people to approach that question, they are going to have to understand the objections of Theory’s critics, and are going to have to start to be able to evaluate what was good about Theory without the benefit of heroization.  That isn’t going to be done primarily by the people who were excited about Theory in the first place, I’m guessing.

By on 05/19/08 at 07:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"But that’s why I emphasized the ending, with its emphasis on the ‘heroism’ of Theory.”

I read Cusset in the last chapter as grinding some axes specifically related to the French intellectual/academic scene (about which I know virtually nothing). He seemed to be saying “Whatever Theory’s faults, at least it was more interesting than what we have now in France.”

By on 05/19/08 at 08:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, it’s interesting if it turns out that the hallmark of Theory turns out to be a kind of enthusiasm - especially since the enthusiasm is for a certain sort of ‘heroism’.

I would argue that what I called “attitude” or “disposition” does not necessarily take the form of “enthusiasm”—let alone “heroism”. I’m talking about (1) ethos (i.e. a particular kind of conduct and way of understanding one’s relation to the works, ideas, etc., one engages with) and (2) a sense of obligation towards what in the terms of Theory would be called the otherness of or within the Other. This second facet forms part of the first, but I distinguish it because in the case of Theory it’s what helps to define the particularity of Theory’s ethos.

For Theory, every engagement with an idea or an argument or a treatise is either shaped by or indicative of an ethical relationship between thinker/reader and idea/text. To be sure, “enthusiasm” could constitute one such relationship, as indeed could the various inflections of that relationship that JH plays out. What’s more, if JH’s point was couched in the form of “some proponents of theory approach theory with an attitude, ironically, of heroism and hero-worship”, I would express an unreserved agreement with him.

I won’t argue with the idea that a whole set of disciplines and and institutional structures have enabled the formation of a particular kind of intellectual “persona” or “ethos” — one which structures theoretical practice along the lines that Foucault characterises it ("a pedagogy that teaches the pupil that there is nothing outside the text....A pedagogy that gives to the master’s voice the limitless sovereignty that allows it to restate the text indefinitely"). You could call it a structure or ethos of discipleship, and I would stress that this ethos is one that has developed relatively independently of Theory and was established well before Theory’s arrival, which is why proponents of Theory could so easily be “captured” (for want of a better word) by this formation.

But, equally, there are other available forms of ethical disposition. Most significantly, to my mind, for the fact that it appears to be invisible to critics of theory — and to critics generally (including pro-Theory critics), since it is indeed the ethos of criticism — or at least appears to be the taken-for-granted justification for intellectual work, is the ethos characterised by judicial privilege and authority. This is the ethos that drags an idea/text before the Critic and demands the text speak so that the Critic may pass judgement on its discourse. This ethos cedes unto itself ultimate intellectual authority and finds in a text/idea nothing of which it is not already aware or for which it was not already prepared.

The ethos that is most consistent with the “principles” of Theory, however, would take neither of those forms — which is precisely why JH can justifiably raise as an objection to Theory the fact that (some of) its proponents so readily conform to an ethos ("enthusiasm") that is inconsistent with the kinds of “ideals” or “values” that Theory would otherwise affirm. As I prefer to characterise it, the ethos of Theory is one which includes a sense of obligation towards the otherness of or within the Other, hence a commitment to producing other possibilities, including those that do not conform to the laws of philosophical/intellectual inquiry that the Critic presides over.

So, when I say the Opposite of Theory will (inevitably?) come into conflict with Theory on account of the difference in ethos, I’m not talking about “enthusiasm”, even though that may be one of the available forms of engagement with ideas, etc. and may indeed be an ethos adopted by more than one proponent of Theory.

By on 05/19/08 at 09:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"I read Cusset in the last chapter as grinding some axes specifically related to the French intellectual/academic scene (about which I know virtually nothing).”

Academiclurker makes a good point. Confession: I just skimmed the chapter about the contemporary French scene, about which I, too, know not very much. I tend to be focused on the American scene and Cusset is sort of dividing his attention.

By John Holbo on 05/20/08 at 12:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I haven’t read the Cusset book yet - but what you say about it, John, reminds me a little of Terry Eagleton’s habit of talking as if before Theory turned up there was nothing but belle-lettristic, subjective vapourings about people’s favourite scenes from Trollope, etc. Which is untrue, and also reminiscent of the habit of the early Derrida and his followers to talk as if until they came along philosophers were unshakeably committed to naive foundationalist theories of language - but of course you know about all of this - my point being, something in Theory seems to love a straw man ...

By on 05/27/08 at 01:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Very true, Owen, very true.

By John Holbo on 05/27/08 at 09:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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