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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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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

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Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

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JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Friday, July 15, 2005

The Death and Discontent of Theory

Posted by Jeffrey Wallen, Guest Author, on 07/15/05 at 12:03 AM

This is a guest post by Jeffrey Wallen, whose “Criticism as Displacement” appears in Theory’s Empire. - the editor

Reading through the very thoughtful posts about “theory” (with a capital T and/or a small t), about whether or not it exists (McGowan: “1) Theory with a capital T does not exist"), and whether or not it has been imperial and hegemonic, one irony keeps recurring to me.  Most of the people I know, or at least most of the people I went to grad school with (the Humanities Center at Johns Hopkins, in the early and mid ‘80s), think that theory died, or rather was asphyxiated, some time shortly after the death of Paul de Man.  The sorts of concerns and practices that seemed to be at the center of literary criticism in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s were now largely viewed as obsolete and tainted.  The grand horizons for future deconstructive work projected by Paul de Man and Hillis Miller were mostly abandoned, and all of a sudden it became *very* difficult to get a job coming out of Yale in Comp. Lit.

So much depends on where one is located.  What will appear to some as the hegemony of Theory, of [wildly varying] approaches that emphasize one’s awareness of and adherence to some theoretical model, will appear to others as the decline in professional status of the practices that they’re most inspired by and invested in.  I don’t think much is to be gained by trying to decide whether Theory really exists at such an abstract level, and whether it is a good or a bad thing.  What would follow from such a conclusion, one way or another?  Only in the journalistic denunciations of “theory” that one finds in The New Criterion, or The New Republic, or sometimes in The New York Review of Books is it necessary to jumble everything together into one easy narrative of professional idiocy.  And I don’t think that this question is central to most of the pieces in Theory’s Empire.  Rather, what’s at stake in most of the contributions (and of course I haven’t read all of them yet) is exploring the effects of different theories and theorists on academic (mostly literary) criticism. Theory’s Empire could be also have borrowed a title from Freud (and Will and Daphne played around with several titles before settling on that one), Das Unbehagen in der Kultur [Civilization and Its Discontents, but more accurately, “discomfort” or “unease” in culture].  The volume presents essays that express discomfort with the recent trends in literary theory and criticism, in marked contrast to anthologies such as the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism or MLA volumes such as Redrawing the Boundaries (from 1992), which embrace enthusiastically, almost as cheerleaders, all the trends that they document.

What I think needs to be explored then are the grounds for discomfort expressed in these essays.  Do they have merit?  And if so, what might be changed?  As one who is uneasy in academic culture - and I guess that’s why a piece of mine was included in Theory’s Empire; I am certainly not “anti-theory” in some blanket way - I have been especially interested in describing some of the deleterious effects of certain theories.  As everyone else seems to be doing, I’ll also point to Mark Bauerlein’s essay [in response to the question of why everyone is responding to him: he writes well, he’s lucid, polemical, and fun to argue with, and he’s engaged in the discussion and might respond - the same reasons that Michael Bérubé’s posts receive a lot of attention], since it makes a point which I think is crucial (and not surprisingly, a point that is similar to my own arguments): the reigning standpoint ("social constructionism") shuts down rather than opens up debate.  Bauerlein writes that those who adopt this position treat the most controversial contentions of their favorite theorists (e.g. Foucault) as “axiomatic” and “not open for debate.” What should have been a wonderful opportunity for a vigorous discussion and rigorous investigation of fascinating questions instead leads to endless demonstrations that the text under discussion brilliantly encapsulates and “performs” all the high points of one’s favorite theory, while placing these conclusions beyond dispute.  This is one form of the empire of theory.

If I had to locate the moment in which a turn to theory leads to shutting down discussion and debate, I’d point to a passage from Fish’s “Interpreting the Variorium” (and to get the full flavor of Stanley’s efforts here to continually place himself one step ahead of everyone else, you need to look at the version in Is There a Text in This Class?, which also contains a preface to the essay, an essay responding to responses to the essay ["Interpreting ‘Interpreting the Variorium’"], and a preface to this essay as well).  Fish writes: “The moral is clear: the choice is never between objectivity and interpretation but between interpretation that is unacknowledged as such and an interpretation that is at least aware of itself.  It is this awareness that I am claiming for myself, although in doing so I must give up the claims implicitly made in the first part of this essay” (emphasis added). 

So much smugness enters in here, in the guise of giving up the “superiority” of the earlier claim, of getting closer to what is “really happening.” Fish’s earlier version, of putting forth his own “good” model to replace the “bad model” which “had suppressed what was really happening,” is less morally noxious and pious than the supposed doing away with “bad” and “good” as terms of criticism.  Arguments about what is “really happening” can take seriously what the opponent says.  There is the necessity to explain why one version is “closer” to the “real” than the other, and to explain why the opposing view is further away, missing something important, or off track.  But when it is a matter of aware/unaware, there is no reason at all to take seriously the views of the opponent - they are by definition intellectually, and even morally (they prefer to remain in the cave) inferior.  There is no need to argue any more except with others who are also “aware,” others who also accept, buy into, to the whole set of interpretive assumptions (and interpretive strategies) that are part of this parcel of this particular set of critical practices.

Fish is no more “aware” than any of the critics he argues with.  Each of them could explain the framework of their critical model (how it works, what it entails, and so on). The dispute here is between those who “acknowledge” that one is always only producing “just one more interpretation,” and those who claim that their activity will (may, can) lead to some more conclusive interpretation, or one that gets one closer to the truth, etc.  But the shift to aware/unaware, and giving up the earlier what really happens/not what really happens (closer or further away from the “real"), is a continual rhetorical trump card, in which every act of showing the “unawareness” in the work of another critique is a means to dismiss altogether the value of the interpretation.  The new model - “just one more interpretation,” nothing that exists prior to or independent of interpretive acts - is far more, rather than less, demanding.  That is, rather than announcing a plurality of interpretations, rather than opening up and including in the field of interpretation much that had previously been excluded, we now get the disqualification in advance of any interpretive “strategy” that does not buy into this view. 

I’ll leave to others discussion of some of the other institutional effects of literary theory described in the essays in Theory’s Empire.  In closing I’ll just add a few responses to some of the previous posts.  John McGowan is certainly correct to point out Said’s ambivalence in relation to “theory,” and his hostility to De Man and Derrida, and in his larger point about the dangers of amalgamating sharply competing ideas under some general rubric.  Said began a wonderful class I took with him on “The Role of the Intellectual” by spending 20 minutes making fun of De Man’s writing (this was 1979), treating it as a symptom of abandoning any intellectual engagement with society.  And in discussions during his office hours about Foucault and Derrida (I’d recently returned from studying in France) he was very dismissive of Derrida (and extremely knowledgeable about and interested in Foucault) - though this of course didn’t prevent him from being kissy-kissy with Derrida when introducing him to give a speech in honor of the 100th anniversary of Columbia’s graduate school.  Said also made fun of “theory” courses that each week presented you with a different theory (if it’s the week before Thanksgiving, it must be psychoanalysis, etc.). An overriding question here is what are (or what were) alternative possibilities for institutionalizing and teaching whatever one views as “theory.”

In an earlier post Michael Bérubé takes Bauerlein to task for claiming that theory has been in decline for 30 years (Bauerlein actually wrote: “Because in the last 30 years, theory has undergone a paradoxical decline"--I don’t think Bauerlein is arguing that theory has been declining continually since 1975), and stated that theory hadn’t really even arrived in America by then: “In 1975, the hottest items in the theory store were reader-response criticism (Wolfgang Iser, The Implied Reader, 1974), and structuralism (Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics, 1975; Robert Scholes, Textual Power, 1975 [update:  what a lousy memory I have!  Scholes’ book was published in 1985.  Iser and Culler must suffice to make the point, then]).” As a sophomore at Stanford in 1974-75 - and Stanford was hardly at the cutting edge! - I read Foucault’s The Order of Things and Barthes’s Critical Essays in one class, and Barthes’s Writing Degree Zero and Lyotard’s Discours, Figure in another.  It was partly these courses that led me to switch my major to literary criticism (from mathematics), and to study in Paris the following year, where I took courses with Foucault, Barthes, and Todorov, among others.  I think it was “French” theory, and not American (or German) syntheses, that was exciting people back in 1975.


"[in response to the question of why everyone is responding to him: he writes well, he’s lucid, polemical, and fun to argue with, and he’s engaged in the discussion and might respond - the same reasons that Michael Bérubé’s posts receive a lot of attention]”

Yes.  And this generalizes to so many of the outsider criticisms of Theory—they concern lucidity and engagement.  The aware/unaware distinction is a form of disengagement.

By on 07/15/05 at 12:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I am just now struck that Stanley Fish has come up several times in this extended blog-fest, and for the same reason: his rhetorical skill.  And a month ago I was at a conference in Israel where, over breakfast, a colleague remarked that only Stanley Fish could have made such a reputation over a book of essays where he pointed out what was wrong with each of the essays when it was published (Is There a Text in This Class?). Could it be that the trouble with theory is to be found in the institutionalization of Stanley Fish?

By bbenzon on 07/15/05 at 08:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, you know as well as I that “the trouble with theory is to be found” on the second shelf of the bookcase immediately to the left of the main door of the guest room on the west side of the mezzanine of Richard Macksey’s house in Baltimore. 

I’m sorry -been reading too much Bérubéan satire.  I really do want to know what you mean by “to be found in.” “Exemplified by,” or something subtler than that?  I find Fish and the other postmoderns to be the least interesting purveyors of theory, but there could be an interesting argument made that what’s wrong with them is not confined to their own work and their epigones.

By on 07/16/05 at 02:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Nothing particularly subtle, Josh. I was shooting from the hip there. “Exemplified by” is good. Fish might have been a more interesting thinker if he’d stuck to his knitting as a reader of literary texts.

I’ve never particularly liked Fish’s work. I thought the “Affective Stylistics” essay was a mightly con job and haven’t bothered to read much after that, just the occasional essay and op ed. In my own private estimation of things I’ve always awarded Fish the medal for “getting the furtherest with the leastest” in literary theory; Daniel Dennett gets that award in philosophy and cognitive science. Both men are very clever writers, but deep thought eludes them.

Of course, neither could have had his stellar career without a wide audience ready willing and eager for the chaff they offered.

Meanwhile I’ve been playing with the idea that the time course of Theory is roughly parallel to that of cognitive science so that what we’re seeing is what happens when a few powerful ideas come on the scene and the percollate through and trickle down until they’ve become banal.

By bbenzon on 07/16/05 at 06:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Over the past few days I’ve been thinking about rough parallel between the rise and fall of Theory with a capital-T and cognitive science. Cognitive science was on the rise at roughly the same time; the term itself was becoming visible in the early 1970s. We may take cognitive science for granted now, but the fact is that there are precious few cognitive science departments. There are some, but mostly we’ve got interdisciplinary programs pulling faculty from various departments.  These programs grant PhDs by proxy; you get your degree in a traditional department but are entitled to wear cog sci gold seal on your forehead.  As Jerry Fodor remarked somewhere (I forget where) in the last year or three, most cognitive psychologists don’t practice cognitive science. They do something else, something that most likely was in place before cognitive science came on the scene.

Here are some further quick and crude remarks interspersed with some chronology (and a bow to Richard Macksey, who’s done more chronologies than Joyce has done puns). To set the scene, let’s look at the 1950s:

1953: Double helix model of DNA published in Nature (Watson and Crick)
1956: The Dartmouth Summer Program on Artificial Intelligence (coined the term “artificial intelligence”), The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two (George Miller)
1957: Syntactic Structures (Chomsky), Anatomy of Criticism (Frye), Mythologies (Barthes)
1958: Anthropologie Structurale (Levi-Strauss), The Computer and the Brain (von Neumann)
1959: Chomsky’s review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior
1961: Histoire de la Folie (Foucault)

We can conveniently mark the coming-to-visibility of high theory with the 1966 structuralism conference at Hopkins and the subsequent publishing of its proceedings (my modest contribution is on 243-244):

Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato, eds. (1970). The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man.

The following two volumes can serve to mark the unveiling of cognitive science as a specific, if diffuse, interdisciplinary activity:

Marvin Minsky, ed. (1968) Semantic Information Processing, Cambridge, Mass.
Endel Tulving and Wayne Donaldson, eds. (1972) Organization of Memory.

This is when things, in both arenas, really started to take hold and move out. Note that there was a real, though failed, attempt on the part of literature to hook up with cognitive science through Chomsky (stylistics and Culler’s early structuralism). There is also a story grammar literature that developed mostly in the 1970s and 1980s and is beholden to both strands of thinking.  For that matter, it strikes me that one Sheldon Kline did a computer simulation of Levi-Strauss’s myth theory that, in fact, looked more like Propp. I read a tech report on this sometime in the mid-1970s.

[As for viciousness, the inter-school arguments by and around Chomsky are as bitter as anything in and around Theory. The rancor continues to this day.]

It seems to me that by the late 70s and early 80s the main ideas were on the table in both camps. Consolidation was setting in.  The early 80s also saw an attempt to commercialize AI technology, but that went bust by 1985 or so and Roger Schank, among others, began talking about AI winter.  Two benchmarks:

Stanley Fish (1980) Is There a Text in this Class?
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980) Metaphors We Live By.

I’ll say no more about Fish than has already been said, but the Lakoff and Johnson needs a word or two.  Lakoff was an early student of Chomsky’s who, along with James McCawley, Haj Ross, and others, developed something called generative semantics and thereby precipitated a nasty war within Chomskydom (eee The Linguistics Wars by Randy Allen Harris). While generative semantics is still mostly syntax, the metaphor book is deep in semantic territory, which had pretty much been forbidden to linguists by Leonard Bloomfield, a ban Chomsky was happy to reinforce. Lakoff and Johnson see Metaphor (and associated work) as marking a second generation cognitive science, one that emphasizes embodied cognition. From my (biased) POV this looks a lot like New Criticism with a new set of tropes and with an interest in laboratory experimentation.

As far as I know there really isn’t anything in cognitive science that’s parallel to Theory’s Empire.  That is in part because these two intellectual areas are organized along different lines, with different publication habits and pedagogical needs.  But I’ll list three anthology volumes:

R. Núñez and W. J. Freeman,eds.  (1999). Reclaiming Cognition.
Port, R. F. and T. van Gelder, Eds. (1995). Mind as Motion: Explorations in the Dynamics of Cognition.
J. Petitot, F. J. Varela, B. Pachoud and J.-M. Roy, eds. (1999) Issues in Contemporary Phenomenology and Cognitive Science.

These volumes all argue that the “classical” cognitive science has failed and we need a more dynamic approach, one that’s more realistic about the nervous system and, incidentally, one that’s more friendly with the continental tradition in philosophy. Walter Freeman, in particular, has been pursuing a rapprochement with Derrida.  It’s not clear to me just what will come of this, but the Dactyl Foundation is hosting a conference in New York this fall where that issue, among others, will be explored.

By bbenzon on 07/16/05 at 09:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think it was “French” theory, and not American (or German) syntheses, that was exciting people back in 1975.

True enough, Jeffrey, but two quick points in defense of my characterization of 1975 (and Stanford may not have been the cutting edge, but it seems sharp enough to me:  my undergraduate education at Columbia, 1978-1982, was 99 and 44/100ths percent theory-free).  One, Culler’s book was about French theory:  it was an attempt to consolidate and explicate everything “structuralist” from the past decade.  A more complete account of the period 1965-1975 would, of course, have to mention all the English-language translations that suddenly became available in that decade (and there’s your Continental theory explosion for you).  In fact, one wing of reader-response criticism grew out of French narratology, of all things (as in the work of Michel Riffaterre and Gerald Prince).  As for Iser, it’s hard now to remember how central he was to those endless 70s debates ("do readers make meaning / do texts make meaning"), but here’s Fish’s account, from his devastating diacritics review essay in 1981:  “The Implied Reader and The Act of Reading outsell all other books on the prestigious list of the Johns Hopkins Press with the exception of Grammatology [sic] (a book that is, I suspect, more purchased than read).  Iser is, in short, a phenomenon.” More on Fish and Iser here if anyone’s interested.

By Michael on 07/16/05 at 10:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I forgot something really big: 1957 is also when the Russians launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to circle the globe. The Cold War was in full swing at that time Sputnik trigged off a deep wave of tech anxiety and tech envy. One result was more federal money going into the university system and a move to get more high school students into college. So we see an expansion of college and university enrollments through the 60s and an expansion of the professorate to accommodate. Cognitive science (especially it’s AI side) and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Theory rode in on this wave.  By the time the federal money began contracting in the early 70s an initial generation of cognitivists and Theorists was becoming tenured in, and others were in the graduate school & junior faculty pipe-line.  Of course, the colleges and universities couldn’t simply halt the expansion once the money began to dry up.  These things have inertia.

Two more reference points:  In 1986 J. Hillis Miller was president of the MLA and thus delivered the presidential address.  He complained at that time about the deline of interest in deconstruction; the address was published in the May 1987 issue of PMLA.

Meanwhile, the 1984 meeting of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence had a panel discussion on “The Dark Ages of AI.” This appeared in AI Magazine for the fall on 1985. The field was running low on new ideas and the business community was getting stale about AI’s commercial promise.

I don’t know what Chomsky & Co. were up to at that time.

By bbenzon on 07/16/05 at 12:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Although I am not a Fish-specialist, I would like to comment briefly on the article about him and Iser referred to in an earlier post. More specifically, I want to argue that this article misrepresents Iser´s older work and fails to represent his newer work.

First of all, Iser´s reply to Fish is often called problematic. I do not know why, however. Iser says that the real word is given (ie is accessible to the senses), that certain things are determinate (ie are not accessible to the senses, yet can be interpreted in a determinate way, probably by taking recourse to a(n) (extra)linguistic system of reference) and that certain things are indeterminate (ie, are not accessible to the senses and cannot be interpreted in a determinate way). Applied to the literary text, its words (qua visual markings, cf. letter ´e´) are given (for accessible to the senses), the interpretations of these words are determinate (can be determined on the basis of a system of reference), and the links between these words are indeterminate (cannot be definitively determined on the basis of a system of reference). It therefore seems to me as though Iser does indeed distinguish between the low-level processing of visual markings (such as perceiving the letter ´e´; remember that ´given´ is associated with perception) and the more complex processes of ´transformatio[n] and reconfiguratio[n]´. In other words, I am not convinced that ´the Fish-Iser exchange did not take this form´.

Secondly, not everybody has lost sight of Wolfgang Iser. He has published other work (on literary anthropology, on interpretation and a recent work on ´How to do theory´, so I fear that the article only proves that its author has not heard of Wolfgang Iser), as well as providing his own account of the human necessity to keep ´redrawing the distinction between brute fact and social fact´ (I am willing to explain this further, but that would unnecessarily lengthen my current post). Although I am myself undoubtedly a biased observer (I am preparing a PhD on Iser and am speaking from a European context -which is important in this respect; Brook Thomas has convincingly criticized the reception of Iser in the US), I think that Iser has provided more stimuli for literary theory than Fish (Iser´s views offer some interesting ideas with regards to the whole ´why do theory´-debate going on around these parts, by the way). In contrast to common opinion, in fact, I would argue that it is Fish who has reached a dead end. But that, of course, is just me.

By on 07/16/05 at 01:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The Embodied Mind (Francisco Varela et al) and various things by Antonio Damasio (The Feeling of What Happens, Descartes’ Error), are effectively critiques of a lot of cognitive science.

By John Emerson on 07/16/05 at 01:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Regarding Iser: as someone who has looked through a great many anthologies of literary theory and has taught with several, I can affirm that Iser is far from forgotten or unknown. In some anthologies and reference works he actually gets more space than Fish (gasp!). Of course Fish’s antics garner him a great deal of publicity, but that is quite a different measure of real influence on a field.


By Daphne Patai on 07/16/05 at 03:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill Benzon’s remarks on the death of theory with a capital T coinciding with the rise in cognitivism (which is not supposedly being practiced much these days) are actually related to the larger Qs of how to connect psychology with literary studies.  Seeming unnoticed in *Theory’s Empire* are other forms of psychology useful to literary thinking but not yet mentioned: one such is Family Systems Therapy as that mode of criticism is now being employed by at least four or five dissertators and some two to three dozen practicing critics across the globe.  The House of Psychological Criticism has many mansions, and The Valve readers would do well to open a few of those doors.

John V. Knapp

By John V. Knapp on 07/16/05 at 05:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

All this talk of Dick Macksey’s house (with its magnificent library), Stanley Fish on Iser (I heard Fish give that essay as a talk), and diacritics (I remember when people really looked forward to receiving each new issue) is making me nostalgic (and making me feel old).  But it also raises another issue, which is what I was trying to get at with my comments about Barthes and Foucault, rather than Iser and Culler, as the center of theoretical interest in 1975, and it’s an issue which I think is very much connected to the rise of theory: enthusiasm.  And both the “obsolete” definition and “the principal current sense” of enthusiasm (according to the OED) are useful for thinking about and understanding “the excitement generated by Theory” (p. 1 of Theory’s Empire).

Possession by a god, supernatural inspiration, prophetic or poetic frenzy; Obs.

The principal current sense: Rapturous intensity of feeling in favour of a person, principle, cause, etc.; passionate eagerness in any pursuit, proceeding from an intense conviction of the worthiness of the object.

Although Iser received a lot of attention in the ‘70s, I don’t think he generated much “enthusiasm,” at least not in comparison to Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, etc.  And the effects of theory are thoroughly intertwined with the enthusiastic responses of readers.

Michael--I too was at Columbia for a year while you were there (1979-80), and for me it was hardly a theory-free zone.  I took classes with Said, Julia Kristeva, Michael Riffaterre (I remember him announcing in class with great sadness the death of Roland Barthes), and a “theory” class with Leon Roudiez, where we read Iser among many other things.  There were also several visits by Philippe Sollers, a talk by Derrida, and so on.  Perhaps it was the difference between being a first-year grad. student and an undergraduate.

By on 07/16/05 at 06:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Michael--I too was at Columbia for a year while you were there (1979-80), and for me it was hardly a theory-free zone.

I’ll believe that.  But I didn’t say that Columbia was a theory-free zone.  I said that my undergraduate education was almost wholly theory-free.  I did attend a talk on French feminist theory in 1981 (I was dating a graduate student at the time and she invited me to the event, so yes, the difference in our experiences is largely a function of the vast grad/ undergrad divide), and as I recall, people were trying to stab each other afterward, and I didn’t have the faintest idea what in the world they were on about.  My girlfriend and her cohort talked of Barthes, too.  That was the first I heard of Barthes.

But more generally, I see something weird going on in this thread:  if I say X, regardless of what X is, someone shows up to rebut it.  First I say that the major figures of 1975 included Culler and Iser, and Jeffrey responds (with some justice) that French theory-in-general was all the rage, and (with less justice) that the German wing, represented by Iser, wasn’t really exciting people at the time.  So I reply that Culler’s book was about French theory-in-general, and that Iser was indeed central to debates 30 years ago in a way he hasn’t been since.  Then Trickster and Daphne Patai reply that Iser was and is more important than Fish.  So now I’m wrong about Iser’s importance in 1975 and wrong about Iser’s relative loss of influence since then?  Quoi?  In truth, I’m not wrong about either, and Trickster, if you read my essay more carefully, you’ll find that I’m arguing that the Fish road leads to a dead end, and that the terms of the diacritics debate were regrettable in retrospect.  (Do be more careful in the future before you throw around charges like “the article only proves that its author has not heard of Wolfgang Iser.” I may not be writing a dissertation on the man, but I have taught Iser’s work many times.) And now Jeffrey contrasts his Columbia experience with mine, in order to demonstrate that Columbia was more theory-saturated than I’ve suggested. I’m inclined to step aside and let Trickster and Professor Patai hash this Iser thing out with Jeffrey, but before I go, I want to suggest that the sun will come up tomorrow.  Any takers?

By Michael on 07/16/05 at 09:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You will at least be able to represent that the sun has come up tomorrow. But will we know if it really has? Alas, ontology.

Anyhoo, I hear what Michael’s saying here. What’s interesting to me is that the metadiscussion here is mostly trying to draw people back to some kind of consensus center, in which the work of criticism isn’t the same as a commonsense reading of a work of literature but it isn’t Theory, either. And I do sense some slight, stubborn heel-dragging here and there about that.

It may or may not be peripheral to note this, but it strikes me that one thing circling below the obvious depths as far as this reluctance goes is that in the last thirty years, the basic moral posture that virtually everyone adopts in both scholarly and public debates is of the aggrieved, marginalized outsider, consigned unfairly to the outer darkness, staring hungrily at the warm center of power and influence. Everyone paints themselves as victim, Other, exile; no one represents the norm, the center, the heart of things. (Or if they do, they claim that the center has been evicted from its rightful place by some minoritarian, extremist, unrepresentative constituency.) High theory represented itself that way even at the height of its influence; so did the diverse critics of theory.

No one likes being drawn back into a consensus center which those inside the center matter-of-factly concede represents the central or dominant interests in a field, a profession, an institution, and is defended as such.

By Timothy Burke on 07/16/05 at 10:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"But more generally, I see something weird going on in this thread:  if I say X, regardless of what X is, someone shows up to rebut it.”

At the risk of doing this again (and making you feel personally attacked, something which is, of course, not my intention), I thought that this was more or less the point of fora and blogs. My apologies if I have breached a form of etiquette I am unaware of. Moreover, I do not want to hijack this post and take it in a direction it was not intended to go. So I apologize for nitpicking about a link that may have been peripheral to the argument at hand.

“First I say that the major figures of 1975 included Culler and Iser, and Jeffrey responds (with some justice) that French theory-in-general was all the rage, and (with less justice) that the German wing, represented by Iser, wasn’t really exciting people at the time.  So I reply that Culler’s book was about French theory-in-general, and that Iser was indeed central to debates 30 years ago in a way he hasn’t been since.  Then Trickster and Daphne Patai reply that Iser was and is more important than Fish.  So now I’m wrong about Iser’s importance in 1975 and wrong about Iser’s relative loss of influence since then?  Quoi? [...] I’m inclined to step aside and let Trickster and Professor Patai hash this Iser thing out with Jeffrey, but before I go, I want to suggest that the sun will come up tomorrow.  Any takers?”

I agree that Iser has not exactly been the most celebrated literary theorist. So I do not have that many problems with Jeffrey´s reference to the importance and influence of French theory. I simply wanted to reply to the characterization of Iser´s work in your article.

“In truth, I’m not wrong about either, and Trickster, if you read my essay more carefully, you’ll find that I’m arguing that the Fish road leads to a dead end, and that the terms of the diacritics debate were regrettable in retrospect.  (Do be more careful in the future before you throw around charges like “the article only proves that its author has not heard of Wolfgang Iser.” I may not be writing a dissertation on the man, but I have taught Iser’s work many times.)”

I thought I had read it more carefully. And, for what it is worth, my final paragraph does not take issue with your article, but with what I (and you) perceive to be the common opinion concerning Fish. I initially referred to the fact that you were critical of him as well, but I seem to have chucked that bit out. That does give a wrong impression so, again, I apologize. I do not want to take issue with your characterization of Fish (as I pointed out, I am not familiar with all of his work), but with your characterization of Iser. More specifically, I wanted to suggest that the actual terms of the debate might not have been that different from your sketch of the direction the debate might and should have taken. In other words, I wanted to nuance your bit about ´the Fish-Iser exchange did not take this form, and no plausible “interpretation” of it can claim that it did´. I would really be interested in what you think about my thoughts on that, by the way. Does my account strike you as convincing?

Secondly, I found it odd that an article that frequently refers to Iser hardly discusses Iser´s work. Admittedly, the article is more about Fish than it is about Iser, but it nonetheless tries to sketch Iser´s career/reputation/and so on. If I have opted for a slightly overcharged phrase about you not having heard of Iser, that was simply to nuance your -equally overcharged- (sub)title (´Why No One´s Heard of Wolfgang Iser´). I am well aware that most participants here are way ahead of me. I do not want to question your abilities as writer/teacher/thinker. So again, if I seemed unfair or out to target you, that really was not my intention.

By on 07/17/05 at 04:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Michael, I don’t know how to explain. You have everything backwards.

By John Emerson on 07/17/05 at 11:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

No, of course you’re not in violation of blog etiquette in taking issue with me, Trickster.  I was simply remarking how queer it is to be told that I am at once underestimating and overestimating Iser’s influence (on the same thread, at that!).  As for the fact that my essay deals far more with Fish than with Iser, guilty as charged.  It was written for a collection of essays on Fish’s work, Postmodern Sophistry: Stanley Fish and the Critical Enterprise, edited by Gary A. Olson and Lynn Worsham (SUNY, 2004).  And my hyperbolic claim that “no one’s heard of Wolfgang Iser” was simultaneously a complaint and an allusion to the title of Fish’s review essay, “Why No One’s Afraid of Wolfgang Iser.”

Anyway, as to your substantive question.  Iser replied to Fish, as you note above, by distinguishing among the given, the determinate, and the indeterminate.  I believe that in doing so, he walked right into two of Fish’s traps:  one, insofar as he suggested that “meaning” was determinate (thereby allowing Fish to come back with the claim that such determinacy can only be had from within an interpretive community), and two, insofar as he stubbornly insisted that texts had the same “brute fact” status as the “real world” (thereby allowing Fish to come back with the claim that texts, too, are established by interpretive communities—though he came back too far, as I argued later on, when he replied to the Sokal hoax with an op-ed about the rules of baseball).  And I point out that the post-Sokal misstep can be found even in that 1981 essay, when Fish writes, “The only thing you can’t say is that there is distinction, at least insofar as it is an absolute distinction, between a world that ‘lives and functions independently’ of interpretive activity and a world that is produced by interpretive activity.” As I note in my reading of Fish, this may sound just fine when you’re adjudicating between different interpretations of Tom Jones, but it is seriously inadequate when it comes to distinguishing interpretations of Tom Jones from the movements of particles in the solar wind.  This is basically where Fish’s appropriation of Kuhn goes all wrong.

For the benefit of everyone still following this (both of you), here’s Iser’s original argument in his reply to Fish:

The words of a text are given, the interpretation of the words is determinate, and the gaps between given elements and/ or our interpretations are the indeterminacies.  The real world is given, our interpretation of the world is determinate, the gaps between the given elements and/ or our interpretations are the indeterminacies.

-- and here’s my response in my 2004 essay: 

As if it were not bad enough that Iser insists on two kinds of determinacies, the given and the determinate, Iser further insists that interpretation is determinate (where one might have thought, in the most naively realist terms, that the text was determinate and the interpretations were variable) and that the “the words of the text” have the same ontological status as “the real world,” namely, that of the “given” –- the brute-fact raw material for interpretation (where one might have thought, in the most naively realist terms, that the words of texts were themselves interpretations of a real world).

Then I suggested that the debate could have taken another form, in which Iser would have been on stronger ground:

It would have been possible . . . to contest Fish’s reading of Iser not by stubbornly insisting on the determinacy of the determinate, and not, good Lord, by insisting on two separate varieties of determinacy and assigning “interpretation” to one of them, but by acknowledging that all forms of reading are interpretive but that some involve the kind of low-level, relatively uncontestable cognitive acts we engage in whenever we interpret the letter “e” as the letter “e,” and some involve the kind of high-level, exceptionally specific and complex textual manipulations, transformations and reconfigurations involved whenever someone publishes something like S/Z – or Surprised by Sin. (And, of course, that there are any number of “interpretations” that fall between these extremes, and that the status of each of them is -– what else? -– both open to and dependent on interpretation.) But the Fish-Iser exchange did not take this form, and no plausible “interpretation” of it can claim that it did.

In other words, I think you’re right, Trickster, to suggest that Iser’s work had (and has) the potential to make such a response possible.  But this really wasn’t the road he took in the diacritics exchange—though I wish he had.

And John Emerson, you’re right as well, of course.  It is we who come up to the sun.

By Michael on 07/17/05 at 02:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Could someone explain to me, or anyone else, why the Sokal hoax on “Social Text” didn’t permanently discredit all of PM?

George Balanchine

By on 08/27/05 at 01:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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