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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
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Daniel Green
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Joseph Kugelmass
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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

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

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Bill the Butcher As Educator

Posted by John Holbo on 07/27/05 at 10:36 PM

There's a Chron of Higher Ed piece by one William Pannapacker about the Valve in the latest issue (July 29). Their server appears to be down, so no access [I got it in email, so correct me if I'm wrong about anything.] Oh, and also there will apparently be a Boston Globe squib about the Valve this coming Sunday, in the Ideas section. Back to the Chron piece ...

This is very positive:

Last March the ALSC launched the Valve, the name of which suggests a place for venting frustrations with the academic establishment. Its 14-member roster of contributors is headed by John Holbo, an assistant professor of philosophy at the National University of Singapore. The expressed aims of the Valve are identical to those of the ALSC: to serve as a "healthy" place for the expression of the love of literature that dare not speak its name. [UPDATE: that's not quite it regarding our aims, actually.]

But no, this is a caricature [I hope of the ALSC as well], for the contributions to the Valve are usually much more complex than the black-and-white dualities of the so-called culture war. In fact, discussions on the Valve contain some of the most balanced, nuanced, and civil blogging on academic culture one is likely to find since the much lamented demise of the Invisible Adjunct last summer.

But this is a less positive:

So Theory's Empire, along with organizations such as the ALSC, seems to provoke prophetic visions among some readers: Perhaps it will pave the way for a new generation of academics, gathering strength in exile, who will sweep away the Theory establishment, which had grown complacent in the wake of its triumph.

Given this lively emotional back story, it is rather disappointing to report that the much-heralded, multiweek discussion of Theory's Empire on the Valve has turned out to be a dud instead of a blockbuster. I wanted to report that it was a signal event in the history of the blogosphere. Years from now we would look back on this as the moment when the void left by unread journals and joyless conferences would be filled by this new, youthful, unmediated forum for frank discussion of the real issues of the profession.

If so, this is a case in which the world begins with a whimper instead of a bang. As the über-blogger Brad DeLong complains, the discussion has been all too civil and theoretical, rather than heated and cultural. Some readers, like me, were hoping for an academic donnybrook directly from Gangs of New York with Stanley Fish making a cameo appearance as Bill the Butcher. But, as of this writing, it looks like the Valve declared a war and nobody came.

Here's my response. I'm sure others will want to make theirs. First, thanks for the generally favorable vote of confidence about the form and its academic potential. But now, about those criticisms. You can want to see Stanley Fish as Bill the Butcher blogger, and you can want frank, balanced, nuanced and civil blogging. You can welcome the substitution of complexity for the black-and-white of culture war, and you can lament the fact that someone redeclared culture war and no one came. But I fail to see how the Valve can be held responsible for not overcoming the severe mutual incompatibilities of these (independently understandable) objectives. You have to take your pick. We all recall that classic Bill the Butcher essay, "Is There A Fucking Knife In This Class?": "You see this knife? I'm gonna teach you to speak English with this fucking knife!" Well, that's just the question, isn't it? Perhaps Pannapacker has in mind some of Bill's other memorable lines: "I know your works. You are neither cold nor hot. So because you are lukewarm, I will spew you out of my mouth. You can build your filthy world without me." Well, spew or get off the pot. Can't have both.

This reminds me that I owe Michael Bérubé an apology for being the teensy tinsiest bit rude to him.

I owe a retraction, per his post here. In this post I accused him of perpetrating what I called the T-to-t fallacy: investing 'Theory' - i.e. something recent and intellectually distinctive - with ersatz necessity, by conflating it with 'theory' in the generic sense of 'thinking at all'. Michael says he wasn't. He was just making the point that Theory's defenders are not necessarily so intellectually intractable. And Theory is not necessarily so monolithically exclusive as critics sometimes make out. Fair enough. I shouldn't have been so quick with the knife, thereby incidentally confirming Michael's point. The higher point to be made here ... concerns the dearth of things worth seeing at this very point. So let's scramble up for a better view of their absence.

Sean writes:

In my fantasies, I yearn for TE to convince its readers of what I think are two major conclusions toward which it leads: (1) Though they’ve been frequently, if not characteristically exaggerated to the point of absurdity, some of the widely shared beliefs made commonplace by Theory are, at least in some versions, perfectly reasonable—and at a certain point in the history of the literary academy may plausibly have seemed badly needed.  (2) Criticism of Theory is not inevitably motivated by anti-intellectualism or political or cultural conservatism or characterized by intemperate bluster.

But the comedy of it is that these 'major conclusions' only amount to: Theory is not necessarily bad or good. Pretty trivial. But not trivial enough that we can forego a 700+ page anthology, plus our humble little book event, on its behalf. So the discussion is inevitably deformed. To keep it from being even more deformed than it has to be, you've got to distinguish pointless points you've got to make from those you don't. My go-round with Michael is a case in point. Take Tim Burke as a benchmark of balance: "I tend to bristle on one hand at know-nothing denunciations of theory ... but also at circle-the-wagons defenses of it, or even those defenses which argue that the problem with theory was only its occasional excesses and over-zealous acolytes." Now Michael and I can sign on to that, but doing so would mask real, deep disagreement. So it might seem we should haul all that into the light, but actually that would just  excavate a molehill. (It is not the case, as a famous philosopher once said, that "I gotta get inside this dude's pelt and crawl around for a few days.") Because what do we disagree about? The degree of asymptotic approach to know-nothing? The diameter of the circle of defensiveness? The decibel level of over-zealotry? All very real, but hashing it out could only mean compiling dueling compendia of minor grievances. In this way genuine substance declines at best into the peevishness John McGowan complains of in his first post. This I have learned and shall try to remember. It is why polemics about Theory tend to be dull, on both sides, and why we've had enough of them after 20 or so years. The way to advance the debate is to get people to accept 1 & 2 and get on with something civil and complex.

It is always a good time to quote Nietzsche's "Bill the Butcher as Educator":

They know, these solitaries, free in spirit, that they continually seem other than what they think: while they desire nothing but truth and honesty, they are encompassed by a net of misunderstandings; and however vehemently they may desire, they cannot prevent a cloud of false opinions, approximations, half-admissions, indulgent silence, erroneous interpretation from gathering about their actions. Because of this a cloud of melancholy gathers on their brows; for such as these it is more hateful than death itself to be forced to present a semblance to the world; and their perpetual bitter resentment of this constraint fills them with volcanic menace. From time to time they revenge themselves for their enforced concealment and compelled restraint. They emerge from their cave wearing a terrifying aspect; their words and deeds are then explosions and it is possible for them to perish by their own hand.

We've all had days like that. Thankfully, we haven't had days like that for days, since - by general acclaim - this Theory's Empire event has been such a model of agreeable conversation. Taking an even longer view, as Hannapacker does ... well, my long view is different. In my younger days I was a wild buck, brawling in the blogstreets. This taught me a great deal about the advantages and disadvantages of knifework for life. One day it dawned on me that my polemical pieces were generally less intelligent than my mild-mannered ones. Also, I got tired of writing arch, high-handed polemical pieces, then having to apologize when my targets showed up in comments, complaining that I had been unfair; which was perfectly fair of them.

I'm grateful to Pannapacker for writing a generally favorable piece about us. But it most definitely wasn't our intent to start a war. I think, in fact, it is one of the good features of Theory's Empire that it isn't really suited to be an instrument of culture war. This was what we wanted people to know about it.

While I'm on the subject of book events, a minor administrative matter. Our next book event subject, The Literary Wittgenstein, has been pushed back a few weeks (minor scheduling and logistical difficulties not worth rehearsing.) It's going to be smaller that Theory's Empire, which I think is probably a good thing. If you missed it, here's my NDPR review. Also, two papers in the volume - by Martin Stone and Sonya Sedivy - are specifically concerned with the sorts of issues we have been debating in the last few days: Stanley Fish type stuff. I don't talk about Stone and Sedivy much in my review, because I'm pushing this 'Wittgenstein as post-Romantic' storyline. I've come to realize that I thereby commited the fallacy of conflating quality of contributions with suitability for my story. The Stone paper, in particular, is one of the more interesting items in the volume, I now think. So give it a look if you can. (We hope to make it available as a downloadable PDF.)


Comments

John, for the first time since I’ve learned of the existence of Pannapacker’s article, I’m able to breathe again.  You’re right: he criticizes us for not being polemical enough while praising us for not reigniting the culture wars.  We don’t brook those two horns of that dilemma, and your post reminded me that it’s not an either-or proposition.  Picture me wiping my forehead in crazed relief…

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/28/05 at 01:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, well, I’m really happy about the general dearth of internet fighting around here.

By on 07/28/05 at 01:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John, it may be a good idea to place the announcement about the LW event at the beginning of your post, or in another one.  I, of course, am intensely interested in what you have to say about, well, an article that quoted me; others might not read through to the end…

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/28/05 at 03:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ll move it up, Scott. That’s a good idea. Maybe I’ll just let this be the top post for a while, in case Chron readers drop by.

Rereading the Chron piece again, I find more to quibble with: “The perspective of the ALSC and the Valve is, perhaps, best articulated by the contents of a new book, published by Columbia University Press, called Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent, edited by Daphne Patai and Will H. Corral.”

The perspective of the Valve is best articulated by the Valve. It isn’t necessarily the perspective of TE. The perspective of the ALSC is a third thing.

By John Holbo on 07/28/05 at 04:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Two thoughts:

1. You’ve captured perfectly Pannapacker’s confused (and confusing) view of the Valve: “It’s great they’re not engaging in a a flame war, but it’s really too bad they’re not engaging in a flame war.”

2. Your waiting a couple of days to respond with a detailed post puts the lie to the misperception of blogs as media through which writers toss off hasty, ill-considered, angry responses to others.

By gzombie on 07/28/05 at 08:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for your vote of confidence regarding point 1, gzombie. But I confess to posting in haste. Checking my email, I actually posted several hours BEFORE receiving the article. Well, that’s time zones for you.

By John Holbo on 07/28/05 at 08:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not sure there has to be a contradiction between respecting civil dialogue and, at the same time, desiring something more visceral.  It’s an Apollonian/Dionysian distinction.  One can have both, I think.  I don’t think this is the same as calling for a “flame war.”

I thought the larger question--besides whether or not the Valve is civil or feisty--is why people are so reluctant to contribute to blogs.  Why is the academy in the grip of such fear?  You are “out there,” and I admire that.  Now, where are all the people who want to dismiss the Valve as “conservative”?

Quibble--or eviscerate--away. 

PS: Those riffs on Fish and Bill the Butcher were hillarious.

By on 07/28/05 at 09:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Some thoughts:

1. Pannapacker’s anecdote at the beginning about the theory books marked down to $1 to show the seemingly low demand for theory-oriented criticism is a little misleading. Literary theory still rules the roost, as far as academic prestige goes. Everyone hired at a tier one university in the past few years does some version of theory. That is a premise of Theory’s Empire (hence, “Empire").

A better anecdote might be to look at the bookshelves of academics and see which books have their spines convincingly bent. Grammatology, for instance, is likely to be present—but it is also likely to be pristine.

2. What Pannapacker wants from the Valve exactly is unclear to me.

He’s well aware of the dangers of intemperate expression on the internet (or indeed, anywhere). He says he was hoping the Valve conversation on TE would be more “heated and cultural.” But what does that mean exactly? Does that mean feminists and queers vs. straight white men? How would that be better?

It’s true our conversation wasn’t especially personal much of the time, in the sense of “This is how theory ruined my life” or “I am being exiled for not liking theory.” Admittedly, Tim Burke and Brad DeLong did get a bit more personal in their accounts of particular intellectual experiences with Theory. Perhaps we should have, I don’t know. But there are ways to blog that don’t involve personal narratives, rants, or invectives. Indeed, one thing I like about the Valve as a whole is its impersonality.

(Or maybe I’ve been reading too much T.S. Eliot)

3. The drift of our discussion followed the particular issues raised by the essays in Theory’s Empire. The sober tone of the discussion stems from the fact that we were using the Valve to read the book closely. It’s not so much out of professional fear—more like intellectual seriousness. If you take the serious essays in the volume seriously, you will likely end up in roughly the same rhetorical ball-park we have.

Has Pannapacker actually read the volume beyond the introduction? If so, he gives no indication of it in this piece. If you actually read Searle, for instance (I finally did, after Sean’s post on Fish and intentionality last week), you don’t come away infuriated and ready to launch more zingers into the vortex of the Culture War. You come away wanting to discuss language, sentences, and communication.

4. There is an interesting contradiction at the end of Pannapacker’s piece, where he measures the marginality and danger of blogging against “seismic” shift in the profession that it might potentially produce. This is what he says:

“Blogs are a useful tool for people on the margins of the profession. They help to break up the control of editorial boards and conference committees over the acceptable range of professional discourse. But it will be a long time before they are regarded as a legitimate venue for scholarly discussion; participation in them is not likely to help, and it could do a lot to harm one’s career, if that is what matters most.

It’s hard to deny that seismic changes are under way in the profession, and, more and more, I rely on the bloggers (instead of journals or conference presentations) to provide an early-warning system."

In short, he loves blogging, though he fears ostracization.

What’s interesting about this to is that it’s nothing other than blogging seems to emerge in his piece as the answer to the Theory conundrum. It’s not so much blogging vs. Theory (which makes no sense), but rather blogging vs. Instutionalized/Boring/Repetitive/Gated Academic Discourse.

If Pannapacker is really proposing that, it’s a big claim for academic blogging, is it not?

By Amardeep on 07/28/05 at 09:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ah, it’s all too easy to forget that the writer under discussion can show up to the discussion!

To quote from the original piece: “Some readers, like me, were hoping for an academic donnybrook directly from Gangs of New York with Stanley Fish making a cameo appearance as Bill the Butcher. But, as of this writing, it looks like the Valve declared a war and nobody came.”

I don’t think it’s inaccurate to interpret this as a longing for a flame war.

OED online:
* donnybrook, “A scene of uproar and disorder”
* flame, “To rant, argue, or harangue, esp. via an electronic medium”

Some readers, like me, were dreading yet another tired rehash of the same old heated arguments about T/theory. It looks like we were pleasantly surprised.

By gzombie on 07/28/05 at 09:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The point that John makes above about the perspective of the Valve is one that Pannapacker--had he read much of the site--should have been aware of.

Perhaps that stupid (and likely fabricated) article the Chronicle published recently might have something to do with why academics are reluctant--if they in fact are--to participate in blogs.

By Jonathan on 07/28/05 at 10:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

If there were misunderstanding or skewed expectations about the Theory’s Empire event, they may have emerged – as amardeep suggests – from the nature of blogging as much as from the nature of the Valve or the book under discussion.  (That said, however, it seems a slightly coy to pick an “anthology of dissent” and then be shocked – shocked! – when people anticipate a bit more, um, dissension.)

But back to blogging (or “blogging vs. Instutionalized/Boring/Repetitive/Gated Academic Discourse”).  Would anyone say that the confusion about the Valve’s event is partly built into the “ungatedness” of the blogging atmosphere?

To clarify, there seem to be persistent questions – endemic to blogs, but brought into focus by the Valve and the “event” – that boil down to various versions of, “What are we supposed to do here anyway?  What is the nature of this discussion?”

-- Is a blogged academic conversation something like a book club (shared by all) or more like a seminar (led by a few)?
-- Are we, as readers and comment-writers, here to share “our ideas” or are we here to react to “your ideas”?
-- Is the focus on the discussion the book/ideas under consideration, or is the focus on your “papers” and the arguments they make?
-- Is a blog like a mini-conference or journal, with an extended Q&A/letter page?  Or is it more like the post-panel discussion in the lobby or at the bar?  (Or is it a fanzine?)
-- Is it “personal” or “professional”?

These are tendentious ways of phrasing things, I know.  But such questions, perhaps, contributed to the confusion about what exactly one was supposed to “do” with Theory’s Empire.  What kind of a reaction were we, as readers, to expect from you?  And what reaction did you expect from us?  Should we react to the book as a whole? Ruminate on the state of the field? Relate our experiences? Consider and criticize particular essays? Or focus primarily on the ideas of the Valve writers?

Of course, the gut-level answer to any and all of the above questions will probably be, “Why do we have to choose?  Why can’t we have all of the above?  What’s with all your ‘rules,’ man?” And that’s fine and good – and part of what makes blogging and the Valve such an invigorating venture.  Do not change!

But consider that such open-mindedness and open-endedness may always lead to miscommunication and faulty expectations and diffusion of purpose.  It may also, ultimately, impede the ability of blogging to challenge “gated academic discourse.” This is because gated discourse has one thing going for it, crucial for people who want to answer the above questions of professionalism and ownership: it has gates.

In my opinion, they can have them.

By on 07/28/05 at 10:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

William Pannapacker writes, “I thought the larger question--besides whether or not the Valve is civil or feisty--is why people are so reluctant to contribute to blogs.  Why is the academy in the grip of such fear?”

Who says people are reluctant? Or that people in the academy are more reluctant to do so than those in other professions? Consider this list of academic bloggers maintained at Crooked Timber?

By gzombie on 07/28/05 at 10:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

[Oh, the heartbreak of premature comment posting!]

Who says people are reluctant? Or that people in the academy are more reluctant to blog than are people in other professions? Consider this list of academic bloggers maintained at Crooked Timber. That does not look like reluctance to me.

Peter Sattler asks how readers are supposed to engage with academic blogging. I think this creates a false dichotomy with bloggers on one side and readers on the other. “Start your own blog,” would be my suggestion.

By gzombie on 07/28/05 at 11:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It seems to me like there are two basic questions: first, why weren’t the Valveteers more nasty in their criticism of Theory, and second, “where are all the people who want to dismiss the Valve as “conservative”?”

The answer to the first seems pretty easy: been there, done that, not really interested in it any more.  At least that’s what I’d take John Holbo to be saying, and it seems to be true of many of the other contributors, if I can judge from what they’ve written here.

The answer to the second is that it’s a self-selection effect.  It is very difficult to comment in any “online community” where you disagree with the basic ideology.  People who are concerned with their academic reputation have even more reason to wonder whether they will be able to do so without getting caught up in an embarassing flame war.  And, for the fringe of people who are most reflexively dismissive, who might be less worried about appearing too harsh, they tend to depend on two factors that don’t apply here: first, on jargon for its obfuscatory effect (doesn’t work because there are too many people here who understand the jargon) and second, on an imagined bandwagon effect around cultural/political accusations (where no such bandwagon can be imagined here).

By on 07/28/05 at 11:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

gzombie says: “Peter Sattler asks how readers are supposed to engage with academic blogging. I think this creates a false dichotomy with bloggers on one side and readers on the other. “Start your own blog,” would be my suggestion.”

Hi, gz,

The purpose of my bulleted hypothetical questions was not really to ask for advice to even to express confusion.  Rather, I tried to suggest that such questions and confusions were built into the blogging system – and that this fact (1) explains some of the disagreement about the TE event and (2) has implications (good and bad) for the role of blogging as a challenge to “gated” academic discourse.

And from where I’m sitting, the advice to “start your own blog” does not answer these questions; it extends them.  It does not transcend the reader/blogger dichotomy; it replicates it.

Best, Peter

By on 07/28/05 at 11:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A notice in the Chronicle is a serious matter, and the fact that it was a disappointing one is worth some reflection. We may disagree with Pannapacker’s angle, but we should also ask where and why our exchanges failed to excite.

One possibility may be--I’m not sure about this, though--that we spaced the posts too close together, and didn’t give enough time for commentary to develop for each one.

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

I can understand simultaneously being pleased at the mature level of conversation, while also being disappointed at the lack of bomb throwing.

On one hand, I enjoyed visiting this blog and reading the Theory’s Empire discussion because I enjoyed discussing Theory absent the usual culture war background.  People were addressing actual Theory instead of accusing each other of political sin, and that elevated the level of discussion.

On the other hand, I don’t know how you can really discuss the Empire of Theory without addressing the real world practices that turn a mere set of academic arguments into something people can look at and honestly describe as an Empire.  To do that, you’d need to look at the way Theory is taught to students, the widespread connection of the political and the academic, and all of the other culture war aspects that are so contentious.  You’d need to pick out various common fallacies of reasoning, various unjustified bits of postmodern philosophy, you’d need to name names and make attacks on the actual essays and arguments that present the first barricade of imperial theory with which students attempting to study theory interact.  That disussion would be a lot more angry, but would still be relevant.

By on 07/28/05 at 12:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich has got it exactly right, I think.  One small bit of evidence in his favor.  Matt from Long Sunday did show up briefly in comments to Adam’s post, made some lame demurrers, and promptly disappeared.

But, while a notice from the Chronicle is serious in a sociological sense, there was nothing serious about Pannapacker’s article at all.  Not much worth noting about it except the patent contradiction. 

I’m sure Mark is right about spacing.  But one other thought.  No one showed up to debate because in fact Theory no longer has intensely committed and impressive adherents.  It’s just sclerotic orthodoxy now.  The Empire is crumbling from within.

By on 07/28/05 at 12:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I suspect the answer to Pannapacker’s lament is pretty mundane.  The Valve is still a young blog and it is difficult to attract a critical mass of commenters and important guest posters. 

It sounds like Pannapacker wants The Valve to be something like the DailyKos of the literary academic world, where there are thousands of regular readers and guest appearances by noted luminaries. 

Well, the short answer is that The Valve is not there yet.  There are competing interests, academics are busy people, academic disputes do not inspire the same passion and following as political disputes, and so forth. 

Nevertheless, I was generally impressed by the TE event.  It wasn’t earth shattering, but there were lots of high quality posts, illuminating disucssion, interesting dissenting opinions from other blogs, etc. 

Give it time.  Publicity such as the Chron piece can only help.

By on 07/28/05 at 12:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A better anecdote might be to look at the bookshelves of academics and see which books have their spines convincingly bent. Grammatology, for instance, is likely to be present—but it is also likely to be pristine.

Amardeep, that’s not true and you know it.  Of course, any book I don’t buy used--i.e. one I don’t purchase with an already broken back--retains its spinal integrity.  (FYI, I don’t normally take pictures of my books.  They’re from my response to the book collection meme.) That said, I worked at a used bookstore--located just off-campus but which didn’t, on principle, accept textbooks--my entire undergrad. career, and that may be why I thought the anecdote worked: what Pannapacker points to is the disconnect between the contemporary academic culture and the Theory-dominated culture of old.  He sees our existence as a symptom of the same process that’s resulted in the appearance of so many works of High Theory in the bargain bin; I don’t think he’s wrong.  If I had to cull my collection--a situation which will never, ever arise--my copy Discipline and Punish is more likely to miss the cut than, say, my copy of Kloppenberg’s Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism.  That speaks to a trend; the same trend’s the reason I post and comment on the Valve, and I think that was Pannapacker’s point.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/28/05 at 02:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott,

It’s just that I never see any works of theory in a Bargain Bin, at either used or new bookstores. Increasingly I don’t even see much criticism—which might, however, prove the point. The “literary criticism” section at my local B&N in northern NJ is pretty much limited to Harold Bloom, Wayne Booth, and Stanley Fish. Some “theory” can be found in the Philosophy section, but it’s not an inspiring array.

Granted, I don’t spend as much time at Labyrinth Books as I used to (there one will in fact find significant amounts of theory in the BB there). Nor (lately) am I much in the big ‘Barnes-n-Noble-ized’ ivy league university bookstores, where one is likely to find both high theory and the not-so-high theory that one finds in the remainder bin (i.e., the site of abjection). 

If you don’t like the metaphor of the pristine spine (if not Grammatology, certainly virtually any book by Deleuze), perhaps we could illustrate the (arguable) Decline of Theory, with reference to the general implosion of the academic book market. Wasn’t there a column by Lindsay Waters about this a few months ago? Most of us aren’t even reading the relevant books in our own fields anymore. [Which raises the question—what are academics reading these days, if not academic books?]

Incidentally, when I refer to the example of ‘academics’ in general, neither you nor your book collection count! You, my friend, are atypical in addition to being acephalous.

(I’m tempted to use a smiley face. I forebear)

By Amardeep on 07/28/05 at 03:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think Pannapacker is missing a huge, crucial point from the discussion and from the anthology. Many of the contributors to the anthology stress just how much they resent in the mating of Theory to identity politics the consequence massive overinflation of the presumed stakes of scholarly work in the humanities, the grandiose rhetoric, the equating of each and every academic debate with nothing less than the salvation or damnation of civilization.

I think the thing that connects most of us who contributed, and many academic bloggers, is a desire to pull back from that precipice, and a recognition that one of the paradoxical ways that scholars can achieve that pulling back is through engaging wider publics through blogging, where the tempest-in-a-teapot intensification of scholarly debates in the humanities is suddenly exposed as indefensibly absurd and exaggerated, where the angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin character of many discussions is exposed.

Even the anti-Theorists often fall into the trap, at least the extreme ones. One of the things I liked about the pieces collected in TE was that most of them refuse to do so, refuse to make Derrida out to be some monster from beyond the stars who is trying to consume all life and leave the Earth a barren frozen wasteland.

By Timothy Burke on 07/28/05 at 04:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, I think that a Holgo-Berube death match would have got you more PR. You could have divided up the proceeds after the show, the way the pros do.

I think that a few Holbo knee drops and head butts would quickly reduce Berube to a mass of quivering jelly, but of course it might go the other way too.

Does Paglia do blog consulting? She could tell you a thing or two about culture wrestling.

By John Emerson on 07/28/05 at 06:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Now, John Emerson, you come right over here and I’ll box your ears for you.  Why would Mr. Holbo resort to extra-Queensbury maneuvers like knee drops and head butts (which, by the way, I would parry in an instant) when he’s been so civil as to tender an apology—in this very post-- for the very slightest of verbal infractions?

The most valuable thing about the TE exchange, I think, is that we had a number of people (including people unmentioned by William Pannapacker, like that Public Intelligence guy who actually co-edited the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism) who were willing to say “I think you’re dead wrong about X, and, begging your pardon, here’s why,” along with people like Mark and Sean who were willing to reply, “your point about X misses the more important point about Y” and “I am not in fact wrong about X, and if you attend to W and Z, you’ll find it harder to make that claim about X.” So Pannapacker wanted to see Gangs of New York; so what?  I’ve seen this scene (and this desire) before.  When I debated Alan Sokal at Illinois in 1997 (the only time I’ve appeared before a thousand people, save for the evening in April 1982 when my band opened for the Ramones), dozens of people complained to me that they had wanted to see blood on the floor, and what a bummer it was than Sokal and I calmly discussed the difference between brute fact and social fact instead.  (Though I have to admit that Sokal drew cheers when he walked from his podium to mine and head-butted me.  He dealt a serious blow to the cause of social constructionism that day.)

Look, folks.  Don’t be too impressed by a notice from the Chronicle.  I hope it increases your traffic, but the important thing is that you lobbed a series of smart, circumspect, and judicious posts against “Theory” while taking your distance from the weakest essays in Theory’s Empire and pressing the claims of the strongest essays.  As a result, Imperial Warlords like me and John McGowan had to come up with more careful and circumspect responses to your posts—especially when we found that we agreed with parts of them.

I think there are two reasons for this.  One, as Timothy Burke suggests, most of the essays in TE don’t waste readers’ time pretending that Derrida will dissolve the entire planet in a bubbling vat of textuality.  Two, as no one has suggested yet, the status of feminist criticism and theory has not been questioned here, not once.  Ten-fifteen years ago, Theory-friendly people like me could simply wait for people like John Ellis or Peter Shaw or Norman Levitt to say batshit insane things about feminists (and we would not have to wait long), and presto, we could show that we, by contrast, were on the side of the angels.  This time around, by contrast, we seem to be arguing about the value of specific T/theoretical propositions and about their institutional effects—and, begging John Holbo’s pardon, I happen to think that this is one of the things “theory” requires us to do.

I’ll try to say more about that last claim in a future Theory Tuesday.  I’ll spare you the torture of a longer comment here.

By Michael on 07/28/05 at 11:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Michael, I was suggesting that the apology was a mistake, from a PR point of view.

It’s like an Onion headline: “‘50 Cent’ and ‘The Game’ go face-to-face, chat about barbeque.”

I mean, some of us live in the real world, you know.

By John Emerson on 07/29/05 at 12:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Impressed?” Hell.

Sokal is alluded to approvingly in a recent article--with far more guano than Ellis, Shaw, or Levitt--by Heather MacDonald. I wonder if she knows that he used to teach for the Sandinistas and wrote (with Frederick Crews) a letter in October 2001 in the New York Review asking people to protest the war in Afghanistan.

By Jonathan on 07/29/05 at 12:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Andre Breton denounced Erik Satie.

Why? PR.

What reason did he give? None at all.

Why should he have?

By John Emerson on 07/29/05 at 12:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

First, addressing William Pannapacker: very good of you to take your Bill the Butcher ribbing with good humor. Second, as to your suggestion that what you really meant was something more dionysian - but short of flamewar. Well, that’s not really how it came out. But nevermind. I sympathize. I’ve tried to do that myself in my philosophical dialogue. Tried very hard to do a sort of Plato/Nietzsche/Kierkegaard rhetorical thing. Rather proud of it. But one thing to note about such productions is that they are invariably high personal and, therefore, not to be conjured with if what you want is an event with participants on different sides who will talk to each other. Everyman a Dionysus and we’ll just have a stage of divas, at best; at worst, we’ll come out looking like everyman came in fourth in a knife fight in a phonebooth. The problem is that heavily polemical treatments of Theory, in general, always end up denying 1 or 2 [per Sean’s post], by hyperbolic implication. I’m so tired of being told that those who resist Theory ‘fear difficulty’, hate cans, are threatened by Judith Butler, just haven’t read Derrida carefully, wish to destroy the humanities, are neocon plotters, etc., that I’m willing to forego the polemical satisfactions of pillorying targets for the privilege of securing a space for philosophical discussion in which I do not have to be badly psychoanalyzed in the manner to which I have become accustomed.

As to Brad DeLong’s complaint that the thing was a bit bloodless: well, Brad is saying it would be fun to watch us cut loose. Which I don’t deny. But if Brad DeLong said it would be fun to watch you jump off the roof (again, very plausible): would you do it? To put it another way, Brad is joshing us for getting a bit pedantic. Well, scholars always do that sometimes, so they’d better get used to getting joshed about it.

And consider how Brad’s own post - and Tim Burke’s - succeeded in rising above our scholarly dust: by being very effective autobiography. Seeing Theory through the lens of personal experience is not only more appealing as drama, but a good way to get a shrewd grip on certain features of the subject. But if we had ALL gone and written pieces like that it would have come out absurdly self-centered: Theory as it happened to me.

Finally, I am actually in favor of making theory a bit more boring, because I think the application of philosophy to literary studies should because less a point of manners - i.e. obligatory, ornamental eclecticism. So it should be less flashy. (This is rather a large point, and liable to be misunderstood. Maybe I’ll talk about it later.)

Now, in response to Michael B’s comment: I didn’t mean to suggest that we shouldn’t be making arguments about “specific T/theoretical propositions and about their institutional effects.” I quite agree that we must. I was just trying to say ... well, put it this way. I think of Theory as being, quite generally, a wrong philosophical turn. I look at this whole cluster of philosophical figures and ideas and styles and sensibilities and see little of interest or value. I want there to be something occupying this space: heavily philosophically-inflected approaches to literature and culture, but not Theory. (I hope there’s nothing awful about me saying it. Lots of people say that about analytic philosophy. That’s it’s generally bad. This is just one of those things that happens. Sometimes people disapprove of intellectual schools and styles.) Michael, I take it, would want to say it’s a very mixed bag. Good and bad. And lots of the systematically bad elements are contingent functions of unhealthy institutional factors like the star system and so forth. So we disagree. But the point is: we can’t usefully argue about it at this level. We can trade anecdotes that we are pleased to regard as telling emblems of the correctness of our respective points of view, but these coins will not be acceptable currency in an intellectual exchange, which will quickly decline into defensiveness and/or peevishness. And if a little polemic sneaks in, there’s no hope of getting anywhere. Theory is too nebulous a subject to afford either of us any sharp leverage, one way or the other. So we should both sign on to 1 & 2, even though doing so passes over our fairly extensive disagreements, and we should proceed to argue about something a little more specific. For example: to what degree were the excesses of the academic star system symptoms of the excesses of Theory? That is, to what degree was Theory to blame? To what degree did Theory end up taking the blame, unfairly, when the star system showed up wearing Theory’s clothes? That’s still very general, but once you’ve got people to admit 1 & 2 you can at least try.

And, even though 1 & 2 are pretty obvious, the temptation to deny one or the other for polemical effect is very strong. So the grounds for having a zone of discussion that is polemic-free are very strong. I can still write antic mock-Platonic dialogues to express my annoyance with Theory, if I want. (I do confess to feeling like that free spirit in “Bill the Butcher as Educator”, when I feel I’m being dismissed or misundersood for my anti-Theory ways.) Even so, I won’t invite Michael B or John McGowan or any other likely opposite number to be the real life straight man in one of my little dramatic occasions. (No, stand here ... so I can hit you in a way that’ll make you double-over funny in pain.) I want to keep that part of my intellectual life more ... Apollonian.

By John Holbo on 07/29/05 at 02:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"I look at this whole cluster of philosophical figures and ideas and styles and sensibilities and see little of interest or value.” You should hear an implied ‘to me’ at the end of that. Not that it’s just a matter of taste, but I do recognize that it is a matter of serious dispute.

By John Holbo on 07/29/05 at 04:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I am actually in favor of making theory a bit more boring, because I think the application of philosophy to literary studies should because less a point of manners - i.e. obligatory, ornamental eclecticism. So it should be less flashy.

Yes, please.  This is another way to put what Pannapacker simply misunderstood.  I’m betting most around these parts have no interest in being harbingers of the next big thing, having seen how badly big things work out.

By on 07/29/05 at 06:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m going to put in one more little plug for the issues I was hoping to see discussed, at least a little, then let it go.

If I understand correctly, the reason Theory is being called an Empire is because it allegedly walls itself off from critique behind various rhetorical and bureaucratic walls.

The first of these walls, in my humble opinion, is the self selection that occurs based on what students are willing to pursue studies of literary theory (even if only as a lark alongside their engineering degree).  This selection does not take place in a vaccuum.

Lets take our happy little engineering freshman, and introduce him to critiquing binaries.  He’s going to hear, basically*, that 1) you can infer information from a text about the beliefs of an author and of his culture, and 2) many of these beliefs will consist of two opposed concepts, one which gets more respect than the other, and 3) that the privileged one can be associated with the phallus, that we ought to transcend the binary, but we can’t, so instead we should attack it and privilege the underprivileged concept instead so as to break centuries of western thought out of its comfortable, shallow, beliefs.

Ok.  Our engineering student can see that number 1 makes sense.  And number 2 makes sense.  He might feel that occasionally theorists speculate a little overmuch based on too few data points, but that’s perfectly within the realm of reasonable discussion.  But number 3?  He can see, first, that number 3 does not flow from numbers 1 and 2.  Its an independant claim.  And numbers 1 and 2 are claims about the real world which are testable and hypothetically provable.  Number 3 is an aesthetic or political claim.  But he’s going to hear that number 3 is part of doing theory “right.”

He’s going to see that as being nonsense, because there’s no reason that points 1 and 2 couldn’t be utilized by someone trying to, say, uphold a conservative social order by critiquing liberal authors.  They are neutral tools, it’s point 3 that is political.

This student is unlikely to pursue theory further.  He doesn’t expect to personally overthrow the entire english department at his university.  He’s a freshman, too, so he probably hasn’t thought this through with complete logic, and just thinks that, in general, theory is all nonsense.  Lets face it, most of us weren’t paragons of logic as freshmen.

He’s going to go back to his engineering degree, graduate, get a job, and when he hears Rush Limbaugh on the radio 15 years from now trashing on those crazy liberal academics, he’s going to remember his theory class and agree.  He’ll swing more to the conservative side of the political spectrum, where, in spite of his youthful idealism, he’ll rationalize his desire to vote against those college professors from years ago by convincing himself that he really believes republican talking points.  Pretty soon, he’ll be voting for them regularly, and when a low wattage son of a previous president inherits the executive branch, and wants to invade a foreign nation on tenuous evidence, he’ll support it.

And Iraq will get invaded BECAUSE OF YOU!!!

Ok, I figured that if I was going to go into the overblown culture war rhetoric, I might as well jump in head first.  That way, if people laugh about it, maybe they won’t fight about it.

But the basic point stands, I hope.  Freshman students have to make a big decision on very little data.  They have to decide whether a particular field is worth the dedication of a significant portion of their life.  And they can’t know all the details until after its too late to back out, so the decision is made on only a little evidence.  If reasonable claims about the nature of writing are linked together with highly contentious philosophical claims or political claims, *and then sold as a unified whole such that one depends on the other,* those students are going to make the very reasonable decision to go study something else.  And the Empire is protected from another wave of barbarians.  Until next year’s entering freshmen, of course.

*standard disclaimer

I’m a law student, I do textual interpretation, but from a different ends driven perspective than you guys, and I don’t read the literature you do.  I’m using this as an example, please read it with some charity if I don’t get things exactly right.  Maybe none of the cool kids critique binaries this way anymore, I wouldn’t know.

By on 07/29/05 at 09:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hi Sean,

I’m sorry you thought my objections were lame.  But at least now you have some proof for a crumbling empire, right?  Do bear in mind I only work in the kitchen, mopping floors (for the moment, anyway).  Actually I’ve been meaning to more carefully digest and patiently respond to Holbo’s gargantuan and oddly-ending post, but seeing as I don’t have tenure yet, hell I don’t even have a PhD, and as it’s been a week of long days painting in the sun to pay the bills, and re-installing hard drives and such...I do, sincerely, wish that more folks from Long Sunday had taken me up on my recommendation that they visit here, for whatever that may be worth.

Just for the record, I personally don’t disagree with a lot of what has been said here.  Holbo especially makes some interesting points, albeit from a different background (and maybe in the service of a different future) than the one toward which I feel most drawn.  That said, this particular thread does strike me as a lot of back-patting and handshakes, and not much more.  Which is only to suggest, just maybe, that a stance such as:

“I look at this whole cluster of philosophical figures and ideas and styles and sensibilities and see little of interest or value (to me).”

especially coming from a Nietzsche scholar (and dismissive, one assumes, of a rather whole lot of (Heidegger and Lacan-inflected) Nietzschian inheritance), and when further combined with jealous fury over an anthology (of theory) that dares exclude the Analytics (as if The Norton Anthology were ever the be-all and end-all of Theory!)...well, one has to wonder whether such a stance doesn’t contain the seeds of an answer to your question (which at this point seems to be namely:  Why didn’t more people participate?  Are they chicken?  Are they lame?  Are they dead?  Were we not cruel, were we not polemical (!) enough?  Come men, out with the swords!)

So anyway, in short, and speaking for myself I am neither particularly intimidated nor afraid of being called out on my “obfuscatory” “jargon”.  The debate here has, in my view, largely and admirably avoided playing to the peanut gallery or riding the prematurely jubilatory bandwagon, but let’s be entirely honest––it hasn’t done so entirely.  From the beginning, as Bérubé says, this was an event about a book responding as if on demand to one thing:  The Norton, i.e. the official sanctioning of Theory as a constellation of critical approaches worthy of serious FURTHER consideration by students.  How can a book reacting primarily to an introductory (!) anthology ever presume to vanquish Theory entirely (or replace one “empire” with another), you might ask?  Well, perhaps it can’t.  But if willing to be a bit self-critical and maybe also to take some heat for some of its “exactly wrong” mischaracterizations, etc. then maybe it can still raise some timely and interesting questions.  But you must excuse us if we don’t spontaneously get up in arms to defend The Norton.  If in the process such a discussion raises some important issues, and exposes some significant flaws in the way Theory seeks to legitimize itself as an institution, which I think it has, then all the better.  But let’s be clear about the primary motives, and about the ways such a discussion, to the degree that it proposes or insinuates to be about MORE than just a reactive book (a book, it would seem, with some rather serious flaws), and instead about a whole swath of thought (namely, some crude mash-up of critical theory, literary theory, continental philosophy...)...has not escaped the bandwagon entirely, or just yet.

By Matt on 07/29/05 at 11:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree with Patrick that some teaching of theory (in America especially, or with particular respect to Anglo translations and transplantations) is often rather shallowly enthralled by the exuberance of its own verbosity, and in unnecessary ways intimidating even.  But need it be mentioned that this is a problem with some analytic philosophy classes as well, if in a slightly different manner?  The cloistered reputation for Theory--whatever that is, Derrida but maybe not Zizek?  We argue about this kind of stuff all the time--especially is a problem, though one that is hardly solved by making things more boring, I suspect (though I might agree this could be valuable).  After all schools in France, from what I hear, are very boring!

By Matt on 07/29/05 at 11:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Formatting the hard drives
Painting in the sun
Who could be mean to little me?
God bless us every one.

I think that you haven’t considered
(Though I personally don’t disagree)
That your jealous fury over a book
Would drive away people like me

Let’s be entirely honest
And let my “I” turn to “we”
We don’t need to get up in arms
Just for an anthology

By on 07/29/05 at 11:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Matt,

Your comments to Adam’s post began by referring to the subject as a “tired” and a “mind-numbingly circular debate.” You acknowledged that it would take a “fleshed-out argument” to justify that perspective, but declined to offer it (with, I think, the rather clear implication--"maybe later"--that your opponents were unworthy of being stooped to) or to take part further in the conversation because you were going to make dinner.

To this you added the suggestion that “Anyone serious about critizing Derrida . . . should reasonably be expected to extend more courtesy to his texts than the approach direct quotes would allow.”

Sorry, that’s lame.  You sniped, but wouldn’t justify your perspective with an argument, and, rather than take part in the conversation that some of us tried to get started, you simply accused anyone critical of Derrida of bad faith in advance. 

I’m really not sure I understand your point in this last post at all.  But it seems to be that the whole discussion at the Valve and elsewhere was motivated by jealous fury, driven by a bandwagon effect, and entirely oriented to the Norton.  This is a claim, as you note, about our “primary motives” (and a patently wrong one, just ask Jonathan).  It manages, of course, to sneer without actually engaging any of the claims made by any of the various posters.

By on 07/29/05 at 12:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Whoops, cross-posted with Rich, who says it better.

By on 07/29/05 at 12:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

For your enjoyment:

After Matt’s post, thought I’d go over to Long Sunday to see if there was any discussion of TE in those parts.  In fact, Matt had a thread going whose comments include (scroll down) this choice bit from one RIPope:

It’s not like the Holbos or whatever of the world do much good. Their work stands in opposition to doing theory; it seeks not to change the world but to make sure it remains the same. It purposefully avoids the act, any hope of change (and calls anyone who actually tries to intervene a `totalitarian’).

With theory, you diagnose a truth. As soon as you’ve done it, the world changes.

So, you see Pannapacker, there were some itching for cultural bloodsport.  They were just (always already) elsewhere.

By on 07/29/05 at 12:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

First of all, Rich - what’s wrong with you?

Secondly - this, this right here, is exactly the mindnumbing circularity that keeps me away from the Valve. Calling each other out, absence yields a “see, they ran away, the babies...” Every fight about the good/bad faith of the fighters…

This, I think, is the problem with an “oppositional” blog - and let’s at least admit that that’s what the Valve (like the ALSC) is… Throws a veil over the important stuff - keeps us kung fuing in the anteroom of the truth…

This move - to call “us” (Matt/Long Sunday/whomever) out - and then when we fail to answer your claims and queries, accuse us of arrogance (or perhaps incompetence masked by a feigned arrogance...) is bad faith… Perhaps it’s bad faith for us to respond in kind - but you guys started it…

But why start this up again?  See where we’re headed?

Why is it that Matt gets the worst treatment of all when he seems to be more diplomatic about this stuff than others? I believe him when he says that he buys some of what’s being sold over here… He certainly buys more than I do. But why the viciousness toward him? Strange… Especially Rich’s psycho angry poem…

There’s a lot of the sick stink of masculine agression over here on the Valve. Lockerroomism… Too much to bear, really…

By CR on 07/29/05 at 01:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, CR, if you can stand the stink, here’s a question: have you read Matt’s comments to Adam’s post, and, if so, do you think they showed any effort to engage in argument?  Would it be wrong to say that in those posts he’s already dismissed the discussion as tired and circular?  Why not?

Now, consider Matt’s post at Long Sunday about the TE event.  Would it be wrong to say that in his reference to “genre” he’d already dismissed the subject of discussion as “a drinking game book where you sit around ranting about all those you hate”?  And does he not therefore suggest that, whatever the incidental quality of our posts may have been, they were oriented by concern with an illegitimate non-subject?

How about Matt’s post above.  Is there a point to it apart from the charge that motives in these parts are suspect?

Then, consider RIPope’s comments above.  Not arrogant? Provoked by the Valve how exactly? 

Is there a reply to those questions that isn’t moral one-upsmanship?

By on 07/29/05 at 01:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, Sean.  Do try reading the post.

I kind of like Rich’s poem, actually.

By Matt on 07/29/05 at 01:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Fair enough, Matt.  I did try to read it and admittedly found it difficult to follow.  Tell me the point I misunderstood, and I’ll be glad to retract.  Which of the claims I attributed to you is not accurate?

By on 07/29/05 at 01:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Passive-aggressivity doesn’t smell any better, CR.

The Valve is many different things. Referring to it as a univocal entity suggests that you don’t want any existing fact to get in the way of your indignation.

The “viciousness” you speak of was committed by a commenter here, first of all. Secondly, you’d have to be pretty exotic hothouse flower to see that as “vicious.” I thought it was pointless, myself, but it was certainly more honest and forthright than your comment above.

By Schleiermacher on 07/29/05 at 01:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m glad that Matt has a sense of humor.  The Tiny Tim reference was a bit much, but satiric rhyming doggerel sort of encourages a step too far.

CR, now, you look like a person for free verse. I present “What’s Wrong With You”:

What’s wrong with you?

This, this right here
Exactly the mindnumbing circularity
This is the problem

The veil of Maya
Thrown over our kung fu fighters
How dare you call us out?
Arrogance, no,
Incompetence, no,
BAD FAITH!
It is bad faith to respond

See where we’re headed?
The worst treatment,
the sick stink,
the viciousness
of your psycho angry poem

Too much to bear

By on 07/29/05 at 02:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks Sean (and Rich), I appreciate it.  At the risk of boring everyone at once, I’ll take you up Sean on that for a minute. 

The first words of my post are sincere praise for “the quality of discussion” over here.  I suggested the book was “not entirely unmarked by genre,” yes, and then I proceeded to heartily recommend that everyone and their grandmother come over, invest and partake.

I never meant to infer that my “opponents” as you say were “unworthy of being stooped to” (not that it matters, but I really did have to make dinner, just as right now I should be working), but I can see how that might be read as an act of bad faith and I apologize.

To be entirely frank however, and especially regarding Derrida, there are some debates that are by now indeed VERY TIRED, and it’s genuinely dismaying to see them rehashed, or cited as intellectual capital, however subtly or not so subtly disguised in form.  Simply saying that one isn’t doing this doesn’t make it so. 

Take the whole Fish or Eagleton thing, for example.  They are not the ones to ask about Derrida, and they never have been.  Nor do they speak for all the Intro to Lit. Theory professors in America, who are in my opinion to be applauded for helping not so much to equip students with useful tools as for pointing in certain historical directions where, provided they are genuinely curious, these tools might still be found (and as more or less than merely presciptive devises to stop thinking, of course).  I would actually argue that their (the Fish’s and Eagleton’s) deliberate and slippery provocations are often (though not always) somewhat ill-judged on their part, granting more fodder for backlash against “theory” than original insight.  But some people are popular spokesmen at heart, and now more than ever maybe some sparks are also needed.  As in yes, there are some political stakes tied to this debate, and the burden of proof is absolutely on the Anti-Theorists to show how their beef amounts to more than a latent conservatism. 

However as they are popular spokesmen for “theory” and vulnerable, so they are attacked.  If the result of this in 10 or 25 years is that anyone daring to use Derrida in a class for undergrads, Girard or Marx, feminist theory or the Russian Formalists to help approach a certain work of literature is immediately laughed out of the room (it’s happening already, to some degree), that will be OUR significant loss.  But that’s an extreme and almost paranoid view.  Surely theory will continue to rise from the dead in interesting ways for some time to come: 

http://pasaudela.blogspot.com/2005/03/essential-things.html

As for:

“Anyone serious about critizing Derrida . . . should reasonably be expected to extend more courtesy to his texts than the approach direct quotes would allow.”

I thought it was pretty clear, in that particular context, that I meant direct quotes would in a sense grant the ground of authority back to Abrams, or rather to the terms on which Derrida was dismissed, by the mere fact that they would risk posing or being taken as representative of Derrida’s entire body of thought, and so used to dismiss by proxy contamination Adam’s piece, which by the way remains unrefuted.

Most of all, I simply intended to suggest the possibility that, well, just maybe it takes one to know one.  That the kind of insularity and overcooked sense of community (empiricity, if you will) attributed to literary theorists, as per your posts here:

http://acephalous.typepad.com/acephalous/2005/07/a_theory_of_eve.html

or here:

http://acephalous.typepad.com/acephalous/2005/06/a_very_unfunny_.html

and not entirely unjust in my view (!), could however just as well extend to analytic philosophy (an empire rather well-known for its one up-man-ship, and take-no-prisoners approach to intellectual exchange, it might as well be noted).  So the tables could be turned, I think.  And the question of a burden of proof remains. 

Admittedly, this is a separate topic to some degree, and to his credit maybe Holbo has begun to address that terrain more directly.  For instance in “wondering” if, most recently I believe, analytic philosophers might not have better arguments but only one doesn’t know about them merely because they don’t make the Norton because they haven’t sufficiently “wowed” the literary crowd with their stunningly fresh diagnosis, etc. Again, it’s hard not to agree with this kind of broad sociological indictment at least in part (the freshness fetish part, say).  But need it be said that this once again reduces Theory to some straw antithesis of logical argument, to something more vainly concerned for AFFECT or stunningly broad gestures than for anything resembling the pursuit of truth (and Holbo accomplishes all this by way of a discussion of intentionality but also, and primarily I think, by taking apart the likes of Fish)...But like I said, that’s something of another debate (that is, something other than Adam’s reading of the Abrams essay) is it not?

I do not agree with RIPope’s glib assessment of Holbo, who in some ways I admire--not at all.  I also think it’s quite clear that Holbo is trying pretty hard to affect change in a significant manner, even if just how, or to what ends, remains for the moment a bit less than crystal clear.  Not to vulgarly attribute some kind of nefarious motive or anything, but I guess in some sense I’m still one of those sentimental Zinnians who tends to think it’s hard to be neutral on a moving train.  Or, as N+1 opines in that first link above, that this moment is indeed a sort of opening, and that “The big mistake right now would be to fail to keep faith with what theory once meant to us.”

So Onward, Christian soldiers, beyond the Christian stink “we” go!

By Matt on 07/29/05 at 03:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hold on a minute there: I think this time I really am being mistaken for Sean! 

Wait, does that mean I’m doing something right or he’s doing something wrong?

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/29/05 at 04:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In case I didn’t make this clear enough above, Matt, I want to say that I think Rich is being something of an ass with the poetry stuff and that he speaks for himself alone.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “vicious,” however.

By Jonathan on 07/29/05 at 04:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This is more like it.

By John Emerson on 07/29/05 at 04:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, Matt, you mentioned the quality of the discussion and recommended that others check it out.  I appreciate that.  Those remarks also came in the course of a comment that suggested the topic of conversation was a boozer’s rant and concerned with a non-issue.  ("never in much dispute . . . as a matter of translation rather meaningless")

Not surprising, since you seem inclined to give with one hand what you take away with the other.  To wit, this claim: 

there are some political stakes tied to this debate, and the burden of proof is absolutely on the Anti-Theorists to show how their beef amounts to more than a latent conservatism

is in fact little more than a softer restatement of the comment from RIPope that you dismiss as “glib assessment.” As an argumentative tactic, it’s cheap.  As a statement of fact, it’s completely bogus.

By on 07/29/05 at 04:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"As in yes, there are some political stakes tied to this debate, and the burden of proof is absolutely on the Anti-Theorists to show how their beef amounts to more than a latent conservatism.”

There’s a massive assumption here that “Theory,” whatever that is, is inherently progressive, leftist, etc.  Shouldn’t the burden of proof rather lie on those who would assert that this is so?

By on 07/29/05 at 04:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry, I missed Sean’s post.  What he said.

By on 07/29/05 at 04:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I have to stay in prose.  Free verse is too much like blogging without a net.

John says:

“Now, in response to Michael B’s comment: I didn’t mean to suggest that we shouldn’t be making arguments about ‘specific T/theoretical propositions and about their institutional effects.’ I quite agree that we must.”

This is my fault for not explaining why I was begging his pardon in my earlier comment.  I was thinking that perhaps my suggestion that theory “requires” us to debate “specific T/theoretical propositions and about their institutional effects” would sound, to John’s ears, too much like a premature co-optation of your entire enterprise (see, you’re simply doing what theory asks you to do!  jolly good—carry on, everyone!).  And I was thinking of his earlier objection to my suggestion that future theory courses and anthologies might well include some essays from TE.  So, in that vein:  thanks, John, for neatly clarifying our differences.  I think you’ve phrased them well:

“I was just trying to say ... well, put it this way. I think of Theory as being, quite generally, a wrong philosophical turn. I look at this whole cluster of philosophical figures and ideas andstyles and sensibilities and see little of interest or value [to me]....  Michael, I take it, would want to say it’s a very mixed bag. Good and bad. And lots of the systematically bad elements are contingent functions of unhealthy institutional factors like the star system and so forth. So we disagree.”

Yep, this is pretty much exactly what I’d say.  John’s dismissal of the entire enterprise here does sound, to my ears, too much like “this just in—sign not multivalent after all,” or, perhaps, “linguistic turn wrongly taken” and “hermeneutic circle squared.” The whole cluster is of little value or interest?  How much of theory since Nietzsche is in this cluster, exactly, or are we starting from John’s claim that Theory is entirely a post-1965 phenomenon?  I mean, de gustibus and all, but even when I find problems with the old school formalists and structuralists I’ve been Theory Tuesdaying lately, I still think they gave us insights and tools worth taking on board.  I’d say the same for the idiosyncratic Marxists—Benjamin, Adorno, Williams, early Jameson (I just haven’t kept up with more recent Jameson), etc.  I’d insist that the heyday of reader-response, late 1960s- late 1970s, taught us a few things worth considering about the role of temporality and self-revision in the reading process.  Speaking of René Girard, I don’t think he told us all we need to know about mimetic desire, such that we didn’t need to read Between Men (and, of course, Sedgwick fans should read Girard).  I believe the Lyotard-Habermas dispute is critically important. And despite my desire to pass a bill outlawing the unconscious, because it keeps mucking things up, I have to admit that I did need to learn about affect and asignifying things and such.

I’ll cop to the plea that Theory has had some regrettable effects that can’t be reduced to their institutional formations.  But if you’re saying that everyone from Shklovsky and Bakhtin to Butler and Rorty is of little value or interest (and for now let’s drop that “to me,” and pretend that Kant was right to distinguish between the beautiful and the pleasant and to argue that it makes no sense to say “it is beautiful to me“), then yeah, we’re butting heads.

So, then, two propositions about the headbutting.  One:  I think the contrast between John’s wholesale dismissal and other Valve contributors’ more specific critiques maps pretty closely onto the presentation of Theory’s Empire itself:  inside, a bunch of essays taking on aspects of theory with varying degrees of success; outside, a picture of a house of cards (apparently all the naked emperors were otherwise occupied and couldn’t make the photo shoot).  Hence, a bit of a tension, shall we say, between the “careful engagement with details of argument and consequences thereof” school (let’s take Amardeep’s post on postcolonialism as an example) and the “house of cards” dismissal.  Two: while I wouldn’t say, as William Pannapacker does, that “the expressed aims of the Valve are identical to those of the ALSC” (why, I hear some of you are not even members!) or even that they’re identical to TE itself (Daniel Green’s post on Wellek should suffice here), I would suggest that the name you chose was obviously relational from the outset, and very much in the TE mode:  to wit, valve : engine :: TE : Norton.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  Just pointing it out.

And I’m OK with Sean’s one-two, too.

By Michael on 07/29/05 at 05:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Michael, Matt previously accused Holbo (or all of The Valve, I couldn’t quite tell which) of a
“jealous fury over an anthology (of theory) [...] The Norton Anthology”, wrote that this
“was an event about a book responding as if on demand to one thing:  The Norton” and finally added “But you must excuse us if we don’t spontaneously get up in arms to defend The Norton.” He had enough other over-the-top rhetoric so that I thought that the best possible response was a funhouse mirror, rather than an argument, and luckily he appears to be able to appreciate that response as such.  But here The Norton appears again, when you write: “I would suggest that the name you chose was obviously relational from the outset, and very much in the TE mode:  to wit, valve : engine :: TE : Norton.” How serious is this implication? 

I would guess that you aren’t really implying that the Valveteers sit around, drinking heavily and muttering to each other “That damned book” before staggering to the office to pound out another another diatribe against the spawn of W.W. Norton & Co.  But your relational statement appears to do double duty: first, it trivializes the contents of Theory’s Empire as if they were defensive reactions to a particular book, instead of a group of essays each representing someone’s best thought about an issue, many written in other contexts entirely.  Second, it trivializes the writing of the posters here by assigning “the engine” to Theory, as if the only motive force for the people who post here was blowing off steam about a vital movement that they can only criticize.  That’s really not representative of the writing that I’ve seen here in general; the Theory’s Empire event is not all of the Valve, and even during it that characterization really doesn’t fit.  So, did I misinterpret you?

And oh yes, before Jonathan carefully points it out again, I am a commenter here, speaking for myself alone.

By on 07/29/05 at 08:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve mentioned in email to John Holbo that during my brief academic career, given a choice between an analytic philosophy department and an English department, I chose to major in mathematics and read Derrida on the side. To me, I have to say, this decision seems to have only a very tenuous connection to anything I find interesting in contemporary literary criticism, literary scholarship, or literature, and so I’ve felt no need to write about it on The Valve. But I offer it in the interest of further confusing any notion of the site as an entity with a singular polemic mission.

(More germane, come to think of it, may be my longer term project of surviving seemingly uncontrollable—one might almost say hormonal—connective swings between punk crassness and earnest curiosity. Now there’s something on which Holbo and I might find common ground, and something which might sometimes be said to infest The Valve: a—what did someone call it? a tenacious odor of testosterone?)

By Ray Davis on 07/29/05 at 09:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean/Scott, sorry. 

There’s a massive assumption here that “Theory,” whatever that is, is inherently progressive, leftist, etc.

I suspected someone would call that out.  Lest we forget that the ALSC be formed entirely of French Marxist/feminists with hair under their arms and “pipes” in their jaws.  Seriously it’s up for debate still.  I’m not at all sure either is inherently progressive at this stage, to be honest.

there are some political stakes tied to this debate, and the burden of proof is absolutely on the Anti-Theorists to show how their beef amounts to more than a latent conservatism

is in fact little more than a softer restatement of the comment from RIPope that you dismiss as “glib assessment.”

Absolutely not.  I was distinguishing myself from someone who would ever write such a thing about Holbo, by name (who I don’t think he’s very familiar with, by the way).  That I understand, or think I understand, where the sentiment comes from generally is not the same thing as endorsing it unconditionally. 

Holbo’s point #2 above is all well and good.  It remains absolutely necessary in any world, even.  But from the beginning it would seem a gesture of unusual good faith that this book itself fails to make, and more than once.  There is indeed a rather long history of anti-intellectualism (particularly in America) that the anti-theory position (as fortressed by the very existence of this book) seems happy to at least make use of, IN A SENSE, that is primarily by ambiguous tension, silence, proxy or socio-cultural insinuation.  That is, partly the presentation aspect Michael aptly calls above, “The House of Cards”.

Not to judge a book by its cover, or anything.  But if everyone is in agreement (as they seem to be?) that people don’t read enough, indeed can’t possibly be expected to ever read enough, on such subjects, in this day and age of constantly biting off more than one can chew, then yes, I do especially think the burden of proof is on defenders of this book to show how it might amount to much more than conservative fodder. 

It’s not that I think this question hasn’t been dealt with *here*; in fact I think it has been, to some degree, and admirably (perhaps, per DeLong--the world’s foremost expert on leaving Foucault for Adam Smith--a bit too admirably, and though Michael--and here’s the part where I take it away--is the first to really bring up this particular tension explicitly, unless I’m entirely mistaken).  You’d think after a week or two someone might have mentioned it..

I’m guess I’m just still left wondering if the book, as a concept, as “dissent”, as an historically-ambitious presentation as well as rather mixed bag of arguments, ever really deserved such an elaborate, often quite eloquent defense.  (There, I gave it back, sort of.) Do with that what you will.  Felt gloves still on, not reaching for any knives just yet.

By Matt on 07/29/05 at 10:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Matt, look at what you said: “the burden of proof is absolutely on the Anti-Theorists to show how their beef amounts to more than a latent conservatism.” (my emph)

That’s one of the rare moments in your posts that is not ambiguous.  RIP says: the Holbos of the world “see[k] not to change the world but to make sure it remains the same."* You say the Holbos have an absolute burden to prove otherwise.  If the burden is absolute, that surely implies a presumption that, lacking strong proof to the contrary, the beef is indeed latent conservatism.  What difference does it make if you don’t actually say the word Holbo?  That’s like Karl Rove saying, well, I never said the words “Valerie Plame.” There’s no question who you’re talking about and what you mean.

This is a maddening feature of your posts.  Except in rare cases like the above, it’s impossible to say what you mean. First you say, yes, American “Theory” is laughable, then you say a book criticizing it is empty ranting and not on the side of the angels.  First you say something snide, and then you say, hey, don’t get so touchy, I like you, I don’t mean that.  And then CR rushs in and yells, what’s all this fuss about.

Look, if you want to say some of us are conservative and anti-intellectual, say it without all the fudging.  You’ll be wrong, but at least it’ll be clear what you mean. 

*Not to mention the cockeyed reverse Marxism of this notion--as if Marx said the point is when you interpret the world you change it.

By on 07/29/05 at 10:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean: “And then CR rushes in and yells, what’s all this fuss about.”

Eh, actually I think that his first priority was to ask what was wrong with me and my “psycho angry poem”.  Does CR ever read poetry, I wonder?  I thought that literary studies people were supposed to be sort of, you know, literary.

By on 07/29/05 at 11:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich:  But here The Norton appears again, when you write: “I would suggest that the name you chose was obviously relational from the outset, and very much in the TE mode:  to wit, valve : engine :: TE : Norton.” How serious is this implication?

I suppose it all depends on how you read the intro to TE.  I think it’s pretty clear that the editors’ ambition is to challenge the institutional status of the Norton (or whatever they imagine that institutional status to be), but I’m happy to have my intentionalist claims challenged.  As for the Valve, this very blog says up top (or Empson does) that the safety valve alone knows the worst truth about the engine.  Let me lob this ball back over the net:  what, then, is the engine?

By Michael on 07/30/05 at 01:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

“I look at this whole cluster of philosophical figures and ideas and styles and sensibilities and see little of interest or value (to me).”

OK. I’m regretting writing that line. Which, be it noted, is a thing I fired off in comments, not even in a post. It is unfortunately sweeping, although it can serve as an inadvertent proof by example of what I was trying to argue: namely, it isn’t much use trying to engage the question at this level of generality, because you always get tripped up into saying something unfortunately sweeping. (Michael B sort of makes this point about the editorial bits of TE: the front matter of the various sections is much more fire-breathing than the contents they introduce. This doesn’t produce a very good impression. I think the editors did a really good job of picking selections, but I can’t say I think so highly of the way they wrote them up.)

I shouldn’t have said at all that Theory ‘isn’t interesting.’ Obviously I’m rather fascinated by it. (It’s partly train-wreck fascination, yes. But fascination still. Partly it’s a fascination with fashion. Theory is baroque and lavish and extreme, and that’s rather eye-catching.) I can also see how it all seemed to make a lot of sense at the time, why it seemed like it was necessary and good. I am interested in Theory as a chapter in intellectual history. Theory is late-Romanticism; very strange fruit of the counter-Enlightenment (in my opinion.) I would like to see that chapter well written, and it could only be well written with a lot of sympathy and charity. But I do see Theory as mostly an intellectual obstacle to be overcome. I shouldn’t have said it isn’t valuable, because that sounds like I am hinting that people shouldn’t take inspiration where they can find it. That would be a silly thing to do. When I say I think Theory is generally wrong (which I shouldn’t say, because no good will come of it), I mean something like: of course every thinker should be judged individually. It is unjust to hold a mass trial, in effect; but when you ask ‘what good is Theory?’ you can’t justify it by pointing to a few inspired geniuses, or a few bright spots. You’ve got to characterize the mass of things that fall in this (admittedly nebulous) category and say: what general virtues do these things share? In what way does this stuff tend to be good? Why should urging graduate students in this direction tend to make them do good work? Considered in that general light, I see mostly downside. I see some shared misconceptions, some bad habits, a whole lot of moral hazards - standing temptations to make big messes. I see a tendency to head in what I take to be wrong directions. Even if I am right about this, obviously I am intellectually irresponsible if I’m not willing to consider that some person who ‘does Theory’ has really got some great insights, arguments, whatever. It’s important to avoid letting my rhetoric get me into a position in which I personally lose face if I have to admit that any stitch of Theory turns out to be worth anything. Because that will make me act stupid.

To put it another way, I really was offering a personal statement. Theory isn’t valuable TO ME. I don’t mean to be relativistic about it. I’m not. It’s delicate. I find I haven’t learned from Theory, despite having read rather an inordinate quantity. When I set up a little mental shrine to my educators, as Nietzsche would have me do, they don’t ‘do Theory’. My four philosophic heroes are Wittgenstein, Plato, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, not necessarily in that order. The latter two are, of course, canonic Theory ancestors, but I understand Kierkegaard and Nietzsche in a way that is rather alien to ‘doing Theory’. Rather a long story, but it has to do a lot with thinking that Heidegger got a lot of things wrong; also, with thinking that the legacy of Saussure and structuralism has been baneful. Theory isn’t just post-Heidegger and structuralism/post-structuralism, but the coils of that stuff are over a lot of it, and I don’t like it. Also, I’ve got more complaints if you’ve got all day. Let it be said: Heidegger’s lectures on Nietzsche are interesting. They are perhaps the most interesting Heidegger I’ve read. But I think it’s not right. Heidegger gets Nietzsche wrong and then takes that as his cue to head in what I take to be a wrong direction. And Derrida even more so. And I perfectly well have colleagues, and have had teachers, who think Heidegger is the greatest philosopher of the 20th Century. And some people seem to find Derrida a very charming stylist. I find these opinions very odd, but I don’t think my colleagues and teachers are all big idiots. And I know Saussure was a really important linguist, but it has been his fate to turn people into bad philosophers.

I’m not attempting to make literary studies a tributary vassal of imperial analytic philosophy. (Do you ever notice how little analytic philosophy I quote or cite in my posts? There’s a reason for that.) Analytic philosophy made my brain the way it is, and I like my brain the way it is. But analytic philosophy, with its somewhat scholastic and twiddly ways, isn’t going to help so terribly all-fired much in doing what I want to do: something heavily philosophy-inflected that is right at the border of literary criticism - practical criticism; interpreting and writing about novels and poems and culture. Including popular culture. I want to be sitting just where Theory is, in short. But Theory is squatting on my spot. So I can’t really ignore it. Even if it’s dead, as some say, it’s taking a long time to decay. Still, since I don’t think my colleagues who like Heidegger are idiots, I don’t insist on exterminating the Theory beast, if there’s still life in it. I just want it to make some room. I want to get to the point where people don’t think of Theory as being anything like a default intellectual position. Theory is so odd that the default position should be that any given denizen of literary studies should have no presumptive need for it, or interest in it; either because a less philosophically heavy-duty approach is preferred, or a different sort of philosophy is preferred.

By John Holbo on 07/30/05 at 01:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Michael writes:

“As for the Valve, this very blog says up top (or Empson does) that the safety valve alone knows the worst truth about the engine.  Let me lob this ball back over the net:  what, then, is the engine?”

I think that one’s to me.

First, don’t read too much into it, obviously. (But you knew that.)

The engine is really the whole institution of academic literary studies - the whole humanities, if you like. ‘Safety valve’ means: opportunity to step outside of that, if and when the strictures become truly uncomfortable and constraining. But the implication is that this is not just escapism - having a little fun, chatting - but an attempt to perform some necessary functions that the institution itself isn’t necessarily handling so well.

It certainly was never meant to be a shot specifically at Theory. Because the Valve truly isn’t supposed to have such a narrow purpose.

The tag is also a nice capsule justification for literary studies, I think. Literature - art - is just a safety valve, some say: mere escapism. But actually it’s more than that, hmmmm yes?

By John Holbo on 07/30/05 at 02:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Um Rich, I could just absolutely house you in the “reading poetry” department. So I’d shut up with that stuff nowish. See the thing that would suprise some of you is that I’m by far a lit-first, theory-next kind of guy, as far as my work goes… I make the big bucks for close reading, not abstract theorizing.

Picking up where Matt left off above, and heading elsewhere. I think it’s possible to debate the left efficacy of theory, for sure. There’ve been some excellent critiques of poststructuralism from the neomarxist left a la Hardt and Negri in Empire - that poststructuralism, difference, decon, etc is in fact the discursive version of global capitalism itself etc…

But see I have an easier time listening to that - in fact I’m rather taken with the idea - than what goes on here.

I wonder… and I’m sort of nervous about this, nervous that it’ll end up on David Horowitz’s website or whatever (what times we live in...) if one of the ways out of this little bind would be brief statements about what we think the roll of politics in the study of literature might be. (Alternately: what the roll of literature in the pursuit of political ends might be)...

Seriously, isn’t this the question we aren’t confronting, what needs to be answered first? Do you think lit needs to be bracketted off from worldly concerns, do you think that you’re creating mini-Che’s by teaching Middlemarch, or somewhere in between? 

I’ll start.

If my work could be assigned to any school, I’d like to think that it’d fall into the Marxist camp, a la Jameson etc… But I’ve got a contrarian streak that makes it tough to toe any party line. What I’m most interested in is figuring out the relationship between literary form and social form, the way especially society exhibits fictional technique in its own self-conception… In order to head in this direction, I need a ton of close reading - I’d say 80-90 percent of the diss was all close reading…

So - I do quite a bit with form… It’s the translation, though, into the socio-historical that gives my work bite, I think. But believe you me, if I’ve got a lit crit superpower, it’s in the close reading / formal analysis department…

I don’t preach ever in the classroom but of course I hope that what I teach them makes them better people, that is to say leftier.

All in all, I feel utterly politically ineffective. Nearly utterly useless. Occassionally I get a tiny shiver of hope that I’m doing some reprogramming in the classroom, but who the hell knows, right? And, at my best, I feel as though some day I’m going to produce something in writing of some importance… But that might just be a pipe dream, idle idealism…

Anyway - I think it’d be interesting and useful to hear from others their thoughts on the relationship between lit and politics… Gotta be something more interesting, though, than “yes” or “no”...

By CR on 07/30/05 at 02:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John sez:

“The tag is also a nice capsule justification for literary studies, I think. Literature - art - is just a safety valve, some say: mere escapism. But actually it’s more than that, hmmmm yes?”

Now we’re testing the limits of bullshit tonight, are we John?

Holy crap.... That’s not what you meant when you came up with yr pokey little slogan…

By CR on 07/30/05 at 02:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, I give, CR. What did I mean?

By John Holbo on 07/30/05 at 02:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

What Berube said, more or less, is what you meant. You’re purging the overheated engine that is literary studies…

Not that literary studies purges the world. Come on now....

At least be straight with us, or at least Professor Berube when he’s in the room…

By CR on 07/30/05 at 02:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Chomsky argues, quite convincingly I think, that the classroom must not be politicized. If the tendency is not checked, he suggests, the statist right will soon exercise a monopoly over indoctrination, with predictably terrible consequences. If you overtly politicize your classroom, then you have no grounds to object to someone whose politics you detest doing the same

Others argue that this is in itself a political act, that the classroom can never be non-political, that education is already indoctrination by said statist right (something of a term of art for Chomsky--it also includes what we call, unfortunately, “libertarians,” who worship instead private hierarchies), and that it has to be fought by any means necessary.

All of this can get busy when you also have two centuries of British literature to get through. Much doesn’t survive contact with a classroom.

By Jonathan on 07/30/05 at 03:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

CR, calm your overheating engine. Yes, the line is ambiguous. As a tag for our blog, it hints that literary studies could do with better circulation, but also that literature - literary studies - is a valuable thing. You gotta problem with ambiguity?

The circulation point isn’t about Theory. It’s much more general, and something that I think Theory partisans ought to be happy enough with. See my inaugural ‘form follows the function of the little magazine’ post again. Note the absence of anti-Theory polemic in it. From day 1, I made a point of not launching this venture as an anti-Theory platform, but as a model platform. I am sorry that you don’t think TE is a good book, or worth discussing. Or whatever it is you think. But that’s a separate matter. (I’m not going to argue about the Empson tag any more either.)

By John Holbo on 07/30/05 at 03:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think it’s possible to debate the left efficacy of theory, for sure. There’ve been some excellent critiques of poststructuralism from the neomarxist left a la Hardt and Negri in Empire - that poststructuralism, difference, decon, etc is in fact the discursive version of global capitalism itself etc…

I comment from the No Polemics Zone--not to be mistaken for the “No Polemics Zone,” which would be a lame take on Foxnews’ the “No Spin Zone” and thus consist entirely of polemics--and CR, that mindset you expressed up there is the one that makes an anthology like Theory’s Empire valuable.  It’s unhealthy to imagine that the only valid critiques of a tradition can come from within that tradition.  Hardt and Negri aren’t theoretical outsiders: in interviews Hardt has claimed that Empire‘s empires are analogous to the body without organs, the imagined limits of capitalism that must be overcome.  And then he becomes a Marxist in his descriptions of how these limits will be overcome.  What rankles otherwise intelligent people like John, Sean and myself is the notion that the only valid, i.e. non-anti-intellectual, criticisms of Theory can come from within.  The problem with that, from the point of pure argument, is that it necessarily entails always accepting your opponents’ premises; and if you accept the premises of an argument proffered and refined by intelligent people, it’ll be very, very difficult--nay, impossible--to avoid the same conclusion they’ve already come to.  If I accept the existence of the unconscious, for example, I’m bound to argue in a Freudian vein.  I can’t not do so.  But if I want to deny the existence of the unconscious as described by Freud, then my criticism-by-implication of all post-Freudian theories which incorporate Freudian notions of the unconscious is considered anti-intellectual.

But it isn’t.  (For proof, click here and check the date on the third entry down.  Or here.) I do, however, tire of being considered anti-intellectual because I’ve decided that some texts and traditions can’t outstrip the law of diminishing returns, and that perhaps it’s time to explore others.  Actual curiosity’s replaced by a regimental curiosity: “You, be sure to be curious.  But be careful to ask the correct questions.  We don’t want you straying too far from the fold.”

Again, this isn’t an attack on any particular person, position or philosophical tradition; it’s a general observation about the terms of the debate, and a quick notice that these terms annoy me.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/30/05 at 04:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

In fact, there have been quite devastating (in my view) criticism of Hardt and Negri from the left as quasi mystics who manage to recreate the fantasies of American liberlism.  (Gopal Balakrishnan, New Left Review, Fall 2000) Likewise, whatever his other faults may be, Eagleton’s book on postmodernism is an angry leftist’s denunciation of pretty much what has been called Theory in these parts.  And then there’s the example of Chomsky, of course.

The point to take away from these examples, I think, isn’t that, yes, there’s been disagreement in the House of Theory, or on the left (not exactly news).  It’s that the whole incendiary question lobbed by Matt and taken up by CR is a bad one.  Note only is there no necessary connection between any attractive political position and Theory.  There isn’t even a plausible one.  What was once an institutional conflict in the literature depts of American universities and colleges, with much overinflated rhetoric from all quarters, got systematically misconstrued as an important political struggle.  It isn’t.

That’s the drawback of questions like the one you pose, CR.  They’re reductive. They evoke therefore the taking of rigid postures.  And they’re perilously near the form of the shibboleth (declare your political good intentions before your ideas will be taken seriously--something far from absent in the recent literary academy).  The result is, of course, personal confession.  But not important political or intellectual pay off.

Put it differently.  If any theoretical or critical argument can’t stand on its own merits, all the references to political consequences or anti-intellectual perils can’t save it.  In the end that’s all smoke, and it’s what we were trying to put aside when this event started.

By on 07/30/05 at 07:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

CR: “Um Rich, I could just absolutely house you in the “reading poetry” department. So I’d shut up with that stuff nowish. [...] if I’ve got a lit crit superpower, it’s in the close reading / formal analysis department”

CR, I’m sorry to have to point out explicitly what my free verse should have made clear, but your writing is comically aggressive, and your attempt to sound street doesn’t make it less so.  I should shut up nowish?  I think that your formal analysis superpower did not show itself to best advantage when you couldn’t tell that the doggerel that I posted here was parody or satire, despite more than half of it being directly quoted from the post above that I was satirizing.  In fact, your writing here currently depicts the kind of literary studies person that I had thought only existed in hostile caricature.  I suggest that you take a breath, do a close reading (really!) of “What’s Wrong With You” and your comment that sourced it above, and think about your style if nothing else.

By on 07/30/05 at 08:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Michael: “I suppose it all depends on how you read the intro to TE.  I think it’s pretty clear that the editors’ ambition is to challenge the institutional status of the Norton (or whatever they imagine that institutional status to be), but I’m happy to have my intentionalist claims challenged.”

Thanks for the response, Michael.  Unfortunately, I can’t challenge your claim as I should, because I on-the-cheap only read those essays from Theory’s Empire that were available for free on the Web, and the introduction wasn’t among them.  From what I have read, however, I got a different impression.  To quote a post here by Sean McCann: “If you’re even slightly simpatico, you’ve got to feel bad for the editors of Theory’s Empire.  There’s no more basic feature of “theory” in the literary academy than its committed antiformalism and its hostility to definition of any kind.  [...] So putting together a critical anthology that would be both comprehensive and structurally coherent must have been quite a task for Daphne Patai and Will Corral.” In this interpretation, I’d guess that the Norton was used as a kind of convenient organizing device, as in, there’s this anthology that claims to say what theory is, so we can evade some definitional arguments by referring to it.  I don’t think that really comes up to the level of reactivity that your relational statement implies.  (But, of course, you’ve read the introduction and I haven’t.)

Michael again: “As for the Valve, this very blog says up top (or Empson does) that the safety valve alone knows the worst truth about the engine.  Let me lob this ball back over the net:  what, then, is the engine?”

As John Holbo wrote, this was directed to him, and he answered it.  (And I’m glad he did; I never had understood what he thought that the valve quote meant.) I add this only as a note to “Luther Blissett”, who has been writing here about whether you can distinguish authorial intention—see, Luther, sometimes you can actually ask someone what they meant and they will answer.  I don’t think that this is best modelled as authorial intention being an essence that can never really be understood.  Nothing can be perfectly understood, sure, but I don’t see how that’s important.

By on 07/30/05 at 08:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ah, but Rich, although John Holbo came up with the line & made the pitch, this was pitched as a collaborative effort, & so how his collaborators interpret the line also matters. Myself, I thought it was maybe a little combative sounding but vague enough to indicate what made the pitch interest me (which really honest to gosh does cover at least as wide a range as John said). But in all of that, you’ll note that what I was trying to anticipate was reader reaction. And, insofar as the readers turn out to react to it overly combatively, I think the “meaning” can be said to be somewhat outside our control & not reclaimable.

CR, “thoughts on on the relationship between lit and politics” are difficult enough to express as it is—but you want them to be interesting, too!? I hope your students don’t get assignments that tough. But what you then go on to talk about emphasizes the relationship between teaching & politics, & that’s little easier for me: I believe I’m a typical non-academic in feeling a great deal of cyncicism when tenured humanities professors speak as political prophets (particularly when they behave brutally to underlings or professional rivals), but I also believe that honest analysis & ethical behavior are about as politically efficacious as explicitly non-political work gets. Of course, nothing prevents academics or artists from also trying to get involved in explicitly political work—writing speeches for candidates, working the talk shows, volunteering at the defense clinics, & so on—but not all intellectuals are cut out to be public intellectuals, & not all public intellectuals do well in explicitly political work. In my own case, I bring a divisiveness which can be illuminating in many circumstances but just a waste of time when organizing a protest or a boycott.

I’ve been intending to post more on Ross Posnock’s Color & Culture, which takes an interesting (to me) approach to the subject, but am still not sure it’ll belong here. But I’ll drop you an email when/if it appears.

By Ray Davis on 07/30/05 at 12:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"the defense clinics”

As the one true Wonka directed: Strike that. Reverse it.

By Ray Davis on 07/30/05 at 02:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If any theoretical or critical argument can’t stand on its own merits, all the references to political consequences or anti-intellectual perils can’t save it.  In the end that’s all smoke, and it’s what we were trying to put aside when this event started.

Did I just miss the part where a particular theoretical or critical argument (such as those Bérubé has been so generously elaborating) was resoundingly defeated?  What might this even mean--"can’t stand on its own merits”?  What are the criteria being used to judge?  The polemical pieces of Stanley Fish?  Ok, that may be unfair, but it is at least I think an effective cartoon version of the perception battle you’d be fighting, were you so interested.

From day 1, I made a point of not launching this venture as an anti-Theory platform, but as a model platform.

A far more insidious way to launch an anti-Theory platform, some might dare to suggest.  Speaking of “smoke”...

Look, if you want to say some of us are conservative and anti-intellectual, say it without all the fudging.  You’ll be wrong, but at least it’ll be clear what you mean.

That’s funny, I thought the whole point was to move on to something “a bit more civil and complex.” However when one’s primary, explicit motivation is to push aside a “squatter”...well it’s quite reasonably justified to wonder just how sincere this desire for complexity may be.  Nevermind being happy to *take advantage* of anti-intellectualism, by using a House of Cards presentation, sweeping dismissals as selling points, lack of careful, visible and explicit qualification from mainstream conservative thought, ALSC goals, or whatever) which is not the same thing as being directly or vulgarly anti-intellectual, now is it.

There are many ways of “making room”.  To my ears, it sure doesn’t sound like the *complete* and *final* death and decay of everything from feminist studies, Marxist studies, psychoanalytic studies, queer theory, poststructuralism, to everything once French, etc. would be much of a problem of conscience *at all* for most <s>people</s> men <s>posting</s> huffing and puffing here.

Just a glib observation.  And not at all to say that there haven’t been several notable exceptions, from Amardeep, Michael and Adam especially.  But if you’re serious about reaching out to the Theorist “camp”, well there’s the impression management problem you’re facing.  You can certainly choose to evade or ignore it.  The “Theory Camp” is after all *not* your target audience, now is it.  They are merely an annoyance, or something “in the way.”

So there’s the cartoon, to some perhaps debatable degree cartoonish.

John writes a very sincere, personal and revealing post above.  Revealing because it might suggest to some how debates over “theory” may have complex roots and motivations, and might not be entirely unrelated to rather firm positions in debates over Heidegger.  Would it be safe to say that resolving these debates over Heidegger is not in the cards at the moment (though Michael has at least broached the topic as relates to this particular book): 

http://www.michaelberube.com/index.php/engine_trouble/

Scott makes some interesting points above:

What rankles otherwise intelligent people like John, Sean and myself is the notion that the only valid, i.e. non-anti-intellectual, criticisms of Theory can come from within.  The problem with that, from the point of pure argument, is that it necessarily entails always accepting your opponents’ premises; and if you accept the premises of an argument proffered and refined by intelligent people, it’ll be very, very difficult--nay, impossible--to avoid the same conclusion they’ve already come to.

As I believe Michael has already pointed out, people within Theory do in fact question each other’s premises all the time.  Derrida especially.  But John doesn’t think they go about it “in the right way." Well, let’s here more about this “right way” then.

But it most definitely wasn’t our intent to start a war. I think, in fact, it is one of the good features of Theory’s Empire that it isn’t really suited to be an instrument of culture war. This was what we wanted people to know about it.

Who’s to say where the culture wars end, really?  Certainly not with a house of cards.  I’m sorry but a lot, not all, but a lot of what is being said here has been said for several decades now, in institutional turf-fights, in mainly American attempts to deny anything amounting to a complex Freudian or psychoanalytic legacy or the legitimacy of “deconstruction” before, during and after the falling from grace of Paul DeMan, etc.

By A on 07/31/05 at 02:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The culture wars actually ended with David Mamet’s House of Games. I can prove this.

But that’s an otherwise generous and careful reading of the facts, A. This paragraph was especially good:
There are many ways of “making room”.  To my ears, it sure doesn’t sound like the *complete* and *final* death and decay of everything from feminist studies, Marxist studies, psychoanalytic studies, queer theory, poststructuralism, to everything once French, etc. would be much of a problem of conscience *at all* for most <s>people</s> men <s>posting</s> huffing and puffing here.

By Jonathan on 07/31/05 at 02:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I appreciate the compliment, but you’re further proving my point: those considered within the fold can critique each other endlessly, whereas criticisms from those considered outsiders are “anti-intellectual.”

An example: I’m on the record as denying the complex psychoanalytic legacy not because it’s complex--i.e. not because I’ve an anti-intellectual streak--but because I believe it to be an unscientific science of consciousness better replaced, or at least forced to converse with, other equally complex but scientific sciences of consciousness that have arisen in the past century.  (I think this because, its pretensions aside, psychoanalysis isn’t fit to eat the wax of the candle it can’t hold to these scientific sciences.) Instead this obsolete model of the human mind is protected under the banner of Theory, and will remain so for as long as the debate’s defined by this psychoanalysis/anti-intellectual binary. 

The institutitional reason for pickling psychoanalysis is that its assumptions are foundational for many of the movements you’ve listed: feminism, postcolonial studies, queer theory, &c.  I don’t advocate abandoning these fields; but dismiss the legitimacy of psychoanalysis and all of the sudden people in these fields have a lot of work to do.  They have to rethink many of the arguments at the core of their thought and practice, and to put it bluntly, it strikes me that that’s hard work that Theorists are reluctant to do; it’s much easier to just call your critic an anti-intellectual and continue to labor under the illusion of psychoanalysis’ relevance.  (I could ladle on the irony, but I don’t want to belabor the point.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/31/05 at 03:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Some versions of psychoanalysis differ significantly in their respective compatibility with contemporary cognitive science. This is a complexity that, while inconvenient for many parties, should be acknowledged.

Furthermore, even Lacanian psychoanalysis is much more influential in some of those schools of theory than others.

Though A’s comment seemed unduly pissy, I don’t think it’s worthwhile to argue in general terms about “T"heory. John’s point about counter-Enlightenmentalism applies best to Lacan, I think, though where would Dialectic of Enlightenment fit in? From my experience in graduate school, Adorno, Benjamin, and Lukacs were more widely cited and influential than the other brand names. And a good thing as I saw it.

By Jonathan on 07/31/05 at 03:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Some versions of psychoanalysis differ significantly in their respective compatibility with contemporary cognitive science.

Yes, and even a stopped clock’s correct twice a day.  Only the rear-guard of a profoundly doomed movement would justify the claims of something which purports to be a science by arguing that those claims are occasionally compatible with those of actual sciences.  It’s backwards to think that cognitive scientists should concede, and in conceding recognize, some merit to a coincidence of correspondence. 

A counter-example: geologists know that rocks vibrate.  The New Age community also say that rocks vibrate; but they also have an entire system of untestable, unscientific beliefs about the healing powers of these vibrations.  What we have here is a coincidental correspondence.  Why should the geological community be compelled to acknowledge the existence of this coincidence when they know that their acknowledgment will be synecdochically abused by the New Age community?  The only party here who gains from this exchange is the New Age community.  (That they seek such an acknowledgment in the first place is another sort of acknowledgment altogether.) Again, the only person who would consider it intellectually dishonest of the geological community to deny that this correspondence is anything other than a coincidence would be a member of the New Age community, i.e. someone who is him- or herself arguing in bad faith. 

For what it’s worth, you’re certainly correct about the difference between Lacan and Adorno et al.  I’m just not sure what it’s worth.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/31/05 at 05:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The NPSA <a href=http://www.neuro-psa.org.uk/npsa/">site</a> is a good place to learn more about what I mentioned. They have a journal, Neuro-Psychoanalysis.

You could look at the backgrounds of the editors and contributors to see if they meet your standards of scientific rigor.

By Jonathan on 07/31/05 at 06:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A quotes this bit from Sean:

“If any theoretical or critical argument can’t stand on its own merits, all the references to political consequences or anti-intellectual perils can’t save it.  In the end that’s all smoke, and it’s what we were trying to put aside when this event started.”

And A writes:

“Did I just miss the part where a particular theoretical or critical argument (such as those Bérubé has been so generously elaborating) was resoundingly defeated?  What might this even mean--"can’t stand on its own merits”?  What are the criteria being used to judge?  The polemical pieces of Stanley Fish?  Ok, that may be unfair, but it is at least I think an effective cartoon version of the perception battle you’d be fighting, were you so interested.”

A, ‘if’ announces a hypothetical. Sean wasn’t assuming that Theory has already been laid in its grave, merely saying that it something is refuted it should be regarded as refuted. Do you deny that it is possible for an argument to ‘fail on the merits’, that is, be a bad argument? Illogical, invalid, flawed? Insufficiently supported by evidence? Question-begging? Fallacious? It is of course worth asking what criteria of assessment are to be used. But in our case the answer would be something like: by the standards of rational, philosophical debate. That’s not totally clear, but it’s not totally unclear either. Are you expressing skepticism globally about the very possibility of assessing arguments, or Theory? I just want to get this one out of the way, because if it just isn’t possible to assess intellectual products for merit then we’re pretty much dead from the start. Let me turn the point around: if you think it is possible for an argument to be bad - for example, you might pick one of mine, which you seem to regard with some suspicion - well, how can such a thing be possible?

I honestly don’t understand what you mean by saying ‘the polemical pieces of Stanley Fish’ might be our standard for assessing arguments. An argument is good/bad iff it is polemical in a Fish way? What’s that mean? I guess you could be saying Fish is being used as a strawman, but could you point to anywhere where anyone has said, or implied: and if Fish is wrong, all of Theory falls. Barring that, sometimes a critique of Fish is just a critique of Fish. Right? (I take it it’s OK to critique Fish, in detail, and suggest that others might have similar problems. Do you admit that? If not, why not?)

A quotes me:

“From day 1, I made a point of not launching this venture as an anti-Theory platform, but as a model platform.”

A writes:

“A far more insidious way to launch an anti-Theory platform, some might dare to suggest.  Speaking of “smoke”...”

Are you saying that the model platform is itself inimical to Theory? That is, not just this particular conversation, but any conversation conducted in this manner, has some inherent tendency to illegitimately undermine Theory? If so, why? If this isn’t your point, what is it? I suppose you could be saying it has all been an elaborate, deep-laid plot by me. My appearance of cultivating interests besides bashing Theory is just an insidious cloak drawn across my monomaniacal obsession with bashing Theory. But is that really plausible?

One last question: do you think it is intellectually illegitimate to be anti-Theory. If so, why (given that Theory is but one school among many?) If not, why are you citing the bare fact of our orientation as evidence we are crypto-anti-intellectuals?

I am glad you appreciated my attempt to be frank about my personal philosophical outlook. Now why didn’t that frankness on my part evaporate your other objections?

I guess maybe the key is what you refer to as the ‘impression management’ we need to be worried about; the ‘perception battle’ we should be fighting. If what you mean by that is ‘misperception battle’ - that is, we are anti-intellectual, fear difficulty, haven’t read Derrida carefully, hate cans, are sinister plotters etc. - then avoiding the battle is practically the whole war (if we simply must have a war.) I just want to side-step bad ad hominem attacks. They’re boring. This is part of your complaint: that we’re still refighting the boring old culture wars. But then why not just drop the boring old objections to anti-Theory? Mightn’t that help update the tone?

If you have some actual argument that I’m anti-intellectual, I’m honor-bound to rebut it. But I don’t see an argument. Barring one, I think I’m entitled to ignore the charge as implausible and just do something intellectual and expect it to be assessed on the merits, not treated as if it were invisible (because how could an anti-intellectual produce something intellectual?) Is that fair, in your book? I should be allowed to ignore implausible ad hominem attacks rather than letting them deform the conversation? If not, why not? (I guess you are saying they are plausible. But why?)

By John Holbo on 07/31/05 at 10:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, I have my vantage, of course, A. but I don’t think it is actually quite so reasonable to wonder about the sincerity of the Valve’s interest in complexity, at least on the evidence you’ve presented--which mainly depends on selective quotation and least generous possible construal. 

For example, you quote my remark that ideas need to stand on their own merits not on appeals to their political consequences or the threat of anti-intellectualism and ask:

“Did I just miss the part where a particular theoretical or critical argument (such as those Bérubé has been so generously elaborating) was resoundingly defeated?

But if you’ll read back through this thread I think you’ll see that was not my point at all. I was responding to the suggestion by Matt and CR that we need to consider the debate over Theory primarily in terms of political consequences and/or the boogie man of anti-intellectualism.  I would be happy, as I suspect others here would be, to debate a set of theoretical propositions and to argue over their soundness, their plausibility, etc.  The point of my remark is that Matt specifically demurs (as, I think, CR does less directly) from that kind of argument in favor of a different one. 

You think this is a good strategy?  You ask “what might . . . [it] even mean” to ask whether a theory can stand on its own merits.  From my perspective that seems like a pretty straightforward question (although it’s application could certainly be complex), and I confess to being a bit nonplussed by the question.  To put it most simply, a theory will seem good if it seems reasonable, coherent, parsimonious, and if its account of what it aims to describe stands up to challenge. (One of the virtues of Michael’s Theory Tuesday posts, you might note, is that it operates under pretty much this assumption.) If you have a theory of language per se, when challenged by argument and evidence it ought to be able to hold up, etc.  This seems pretty uncontroversial to me.  I’m surprised you think otherwise. Would you say that it would make sense to endorse ideas that can’t withstand the challenge of argument and evidence if they potentially might have good political consequences? 

Likewise, you quote my remark to Matt asking him to avoid fudging and suggest that it’s inconsistent with John’s call for civility and complexity.  What you don’t note is that Matt had characterized the discussion on the Valve in inconsistent terms.  There’s nothing uncivil or non-complex in asking that your interlocutor be clear in what he or she charges. 

As it happens, you pretty much repeat Matt’s insinuations--that the posts on this site are the product of political conservatism and anti-intellectualism, to which you add the old chesnut, that they reflect the effort “to deny” complex truths with which by implication they cannot contend.  This will be the zillionth time this has been pointed out, but that slants the playing field drastically.  If psychoanalysis, or some other theory, is such a strong argument it shouldn’t need such special pleading.

By on 07/31/05 at 10:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

whoops.  did not mean to pile on.  accidentally overlapped with John’s post.

By on 07/31/05 at 10:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"To put it most simply, a theory will seem good if it seems reasonable, coherent, parsimonious, and if its account of what it aims to describe stands up to challenge… If you have a theory of language per se, when challenged by argument and evidence it ought to be able to hold up, etc.”

But actually, this isn’t the first criterium for me. Not what I’d stake my claim on. I don’t look FIRST for theory to be “reasonable, coherent, parsimonious”... Since, honestly, what’s often enough up for grabs is the steely grip of the reasonable and especially nowadays the PARSIMONIOUS upon the world… Derrida contra the duhness of the origin, the obviousness of the oppositional pair… Benjamin’s insistent modernity that runs up against, cancels itself out before, and ultimately transcends (???) modernity itself… Foucault maddening turn from the utter circumscription of agency in the first book of history of sex toward auto-poeisis in book two and what this turn of Foucault’s elides, symptomatically repeats, or performs? (what does it mean to tie the knot so tight and then cut it so easily?) Blanchot’s indirect evocation of the everyday - something so right here and now, right before our faces that it can’t even be named without slipping skyward into the event…

I dunno, John and Sean… Sometimes the best of theory seems to me something like the best of literary art… Even like a continuation of the modernist project, those amazing and broken dreams of 1922…

It doesn’t throw reason out the window, but rather is the represents, in many cases, reasons attempt to continue on despite, in spite of, the horrors perpetrated in the name of reason. You’ve heard this before: the enlightenment after the revelation of the cost of the enlightenment."I can’t go on. I’ll go on...” Right? 

But if you’ve chosen to be trained in analytic philosophy, you of course see the world in a different light. There’s a reason why the same folks (the same field of folks) who start out with Joyce and Woolf and Kafka end up with Derrida and Blanchot and Jameson…

Anyway, a bit of lyricism about the whole matter. Let’s have it out over a particular theoretical text if that floats yr boat (I believe I suggested this way back when the Evil Empire was first chosen as our course text… I was, by the way, moving to a new city those weeks - sorry I missed it...)

I think it would solve all of our problems if we had a theorist, a theoretical text, to discuss rather than pissing on us for riding in sideways and scattershot to defend “Theory” in general…

If I asked you to defend literature in general, you’d start to sound a little silly too, doncha think. ("It humanizes, it edifies - to deride it is to deride your better bits” blah blah blah...)

By CR on 08/01/05 at 12:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

CR, do you really think I’m a philistine with no taste for literary quality, because I’m an analytic philosopher? You suspect it has never dawned on me that I should rate any of this stuff except by some sort of narrow, logical positivist meter-stick of rational rigorism? (Does that really, truly, honestly sound like the sort of thing I would want to do?) And don’t you think the fact that I identify Theory as a post-Romantic counter-Enlightenment intellectual movement (though Adam Kotsko doesn’t like that tag) shows that I’m aware that just setting up the Enlightenment as some unproblematic ... oh, hell with it. I don’t think you are really exerting enough effort to be plausible in pegging my mind and motives. Yes, I too sometimes say something too sweeping - see above. But then I try to correct it. Will you please do me the courtesy of retracting your own implausible attributions after you just sort of fire off before taking aim.

If you aren’t prepared to do so, at least don’t complain about rudeness in others. For two weeks we have been having conversations and arguments with generally thoughtful, respectful give and take. So much so that we bored poor Mr. Pannapacker with the lack of what you have accused us of offering nothing but: locker-room stink. When have I pissed on you, sir? I do not believe I have.

I just wrote 10,000 words on Knapp, Michaels and Fish. And you accuse me of never targeting a particular figure or text? At the start of this whole thing I made a long introductory post, chock full of arguments, explaining why I think the theme of TE has merit. You didn’t really miss it, even if you were moving. You could go back and argue against me if you cared to. If you don’t care to, don’t complain to me about how I’m not giving you opportunities to argue like an academic.

As to your point about defending ‘Theory’ being a mug’s game, like defending literature. Well, no. First, Theory is a much more specific and narrow category than literature. Theory has only been around since 1965 or so, although of course it has deep roots. I don’t think it is preposterous to try to defend Theory by saying what, in general, has been good about it. I think if you can’t defend it, in general, without sounding silly, then that’s a bad sign. That said, I agree that there can’t be any really sharp, decisive arguments pro or contra Theory at this very global level. You can’t refute all of it, or defend every bit of it. Any global discussions should be characterized by charity and generosity and an absence of ‘gotcha!’-style polemic. And I admit I myself haven’t always managed this trick. Fine.

What I want to do then, per my post, is get everyone to admit 1 & 2 - Theory neither necessarily bad nor good - and proceed. This opens the way for interesting discussion of specifics of argument, institutional features, and intellectual history. It looks to me like what you are really asking for is a rearguard action on behalf of a denial of 1 & 2. That is, you want to secure a sense in which Theory is automatically good and anti-Theory is automatically ill-motivated. Is this a fair characterization of your position? You are really resisting granting 1 & 2?

I’ll try to make posts in the coming days - time permitting - in which I make specific criticisms of specific Theorists; maybe I’ll take a crack at bits of Derrida I disagree with. Maybe this won’t be enough to convince you that what I am doing is intellectually respectable. But I really can’t think what else I could possibly do.

By John Holbo on 08/01/05 at 03:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s a reason why the same folks (the same field of folks) who start out with Joyce and Woolf and Kafka end up with Derrida and Blanchot and Jameson…

Sheepishly raising his hand, Scott Eric Kaufman asks “What? Is there some causal relation between studying modernism and being attracted to Derrida?” Your lament for “the broken dreams of 1922” immediately brought Michael North’s brilliant 1922: The Scene of the Modern to my mind.  But that work isn’t indebted to Derrida, Blanchot and Jameson, so I can’t quite follow your point.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 08/01/05 at 03:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John - not going to apologize until you purge your side of the insinuation that theory is a shallow job-creation program, an elaborate intellectual put-on. It’s not yr (pl.) only argument, no - but it’s been hovering behind the valve anti-theory angle from the first.

I’m not sure exactly what it would mean to sign on to “theory neither bad nor good.” Are most theoretically inflected UP productions of asst. professors good? No, of course not… (Same is true for every discipline though...) Is all theory headed in the right direction politically? No on that one too. Is “theory” in general the right way to “do” politics? Well, it’s not enough, no…

In short, is a theoretical text inherently good because its a theoretical text? Of course not.

Is “theory” inherently good or bad? good I’d have to say or else I’d not be interested in it.

(a much much much better question is is literature inherently good or bad. In the classroom, nothing generates better thinking more quickly than to take the students away from their fetished sense that literature is inherently good. Par exemple: take white South African writing during apartheid. Paton, Brink, Gordimer, Coetzee’s a little tougher to pin down, etc… Are they an example of the safety valve knowing the truth about the engine, but then continuing simply to act as they safety valve, letting off a bit of steam, making it appear as if “culture” was possible and permitted in that place and at that time...)

(but once we go down this road, we can return to “theory good or bad” from another direction, can’t we?)

I’d like to go back and read the Knapp, Michaels and Fish but no time today. I’ll provisionally take back that part of my comment…

Scott - yes there is… Michael North, no, isn’t in play here. What is in play is a particular sort of self-awareness about the restraints of form (literary, social) and a particular sort of reaction to them (writing through it, rather than steping aside...) “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

By CR on 08/01/05 at 07:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John writes, “First, Theory is a much more specific and narrow category than literature. Theory has only been around since 1965 or so, although of course it has deep roots.”

That confuses me.  As a constellation of often related thinkers in the American literary academic sky, it’s true.  But let’s remember that Theory is always theories, and while a certain group of people (the Butlers and Bhabhas) will hodge-podge it all together, many excellent literary thinkers won’t (the Cullers and Scholeses and Saids and Benningtons).  The “deep roots” of Theory are theories, right?  And basically, we’re talking about: Russian formalism, dialogism, structuralism, semiotics, deconstruction, hermeneutics, discourse analysis, reader response, maybe a few others (Bataille’s pseudo-anthropology, Blanchot’s goth meditations)?  I’d want to separate how theories were *used* by British and American literature programs from the actual theories themselves. 

And re CR and Scott, I’d say you both have a point.  CR is right in identifying a certain stream flowing into one rivulet of Theory (really just Derrida) as a kind of modernism: Bataille, Blanchot, Cixous (later), Barthes (in his more “creative” writings).  But just because Derrida is informed by artist-thinkers like Bataille and Blanchot doesn’t mean we should excuse bad thinking if and when we see it in Derrida.  I’ve always found that Derrida is at his best when he is at his most seriously philosophical.  He simply annoys me when he thinks he’s Beckett or Joyce or Robbe-Grillet. 

But let’s remember that French post-structuralist thinking cannot be equated with modernist writing strategies: Foucault, Barthes, Rene Girard, Michel de Certeau, Henri Lefvebre could all be stunningly clear and rigorous thinkers and writers.  They were informed by the experimentation of modernism, but that doesn’t mean they should be held to different standards than other historians or philosophers of language or whatever.

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

CR, no sooner had I written the word “parsimonious” then I knew that some bad reader would intentionally or unwittingly misconstrue it.  Neither possibility does much credit to your position.  Parsimony has a pretty standard meaning for rational discourse, and it has no relation to economic frugality—i.e., don’t violate Occam’s razor.  If that doesn’t work for you, I’ll use a near equivalent in an aesthetic register: elegance.  Among my complaints about a lot of Theory (one that I venture to say a reader like Woolf might well share) is that it’s far from elegant.  Like Matt’s posts above, it’s full of curlicues, evasions, and contradictions that disenable some simple but important questions: are the claims made coherent?  Do they anticipate and stand up to expected challenge?  Do they take into account the available evidence?

Is it your position that these are not the kinds of questions that literary scholarship, like other forms of intellectual discourse, needs to keep constantly in mind?  If so, it really will be impossible to have anything like argument.  More generally, whatever political efficacy you might seek, no one will have cause to take you seriously who doesn’t already agree with you.  (To tell you the truth, your reference to teaching as reprogramming gave me pause since it’s such a distressing metaphor—i.e., students as hardware.  But I can see how, if it is your assumption that scholarship shouldn’t try to give and consider reasons, that’s where you’ll end up.)

I don’t know what you mean by saying that “the steely grip of the reasonable” is up for graps, but I expect you mean the argument—most forcefully and plausibly made circa 1965-68—that reason is but the mask of domination.  Now, I don’t want at all to say that Theory has significant political stakes. I don’t think it does. But since you’ve put us on this terrain, let me ask you a question:  Do you really believe that, say, Bush administration actions or the aims of the religious right reflect an excess of reason?  If that were the case, they wouldn’t depend so heavily on deceit, manipulation, and superstition.  Persecuting scientists who point to the evidence of global warming and getting Darwin out of the classroom—that doesn’t exaxctly look like the steely grip of reason.

You appear to believe that some of us around here are just not good people.  We don’t sufficiently appreciate Blanchot, Derrida, and Jameson.  What’s more those of us trained in analytic philosophy (not me in the slightest) have chosen not to acknowledge “the horrors perpetrated in the name of reason.” This, of course, is pure ad hominem, and pretty intense ad hominem at that.  I believe you’re charging us with something akin to being Holocaust deniers.  You might pause a moment and note where this argument has taken you.  I believe this discussion got started when I suggested that Matt had made some lame comments to Adam’s thread and then disappeared from the conversation.  (That may have been an unkind charge.  If so, my apologies.  But it still hasn’t been disputed, even by Matt.) You respond by suggesting that we deny some of the worst crimes of modern history.  That’s a pretty severe disproportion in charge.

I’d be insulted if the charge weren’t so silly.  There’s nothing about a commitment to reasonableness that demands that you be blind to its abuse or to its excesses.  And, of course, there’s a massive body of evidence that suggests otherwise.  You don’t really believe--do you?—that you’ve got to like Blanchot to object to imperialism?  That you need Derrida to see what’s wrong with slavery or racism?  That only Jameson can reveal inequality and exploitation?  If so, there are a lot of people, whose political views you’d presumably find otherwise appealing, that you’ll need to explain away.

I’ll be happy to grant you that Theory can be seen as “a continuation of the modernist project, those amazing and broken dreams of 1922.” In fact, if you’ll look at my posts, you’ll see I’ve made pretty much this point, as in a different form John has too.  There’s two things to be noted in this context, though. 

First, it’s not necessary that we see literary scholarship or social analysis or political argument as being continuous with (and thus, of course, potentially rival to) literary art, and arguably there are good reasons not to.  Leaving aside some great exceptions like Pater, the consequence is often just confusion and mediocrity—especially when you’re not talking about artists and independent writers, but a massive scholarly institution.  Do you really want Ph.D. programs turning out people who aspire to make their scholarship something like Ulysses?  What you’re gonna get is a lot of mediocre novels and so-so scholarship.

Second, the broken dreams of 1922 include not just Joyce and Woolf, but Eliot, Pound, and Lewis.  More generally, if want to invoke the lyrical counterenlightenment, then you’ll need to acknowledge that it doesn’t only include the kind of dreams that seem at the current moment immediately appealing.  If you want the avant-garde that gave you surrealism, you need to consider too the avant-garde that made futurism.  If you want the Sorel who gave you the general strike, you need to acknowledge the Sorel who inspired fascism.  If you want Blanchot, you need to note Bataille as well.  What you call modernism didn’t just include millenial fancies of the left, but some of the very hard right as well.  It’s a distorted version of cultural history that doesn’t take this into account.

Of course, many of these people were great writers, with profound, disturbing, and often deeply appealing visions.  But that’s no reason that we shouldn’t recognize where they’ve gone round the bend.  Or that we’re impoverished if we don’t take them as models for our life.  In fact, to put this all another way, Theory should not give us models for life.  Ideas, yes.  Prophets, no.  Otherwise, it’s not really a theory of anything at all anymore.  It’s poetry or religion.  Is that what you want academic and/or intellectual discourse to be?

By on 08/01/05 at 10:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Quick point: Sorel developed a “myth of the general strike.” Actual historical general strikes, the 1926 one in Britain in particular, were not influenced in any significant way by his ideas. Sorel detested trade unions.

Lewis viewed the aforementioned strike through a Sorelian prism, but this is different.

By Jonathan on 08/01/05 at 10:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thank you for your always helpful correction, Jonathan.  I should have said “myth of the general strike.”

By on 08/01/05 at 11:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

CR: “John - not going to apologize until you purge your side”

I understand that John, Sean, etc. are putting on their best effort to argue rationally while avoiding anything that looks like a provocation.  Perhaps I, as the “commenter speaking for myself” (unlike every other commenter, presumably, but Jonathan is stringent about such things) can point out the obvious: CR is not worth your time.  But I’ll go farther than that.  In the spirit of “A“‘s paranoid suspicion that The Valve was lauched as a model platform simply as *camoflage* for being an anti-Theory platform, I propose that “CR” is an employee of Horowitz, created specifically to make literary studies look bad as part of his ABOR initiative.  J’accuse!

My evidence:
1) CR is anonymous, and can write as foolishly as he likes without affecting the reputation of any real person.  This makes him ideal as an agent of Horowitz;

2) CR, despite boasting of his skills in formal analysis and his experience in reading poetry, was unable to distinguish that a poem was a parody.  This is intended to hold all of literary studies up to contempt as the domain of people who boast about their analysis of texts, yet are incompetent to work with actual texts;

3) CR holds leftism up to derision by writing as a mock Stalinist.  For instance, see the “purge” language above.  This is part of Horowitz’ attempt to discredit leftism as well as academia;

4) CR mocks leftism by a show of uselessness.
For example, CR writes: “All in all, I feel utterly politically ineffective. Nearly utterly useless.”;

5) Despite this uselessness, CR adds “Occassionally I get a tiny shiver of hope that I’m doing some reprogramming in the classroom”—a clear attempt to set up evidence for Horowitz that academia really does consist of professors trying to program students with political indoctrination rather than educate them;

6) CR holds all of recent literary studies up to disdain by strongly identifying with it and then writing with the comic aggressiveness of a drunk staggering out of a bar;

7) CR discredits his presumed fellows in literary studies by having none of them be able to notice, due to presumed solidarity, that his writing is decidedly odd;

8) CR wastes the time of actual defenders of literary studies like Michael Berube by identifying themselves with them by name and then making them look bad by association.  Note that Berube is a particular target of Horowitz;

9) CR specifically talks up Horowitz as someone to fear, rather than a clown in his own right: “I wonder… and I’m sort of nervous about this, nervous that it’ll end up on David Horowitz’s website or whatever”.

10) CR claims to defend literary theory, but shows no practical knowledge of it, for instance, he writes: “Holy crap.... That’s not what you meant when you came up with yr pokey little slogan…”, thus showing no knowledge of the problems surrounding the concept of authorial intention.  Only a Horowitz stand-in could show so little actual knowledge while claiming so much.

That is enough to prove the case.  CR is a Horowitz-agent.  The alternative theory, that he could write so foolishly while thinking that he is defending literary theory, does not bear consideration.

By on 08/01/05 at 11:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Dear CR, Sean, John, and folks,

I hope you don’t mind if I add my voice to your elaborate harmony.  Ten minutes ago, I thought I could clarify a number of your apparent disagreements; now I’ll be happy if I can simply muddy the waters a bit.  Here are my reactions.

First, it seems perfectly acceptable to criticize “Theory” at large in this context, without debating the merits and demerits of each theorist.  Many “anti-Theorists” disagree with the truth of Theory X or Y only as a secondary matter; their real concern lies with the suffocating effects of “using theory” as a means of approaching and talking about literature.  They may disagree with a particular set of theoretical claims, but their real beef is with the idea and effects of theory as a method.

What are these effects?  Well, I would say that a stultifying sameness – a methodological predictability – would top the list.  The second effect would be a confounding of politics and interpretation, transforming political criticism of texts, itself, into a form of good politics. 

The third effect of “methodological theory” would be a skeptical, often antagonistic, but always diminishing attitude towards literature itself.  We came to view literature as something to be resisted and exposed – and theory helped us to find those weak points and extract that confession.  In the process, theory helped us critics to feel more empowered and less diminished.  No longer simply readers of old, dead (and increasingly unread) works, we were now more scientific, more political, more in control.

Admittedly, so this may be an old list of charges.  But I think it adds something to your argument about the truth or falsity of particular theories.  The real problem, in my opinion, has little to do with whether certain theorists are right or not, in part or in whole – although literary critics have tended to adopt their reigning theorists tout court, unable to distinguish the living from the dead ideas.  The real problem has to do with the “applying” of theory and theoretical methods.

The problem, for instance, of applying a Freudian template to a literary work has little to do with the solidity (or not) of Freud’s ideas.  It has to do with a process that grants pride of place to the theory and the template – and turns the literature into a second-order concern.  A book or a poem becomes either another patient, waiting to be diagnosed, or – for more savvy writers – another analyst, parroting the truths that Freud has already demonstrated.  And, of course, we “Freudian” critics are better than mere readers of literature; we are psychologists (or philosophers or political theoreticians or activists), albeit in a hand-me-down fashion.

But isn’t the problem that Freud is a quack, that his ideas don’t pass scientific muster?  Then consider a theory that is actually true – say, Darwinian/evolutionary theory.  Would a Darwinian theoretical method be any less diminishing to literature and the practice of literary studies, even as it purported to expose what was “really” going on in or motivating Text A or Text B?  Wouldn’t it confuse an analysis of the “evolutionary aspects” of literature for evolutionary science itself?  Would the things that we value most about literature survive their trip into that methodological crucible?  Would the result of applying the method be any less predictable?  Would we be more scientific?  And the fact that Darwin was correct does not change these results in the slightest.

The same goes for other so-called theories, as many of the theorists’ own defenders admit.  Rorty, for one, views Derrida as a tremendous asset to the philosophical tradition.  But he sees that the ways that Derrida has been imported – as if he represented an interpretive method – into literary criticism have been mostly unproductive, turning literary criticism into weak, second-hand philosophy at best (see DeMan) and predictable hackery at worst.  (Directions: find the aporia; experience the frisson; lather, rinse, repeat.)

Or take the Valve’s own favorite theorist of the month.  Would a school of Wittgensteinian criticism be much better?  Could it ever do more than set Wittgenstein as the standard against which literature would be judged, promoted, or found wanting?  Do we really need another theorist – right or wrong – to let us know how we might better talk about literature?  Why are Wittgenstein’s insights preferable to those of the writers themselves? 

I don’t care about how Faulkner’s work replicates Wittgenstein’s assertions, or how we might redescribe Faulknerian narrative in Wittgensteinian language.  If they match perfectly, what have we gained?  If they don’t, what have we lost?  Forget philosophy’s general claims about language or rationality or truth.  Tell me instead about the particular and peculiar constructions of Faulkner, whether or not they hold a bit of philosophical (or psychological or political) water.  And if appreciating the intricacies and truths of Faulkner’s creations isn’t good enough, then so much the worse for literary criticism.

I wonder…if we really ever took the reading and discussion of literature seriously, could we found and promote a Faulknerian school of criticism – applying his ideas (“what Faulkner has demonstrated about language, truth, God”) to other texts to expose or explain the structures and meanings of those other writings?  Even as I type that sentence, it sounds a bit silly.  After all, Faulkner wasn’t a theorist.  And what good would come from applying his methods and inventions and genius to those of another writer?  Why elevate and reify his ideas – and place others under his modernist knife? 

Why, indeed.  Now replace “Faulkner” with the theorist’s name of your choice.  Regardless of the positive and interesting readings that might emerge, doesn’t the enterprise (as a method) seem a bit askew from the beginning. 

Perhaps it would be best if, like CR, we could see theorists merely as artists in their own right.  We could appreciate them for writing in interesting ways and making us think interesting thoughts.  Your Derrida might be my Joyce; your Wittgenstein might be my Faulkner; your Zizek might me my DeLillo.  And we could leave it at that.

But we don’t.

Best,
Peter

By on 08/01/05 at 11:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m starting to feel like Mr. Best in the Ulysses library scene, but I might as well play the part through:

CR, whose most interesting points (IMO) tend to be ignored (as have John Holbo’s, as have Sean’s, as have Scott’s) in favor of what can fuel the furnace: “Sometimes the best of theory seems to me something like the best of literary art… Even like a continuation of the modernist project”

In fact, that’s exactly how I read, enjoyed, and championed it, CR.

Now, imagine the best of literary art being turned into argumentative orthodoxy. Imagine seeing papers with lines like “As Pound proved in Canto XXI...” or “Since ‘we have only one course: the nets which entangle us are flames’, the hetereosexist hegemony cannot be broken until...”

More CR: “But if you’ve chosen to be trained in analytic philosophy, you of course see the world in a different light. There’s a reason why the same folks (the same field of folks) who start out with Joyce and Woolf and Kafka end up with Derrida and Blanchot and Jameson...”

Yes, and similarly I’ve never met an analytic philosopher who had anything good to say about Nietzsche. Until just lately.

There is some seriously agressive yoking taking place here, despite the hedging parenthesis, and such yoking can only be made through injustice—and I mean literal injustice between individuals, as well as more metaphorical intellectual and aesthetic injustice. These “folks” are not the same. Joyce and Woolf and Kafka (and Pound and Eliot and Lewis and Toomer and Moore and...) are not a single unit to which we declare allegiance or defiance. Derrida and Blanchot and Jameson (and De Man and Lacan and Bataille and Irigaray and Spivak and Baudrillard and Deleuze and Foucault and Zizek and Heidegger and Lenin and Freud and Nietzsche...) aren’t one either.

My dismay with capital-T “Theory” is very much like my dismay with “Modernism” or “Postmodernism”: the label is there to justify and hide the maintenance of power structures which have nothing to do with the merits (or dismerits) of the label-hidden particulars.

By Ray Davis on 08/01/05 at 01:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

(I drafted—and, unwisely, posted—my last comment before reading Peter Sattler’s wonderfully well-argued and thought-provoking contribution. Peter, I know gzombie’s already given a nudge that way, but if you ever start a blog, I’m there.)

By Ray Davis on 08/01/05 at 01:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think you’re drawing a generous, but false equivalence, Ray.  Your recommendation that CR--"imagine the best of literary art being turned into argumentative orthodoxy"--is basically a restatement of one of my questions to him. So, if that’s his most interesting point, he hasn’t been ignored at all. 

It’s certainly true that Woolf and Joyce, Eliot and Pound et al were not the same.  It’s also true that there were some affinities among their attitudes (as well as a shared milieu) that they sometimes recognized themselves. It’s even possible that they shared to some degree political and intellectual influences that in an extraordinarily complex period could be articulated in various, different ways while basic assumptions--about say, the irrelevance of rational discourse to political society--might nevertheless be preserved.  (There’s been tons of recent fine scholarship on these complicated relations.  Michael Tratner’s Modernism and Mass Politics is an especially excellent book along these lines, I think.)

My sole point on this front is that there’s no simple political or intellectual purchase in referring to the dreams of ‘22. It sounds grand, but it doesn’t make a useful distinction. CR appears to want to say that there’s an important connection between style and politics and that it’s along that connection that he and others of us differ.  My point is, that’s simply not so.  Any account of form so general as to include, along with Joyce and Woolf, Blanchot, Derrida, and Jameson will also be broad enough that it will have to include Bataille and Eliot. (Really, the mind boggles at the thought that Woolf and Jameson are stylistic allies.) Anything more distinctive is not going to create a justification for Theory in general.

By on 08/01/05 at 01:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Peter, of course, any set of ideas has the danger of turing into dogma.  And it has happened with the work of literary artists--James, say, or Eliot.  And that’s certainly bad--because orthodoxy and rigidity impair the ability of ideas and methods to give us valuable knowledge.  The problem with the evolutionary theory argument you give is not that it would be a theory, but that in getting treated as you describe (as indeed has occured with some evolutionary psychology) it would no longer be a meaningful theory at all.  It would just be dogma.

It sounds like the upshot of the dangers of methodologism for you isn’t that we need to be careful about overinvesting in our theories, but that we should simply cease making arguments and treat everything we read as a work of art, and de gustibus.  This seems a bad direction to me. But whether it is or not, I thought you were an intentionalist.  Derrida is a very literary writer, yes, but as Adam notes, he writes as a philosopher, and he has a very big argument about the nature of language and of metaphysics per se.  We could read that as we do Shelly, say (which wouldn’t necessarily prevent us from noting where it’s claims seem maybe beautifully expressed, but doubtful) but it wouldn’t be consistent with Derrida’s own purposes. Likewise, Zizek doesn’t want to be read as a novelist.  That matters, doesn’t it?

By on 08/01/05 at 01:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean, I owe you an apology as well for repeating some points you’d already made—again, I’d posted before realizing there had been so many additions since I last looked. It was a sloppy mistake which I’ll try not to make again. I think you miss some irony in Peter’s “Perhaps it would be best...” passage, but I’d rather let him speak for himself, since he does it so much better.

Another CR question which seemed worth asking (although I ducked it myself) was about what relation we thought could be established between [political analysis / political action / political results] and [art / analysis of art / the teaching of art history / citations from the Theory canon / our career]. I thought CR phrased the question honestly and answered it honestly (and movingly). However, those slashes (invisible in CR’s original formulation) seem important to me, because once they’re elided, we’re left with a possibly unresolvable single point of contention between “those Theorists” and we who dissent while nevertheless believing that members of the canon of Theory are worth reading and study.

So far as I can tell from the outside, the institutional Theory battle royale has been described (more or less accurately in each case, so far as I can tell) as:

* A troop of sycophantic bullies who want to keep power vs. Another troop of sycophantic bullies who want to keep power
* A troop of sycophantic bullies vs. Those who want to advance clearer analysis and research
* Those who want to advance clearer analysis and research vs. A troop of sycophantic bullies
* Utterly ineffective pretenses to oppositional politics vs. Those who want effective progressive politics
* Supporters of progressive politics vs. Those who want the Right coalition given complete power over the academy

And I’m sure the list could be extended. What makes the contention so tenacious, of course, is that it serves the needs of those in power(s). It reminds me of the successful Republican strategy whereby Born-Agains, Catholics, Jews, and the extremely wealthy have been united against a carefully chosen set of common foes.

By Ray Davis on 08/01/05 at 02:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Wow - too many strands to take up at once… So let’s just talk about modernism for a minute…

I actually spend a good deal of time thinking about whether and how we can “group” modernists as modernists. Obviously, not via straightforward politics as if party affiliation - but I do think there’s a common thread, really running from Flaubert forward, that has to do with 1) self-consciousness about the “new” and, complementarily, hyper-awareness of the oldness of the new (idee recue, betise)...

This complex of conjoined problems informs much of what we call “theory” as well - certain from Hegel and Heidegger on through Derrida and Foucault (notion of the historical “break,” right)... Lacan and the symbolic… In my own pantheon, Benjamin forms a nodal point - all he is is the new and the old…

Sure, you can find some who aren’t modernists interested in this problem, and probably some who are called modernists who aren’t as interested (but certain not Woolf, Eliot, Pound, Ford, Lewis, Joyce, Beckett, Proust, and so on...)

Ray sez:

“Now, imagine the best of literary art being turned into argumentative orthodoxy. Imagine seeing papers with lines like “As Pound proved in Canto XXI...” or “Since ‘we have only one course: the nets which entangle us are flames’, the hetereosexist hegemony cannot be broken until...””

Absolutely right, Ray. No one, I think, is arguing for argumentative orthodoxy. Just not baby with the bathwater. (Once again - I’m all for throwing bad theory overboard… Just not theory in general...)

And furthermore, of course, theory performs this drive against sclerosis… To a certain extent, that is part of what it’s infamous “difficulty” is up to…

Finally - who was it above who said that Barthes wasn’t a “modernist”? Are you f-n kidding? Have you read Camera Lucida lately? Or any of his books at all? Pleasure of the Text? Lover’s Discourse?

He taught the later post-structuralists the game - how to write this strange hybridized stuff…

By CR on 08/01/05 at 03:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ray, thanks for the kind words.  I’d like to say that I don’t have a blog of my own because I value the community spirit of group efforts like The Valve.  But I’m afraid the truth is that I wouldn’t even know how to do it.  Stupidly, Peter

By on 08/01/05 at 03:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hi Sean,

Every time you respond to my notes, my immediate reaction is to patch the rift – to try to make the small areas of our apparent disagreement disappear.  I hope you’ll allow me to continue in that tradition, even if it’s not exactly necessary.

I must admit that my closing passages seemed to reduce theorists of all stripes to artists.  Bad phrasing on my part, but (like Ray) I was trying to articulate briefly what used to invigorate me while reading so-called theory.  Namely, the best of them made me see the world in new and exciting ways, just like literature sometimes does.

But it might be more to the point to say that they help me to see their worlds – their disciplinary worlds – in new and interesting ways.  Derrida provides an interesting rereading of the philosophic tradition, but in a way that opens few doors (for me) on how what I value in literature.  Foucault opened up ways of thinking about intellectual history, but mostly closed down my understandings of art.  This was the point of my Rorty-citing passage.  I hope that saves my intentionalism.

But I think that it goes just beyond “dogma” per se.  Let me try this out.  My misgivings about “theory” have to do with the practice of “applying theory” overall.  The process of “application” seems to lead predictably to the three deleterious effects I outlined near the top of my post:

-- the predictability of the results (since the theory is taken as true, the text as merely a test case);
-- the confusion of the theory’s world of concern for the practices of criticism (psychoanalytic criticism taken for psychoanalysis, philosophical criticism for philosophy, political criticism for politics);
-- the reduction of literature and the discussion of literature to a second-order concern, tagging along behind its methodological elder siblings.

Does it go too far to say that the mere application of theory attracts these results?  I suspect that it does not.  How else, for example, could you deploy a Darwinian theory of literature, however un-dogmatically, within literary criticism?  What would such a theory look like from the vantage of literary studies?

I suppose that Darwinian thought might have something to say about art – and if it’s done right, then you would be in the realm of Darwinian Science or Evolutionary Psychology or something.  And your efforts would contribute to – would stand or fall within – that field.  But then you’re a scientist, an evolutionary biologiost, or whatnot.  Or pretending to be. 

Similarly, I would imagine philosophy should have some account of literary language or fictional worlds.  And philosphers might test such theories upon literary texts, and do so within in the practice of philosophy.  But what would it mean to apply such theories to a literary work within the realm of literary studies?

Of course, we can certainly say that reading Writer X helped me to notice something about Writer Y.  But that’s something that can happen with anyone – theorist, artist, blogger.  (Searle helped me notice this rhetorical move in Thomas Paine; reading Milton helped me see the purpose of this passage in Douglass.) Similarly, I can use the ideas of Writer X to highlight interesting things within Writer Y, either by contrast or comparison.  (We can better articulate just what London is doing by showing where he coincides with and deviates from Darwin or Spencer; we can get a purchase on Williams by comparing his poem to a similar work by Stevens or Pound.)

But this isn’t really theory any more, is it?  (If it is, then any comparison, any inspiration, any source of ideas is theory.  Not “informed by theory,” but theory itself.) And it certainly isn’t the application of theory, is it?  (If it is, then any claim is theory.)

I suppose the real question might be, “Can you have theory (as theory) without application?” Another might be, “Can the application of theory (as theory) avoid dogmatism and methodologism?” I’m finding that I want to answer “no” to both.

Of course, if a non-dogmatic, non-methodological use of theory merely means using the work of one writer to help you explore and describe the particular concerns, techniques, and truths of another writer (without reducing the latter to the case of the former)…when then…um…never mind.  See, I told you that we really agreed!

Best, Peter

By on 08/01/05 at 03:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If you have some actual argument that I’m anti-intellectual, I’m honor-bound to rebut it. But I don’t see an argument. Barring one, I think I’m entitled to ignore the charge as implausible and just do something intellectual

This will no doubt be scoffed at as a “cirlyque” or something but I’m sorry, what can I say.  I always preferred tennis to chess. 

John, I never claimed that you, or anyone else, was “anti-intellectual.” Here is what I wrote:

However when one’s primary, explicit motivation is to push aside a “squatter”...well it’s quite reasonably justified to wonder just how sincere this desire for complexity may be.  Nevermind being happy to *take advantage* of anti-intellectualism, by using a House of Cards presentation, sweeping dismissals as selling points, lack of careful, visible and explicit qualification from mainstream conservative thought, ALSC goals, or whatever) which is not the same thing as being directly or vulgarly anti-intellectual, now is it.

In other words, I claimed that this book, with its house of cards cover and introduction, and the agenda it is explicitly being used to push, is profitting off the conditions of the very terrain it claims to leave behind, namely a widely-available anti-Theory feeling.  Whether or not the case has been made that it even makes sense to speak of “Theory” with a capital “T” at all, as a more or less coherent object of inquiry, as a certain “taste culture” within American academia, there is still a common anti-intellectualism and also ambiguity that the anti-Theory position profits off of (the lay reader, for example, may not be inclined to question her assumptions about what “theory” means too deeply, much less challenge a Holbo-length post full of demurs and caveats).  So the little “t” theory gets neglected. 

Moreover, one might suspect that “Theory” only begins to make sense when opposed to some non-Theory.  One result of this conflation being of course that the (quite substantial) disagreements between “theorists” get to be ignored entirely. 

I don’t know, but I suspect a few people would say that this space of disagreement and tension between serious theorists and philosophers is really where it’s at, not in squabbles over some hopelessly puffed-up vision of an academic taste culture, as an “empire” no less.

That mean-spirited caricature of CR invites a reading all its own, but I’ll save it for now.

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

A minor point:

CR wrote, “Finally - who was it above who said that Barthes wasn’t a “modernist”? Are you f-n kidding? Have you read Camera Lucida lately? Or any of his books at all? Pleasure of the Text? Lover’s Discourse?”

What I actually wrote was, “But let’s remember that French post-structuralist thinking cannot be equated with modernist writing strategies: Foucault, Barthes, Rene Girard, Michel de Certeau, Henri Lefvebre could all be stunningly clear and rigorous thinkers and writers.  They were informed by the experimentation of modernism, but that doesn’t mean they should be held to different standards than other historians or philosophers of language or whatever.”

Which is to say, even Barthes, even in his “creative texts,” is occupying the position of a semiotician, not the position of an artist.  *A Lover’s Discourse* is a profound study of the conventions of, uh, the discourse of lovers, but it must be held up to the standards of argumentation, reasoning, evidence, and so on, of scholarly work.  (And I actually think that Barthes’ work stands up quite well to these standards.)

Pound’s *Cantos*, while wrong at its core in terms of the sorts of discursive arguments he wishes to make, can survive because of its technique, its style, its form, whatever.  Whereas Foucault’s or Barthes’ entire methodologies could be proven wrong or misguided in a way that couldn’t really happen to Pound.  With Pound, the most that could be said is that his poetic method is good or bad; with Barthes or Foucault or Derrida, one must be able to argue that their positions and methods are right or wrong, true or false. 

For example, the feminist argument that the oppression of women forms a coherent, unbroken narrative in Western history is a powerful critique of Foucault’s philosophy of historical rupture.  No amount of “modernist writing” can get Foucault out of trouble there.  A Foucauldian would have to argue that the feminist is wrong, not that the feminist needs to be more responsive to the poetry of Foucault’s writing (and again, the vast majority of Foucault’s output is scholarly prose with no “creative” pretensions).

*Theory’s Empire* works best at the points where its contents deal directly, mano a mano, with a particular theoretical discourse: Searle on Derrida, the critique of *The Epistemology of the Closet*, etc.  The Valve works best when a particular discourse or scholarly work or scholar is treated.  The more delineated the positions, the more constructive the debate.  A boxing match between Rubber Man and Cloud Man wouldn’t be very interesting, but it certainly could be messy.

By on 08/01/05 at 06:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Ray.  I agree strongly.  Remember the slash.  Remember the slash. 

I think you’ve convinced me, Peter.  We really agreed. 

You’re right, A.  So far as I can understand you, that is a curlicue.  You’re point seems to be that, while you’d never accuse anyone directly of anti-intellectualism, there’s no way to object to Theory without tainting yourself with the sin of anti-intellectualism.  That’s bogus guilt by association--and, of course, a way you can make a charge without appearing to make one.

By on 08/01/05 at 07:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther,

An excellent point on the “dangers” of aestheticizing theorists.  It is, indeed, hard to tell how we could judge theorists primarily as modernists or poets or painters, while maintaining that their theories were true, accurate, useful, applicable, etc.

Here’s an example this tendency.  For years, I’ve heard people say that we should talk about and judge Freud and Lacan not as scientists or psychologists, but as “poets” and “mythmakers.” Fine, I have no problem with literary studies analyzing the literary/rhetorical qualities of so-called non-literary writers.  But while we are doing that, those folks cannot simultaneously keep their day jobs as theorists –- as thinkers whose ideas bear scrutiny within their own fields and are worth “applying” to ours.

As far as theory is concerned, aestheticizing is the cure that kills.  Be careful what you wish for.

Peter

By on 08/01/05 at 07:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Peter, in the past I myself have talked about Freud as a sort of mythmaker, and it’s an easy fall back, given that his writing is remarkably interesting (whereas scientific writing can be, uh, less than remarkably interesting).

Also, I would want to separate the early, more scientific Freud from the later, self-admittedly speculative Freud.  Which isn’t to say that these later writings are immune from critique, but that a text like *Moses and Monotheism* is meant to read more like an historical novel (like Hurston’s contemporary *Moses, Man of the Mountain*).  At that point, I think Freud was trying to mythologize more than analyze—for better or worse. 

I know Scott and others will come down hard on me here, but I have never read another account of the workings of the human mind that was as convincing as Freud’s.  William James’s *Principles* are excellent, but I don’t think they necessarily contradict Freud.

So, rather than invite another Freud argument, here’s a question:

If a person were to read a more recent scientific account of the workings of the human mind, what would you recommend?

By on 08/01/05 at 10:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A, you write:

“In other words, I claimed that this book, with its house of cards cover and introduction, and the agenda it is explicitly being used to push, is profitting off the conditions of the very terrain it claims to leave behind, namely a widely-available anti-Theory feeling.  Whether or not the case has been made that it even makes sense to speak of “Theory” with a capital “T” at all, as a more or less coherent object of inquiry, as a certain “taste culture” within American academia, there is still a common anti-intellectualism and also ambiguity that the anti-Theory position profits off of (the lay reader, for example, may not be inclined to question her assumptions about what “theory” means too deeply, much less challenge a Holbo-length post full of demurs and caveats).  So the little “t” theory gets neglected.”

Now, all snark aside (no, seriously), I don’t really get it. If you are not actually accusing me of anti-intellectualism, then exactly what is the relevance of more diffuse anti-intellectualism to what I am doing. Specifically, how does little-t end up neglected? I’m not staying on the train of thought to the end of the paragraph, in other words.

Put it this way: I don’t actually think that anti-Theory is now, or ever has been, more anti-intellectual than Theory. (I grant some anti-intellectualism, but Theory has quite virulent strains of anti-intellectualism shooting through portions of itself. So as to which is worse in this regard ... that would admit of a long interpretation.) But I do grant the propriety of trying to diagnose bad ‘tendencies’ on either side. I certainly want to say that the trouble with Theory is tracable to certain bad tendencies, including anti-intellectualism, so it would be hypocritical of me to forbid you to seek bad tendencies on my side. But, as I have been at pains to emphasize in this thread, bad ‘tendency’ talk is delicate. A moral hazard inviting personal injustice. If I am addressing a Theorist who I think doesn’t actually exhibit certain bad tendencies of Theory - as may be the case - I have to be very careful saying that somehow the tendencies are still as problem for this person. You seem to be saying something of the sort about my position, and I grant the possibility: but I honestly don’t see what you are saying the problem actually is. If I am not anti-intellectual, how do I end up justifiably tarred with that brush? Do you see what I’m asking?

By John Holbo on 08/01/05 at 11:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther,

I didn’t mean to address your appraisal of Freud specifically.  I just wanted to make a general claim that Freud the Theorist (or the practice of Freudian criticism) might/should not be able to survive his promotion to Freud the Mythmaker.  Still, stranger things have happened.

Regarding your request for recommendations, I reflexively want to pass the job off onto someone else.  The moment I list my books, I can only expose my limited, second-hand knowledge of the field—and the way in which my ideas have been biased by my chosen reading list.

Still, here are a few “science of the mind” books that have I have found interesting, instructive, entertaining, and accessible. Most can be read straight through or sampled in small doses. I know that some of these names make folks clench their fists a bit.  I would love the opportunity to be corrected and instructed:

Christof Koch, The Quest for Consciousness
Susan Blackmore, Consciousness
Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works, and…um…that other book (duck!)
John Searle, The Mystery of Consciousness
William Calvin, How Brains Think, and other works
The writings of Oliver Sacks always remain powerful reading
(last-minute additions: Marc Hauser, Matt Ridley, Daniel Dennett…)

You can see here a significant slant towards Consciousness Studies, on the one hand, and evolutionary approaches on the other.  (With science popularizers all around.) I’m sure there is a lot left out—particularly the kinds of approaches to personal psychology that might replace or revise the psychoanalytic mythos. 

Now how might any of this find it’s way into literary discussions?  Indeed, should it?  I’m more than skeptical, as you know.  But I’ll take another stab, possibly at my own neck.  For all it’s quirkiness, I absolutely loved Elaine Scarry’s Dreaming By the Book, as well as passages from Mark Turner’s The Literary Mind—although only the former is engaged in focused literary criticism.  Are there others out there, using but not “applying” scientific insights?

Now, I’m going back to Freud’s M&M.  A real page-turner of a novel, I’ve heard.  Something to do with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

Peter

By on 08/01/05 at 11:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Just two small notes (as I continue to shrink away into my shoes),

Sean writes:

If psychoanalysis, or some other theory, is such a strong argument it shouldn’t need such special pleading.

I wasn’t aware of pleading for all of psychoanalysis (it hardly needs my support), but this does often seem the only justifiable position left in such a schema––and a hopelessly ridiculous one at that––I’ll concur with CR here.  That is, I’m not sure it’s anything more than the natural result of your original insisting on this suitably slippery, polymorphous “Theory"/non-Theory lens, a lens I for one am still unconvinced is even useful.

Holbo, thank you for the response.  I will think about it. 

I do still agree with Bérubé suggestion above, however (and I hope I am not attributing too much to him), that the Theory’s Empire book, in addition to your deliberate use of it here, does not fail to profit off of a certain ambiguity or “tension” between the sweeping dismissals contained primarily in the introduction and on the cover (in short, the selling points) and some of the more focused essays inside.  You yourself say this presentation aspect is lamentable, as it distracts from the other bits.  Well it may be lamentable, but it also happens to further serve your explicit purposes (this is all I meant).  Nothing wrong with that; just pointing it out.  Well maybe there is something wrong with it.  It might be irresponsible, in some all-too-common respects, and unjust toward the life’s work of many writers.  To be entirely honest, from what I’ve seen of the insides they aren’t all that convincing either. 

But I sense I’ve long overstayed my welcome.  More importantly, I should really read the entire book before commenting any further. 

You don’t happen to have an extra copy lying around, by any chance?

By A on 08/02/05 at 02:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, A, LB and Peter discuss one prominent form of pleading for psychoanalysis above--the claim that we should view Freud as a mythmaker rather than as (what I think Sulloway called him) a biologist of the brain.  If you weren’t aware of this particular plea, you haven’t really been paying attention to the standing of Freudianism much.

But my reference was to special pleading in particular, and it came in the context of a longer sentence whose point you don’t acknowledge--an objection to your claim that recent discussion of Theory is a continuation of a long standing “attempts to deny anything amounting to a complex Freudian or psychoanalytic legacy or the legitimacy of ‘deconstruction’ before, during and after the falling from grace of Paul DeMan, etc.”

Denial, of course, has a particular psychoanalytic resonance, and one that has been key to the fortunes of the psychoanalytic institution since birth: the refusal or repression because unpalatable of a fundamental truth known especially to the adept.  That is special pleading since it says you don’t (and can’t) legitimately disagree with me, you just wish I would go away.  It’s like that Jack Nicholson reposte to Tom Cruise’s claim that he wants the truth in A Few Good Men:  you can’t handle the truth.

You might want to say you didn’t intend to use the word this way.  But if you only meant to say that people disagree with psychoanlysis and deconstruction and resist for that reason, then your charge has no force, since there’s nothing illegitimate about wanting to resist an idea you’re legitimately convinced is false.  So, yes, special pleading, and not rare.

By on 08/02/05 at 07:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Freud reads better as a philosopher than as a mythmaker or a doctor.  Some of his literary criticism is alright, too.

By on 08/02/05 at 08:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

correction: The Sulloway title is Freud: Biologist of the Mind.  The other obviously didn’t make sense.

By on 08/02/05 at 09:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I liked it better when it was “Biologist of the Brain.” Reminded me of a great bit on a British spoof news program: “Speak Your Brain!” Actually, any time someone uses the word “mind,” substitute “brain” for immediate humor.  Why is that?

By on 08/02/05 at 09:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean,

I think there is a certain history of reading Freud somewhat superficially in America, yes, and that these claims to have outgrown him, claims that his writings are by now hopelessly antiquated and refuted and a shallow prop are at the very least problematic and often dependent on said superficial reading.

Like CR, I have very little interest in bad theory.  Sorry, bad “Theory.” If you wish to tar all of theory (all of say, psychoanalysis--which strikes me as rather absurdly broad, really, I mean does this include the entire postanalytic tradition as well?) with this brush, then that’s your choice. 

But I don’t buy it, and really it doesn’t matter whether I personally buy it or not, because the arguments for the continuing relevance of a psychoanalytic heritage (one in fact quite impossible to disavow entirely, and by heritage I certainly don’t mean simply taking Freud at his word)--are out there; one only has to look.

But I’m happy to say now you’ve convinced me that I just can’t handle the truth. 

Ok, I admit it.  All psychoanalysis is dead.  Derrida was a mere stylist and a fool.  Zizek is a barbarian.  Barthes, Benjamin and Foucault were nuts.  Nobody should read Freud anymore, because all that talk about a repetition compulsion with its ties to a death drive, about an enigmatic beyond the pleasure principle, about the failed work of mourning, couldn’t possibly apply today.  Where does it ever stop, this hyperactive death-sentencing?  Just might it be a symptomatic, something of a cultural compulsion, say, in its own right? 

Surely not.  The only reason people ever sought to deny the legitimacy of say Derrida’s writing was merely because they disagreed with it at a scientific level.  Golly, scientists sure do get upset over disagreements don’t they?

By A on 08/02/05 at 10:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A, you’ve misconstrued my meaning.  Maybe I wasn’t clear enough.  The reference to the Jack Nicholson line was my effort to summarize the operation that’s involved in the charge of denial.  So, I’m not saying to you that you can’t handle the truth.  I’m claiming that, when you make the charge of denial, you’re effectively playing the Jack Nicholson role and telling critics of psychoanalysis that they can’t handle the truth. When you suggest that my comments are “symptomatic” of a “cultural compulsion” you repeat the strategy--suggesting that I can’t legitimately believe the things I claim to believe.  Like your sarcasm, it’s a cheap rhetorical tactic.

You say there is “a certain history of reading Freud somewhat superficially in America.” Certain here means, of course, exactly it’s opposite--a vague history that doesn’t need examples.  Even if this charge is true, though, do you really believe there hasn’t been plenty of non-superficial treatment of Freud?  I recommend Nathan Hale, Edward Shorter, and Eli Zaretsky for the contrary view.  Pyschoanalysis has not been neglected, nor mistreated in America.  The frequently reiterated claim that it has been is the core of special pleading on its behalf.

By on 08/02/05 at 11:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

LB, isn’t it simply because the mind isn’t the brain and the problem of consciousness hasn’t been solved?

By on 08/02/05 at 11:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean,

Sorry I wasn’t sure how to read that.  Just to be clear, what I think I’m arguing, Sean, is that this imposed framework of Theory/non-Theory is itself to blame for placing me in this position, namely of having either to defend something impossibly broad (and do so somewhat reluctantly) or to end up sounding like Jack Nicholson.

In short, I refuse the question from the start, and you are free to call this all the names you like.

Certain here means, of course, exactly it’s opposite--a vague history that doesn’t need examples.

Not at all.  I think there are numerous examples.  But I’ll bow to your superior assessment for the moment, and get back to you after reading all those people you mention.

Let me just remark in passing that:

Pyschoanalysis has not been neglected, nor mistreated in America.  The frequently reiterated claim that it has been is the core of special pleading on its behalf.

strikes me as something of a familiar rhetorical maneuver as well, in which what is in fact a very marginal claim is elevated to the status of the mainstream (much like “Theory”, by the way) in order to dismiss it as nothing more than calcified, entrenched dogma, defensible only by those brainwashed into “special pleading.”

By A on 08/02/05 at 12:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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