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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

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Monday, April 17, 2006

Spivak’s Apocalyptic Tone Poem - Scattered Speculations and Unwise Bets

Posted by John Holbo on 04/17/06 at 12:16 PM

I’m committed to saying something about Spivak tonight but, frankly, am feeling too good-natured to summon the sort of disgruntlement the occasion might seem to demand of my nature. I’m going to do my best to build a negative post out of things I like, in the hopes of taking the edge off. Here are two wonderful blogs I haven’t been reading enough, nor have you. First, Seventypes. Empson, Emerson, Hazlitt, Kierkegaard, Davidson. It’s practically an Empsonic boom in the Bay Area these days because there’s also metameat. Lovely stuff:

why am I unable to justify my taste? For instance, I am much more fond of The Man Without Qualities than Pride and Prejudice, but if you protested that Pride and Prejudice is a flawlessly crafted novel of real people, which handles its ideas with consummate grace rather than dragging them through thousands of unfinishable pages — if you said this with the right tone, and especially if you had very smooth hair and a nice reddish-brown jacket on — I would probably just look down and mutter that I like endless, rough-hewn novels of ideas, and that’s that. Why is it all about persuasion for me? Every time I recommend a book I feel like I’m laying down an unwise bet.

Austen is just one example, but there are others: writers whose work seems endlessly defensible. Maybe I’m drawn to defenseless books, I don’t know; I try to protect them from attack by dragging the broken wing of my poor aesthetic judgment in front of predators… but if that’s more than just a loopy metaphor and there is some bond I develop with works of art, which people who care more for perfection and fullness do not, then my vocabulary of persuasion would indeed be quite different. Whatever the story, I haven’t developed it yet.

And don’t miss this one and that one and Adam Kotsko needs to read the other one. But I’ll just quote yonder one:

When Helene Cixous came to Berkeley to speak a few weeks ago, about half the lit students I know were turning cartwheels over it. It wasn’t that she was a big name in literary criticism, as far as I could tell; people’s responses were more fannish than that: "Oh, I love Helene Cixous!” (Me, I can’t even be bothered to code her diacritics properly.) For me, I reflected, the drier a critical text is the better — I seem to gravitate towards a particular coldness I often associate with English and German academics, although its practitioners can come from anywhere. I won’t make a list, because I don’t think it would be illustrative, but I don’t think any of the names that spring to mind would make a whole lot of people leap up and say, oh, I love x!  (Empson is one.)

What do people love about Helene Cixous?  I think it may be her creativity and expressiveness — that she writes literary criticism as opposed to (nonliterary) criticism of literature, that her pieces are seen as, in themselves, valuable to read above and beyond the critical points they make.

Meditations on the likelihood that the critic is a storyteller, then:

Here is (part of) one story: The princess was the youngest of her family, with seven older brothers. Each of the brothers went out into the world to seek his fortune. The princess was told to stay at home, but she was restless. She particularly loved her second-oldest brother, who had gone into battle against the kingdom to the south, and one day as she was out riding she crossed paths with a messenger from the army, who told her that her brother had been wounded. She persuaded the messenger to turn around, without relaying the message, and accompany her back to the battlefield.  [I, er, improvised quite a bit more of this little exemplary story, but because it was beginning to turn into War and Peace and this post is long enough already — you get the idea.]

Here is part of another story: Women writers from a certain subaltern culture enact strategies of resistance and subversion against imperial and patriarchal hegemonic norms. These strategies allow otherwise marginalized and silenced voices to be heard, and offer new methods for negotiating and reforming culture in a postcolonial era.

I take great pleasure in writing the first kind of story. I’m not as invested in narrating the second kind of story, because as a story, it doesn’t have the characteristics I look for in fiction: surprise, ambiguity, tension, and above all a sense (however misleading or misled) of the author’s attentiveness to and command of the world he or she is creating in words.

Not to lay it on, but - shifting to a different post - we all know the feeling

A trip to Moe’s in search of an overpriced, overwritten biography of Erwin Schrödinger brought this to my attention: Mathematics, Science, and Postclassical Theory, addressing “the intersections between science and mathematics and the radical reconceptions of knowledge, language, proof, truth, and reality currently emerging from poststructuralist literary theory, constructivist history and sociology of science, and related work in contemporary philosophy.” I found myself simply blinking at it.

It gets a bit harsh: "If I didn’t care so much about ideas, this wouldn’t affect me. Every other sane person in the world knows that the functions you use to theorize knowledge and truth across disciplines are the same functions you use to maximize bullshit." Skipping back to the Cixous post, because it’s milder: "when these storytelling tactics do appear, it seems both incoherent and uncharitable to complain that they serve only to confound the argument. It isn’t the argument but the form that is confounded."

I think that last point is quite crucial, and gets at why, for lack of a better term, I blink at this Spivak thing I’ve consented to read. It isn’t so much that it’s maximally bullshit, though I sort of suspect it is. It’s more that it just seems like art failing in a familiar way.

Yes, I semi-committed to setting everyone straight about my use of ‘Higher Eclecticism’ in this post; but frankly I just can’t force myself. Maybe reading this comment to the post that occasioned this event will help; or this old post. If you are truly, madly confused about the term. The point I make there, which I take to be the point pica is making (unless I’m projecting) is that what is so familiar and unsatisfactory here is, indeed, a confounding - a mixing and matching of things that just don’t go well together. In the post I quote Carl Dahlhaus because I sincerely think that musicology is, in some ways, closer to touching the heart of something like this Spivak essay:

Musical kitsch, whether rousing and high-flown or soothingly sentimental, is a decadent form of romantic music. When the noble simplicité of a classical style descends to the market place, the result is banality – the mere husks of classical forms – but hardly ever kitsch. Kitsch in music has hybrid ambitions which far outreach the capabilities of its actual structures and sounds, and are manifested in effects without cause, empty attitudinizing, and titles and instructions for performance which are not justified by the musical results. Instead of being content with modest achievements within its reach, musical kitsch has pretensions to big emotions, to “significance,” and these are rooted in what are still recognizably romantic preconceptions, however depraved. (Dahlhaus, Between Romanticism and Modernism, p. 12)

To me, Spivak seems to be composing kitsch - confounding forms - but philosophically. Picking on the argument is one way to bring that out, but, as pica says, that risks losing track of the fact that the negative reaction I have is fundamentally aesthetic rather than something to do with premises and conclusions. I apologize for the fact that I’ve quoted the Dahlhaus before - like, four times. If you know my stuff, you’re sick of me repeating myself. I am. I stick with this passage because it is making a triple point about genealogy, form and function if you see what I mean. And this:

Another thing which has always led to works being branded as kitsch is the sense that they are somehow mechanical, calculated, "manufactured." In other circumstances, an aesthetic theory that disparages the "making," the construction – the poiein that gives poetry its name – may itself be open to question and alien to art; but in the case of kitsch it hits the nail on the head. How a piece of musical kitsch is made, put together, is particularly obvious, even if only to listeners who are capable of hearing musical structures at all, because it is primitive; and since kitsch subscribes to the anti-mannerist principle, common to both romantic and classical art, that artifice must be concealed in art, its primitive construction contradicts and undermines its aesthetic intentions. Its pretensions to emotional immediacy collapse when the listener is able to see through its calculation ... The decisive point aesthetically is not, as the adherents of a sentimental, popular, aesthetic theory believe, the sincerity or insincerity of the emotions expressed in the music. For one thing, sincerity is a questionable aesthetic category, and for another, no one has the moral right to impugn the sincerity of the emotions that give rise to kitsch. What is decisive is the sheer inadequacy of the machinery, its rudimentary schematics, its spurious invention. (p. 12)

Let me stop repeating myself and proceed to the text.

Let me start with that first paragraph from "Scattered Speculations on the Question of Value".

One of the determinations of the question of value is the predication of the subject. The modern “idealist” predication of the subject is consciousness. Labor-power is a “materialist” predication. Consciousness is not thought, but rather the subject’s irreducible intendedness towards the object. Correspondingly, labor-power is not work (labor), but rather the irreducible possibility that the subject be more than adequate - super-adequate - to itself, labor-power: “it distinguishes itself [unterscheidet sich] from the ordinary crowd of commodities in that its use creates value, and a greater value than it costs itself” [Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, 342 translation modified].

The “idealist” and the “materialist” are both exclusive predications. There have been attempts to question this exclusivist opposition, generally by way of a critique of the “idealist” predication of the subject: Nietzsche and Freud are the most spectacular European examples. 

The first sentence says that what you think about value depends on what you think about people. The faux-precision of ‘the predication of’ and ‘the question of’ is almost comically undercut by the extreme weakness of ‘one of the determinations of the question’. No one is going to deny that value has something to do with what people are like. The deployment of ‘idealism’ and ‘materialism’ is vague and ambiguous. Which materialism, which idealism? I can tick off at least six of each. Are we supposed to operate with these notions in some sophisticated fashion without receiving answers to the most elementary questions? So how does the paragraph function? It seems to me there is a playing on the keys of metaphysical pathos. A somber bass of labor-power pumping below - but this labor-power is transposed into a metaphysical key (Im Anfang war die Tat), bringing us to a sense of the world as representation (consciousness) and will (creative, directed, exceeding itself) ... if you will. Excessive trills and flutters as we traverse. Why "the irreducible possibility"? I take it that, along with the equally ostentatious emphasis on ‘self distinguishing’, we are being encouraged to audit ‘phenomenon emerging from noumenon’ - ‘something from nothing’ as a felt isomorph of the labor theory of value. Elements are overlaying. But how could we be entitled? (By a sentence from Marx?) The sentences are complex but the composition is rudimentary. Go ahead. For the most part you can transpose the order without damaging the sense, such as it is. The sentences are almost pre-fab in their modular interchangability. But they are very far from being like a logician’s crisply assorted P’s & Q’s. If you are attracted to these scattered speculations, it will not be because you accept Spivak’s individual claims as warranted truths, or as promising components in some argument structure. How could they be? But they generate a most unclassical counterpoint: earnest expression of concern for concrete social conditions taking a giddy turn at Nietzschean abyss-dancing. Who am I to forbid you, dear reader? If you are drawn to defenseless books (as I am, only not this sort). But it feels very manufactured to me. A touch sentimental. Mostly this is because I feel I’ve seen this sort of thing before. If I were meeting it for the first time, I might find it tremendously affecting, rather than spurious and formally confounded.

The second paragraph. It consists of claims we are given no real reason to accept. Let me skip to the end of the essay, where Spivak effects a return to this tonic (or whatever it is).

In closing, I will invoke the very threshold, the second paragraph of this essay, where I write: "The ‘idealist’ and the ‘materialist’ are both exclusive predications." All predications are exclusive and thus operate on the metonymic principle of a part standing for the putative whole: "As soon as one retains only a predicate of the circle (for example, return to the point of departure, closing off the circuit), its signification is put into the position of a trope, of metonymy if not metaphor" [Derrida, "White Mythology" 264]. In this sense, the "idealist" and the "materialist" predications of the subject are metonyms of the subject.

I don’t see why all predicates are exclusive. This claim seems to be trivially falsified by considerations like: if the ball is green, then the ball is some color. It also seems not to take account of the possibility of vague predicates. But let it pass. It seems to me that what this passage does is confound two very different forms of philosophic claim: 1) statements like Descartes’, in the Meditations, that he is ‘a thinking thing’. This is his essence. 2) statements like ‘I am a worker’, or ‘I am a subaltern’, where the point is to express/achieve a sort of ethical authenticity by defining yourself in terms of a particular ‘predicate’. The subject actively ‘distinguishes itself [unterscheidet sich], through some practice of self-cultivation that seems equal parts social and metaphysical. There is just too much conceptual slop between the philosophical style of 1) and 2) to take Spivak’s vatic, authoritative declaratives straight. The charm of this sort of move - revealing metaphor at the root of metaphysics - is, I trust, quite familiar. But that is just the trouble. Spivak is clearly counting on her readers being quite comfortable - heimlich - with all this Unheimlichkeit. But what if I’m not? (Suppose I don’t think all predicates are metonyms. What is the argument?)

Reading on - well, we get a lot of Lacan, which I will skip. Here the problem is of course: what if I am not willing to assume that "the enigmas that desire seems to pose for a ‘natural philosophy’ ... amount to no other derangement of instinct than that of ... metonymy." I don’t deny the conceit has a certain charm.

"Between metaphor and metonymy, symptom and desire, the political subject distances itself from the analyst-in-transference by declaring an "interest" by way of a "wild" rather than theoretically grounded practice."

I believe when you look in the dictionary under ‘Higher Eclecticism’, you see a picture of the political subject doing just that. The stuffy-looking analyst is looking as though something just went down the wrong pipe.

Lest I seem, once again, to be operating on an uncomfortable level of abstraction, let me choose a most non-esoteric source. Here is the McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Modern Economics on the encroachment of the fictive upon the deliberative in the operation of the economic text:

Originally the Dow-Jones averages represented the average (arithmetical mean) price of a share of stock in the group. As stocks split, the substitution of issues in the averages, and other factors occurred, however, a formula was devised to compensate for these changes. Although the Dow-Jones averages no longer represent the actual average prices of these stocks in the groups, they still represent the levels and changes in the stock-prices reasonably well. [178]

Here again the problem is an unhealthy, overhasty impulse to tremendous significance. (At the root of the market! Fiction! Thinking the canny through in the most rigorous manner reveals uncanniness!) The problem is that ... well, the reason those formula adjustments were needed is that, at bottom, the Dow is intended to function as a heuristic device; a stick in the sand, indicating whether the waves are coming in or going out, in a rough way. To present the discovery of an element of fiction here, as Spivak does, with a self-satisfied flourish - is dramatic miscalculation. Who could miss it? So, in effect, she does. She misses what we might call ‘the moment of the encroachment of the fictive upon the deliberative in the operation of the economic text’, regarding the Dow: namely, the moment the Dow was first established. Well, anyway. Skipping down a few lines.

For utopias are historical attempts at topographic descriptions that must become dissimulative if attempts are made to represent [why not say ‘realize’?] them adequately in social practice. The complicity between idealisms and materialisms in the production of theory [note the slide from ‘idealism’ as a name for a view that ‘everything is mind’ to ‘idealism’ as a name for an optimistic outlook] is better acknowledged, even as one distances oneself from idealism, if one designates this open end by the name of the "apocalyptic tone."

So there you have it. What we are aiming at is a musical effect, as it were, produced by a certain counterpoint of ‘materialism’ and ‘idealism’ - where these terms do not designate philosophical positions so much as complexes of impulse and feeling.

This tone announces the pluralized apocalypse of the practical moment, in our particular case the set or ensemble of ideology-critical, aesthetic-troping, economically-aware performative or operational value-judgment. My careful language here should make clear that the practical moment is not a "fulfillment."

There are still a few lines to go before we reach the very end, but I feel that this deployment of ‘careful’, in light of the wild expressionism of the verbal performance, takes us back to Dahlhaus. It isn’t that Spivak isn’t sincere. (How could I possibly know?) Rather, "what is decisive is the sheer inadequacy of the machinery, its rudimentary schematics, its spurious invention." It is impossible to regard of these hyphenations as careful conceptual linkages. A Pollock painting is not a blueprint. Of course, if you like that sort of thing, and you want to entitle your painting ‘blueprint’, then you are welcome to it by all means.

To her credit, Spivak anticipates these objections: “We cannot avoid a kind of historico-political standard that the ‘disinterested’ academy dismisses as ‘pathos.’” Except that this misconstrues the objection, which is really aesthetic - I suppose. But if Spivak feels obliged to lay down what look to me like bad bets, I suppose she is entitled to scatter her speculations as she sees fit. Economically speaking, there is no accounting for taste.

[I’m supposed to use some technorati tag thingy for this event. I’ll try to figure that out tomorrow.]


I didn’t understand which one I was supposed to read.

By Adam Kotsko on 04/17/06 at 02:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

No need for any technorati tags, btw.  Aggregation is done.

By Jon on 04/17/06 at 03:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t understand Spivak.

By on 04/17/06 at 03:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, Is it more important to you to show that Spivak’s style of writing is a kind of kitsch or that it is merely (albeit self-consciously) theatrical/tonal? I see these as separable symptoms.

One of the reasons I’ve not been terribly enthusiastic about your criticisms of the Higher Eclecticism is that I find the un-eclectic, rigorously common-sensical Other to the HE to be too nebulous. I don’t really know what it is, and I don’t think the biggest problem with people like Spivak is the apparent absence of rigor (eclecticism). If anything, my problem lies in the “higher”—the idea that the eclecticism is in some sense obfuscated by a jargon that is at once hieratic and (as you rightly point out) frequently imprecise.

I think the theatrical and tonal parts of Spivak’s work are essentially of a piece with the other Theory from her generation—Derrida and Foucault. There was a certain caché in simply ‘sounding like that’ which was quite separate from the content of the argument.

Stating that you have problems with it that are aesthetic is less effective than pointing out that Spivak’s was a very particular kind of theatrical presentation in a particular historical moment. It did have some positive effects, often in the form of stimulating other scholars to fill in the gaps in her historical arguments, or to push themselves outside of comfortable conceptual frameworks. It also has had many negative effects, many of which were discussed in our “Theory’s Empire” conversation last summer.

If the fashion for her style of argument is waning, it might be because the current generation finds her particular theatrical ambiguities less stimulating than they once did.

I hope that objection makes sense… If not, I can clarify…

By Amardeep Singh on 04/17/06 at 04:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Anybody care to summarize what arguments Spivak is trying to make?  I understand that she supposedly tries to synthesize Derrida/Marx/Feminism, but what are the resulting truth claims? 

Is one of the problems with critiquing Spivak that there is no summarizable core to her work? Or is it that when you do try to boil it down, her work appears rather more bland and uninteresting than the performance might suggest.  If so, that would explain the emphasis on her tone, style, etc.  If it is just performance art, then the only thing to discuss is the performance.

By on 04/17/06 at 04:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

pau (if I got the pseudonym right):
“Every other sane person in the world knows that the functions you use to theorize knowledge and truth across disciplines are the same functions you use to maximize bullshit.”

Perfectly put.

JH, this time:
“I think that last point is quite crucial, and gets at why, for lack of a better term, I blink at this Spivak thing I’ve consented to read. It isn’t so much that it’s maximally bullshit, though I sort of suspect it is. It’s more that it just seems like art failing in a familiar way.”

No, I don’t think that this particular form of kitsch is quite that familiar.  Its purpose is to produce in its readers the feeling that they have come into contact with economics—even more grandly, economics modified and informed by literary theory—that provides a new justification for familiar bromides.  Here’s an example:

“In terms of this drive, it is in the ‘interest’ of capital to preserve the comprador theater in a state of relatively primitive labor legislation and environmental regulation.” (_Scattered Speculations_, pg. 84 in original)

Who would doubt this statement?  Certainly not the people who are actively campaigning for weak labor legislation and environmental regulation in the Third World.  Spivak has arrived at something that everyone can agree on, but if anyone asks the initiate *why*, they can provide a line of argument that is seemingly not banal—for the most part, because they themselves probably don’t understand it.  Look for that to be the hidden anxiety in the upcoming carnival, BTW.

What makes it better than usual kitsch, in my opinion, is this very attempt to mold obscurantist jargon around the most banal core.  Usually there is something unusual at the center of this form of argument which can be agreed or disagreed with—but here?  You have shocking assertions like (paraphrased) “Economists don’t really have a good handle on value, and probably never will” or “First World lifestyles depend on Third World oppression”.  But when you can use this jargon to describe it, ah then the proper note of disciplinary purpose and knowledge is achieved.

By on 04/17/06 at 04:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think blah’s question is a good one.  Put another way: why do we keep gravitating to the issue of Spivak’s style?

NB I’ve read or heard Spivak often be fairly self-deprecating about her style.  Of course, self-deprecation can be a tactic like any other, but it’s worth noting.

At the same time, I agree that her style is important, albeit my take on it differs somewhat from John’s.

By Jon on 04/17/06 at 05:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The deployment of ‘idealism’ and ‘materialism’ is vague and ambiguous. Which materialism, which idealism? I can tick off at least six of each

The “deployment” could be refined to some degree, but the point is not without some merit, and one could assent to it, perhaps, without subscribing to marxism or postmodernism. Indeed, one could modify Ms Spivak’s point slightly and understand her as asserting that cognitivists (and analytical philosophers to some extent) have replaced behaviorist, freudian and gestalt views with a pure analysis of mind, of “qualia”, of consciousness apart from needs/desires/instincts; or in the case of an. philosophy with abstract objects, set theory, instead of a more political, economically oriented concerns . And aesthetics as well has assisted in the de-naturalization of progressivism: literature and lit.crit itself often a reification of a type of idealism which typically bear much more resemblance to platonism than it does to any post-1789 types of thought.

The initial marxist conception was to view the subject as matter which thinks, determined by economic/biological needs and not separate from nature, but embedded in it. Freud and Darwin, even Nietzsche, stimulus-response figures operated on that assumption as well. It is with the rise of existentialism and postmodernist idealism as well as cognitivism , Chomsky, that that naturalism was replaced or at the very least attenuated, and that movement is not one that progressives should necessarily acquience in

By Steven C. Rigoletti on 04/17/06 at 05:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, I had in mind the following line, to be coordinated with your post about serious blogging: “We have staged a million cheap greasepainted imitations of Hellenism since the fucking Renaissance and never do we get any closer, never, to clarity and reason, and now we have invented the Internet.”

Amardeep’s point is good. I’ve said it before, but not loud enough: it IS the ‘higher’, more than the ‘eclecticism’, that bothers me, too. Who knows? With a little less work, Spivak’s essay might have made a decent blog post. As an article, however, it seems to me a lead balloon. The problem is a high level of self-seriousness, combines with a high level of undisciplined messing about.

There’s a point to be made about the MLA. No one thinks thousands of posts with silly titles, many of them messy performative affairs, is a real problem. In fact, it’s quite a happy pot, perking along. Here the eclectic form suits the nature of the enterprise. But the MLA ... well, there is a problem that with so many people saying so many things; it would be rather natural just to chat and amble along in a bloggy way, with no one obliged to pretend that what they have to offer is more than it really is. But professionalism requires self-seriousness and a packaging of things as classical sorts of research or results, which is often deforming or at least dully inappropriate. A long time ago I quoted a Peter Brooks essay in which he indignantly rebuts charges of ‘bad writing’, while conceding the following: “We have placed a premium on “original published scholarship” that leads to a certain critical hyperventilation, the promotion into books of what should not be books, and the claim to significance where one would prefer a modest elucidation.” Connect that to the Dahlhaus.

It might be useful for me, personally, to approach the issue form a different angle: why do I like thinkers like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, but not Spivak? What do I think they’ve got that she doesn’t? It certainly isn’t that they are more conventional, less theatrical, in their argumentative styles.

By John Holbo on 04/17/06 at 10:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Amardeep: “Stating that you have problems with it that are aesthetic is less effective than pointing out that Spivak’s was a very particular kind of theatrical presentation in a particular historical moment.”

If it’s a theatrical presentation, on what grounds other than the aesthetic should one criticize it?  It’s not analysis, or “theory”, really; it’s too economic for that, yet it shows no serious engagement with the economic thought of the time.  Marx studied Smith and Ricardo; Spivak in trying to extend Marx quotes as a foil a randomly chosen professor of business administration, plus Althusser, Benjamin, Deleuze, de Man, Derrida, Goux, Habermas, Jameson, Lacan, Lyotard… I don’t see what you can say about it other than that as art it doesn’t seem to have aged well.

By on 04/17/06 at 11:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Value is not about “what people are like”.

And, if, Rich, you’re interested in professing familiarity with Smith, Ricardo and the like, then you should be able to recognise that in emphasising that Marx’s distance from a continuist theory of value, Spivak is, in point of fact, emphasising where Marx’s discussion of value differs from that of Ricardo’s.  Then again, you can just keep right on professing some knowledge ...

By s0metim3s on 04/18/06 at 04:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

s0metim3s, you do have an interesting epigraph to your post: “development proceeds at all times on the side of the predicate. […] an explanation which does not give the differentia specifica is no explanation - Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.” This usage of ‘the predicate’ does seem to be highly specific. Sounds like the sort of thing Spivak would be gesturing toward. (Certainly I am no Marx expert.) But your post doesn’t seem to me to provide any account of what this epigraph says, in effect. Not that you are obliged, but I for one would like to know.

I do think that, with her first sentence, Spivak is simply saying (what most philosophers would say): to understand the nature of value, you must understand human nature. You have to know what we are. But perhaps there is some highly specific and precise purpose in this use of ‘the predicate’ that I am missing. In which case I am happy to stand corrected.

By John Holbo on 04/18/06 at 04:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

s0metim3s, the difference between Ricardo’s and Marx’s theories of value is the oldest of old news.  The purpose of my sentence was to point out the ridiculousness of Spivak glossing/extending Marx without significant consideration of contemporary economics; when Marx wrote, he studied the best of what came before, when Spivak did, she quotes a few paragraphs of some business article.

By on 04/18/06 at 05:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, I’m not sure that that’s quite true or fair regarding Spivak’s attention to other economists.  She does refer to contemporary debates within Marxist economics at least (Sraffa and Bowles, for instance, as well as Althusser). 

I think your more important question is your earlier one: whether at base what she’s saying is somehow self-evident.

By Jon on 04/18/06 at 06:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, the question of whether her points are self-evident is sort of my first objection.  Let me rephrase my second objection by first saying what it’s not about.

It’s not about eclecticism.  I don’t understand how one could do what Spivak is trying to do (speculate on the concept of value, at a historical time when there have been many concepts of value) without being eclectic.  Nor is it about “difficulty of language”, precisely.  Spivak’s article doesn’t seem to me to be any more or less difficult in style, tone, whatever than most academic articles.

It’s really about disciplinary pretension—the idea that since Marx was unquestionably a source of literary theory, literary theory is sufficient to develop the ideas of Marx as economist.  I realize that at the top of her essay, Spivak carefully says that she’s sticking to materialist concepts of value.  That seems like an excuse not to consider whether the idea of “heterogeneity of use value as a private grammar” (to quote pomegrenade from Long Sunday) really is plain old neoclassical utility once again.  The discontinuity of markets?  No surprise to theorists of market failure.  The whole strikes me as being rather like an economist’s article on literary theory that referenced many famous economists from Smith to von Mises in order to arrive at the conclusion that the meaning of a text is not strictly determined by the author—perhaps thowing in a footnote like Spivak’s footnote 7 giving a checklist of literary theorists who have also considered this question, and a brief reference to Derrida.  At the most basic level, Spivak’s article doesn’t consider why most economists have given up on intrinsic theories of value (what she means by “materialism”, evidently) in favor of subjective ones.  I think that she’s able to do this because of the limited range of her sources.  (I’ve already mentioned how odd it is, by the way, to consider intrinsic rather than subjective theories of value and still make references, as she does, to literary value.)

I wouldn’t mind this if Spivak was really considering textuality rather than economics.  But she isn’t; she seems to really want to talk about work.  This is mirrored by most of the beginning discussions of Spivak that I’ve seen; people have definite opinions on political-economic issues that they seem to feel that Spivak validates or illuminates in some way.  Well, why not do economics then?  The world could certainly use more leftist economists.

And I think that this circles around back to my first objection.  The reason that Spivak’s conclusions, when you strip them of their surrounding verbiage, seem so banal is that one can’t really advance economics using these tools.  You can start with observations (which I agree with) about “women’s work” or the dependence of capital on the comprador theater.  But going anywhere from there based on a materialist conception of value, based on the textual theories of people who had every reason to reject intrinsic value in favor of subjectivity?  The only reason for it seems disciplinary.

By on 04/18/06 at 07:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

What a thing this is to wake up to!  And sharing the stage with seventypes, too—thank you very much for the praise.  I just wanted to comment briefly on the charge of harshness above—first, thank goodness no one found my “Diamela Eltit is awesomely bad” post; second, I really did not intend to make the rhetorical leap from correlating the two functions to claiming that that particular book was “maximized bullshit.” (Indeed, it contained an invaluable quotation from Paul de Man on Wittgenstein, taken from private conversation, which I will probably scare up again and cite.) It all depends on the data you have, and I didn’t read far enough to draw an especially informed conclusion about the data in the math-and-literature book.  So maybe the point is still harsh, but more like an angry vagrant yelling on the street than like the fellow standing up and excoriating the speaker at a colloquium…

By pica on 04/18/06 at 11:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

an invaluable quotation from Paul de Man on Wittgenstein, taken from private conversation

Oh, do tell…

By Dominic Fox on 04/18/06 at 06:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Pace Dominic, I would be curious about the de Man quote, pica. Glad to meet you.

By John Holbo on 04/18/06 at 10:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

[...From Long Sunday:  Your episteme is my abstraction, and we’ll keep it...]

By Long Sunday on 04/21/06 at 01:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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