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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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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

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

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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

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William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Saturday, February 04, 2006

Theory Ends

Posted by John Holbo on 02/04/06 at 09:20 AM

I just read Vincent Leitch’s “Theory Ends”, from Profession 2005. Scott quoted a bit (within a quote) here, from a Chron of Higher Ed article. I’ll add a bit more context, and some commentary.

Theory in the current framework has at least a half dozen different meanings, each of which has a distinct reception history and set of effects. First, the term refers loosely to the gamut of contemporary schools and movements, plus their roots and also their offshoots in cultural studies. That is to say, it names the broad field and is synonymous with criticism. Starting in the 1980’s and persisting to the present, conservative scholars dedicated to mid-century moral and formalist analysis of canonical literary works have waged a campaign against such theory (Bloom; Ellis.) [But is Bloom or Ellis opposed to anything that is synonymous with criticism?] Second, theory designates general principles and procedures - methods - as well as the self-reflection employed in all areas of literary and cultural studies. A small but vigorous skirmish against such theory has been enjoined by neopragmatists who oppose foundational principles, with the result that few nowadawys defend theory in its most ambitious methodological or scientific pretensions (Knapp and Michaels; Fish). [But are Knapp, Michaels and Fish against self-reflection?] Third, theory is widely considered a toolbox of flexible, useful contingent devices, judged for their productivity and innovation. The critique of such pragmatic theory, small in scale, has come from various defenders of objective interpretation, ranging from curmudgeons committed to the old days before such theory to defenders of New Criticism to more challenging hermeneuts (Harris; Mohanty) [But surely one of the obvious criticisms of pragmatic flexibility - bit of this, a bit of that, to get what we want - is that it is indistinguishable from the old days (so why is it pretending to be more rigorous?) What genteel amateur ever failed to muster a bit of this and a bit of that?] Fourth, theory denotes professional common sense - what goes without saying and what every specialist knows - so that everyone in the field has a theory, although some people don’t realize it. In this view theory is a sociohistorical construction compete with contradictions and blind spots yet shored up by the current status quo. But the equating of theory with professionally configured common sense paradoxically ends up diluting its specificity, its conflicts, and its counterhegemonic agendas. [This one needs longer discussion. The problem with defining theory as professional common sense is that it is often defined - by Culler, for example - as something that challenges common sense notions. Maybe this is what Leitch is getting at. But the problem isn’t so much that the ‘counterhegemonic agenda’ is threatened. More fundamentally, the concern must be that, if theory is just what everyone thinks, something’s being theory doesn’t give us any particular reason to accept it. It’s just the status quo.]Fifth, theory signifies more narrowly structuralism and poststructuralism, the works of Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, Kristeva, and company, plus their followers and imitators [We’ll let that pass and skip ahead a few sentences.] ... Sixth, theory names a historically new, postmodern mode of discourse that broaches long-standing borders, fusing literary criticism, philosophy, history, sociology, psychoanalysis, and politics. This cross-disciplinary pastiche is, not surprisingly, subject also to the broad critique of postmodernism, notably for its undermining the hard won autonomy during modern times for the university and the academic disciplines, particularly literary criticisms and aesthetics. [But is this sort of disciplinary agenda-bending so new? It is in the sense that the disciplines are new, as Leitch says. But the grand style of mashing up/synthesizing these subjects is at least as old as German Romanticism. The Schlegel bros. and Novalis - not to mention Carlyle and Goethe - knew how to get all this in the mix. Not that this makes it bad, but it makes it less distinctively postmodern.] (p. 123-4)

And another thing. Near the end of this long post, I made the point that Leitch, in Theory Matters, is really advocating ‘monumental history’ of Theory.

Theory is an anthology of its greatest moments [this is actually CR’s formulation, per a previous conversation]. There’s actually an old word for it if he were really willing to bite that bullet: monumental history. Nietzsche:

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

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

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

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

Turns out Leitch does see and bite the bullet. In “Theory Ends” he writes of the work of “consolidation, defense, monumentalization” that made the Norton. But, to be fair, in “Theory Ends” he seems more willing to consider less flattering features of academic fashion.


Genteel amateurism is different than pragmatism in the sense meant above. The latter has a point it’s getting to, whereas the former, by definition, does not. “Self-reflection” is also not the relevant part of the description.

Bloom seems to me to be an odd choice for Leitch to use as an example of a moralist or formalist critic.

I think we should all take the time to weigh in on “objective interpretation” and leave the institutional history of theory aside for a moment or two. “It means what it says, literally and in all the senses.”

By Jonathan on 02/04/06 at 12:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Amateurism doesn’t have a point, by definition? I don’t think the difference between amateurs and shrewd pragmatists is that the latter are more purposive but, rather (somehow) more competent.

If ‘self-reflection’ is not a relevant part of the description then what is it doing in the description? (You seem to be suggesting it’s relevant for determining what the thing is, but not for what those who oppose the thing are opposing. How is that supposed to work? No, seriously. The point I’m making is that Leitch is trying to cram too many ‘success words’ like self-reflective onto the theory side of the ledger.)

I’m not sure what the formula ‘it means what it says, literally and in all the senses’ is supposed to mean. It doesn’t sound to me like something E.D. Hirsch would say, for example. It’s the ‘in all the senses’ bit I’m stumbling over.

By John Holbo on 02/04/06 at 01:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rimbaud made that remark, or something very similar, about the Saison.

It’s not relevant to neopragmatist criticism of foundationalism, but it does describe accurately an institutional feature of theory. The penchant for metacommentary leaps out.

I think it is that the latter are purposive. The genteel amateur wanders lonely as a cloud and doesn’t care about tenure and promotion.

By Jonathan on 02/04/06 at 01:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan: “I think it is that the latter are purposive. The genteel amateur wanders lonely as a cloud and doesn’t care about tenure and promotion.”

That’s a really odd inversion of values.  The purpose of criticism is to say something relevant about the text, not to be “involved in tenure and promotion”.

And while the formulation “genteel amateur” may have some relevance to the history of theory, that word “genteel” really needs to be examined in any contemporary context.  It’s a hangover from early Theorist criticisms of their forebears, connotating an aristocratic upper class that no longer seems to have any discernable interest in literature.  The amateurs these days are far more likely to be people like John Emerson.

By on 02/04/06 at 01:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Arnold didn’t think that 19th C British aristocracy had much interest in literature.

I’m not making any value judgments here. Professionalism and amateurism seems like an unusually intuitive distinction to me. Then there’s Fish’s “Professional Correctness.”

By Jonathan on 02/04/06 at 02:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Can you explain, perhaps without the Nietzsche bit, what’s wrong with my “anthology of its greatest moments.” I honestly don’t quite understand your response - and didn’t the first time around.

Please note, as well, that in my initial statement I indicated that it was an personal, idiosyncractic anthology that I was talking about, not a Norton Anthology. You’re citation of me above would make no sense if the word “personal” had been included....

My position before, as it is now, is this: explain to me why, if I find, say Benjamin’s “On Some Motifs from Baudelaire” a persuasive explanation of a “change in the structure of experience” and thus literature during the nineteenth century, why should I worry about your critiques of theory as higher eclecticism? Theory may be unstable, insufficently “grounded” and “centered,” take what it likes when it likes, but why should I drop the individual work of “theory” when it works so well with the texts that I need to work on?

(Or for that matter, let’s say that I find Hardt and Negri’s Empire a persuasive and evocative work toward the establishment of a new left (not Scott’s) political directionality? Not that I do find it totally persuasive - just an example - but you need to explain to me why I should worry about eclecticism, monumentalism, whatever… )

In the end, I’m sorry, but if you’re going to take theory down, you’re going to have to do it the hard way - work by work, theorist by theorist. You’ve started with Zizek, I guess, but the problem for me is that he’s not in my personal anthology.

But perhaps a clearer explanation of the critique of “monumentallism” is the place to start....

By on 02/04/06 at 10:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry CR, you’re right I should have gotten ‘personal’ in there, in addition to indicating it was part of a previous conversation. Really you and Leitch are in different positions, yes. The short version is: saying that Theory is really ‘the best of Theory’ - i.e. it is just a subset of itself - is superficially paradoxical. But that’s not really the main problem. You can get around that in various ways. The main problem is that this attitude insulates Theory from criticism. You can’t see the institution clearly, you can’t write history well. If you really just like the individual work, of course that’s fine. But then you aren’t really getting into a debate about the value of Theory at all, so you shouldn’t even care that someone is critiquing it. My attacking Theory should only be an issue for those who want to defend Theory - as opposed to individual works of theory. To turn your point back on itself, if you want to take my take on theory down, you’re going to have to do it the hard way - not work by work, theorist by theorist, but addressing the institution, its history, overall points of intellectual similarity between theorists, good and bad tendencies ...

By John Holbo on 02/04/06 at 11:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

We’re traipsing into big-T Theory land again, and I’ll save you the predictable - though not improper moves. Yes, I’ll defend “Theory” when someone’s banging on the door to take away my copy of Lukacs’s History of the Novel. But unprovoked, no, no big T for me. Spivak calls it somewhere “strategic essentialism,” and yes, we all have to resort to it from time to time…

Can you explain to me - sorry if I’m dim or forgetful - the point, as you see it, of critiquing capital-T theory? You’ll have to forgive me - I’m just used to seeing arguments against Theory in general deployed in order to 1) “depoliticize” literature departments 2) change syllabi and/or publication priorities or 3) return literature departments to their pre-lapsarian state of grace…

So if you’re not trying to take Benjamin off my shelf - and/or soften the defenses so that someone else can - what is it that you’re up to again? What is the use-value of the institutional-historical-structural critique of theory?

I’m not trying to be an ass - just keep clear on the stakes here. Trying to avoid stalling the argument by throwing more little t’s your way.

By on 02/04/06 at 11:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You can’t see the institution clearly, you can’t write history well. If you really just like the individual work, of course that’s fine. But then you aren’t really getting into a debate about the value of Theory at all, so you shouldn’t even care that someone is critiquing it.

Would you say the same things about the history of early modern philosophy?  If someone wants to defend the value of 17th century philosophy, it’s not enough to show that The New Organon, The Meditations and Locke’s Essay are worth studying, you also need to defend Filmer, Digby, and Norris? 

Perhaps you and CR could agree to agree: the best works of Theory are excellent and worth studying, but the median work of theory isn’t.  My guess is that there really isn’t much controversy that the median work of Theory (or theory) probably isn’t worth studying, unless you have a professional interest in the subtopic.

By on 02/04/06 at 11:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Notice how many self-congratulations are buried in the different versions of theory in Leitch’s breakdown. I saw this tendency crop up so many times way back in the Eighties, and, boy, did we grad students take it in--the way people described theory in such praiseworthy terms, and then presented that description as if it were a definition.

By on 02/05/06 at 12:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for comments, CR is really asking what my whole project is, and - although I think that is a very fine thing to be interested in - it doesn’t really fit in this box. Short incomplete version: institutional-historical-structural critique of theory is interesting just the way any good history is useful. In the future, histories of criticism will contain a chapter on ‘Theory’, so it seems we might as well get drafting on the chapter. Another point I’m often making: there is a tendency, as Mark says, to cram ‘success terms’ into the definition of theory. This is one of many ways of signaling that ‘resistance to theory’ has something inherently illegitimate or suspect about it. This standard rhetorical feint - equating Theory with the field of legitimate thought - mucks up the history. For example, Leitch may say, in one sentence that ‘theory is part of its time’, and set it alongside New Criticism in that regard. But he also talks about ‘its long history’ stretching back to the pre-socratics. It is treated as synonymous with BOTH philosophy AND criticism, but also treated as a recent institutional peculiarity. I want to get this stuff sorted out.

Mike makes a good point, which is in part just CR’s point again. Just to underscore it: no one would propose that an anthology of analytic philosophy should set out to include mediocre papers, just so everyone gets ‘the whole story’ about analytic philosophy - good and bad. Likewise with Theory. (This can certainly be said on behalf of CR’s ‘greatest hits’ proposal.) Nevertheless, if you are writing a history of analytic philosophy, you have to at least consider the possibility that it isn’t all great. You have to be prepared to say that, as an intellectual movement, analytic philosophy has systematic weaknesses. If you weren’t prepared to do that, if instead you insisted on DEFINING ‘analytic philosophy’ in such a way that anyone who spoke ill of it got tarred with all sorts of failure terms ... well, that wouldn’t make a lot of sense.

This is really a simple test for CR. When Matt C. or anyone else starts quoting negative generalizations about analytic philosophy, is CR inherently revolted, on the grounds that these people are illegitimately trying to pry Wittgenstein off the shelves and trash him? I assume not. So why get his back up when it comes to negative generalizations about Theory? Seems pretty clearly same/same to me. (At least in principle. Of course you’ve got to generalize well.)

Mike makes another good point; namely, that my earlier comment seems to suggest people can appreciate philosophers in rather splendid isolation from history. I didn’t really mean it to come out that way. Let’s just take an example. If you think Kant is a valuable philosopher, it is very likely that you think highly of him because you ALSO are interested in the history of modern philosophy - the whole Descartes to Kant run; and/or in the history of post-Kantian developments. You value Kant as part of a larger thing. Now CR says he values Benjamin or whatever. Well, Benjamin is sort of a funny figure to pick because he’s distinctly pre-1965. (Did he ‘do Theory’? Yes and no.) So let’s be more canonical and pick someone like Butler (I know CR likes Butler.) Now CR will want to ask me: are you trying to pry the Butler off my shelf and trash it by critiquing Theory? Well, no. Everyone is entitled to a fair trial. That is, individual consideration on the merits of their work. But, on the other hand, CR is likely to praise Butler in a way that shows he admires her, among other things, for the way she fits into recent intellectual history. He doesn’t admire her in isolation. She has teachers and students and critics and has had influence and so forth. Now, when you get to the point of being interested in all that, you have to have a story to tell about ‘Theory’ - what its defining characteristics are; what good it is. If CR truly admires Butler in splendid isolation from her intellectual/institutional context, which is possible but I doubt it’s actual, then he truly should be just ignoring my talk about that context.

By John Holbo on 02/05/06 at 08:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

When Matt C. or anyone else starts quoting negative generalizations about analytic philosophy

That’s really odd, John.  I don’t really get what this all has to do with philosophy, though the reference to Nietzsche is amusing.

By Matt on 02/06/06 at 03:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry, are you hinting that Theory has nothing to do with philosophy, or analytic philosophy has nothing to do with philosophy. Presumably there is some sort of witticism buried here but I hardly know where to scratch.

By John Holbo on 02/06/06 at 07:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But, on the other hand, CR is likely to praise Butler in a way that shows he admires her, among other things, for the way she fits into recent intellectual history.

Not primarily, though. See, you’re the historian of theory, not me. For me, the primary interest of Butler’s stuff would be its explanatory value. Of course, her place in the history of theory/philosophy would be of importance in reconstruction the bases of her arguments - i.e. it helps to know some Foucault, some Derrida, some Kristeva, etc… - but for me the primary interest of any theorist is the work that they enable me to do - upon literature, first of all, but also culture, politics, other theorists, etc..

But you need this contextual value to pin your argument on me, and seriously, honestly, that’s not where my interest lies.

By on 02/06/06 at 11:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

CR, that’s quite fair. But by specifying a ‘primary interest’, presumably you are acknowledging some secondary interests as well. Also, one problem with what you are saying is that Butler’s style is thick with allusions to other Theorists - a sort of potency emanating from Foucault & co. So the explanatory potency of Butler’s philosophy will inevitably be a function of one’s sense of the fluid potency of Theory as a whole. Also, the form of Butler’s philosophy is, in a sense, a microcosmic manifestation of the macrocosm of Higher Eclecticism: all these bits and pieces spun up together without it ever being made clear how, in a technical sense, Kripke and Wittig, or Austin and Foucault, fit together. Obviously when you critique Butler, you read her works and critique those. But my personal opinion is that once you have a good eye for what goes wrong with Theory culture as a whole, you start to see the same intellectual vices replicating themselves in individual works - by Butler, for example. I realize you will regard this as an annoyingly provocative thing to say. But it’s just my opinion. And it sort of answers your question: what good is the general critique, if you are actually interested in individuals? Well, I think it tends to shed light. The same would be true of a critique of analytic philosophy. (I honestly don’t know what Matt’s comment is about, so this isn’t a response to that.) If you think you have an idea about blind-spots, weaknesses, whatever, of analytic philosophy as a school or tradition or philosophic culture, that may help you put your finger on what you don’t like about any given piece. (Not that this is necessarily true. And it may have the opposite effect. Thinking you know what’s wrong in general - even if you are right - may blind you to good features of an individual work that bucks the bad trend. That’s the way it goes.)

By John Holbo on 02/07/06 at 12:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bit sloppy. First I say that one could, in principle, appreciate Butler in isolation from any sort of ‘Theory culture’ background. Then I say she’s so allusive one’s sense of the potency of her thought will depend on what one makes of Theory. The only honest thing to say, confronted by this self-contradition: I dunno which. My sense is that Butler is HARD to appreciate in isolation from what we might call ‘Theory culture’.

By John Holbo on 02/07/06 at 12:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Of course, it’s the “theory culture” vs. “actually existing theory / philosophy” issue that causes us problems. The former is a nasty abstraction, an abbreviation of the particularities of the history, etc etc etc… It’s a canon, and yes lots of theorists work with(in) it. Others work with Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva, Hegel, for sure…

They’d, um, be even more highly eclectic if they didn’t, no? 

So sure, it’s hard to read Butler without reading at least a small portion of what she’s read, responding to. But the same is true of literature. The big struggle with where I teach, where the grad students are (very smart but) predominantly interested in very recent materials, is to help them to a sense of the history of the novel. IMO, it’s very tough to read, say, Joyce without having read (at least) Dickens, Flaubert, etc…

But the discussion of literature in general, or even “modernist literature” in general, or even the modern Irish novel doesn’t really take us all that far, does it? No one would sit still for a discussion of that sort for too long. (Ok, I know, Moretti… But that’s different… And free of evaluation...)

So yes, individual works are difficult to appreciate / understand outside of the context of other works in their tradition, yes. But no one would say that you should critique / dismiss works via an abstract critique / dismissal of their genre, period, context etc…

Oh, and by the way:

When Matt C. or anyone else starts quoting negative generalizations about analytic philosophy, is CR inherently revolted, on the grounds that these people are illegitimately trying to pry Wittgenstein off the shelves and trash him? I assume not. So why get his back up when it comes to negative generalizations about Theory?

Sure, of course you’re right… I’m as bigotted against analytical philosophy as the next guy, and a bit of a hypocrite for being so. BUT the thing is that I didn’t start a website devoted to straightening out analytical philosophy’s problems, did I? Were I to do this - very very unlikely - you’d be welcome to come over and inform me of the same things that I inform you. See what I mean?

By on 02/07/06 at 01:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

First of all, the whole ‘the Valve was set up to critique Theory’ thing ... Let’s not go round again. Second, wouldn’t it be perfectly legitimate for you to set up an anti-analytic philosophy site, assuming you (and Matt C and Gary S-T and whoever else you roped together to start a bold new groupblog) could set your bigotry aside so as to be of more intellectual use on this particular front? I would assume: yes. You say this with a hint that somehow the legitimacy of this (admittedly far-fetched) hypothetical scores a point against me. But isn’t it a point in my favor that what I am doing is analogous to something that, were it to happen, would be legitimate? Ergo what I am doing is legitimate? Yes?

Also, why do you call the term ‘Theory culture’ a ‘nasty abstraction’? It could be because you just think I’m too eager to stick the knife in. That’s a perfectly reasonable thing to be worried about. Probably best just to say it. ‘Holbo just plain too eager to think badly, and that’s my considered opinion.’ Then we understand each other better. Or is it because all abstraction is nasty? I infer this from the fact that you say (more or less) ‘no one would say you should employ abstract citique’. Well, some people think abstractions are fine. Most philosophers, for example. You say the term is an ‘abbreviation of the particularities of history’ etc. But of course it is. What’s wrong with that?

At this point, restoring our good humor by constructing a clever joke about the unwisdom of getting carried away with the (admittedly true thought) that only the unabbreviated particularities of history are auto-iconically adequate unto themselves ... is left as an exercise for the reader with too much time on his hands. The Prologue to Henry V is offered as a possible source of poetic inspiration:

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment.

By John Holbo on 02/07/06 at 02:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Fine, John, your anti-theory thing, not the Valve’s.... Whatever.

The point of the anti-analytical countersite counterfactual was, in the end, that we don’t know enough about analytical, likely, just as… But why are you forcing me to spell it out and be rude.

See, in my business, you’ve gotta earn your broad claims with lots of detail work. We call it “close reading.” And I’m a little surprised that this should come as a suprise to you, that a literature professor like me should forward, and stick with, this sort of objection to a philosophy professor like you.

So, yes, I’m opposed to the ungrounded, unearned abstraction. Most certainly. I’m about to distribute the first paper topic for the semester to my undergrads tomorrow, and they’re going to get a talking to about grounding their broad claims in the particular… They’re going to hear that I’m more interested, in fact, in the particulars of their citations and explanations than, say, the conclusions of their papers.

Ok, I’m being rude and infantilizing a bit. But I’m also trying to spell out for you the shape of our culture, the way we do business, and if you want to play on our field, you’re going to have to play by our rules to a certain extent. The rules we’re talking about aren’t that tough - not “respect the Marx” or even “never essentialize” - I’m just talking “respect the Text” and “never abstract without a preceding parade of particulars.”

If you don’t follow these rules, I’m afraid you’re not going to get any traction.

One hit on Zizek is not enough. Nowhere near enough. You don’t have to take account of every single instance of theory, no, but you’re selling no one but your choir when you fail to engage with the work itself, sustainedly, intensely, and in detail… Citing other critics of theory doesn’t count, not in the way that I mean.

Anyway, we could probably go on and on forever.

Nighty night.

By on 02/07/06 at 03:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Look. Honestly. (We should declare one day a week when we all agree not to deny the obvious, not even for entertainment purposes. We should only discuss Theory on that day.) Earlier in this thread you yourself said that ‘history of theory’ is MY thing, not yours. Why would you say that if you don’t believe I have studied the history of Theory? You don’t actually think I haven’t read the stuff, and I doubt you think it’s just too much for my little brain, or that I don’t maintain high standards of argument and evidence, so why are you pretending etc. etc? It’s tedious, since you aren’t actually fooling either me or yourself.

By John Holbo on 02/07/06 at 03:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, time to stop, I think…

My point wasn’t (just) that you’ve not read enough, it’s that you don’t read enough - there’s no there there in your critique, or not all that much. Zizek, yes, Zizek. But what else? You’re not going to bring theory down, rein it in, with a collection of quotes from Theory’s Empire and a Butler op-ed from the NY Times. Do with this what you will.

We’ve circled back to my original objection.

By CR on 02/07/06 at 11:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Though I disagree with what I perceive to be its conclusions, John’s Socratic dialogue on theory-related subjects covers substantial ground, including an engagement with Eagleton. John could probably be forgiven for thinking that you might have read that document and thus be understandably exasperated with these repeated claims about what he doesn’t know or hasn’t read.

This entire discussion would be much less tiresome and metahominemy if you would put forth something positive of your own on these issues.

By Jonathan on 02/07/06 at 12:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

“if you’re going to take theory down, you’re going to have to do it the hard way - work by work, theorist by theorist.”

Applying Occam’s razor--verification, in other words, either via CS Pierce or Quine--might prove to be an easier method.

By x on 02/07/06 at 12:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My posting in this thread is probably going to bring the usual scorn from the master debator and others, but I think that CR has been trying hard to be reasonable and don’t think this one should go down the usual path, if at all possible.

I don’t think that John has come anywhere near to proving his point with regard to his general criticism of Theory.  In that sense, CR is right.  I posted on this a long time back, suggesting that John really should go through a sort of historical outline, theorist-by-theorist, and indicate who came under his critique and why.  This was immediately taken by certain objectors to be both a good suggestion and one that, if produced, would be ipso facto evidence of skimming and not reading—a sort of microcosm of the whole thing.

The problem is that whenever John starts to present some intermediate along this direction, he gets ridiculously unsympathetic misreadings, along with accusations that in order to hold the opinion that he does he must not have read anything.  (I particularly remember Kotsko’s assertion that as a theology student he must have read more Hegel than John, despite John’s concentration on Kierkegaard.) In discussing your developing ideas on a blog, you’re to some degree limited by your audience, and John’s audience here has been largely dominated by a sort of heckler’s veto.

So I suspect that we’re mostly waiting for the book.  Which is a shame; I think that it would end up being a better book with a better reading now.  But that’s how it goes.

By on 02/07/06 at 01:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There isn’t a lot of point continuing this thread, which is - as Rich says - a bit of shame. CR doesn’t really believe I haven’t done the reading, so that isn’t really his objection. The problem is that I keep outlining the general form of a critique, and CR keeps trying to say there is something wrong with that. But the general form - which is really just a schematism - can’t possibly be faulted. It’s too self-evidently innocuous. It just amounts to saying: ‘there’s a school of thought/intellectual culture, x. I’d like to write a critical history/study of x.’ Because he keeps trying to make his objection at this level, CR is obliged to say things that imply he’s opposed to argument (abstraction) or the writing of history. Of course he isn’t opposed to either, but the point is: you can’t object to my project WITHOUT objecting to one or the other of those things. At this point CR gets frustrated and starts implying, more or less, that to defend myself I should upload hours of date-stamped security tapes of myself reading Judith Butler, so that I can PROVE I’ve read it.

Rich is right to agree with CR that I need to do more close reading, but CR needs to step back and consider the form of the debate, and what would actually constitute a substantive contribution. This is a post about a passage by Vincent Leitch. In a comment to that post, at CR’s express request, I outline the envisioned form and function of a critique of Theory - without, of course, actually making it in full. It’s a comment box, after all. CR needs to make his criticism appropriate unto the stage we’re at. Does he have anything to say about Leitch, for example?

By John Holbo on 02/07/06 at 08:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Uggggh. OK - John, you may forward the tapes to… Or perhaps you could do some worth with something other that 1) very recent works on the future of theory itself or 2) occassional, journalistic entires a la Butler. You may well have read widely, but it just doesn’t show in the work. References to things other than the intro to the Norton or After Theory or Theory’s Empire - either big french books or big theoretically inflected lit crit. What you will.

Rich - thank you for the acknowledgment of my reasonableness.

Leitch, OK:

*Yes, “synonymous with criticism” is wrong.

*Pragmatic theory is useful when dealing with literature, which tends to move between the social / individual, romantic / economic, psychological / material with great abandon. So, I’d say to “read what the text gives us” rather than “to get what you want.” The world is a lot like literature, in this sense, except there is a great amount of force brought to bear to keep these terms separate, distinct. What you call eclecticism I’d call the attempt to forge connections between that which is held apart by ideology or apathy. Literature brings these elements together… and so does, what is it, Eclecticism.

Par exemple, Tess of the Ds forces us to confront the dual questions of 1) rural society in England circa 1890 and 2) character dynamics, the way people mature over time. Calls for a double approach - insists that we use more than one tool at a time. A straight Marxist reading has a hard time with the romance and characterization, a straight psychological reading misses the significant location and class/econ/tech backdrop. 

*Wait, clarify - you think that theory, as disciplinary common sense, is the same thing as average everyday common sense? So much so that it deserves no name of its own? It impossible that literary studies could have, in general, a counterhegemonic common sense? Not everyone sees the ultimate hegemony to be the reign of theory in English departments - there are biggest hegemons to fry.

*And, of course this all goes back to German Romanticism and beyond. Postmodern is a silly, slippery term. I prefer just plain “modern.” But why should that bother me, that we’re nothing “new.” So sure, drop the “postmodern” - that’s not a word that’s particularly hot right now anyway.

So - well - I responded more to you that Leitch. What am I supposed to do, offer amplifications?

By on 02/07/06 at 11:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Can you post a link to the Socratic dialogue. That was a long time ago, in blogyears. I don’t think I read it back then… And I can’t find it now. I’ll take a look. Maybe not tonight… But soon.

By on 02/07/06 at 11:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I took down the old version of the dialogue to edit it. (It’s supposed to be part of the book I’m writing.) I’ll post a newer version next week or so, now that you mention it.

As to common sense. The issue isn’t that disciplinary common sense is the same as plain old man on the street common sense. Rather, the issue is why we should accept that the disciplinary kind is better? (The reason for pushing on this is that ‘common sense’ is often used as a failure term in these contexts. That something is common sense is a reason to question it, grounds for prima facie challenge. Whereas something being ‘theory’ is a success term. That something is ‘theory’ is a reason to trust it when it says common sense is wrong. So why should that be?)

No particular need for you to talk about Leitch.

By John Holbo on 02/08/06 at 05:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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