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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

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

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

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

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

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

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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

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

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Friday, February 02, 2007

‘Theory’ for me but not for thee

Posted by John Holbo on 02/02/07 at 10:57 PM

I don’t know how I missed this at the time. Last year Jodi Dean wrote a piece for Bad Subjects, on “Blogging Theory".

At any rate, missing from nearly every account of blogs and blogging is the genre of academic blogs, and its even smaller subset, the theory-minded blog—no doubt because the number of such blogs and their readers is small and their discussions specialized if not downright esoteric—Badiou, Benjamin, Blanchot, Heidegger, Zizek. There are of course a couple of very popular academic bloggers—Glen Reynolds of Instapundit is a law professor and Michael Berube teaches English at Penn State. But both, Reynolds more than Berube, tend more to punditry and political commentary than theory. They don’t blog primarily about their academic work. Their aims, audience, and impact are significantly larger than those of most academic and, more specifically, theory-oriented blogs.

The theory blogs—and I am thinking primarily of about thirty or so interconnected blogs—generally combine personal and theoretical explorations, discussions of culture and politics, reflections on academic practices, and anything that strikes the blogger’s fancy. So, while they share a thread of theoretical concerns, they also differ greatly.

Compare this with Dean’s response - not so many months earlier - to our Theory’s Empire event, in which the very employment of ‘theory’ - without any ‘of x’ - is taken as more or less dispositive proof of the worst sort of lazy anti-intellectualism and anxiously craven careerism.

Matt Christie and Mark Kaplan have picked up a discussion of ‘theory’ that has been circulating over the past month or so. Both rightly take issue with the reductions (the elimination of an object, say--theory of what??--and the application of the term to particular thinkers thinking since 1965) necessarily part of the operation of the anti-theory polemic. Other than their posts, I haven’t paid close attention to the blog discussion, although I have talked about Theory’s Empire and the discussion around it with academic friends. From my vantage point as a political theorist in a political science department (as opposed to a scholar working in literature and the humanities), what appears to me as the reductive thinking about theory seems the result of displacing real anxieties over the academic job market onto a fantasied image of their cause (Theory!) and a recoding of tired critiques of so-called ‘postmodernism’ into the popular (and faux populist/read ‘nationalist’) terms of today’s anti-intellectualism.

It strikes me that this is a pretty good proof-by-example of one of the contentions of several posts during our event: namely, that discussion often grounds out, unsatisfactorily, due to tediously transparent denialism on the theory side. (See also: the history of neocon apologetics.) The term, ‘theory’, is not just understood but voluntarily employed - and with a quite fine degree of precision and nuance - by those who ‘do theory’. There is such a thing as a ‘theory blog’, which will be marked by a distinctive style of appropriation of, and attitude towards, a more or less specifiable set of (mostly European) thinkers. Dean herself clearly takes it to be obvious and not in need of much explanation, let alone conceptual defense, that ‘theory blogging’ will not include most philosophy blogs, of which there are, of course, scores and scores; let alone other academic blogs, including academic blogs about politics and culture and so forth. It won’t include Michael Bérubé because, even though he is sympathetic in many ways, he doesn’t clearly ‘do theory’. The piece drops the heavy hint that there is not just something importantly distinctive but distinctively good about theory blogging. But how could this be due to anything but the distinctive, good character of theory? And if it makes sense to assert it is distinctively good, can it really be nonsense to consider that it might be distinctively bad?

UPDATE: I expect I will soon have it pointed out to me that the conception of ‘theory’ Dean is presupposing is tendentious; that is, it isn’t really clear she is drawing the line in the right place. Yes, for what it is worth, that is certainly true.

UPDATE the 2nd: Jodi Dean responds. I think she misses the point. More peculiarly, she credits Kotsko with the comic insight that my posts are ‘send ups’. Good heavens. As Empson says: “surely we can take some things for granted.” If Dean thinks she has ever once seen me with a straight face, it’s a miracle she didn’t accuse me of being insane instead of just mistaken. Perhaps she was being polite.

And as to the kerfuffle. I really don’t think that Adam and Rich should talk to each other any more. And am henceforth pursuing a no-fault deletion policy, at the suggestion of the omni-fault-finding John Emerson. (I guess it’s one of those ‘only Nixon could go to China’ things.) No obviously profitless abuse allowed.


The Original Adam is on his way to respond.

By John Emerson on 02/03/07 at 08:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The Original Adam? He would be quite old, no?

By John Holbo on 02/03/07 at 09:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hey, I just like the bit about me and Glenn Reynolds being “very popular academic bloggers.” You know, sort of like Titanic and Slapshot were very popular movies.

I did like Reynolds’ “Theory Tuesdays,” though.  I wish he’d written more of those, though I understand they were really time-consuming.

By Michael Bérubé on 02/03/07 at 10:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Glenn Reynolds, Michael Berube, Jodi Dean—all those theory people rankle my ass.

By John Emerson on 02/03/07 at 10:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Go on.

By John Holbo on 02/03/07 at 10:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

[Reynolds’ “Theory Tuesdays,” ]... though I understand they were really time-consuming.

Yes, particularly with the burden on the reader to decode the subtle literary and popular culture allusions, in-jokes, and Limbaughian puns. They could aptly be characterized as Drudge-ry, and many found them off-putting.

But at least he leavened the mix with his Arbitrary and Stupid Saturdays - which he did not even restrict to Saturdays!
So much fun, in theory and in practice!

By on 02/03/07 at 11:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

practice s/b praxis

I see that The Weblog’s military adventure at The Valve has had the desired effect—now you too are aggressively following up on old debates. 

I do think it’s a bit tendentious to claim that Jodi is implying that there’s something “specifically good” about theory blogging—she only seems to be claiming that it’s a particular blogging circle in which she participates (at least in what is quoted, which is presumably what you intend to present as evidence for your claim).

By Adam Kotsko on 02/03/07 at 11:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I actually gave Jodi a pass on accidentally implying that Glenn Reynolds merely ‘tended’ to punditry over Badiou. Just a slip, rather than staggering understatement. On the other hand, if she had adopted my rigorous program of capitalizing (they said I was mad Mad!) - capital-T for the stuff she is talking about; lower case t for any plain old abstract general explanatory account - she probably would have noticed what she had accidentally implied. Clean thinking through precise orthographic distinction! That’s my motto. (Just shift-key your way to a more critical philosophy!)

By John Holbo on 02/03/07 at 11:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Clean thinking through precise orthographic distinction!

Wolfson has his first disciple.

By John Emerson on 02/03/07 at 11:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, I had in mind the whole piece rather than just the bit I quoted. I really don’t think it can be read, in toto, as Jodi telling the readers: ‘hey, I have this bunch of cool friends you should meet’. The implication, rather, is that what makes them “more than journalism, more than diary keeping, and more than remediation ... a practice of critical conversation beyond and through existing institutional frameworks” is that they are bound together by ‘theory’.

It is certainly true that what Jodi says, specifically, about what makes ‘theory blogging’ makes little sense. That is, there is no chance that it is truly distinctive of ‘theory blogging’. For example: “A discussion on theory blogs might spread over half a dozen or more blogs over the course of weeks, like some kind of long running seminar. So, I post something about solidarity on I Cite, picking up or reiterating themes already in play on the Weblog and Posthegemony. The blog Before the Law posts a critical rejoinder, countered from different directions in multiple posts by various authors at Long Sunday and again at the Weblog. Sometimes, someone will accumulate the links and post a general guide to the conversation (the blogger from Theoria does this from time to time). Rather than a fast paced media sphere, this exchange is like a slow seminar, focusing on one narrow question that arises on its own, and is addressed over a longer period of time, giving those who engage it opportunity to read and reflect.”

Now obviously Jodi wouldn’t consider the Valve a ‘theory blog’, but we certainly are capable of bringing up an issue again and again over weeks and months - even years - running seminars and such. We ran a cross-blog seminar on ‘theory’ not long before she wrote her piece. (No doubt you have some faint recollection.) This is a sign that she needs to sit back and reflect a bit harder about what she actually thinks is distinctive about the intellectual character of these sites she intuitively groups together.

By John Holbo on 02/03/07 at 11:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Wolfson and I go way back. But the truth is we aren’t close enough, given how similar we are. Ben, I have a confession to make. I met you at that party at the blogging house but I obviously misheard your name. Later I told Belle: “I’m sorry I missed Ben Wolfson.” And Belle said: “Dude, he was the guy with curly hair. I saw you talking to him.” I thought it was just some guy with curly hair, who seemed nice enough. I didn’t know he was ... the legend.

By John Holbo on 02/03/07 at 11:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I read through the entire article, and I do not see Jodi as claiming that those properties belong exclusively to theory blogs.  While they don’t belong only to theory blogs, surely they belong also to theory blogs.

Since she’s not making explicit claims about the transcendental uniqueness of theory blogs, nor of theory as an enterprise, then perhaps her article does not actually stand in contradiction from her critique of the attempt to reify a capital-t Theory—it is possible for one to use the term “theory” to denote “what people usually mean by the term ‘theory’” while resisting attempts to really strictly define the word.  (As a parallel, I am fully capable of using the word “religion” in conversation to refer to “what people usually mean by the word ‘religion’,” but I nevertheless do not think that “religion” can helpfully be turned into a strict concept rather than just a word.)

By Adam Kotsko on 02/03/07 at 12:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Do you have issues with curly hair, John?

By John Emerson on 02/03/07 at 12:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I have responded at greater length at my own blog.

Someday I will get back in the habit of using genuine “trackbacks.”

By Adam Kotsko on 02/03/07 at 12:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Question: are people who inveigh against “Theory” without modifier aware that’s what Althusser calls Marxist philosophy in “On The Materialist Dialectic”, which was published in *Pour Marx* in 1965 and translated in 1970? It might seem hopelessly uncool by the standards of the present, but I suspect (based on some experience of the *boundary 2* people) that an invocation of this specifically was intended by at least a few of the literary critics using the term early on.

By on 02/03/07 at 01:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John--sorry that your feelings were hurt by my not mentioning the Valve in my article.

By Jodi on 02/03/07 at 02:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s OK, Jody.

By John Emerson on 02/03/07 at 03:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s entirely possible that I didn’t give my name at all.

By ben wolfson on 02/03/07 at 07:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thus being stigmatized as “Curly-headed Guy #1.

By John Emerson on 02/03/07 at 07:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I mean, I knew who John was.

By ben wolfson on 02/03/07 at 08:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So, summing up: is this another mini-kerfuffle, or have we achieved the full monty?  (Not like it matters – I just wanted to use the word “mini-kerfuffle” again.)

capcha: quality45 (you mean, like “Purple Haze” b/w “The Wind Cries Mary”?)

By Dave Maier on 02/03/07 at 08:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I choose “Purple Haze.”

By Bill Benzon on 02/03/07 at 08:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Children, children. Thread all tidy now. All the angry words that didn’t really belong are gone. Let’s keep it that way.

By John Holbo on 02/03/07 at 10:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So, summing up: is this another mini-kerfuffle, or have we achieved the full monty?

Wait a second.  If we all believe we have achieved the full monty, then does that mean the period for giving justifications is over?

Oops, wrong thread.  Sorry.

By Michael Bérubé on 02/03/07 at 10:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I thought Dean’s piece was interesting (and really quite touching) for its ideas on the nature of blogging; and the relationship of the blogger to his work; and its discussion of what good internet discussions could be like if they only happened with any frequency.  Though their relevance to theory I cannot assess, I thank for bringing it up.

By Gawain on 02/03/07 at 10:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But, but, if thread all tidy now, then there is no question even of mini-kerfufflage, and my comment doesn’t make sense.  Oh well, wouldn’t be the first time.  And Michael: yes.  (What would be the point of continuing to give them, if we all agree?  Like we’re in any danger of that.)

capcha: might69 (no comment)

By Dave Maier on 02/04/07 at 12:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Just wait around, Dave. Probably the thread will perk up again and you’ll be hailed as a prophet.

By John Holbo on 02/04/07 at 05:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

(I begin with a prayer that this not perk up the thread again.)

John, if you were attacking Dean’s snobbishness, you might have had a point. I don’t think you have one now.

There are comics fans who associate in comics blogs, comics conventions, comics discussion boards, and comics zines. These effervescent communities must “admit” that there’s such a thing as “comics”, then. But if you walk into one and announce “Comics suck!”, the most polite and thoughtful response you’re likely to receive is “Which comics do you mean?” (Although my own preferred answer is “I too dislike it.") When people have told you that analytic philosophy sucks, you’ve responded with nuances. Why should attacks on “Theory” be treated any differently?

Words aren’t solid tokens which can be extracted from one game and used in a different game while meaning the same thing. Precise definitions are important when rationally arguing against a supposedly rational argument, but can be toxic to community formation, as I’ve personally seen in attempts to establish the boundaries of “science fiction” or “poetry”. A social term is, finally, defined socially, and, in healthily varied communities, allows for unpredictable outliers. Without the help of their blogrolls, would any reader see a connection between Spurious and An und für sich? Damon Knight put it well: “Science fiction is what we point to when we say it.”

We often agreed (pre-Valve) that certain evils in academic writing and pedagogic practice deserved a bit of attacking. Where it turned out we parted company was on the cause of those evils. To me, they’re examples of the communal aspect of higher education institutions deforming or blocking its purported goals: group-think, namedropping, mindless citation, smokescreen writing, bluffing one’s way into a position of authority, and then bullying from it.... That’s the “Theory” that bothered me (and shocked me, given how I myself read some of the canonical texts), and the “Theory” that, I think, bothers you most. But such deformations are not original or exclusive to the “Theory” communities, and if we took random samples from anecdotal and journal evidence I’m not sure “Theory” would even achieve a plurality nowadays.

By Ray Davis on 02/04/07 at 10:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s a fair cop, Ray. Fortunately I’ll have a good ‘comics are awesome’ post up just a bit later. Probably I shouldn’t bother with ‘gotcha’ posts, not because I don’t think I have a valid point - I do - but because I shouldn’t bother with valid points that can’t be cashed in for anything better than a feeling of annoyance on the part of someone who has annoyed me by writing something a bit silly. If philosophy begins in wonder, it shouldn’t ground out in irritable gestures of annoyance. Very true.

That said, I don’t actually think there is a good analogy with the ‘comics suck!’ case because no one at ComiCon will respond by denying there are comics. And there is certainly a night-and-day difference between the way I respond to critics of analytic philosophy and the way Dean responds to critics of ‘theory’ (just ask John Emerson). You say it yourself: I respond with nuances. (I’m not saying Dean is incapable. But on the Theory front her position is blunt.) I am also not demanding definitions. Quite the opposite, I am pointing out that it ought to be possible to proceed even in the absence of definitions. Because both parties acknowlege the existence of the thing in question. If you have a mutually agreeable term, whose usage is more or less settled, you can proceed on that basis, absent a workable definition. So the objection that I can’t define ‘theory’ shouldn’t be taken as evidence that I can’t discuss ‘theory’ intelligibly. I think what you are really getting at, which is right, is that I shouldn’t just tweak people for their slips unless I have some reasonable expectation of someone actually learning something from the session - myself or someone else. It can’t really be said that this post clears that hurdle in unambiguous fashion.

By John Holbo on 02/04/07 at 11:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

As the Valve’s designated omni-faultfinding eclectic on stilts, here and elsewhere I’ve been directly told by representatives of four different discourse communities that their community was a figment of my imagination. These were analytic philosophy, Straussian political philosophy, neoclassical economics, and Theory.

And yeah, I was usually saying “X sucks”! But to me “X doesn’t suck!” would a better answer than denying the existence of X.

Members of each of the four communities assured me that their community didn’t exist, since there was diversity of opinion within the community, because some members of the community despised other members, and because there was no single trait shared by every single member of the community.

I ended up improvising a three-step way of defining such communities. 1. A group of people who talk mostly to each other. 2. Generally agreed-upon and practiced criteria for how discourse should be conducted. 3. A set of canonical books or other writings honored by the community.

All these are criteria are of the fuzzy-set, family-resemblance type, but that’s true of a lot of social science description. #1 is objectifiable, and will normally show a few semi-members in partial communion.

Looking at my four categories, it’s easy enough to think of authors accepted by only one of them, and a fair number of authors are accepted by two. I can’t think of anyone who might be read by three or four of them; maybe something from game theory or philosophy of science.

I agree with Ray that the communal aspect (which I would call the institutional, bureaucratic, or pork-barrel aspect) is the prime cause.

I agree that in practice, closed speech communities are functionally necessary for specific purposes. It’s the institutional fossilization of closed communities that causes a problem.

For example: I’ve had several debates with economists (Crooked Timber and elsewhere) where I argued that economists should not talk about the costs of environmental change without educating themselves in the relevant earth sciences, and that preferably they should invite earth scientists into the debate. This does not seem obvious to economists, and some economists (self-described cornucopians) have abstracted themselves so violently from physical reality that they apparently believe that no possible environmental change can possibly be so drastic that it can’t be compensated for by technological change and routine market changes in the pricing of commodities.

That is a pretty strong empirical hypothesis, and as far as I go it’s not going to be tested because it coincides with the defining exclusions of economic theory, which by definition brackets out actual physical reality.

By John Emerson on 02/04/07 at 11:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The two Johns,

I can’t speak for everyone who has disagreed with Holbo, but my contention (in my mind at least, not saying I’ve never said the opposite in the middle of one of these things) isn’t that there is no such thing as theory, but that I reject the terms of debate about theory which John Holbo has set up.

Emerson’s four-part rough and loose intuitional family resemblance definition of sorts could be extended to anything where people talk to one another in a familiar fashion. It seems to me that the first part that is a real problem for most of academia in general, from the sciences to the humanities. Even in environmental ethics where, at its best, philosophers are talking with scientists the conversations can become insular as the philosophers are reading to what the scientists say are important and vice versa. I just don’t think Emerson has a real condemnation here, more a criteria that can be extended to any discourse broadly defined.

By Anthony Paul Smith on 02/04/07 at 11:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Neoclassical economics is not a figment of your imagination. It is a figment of my imagination.

And in what language is “values25” a “word”?

By on 02/04/07 at 12:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

English25? (Where did Emerson use ‘values25’?)

By John Holbo on 02/04/07 at 12:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

(I posted this at LS, but since it’s largely a reply to Ray, I’ll x-post it here.)

Ray makes a good point—also, the Super Bowl’s on today, and tomorrow will be Monday—but still, I see merits to John’s contention that something called “theory” exists, that it can be described, that it emerged from and into a particular historical context, and that that emergence can be tracked the way an historicist (like myself) or intellectual historian (like I’d love to be) can track in the very same way I can track the development of non-Darwinian evolutionary thought in the 1890s. This isn’t meant to diminish its importance, only to indicate that it’s not historically unique.

I think one problem in this debate is that the criteria we apply to the organization of, say, 19th Century schools of thought doesn’t seem to apply in the messiness of the present moment. That is to say, after the fact, certain thinkers demand particular categorizations no matter how strongly they insisted otherwise. To take one prominent example for me: Herbert Spencer, despite being labeled as a Darwinian thinker, despite insisting on and borrowing the authority of Darwinian thought, was a Lamarckian. Read his work on its own terms and this becomes obvious. I’ve found a number of other ostensibly Darwinian thinkers for whom this is also true. Granted, a negative categorization like “non-Darwinian” differs from “theory,” but by no means is the process by which I’ve come to define some work as “theoretical” is no different than the one by which I’ve come to define some work as “non-Darwinian.” The resistance to the category, then, strikes me as a peculiar valuation of present structures of thought, a belief in their historical uniqueness which will most certainly be exploded by time and reflection.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 02/04/07 at 01:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Are there theories of cultural change (let’s leave aside “memetics") that aren’t Lamarckian?

Valerie Haines’s “Is Spencer’s Theory an Evolutionary Theory?” (available via JSTOR) argues that his theories of social change are a synthesis of Von Baerian epigenesis and Lamarckism. Was a Darwinian theory of social change conceptually available to Spencer?

By Jonathan Goodwin on 02/04/07 at 02:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Spelling question:  kerfuffle or kerfluffle?  Also, it’s hard to distinguish the insults from the in-jokes here.  Berube finally provided a show trial scorecard for those who couldn’t be bothered to read every single comment on every single post tat dealt with the WAAGNFNP.

By The Constructivist on 02/04/07 at 02:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Are there theories of cultural change (let’s leave aside “memetics") that aren’t Lamarckian?

Conceptually or historically?  Because historically, it would depend on how you define “Lamarckism.” Haines’ article strikes me a little odd because it assumes Spencer had to find his teleology outside of Lamarckian thought.  Spencer was famously converted to Lamarckism while reading Lyell’s refutation of it the second book of Principles of Geology, in which Lyell discusses the “tendency to progressive development” at length.  No outside epigenetic influence is required to get “from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous.” What I think happened, here as many elsewheres, is that people have forgotten the drive to complexity inherent in Lamarckian thought.  They’re too busy with the “cameleopards.”

Was a Darwinian theory of social change conceptually available to Spencer?

Big question, little comment box.  The answer depends on how radically you believe Spencer modified his system post-Origin.  If, like me, you believe the modifications cosmetic—the appropriation of Darwinian rhetoric for reasons of cultural authority—then it doesn’t matter.  In the wake of the Descent there were many systems of social change which incorporated elements of Darwinian evolution, and they were available to Spencer, had he wanted to adapt.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 02/04/07 at 02:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John E: I think economists are confused by the term “neoclassical” because they use it inside the field to mean something akin to “Chicago school”.  (Though I now use it to mean the same thing that you do, which means you are colonizing the inside of my head.  Get out!)

Economists don’t deny the existence of mainstream economics (even if they don’t call it “neoclassical").  It’s worse than that—they deny the existence of any other kind of economics.

By on 02/04/07 at 05:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John H., if the issue was “Holbo’s online writing or Dean’s online writing?” my answer would come quickly and flatteringly. But, as you note, it’s not really a matter of “Choose your champion!” You set out to argue against something more than a single unsatisfying essay. And although I certainly agree with you and Scott that we can discuss something that lacks an unambiguous definition, I don’t believe we can rationally argue against something without clearly defining our target. You might be able to explain why you find it more useful to label Herbert Spencer “non-Darwinian” or Djuna Barnes “lesbian” than to accept their protests. But to prove that Spencer’s science is wrong or Barnes’s fiction is dull you’d need to address their work rather than your labels.

Left at the level of genre, such disputes should come to a quick end in “I too dislike it.” For example: “I too dislike careerist deployment of apocalyptic imagery.” Or “I too dislike combining mutually contradictory sources with verbs like ‘proved’ and ‘shown’.” We can then ask: Is “Theory” the most efficient way to describe what we dislike? Might the label suggest both too broad and too narrow a range of work? Mightn’t we find examples of such work in, say, ALSC’s own publications?

APS, true enough—the problems John E. and I speak of are innate. Even outside academia I react crankily to purely positive uses of “community” and “narrative”. All is never gained.

That doesn’t mean all is always lost. Even if some aspects of closed community encourage the failure of aesthetic, philosophical, and scientific goals, they don’t determine it. A community can be opened; individuals can consciously work against its more vicious aspects. Always, of course, risking the creation of new closed communities, but I have yet to hear of Advisor Damage caused by Michael Baxandall or Richard Macksey. (When I signed up for the Valve as a naive lad of 46, I suppose my dreamy-creamy fuzzy-fizzy vision was of something Macksey might’ve presided over. But “literary criticism and scholarship” may be too amorphous a token to build a decent communal game around.)

As for the more specialized communal game of knowing and articulating “the worst truth about the [English / Comp Lit / Philosophy department] engine,” a sociologist like Bourdieu probably does a better job than any engine part can do—even an Empson valve.

By Ray Davis on 02/04/07 at 05:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment


I think I agree with everything you just said to such an extent that my presence is no longer required.

By Anthony Paul Smith on 02/04/07 at 05:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Let’s hear it for Bourdieu!

Walt, dnying the existence of your own school can be the same as denying the existence of any other school. The diversity of your own school ends up being the whole diversity of whatever discipline it is that you’re in.

That kind of thinking is valid in physics, I think. There are different areas of physics that can’t talk to each other, but by and large they are about different subject matters. The various sciences all wish they had that kind of consensus, but they don’t, and can only pretend to have it by excluding the competition.

By John Emerson on 02/04/07 at 06:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You might be able to explain why you find it more useful to label Herbert Spencer “non-Darwinian” or Djuna Barnes “lesbian” than to accept their protests. But to prove that Spencer’s science is wrong or Barnes’s fiction is dull you’d need to address their work rather than your labels.

This discussion moves more smoothly when not about theory, so for the moment, let’s return to Spencer and non-Darwinian.  I’m sensing a disconnect here between labeling Spencer “non-Darwinian” and not addressing the work.  How would I prove his work deserves the appellation without addressing the work?  I’m missing some step here—some implicit act of judgment?—so the analogy breaks down for me.  But it shouldn’t.  What’ve I missed?

We can then ask: Is “Theory” the most efficient way to describe what we dislike? Might the label suggest both too broad and too narrow a range of work? Mightn’t we find examples of such work in, say, ALSC’s own publications?

“Theory” may not be the best of all possible terms, but it meets two essential criteria: 1) it’s self-evident, instantiated in buildings, books and institutes and 2) it is a term of self-identification, both nominally ("I am a theorist") and verbally ("I do theory"), not to mention adjectivally and adverbially ("this work is theoretically sophisticated").  I, for one, would like to know what quality is being assessed when an article or scholar is referred to as “theoretically sophisticated.” What does that locution—and many others like it, heard daily in departments the world over—add to intellectual discourse.  If a work is not “theoretically sophisticated” enough, what qualities is it lacking?  Who is being served by this commitment to an undefined word and its cognates?  Moreover, what is being obscured? 

Shorter version, then: if we’re interested not in the practices themselves—which, as you point out, can also be found in the pages of non- and anti-theoretical journals—but in the phenomenon of which they are evidence, we’re stuck with “theory” as an object of investigation.

(As for the Empson valve, I agree wholeheartedly, and on principle.  But no one likes to hear that, however true it may be.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 02/04/07 at 06:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott, you have a Google first for “Empson valve”.

By John Emerson on 02/04/07 at 07:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Credit where it’s due: Ray, upthread.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 02/04/07 at 07:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"I’m sensing a disconnect here between labeling Spencer ‘non-Darwinian’ and not addressing the work.”

That disconnect results from your snipping a piece of the wire, Scott. (And I used italics and everything!) You’re again ignoring the polemic aspect. Socrates wasn’t an anthropologist, Nietzsche wasn’t a researcher for the Catholic Encyclopedia, and the “Theory” pieces aren’t arbitrary assignments from a cultural history class.

Since Darwin was not omniscient, fully consistent, and all-articulate, a late nineteenth-century scientist may have been “non-Darwinian” and yet have produced valuable valid research. (Mendel comes to mind.) You have to look at something besides category assignment to know. In the games of rational argument and empirical science, the presence or absence of particular communal markers should not be enough to discredit a speaker.

In the game of territorial competition, however, communal markers are paramount. And when I find my judgment influenced by communal markers (which I often do, I confess—I’m not what you’d call detached), I have to suspect that something other than rationality is involved.

By Ray Davis on 02/04/07 at 08:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I should add—and then I should quickly go away and stay away for a while!—that it’s unclear just how detached one can be, or should try to be, in the games of philosophy and art (which may be why I’m more drawn to the “theory” tradition than to the “analytic philosophy” tradition). I picked less ambiguous games to ease my argufying.

I should also add that the phrase “theoretically sophisticated” seems offensively foolish to me. The question when it comes to extended polemic, however, is whether the “theorist” community has a lock on statements which seem offensively foolish to me, and my answer has to be: No, however it’s defined, it doesn’t.

By Ray Davis on 02/04/07 at 08:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Here’s to you, Ray.  In every respect, really spot on. 

Also, Craig’s response to Kaufman over on Long Sunday is probably the best rejoinder to this...rather tired line, to date.

By Matt on 02/04/07 at 11:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

At the risk of dragging down the tone: if you agree with Ray in every respect, Matt - Anthony - why have you disagreed with me all this time? This is a sincere question. Because the differences between Ray and I are, to my mind, small and fine enough to be subject to intellectual negotiation. But you have been rather insistent, for a long time now, that my perspective somehow places me beyond the pale of negotiation. (Indeed, I am inclined to say that, for the most part I have merely been trying to cajole recalcitrants into more or less the position Ray lays out. But I’ll waive that stronger claim for the time being.)

Speaking of small differences: Ray, there’s discussion and sharp refutation - but then, somewhere in between - there’s criticism. ‘Bad tendency talk’ has been my phrase for this region. I think it’s plausible that one can not merely ‘discuss’, say, analytic philosophy, but also talk about it’s ‘bad tendencies’. An excessive taste for problems of a certain size and shape that can be given a certain, rather artifical sharpness, for example. I think it wouldn’t occur to anyone to seriously deny that generalizing in a knowledgeable, understanding way about the drawbacks of styles of philosophy is a possible activity. If someone were to defend analtyic philosophy against this sort of objection, on the ground that discussion can only proceed thinker by thinker, that would seem like a tedious evasion of a perfectly reasonable, if inevitably somewhat indefinite, line of criticism. Everyone who studies philosophy does make generalizations at this level - both favorable and negative. It seems to me that your comments imply rather excessive denial of this obvious possibility. Does that seem fair?

By John Holbo on 02/05/07 at 12:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment


If that is the case maybe you should consider reconsidering the way you present yourself. I’ve never seen you say something like this and it could be that the rhetorical edifice you’ve constructed is too much kitsch and cleverness.

Not a flame, a real response.

By on 02/05/07 at 04:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Anthony, I think you are probably just annoyed at me, actually. I know I always do an extra-ironic thing when you come to play, but you are so extra-aggressive. Isn’t that the way it goes?

By John Holbo on 02/05/07 at 05:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Feel free not to post theother one if it is too snarky. Hardly worth getting everyone worked up again.

By on 02/05/07 at 10:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John, I’ve been thinking about this for two days, but I just can’t seem to get clarity on what it is either side would really like to say.

First of all, on the nature of theory: I think we should all be able to agree that “theory” can be loosely defined as broad accounts of culture that span most of the humanities: history, psychology, sociology, philosophy, politics and literature. There are lots of ways of studying literature that don’t refer to things like psychological make-up, or political ideals, and such methods could accurately be called “non-theoretical.”

For most modern thinkers, this theoretical template is based on the broadly applicable work of three thinkers: Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud. In response to the dull claim that some writers (e.g. Aristotle) have always been interested in thinking broadly about human societies, one looks to the fact that Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche all believed that their work aimed to resolve the specific problems of “modernity.”

Using this rough guide, it is not hard to see that, for example, Niklas Luhmann is “theory,” even though he’s not French, etc.

One could certainly look for worrisome trends in “theory,” using the model of “bad tendencies” that you suggest. Of course, it is risky to look for such bad tendencies, particularly if one is not closely affiliated with the tradition. It is possible to cling to a sense of dissatisfaction despite any number of counter-examples.

I apologize for not knowing the full back-story. At present, I just don’t have a sense of what those “bad tendencies” might be. I’ll just throw out one that worries me: the tendency to write extremely pessimistic philosophy that calls itself politically radical. For all the “radical” gestures of thinkers like Foucault or Baudrillard, the requirements they establish for change are so nebulous and extreme that they sometimes end up sounding merely resigned.

That said, we don’t appear to be living in the heyday of theory any longer. And it’s quite possible that theory looks different in the blogosphere than it does in the normal course of academic life. A blog like Spurious uses theory in interesting ways that would be much too personal (at least at present) for an academic CV. So theory could be working in the blogosphere even if it was causing some problems in the academy.

Lastly, “theoretical sophistication” seems like another animal entirely. In some cases, it can mean (once again) a debt to Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, or their successors. But it can also mean something like “the ability to find abstract principles structuring the object of analysis at a high level of detail,” in which case it is faction-neutral.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/05/07 at 03:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph, Luhmann’s work isn’t much different in that respect from that of Giddens, Weber, et al.  I get the impression that sociological thought on modernity gets implicated in “Theory” only to the extent that it lends itself to a hermeneutics of suspicion.  Which would, I think, tie in with your identifying Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche as sources.

By on 02/05/07 at 06:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

(I’m going to repost this here, since I’d like to hear from Ken on this matter without having to deal with Craig.)

Ken wrote:

See, and we’re back to where we were before, Scott. I’ll agree with you and John that intellectual history is important - even essential - and that the institutional celebration of theory is worthy of critique.  Where we depart is the attempt that I see, as the argument unfolds, to take that engagement with a disciplinary and institutional history and conclude some predictive taxonomy that explains something beyond the rise and fall of a heavily overdetermined historical object. So when you complain that theory lacks a home discipline, you’re no longer doing disciplinary or institutional history, and at that moment, your critique falls apart for me...

The problem is, theory does lack a home discipline, despite being most influential in English departments.  Many of the entanglements with this conversation are the result of 1) the strange institutional status of English and 2) the strange institutional of theory.  The first problem, as Graff noted in Professing Literature, is that English departments were constructed such that they could absorb and compartmentalize dissonant areas of study (250).  And they did, and did so organically inasmuch as the works they addressed were of, say, psychological or sociological import.  Either they had to limit the discipline to what’s particularly literary about Isabelle Archer’s transformation in Portrait of a Lady, or they had to incorporate theories of psychologicial development, class-mobility and the like and treat the content.  We know what choice they made.  However, it led to the creation of this hybrid thing, “literary theory,” which possessed the ability to analyze material technically within another academic purview, but at the price of self-consistency. 

When 1966 rolls around, it is English departments which adopt post-structuralist thought.  For example, outside of ads for The Language of Criticism and the Sciences of Man: The Structuralist Controversy in the back pages of Philosophy of Science, The Journal of Philosophy and The Philosophical Review, almost all of the early English-language citations of Derrida are in journals associated with English or Comparative Literature departments: ELH, Contemporary Literature, PMLA, Yale French Studies, &c.  The institutional effect of this has been well-documented, but that doesn’t mean that it’s been well-understood, because (obviously) it hasn’t.  What is known, however, is that the foundational works of “theory” were imported and published in venues aimed at English and Comparative Literature scholars.  (The ostracism of Hayden White speaks to this.)

In short, then, my critique falls apart because, not in spite, of my determination to write a disciplinary history.  “Theory” is a part of my institutional history, and its adoption by English no doubt deformed it, since they had conflicting disciplinary pressures.  So one way to look at this would be to say: I’m interested in how 20th Century continental philosophy was deformed by being adopted, then disseminated, by literary scholars.  Because no one would argue it hasn’t, and at every institutional level imaginable: the decision to publish this work instead of this one; the attention paid to subsequent generations of continental philosophers based on how they accord with a set of foreign disciplinary pressures; the money granted to bring this scholar over instead of another; &c.  All of these have been heavily influenced by institutional pressures specific to English and Comparative Literature departments, right? 

And yet, the subjects addressed aren’t exactly within their charter.  To take another example, when Zizek’s published in The South Atlantic Quarterly, it’s under the editorial hand of Grant Farred, a member of Duke’s Literature department.  When he published in American Imago, it was under the direction of Vera Camben (English, Virginia) and Peter Rudnytsky (English, UFL).  All of which is only to say, that whatever deforming effects the institutional relation between theory and the literary disciplines still exists, even if the connection seems illogical.  (I’ve a whole slew of concretizing moments like these for an article I’m writing.)

Illogical or not, it has been and still is there, and it’s worth investigating.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 02/05/07 at 09:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks to Brad’s imagination for taking responsibility for neoclassical econ.

I’ve given up ever making John happy, but as one of his interlocutors re econ (though hardly a “representative” of anything) the point is avoiding conflation between (a) philistine neoclassical econ (b) smart/critical neoclassical econ (c) econ in general, which includes a variety of heterodoxies. 

And there are some of us, even including the odd neoclassical economist, who try to think and speak outside closed discourse communities.

Anyone who would like a sense of the range of things going on under the name of econ could do worse than to start here: http://cepa.newschool.edu/het/

Tony Lawson has also written on the question of what it is that characterizes mainstream econ.

By on 02/05/07 at 09:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Colin, I’m fine with some of the heterodox econ, but the various heterodox schools seem fragmented and overwhelmed in the profession as a whole. As I’ve said, I’m thinking of the modal econ PhD, the modal government economic adviser, the modal econ BS, and the modal student who’s taken 1-3 econ courses.

By John Emerson on 02/05/07 at 09:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John H., sure, “bad tendencies” can be useful and very amusing things to discuss. But just as a practical matter of social psychology, peristantly negative taxonomies of a rival kinship group will likely drift (or be steered directly) into prejudice and territorial warfare. (Some people find those things useful and amusing as well, but we can probably agree that they call on different tastes.) Consider, for example, “politically correct“‘s use as self-mocking diagnosis within feminist groups vs. its use as a dismissive weapon against feminism as a whole.

Having found a destructive quirk that seems fairly common in a community, what’s the ethical thing to do? Well, if we’re inside the group, we can try to discourage such quirks in our own work and the work we influence. If we’re outside the group, I’d say a sensible next step is to make sure the quirk really is characteristic of that group rather than others—that it’s not just a shared formula with different brand names.

This post seemed to me to forsake analysis of “bad tendencies” for the cloudier reasoning of “bad blood”, I didn’t believe what you described as a negative characteristic of “theorists” was specific to them, or that you’d have noticed it if you saw it happen in some other context. (You know, basic stereotyping, like shouting “Woman driver!") Which is why my comment pointed to parallels in untargeted tribes. (It shouldn’t need saying that I don’t expect the good faith of my analysis to guarantee its accuracy. As Dusty Springfield sang, “I’ve been wrong before.” And if Dusty Springfield couldn’t achieve rectitude, what chance have I got?)

“It seems to me that your comments imply rather excessive denial of this obvious possibility. Does that seem fair?”

Well, it would be pretty hypocritical to police readerly reaction to my prose! But, as far as human interest goes, I can tell you that such a denial wasn’t my conscious intent, and I’ll admit that I usually write with (and about) mixed feelings which seem “excessive” to sensible folks.

On the other hand, wouldn’t pretty much everything we write seem excessive to sensible folks?

By Ray Davis on 02/05/07 at 11:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You are right that I write too much about ‘theory’ Ray, and the way I do it speaks badly about my motives. I think it’s mostly a case of ‘what’s the definition of insane? Doing the same thing twice and expecting a different result.’ By that standard, we are some of the craziest people on earth, going round about this stuff. (Our only hope is to embrace Nietzsche’s philosophy of eternal recurrence.)

If I feel that my argument against Jodi is perfectly adequate, but I also know perfectly well that other arguments of a similar sort have fallen on deaf ears, then I am only making posts like this one to generate annoyance on the other side, not to generate learning, insight or agreement. It’s like I’m trying to punish people for being wrong, by embarrassing them, rather than pocketing my conviction of rightness, privately, and moving on to some point where I sincerely believe I can actually do some good. (The fact that I regard my point as perfectly valid is not really an excuse to make it only for annoyance purposes, since I don’t actually subscribe to the view that, ideally, the judicial system ought to sentence Jodi Dean to 48 hours of annoyance at Holbo for her block-headed stubbornness about ‘theory’.)

So that’s the bad blood badness of the post. I’m surprised you read it as suggesting that I wouldn’t see the sorts of problems I see with theory in a non-theory context. Wagon-circling, lazy citation, etc. The point of the post was simply to point out that Jodi didn’t actually believe what she said in that old post. But what’s the point of exposing that? It’s obvious that she just did it in an ‘I wouldn’t take criticism from you if you were the last critic on earth’ personal way, like she wouldn’t like to take criticism of her family from an outsider but she might criticize her family herself (her example.) It has nothing to do with the validity, or lack thereof, of the point being made, just as refusing to take criticism of your family from a (perceived) hostile outsider has nothing to do with the validity of the criticism, per se. I really shouldn’t have bothered pointing it out, because the hostile interpersonal dynamic in this case is transparent and, when you come down to it, not an interesting anthill of animus to poke a stick into. If I want to do the friend/enemy thing, I should just reread Carl Schmitt. When I want to do the critical philosophy thing, I should find an audience that would take philosophical criticism, coming from me. Make your point once. And then if you can’t make it better, shrug and move on. Or try a really fresh angle in the genuine hope of inspiring someone to say ‘you know, weirdly Holbo was right all along. There are some problems with this stuff, and those problems do sort of look the way he was saying.’

So I’ll try to be good and not repeat myself in future. (And when I break that promise, link to this comment.)

Anthony, thanks for the conciliatory words. Your comment posted while I was asleep, or I might have de-posted at your request. Now that it’s up, I’ll just leave it. Not so bad.

By John Holbo on 02/06/07 at 12:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

What we got here is a failure to communicate.

By John Emerson on 02/06/07 at 12:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Even more so than I already think it is?

By John Holbo on 02/06/07 at 12:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott, your last splits between convincing and intriguing for me, and I look forward to the article. From my position of comparative ignorance, though, I hope I won’t offend if I suggest some caution hereabouts:

“... whatever deforming effects the institutional relation between theory and the literary disciplines ...”

Does it make sense to say that (singular) “theory” was deformed? If your starting hypothesis is that home disciplines were deformed by being shoved into the crowded chaotic tenements of “theory”, you’d have to re-split “theory” back into its component parts to trace the deformations. That is, by treating “the relation between philosophy and the literary disciplines”, “the relation between sociology and the literary disciplines”, and so on. (And nowadays “the relation between biology and the literary disciplines”, “the relation between economics and the literary disciplines”, and so on.) The way all French female intellectuals (whether self-described feminists or not) got incorporated into American academic feminism might make a profitable parallel (or massive subclass of examples) for you. (You know, even after all these years, every time I’m in a university bookshop I still look for new work by Alice Jardine....)

For me, one confusing complication is that back in their safe European homes those home disciplines were given permission to mingle with aesthetics and with politics. So is the deformation due to the English department’s welcoming them or to the philosophy department’s refusing their admittance? I’ve heard both stories told pretty convincingly. Back in the late ‘70s when I first read this material, it all seemed acceptably philosophical to me, but then I’d benefited from an unusually eclectic American philosophy department.

I also hope you won’t assume “the literary disciplines” were in such great shape to begin with. If they slumped, it wasn’t from a very high peak.

By Ray Davis on 02/06/07 at 12:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, what I just wrote came out as insulting to Dean (potentially) in a way I didn’t intend. And getting this point right might even be interesting, so let me amend what I said above.

If I regard Smith as a person who probably has various bad motives, with regard to my family, and Smith comes up to me and says ‘your brother is a jerk, isn’t he?’ I am likely to say ‘no’ whether my brother is a jerk or not. And if Smith later overhears me saying ‘my brother is a jerk’ in private, there is very little point in Smith ‘gotcha’ing’ me for my insincerity. Not because the word ‘jerk’ now means something different but because of the obvious reason for my refusal to accept his use of it.

Similarly, it isn’t that the word ‘theory’ means something subtly different when she uses it than when I do. I actually don’t think it does. Rather, she feels that my bad motives justify exercising a certain ‘party discipline’, as it were. She is under no obligation to give me something that would only help me to make trouble. Another analogy: if Democrats refuse to support some measure by Republicans that they might support under other circumstances, but under the present circumstances they suspect it is the spring of some sinister trick, that is perfectly sound partisan strategy.

So properly what I should do, if I want to have a good conversation with Dean, is convince her that her sincere suspicions about me - i.e. that I have anti-intellectual tendencies, and I just want to trash the stuff she values - then I would have to demonstrate that I am capable of good faith engagement in argument. Of course, I regard it as so insulting that she doubts my good faith that etc. etc.

So a good heading for this topic would be: when is enforcing party discipline about matters of philosophical doctrine an acceptable intellectual strategy? Something like that.

By John Holbo on 02/06/07 at 01:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think this is sort of what Dean herself is saying in her response to my post. But she puts it in a way that has drawn criticism from Emerson: namely, no one really thinks you have to accept a paradigm in order to critique it. The possiblity of radical, radically undermining outside critique must always be granted in the abstract. I think properly her point is about assessing motives, not insisting on acceptance of a discipline’s own terms, before you critique it.

And, as I have already confessed, the motive for the present post was rather weak. Still, in other cases, it seems to me that she wrongly treats perfectly serious and good-spirited critique as being necessarily badly motivated.

By John Holbo on 02/06/07 at 01:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John--your example is confusing. Is the issue whether your brother is a jerk in general or whether your brother has acted as a jerk in a certain instance? Presumably, in both instances, if you call your brother a jerk, you retain an attachment to him; you aren’t cutting him off from your family, dismissing him entirely, introducing ‘jerk’ as grounds to have him disinherited etc. If Smith is calling your brother a jerk, he may well be saying that he doesn’t want to have anything to do with him. So, with respect to the generalization, if you and Smith agree your brother is a jerk, there can be two widely different outcomes. With respect to being a jerk about a particular matter, we can assume that you will go on having a relationship with your brother despite his poor behavior. And, we simply don’t know about Smith.

I hadn’t been thinking about my argument regarding the personal groomer, feminism, political theory, and critique in terms of motives, though now that you point it out this seems to be part of it.

But, it’s not the whole of it. The larger point has to do with whether the terms mean the same thing. The feminist case is a good one, I think, because the critic of feminism is not using the term in the same way feminists are. And here the motive aspect returns: the critic of feminism is actually not trying to engage feminists at all. He is rather dismissing the entirety from without. This seems to me to me a more important aspect of the motive question (as I explore in the example of Smith and your brother): is the motive to reject what is posited as a object (unified discourse) or to engage it? To my mind, critique involves acceptance rather than rejection, that is, critique operates under the assumption that the points raised can in principle be convincing to those who are critiqued or are part of the object critiqued.

By Jodi on 02/06/07 at 10:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Since I don’t actually have a brother I haven’t really thought about it too deeply, I must confess. I thought it was just a generic version of your personal groomer case. Which is a case about motives for mockery and in-group/out-group relationships. It isn’t a case of ‘personal groomer’ meaning different things in different social environments. It’s a matter of different people allowing or not allowing criticisms, depending on how those criticisms will entail adjustments to in-group/out-group relations.

The feminist case is not a good one because, of course, I would deny the analogy with the know-nothing dismisser. (Not that you can’t set out to prove that I am like this terrible person. But I will politely decline your offer to take it as a premise.)

Critique? Well, there is satisfying yourself and satisfying others. Maybe you think you know what is wrong with something but also that, sadly, your true words would not be well received. That seems possible.

As to the difference in meaning? I am reminded of Goodman’s proof that P: “Zabludowski has insinuated that my thesis that p is false, on the basis of alleged counterexamples. But these so- called “counterexamples” depend on construing my thesis that p in a way that it was obviously not intended—for I intended my thesis to have no counterexamples. Therefore p.” I sort of suspect that the difference between your use of ‘theory’ and mine is more or less Goodmanian. That is, you are thinking ‘Holbo means theory to be this nasty thing, whereas I intended it to be a good thing. So we are obviously talking about different things.’ I am inclined to doubt the soundness of that inference.

But this is all pretty meta. If you told me what you meant by ‘theory’, it might get less so. I was, of course, particularly struck by the ‘ofless’ employment, after you had rather tarred that as beyond the pale. If I promise not to go for the jugular (I promise), please tell me what sort of circumstances lead to the ‘ofless’ employment of the term? Becuase the small - tiny, really - point that I was trying to extract is simply that, of course, the ‘ofless’ employment is a familiar one. And tolerably well understood.

But perhaps the most creative thing we could do, for the time being, would be simply to drop the issue and let it cool off for four years or so. Perhaps the problem will sort itself somehow.

By John Holbo on 02/06/07 at 11:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t necessarily agree with conservative critics of feminism, but let’s not oversimply here.  Jodi asserts that “the critic of feminism is actually not trying to engage feminists at all. He is rather dismissing the entirety from without.”

That’s just not true.  Someone like Hoff Sommers doesn’t dismiss feminism.  Rather, she argues that feminism was and should be primarily about equality and rights.  Likewise, many conservative critics of women’s studies programs question the lack of professional expertise among many faculty in these departments (that is, lit scholars engaging in sociological or anthropological or biological or neurological debates without proper training).  They also question the limited political bent of women’s studies.

Now, you can argue that some of these critics aren’t interested in reforming feminism or women’s studies, that they are essentially trying to discredit the entire enterprise.  That might be true of some, but it’s certainly not true of all critics of feminism who enter the debate from “outside” the field.

And what would it mean to be “outside” the terrain of feminism?  It might mean that one sees feminism as a subset of a larger terrain: human rights, for instance.  Or it means that one wants to see feminism within the context of the academy as a whole.  Feminists might see these critiques as coming from the outside; but the critics might see feminism as *inside* some other field of discourse. 

I’d argue that some of the theory debate here works similarly.  We have to untangle—or at least get a good sense of the tangle of—various strains of institutional orientating.  We have how an individual theorist identifies him- or herself, but also how the institution that pays that theorist identifies him or her.  (Judith Butler starts as a fairly straightforward philosophy student with a decent book on Hegel; she is hired in a Rhetoric department, but she doesn’t have the slightest thing to do with rhetoric as it’s ever been understood; she is adopted mainly by literature and women’s studies programs and scholars.)

The bottom line for me, though, is that all this intellectual history is simply not important.  The larger question is: does the work of the scholar stand up to critique?  Is it accurate, is it precise, does it explain real phenomena in a new and better way than previous explanations?  Does it generate new questions that provide fruitful paths for new research?  Are the ideas supported by ample evidence that can be confirmed?

So, I think Holbo’s tracing of theory back to romanticism is interesting, but I also fear that it is, at some level, a problematic instance of genetic fallacy, a finding of guilt by association.  And in the end, I’d rather see rigorous engagements with individual so-called theorists.  Walter Benjamin is, by any standards, fairly romantic.  Roland Barthes and Levi-Straus are largely not.  Foucault’s historiography is not all that distant from Scottish Enlightenment stadial history, and Marx’s historicism is another turn of Ferguson’s screw.  On the other hand, Cathy Caruth is deeply invested in what I’d call a neo-romantic historiographic theory, while Fredric Jameson’s critique of the postmodern sublime is , avant le lettre, a theoretical critique of this neo-romantic impulse. 

So I’d question whether semiotics, structuralism, and dialectical materialism of the Frankfurt variety can be usefully reduced to late Kantian romanticism.  On the other hand, the memory-trauma-body strains of theory are Wordsworthian, let alone late Kantian.

Why I’m getting involved in the debate, though, is beyond me!

By on 02/06/07 at 12:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

your last splits between convincing and intriguing for me

Now, if only it’d been grammatical, that would’ve been great.  (You can tell when I’m cribbing from my formal work, because for whatever reason, I leave out words when I carefully consider their placement.)

Does it make sense to say that (singular) “theory” was deformed?

The historicist in me says “yes,” but this is partly a function of the trajectory provided by the anthology-impulse.  Right now, I’m trying to get my hands on some of the ad hoc theory anthologies from the early ‘80s, in which groups of people teamed up to gather, translate and photocopy what would later become canonical texts.  (My old office—which was actually Michael Clark’s—was stuffed full of these.  Unfortunately, I no longer have the key.) Even in the beginning, then, there seems to have been a solid identity, built around a particular canon; or, if not yet solid, a gestating one.

I also hope you won’t assume “the literary disciplines” were in such great shape to begin with.

Certainly not.  There have always been exemplary critics, but they’re always the exceptions.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 02/06/07 at 02:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther--insofar as Hoff Sommers identifies as a feminist, she is trying to revise/restore feminism rather than reject it. Others, would simply reject it. I think you take my point out of context--I’m not talking about all critics of feminism. There are different sorts of criticism, some that rejects entirely and doesn’t expect to be listened to by those criticized and some that think those being criticized might be convinced or persuaded.

By Jodi on 02/06/07 at 05:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John--It’s not about allowing or disallowing criticisms; it’s about what it means to use a term, what one is attempting to do when using it, why a term is used at all. So, personal groomer might mean the same thing, but why one is talking about it means different things, what is one attempting to accomplish with a reference? For you, this doesn’t seem worth discussing. For me, it is a crucial (I think that understanding a statement depends in part in understanding the conditions of its utterance).

By Jodi on 02/06/07 at 05:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jodi, why would I be denying that understanding a statement depends in part on understanding the conditions of its utterance? I didn’t dissertate on Wittgenstein for nuthin.

More to the present point, I just proposed model for the thing you say doesn’t interest me. I say: the case is one in which a given criticism is not socially ratified as legitimate, for the sake of preserving desired in-group/out-group relations. This is a case of, as you put it “why one is talking about it means different things”. And this was your example: the personal groomer. So if you don’t like my model: what do YOU think is going on in the personal groomer case, if not something like this? If you don’t like my analysis, offer your own. (Do you indeed think that the meaning of ‘personal groomer’ is subtly shifting. I would say that’s not the best way to talk about it.)

You say that I criticize because I am not willing to understand before dismissing. I would of course turn around and say the trouble is really that - in assuming this about me - you dismiss criticism before understanding it. You discussions of my motives do not seem to me very nuanced or understanding, frankly.

Perhaps the only way forward is for you to clarify what the difference in usage of ‘theory’ is. You seem to be sure you can ignore what I say because I am using it in one way, you in another. Well, what’s the difference? At least approximately. (I am a philosopher, after all. Why aren’t you willing to consider that this is a philosophical argument?)

Luther, I would say that what I am actually trying to prove is not guilt by association but distinctive narrowness by association. I am a big fan of German Romanticism, so by rooting Theory in it I am most definitely not insulting it. But theory is typically defended in two incompatible ways: as something necessary - so that some extraordinary effort would need to be taken even to step outside it; and as something extraordinary - a recent intellectual flowering, in some sense unprecedented. I would want to get rid of the former defense, more or less. I think people should feel about ‘theory’ the way they feel about, say, Schlegel’s ‘symphilosophie’. That is, they shouldn’t feel: we all do it, because after all there really isn’t any intellectual alternative to it. You are always inside it.

By John Holbo on 02/06/07 at 08:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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