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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

hix dixerit quispiam - or, you must try again until you get it right, part MCXVII (or whatever)

Posted by John Holbo on 12/07/05 at 09:55 AM

Another of my famous Theory posts. First, under the fold, clarifying repetitions of things I've said before. This frames part II which is contains notes for a draft of a history of Theory I am writing, which I'll post tomorrow. Part II is fairly new. Part I may give you déjà vu. (Tomorrow I'll turn it into a PDF but for now I can't be bothered completing the bibliography.)

I'm writing a book about Theory. This won't surprise you, but there is a consequence I would like to make explicit. In response to past posts I've gotten comments: why so obsessed? My focus is perceived as blindness, or possibly an attempt to refute continental philosophy on the cheap. The answer is: I'm writing a book. I quite understand that if I were discussing, say, continental philosophy in general, quite different things would need to be said. People write books sometimes. So read on if interested. This really is a chapter draft, incorporating old bits, with just a bit of shin-kicking postiness stuck on the bottom.

Theory - Grand Theory, capital-T Theory - as in 'do Theory'; the kind that does not need any 'of x'. I'll adopt the capital-T convention as the least unsatisfactory, although it causes ambiguity at the start of sentences like the next five. Theory is what is meant when people write books with titles like Theory Matters, or The Theory Mess. Or The Way We Argue Now: The Cultures of Theory. Theory is something whose institutional gains are consolidated in, for example, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Theory is something whose possibly premature death is reported, possibly prematurely, on a regular basis: in After Theory (two books of that title.) Life.after.theory. Theory is attacked, e.g. in Theory's Empire. 'Theory' denotes a protean, hard to pin style - sensibility, cluster of ideas, texts, figures, or a distinctively hybrid interdisciplinary practice. We have to think hard about this, because although it is clear the term has a semi-settled, informal use - there is a there there - it is not self-evident the there exhibits enough constancy or consistency to deserve analysis, let alone preserve critical assailants from being reminded that there are reasons why phrases like 'wrestling the fogbank' suggest themselves in this connection.

My purpose in addressing Theory is threefold.

§1 Critique
First, I want to engage in critique - that is, complaining. Theory has a history (see below), but the present is most pertinent, for purposes of moving on constructively. You cannot win any battles in 2005 by refighting some notion of the war of 1982.

My central complaint about Theory concerns what I call 'the Higher Eclecticism', a presently predominant, Theory-inflected style I take to be a fairly grave hazard, intellectual conscience-wise. (I've posted a lot about this before and won't add much in this post.) A slightly different angle on the problem is provided by Reed Way Dasenbrock, in his book Truth and Consequences. He coins a term, 'The New Thematics', which I will borrow; it is a tag for a set of positions that are, he argues, excessively immunized from philosophic critique. Put the two together and you get an eclecticism that does not manage to be free from dogmatism. (I won't talk about Dasenbrock in this post either.)

§2 History
On or about October 1966, the humanities' nature changed (to mangle Virginia Woolf.) At least in America. I refer, of course, to the International Colloquium on Critical Languages and the Sciences of Man at John Hopkins University - "the first time in the United States that structuralist thought had been considered as a cross-disciplinary phenomenon," according to Macksey and Donato, editors of the 1970 volume, The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man. Derrida made his debut, as did Lacan. [Bill B. has been talking about all this in his guest post, and I am happy to hear more of his perspective.]

The historicist challenge, regarding theory, is to pull off at least two balancing acts around this event.

New Growth, Deep Roots
Theory is a recent and localized intellectual phenomenon. It is not much more than 40 years old - which isn't old at all, in philosophy years. It lives mostly in American English department; somewhat unusual habitat for such a philosophic organism. But Theory has deep roots. Theory, I will argue, is a form of late romanticism. (In the shadow of all the capital-T’s, I’ll go with lowercase-r. Is that wrong of me?) More specifically, Theory is the latest chapter in the history of the counter-Enlightenment. My tag to encapsulate this comes from Friedrich Schlegel: "It is equally deadly to the spirit to have a system and not to have one. One must resolve to combine the two." This contains the key to the puzzle of why so much eclecticism and, frankly, contradiction can cohabit under the roof of one term. Roughly, something that couldn't possibly be a unity can manage to be a unity if enough people involved in putting together the thing that couldn't possibly be a unity feels what is needful is, precisely, something that couldn't possibly be a unity - which all this is.

I don't think my Schlegel tag, or my thumbnailing of Theory as romantic, will inspire violent resistance. They are not derogatory. To note that Theory is a late-20th Century, largely American repetition of a mid to late-20th Century, largely French repetition of something that early 19th Century Germans were already starting to say - is but to say something others have said before. So far as I am concerned I am paying a compliment. Let me explain by reversing and saying something that isn't.

Theory gets dismissed as 'fashionable nonsense'. (There is, for example, a Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense, courtesy of B&W editress O. Benson.) I am amused but ambivalent. On the one hand, I think there is a substantial kernel of serious, intelligent critique to this mockery. On the other hand, if you philosophize with a hammer, everyone starts to look like a nail. That can lead to problems. Sounding idols all day causes the tinnitus of confirmation bias, you might say.

To pick 'telling anecdotes' that do more than suit your taste in conclusions, you need a healthy - neither paranoid nor panegyric - sense of what really is going on here. That’s horribly hermeneutically circular, but there is no getting out. Let me just say what I think is right. 'Fashionable nonsense' does not fully fit. It suggests, obviously, 'Theory's Emperor's New Clothes', a peculiar, relational sort of shallowness and dullness (so there isn't even any chance to glitter shallowly.) I am most sympathetic to this when I read implausible denials. Vincent Leitch has a chapter of Theory Matters, "Theory Fashions", in which he disputes the charge like so:

If we examine the fashion industry, we immediately encounter an array of defining features unrelated to theory. Among these are fashion's appeal to possessive individualism; its reliance on sweatshops; its broad use of dyestuffs and the resulting ecological destruction; its fascination with alluring physical commodities; its planned obsolescence. (p. 29)

Leitch asks, pointedly, "does theory, like fashion, change precisely each and every season?" (p. 32). No? So the analogy breaks down. There is an "incommensurability of fashion and theory." Well, I'm not going to bother to critique an argument that nothing except the clothing industry can be 'like fashion'. I am sure Sokal and Bricmont didn't think the problem was dyestuffs. As to planned obsolescence, we all know the dynamics of academic publication, for promotion and tenure, is tantamount to the demand that new products, attractive but more or less foredoomed to disposal, must cycle through. This is not caused by Theory, but Theory has suited the system. Leitch knows this. He is refusing to admit the obvious, I expect because he doesn't want to give certain critics the satisfaction. Which I can understand, but I would say is a tactical error. It's not as though not admitting the obvious will conceal the obvious. When the obvious thing in question is precisely the fact that an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ charge has some truth to it, the irony can get pretty thick.

At any rate, for now the point of saying that Theory is romantic - a chapter in the history of the counter-Enlightenment - is to acknowledge a depth and seriousness inconsistent with 'fashionable nonsense' being the whole story, insofar as that story implies not just institutional deformation but discreditable impulses and motives. We may -  we will - try to show the fly of counter-Enlightenment the way out of the institutional fly-bottle of Theory. But we certainly can't squash it like a bug; on account of what is behind it, it’s too big.

One of the things I have learned, putting it this way, is how deeply some people distrust Isaiah Berlin, a hostility readily transferred to what is thought to be his coinage, 'counter-Enlightenment' (but really the term was around before.) 'Postmodernism' is thought preferable. I think not, but not for especially Berlin-derived reasons. Here is a clue: counter- is better than post- for Heideggerian reasons, if you like that sort: more Verwindung than Überwindung. A going beyond that accepts and deepens. Theory does not attempt to overthrow reason - Enlightenment - but characteristically seeks to burrow in the canny until it turns un. 'Enlightenment' is better than 'modernism' because I think it is appropriate to place the accent on philosophical notions - Kant's will do nicely, for starters. I hope those who disagree will at least acknowledge that emphasizing the philosophical pedigree of Theory isn't meant to be insulting. (It wouldn't have killed me to mint 'countermodernism', but I don't think the world needs it.)

Unity in Multiplicity
The other balancing act to be pulled off is doing justice to Theory as a unity in multiplicity. More than a tag from Schlegel is needed, though I say such roots are the key. It will be a challenge establishing that they are not routes to regress. What, after all, is romanticism? In The Roots of Romanticism, Isaiah Berlin quotes despairing would-be definers, including one who makes the common sense point that, just because there are many John Smiths, it doesn't mean there is much of interest to be said about the genus. This concern manifests along two axes. Historically, there is periodization: structuralism, post-structuralism; Derrida wanes, Foucault waxes. The rise of cultural studies. Going postal: post-colonial, post-this, post-that; right down to post-Theory.

It has to make sense to say that, somehow, all these things (including post-Theory) are really, meaningfully, one intellectual phenomonenon: Theory.

Compounding the threat to unity posed by change over time is the problem of urbane sprawl, to coin a term: from the start, and ever-increasingly over time, there is a branching, multiplicity of approaches, which will for the most part answer to 'Theory', if you call them that. These approaches are, in proportion to their increase, apparently more and more willing to mix and match themselves, more (ironically? sophisticatedly?) reconciled to this rerum concordia discours. (You can’t spell discourse without the discours.) Clearly not all of contemporary Theory discourse is coherent; much is mutually antagonistic. Where is the sense in calling it all one?

§3 Discipline and Punish
My final purpose is to hammer (again) the point that, while Theory is much too large to refute, it is much too small to presuppose. (And altogether the wrong shape.)

One piece of common apologetics is that 'theory is necessary' (because to resist is to fall prey to unexamined theories, ergo to be naive or suffer false consciousness.) To this thought, an emphatic 'no' must be returned. There is plenty of room for debate about my first two concerns - what is wrong with/wonderful about Theory; how its history should be written. But 'theory is necessary', as a contribution to this debate, is just a bad pun.

I've explained at length before and shall again. But it's quite simple. Goethe: "With every attentive look at the world we are theorizing" and "everything that is factual is already theory" [quoted courtesy of John Ellis]. So everything is theory. So to resist is to resist both mind and world. A healtlhily perverse person merely represses awkward truths about sex or who has more money. To repress the entire universe - that really is a stunning stick in your own eye; downright perverted. But those who 'resist theory' are not resisting theory in this sense, not resisting mentality and reality, nor Goethe's vaguely Kantian philosophy. They are finding fault with a rather distinctive intellectual style. (I think I know what Goethe would have said about Theory: "Romanticism is disease, classicism is health." Not that he's necessarily right. But it is a view.)

In a sense, pointing out the pun shouldn't be consequential, merely a reminder of the obvious; namely, if it is a question of accepting some school or style, until there is some showing of its merits, we should be prepared to take it or leave it. Nevertheless, I think the point should be highly psychologically consequential, if only it will be taken seriously. In literary studies there is a strong and active sense that Theory is too inescapable to be left on pain of anything but naivete. This is simply confusion.

Let me consider two objections, and responses. 

First, thinkers like (say) Derrida are well within the Western philosophic tradition. To question their 'necessity' can only be to question the whole line back to Plato and beyond. But the point of targeting the pun is not to deny this, rather to emphasize that, although I am sure we are all footnotes to Plato - because, as Whitehead says, he had the foresight to write out all the heresies in advance - the counter-Enlightenment is most definitely one of the heresies; likewise, Theory. It strikes a dissonant note, out of tune with the broadly (not exclusively) rationalist Western philosophical tradition (then seeks to modulate to some uncanny resolution.) This is not to offer grounds for dismissing it, merely to point out that feigning surprise when, say, a rationalist suggests Theory is outrageous is unconvincing. The counter-Enlightenment is, in a sense, something that wants to inhabit the Enlightenment. But the Enlightenment might have other ideas about what a tonic treatment of the situation would be. To put it another way, although of course one can always claims to see it already in Heraclitus (or in an Altamira cave), romanticism - certainly the counter-Enlightenment - is only a bit over 200 years old. That is too old to dismiss, but too young and distinctive to make global criticism inconceivable.

A slightly less bad variation on this argument might run like so: since it is hardly seems likely that romanticism is going away - we are all romantics now - it follows that we must all be Theorists. The proper response to this is to leap temporarily ahead to the critique and say the concern is that Theory tends to be, as it were, decadent late-romanticism. It certainly it does not seem self-evident we have to put up with that without doing anything about it. Obviously further discussion waits on clarification of the thesis that Theory really is romantic.

A Two-Fold Root of Insufficient Reasons
Let me shift ground and postulate that this fallacious sense of Theory's sheer intellectual necessity is shadowed by an instinct for a second sort of necessity - institutional indispensability, you might say. Theory regulates the flow of academic discourse, is the flow on which the discourse floats. Leitch writes:

Theory during postmodern times - even if one does not directly read it - has become at once so ubiquitous and multifaceted that we academics have almost all increasingly become critical pasticheurs mixing and matching heterogenous strands into usable materials ... One does not need to have directly read Derrida at all to have learned how to deconstruct binaries, or to have studied Foucault to analyze the mechanism of disciplines that render the modern subject docile, or to have examined any texts by feminist critics to detect unbalanced gender dynamics operating in a work. The most important "text” today is arguably this compound discourse channeled through many members of the academic community of literary intellectuals. (p. 27)

Likewise, Valentine Cunningham writes, in Reading After Theory:

Theory is everywhere. It's rare to find anywhere now a published discussion or reading of literature, or to hear a lecture on a literary topic, certainly by a professional critic from the academy, which is not paying homage to named theorists of literature who might well have been writing before then but were known only to a few close-up chums and colleagues. A critical Rip Van Winkle waking up now after fifty years of slumber wouldn't recognize the critical tower of Babel he'd returned to. (p. 24)

Let me add, Cunningham is much less critical of the value of Theory than this quote suggests. The Babel jab is quite tongue in cheek. Still, this much is serious. This hypothetical Rip would not just be confounded by Critical Inquiry but puzzled by PMLA - a journal that bills itself as welcoming "essays of interest to those concerned with the study of language and literature." This point, I should emphasize, is not a repetition of the charge that Theory means ugly, clotted prose. PMLA does not bristle with potential prize-winners of Bad Writing contents. Yet it does seem fair to say that our critic would be initially hard pressed to winkle out why certain things are assumed, other things not; the shapes of problems, drifts and currents of thought. Per The Way We Argue Now: The Cultures of Theory [inferring from the first chapter] the visitor might not understand the way we argue now. This would be due to lack of acculturation into Theory.

Let us consider objections sure to be made, and responses:

First, the fact that I perhaps couldn’t understand something that will only be written 50 years from now is no objection to it. Critics are not obliged to suspend themselves in amber – perhaps some amber of the eternal verities. And now we are likely to get a confused argument about how resistance to Theory is conservative. (Really this is always a confusion. Theory is consistently politically leftist, for a variety of rather accidental reasons I think. But its opponents come from all points on the political compass.) This objection to Cunningham’s little thought-experiment misses its point, which is not to cast Theory in a bad light, merely to highlight the fact that – since 50 years ago no one would have been able to understand it - one can perfectly well conceive of taking it or leaving it. It is important to see that Theory really can take a question mark, before you ask questions about it.

Second, it will be argued that Leitch and Cunningham exaggerate. The stuff is not so ubiquitous. We still have traditional scholarship (textual criticism, say) of a sort whose methods and point would have been clear to a scholar fifty years ago. Besides traditional scholarly projects there are essayists whose sensibility is as traditional as the essay form itself. There is even a contemporary recrudescence of 'appreciative' criticism: belletrism unbound! Above all, it isn't as though every department is overrun with raving irrationalists. The response: but isn't it true that, for better or worse, the vocabulary and certain stock gestures of Theory constitute a kind of universal pidgin? (That term has slighting connotations, but its denotation is what we want: a trade language evolved so that speakers of different languages can communicate. If you don't like 'pidgin', coin a high-toned synonym that will travel better: interstitial episteme, maybe.) Everyone picks it up in graduate school, and as a (serious) upper-level undergraduate. This is Leitch's point about how you don't need to have actually read much Foucault, but you do need to be able to talk it a little, and recognize it. There is a minimal amount without which the communicative channel might fail to open. If you want your work to be able to travel (what scholar doesn't?), you have an incentive to drop in a bit. (This is sort of a twist on Said's notion of 'travelling theory', I suppose.) As to those who don't speak in the language of Theory: they exist, but risk cutting themselves off. They risk having difficulties advertising the significance of their projects.

But 'pidgin' is such a low common denominator. Worse, the cynical sense that ‘a drop of Derrida behind the ears, as opposed to more between’ can get by – it’s appalling. If this is what is meant by 'Theory', it’s slander to style it the Geist of the discipline. This objection seizes the point wrong way round, by failing to anticipate how it will be properly developed. Saying that everyone speaks at least a little Foucault and Derrida (et. al.) does not imply that no one rises above this level. What it does is point to a path-dependence effect. If anyone does rise above this level, and let us grant most do, they are likely to do so in certain directions, not others. This will lend these directions a sense of intellectual necessity. To repeat: the point is not that works that 'travel' in this way are precluded from also being good. Rather, the concern is that certain kinds of good works may be precluded from being, because they wouldn't also 'travel'.

If you don't like pidgin, call it a creole on the grounds that its speakers control institutional territory and their identity is tied up with use of this language. Self-defense plus self-reflection. (A language, you might say, is a dialect with an army and a navel.)   

And now the debate gets empirical. Job listings. Are there 'theory' jobs? No? But, then, if everyone does Theory, that is what you would predict. But doesn't this immunize 'Theory is ubiquitous' from disconfirmation? Not exactly. We have a situation that is as you would expect if Theory were either very dead, or very alive - as opposed to somewhere in between.  Is there any reason to favor 'very alive'? Leitch postulates there is "a relatively thriving theory job market on the senior level" (p. 62), not visible in Job List, but speaking to the high status of certain products. There are few enough such hirings that this seems like the sort of hypothesis one could test.

Beyond this point, plausible anecdotal argument gives out. You would have to undertake serious surveying. One upshot of achieving global knowledge, if you could, would be: local knowledge counts. America is not the UK. This department is not that department. This field is not that one. This journal is not that one. At any given time, members of the profession have been educated over a 50 year period. All such differences militate against the reality of any monolith. On the other hand, if Leitch is right; if "theory among literary intellectuals has shifted from something like a relatively enclosed subspecialty to broadly diffused strands found in all specialties and subspecialties" (p. 38), then 'monolith' might be the wrong word: instead of an upthrust of rock, a lateral, vegetable movement. Or think War of the Worlds. After the fierce tripods – Derrida, Foucault and co. – have suppressed their opponents, whose puny, primitive critical notions are no match; after these intellects, vast cool and unsympathetic – long observant of humanism, long unobserved by it – have made their presence known; then the strange red, plant-like growth, Theory, starts to appear over everything.

I’m kidding.

In all seriousness, I think the most charitable thing to say to those who say Leitch and Cunningham are wrong is: you may be right. If so, then whatever I am going to say about Theory only apply to literary studies to whatever limited exent what Leitch and Cunningham say is true. 

But let me say a bit more about the notion of Theory as indispensable glue of shared intellectual sensibility; rhizomatic kudzu of interstitial interdisciplinarity (pick your mixed metaphor). Touching back upon the fashion point, the set of things that counts as Theory is certainly united to some degree, from a design standpoint: a set of intellectual products with perceived affordances - i.e. they seem handy for very particular uses (whatever their genuine usability). Intertwine and overlap; lash together the raft of literary studies out of what threatens to be a logjam. "Media studies, science studies, subaltern studies, trauma studies, whiteness studies, fashion studies, food studies, disability studies, leisure studies, narrative studies, gloablization studies, queer studies, visual culture studies, animal studies, and body studies" (Leitch, p. viii).

All this is too diverse and disorganized to be disciplined, so far as anyone can see. To have no discipline whatsoever would be academically unacceptable. To have a system and not to have one are equally deadly to the department. It is necessary to combine the two. This is institutionally shrewd kludge. What more can be said remains to be seen.

And pardon the logic of having Theory as both liquid flow beneath the raft, and intertwined lashing for the logs. Somehow it feels right as a casting decision (no pun on jetee intended, unless you want.) It is a doubling of roles that says something about the play. Theory is, indeed, a boat that generates its own body of water, on which it floats. (Whatever floats your Neurath's boat, a bemused analytic philosopher might quip.) There is even an authorizing, deconstructive pun. On the one hand, Theory 'cures' this rhizomatic mass of vegetable matter, weaves it into rope. On the other hand, as J. Hillis Miller writes in the early 80’s (of the Yale critics - DeMan, Hartman, Bloom, Derrida):

The fundamental issue at stake among the members of this group is the question whether the "cure of the ground" which Stevens demands of poetry and of the discourse about poetry is to be a "grounding," a making solid of the foundation, as one "cures" a fiberglass hull, or whether the ground is to be cured by being effaced, made to vanish, as medicine cures a man of disease by taking it away. As Stevens says, the rock is air, "nothingness," "the dominant blank, the unapproachable." Is a "cure of the ground" the clearing away of the ground, leaving nothing to stand on, or is it a securing of the ground, making it firm, so one can build on it. Space limitations forbid exploring this difference now. (p. 116)

Indeed, they do.

I have distinguished the intellectual proposition that 'theory is necessary' - i.e. to resist would be naive - from the institutional proposition that 'Theory is necessary' - i.e. is institutionally indispensable. The difference between saying that without Theory, intellectual life would be impossible (clearly false), and saying that without Theory disciplinarity in literary studies would evaporate (doubtful, but possibly true) is considerable. Still, it might seem that the propositions don't need to be looked at separately because the first just points to the general question of the value of Theory, and the second just depends on our answer to that question. The advisability of letting Theory play the regulative role it does (if you believe it does) is surely a more or less straight function of its intellectual merit. If Theory is good, it is fine for it to run the place; if not, not.

In fact, I think we shouldn't assume this. It could come apart going either way. On the one hand, I think a bit of fashionable nonsense has often been just the ticket, to push out some formerly fashionable bit of nonsense. I am somewhat inclined to view Theory in this light. But noble lying is still hazardous. On the other hand, Theory's intellectual merits - even supposing them to be great - may not constitute a recommendation for a regulatory role. Let me drop the 'perhaps'. Theory, I say, is late romanticism. This is vague, but clear enough to allow another vague statement about romanticism. Nietzsche:

An Englishman recently described the most general danger facing uncommon men who live in a society tied to convention: 'Such alien characters at first become submissive, then melancholic, then ill and finally they die. A Shelley would not have been able to live in England, and a race of Shelleys would have been impossible. (p. 138)

Nietzsche is misquoting (misremembering) Bagehot, who was talking about New England. Let me readapt, returning to America and Cunningham's thought-experiment. An American English professor before 1965, sent to sleep and awakened in 2005, instructed in the rudiments of the use of the word 'Theory', could have described the most general danger facing uncommon thinkers who inhabited a conventional department in his day: 'Such alien characters at first make submissions, then become melancholic, then they fail to publish and finally they perish. A Theorist would not have been able to live in English, and a department of Theorists would have been impossible.' The point being: we have, since his time, shifted from the frying pan of impossibility - the impermissibility of a certain free-wheeling eclectico-speculative style as the norm in academic literary studies; into the fire of impossibility - regulating a race of irregular Shelleys. And not just Shelleys. Non-Shelleys by nature who are conventionally bound to present themselves, to academic society, as Shelleys, lest they expose themselves to the dangers that face uncommon men. The irony merely takes note, tongue in cheek, of apparent impossibility: if society requires conventions, a society of unconventional characters cannot constitute a society, either because unconventionality becomes conventional; or because 'we explosive ones' truly describes everyone, so the place blows up. If a department must be disciplined, it cannot be populated by the undisciplined. If somehow this antinomy seems to have been overcome, you should suspect one or the other elements of fraud: the department, for wearing a false front of discipline; or the inhabitants, for putting on airs of indiscipline.

The concern about Theory, as a normalized mechanism of disciplinary regulation, is very far from being just a question mark after Theory's value.  It is a pair of hurdles: first, Theory’s intellectual fitness; second, Theory’s fitness for a certain institutional role.

Post-script: "to hang quite out of fashion … in monumental mockery"

Let me linger on to 'teach the conflicts’. I take as my text a comment left by Kenneth Rufo. (He faults my debate style. I must say, in my day, there was - ahem – more nervous 3 x 5 flipping, less furniture-chewing.) It all goes back to a post during the Theory's Empire event. Matt C. brought an unsettled dispute up again. I attempted to restate my position. Rufo showed up and reiterated the differences.

Let me say first (since Rufo seems to lay stress on this): I don't think the fact that I only linked and quoted him without mentioning him by name was rude. Matt C. and others were unsatisfied with our exchange, but I think they were bothered by the substance, not link etiquette.

Here's the substantive point we’ve now gone around twice. I say it was a mistake for Rufo to equate Theory's Empire with 'Philosophy's Empire', because, in fact, the critique of Theory is philosophical. I allow that he can use 'theory' any way he likes. (He can say 'theory' means two slices of bread, with a slice of cheese between.) Nevertheless, unless he acknowledges that the editors and contributors to this volume are using 'Theory' not as a synonym for 'philosophy', he will be misrepresenting them, especially if he is explicitly 'taking the debate in its own terms'.

Rufo replies:

You’re upset with me because I won’t let you define theory - oops, Theory - how you want to, and you appear to think I’m upset with you because of the same operation. If this was about Theory, the proper name, and who controls the ability to define it, we would just be at an impasse. And that’s certainly part of it, but my point takes place at a slightly different level of abstraction, namely that the effort to define Theory is itself theoretical, and worthy of investigation. I can’t locate an argument against this, which makes sense, since any argument against it would necessarily confirm it through the use of various metrics and philosophical and/or ideological assumptions. The point is, once we recognize that no term, Theory included, is simply posited as a given, no matter your belief that the term has sedimented into a stable, ontic object, then we come to see that defining Theory is theoretical and the two terms operationally collapse in on each other.

Several matters, orbiting the pun. First, the correct definition of 'Theory' will not be a function of 'how I want it' - or how Rufo wants it. Theory is a thing that exists, whether he or I like it or not. It is cloudy, yes; then again, clouds are an excellent example of things that often are, whether we like it or not. Regarding Theory: there are great shelves of books on it, about it, against it; and thoughts in peoples heads and classes taught and departments with a certain institutional culture and so forth. Perhaps it won't be possible to define, or provide any kind of satisfactory account. But then that will turn out to be the answer. This is not to deny that what people want always inflects their accounts in these sorts of cases. Here the cloud analogy works again: these things are nature's own rorschach blots. From what I say I see in Theory, you will no doubt learn a thing or ten about me. But I am not aspiring to a view sub specie aeternitatis, so I don't mind if you decide to pay attention to the man behind the curtain. Moreover, I acknowledge that Theory is changing and, in investigating it, I may induce change. (I should be so lucky.) Still, in defining - giving an account - I am not setting out to figure out what I want, but what it is.

Moving along: Yes, I am interested in 'Theory', the proper name. Because I am interested in what it names. So, no, I am not especially interested in 'who controls the ability to define it' because plainly no one does, to any decisive degree, although many individual actions and decisions will collectively help constitute it as what it is. Now we get the pun. "The effort to define Theory is itself theoretical." Well, yes. That is why it is wrong to say that Theory's Empire is Philosophy's Empire. "Then we come to see that defining Theory is theoretical and the two terms operationally collapse in on each other." No. Then we see, from the fact that the terms plainly don't necessarily operationally collapse in on each other, that they are possibly (in this case actually) distinct.

Let me try a simple analogy. Suppose I invent a philosophy. I name my philosophy 'Philosophy'. (Not a very good name, you may say. And I would have to agree.) Now someone wants to make a philosophical critique of Philosophy. This sounds paradoxical - some sort of sawing off the branch on which the critic sits; an operational collapse of two terms in on each other. But I trust a moment's reflection will convince you this is not really necessarily the case. Apply the lesson to theoretical critiques of Theory. I can't say it more simply.

Your problem, John, if I can be blunt, is twofold. First, you have a radically supercharged ego function, and it lets you make an argument with the following structure: I define Theory as X, this X is bad, people who disagree with my definition are wrong. It’s like an odd version of false consciousness for English theory.  And I don’t entirely denigrate it. I admire anyone who can trump entire debates with their own posturing, and do it with such certitude. Second, you are sloppy in your debating. I should note that I have taught debate professionally, and while your arguments are fine, your debating skill is, shall we say, mediocre. Calling into question my willingness to debate, when you know so little about me or my work, is as stupid as your other basic assumption in the above comment, that I’m even talking about Theory’s Empire, rather than the discussion of Theory’s Empire, which, had you thought about that time honored close-reading skill, you would have sussed out without too much problem. These sorts of inferential leaps kill you when it comes to high-paced debating, so try not to be so combative when making these mistakes. It reflects poorly on you.

I concur that Rufo can be blunt. I don't deny my competitive streak (and am, if Rufo would like, willing to speculate about his psychology for good measure. Honestly, it would be no trouble.) But my ego has not yet charged me with the task of making an argument with this odd super-structure. I would remember having met anything so funny-looking before, let alone made it. Rufo has wrongly assumed the account of Theory offered is stipulative and that I am fending off competing stipulations by fiat (no doubt that would be my ego acting up.) No, I am observing and describing something that exists apart from any stipulation I make. I object to Rufo's definition, not because he is not the gloss of me, but because - looking at the thing it is about – his definition is a bad gloss on it; it doesn’t fit.

I pass over Rufo's disposition to admire. I don't believe I called into question his willingness to debate. He appears eager. The claim that he is not talking about Theory's Empire, but only about the discussion of Theory's Empire, seems to me peculiar.

Let me make another analogy. Sometimes you read discussions of Derrida's works that say things like: Derrida says that 'nothing means anything'. This is not accurate, all knowledegable observers agree, but this does not prevent discussions of the discussions, which generally go about like so: "Derrida: stupid? or malevolent? or stupid and malevolent?' We fault such discussion of the discussion on the grounds that, since Derrida doesn't say 'nothing means anything', discussion of what it means that he says 'nothing means anything' is pointless (at best). Yet it might be possible for someone to fire back: but we weren't discussing Derrida's works. We have no idea what his works say and don't care. We were discussing the discussion of what the works say. But what would be the point? This puzzle seems to me parallel to the one posed by Rufo's position.

Shouldn't the discussion of Theory's Empire be about what Theory's Empire is about? If it is not, in what sense is it a discussion of Theory's Empire? (Not that you have to think the book is good.)

Next, Rufo compliments the Valve (thank you, Kenneth. Sincerely. I thank you for your kind words.) Then chews the furniture some more, it seems to me.

A few other sticking points to sail past. In past posts on this subject I have been told: Theory must be broader (e.g. Rufo's point), narrower (e.g. just post-structuralism), deader (i.e. no one takes it seriously any more), livelier (i.e. no one takes it seriously any more, but differently than if it were dead). It has been suggested ‘Theory’ is a label stuck on by enemies, like 'politically correct'. (The term is ardently employed by the likes of Leitch, so this will only fly with the help of some lurid Dolchstosslegende. I urge that no one go there.)

I have more patience with the concern that somehow I am running together Theory and continental philosophy, thereby concocting a poor man's refutation of the latter. Probably I have written things that suggest this poor strategy is mine, although I hope I know better.

If I may suggest a corresponding error (or rhetorical excess) on the other side: no one who takes analytic philosophy seriously will ever be fooled by the 'theory is necessary' pun, not through imperviousness to puns, but through an immediate awareness of a great deal of contemporary philosophy which is substantially outside the circle of Theory. This is not to suggest that analytic philosophy would, or should, conquer. I am confident most who are sympathetic to the continental tradition, who reject analytic philosophy ignorantly (in a clinical sense: just haven't studied it) would still reject it, less ignorantly, should they make its acquaintance. But seeing analytic philosophy as a large body of work you disagree with - even perhaps at a level so deep there is little possibility of argument - is much better than collapsing it, mentally, so it fails to appear on the radar screen at all. There is a parallel with what I have been saying above: just as dismissals of Theory as 'fashionable nonsense' may fail to respect the strategic depth of romanticism and the counter-Enlightenment; so dismissals of analytic philosophy as 'arid formalism' - to pick among the milder insults – may fail to respect the strategic depth of rationalism and the Enlightenment, not to mention good old Plato.

Of course, there is a question whether such dismissals even merit response. I estimate (very back of the envelope) the desire to dismiss whole competing philosophical traditions out of hand is, on average, 40% recreational contempt, 30% doing as your neighbor does, 20% school spirit, 5% knowledge of what you are talking about and 5% alcohol. But these sorts of dismissals can lead to significant distortions even of less patently polemically fraught discussions, so they can’t just be politely ignored. But this is not our topic for today.

To conclude this post, the lesson I have really learned from all the mordant personality clashes arising out of my previous posts is the need to segregate my critique of contemporary Theory from discussion of the history of Theory. Obviously the two lines should be mutually informing. I think they are, but they don't mix. Again, I think there are lessons for both sides.

My critique of Theory consists of a lot of 'bad tendency' talk. I emphasize that the glass of poison is half full. Optimists like CR and Matt want to emphasize it is half empty. (I kid.) They favor 'good tendency' talk. Now it is quite clear to me that, in principle, if either mode is in order, both must be. CR writes: "But for me Theory is something closer to an anthology of its greatest moments, greatest to me, idiosyncratically: Benjamin on “jetztzeit,” the little chapter from Blanchot’s Infinite Conversation that spawned by dissertation, Agamben on the ad without products in The Coming Community, Marx on the dancing furniture of capitalism, Althusser’s interpellating cop, Foucault on the panoptical lockdown, Said on the hermetically sealed circularity of Heart of Darkness, Jameson’s last few amazing pieces in NLR, and so on and so on." Yes, quite in order to compose a personal canon. There sure isn't a lot of point trying to argue other people out of a subjective sense of high possibility, latent in some personal canon. Rufo writes: "The seductions of theory need to be celebrated for their sexiness, not just highlighted for their artifice and straw-argument potential." Well, be seduced by what you've gotta. I guess. Keep your straw off my arguments. If you don’t understand why I would care to keep hammering away negatively against Theory, read some Badiou. “It is undoubtedly more instructive to write with regard to that which we do not want to be at any price than under the suspect image of that which we desire to become.”

But we do have disagreements. I think the place to hash them out - if anywhere - is in the writing of history. CR, I hope, would not want to say that, for history-writing purposes, Theory is an anthology of its greatest moments. There's actually an old word for it if he were really willing to bite that bullet: monumental history. Nietzsche:

Of what use, then, is the monumentalistic conception of the past, engagement with the classic and rare of earlier times, to the man of the present? He learns from it that the greatest that once existed was in any even once possible and may thus be possible again; he goes his way with more cheerful step, for the doubt which assailed him in weaker moments, whether he was not perhaps desiring the impossible, has now been banished. (p. 69)

Cue quote from J. Reynolds to the effect that, even if Alexander was short, he should be painted tall. I raise this possible view very seriously because you find conscious advocacy of something of the sort in Leitch - what you might call micro-monumentalist history:

A new array of figures, words, problems, movements, and sites comes to the fore, and doubtlessly new modes of history writing will ensue. Polemical histories are playing significant roles in this stage of transformation. The emergence of new disciplinary charters and paradigms entails entails historical re-visions, re-constructions, and re-framings. History of theory as a mixture of more or less incommensurable microhistories of precursors, texts, issues, schools, and institutions - variously intersecting with relevant social and cultural factors - strikes me as the best alternative for the times. However urgently and problematically, it is a matter of unevenly yet innovatively desacralizing/resacralizing expanding archives of knowledge. (p. 38)

Hence Leitch's rather implausible insistence on seeing nothing of the sordid side of Theory fashion, precisely because he is so consciously concerned to construct a sense of Theory as “a flowering equivalent to those that occurred in ancient Greece and in German Romanticism” (p. 33).

I think Eagleton is guilty of something of the sort as well. After Theory is ostensibly about decline, which presumably had some cause or causes. The text is not forthcoming enough, while it makes very clear that those who opposed Theory were, at each stage, routed by their own naivete.

Here is a passage from The Man Without Qualities I've quoted before. When the protagonist was a boy without qualities, he was set an essay on a 'patriotic theme' :

Although the Austrians had of course … won all the wars in their history, after most of them they had had to give something up.

This was food for thought, and Ulrich wrote in his essay on love of country that anyone who really loved his country must never regard it as the best country in the world. Then, in a flash of inspiration that seemed to him especially fine, although he was more dazzled by its splendor than he was clear about its implications, he added to this dubious statement a second, that God Himself probably perferred to speak of His world in the subjunctive of possibility (hic dixerit quispiam – "here someone might object that … "), for God creates the world, and thinks while He is at it that it could just as well be done differently. (p. 13-4) 

Ulrich is expelled.

The objection to writing history as Eagleton does, as it seems to me Leitch proposes, is that the price paid in blind spots for boosterism is too steep. The same goes for me. The nemesis of monumental history is, as it were, abysmal history - the smirking face of 'gotcha' moving over the waters of history. If you want your history (of Theory, or whatever) to be just a sort of greatest hits below the belt, you can always find some shameful episode, some deep and sordid well you can sink and plumb as a negative monument. But charity is a saner spirit in which to approach the question.

So young Ulrich is right about how you should write history of philosophy: hix dixerit quispiam. (There is a difference between the subjunctive of possibility – used for raising objections; and the subjective of possibility – used for mustering enthusiasm.)

Tomorrow, a draft of the history of Theory.


Excellent.  One can to some degree see the shape of your thought: as you become less sure of what you’re saying, the section sub-headers move farther apart.  I know that this is presumably an artifact of your summation of what you’ve already said in other posts, but I think that it still works.

So let me be the first to preemptively predict that organized and summary quality of the first half is the first thing that the usual people are going to attack. presumably on the grounds that brevity indicates a desire to not to engage.

By on 12/07/05 at 01:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This is all very interesting, and a lot of it is persuasive.  Having said that, I’m not sure I’m convinced by the leap (I know your post is a shorthand version of what’ll doubtless be a nuanced and elaborated account in your book) from German Romanticism to French/American deconstruction, Theory and all that has followed.  Theory, in the sense you mean it, surely has more proximate causes, and is in fact all bound up with the invention of this academic discipline ‘English’ (or ‘Literature’, as opposed to, say, ‘Greats’) at the start of the C20th: it’s the historical consequence of Arnold’s project to train up ‘critics’ as advocates and proselytises for ‘Culture’ specifically to fill the gap left by religion in the national psyche.  It’s Leavis and all his ilk.  Speaking to older colleagues at my institution, they’ll talk (not especially kindly, as it goes) about how in UK English departments in the 1960s/70s everybody who wasn’t a Marxist was a Leavisite; and that when, rather belatedly, Theory swept through in the late 1970s and 1980s all these Leavisites flat converted to Theory.  Which is to say, a large part of the appeal of Theory is that it offers many of the institutional and professional satisfactions that Leavis offered in his time.  Theory becomes a way of tacitly asserting that literature matters.

This, I think, is by way of disagreeing with you that your (or Cunningham’s) notional Rip would be simply baffled by Theory after half a century’s slumber.  There are differences, of course, especially in the livery in which academic prose now presents itself; but in many ways Theory found a home in English depts because it kept alive the chance of carrying on doing the Leavisite thing.

But I’m probably jumping the gun.  Tomorrow, as you say, a draft of the history of Theory.

By Adam Roberts on 12/07/05 at 04:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, you gave away my surprise ending - the Leavisite thing. I’ll try to get part II up in about 10 hours or so. Glad you found it an interesting post.

By John Holbo on 12/07/05 at 09:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Since Arnold’s basically repackaging Schiller’s letters on aesthetic education, there’s no need to see a conflict between John’s view and Adam’s correction, is there?

By on 12/07/05 at 10:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Sean, I actually mean precisely to trace the Leavis thing back to Arnold. Very roughly, I want to talk about two streams of influence - Leavisite, and continental phenomenology. And Leavis comes from Arnold. And phenomenology (in the sense that it is relevant to Theory) comes through the Romantics. There is a confluence of Leavis and phenomenology, so it is nice to be able to point to what connects the start points - Arnold and Schiller is probably a good way to do it. (Now there’s just the little problem of me not really having enough knowledge of Schiller. Oh well, that’s what they have research for.)

By John Holbo on 12/07/05 at 11:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So it sounds to me like you’ve narrowed your argument down a bit. Let me see if I understand.

The issue isn’t with the fact that I read and teach Walter Benjamin, it’s that I am likely, when I vote on appointments and/or do peer-review for journals, I expect Benjaminian answers, nods in WB’s direction.

The problem isn’t with the theoretical works themselves, but rather with the normative expectations of English departments. Is that it?

Or, perhaps, the problem with Benjamin’s works themselves is that, in their late-romanticism, they promote an impossible Shelleyanism… That by reading Benjamin, in my roll as a facilitator of publication / departmental gatekeeper, I’ll expect a certain, well, messianism of the inevitably less than messianic.

To my ears, your argument is getting a bit better developed and clearer, but you’ve fenced yourself in a bit in terms of the reach of the argument. To my ears, you’re not so much talking about theory (not theorists, not theoretical works, theoretical ideas) but rather the institution of literary studies as a self-replicating organism.

You’re saying: Actual written theory has something, but not everything (and perhaps not enough), to do with what you’re talking about. There’s nothing wrong with it (for our purposes here) in terms of a lens on the world / literature / etc… But rather as a bad influence, an incitement to overreaching…

I don’t know. If you continue down this road, I think you’re headed toward falsity in advertising. I think “The Critique of Theory” serves to draw folks in, thinking that you’re going to serve up Derrida’s head on a plate… But when they arrive at the feast, Derrida’s sitting there at the table, drinking a bud, listening to you Holbo on about PMLA editorial decisions.

You’re opposing (to borrow the party names from an impossible NAFTAized battle royale) the Institutional Revolutionary Party that currently reigns against your upstart Progressive Conservative Party.

And so I imagine further that if I countered that there’s lots of strands of orthodoxy in English departments today - historicism, textual materialism, etc… - you’d answer, yes, but theory alone is a germ that has caused a massive outbreak of hubris… Is that it? Forcing historicism on people means that when they fail, they fail mundanely, quietly - they fail in their proper place. Where as when one attempts to do Levinas, and fails, we’re in a world of hurt… Is that right?

In sum: not Benjamin that you’re after, but bad usage of Benjamin and the institutional context that makes it happen?

By on 12/08/05 at 02:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

One other thing… I think that “late romanticism” isn’t just the defining stance of theory, it’s the defining stance of literary studies in general: Leavis, Eliot-fed modernism, New Criticism, Theory, appreciation, etc…

Literature is by definition a counter-enlightenment gesture, is it not? It leaves the rigid grid of reason for the misty realm of the counterfactual, the otherwise, the not the case.

All, of course, while staying in touch with reality. To mess with one of your definitions: “A going beyond that accepts and deepens. LITERATURE does not attempt to overthrow reason - Enlightenment - but characteristically seeks to burrow in the canny until it turns un.”

Sounds like the stuff I read, teach, and write about, yep…

To attempt to purge the romanticism, the counter-factuality, counter-Enlightenment out of the system would result in the death of literary studies not just as it’s known now - but as it’s always been known.

You can call it a “decadent” form, sure, but I think you need the late romantic label, decadent or not, to stick… I’m pretty sure, pace yr “We’re all romantic now,” the solution that you have in mind is not very romantic. Is, perhaps, analytical… And the problem is, it won’t work with literature: square peg in a round hole…

By on 12/08/05 at 02:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Can I make a proofreading remark?  It’s all my brain is up for.  In paragraph one of “History” --although I yield only to Bill Benzon in my regard for Dick Macksey, I don’t think he takes a definite article ("the Macksey").

I think John Guillory’s gonna have to come up at some point in this discussion.

By on 12/08/05 at 02:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

CR writes:

“The problem isn’t with the theoretical works themselves, but rather with the normative expectations of English departments. Is that it?”

Not quite. I’m not saying what the problem is with the theoretical works YET, i.e. in this post. And, when I do, I hope it will be clear (at least plausible) there are internal connections between the problems I see and the institutional deformations. Lots of works of theory replicate the problems of the institution. The institution is eclectic; individual works are eclectic. So, I hope, diagnosing the institution provides a platform for strong critique of individuals.

So when you say: “Actual written theory has something, but not everything (and perhaps not enough), to do with what you’re talking about.” I think: Oh, it’s got enough. (But obviously that’s not something I’ve shown yet.)

As to the advertising of “Critique of Theory” - what would be a veridical form of the ad, if you think mine is falsidical? Suppose I proposed to critique ‘analytic philosophy’. You might expect I was going to serve Bertrand Russell’s head on a plate. But that hardly follows. I might want to say Bertie’s OK but the whole thing has sort of degenerated since the 1940’s. Many possibilities. What could I say, in three words, to describe my project, that would be LESS misleading? I’m at a loss.

“In sum: not Benjamin that you’re after, but bad usage of Benjamin and the institutional context that makes it happen?”

Well, not such a good example for me because I don’t have a strong opinion. Benjamin fits with what I’m saying Theory is - a weird sort of late romanticism, of course. Put it this way, it isn’t Benjamin or any ONE else, I’m after - it isn’t a sneaky way to dismiss someone without addressing them. On the other hand, I’m certainly not planning to go down the line and specifically exonerate everyone in this way, just because I was worried about the general intellectual environment, rather than them: “not bad Derrida, just bad use of Derrida; not bad Foucault, just bad use of Foucault; not bad Judith Butler, just bad use of Butler.” [Insert Joke about “Pulp Fiction” and the hermeneutics of Ezekiel 25:17 - is it the institution that’s evil and selfish?] Same as above: institutional critique provides a strong (though perhaps not necessary and certainly not sufficient) platform for critique of individuals

As to ‘forcing historicism on people’? I’m honestly not sure what you are concerned about. I thought it was history did that, not me. [To paraphrase Jules again: “You are aware there’s this non-invention called history, and in this thing, they do things?"] No, seriously, I’m puzzled because I’m sure you approve strongly of historicism, right? I’m sincerely hoping writing a history of Theory will sort of win people over. Who minds a good history? As to doing Levinas and failing ... well, if you are an academic and you fail because you are a sloppy scholar, is that better or worse than failing because you are a sloppy mystic? Arguably, the latter is two failures in one - doing the wrong thing in a bad way - ergo a more lurid way to go down. But in another sense, once you’ve gotten to 1 in counting whether a given 1 thing has gone wrong, who’s counting?

Thank you for your thoughtful comment, CR. (So pardon the “Pulp Fiction” jokes.)

By John Holbo on 12/08/05 at 02:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I fixed the ‘the’ Josh. Clearly the cheeky little monster had wandered away from the ‘volume’ it was supposed to modify. You are right that I should talk about Guillory. I should also read more.

By John Holbo on 12/08/05 at 02:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

(Must. grade. papers. and. stop. checking. site. Is it not paper grading time in Singapore?)

Right, and thank you too for the thoughtful response…

I guess I’ll just have to wait for part two to see where the truth in advertising comes in. I simply meant that if it turns into “Insitutional Sclerosis in United States English Departments 1966-2006” rather than “Decadent Frenchies Fried,” you’ll be hitting most people’s second or third (and less provocative) definition of theory. Certainly mine. But you say one will turn into the other, so I’ll wait and see.

Just color me, as always, very very interested to see what you have to say about Real Living or Dead Theorists. I too am ambivalent about the insitution of lit studies - I’m not sure there’s anyone who isn’t. We almost have the same reasons too - you just lead with yr right while I throw left first. (Or is it the other way around. Hard to remember when you’re boxing in front of a mirror...)

Both of us want better writing and thinking… Farmers market fresh rather than delmonte canned.

By on 12/08/05 at 03:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Holbo: “It wouldn’t have killed me to mint ‘countermodernism’, but I don’t think the world needs it.”

Assuming you mean by “mint” to coin:

“I wonder whether we may not envisage modernity rather as an attitude than as a period of history. And by ‘attitude,’ I mean a mode of relating to contemporary reality; a voluntary choice made by certain people; in the end, a way of thinking and feeling; a way, too, of acting and behaving that at one and the same time marks a relation of belonging and presents itself as a task. A bit, no doubt, like what the Greeks called an ethos. And consequently, rather than seeking to distinguish the ‘modern era’ from the ‘premodern’ or ‘postmodern,’ I think it would be more useful to try to find out how the attitude of modernity, ever since its formation, has found itself struggling with attitudes of ’countermodernity. [emphasis added]’”

Foucault, Michel. “What is Enlightenment?”, available online at Foucault.info.

Holbo: “Theory is a recent and localized intellectual phenomenon. It is not much more than 40 years old - which isn’t old at all, in philosophy years. It lives mostly in American English department; somewhat unusual habitat for such a philosophic organism.”

Uh, if that’s the brand of Theory you’re going after, you won’t need much help. I’d trust a group of intellectually-inclined 6th graders to defeat the best English-department-theorists the United States has to offer. Holbo, you need to pick a harder target. Why not go after some real theorists? Why not the American reception of Theory in sociology? Or political studies? Philosophy? You might find some more serious scholarship with which to deal there.

By on 12/08/05 at 03:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Whoa, good to know that I’ve been scooped by Foucault.

By John Holbo on 12/08/05 at 03:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

CR: “I simply meant that if it turns into “Insitutional Sclerosis in United States English Departments 1966-2006” rather than “Decadent Frenchies Fried,” you’ll be hitting most people’s second or third (and less provocative) definition of theory.”

This is going to be amusing.  I wonder how long it’s going to take for it to dawn on certain people that “frying frenchies” in the reactionary sense was never what Holbo was writing about?  It was their determined misreading the whole time; their hunt for the perfect provocation that they really wanted to fulminate against.

Of course it’s going to be even more amusing some time after that when they realize (if they ever do) that it really is a criticism of the “greatest hits” approach to theory that they themselves prefer.

By on 12/08/05 at 09:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

What an eclectic post.  John, was this the High Eclecticism argument?  Or was it the one on kitsch?

By JSwinter on 12/08/05 at 09:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve just read through this very quickly, John (and the rest of you), so I’ve only got the music, not the notes. As you know, I’ve been pretty much out of it for awhile and so see the current state of Theory only from a distance, as through a glass eye darkly (to reprise Twain’s paraphrase).

I’m not sure what you want of me, as one who was there when the French landed. I could chatter on about how The Macksey seemed to me when I first encountered him in his “The Idea of the Theatre” and later in his undergraduate novel course—both comp lit in English translation. I was a kid from the sticks and Hopkins was a whole new world and Macksey seemed to know everything and owned (and probably had read) Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica. I could tell you about the time he had George Boas in to teach a class and bowed down (literally) before the Great Man before introducing him.

And George Boas wasn’t French, nor a theorist. But he was important to Macksey.  And, of course, to Hopkins. As was Peirce.

Enough of that. Let me indulge myself in a different way and reprise a theme from my opening post over there around the corner. I’d mentioned that I had an article in the 1976 MLN centennial issue about criticism (that is to say, about theory). What I’d said was that my piece of hardcore cognitive science seems rather out of place in that company; it’s quite different from them all, what with its diagrams and such. But that’s only retrospectively.  In the three decades subsequent to that issue, nothing in literary theory developed that was in dialog with that kind of work; it was still-born. That is, looking back, it’s out of place.

But that issue wasn’t compiled retrospectively. It was compiled with an eye to the unpredictable and often-fertile future. In that prospective view, its inclusion made sense. It represented work in neighboring disciplines concerned with language and thought.  Hence of potential interest for students of literature.

As for the eclecticism, isn’t it simple? Literature is about the world, quite a bit of it (the world I mean, not literature). If you are going to theorize about it, then don’t you need a plethora of theories adequate to cover the world? Can than plethora be anythying but eclectic?

Didn’t Rorty make some remark about literary studies taking over philosophy’s role as the source of a comprehensive view of the human situation?

By Bill Benzon on 12/08/05 at 04:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My word, if only I had known my power to inspire.  I imagine there have to be grant opportunities out there for people with my gift, you know, funding for that half-foil, half-muse character…

I’m not going to have much to say to this, other than to note that I think the differences between my take on what you’re doing and your take on what you’re doing are actually made pretty clear here, and you deserve the credit for that, John.  I want to say that now, before the furniture chewing begins :)

Let me highlight two quick items.  First, I believe fundamentally that Theory as John describes does not exist as a given, pre-constituted object.  I have a tendency to think that this is the case for pretty much everything, because theoretically, I agree with arguments made by such diverse thinkers as Derrida, Saussure, Wittgenstein, Davidson, and so on.  Now, that isn’t to say that one cannot, through a bit of Indiana Jones styled archaeology, uncover certain historical formations that one might label according to one’s research, and it certainly seems that this is the case with John’s attempts, at least in Part I.  The problem for me is that I do not believe that the person who discovers this “taxonomy” - the one that apparently adduces the object known as Theory - is entirely innocent in the act of discovery.  Indeed, I see that person as being rather complicit, I see them not as a discoverer but as a producer, someone who creates the object through what they call the act of discovery.  This is why I find your demarcation of Theory, and what I have jovially called the politics of capitalization, somewhat silly, since it seems to me that you are producing an object in order to chastise it, and I wonder what benefit you think derives from such a process.  It seems to me that even if you believed that there were certain tendencies to be resisted, certain methods or perspectives you found unfortunate, even dangerous, that you do no one a service by homogenizing them into some boogey-man/mythic legend and then discarding them as such.  The legend seems comical to me, and pernicious, much more so than the kernel of truth upon which it’s supposedly based.  Now as I noted in my comment, the one you take as an object above, in a line you didn’t quote, I think you are amazingly unreflective about your own practices as a theorist and a critic, and I think as a consequence you find yourself constructing straw men at night (as in, you’re unaware you do this) only to rip them to shreds during the day.  In some ways, and I’m reducing here just to draw a quick parallel, I’m reminded of Derrida’s and Baudrillard’s objection to Foucault’s attempts at delineating similar historical formations, namely, that Foucault seemed to think he could write critically about the theoretical/discursive construction of madness, or power, without doing much to assess his own role in the subsequent theoretical/discursive construction of madness and power.  Anyway, I think that’s a large part of what’s going on here.  Obviously, another part is that you and I likely disagree about the contributions of particular theorists and of certain theoretical practices, but so far, when I see that debate enjoined, you sidestep it by claiming to focus on a set of Institutional Practices that are of course only tangentially related to the lower-case notion of “theory,” which seems like an odd elision to me, since it’s as if you want to discuss (and your voluminous writings testify to some urge to discuss) without actually discussing.  Or maybe it’s discuss without debating, who knows.

Anyway, the other pudding-proof comes from your comment regarding the “discussion of TE”, and I’ll quote it here so folks need not scroll up:

Let me make another analogy. Sometimes you read discussions of Derrida’s works that say things like: Derrida says that ‘nothing means anything’. This is not accurate, all knowledegable observers agree, but this does not prevent discussions of the discussions, which generally go about like so: “Derrida: stupid? or malevolent? or stupid and malevolent?’ We fault such discussion of the discussion on the grounds that, since Derrida doesn’t say ‘nothing means anything’, discussion of what it means that he says ‘nothing means anything’ is pointless (at best). Yet it might be possible for someone to fire back: but we weren’t discussing Derrida’s works. We have no idea what his works say and don’t care. We were discussing the discussion of what the works say. But what would be the point? This puzzle seems to me parallel to the one posed by Rufo’s position.

Shouldn’t the discussion of Theory’s Empire be about what Theory’s Empire is about? If it is not, in what sense is it a discussion of Theory’s Empire? (Not that you have to think the book is good.)

This argument by hypothetical example is ridiculously stupid, for two very fundamental reasons.  First, commenting on a discussion of something matters because we can then try to figure out why people are so quick to take the discussion in certain directions.  You know this, because you do this, both here and in your general discussion of the practices of Theory, since functionally you’re saying “the discussion of theory has calcified into the institutional practice of Theory” and you then go on to comment on this discussion.  So pot, kettle, black, and all that.  In the example you provide, it’s worth discussing why folks have a tendency to want to read Derrida as if he says “nothing is everything” or some other insipid variation, just as it’s worth having a discussion about whether those sorts of discussions are worth having.  Second, the only way this sort of thing wouldn’t be useful, the only way it wouldn’t be productive, is if one eschews any responsibility in the production of knowledge, or more accurately, if one believes they can control when they are actively engaged in productive discourse and when they are not (which is to say, shouldn’t be counted as such).  Did you really think that, when the Valve opened with a reading and emphasis on TE, that it wouldn’t be worth discussing why the Valve was doing that exact discussion, what it said about the Valve’s mission, etc?  My word, how many commenters have said just that, without any stake in the Theory/theory discussion?  To act as if comments I have made about the discussion of Theory’s Empire are somehow less germane than the specific, text-based readings of Theory’s Empire shows, to my mind at least, a truly bizarre understanding of your own agency, since it means both that you are delimiting the only authorized object of inquiry and that you refuse to recognize that you have done so.  This is, btw, the exact thing you do to Theory, so I’m not entirely surprised by it, but it’s a maneuver that I oppose, for reasons that are, you guessed it, entirely theoretical.

By Kenneth Rufo on 12/09/05 at 07:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, let me address the philosophy named Philosophy example.  I almost decided to ignore it, since I kind of snorted when I read it, but upon reflection it deserves some rejoinder.  Let’s set the wayback machine:

Suppose I invent a philosophy. I name my philosophy ‘Philosophy’. (Not a very good name, you may say. And I would have to agree.) Now someone wants to make a philosophical critique of Philosophy. This sounds paradoxical - some sort of sawing off the branch on which the critic sits; an operational collapse of two terms in on each other. But I trust a moment’s reflection will convince you this is not really necessarily the case. Apply the lesson to theoretical critiques of Theory. I can’t say it more simply.

Technically, you haven’t really “said” anything, though enthymemetically, there’s some sort of claim that since you philosophically invented Philosophy and someone philosophically assaults your invention, that only shows how the two terms (big P and little P) are distinct.  I suspect even you know this argument is rather facile, which is why you entrust it into our reflection rather than making it explicit.  The fact that you invented big-Philosophy through philosophical acts, and the fact that someone then takes down big-Philosophy through other philosophical acts only shows that, of course, big Philosophy was unable to be properly differentiated from little philosophy, and that the philosophical maneuvers that constituted big Philosophy were in fact clearly philosophical and open to other philosophical critiques.  So this analogy actually proves quite the opposite, which either shows that a) it’s good to make connections explicit, or b) that maybe a couple of moments of reflection might have been better than one.

That being said, there’s good news, which is that this analogy is simply invalid when it comes to your case, since you’re claim is that you’re not really inventing anything, and hence you don’t fall prey to the operational collapse claim I’ve made and that you cite above.  This is, I think, demonstrably false (and I have attempted to demonstrate that in the above comment), but it at least means that this analogy doesn’t cleanly map unto your conception of what you’re doing.

By Kenneth Rufo on 12/09/05 at 07:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hi Kenneth. I studied with Davidson and wrote my dissertation on Wittgenstein. Small world as I found it. I think you may have misunderstood your authors, though. You write: “Theory as John describes does not exist as a given, pre-constituted object.  I have a tendency to think that this is the case for pretty much everything.” Well, let me try out a little Wittgenstein/Davidson-style reasoning: if this is true of everything - for example, everything that you and I and everyone else have ever written, every rock and every tree for that matter - then in what sense is it a problem for my post, out of all the things in the universe? It’s like walking up to someone and saying: ‘you know why you bug me? Because you’re in time and space.’ I guess it would be a problem if I had a T-shirt on saying ‘I escaped from time and space.’ But in the post I sort of make a point of saying I’m not trying to write the history of Theory sub specie aeternitatis, and that of course I expect that people will learn a lot about me from reading what I write. You write “The problem for me is that I do not believe that the person who discovers this “taxonomy” - the one that apparently adduces the object known as Theory - is entirely innocent in the act of discovery.” Bless you for that embarrassed Platonic blush, Kenneth! (If there is a transcendent Heaven, I would say your chances just went up.) Whoever said I was entirely innocent?

OK, let’s go back to that classic of analytic philosophy, Nietzsche’s “Twilight of the Idols”:

“1. The true world--attainable for the sage, the pious, the virtuous man; he lives in it, he is it.
(The oldest form of the idea, relatively sensible, simple, and persuasive. A circumlocution for the sentence, “I, Plato, am the truth.")
2. The true world--unattainable for now, but promised for the sage, the pious, the virtuous man ("for the sinner who repents").
(Progress of the idea: it becomes more subtle, insidious, incomprehensible--it becomes female, it becomes Christian. )
3. The true world--unattainable, indemonstrable, unpromisable; but the very thought of it--a consolation, an obligation, an imperative.
(At bottom, the old sun, but seen through mist and skepticism. The idea has become elusive, pale, Nordic, Königsbergian.)
4. The true world--unattainable? At any rate, unattained. And being unattained, also unknown. Consequently, not consoling, redeeming, or obligating: how could something unknown obligate us?
(Gray morning. The first yawn of reason. The cockcrow of positivism.)
5. The “true” world--an idea which is no longer good for anything, not even obligating--an idea which has become useless and superfluous--consequently, a refuted idea: let us abolish it!
(Bright day; breakfast; return of bon sens and cheerfulness; Plato’s embarrassed blush; pandemonium of all free spirits.)
6. The true world--we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we have also abolished the apparent one.”

Looks to me like you stalled out at number 5, Kenneth. But Wittgenstein and Davidson are all about no. 6. (Minus some of the Zarathustra cod-Wagnerian theatrics & etc.)

By John Holbo on 12/09/05 at 08:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s like walking up to someone and saying: ‘you know why you bug me? Because you’re in time and space.’

See, now that’s funny.  And for multiple reasons :)

I can’t say I understand how most of that last comment actually “responds” to anything I wrote previously, but I’ve never claimed any high level of intuition.  You’re right to note that “entirely innocent” may be an exaggeration of your position, but while I’m nevertheless excited about the prospect for my afterlife, it’s not that gross an exaggeration, as there’s a fair difference between your practices and the qualifications you attach, ostensibly, to those practices.

By Kenneth Rufo on 12/09/05 at 09:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, to clarify, here’s what I don’t find much of a response in your comment.  I say, “the thing you take as your object of inquiry is a thing you have too much role in creating, even though you pretend that you found it as is, and that it exists independently of your act of investigation/creation.” To which you write, “if this is act of creation is one we all participate in, then it applies to things that I’m not creating/inventing, and so what do my own practices matter?” Which is of course in now way a justification for your own practices, but rather a sad admission about the difficulty one has in comprehending the world, -and- it assumes that we can reduce the idea of Theory to the idea of rock.  Some homological structural similarities yes, but even then, for it to work as an analog, you’d need to have a theory of Rock, not rock, to really get the sympathy wheels a-rollin’.

By Kenneth Rufo on 12/09/05 at 09:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Heavens to murgatroid, Kenneth, I’m going to have to stop being socratic with you and just be straightforward.

You write that I write: “if this is act of creation is one we all participate in, then it applies to things that I’m not creating/inventing, and so what do my own practices matter?” Of course I didn’t ACTUALLY write that. It would be crazy. Look, my point isn’t that I’m under no obligation to justify my practices. The point is that I’m under no obligation to respond to criticisms until you come up with something better than ‘you share a certain property with pretty much everything.’

Which, by the by, is how rocks got into it. They are part of that whole ‘pretty much everything’ thing. So if anyone was reducing Theory to rocks, I think it was you. (You got something against rocks?)

OK, I said I’d try to be straightforward: you think I’m missing the point that you want to say that I have “too much role in creating” Theory. Well, yes, I can tell that is what you want to say. What I was doing was socratically prodding you towards the realization that you weren’t actually ARGUING for this.

Apart from that, you have misunderstood my Derrida analogy and my philosophy-Philosophy analogy. But I’ve looked in my heart and decided: I can go to my grave, knowing Kenneth Rufo thinks he’s seen the awful flaws in my Derrida analogy and philosophy-Philosophy analogy. It’s just not that terrible a fate.

But you really need to think about that Nietzsche, and how it bears on your position. It’s important stuff. 

But I gotta get some sleep then catch a plane.

By John Holbo on 12/09/05 at 01:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well then, seing that your claims have been made and won’t be expanded upon any time soon, I will of course bow to them, and assume that your reluctance to provide warrants is my fault, as I just don’t get your clever Socratic ways, and just go sit in the corner pondering how I turned out so horribly wrong.  Good exchange, though.  Ooops, I mean Exchange.

By Kenneth Rufo on 12/09/05 at 02:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

At long last, Blanchot is made a part of monumental history! 

The proper response to this is to leap temporarily ahead to the critique and say the concern is that Theory tends to be, as it were, decadent late-romanticism. It certainly it does not seem self-evident we have to put up with that without doing anything about it. Obviously further discussion waits on clarification of the thesis that Theory really is romantic.

You’re probably aware that’s hardly a new claim (judging at least from the vast pop genre of “Theory” books readily available through Google).  And I don’t see it being very self-critical, unless one intends a more than socratic charity toward, say, Nancy and Labarthe, for instance:

Our approach does not involve a history of romanticism of any sort. For one thing-and we will return to this-it could be a history in romanticism. But neither do we intend to exhibit and commend any romantic model whatsoever-in the manner, generally speaking, of Surrealism (or, to a lesser extent, of Albert Béguin and others). 5 Romanticism does not lead us to anything that one might imitate or that one might be “inspired by,” and this is because-as we will see-it “leads” us first of all to ourselves. Which is not to say that we would suggest a pure and simple identification with romanticism and in romanticism or that we mean to place ourselves abyssally in romanticism. We will learn only too well to what extent the romantics were the first to romanticize romanticism and how much in general they speculated-giving it all its modernity-on the figure and the operation of the literary abyss, which they encountered, among other places, in the eighteenth-century English novel.

Consequently, this lacuna should be “filled in” yet must not be saturated. Thus, it should be approached in a manner that allows the decipherment of the massive equivocity that underlies the term “romanticism,” insofar as one can separate oneself from this equivocity.

What, then, is in question in theoretical romanticism-in what we will have to characterize as the theoretical institutionalization of the literary genre (or, if you like, of literature itself, of literature as absolute)? To pose this question is to ask: What is in question in the well-known Athenaeum fragment 116, which contains the whole “concept” of “romantic poetry,” or in the Dialogue on Poetry, which contains the definition of the novel as “romantic book”? Let us turn, then, to the texts...

Indeed, let us.

By Matt on 12/09/05 at 06:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, for the title have you considered, “Theory’s Apocalepsia.” For cover design...something dignified, yet minimalist, a mock-snowman perhaps, bounded by a vastly greyish void.  Can snowmen look sickly?  This one should look sickly.  Her poor frozen moral melancholic core just won’t melt, no it won’t melt fast enough...oh, the sorrow.  It’s subtle, yes.  But some of these “Theory” books circa 1980’s do argue from an explicitly moral angle (poststructuralism is reduced to a strawman “nihilism,” etc.)...will yours be very moral, I wonder?  The snow man would have the added benefit of more accurately presenting the real position of such a creature.  Namely:  outside.  A pretending-ghost.  Another idea:  perhaps you could provide charts and graphs, Moretti-style, of continental philosophy’s insidious reach into the Humanities, like.  Or just the Critical Theory and French-inflected continentals after 1966 or whatever.  Or was it just the confused student “theory-heads” you were after all along, and some of their profs in Cultural Studies.  Would asking for one closely exegetical example be asking too much?  Eagleton tackles Derrida (whom he unhelpfully and unoriginally conflates with postmodernism), and channels Aristotle.  Will you be chanelling Kierkegaard and tackling/melting Zizek, or just non-stop Socratic with occasional belts of Nietzsche?  Or, you know, perhaps a list of English departments with Theory-friendlies in high places.  Or those philosophy departments with a clear majority leaning Heideggerian.  (You may have to look overseas, or on another planet, but surely they exist!) Or hell, any school giving off whiffs of over-zealous political correctness, feminism, self-declared Marxists or the like, if you wanted to be sloppy about it (please note:  I’m not calling you sloppy, but this book is entering a rather politically-charged climate...just saying, a little sloppiness would no doubt broaden the appeal of such a book.  But you’d have to be clever about it of course, qualify it in ambiguous ways hidden to all but the more discerning reader.  Etc.  It could be a short, little sapling list, by the way, the list of schools.  These would all be effective (and trendy!) ways to avoid having to read actual philosophers (and who has time for philosophy, these days; it’s all about the Theory after all.  Nip this philosophy-talk in the bud, I say, and leave it to the established philosophers).  So then ironically (medium-heavy ironically) you would be forcing a return to reading, and to actual philosophy.  Banish the Theory already!  Believe me, I’m with you.  But still one has to ask, at what point does one dignify the term just by inquiring so thoroughly after it’s demise, and what rhetorical indulgences will be taken...what signals in the context (yes, the context!) of a culture war shall be heard…

Really, the word was never very good to begin with.  But then some people thought we needed a word, to earn dignity and discipline (not to mention, the old cranks would never let us in otherwise, without a Word, you see) and then like all labels it soon became, alas, mere nails to their hammers.  (Those fierce Anglo-Nietzschians, they who were so convinced of the singularity of their own beloved Nietzsche!) Ah, but those were the days.  Anyhoo, if you must melt on, perhaps you could spell the title in crumbling signifiers, or in that archetypal 1950s red neon, quaint, but identifiable still, despite the missing letters.  Yes, I vote for a holy, gap-toothed red neon over pealing paint.  And maybe a snow man in the distance.  If you could find a way to make him look diseased, that would be even better.  Or perhaps like an aging hipster.

“The critique of Theory is itself philosophical,” you say, but you will not be engaging with the continental tradition seriously, or closely, or anywhere near on its own terms, as philosophy.  That’s just great.  Kind of gets us exactly nowhere.

By Blunt on 12/13/05 at 11:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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