Thursday, December 06, 2007
How’d Ya Get Them Spurs?
It’s that time of year again. Theory season! Which reminds me of something I meant to ask about last time, but didn’t get to it. Actually, a post over at Crooked Timber reminded me. Kieran Healy directs us to an essay from back in the day, by Michele Lamont, that lays out a full panoply ("intellectual, cultural, institutional, and social") of the factors in Derrida’s rise to notoriety. & just about the first element Lamont brings up is style. Basically, Derrida wrote in the socially (for intellectuals) acceptable style. & what style was that? According to Lamont, “sophisticated and somewhat obscure,” “highly dialectical,” full of “rhetorical virtuosity,” and “highly rhetorical.” All of which is fairly vague but fairly accurate. But the question I want to ask is behind the matter of style. Really, what was behind it? & I was reminded again of a Perry Anderson piece from the London Review of Books some years ago.
The following passage has had me wondering for some time:
The reception of this effervescence abroad varied from country to country, but no major culture in the West, not to speak of Japan, was altogether exempt from it. This owed something to the traditional cachet of anything Parisian, with its overtones of mode as much as of mind. But it was also an effect of the novel elision of genres in so much of this thinking. For if literature lost its position at the apex of French culture, the effect was not so much a banishment as a displacement. Viewed comparatively, the striking feature of the human sciences and philosophy that counted in this period was the extent to which they came to be written increasingly as virtuoso exercises of style, drawing on the resources and licences of artistic rather than academic forms. Lacan’s Ecrits, closer to Mallarmé than Freud in their syntax, or Derrida’s Glas, with its double-columned interlacing of Genet and Hegel, represent extreme forms of this strategy. But Foucault’s oracular gestures, mingling echoes of Artaud and Bossuet, Lévi-Strauss’s Wagnerian constructions, Barthes’s eclectic coquetries, belong to the same register.
To understand this development, one has to remember the formative role of rhetoric, seeping through the dissertation, in the upper levels of the French educational system in which all these thinkers – khâgneux and normaliens virtually to a man – were trained, as a potential hyphen between literature and philosophy. Even Bourdieu, whose work took as one of its leading targets just this rhetorical tradition, could not escape his own version of its cadences; far less such as Althusser, against whose obscurities the sociologist railed. The potential cost of a literary conception of intellectual disciplines is obvious enough: arguments freed from logic, propositions from evidence. Historians were least prone to such an import substitution of literature, but even Braudel was not immune to the loosening of controls in a too flamboyant eloquence. It is this trait of the French culture of the time that has so often polarised foreign reactions to it, in a seesaw between adulation and suspicion. Rhetoric is designed to cast a spell, and a cult easily arises among those who fall under it. But it can also repel, drawing charges of legerdemain and imposture. Balanced judgment here will never be easy. What is clear is that the hyperbolic fusion of imaginative and discursive forms of writing, with all its attendant vices, was also inseparable from everything that made this body of work most original and radical.
Anderson here describes the exact same thing Lamont is talking about, the particular writing style that had come to dominate French culture of the 3rd quartile of the 20th century. What Lamont calls “rhetorical” Anderson calls “literary.” (& there’s of course a lot to be said about when & where those two terms are allowed or not allowed to interchange.) Anderson’s much more detailed and specific than Lamont’s description, and Anderson gets at something that didn’t get talked much about when I was being taught theory: why do theorists talk this way?
Because that’s one of the most immediate, most palpable features of reading theory, esp. for those of us who were switching back & forth between the Anglo-Americans & the French. The gestures in the French argument were always so dramatic, the delivery so over-the-top. On the stage don’t they call this “chewing the scenery”? Lamont calls it “virtuosity,” and it certainly takes a certain kind of rhetorical chops to sustain. (Compare some of the lame American copies to the originals.) Anderson labels it “too flamboyant,” and it’s certainly comes across that way to many of us.
But the question that I would like an answer to, or a hint as to how an answer could be found, is this: who taught them to write this way? Because according to Anderson, everyone from those schools & that time period was taught to write like that. Which means some people that didn’t go onto to become famous writers, some people who didn’t even go on to become professors, some people who were just your run-of-the-mill shophands in the corridors of power, were taught to write like that.
What must that be like, to be a high school student & encouraged to go on like that? What features of the writing were encouraged and what were discouraged? Perhaps these are not terribly interesting questions, but I started college studying philosophy and have ended up teaching composition, so the connection between the higher thinking & basic writing training is near & dear. In the States a scholar would have an extensive paper trail in composition studies. For example, there are some of my favorite documents, Gertrude Stein’s undergraduate themes. & you could find textbooks out the wazoo. Does a similar paper trail exist for French pedagogy?
Think of it this way (& this is a way I often think about any particular poet’s poetry)--there are two questions that could apply to any piece of work: (1) what made you think you could write that way? & (2) what made you think you had to write that way?
Doesn’t this argument assume that “our” rhetoric is transparent, natural, and right (that is to say, non-rhetorical), while “their” rhetoric is studied, mannered, and wrong?
As if Anglo-American writers on literature, from Addison to Johnson to Arnold to Conrad to James to Rourke to Warren to Burke to Booth all write in an entirely lucid, journalistic style. Whatevs!
Oh, yes, for the record, Luther, I agree completely. In fact I’m assuming that our rhetoric is not natural but learned, & I have studied how it was learned. I’m just wondering if there’s a way of finding out how the theorists learned theirs.
I found this an altogether hilarious description - by implication - of anglo american philosophy: “The potential cost of a literary conception of intellectual disciplines is obvious enough: arguments freed from logic, propositions from evidence.”
Ah, yes, the evidences of a Russell, or a Wittgenstein, or a Quine - one should particularly look at the evidences surrounding Quine’s conception of how children learn language. Quite a hoot, in the evidence category. It is this shield of smugness, actually, that has prevented philosophy in the Anglosphere tradition from penetrating or having much affect on the other disciplines for years, now. An archaic and misplaced sense of the importance of logic (which is how the logical empiricists so badly misinterpreted science as an exclusively theorymaking business - thus sort of missing the point), combined with a narrow and restricted sense of examples and the notorious use of intuitions (intuitions are what the Anglophone philosophers use to get over the pesky null set of evidences) have done enormous damage to analytic philosophy and whatever that post analytic stuff is supposed to be about. This used not to be the case. Someone like Russell (who, let’s remember, won a Nobel prize for literature) was quite open to the arts and sciences. As, actually, were all the master modernists of the twenties - Carnap, Schlick, Neurath, etc. - upon whose account the analytics have been drawing, with less and less success, ever since.
Now, of course, we are living in the glorious era of evidences supplied by ‘thought experiments’ and other colorful fictions by philosophers who claim to be doing things like epistemology. Whatever you say about Glas, in terms of logic and evidence it towers above the mini industry devoted to, say, Frank Jackson’s Mary’s Room thought experiment - which is a sadly beaten up version of the Molyneaux problem, contemplated by people who apparently have never heard of neurology, and believe we are still back in the 18th century.
By ignoring Derrida’s point about the difficulty of distinguishing style from logic and evidence, and his wholesale attack on the genre of the example, people like Anderson give themselves top prizes for winning an argument they refuse to engage in. It is so much puffery - empty air under the meringue. In contrast to good French pastry.
Oddly enough, according to Wikipedia (why would they lie?), Anderson has been a proponent of Continental thought, going as far as to defend Althusser!
Thinking about this further - it is interesting how amazingly naive American philosophers are, generally, about the textuality of their articles, and how unconscious they seem to be of protocols that have been established in the other social sciences. Take a paper like, say, Davidson’s classic paper on causes, The Logical form of action sentences. It is a paper I like, I should say. But look at it. It begins with Davidson making up various sentences about Jones, such as that he buttered his toast, although it breaks up the story in a typical modernist way, by first presenting properties of an action - Jones did it in his bathroom, Jones did it with a knife - but then comes the end of the fun: ‘In fact we know that Jones buttered a piece of toast slowly and Jones buttered a piece of toast deliberately and Jones buttered a piece of toast in the bathroom and so on.’ That this is a story, and that the knowing here is part of a story, and that the storiness of the story, the fragmenting of it, the putting back together of the fragments, points strongly to its narrative character, is simply excluded from our focus of interest. It is as if stories are naive and simple things, the undisputed evidence on which we are going to tinker with our theoretical structures, and we don’t have to look at any work that might have been done (heavens!) by literary critics or linguists on stories. Nor do we ask what kind of epistemological conventions are being followed in an article that makes up its own evidence (this is called fiction) and then analyzes it; that doesn’t subject the fictions it deals with to any other person’s judgment; and that treats the story as a wildly plastic platform for a series of generalizations about all stories having to do with cause. The touch of the empirical here is religiously shunned.
At the same time, in the heart of this increasingly insular culture, a culture in which the examples are extremely limited, come out of a very narrow base of canonical articles and are almost never even presented out of this narrow philosophy social grouping, we are supposed to look with shock at the wild and illogical things people like those French guys are doing. My my.
It is no wonder that that philosophical culture is so anemic, so lacking in any effect outside of its disciplinary boundaries, so incestuous, so ... well, antiquated. The pathetic stories of the tribe have passed from hand to hand so often that they’ve become a sort of code - the possible world where XYZ is the equivalent of H20; the fake barn facades; the rabbit parts; etc., etc. It is a discipline choking in its own triviality, its perpetual round of sci fi stories for advanced 13 year olds, its pride in the scholastic application of logic, as though that itself was some kind of content of knowledge.
roger: People are allowed to criticize continental philosophy. Really, it’s not actually illegal. Even analytics. It’s clear from your comments here and at Crooked Timber that you experience the world as a Darwinian struggle between analytic and continental philosophy, but to those of us are neither, it looks like tribal warfare, rather than an actual scholarly discussion. I just glanced at your blog, and you are obviously capable of higher quality.
There are several French thinkers that I am a big fan of, but the blockquote obviously contains a certain amount of truth. It would interesting to find out the cultural forces that make analytic philosophy so mincing and cautious, and continental philosophy so sweeping and grandiloquent.
Actually, Walt, I like many aspects of Anglosphere philosophy. For instance, I have a fondness for Stanford’s pragmatists. I like Davidson, and chose him to criticize, above, partly because I like him. And I have a huge respect for the founding fathers, who regarded their work as centrally linked to both science and social democracy. On the other hand, I think Anglosphere philosophy needs a kick in the butt to get it out of its current bad habits. Let me give you a for instance: the career of the word “truthmaker”. I edit a lot of philosophy papers, and I’ve noticed, over the last five years, that this has become the new, fashionable way to say: abracadabra. It links up with that moment in the Davidson paper when he assures us of what we know, so that we can proceed with his story, which until then he has fragmented nicely, like a surrealist puzzle. Now we are supposed to think that it comes together like a naturalist description, and we are supposed to think this process is entirely innocent and without presuppositions or interest. That recuperative moment, as Derrida would call it, the moment when philosophy begins not in doubt or wonder, but in a handy assumption of omnipotence, has become a shortcut, a way of not making a plausible case, of not dealing with what you are doing, of trying to bring in a part time deus ex machina. And yeah, I think it has made philosophy weaker, as a discipline.
I find statements about, say, Derrida, based on a drive-by acquaintance with his work (which usually involves a vague memory that he wrote there’s nothing outside the text - wow!) rather irritating, it is true, especially when the implication is left that, in contrast to crazy Jacques, the writer is involved in serious, logical, evidence heavy projects.
First, a sidenote: I really get tired of the “you object to the very fact of people disagreeing with you” objection.
Main comment: I think it is difficult to separate the characteristically French “writing style” from the particular “style of thought” that French education seems to inculcate. Where most Western nations seem to aim toward specialization, the French ideal seems to be comprehensiveness. And there’s a definite willingness to make ambitious claims that a more traditional scholarly mindset doesn’t quite know what to do with—it’s not that Foucault, for example, is straightforwardly wrong about something, but that the very style of claim he is making is disallowed by the dominant canons of sholarship in the Anglophone world. The fact that his scholarship is supposed to be shoddy in The History of Madness is kind of beside the point: given what he’s trying to do in the book, his scholarship is by definition shoddy. Which then reinforces the notion that his sweeping claims are “rhetorical,” since there can definitionally never be enough “evidence” to justify that class of claim.
In short, the position that I’m rambling towards is that asking about the “rhetorical style” of French theorists is already begging the question.
I think an argument of the form “You have no right to talk, Quine killed puppies for sport” is a subspecies of objecting to the very fact that people disagree with you.
Things appear here in a weird order. The temporal order I experienced for the comments was Adam’s comment, my reply to Adam’s comment, and then Roger’s reply to my _previous_ comment.
Roger: Your comment makes more sense in the context of your reply. It is still embedded in the analytic-continental dispute, one that is not of universal interest. (I don’t think much of Derrida _or_ Quine, for example.) There really is a distinctive French rhetorical style (to use Adam’s dispreferred phrase), and you can be interested in it without taking sides in philosopher’s favorite intermural fight. Analytics are not the only people who invoke logic and evidence, and the charge that this particular intellectual tradition lacks both has occasionally occurred to somebody who’s never read Davidson.
This is getting further and further away from Lawrence’s question, but that seems unlikely to be answered unless the Valve has more readers from France than I think it has, so we might as well diverge.
You can’t say that there isn’t a certain style because everyone has a style. So if you accept that there is a French style of that time and genre, what does that style require? I think that it requires brilliance. For instance, in the small amount that I’ve read of Derrida, I’ve been casually annoyed by his style sometimes, but he basically gets a free pass to write however he likes to express his ideas. The same isn’t true of someone citing Derrida, using all those wonderful words and sweeping concepts that they clearly don’t really care to understand. This is immediately apparent whenever they use words from other traditions: anything from science sounds like Deepak Chopra, anything from business sounds like one of Dilbert’s buzzword-slinging consultants, anything from politics sounds like a typical right-leaning media pundit (e.g., Zizek’s bit about how the anti-war protests were really Good For Bush after all).
But Holbo wrote about this already. The merits of a particular historical style don’t matter except for purposes of literary criticism. The merits of imitating a particular style here in the present, when the people doing the imitating don’t have whatever it takes to do so successfully, are of more wide-ranging significance. This is a very difficult style to pursue as one’s ordinary style for academic work.
I’m afraid Rich is correct that I’m unlikely to get an answer to my question unless I can talk to someone from France, which is unlikely if for no other reason than I’ve been too lazy to bring my French up to anything beyond “Je voudrais un cafe au lait.” But I have found the comment thread enlightening nonetheless.
I also think Adam is onto something w/his distinction between specialization & comprehensiveness. It seems to me that, despite their lack of rigor in the details, the grander gestures of someone like Foucault can open up whole new ways of thinking about things in a way that the more precise piecework of the Anglosphere doesn’t. However, I was thinking that transferring the debate to the level of rhetoric training might be a way of looking at the differences between the two opposing camps in a different way. Trying to find a path around the aporia, as it were.
& I also think there’s something to the brilliance requirement. Isn’t it also part of the general problem of epigones? None of Wittgenstein or Austin’s students worked those styles particularly well either, did they? But also the kind of statements that in the French milieu are audacious & playful come off in the States as moralistic & grim. But that could be a problem w/my ear. I could very well be the moralistic & grim one.
Lawrence, I think you’re right on with the moralism and grimness—despite claims of nihilism, etc., I read American “postmodernism” as a deeply moralistic movement. ("How dare you subscribe to the metaphysics of presence? Don’t you know that it caused the Holocaust?!")
That kind of moralism is a big part of American culture, and it also fits with the general trend toward pragmatism—if there seems to be a shot at doing some real political subversion rather than “mere scholarship,” we can’t act surprised when a certain subset of American academics jump at it.
I would also venture the hypothesis that the general biases of the Anglo-American academic scene warped the reception of French thought—since the dominant stance regards French-style thought as having no “evidence and logic” (which is not true, despite having apparently been accepted as such through most of this comment thread), the way to emulate French-style thought is to discard “evidence and logic”!
(In real life, though, I feel like I learned much of what I know about evidence and logic from Derrida. “Clever” pot-shots welcome.)
Symptomatic is the response to the critical review of the full translation of The History of Madness that circulated around the blogs a while back—all of Foucault’s fans basically seemed willing to concede that Foucault was a total hack with no scholarly chops whatsoever, but then somehow wanted his transcendent wisdom to be respected. I think that reflects not so much on Foucault’s scholarship as on the attitudes of American “theorists.” (And on the opportunistic stance toward rigor and scholarship on the part of opponents of French thought, who were simply taking this reviewer’s word for it on Foucault’s mistakes, despite the fact that the reviewer provided very spotty documentation. One very often sees “hackery in the service of rigor” among the public opponents of “theory”—Brian Leiter immediately leaps to mind.)
& I also think there’s something to the brilliance requirement. Isn’t it also part of the general problem of epigones? None of Wittgenstein or Austin’s students worked those styles particularly well either, did they?
Or Cavell’s students—though Cavell was a student of Austin’s. (Not that he has Austin’s style.) Elijah Millgram’s essay “How to Make Something of Yourself” might be of interest here. Unfortunately it’s not available online; it appears only in a volume dedicated to Robert Nozick (called Robert Nozick—nice and terse).
Actually, re Foucault, I not only noted the silliness of the Foucaultians backing down on Foucault’s empirical claims, but made the case that the criticism he received in the TLS was so rife with factual errors itself as to be in need of serious editing. See here for one post about Scull’s errors of fact:
Walt, I am not sure why a good defense of the forms of Derrida’s arguments and the focus of them automatically enlists me in a civil war between analytics and continentals. I have no problem with someone like Searle disputing with Derrida, but I simply note that Derrida disputes back. Argument that contains some content is the health of philosophy, but arguments that contain all attitude (in the vein of “we are serious, you are not") are the decadence of philosophy, or rather its death spiral. Thus, you will notice that I do not make random generalizations about Quine, but hone in on a major and cited paper, and, again, talk about a trend - the truthmaker trend - which anyone can check out for themselves. You could even defend Davidson and the fad for truthmakers. That is the intended vulnerability here - that is why I referenced them. Oddly, although you have reproached me for doing saying something I didn’t say - that continental philosophy is uncriticizable (which would be an odd stance, since Derrida is nothing if he is not the major critic of phenomenology), you don’t seem inclined to take up the meat, the very content, of the trends and patterns I’m criticizing. This makes it a little frustrating to reply, since I can either reply and follow you - thus making it seem that 90 percent of what I wrote just goes into the garbage, and I shouldn’t have bothered - or I can reply saying look at what I am saying, which, of course, seems redundant and petty.
Historians seem to think that if you look at the totality of the evidence that Foucault was wrong. Now maybe they are all blinkered members of the Anglosphere, but I have never seen a convincing affirmative case that if you looked at all of the evidence that Foucault was right.
Having lax standards of logic and evidence seem fairly central to the method, which prizes the astounding generalization that lays bare the secret inner workings of the world.
I sometimes feel that continental philosophy is uncriticizable from the outside. If you are in the club, you can criticize other members of the club. If you are outside the club, those inside the club will close ranks. This behavior is not restricted to continental philosophy of course, and the whole dynamic makes reading academic threads somewhat wearying.
I take you as enlisting the war between analytics and continentals because you responded to a comment about French rhetorical style with a wide-ranging critique of analytical philosophy. Unless you think of logic and evidence as terms of art owned by analytics, it looks unrelated to the point of the post. I’m not responding to the substance of your comment because I am not an analytic philosopher, and my interest in the subject is not very high. I am interested in question asked, though.
I’m just going to run this by you to see if it makes sense: could it be that most of the critiques of continental philosophy/theory by “outsiders” (primarily analytic types or culture war types) tend to be wrong-headed and underinformed? For instance, Derrida doesn’t actually advocate radical nihilism. Foucault’s method wasn’t really to lock himself in a room and make shit up. Etc.
Or, another example of a wrong-headed and uninformed critique: “Having lax standards of logic and evidence seem fairly central to the method, which prizes the astounding generalization that lays bare the secret inner workings of the world.” It may bother you that continental philosophy types call a lot of outside critiques wrong-headed and uninformed—but it may well be the case that continental philosophy attracts a lot of inane critiques, perhaps for reasons that are not entirely the fault of continental philosophy.
That is completely true, Adam. It’s also true that all critiques will be immediately reduced to the inane ones, so that they can be safely dismissed.
I’m a Foucault defender, but the fact that the standards of evidence and logic used in continental philosophy are laxer than they are in the hard sciences, history, or cognitive science. This is just a true fact about the world. Foucault certainly did not make shit up and did actual archival research, but he made bold claims about hundreds of years of history. Your average American academic historian would dutifully assemble a billion page manuscript before attempting anything similar. I don’t think Foucault was wrong to attempt it—there is a place for bold strokes as well as the plodding assemblage of data. Why did one culture produce boldness, and one caution?
Tiresome debates about “continental” and “analytic” philosophy aside, Gary Gutting’s book French Philosophy in the Twentieth Century contains a fine introductory chapter in which he engages with some of the issues mentioned in the earlier post. It should be noted that Sartre himself was quite clear about the difference between literary and philosophical writing. Whereas for Sartre literary writing plays off the essential ambiguity of words (their etymological histories, their material feel, their capacity to generate multiple allusions in multiple directions, etc.) philosophical writing is committed to one thing: as clear a presentation of the concepts and arguments as it is possible to attain. One might then read the development of the *style* of French philosophy after Sartre as a reaction against the Master’s strictures.
I just don’t know that it’s correct to pose it in terms of a difference in the degree of “logic and evidence”—that automatically makes it sound like in the French approach, it doesn’t matter if what you say is true, as long as it’s bold. And the less evidence and logic the better! But it’s not as though they’re saying something obviously crazy like that the moon doesn’t exist, and Derrida (for instance) didn’t feel like his philosophy undercut his grounds for rejecting Holocaust denial.
Saying “the French don’t care about logic and evidence, and that’s okay,” seems to me to concede way too much up front—as though, again, the Anglo-American approach has proprietary rights to “logic and evidence.”
Your average American academic historian would dutifully assemble a billion page manuscript before attempting anything similar. I don’t think Foucault was wrong to attempt it—there is a place for bold strokes as well as the plodding assemblage of data. Why did one culture produce boldness, and one caution?
I forget who the reviewer was, but he was comparing Foucault to Peter Gay on the history of sexuality, noting that the former had all the ideas and the latter all the evidence. LOL!
But one need not be French, or in the Continental tradition, to speculate. The introduction to my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil, is a defense of speculation, which I do quite freely throughout the book. I argue/assert that when you’re at the edge of the known, you have no choice but to speculate in order to advance into the unknown. What you want from such speculation is clarity (a Cartesian virtue, if I’m not mistaken) so that one can see well-enough what kind of evidence would determine the truth-value of the speculative ideas.
1. I assume that we all know that Derrida’s style is the way it is for philosophical reasons: he is always speaking of deconstruction and enacting deconstruction. Do I want to spend my life reading this stuff? No, but I do respect it as an incredibly original contribution to the philosophical literature.
2. Continental Philosophy and disagreement. There are definitely CPers that think that argumentation is a waste of time and maybe even Bad. However, there are plenty of CPers who (snort) disagree. And of course Derrida is a prime example: not only did he publicly engage with Searle, but also with Gadamer and Habermas. This doesn’t even include all the critiques of Hediegger, Merleau-Ponty, Husserl etc. And, what is even more ridiculous, phenomenologists don’t tend to agree with Derrida’s readings and some even agree with Searle. Long story short: I sincerely doubt that any philosophy that rejects argumentation will last for very long.
Adam writes: “I’m just going to run this by you to see if it makes sense: could it be that most of the critiques of continental philosophy/theory by “outsiders” (primarily analytic types or culture war types) tend to be wrong-headed and underinformed? For instance, Derrida doesn’t actually advocate radical nihilism. Foucault’s method wasn’t really to lock himself in a room and make shit up. Etc.”
What you say makes sense, Adam - i.e. you can conceive of a possible world in which what you say would be true - but, before the point actually scores in the actual world, you have to show that it is true in the actual world. I think that’s the point where you are going to run into serious trouble. Most notably: serious critics of continental philosophy/Theory tend NOT to say the sorts of crude things you suggest they do. (Derrida is just a nihilist. Foucault was just a bullshit artist.) So your etc. pretty much falls through.
“Or, another example of a wrong-headed and uninformed critique ...”
The problem is that you concluding from the fact that there are BAD arguments against continental philosophy/Theory that there cannot be any good ones.
John, That’s the kind of inane exaggeration that so often leads me to become frustrated and obnoxious in these threads. In my mind, “serious critics of continental philosophy” definitionally would not be the ones offering inane critiques—but, based on the evidence I have seen, the majority of critics of continental philosophy are not serious.
Adam, if you weren’t talking about the serious criticisms, then why did you bring it up? What was your point?
The existence of non-serious criticisms is irrelevant in a thread in which someone basically said, “In continental philosophy, the less evidence and logic, the better”?
I think we are having trouble with the word ‘serious’ here. There is a sense of ‘serious’ to which the antonym is something like ‘hackish’. On the other hand, there is a sense of ‘serious’ to which the antonym is something like ‘joke’. I didn’t connect your comment with Walt’s because he was joking, whereas you were apparently complaining about hackishness.
Yes, I was complaining about hackishness. I don’t know Walt and didn’t realize he was joking—nor did he clarify that he was joking after I took his remark seriously.
Why on earth would I be complaining about joking critiques? Someday, I would like to get ahold of your hermeneutical lenses, because the things you pull out of my comments are amazing.
I don’t know Walt either. I infer that he was joking from the fact that he told a joke. (I could be wrong. He could be a hack who told a joke, I suppose.)
As to my hermeneutical lenses, that one’s easy: I think you often label serious criticisms as unserious, just because they annoy you. So, when I see you getting indignant about unserious criticisms, when there aren’t any actual unserious criticisms in evidence, I have a ready explanation.
Okay, so now I’m unclear on where this joke is to be found.
Also, just to make sure we’re “on the same page,” let me know if there were serious criticisms in this post that I dismissed as unserious.
"Having lax standards of logic and evidence seem fairly central to the method, which prizes the astounding generalization that lays bare the secret inner workings of the world.”
This strikes me as whimsical hyberbole, snarkily swathing a kernel of truth. (Nothing to write home to the comedy gods about, mind you.)
Were there serious criticisms in the post that you dismissed as unserious? Well, the post certainly merited a serious rather than a dismissive response, if that is what you are asking. Roll tape. Here we have Lawrence making what seems to me a perfectly reasonable point.
“Because that’s one of the most immediate, most palpable features of reading theory, esp. for those of us who were switching back & forth between the Anglo-Americans & the French. The gestures in the French argument were always so dramatic, the delivery so over-the-top. On the stage don’t they call this “chewing the scenery”? Lamont calls it “virtuosity,” and it certainly takes a certain kind of rhetorical chops to sustain. (Compare some of the lame American copies to the originals.) Anderson labels it “too flamboyant,” and it’s certainly comes across that way to many of us.
But the question that I would like an answer to, or a hint as to how an answer could be found, is this: who taught them to write this way? Because according to Anderson, everyone from those schools & that time period was taught to write like that. Which means some people that didn’t go onto to become famous writers, some people who didn’t even go on to become professors, some people who were just your run-of-the-mill shophands in the corridors of power, were taught to write like that.”
Isn’t that a perfectly fine question?
I think Scott McLemee told me that Levi-Strauss writes somehow about EXACTLY how they got trained to write like that in school. Scott said it was damned fascinating to hear the details of the training.
Stanley Cavell writes something sort of funny, obviously with the whole Austin-Searle-Derrida comedy of manners in mind:
“Austin’s favorite gesture in preparing or justifying his philosophical attacks is to appeal to the idea that the best way to stop a bad thing from happening is to prevent it from starting to happen. If I do not share Austin’s confidence that self-mystification can always so be prevented, confident instead that it requires a perpetual undoing, and an undoing of the one who does it, I nevertheless value the gesture and am glad to accept it as an element of what I understand the ordinary to be in ordinary language philosophy.
In speaking of Austin’s critical practice here as a gesture, I would studiously avoid letting the political and the psychological possibilities of interpreting the gesture preempt one another. I think of it as a matter of character, of what you might call a writer’s worldly character. Austin was committed to the manners, even the mannerisms, of an English professor the way a French intellectual is committed to seeming brilliant. It is the level at which an American thinker or artist is likely to play dumb, I mean undertake to seem like a hick, uncultivated. These are all characters in which authority is assumed, variations I suppose of the thinker’s use – as unmasked by Nietzsche – of the character of the sage.”
It seems to me that this is quite right, and it shows what is going wrong (for example) when Derrida sees Austin as Nietzschean. In his over-eager French determination to seem brilliant, he is tragically missing the Englishness of his subject. (I made a good joke about that once, giving a talk. I criticized “Signature Event Context” and someone asked whether there wasn’t something brilliant about Derrida seeing how Austin could be made more Nietzschean. I replied, very humorously, that it seemed like bragging that you could beat Kafka’s hunger artist in a pie-eating contest. If that’s a clever thing to do, then Derrida is a clever man.)
Anyhoo, Mark Twain explained it all, long ago, in his essay, “How to Tell A Funny Argument”:
“There are several kinds of arguments, but only one difficult kind - the humorous. I will talk mainly about that one. The humorous argument is American, the comic argument is English, the witty argument is French. The humorous argument depends for its effect upon the manner of the telling; the comic argument and the witty argument upon the matter.
The humorous argument is strictly a work of art - high and delicate art - and only an artist can tell it; but no art is necessary in telling the comic and the witty argument; anybody can do it. The art of telling a humorous argument -understand, I mean by word of mouth, not print - was created in America, and has remained at home.
The humorous argument is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it; but the teller of the comic argument tells you beforehand that it is one of the funniest things he has ever heard, then tells it with eager delight, and is the first person to laugh when he gets through. And sometimes, if he has had good success, he is so glad and happy that he will repeat the “nub” of it and glance around from face to face, collecting applause, and then repeat it again. It is a pathetic thing to see.
Very often, of course, the rambling and disjointed humorous argument finishes with a nub, point, snapper, or whatever you like to call it. Then the listener must be alert, for in many cases the teller will divert attention from that nub by dropping it in a carefully casual and indifferent way, with the pretence that he does not know it is a nub.”
Now where was I?
Oh yes. This is why you can only tell a humorous argument in American - or in Greek. Possibly the English sometimes rise to that level, at their most metaphysically abstemious. But it is an art lost on the French, except for Montaigne and (oddly) Anatole France; and the Germans, except for Nietzsche.
In short, Searle is humorous and Derrida is witty, and there’s your failure to communicate right there. It’s very real.
I’ve said it all before. (Even made all these jokes before. They are the most important jokes I know.)
I don’t think I failed to take the argument of the post seriously. I talked more broadly about the cultural differences in my initial comment—presupposing that the difference in writing style was real. I was not dismissive.
An interesting question would be how it came about that Nietzsche was able to be humorous, coming as he does from such an unhumorous people. (J-L Nancy has a great, perhaps unintentionally funny, essay about German investigations of the concept of Witz, which seemed to presuppose that they were well situated to analyze it because they can’t practice it.)
Not to interrupt, but I would be interested in the theory experts opinion on the writing of Bethlehem Shoals over at freedarko.com. This seems to me to be a pretty good example of the writer’s attempt to be be brilliant though a florid and mystifying style. He eve has the cult of devotees mentioned above. I see it as sort of a popularization of the of the phenomena,
John, I don’t buy the idea that wit, humor and the comic are three distinct modes, and I certainly don’t think this is at all true:
“The humorous argument is strictly a work of art - high and delicate art - and only an artist can tell it; but no art is necessary in telling the comic and the witty argument; anybody can do it. The art of telling a humorous argument -understand, I mean by word of mouth, not print - was created in America, and has remained at home.”
I’m not sure why I should think Moliere is just an unartistic piker who is witty, while Twain is creating these works of art on his harmonica. And, actually, I don’t think there’s any reason that humor, wit and the comic track nations at all - I could just as well substitute Dorothy Parker for Twain and say that America is the home of wit, the wisecrack, the screwball comedy, whereas France is the home of the fart joke, Rabelais, and humor.
Nor does it make much sense to say wit or the comic can be created by anybody. Taking a look at, say, the court transcript of the Oscar Wilde trial, you could as easily say the rarity is just the reverse - the art of verbal mockery, or wit, is the most difficult of the three to perform, the most artistic insofar as it is very rare that anyone can do it and it is a very artificial creation, and it is the one most prone to get you into serious trouble, whereas humor is mockery conned, an easy way of retaining one’s loveability while seeming to mock at convention, leading straight to the culture of sitcoms and water cooler jokes, where some Tom Sawyer grown old is making his assiduous way to the top, brownnosing the boss.
But even that analysis is, I think, wrong, insofar as I don’t really believe wit, humor and the comic are actually separated in real comic performance. The child’s dumbest joke involves all three. If you are using these three overlapping categories to get at the philosophic fun of the Searle-Derrida debate, I don’t think you’ll get very far. Nor does it strike me that national culture will get you very far. The American philosophical culture has gone through various phases: in the nineteenth century, it was certainly more apt to be Germanic - to take its orientation from Kant, Schelling, Hegel, Humboldt - than English. And of course the English themselves switched to ‘wit’ - that is, to the Viennese school, in which one of the particulars of wit, the examination of language (a la Nestroy and Kraus) was particularly prized.
Which leaves - a muddle. The kind of muddle that happens when national differences are carried too far. Derrida doesn’t represent the French anymore than Searle represents the Americans. That doesn’t mean that neither has any national characteristics - both, though, are not typical of their philosophical cultures.
John, your understanding of whimsy must be rather idiosyncratic.
Possibly ‘wry’ is closer to it?
Possibly. But I really don’t see why you don’t just read Walt straight.
Walt? Care to settle the dispute?
I of course hope Walt says he was serious, but the very non-obviousness of the joke is sufficient evidence that your entire response to me thus far has been based in hallucinations.
I like this logic. Since there are numerically more comments in comment boxes than there are any other kind of public texts, the majority of critics of anything are not serious. Stupid critics.
You’re both right. My comment wasn’t literally a joke, in the sense of a comment unrelated to my true opinion for the sake of humorous effect. But it was jokey, in that it’s not calibrated to literal precision. For example, elsewhere in this thread I called analytic philosophers “mincing”, I paraphrased Roger as accusing Quine of killing puppies for sport, and I stated that it would take a billion pages for an American academic historian to reproduce Foucault. That’s what John’s getting at with his “whimsical hyberbole, snarkily swathing a kernel of truth”. It’s like Nietzsche, with all of the wit or insight removed.
You’re not above the same rhetorical strategies, Adam. I presume you recognize that “lax” is not synonymous with “no” or “the less the better,” even though these are paraphrases of me that you’ve used above. I’m not trying to mount a serious critique because I’m not trying to mount a critique. The amount of evidence required to consider something to be shown to be true is subjective, and depends on its cultural milieu. A higher standard of evidence is not necessarily better. The world is better off for Foucault publishing with partial evidence than it would have been waiting for that billion page manuscript. Ideas can be born of a single mind, but they only grow to maturity when raised by a community. Ideas in physics can often stand on their own shortly after birth; ideas in the humanities can take many years to mature. For a mature idea, we can say whether it’s true or false. For an adolescent idea, the best we can do is say we’re still working on it.
I would like to offer something in the way of the genealogical in response to the OP’s question of whither “French” “rhetorical,” or “literary,” “style.”
First, the French academies came a little late to Hegel; many of the writers mentioned came out of second-wave Hegel studies in France. One might trace the transdisciplinary rhetorical or literary gestures to efforts at a universal art. Or one may look to one of the most prominent teachers of Hegel for many of these figures: Alexandre Kojève.
A more institutional explanation might be that les normaliens have, from my own experience and a sense that this has been the case for some time, the privilege of taking courses from professors at any of the major universities in Paris, so the diversity of their pedagodical and disciplinary experiences tends to be much wider than the tutoring model or prescribed curricula in other nations’ major schools.
And an even more personal-experience-based proposal: it is really really hard NOT to write like Mallarmé if you have been seriously reading his poems, essays, letters, etc. for some time.
Well, the Walt thing is settled. He was not exactly joking, but he was obviously being non-literal - not to be taken quite straight. (It is gratifying to be right.)
I tricked Roger into writing an actual rebuttal of my obviously totally ridiculous tripartite distinction. (Advantage: Holbosphere!)
But seriously, folks. The pie-eating contest point is a good one. And the only real problem with the national differences point is that I left out ... well, here, I’ll just quote Adorno on Hegel:
“His linguistic praxis follows a slightly archaic conception of the primacy of the spoken over the written word, the kind of notion held by those who cling stubbornly to their dialect. The often-repeated remark, originally Horkheimer’s, that only someone who knows Swabian can really understand Hegel, is no mere apercu about linguistic idiosyncrasies; it describes the very gesture of Hegel’s language.”
As Nietzsche might have said: “It was cunning of World-Spirit to speak German” etc.