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Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
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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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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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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

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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Monday, July 11, 2005

Theory’s Empire: Ersatz Theoretical Ecumenicalism & Criticism qua Criticism

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/11/05 at 09:15 PM

If asked to defend the publication of Theory’s Empire in twenty-six words, I’d write:

“The Politics of Theories of Interpretation,” pp. 235-247
E.D. Hirsch, Jr.

“Is There a Politics of Interpretation?” pp. 248-258
Walter Benn Michaels

“The Politics of Interpretation,” pp. 259-278
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Pilfered from the September, 1982 Critical Inquiry‘s table of contents, those twenty-six words represent the value of Theory’s Empire far more eloquently than I will. 

For most of its history, each number of Critical Inquiry contained a section entitled “Critical Response."[1] If the small sample above fails to indicate the stature of the critics who participated in this forum, the names of the two I omitted--Stanley Fish and Michael Fried--should seal the deal.  At this early point in Theory’s institutional history, representatives of particular theoretical approaches debated the merits of their respective approaches in one of the discipline’s flag-ship journals.  These debates were civil on the whole.  Frank Kermode’s response to Denis Donoghue is typical: “Like all sensible men I feel that to be read carefully by Denis Donoghue is a privilege rather than an ordeal; but although I am clearly to blame insofar as I allowed him to misunderstand me, I can’t at all admit that he has damaged the argument I was trying to develop."[2] When uncivil, they were at least playfully so, as when Walter Davis anticipates his Fishing: “He’ll pounce on some out of the way statement in your essay and cleverly use it to obscure the issues, incorporate every good point you’ve made, and then leave you in the embarrassing position of either already unwittingly agreeing with him or committed to an impossible position you never took."[3] This decorum provided the proponents of all theoretical orientations a forum in which to test the strengths and weaknesses of their own (and alternative) approaches. 

I’ve long thought the pages of early Critical Inquiry, peppered with the productive conflict of clashing theoretical models, a far better introduction to literary theory than any of the available anthologies: Hazard Adams’ Critical Theory Since Plato, David Richter’s The Critical Tradition, not to mention the latest entry, Vincent Leitch’s The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism.  All of three of these anthologies attempt to encompass the history of “Theory” with a roll-call of primary sources that speak past more often than they speak to each other.  (And, as I will explain shortly, they produce scholars who follow suit.) Each anthology glosses the importance of the works it includes in introductions to individuals thinkers, discreet movements or both.  But even though they’re typically written in the present tense, the rhetoric of these glosses is static and a-historical.  Consider Hans Robert Jauss, whose “views of the historical nature of literary evaluation have influenced,” according to The Norton, “debates over the literary canon in ways important to feminist, African American, and postcolonial critics."[4] Instead of framing the debates in such a manner as to allow an undergraduate to evalulate the terms of these debates, The Norton mentions that they are “in ways important” to other methodologies.  All of these anthologies devalue argument qua argument in favor of a rhetoric of settled issues and future collaboration.  If all the anthologies posit is that each essay or excerpt between its covers is “in ways important,” should anyone be surprised that scholars first introduced to Theory through these anthologies think of all these distinct theories as exclusive but compatible discourses? 

What follows is a brief attempt to demonstrate why an anthology like Theory’s Empire is a desperately needed corrective to the limitations of the aforementioned anthologies.  I will trace one formula for reductive reading first through Fredric Jameson and Hillis Miller, then through Homi Bhabha, in order to demonstrate how the philosophical sophistication of the former--acquired in an academic culture amenable to the endless bickering of the “Critical Response"--and the philosophical incoherence of the latter--acquired in the current anthology-happy academic culture--depend as much as the way in which they approach Theory as on the individual merits of each in their capacity as a Theorist. 

Writing at the birth of “what has today for better or for worse come to known as literary theory,” i.e. 1978, Fredric Jameson conceded that “this displacement of traditional criticism and traditional philosophy by what has come to be known as theory turns out to allow the critic himself a wider latitude for the exercise of personal themes and the free play of private idiosyncasies."[5] Jameson considered this a positive development, as it would allow for the emergence of “virtuoso readers” who would produce “bodies of criticism in which the practice of peculiar and sometimes eccentric textual interpretations is at one with the projection of a powerful, nonsystematized theoretical resonance, and this even where the critic himself ... misguidedly but compulsively submits his materials to a rage for patterns and symmetries and the mirage of a meta-system."[6] These “virtuoso readers"--e.g. Kenneth Burke, William Empson, Northrop Frye, Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin and Viktor Shklovvsky--reject “the older philosophical criticism,” the one which “was content simply to ‘apply’ various philosophical systems to literature in an occasional way."[7] The older philosophical critics, Jameson suggests, lacked Hegelian seriousness: in place of an aggressive commitment to the consequences of their premises, they were “content” to “simply” muse about literature “in an occasional way.” They resembled Henry Fielding’s “Virtuoso,” endlessly engaged by “nicknacks and Curiosities,” more than Jameson’s virtuosi.[8] His sinecured dilettanti mass-produced “curiosities of an existential or phenomenological criticism, or a Hegelian or a gestalt or indeed a Freudian criticism."[9] Burke, Empson et al. avoided indenture in the Curiosity Trade, Jameson argues, by processing literature in accordance with a personal interpretive ethos, one resonant with a nonsystemized theory nonetheless compulsively applied in a rage for symmetry.

Jameson’s notion of a virtuoso critic (of the good camp) can be summed up thus: a thinker of original temperament but suitable Hegelian seriousness whose passion for patterns generates interesting reading of literary works.[10] His notion of a virtouso critic (of the bad): calicified mind, learned but unoriginal and philosophically fickle, whose passions for other people’s patterns generates predictable readings of literary works.  But if the current state of theory (ca. 1978) affords more readers access to the tools that sui generis critics created or collected through sheer force of intellect, why would Jameson begin the essay so ominously?  Why the portents of a future of scare-quoted scholarship in which the operant terms would be personal and the work the production of “the free play of private idiosyncracies”?  The simple answer: he doesn’t and they’re not there.  Contra the general tenor of his thought, Jameson is optimistic here, genuinely believing that the “linguistic turn” will construct for critics in 1978 what his roll of “virtuoso readers” struggled, successfully, to create ex nihilo.  It didn’t.  The profession, however, did not linger long in the Curiosity Trade.

In his 1993 survey of the state of Shakespeare criticism, “Masters and Demons,” Brian Vickers contends that “the inbreeding of Derridians, Lacanians, Foucauldians, Althusserians, unable and unwilling to understand anyone else’s language or concerns” will eventually and irrevocably Balkanize the discipline.[11] Had Vickers’ vision materialized, contemporary literary studies would look more like a Jamesonian curio cabinet, only the Hegelians would be Foucauldians, the Freudians, Lacanians, &c.  But, as Valentine Cunningham argues,

Theory has become “more or less all things to all women and men, offering something or other to more or less everyone of every gender and racial and class disposition and from every critical background, as some analytical touch or other for all textual occasions and seasons, the claim on the necessity of this or the other critical corner of Theory does indeed tend to dissolve into mere contingency, into questions of what’s useful, or just handy, on any particular reading.[12]

This “toolbox” approach entails a number of problems, foremost among them the good possibility of creating dueling determinisms; e.g., a critic accounts for the behavior of one character with an appeal to Foucauldian discourse and another with an appeal to Althusserian ideology.  Such a reading demands the critic balance two incompatible theories of human subjectivity.  Foucault’s anti-subjectism permeates his thought: “discourse is not the majestically unfolding manifestation of a thinking, knowing. speaking subject, but, on the contrary, a totality, in which the dispersion of the subject, and his discontinuity with himself may be determined."[13] Athusser’s conception of ideology, however, entails the existence of subjects: “Ideology interpellates individuals as subjects."[14] Logic demands that subjects either “exist” as extremely localized discursive events or they exist as interpellated individuals. 

The conventional response to my complaint is that the work justifies the critic’s philosophical incoherence; in the first case, the character seems most interesting when read as a production of discursive power; in the second, the character seems more interesting when read as a production of an ideological state appartus.  Such readings devalue not only the work they describe, but the theories through which they describe it.[15] Foucault and Althusser imagined they spoke of the world as it is and their respective perspectives are entirely incompatible.  But the critic need no more care about stepping on a Theorist’s toes than he or she would stomping on an authors’.  However, one further problem, of grave import to the critic, ensues: the toolbox approach undermines the critic’s argument by appealing to a given Theorists’ theoretical authority while simultaneously refuting it.  If the explanatory power of Foucault’s discursive thought authorizes its application in this one instance, then the explanatory power of Althusser’s ideological and interpellative thought cannot cameo; if it does, it invalidates the earlier appeal to Foucault’s authority and, damningly, vice versa.  The consequences of these premises, argues the serious Hegelian, preclude the possibility of a dual billing unless, he says, unless of course a critic spreads their appearances over his or her entire corpus.  That would constitute an actual, as opposed to an ersatz, theoretical ecumenicalism or, in Cunningham’s words, “Theoretical pragmatism."[16]

The appeal to theoretical ecumenicalism is common enough: this theory best explains this this text, that one best explains that, &c.  The majority of critics who work in this mode now do so from a position entailing some permutation of the philosophical incoherence I described above.  However, the vigorous (and rigorous) debates about the value of post-structuralism--initiated by Jameson’s The Prison-House of Language (1971) and continued through the ‘70s as described above--forced post-structuralist thinkers like J. Hillis Miller to construct and refine a coherent philosophical position and practice.  That it authorized the philosophical incoherence of the toolbox approach is beside the point.  What distinguishes the work of early post-structuralists from contemporary theorists informed by and indebted to post-structuralist thought is the sense of intellectual and interpretive responsibility engendered by these debates.  A quick account of the conversion of J. Hillis Miller--an erstwhile structuralist who would become a post-structuralist poster-boy--will suffice to demonstrate the value of the refining fires produced an anthology like Theory’s Empire.

Miller began his career as a New Critic with a fondness for Georges Poulet.  In a review of his first book, Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels (1958), Bradford A. Booth cites the New Critic’s influence as the reason “it is not surprising to find in this book an interpretation of Dickens that is highly useful and rather limited.[17] Sylvere Monod’s review agrees: “The claims to originality of J. Hillis Miller’s [study] will not be called in doubt.  But it is originality of a kind the value of which is less than obvious."[18] Both reviewers call attention to the weakenesses attending his approach: Booth blames Miller’s method for “his failure to touch on the many-sidedness of Dickens” and for encouraging Miller “to pursue rigorously his own inquiry"[19]; Monod complains that the “justification for any marked departure from the more or less traditional paths of criticism must lie in its enabling the critic to tell something useful (and little that is not fully intelligible can be termed useful) and new [and] wonder[s] whether this is always the case with Miller’s approach, especially when he adheres most rigorously to his method."[20] From the beginning of his career, the criticism of Miller is of a methodology too rigorously applied.  This commitment to his methodological approach that results in what would, in less than a decade, become the highly ironic conclusion Miller draws from his study of Dickens: “Within this whole a single problem, the search for a viable identity, is stated and restated with increasing approximation to the hidden center” of Dickens’ world.[21] He produced, qua Jameson, methodological curiosities; however, his commitment to rigor would later enable him to remain philosophically coherent about his philosophical incoherce.

A little more than a decade after seeking “the hidden center” of Dickens’ world, Miller would point to the futility of such searches in his review of Irving Howe’s Hardy:

Novels, as much recent criticism both American and Continental has argued, are ... Self-referential works, like any other kind of literature. [...] In light of this current interest in the complexities of novelistic form there is something a bit old-fashioned (perhaps to some attractively so), in Howe’s tendency to assume, for example, that the narrator of Hardy’s novels need not ever be distinguished from Hardy himself.[22]

In less then a decade, Miller sheds the perhaps-to-some-attractively old-fashioned belief that the narrator of a literary work possesses so inviolable a relation to its author that each novel represents a statement and restatement of that increasingly visible “hidden” center of an author’s vision.  In its place is what he later calls the inherent “deconstruction of metaphysics” in which “there is no center of meaning or informing power preceding a given structure of signs."[23] Miller exchanges a philosophical position which assumes centers of meaning informed by authorial power for one which precludes centers of meaning and informing powers.  The terms of that exchange are argumentative, and Miller could be said to have spent the decade after the Hardy review justifying the equity of those terms.  Rigorously argued in the idiosyncratic style of the early post-structuralists, these justifications would form the foundation for the uncritical assumptions of future generations of scholars who would adopt the style and proclaim the freedom Miller and his compatriots had to fight for.  The post-structuralist Miller ranged widely over literary, philosophical and historical sources.  He became, in short, a more interesting (but not “interesting") critic, one who could now talk about “Cartesian doubt,” “Husserlian ‘bracketing,” what “Jean-Paul Sartre has argued” and significantly--given his earlier, New Critical refusal to consult the non-literary writings of Dickens--what “Dickens often emphasized” in his letters.[24] These conflicting philosophical approaches are invoked, nay, subsumed by the larger, post-structuralist approach which authorizes their invocations, internal-coherence-be-damned.  In light of the current status of Theory, the centrality of this authorization cannot be underestimated.  Nor, for that matter, can the importance of Part II. of Theory’s Empire: “Linguistic Turns.”

Whatever faults it may possess, the general strength of Theory’s Empire resides in its historicizing of the past 30 years of debates.  Read in isolation, Louis Althusser’s “Ideology and the State Apparatus,” Paul De Man’s “Semiology and Rhetoric,” Jane Tompkin’s “Me and My Shadow” and Lennard Davis’ “Enforcing Normalcy” (all included in The Norton) don’t speak to each other so much as past.  It is possible to plunder from all these essays a framework and deploy it in the service of producing an “interesting” reading of a literary text.  The isolation of these frameworks from the discourses in which they arose and the debates which accompanied their arrival creates a false impression of mutual compatibility.  Miller, however, can pick and choose from whatever discourse he pleases because his commitment to what M.H. Abrams calls “the self-deconstructive revelation that in default of any possible origin, ground, presence, or end, [there is] an interminable free-play of indeterminable meanings."[25] Given this belief, Miller can justify his cherry-picking of philosophical and intellectual history and employ whatever interpretive scheme generates the most “interesting” reading of a particular passage.  We need not worry the contradictions of unrelated discourses, after all, when self-contradiction is the definitive element of all discourses.  Eschewing the law of non-contradiction allows “canny” critics, to use Miller’s phrase, to connect anything to everything.  Abrams again:

Endowed thus with the sedimented meanings accumulated over its total history, but stripped of any norms for selecting some of these and rejecting others, a key word—like the larger passage or total text of which the word is an element—becomes (in the phrase Miller cites from Mallarme) a suspens vibratoire, a vibratory suspension of equally likely meanings, and these are bound to include “incompatible” or “irreconcilable” or “contradictory” meanings.[26]

If Miller wants to choose from these etymological traces the definitions of a Freudian or Marxist cant, he can justify his principle of selection on philosophical grounds: his anti-foundationalism authorizes whatever choice he wants to make because that choice, by virtue of the text’s ultimate undecidability, is as valid as any other one he might make.  This is not to say that he is a virtuoso critic, however; what he produces, in fact, are deconstructive curiosities able to pass for reading virtuoso readings.  Just because his anti-foundationalism allows for and encourages the practice of borrowing from other disciplines frameworks through which a work of literature can be read doesn’t mean that the finished product will be something more than a theoretical curiosity.  Deconstructive readings of literary texts bear the hallmark of their anti-foundationalism in the variety of their commitments, their flouting of Hegelian seriousness and their adoption of an eclecticism that, while liberating, has had a deleterious effect on the profession as a whole.  I could call this effect “citational authority,” but as it’s conceptually identical to the “argument from authority” logical fallacy, introducing another term would be redundant.  That said, the difference between the traditional argument from authority and what occurs in literary studies is so great it almost warrants the neologism.

Those who defend this eclecticism on the grounds that an interesting reading is justification enough for the application of a particular theoretical model seldom consider the difference between eclecticism in theory and eclecticism in practice.  If I pick up my copy of Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture, I can turn to almost any page and find sentences littered with clauses like “as Lacan reminds us” and “the work of Edward Said will not let us forget."[27] The sum total of these allusions to arguments is not, however, a deconstructive curiosity.  Bhabha doesn’t share Miller’s commitment to deconstruction as a philosophical doctrine.  What Bhabha produces--and what, I suggest, the current approach to Theory abets in the production of--is not a curiosity but a philosophically incoherent panoply (in which “panoply” retains its strong sense of being a “complete suit of armor” with “connotations of brightness and splendor").  Bhabha’s panoply is too eccentric to manifest a Jamesonian “rage for pattern and symmetry and the mirage of the meta-system.” To the extent that it is systematic, it is meaninglessly so: Bhabha has borrowed too injudiciously from too many mutually incompatible philosophical systems for his work to possess even the mirage of a meta-system.  The problem those who wish to challenge the legitimacy of Bhabha’s thought, in Thomas Nagel’s apt phrasing, is that “there is no direct way to refute a fogbank."[28]

Jameson’s virtuosi could be refuted on their own terms; contemporary Theorists, indebted to Derridian thought but not themselves committed deconstructionists, lack philosophical and argumentative consistency and thus can’t be refuted.  If I were to disagree with the logic behind Bhabha’s citation of Said, Bhabha could respond with another citation from another thinker who says much the same thing because the citation’s felicity relies upon the authority granted Said by the academic star-system.  An antique fallacy, I know, but in conjunction with the star-system, it has found new legs.  But importantly, in practice it also denies theorists the citational freedom conferred: it is no coincidence that when I flipped open The Location of Culture, I caught Bhabha citing Lacan and Said.  Nor would it shock me if his index contains the requisite citations of Freud, Foucault, Benjamin, Bhaktin, Jameson, Spivak, &c.  (It does.) An ersatz theoretical ecumenicalism channels critical works through the same limited set of thinkers, as is borne out by the introduction to Bhabha in the The Nortion:

Although “the wit and wisdom of Jacques Derrida” (as he calls it in another essay) is fundamental to his work, Bhabha draws on a wide array of twentieth-century theorists throughout “The Commitment to Theory.” Building on the influential concept of nations set forth by Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities (1983), Bhabha stresses how nationality is narratively produced, rather than arising from an intrinsic essence.  From Mikhail Bakhtin, he takes the concept of dialogue to stress that colonialism is not a one-way street but entails an interaction between colonizer and colonized.  Regarding identity, he draws on Frantz Fanon’s psychoanalytic model of colonialism and Jacque Lacan’s concepts of “mimicry” and the split subject, arguing that there is always an “excess” in the cultural imitation that the colonial subject is forced to produce.[29]

I could continue, but the unchallenged nature of the claims attributed to Bhabha here speaks volumes about the current state of Theory.  My point is a simple one: the more debate about the fundamental claims of theoretical approaches the less likely the next generation of critics will be as philosophically incoherent as Bhabha.  In the classroom, Theory’s Empire could function as a simulation of the debates that created critics as rigorous and justifiably eclectic--i.e. the critic him- or herself can justify the applicability of a given theoretical approach to a given literary work--as Miller and Jameson.  No one, I believe, advocates the return to New Criticism or to the production of philosophical and theoretical curiosities.  But everyone, I believe, should desire the return to theoretical responsibility a collection like Theory’s Empire can facilitate.

[1]Responses still appear in Critical Inquiry, but no longer regularly or in a section devoted to them. 

[2]“A Reply to Denis Donoghue,” Critical Inquiry 1, no. 3 (Mar. 1975), 699.

[3]“Offending the Profession (After Peter Handke),” Critical Inquiry 10, no. 4 (Jun. 1984), 706.

[4]“Hans Robert Jauss,” in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. Vincent Leitch (New York: Norton 2001), 1549.

[5]“The Symbolic Inferece; Or, Kenneth Burke and Ideological Analysis,” Critical Inquiry 4, no. 3 (Spring 1978), 508, 509.  Jameson’s working definition of “theory” in this essay amounts to the “trandscendence of the older academic specializations and the heightened appreciation of the inner logic and autonomy of language itself” (508).

[6]ibid.

[7]ibid., 507.

[8]Fielding, Henry. Tom Jones, X, emphasis mine.

[9]Jameson, “The Symbolic Inference,” 507.

[10]An acknowledged problem with my argument is that Jameson speaks of the demise of naïve virtuoso readers precipitated by the rise of Theory.  However, the issue Jameson confronts is not ideological but practical: it is not what one knows but what one does with what one knows. 

[11]“Masters and Demons,” in Theory’s Empire, eds. Patai and Corral (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).

[12]“Theory?  What Theory?,” in Theory’s Empire, eds. Patai and Corral (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 33.

[13]Archeology of Knowledge, trans. A. M. Sheridan-Smith (New York: Pantheon, 1972), 55.

[14]“Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,”

[15]Foucault and Althusser aren’t accidental selections.

[16]Cunningham, “Theory? What Theory?,” 33.

[17]Review of Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels, by J. Hillis Miller.  Modern Philology 57, no. 1 (Aug. 1959), 69.

[18]Review of Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels, by J. Hillis Miller.  Nineteenth-Century Fiction 13, no. 4 (Mar. 1959), 360.

[19]Booth, “Review,” 71.

[20]Monod, “Review,” 361.

[21]Miller, J. Hillis.  Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958), 333. 

[22]Review of Hardy, by Irving Howe.  NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 2, no. 3 (Spring 1969), 274.

[23]“The Still Heart: Poetic Form in Wordsworth,” New Literary History 2, no. 2 (Winter 1971), 298.

[24]“The Sources of Dickens’s Comic Art: From American Notes to Martin Chuzzlewit,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 26, no. 4 (Mar., 1970), 467.

[25]“The Deconstructive Angel,” in Theory’s Empire, eds. Patai and Corral (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 205.

[26]ibid., 206.

[27]The Location of Culture. (Routledge: London, 1994), 90. 

[28]“The Sleep of Reason,” in Theory’s Empire, eds. Patai and Corral (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 544.

[29]“Homi Bhabha,” in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. Vincent Leitch (New York: Norton 2001), 2377-8.

And finally, lest I forget, the tag:


Comments

All apologies for this being posted now.  I switched my profile to John’s time to see what time it was in Singapore--I know, I know--and because I had set it to post ahead of time--Pacific Time Zone--it appears to, um, have posted in John’s time zone instead of mine.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/11/05 at 10:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thank you, Scott, for writing such a thoughtful and sly encomium for Theory’s Empire. I don’t know the book, and am pleased to accept your recommendation. Two observations, in passing. First, it seems to me that the primary criterion for value in modern theory—the criterion of “interest”—is a post-Freudian value based on the pleasure of the text. Perhaps “Hegelian seriousness” is simply a counterweight to a bizarre, abstracted form of hedonism. Second, it seems to me that one problem with Bhabha is the movement from the abstract (the various philosophies of Lacan, Derrida, etc.) back to the concrete (the colonial situation). Armed with theories, Bhabha feels no need to look for the essence of his object of study. Under his incautious gaze, every theory applies—and none does --because the thing itself—the full reality of colonial life—shows up nowhere.

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

Is “interest” really the primary criterion for value in modern theory?  Sometimes people say that it is, but really—are Theory texts intrinsically more interesting than non-Theory texts?

I favor, instead, a sociological explanation.  Scott’s historically informed description of Theory as a kind of anti-foundational unmooring followed anything goes eclecticism is a very good description, but it doesn’t really speculate on why the particular components of Theory share their other qualities in common.  I would say that the various methods of Theory represent various strategies for defending the professionalization of literary studies within a context of increasing societal literacy.  Therefore, the most important value for a Theory text is how obfuscatory it is.

By on 07/12/05 at 08:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not sure that a return to philosophical consistency is really a good thing for practical criticism.  Granted, Scott, to explain character motivation in one book using a variety of theories of determinism could be a huge problem (unless the novel itself was undecided on the issue of motivation: take, say, Vonnegut’s *Slaughterhouse-Five*). 

But ultimately, that’s not what someone like Bhabha is doing.  *The Location of Culture* does little (if any) actual reading of literary texts.  That is not Bhabha’s goal.  Instead, I’ve always read *Location* as an attempt to create a theoretical model of certain recurring social situations produced in colonial and once-colonized cultures, nations, etc.  It’s misleading to randomly pull out references to various theorists in Bhabha’s essays as evidence of a too-sloppy eclecticism.

Why not instead list the various “creative writers” Bhabha references?  In his acknowledgements, Bhabha claims that Toni Morrison’s novels “have been formative in [his] thinking on narrative and historical temporality,” while the novels of Rushdie have sparked Bhabha’s “ideas on ‘migrant’ and minority space” (xi).  In the introduction, we get references to Bessie Head, Nadine Gordimer, John Coetzee, and Auden, while the following chapter, “The Committment to Theory,” closes with a quotation from Wilson Harris. 

Why do I bring this up?  Because it is only those Frankenstein monsters of *theory* that critics take issue with.  (This goes back to Berube’s claim that *Theory’s Empire* suffers from a homogenized concept of theory.) If Bhabha’s entire work was based solely on a syncretism of novelists and poets, no one would have a problem with it.  And, once you get past the too-fashionable sutures of Said, Benjamin, Anderson, Arendt, that is exactly what Bhabha *has* done in *Location*.

With a few exceptions, the major essays of *Location* are abstractions of the “theory” embodied in postcolonial (largely “Commonwealth") and ethnic American literatures.  What Bakhtin did with Doestoevsky, Bhabha does with Morrison, Coetzee, Harris, and Rushdie.  His concepts of mimicry, hybridity, sly civility, and so on, are simply tropes that Bhabha has removed from their literary moorings in an attempt to make them available for deployment across historical and national boundaries.  We have to read the citational form of *Location* in the context of debates with scholars like Laura Chrisman and Anne McClintock who wanted to erect incommensurable walls around historical and national lines.  Basically, *Location* is an outline of a certain kind of contemporary Anglophone fiction: cosmopolitan or cross-cultural, anti-realist, politically engaged but not sociological, etc. 

Back to my earlier point: if Bhabha had stuck to creative writers, there’d be no problem.  To create a unified argument out of a quilt from various novelists and poets is the status quo and rightly so.  Where Bhabha goes wrong is in his attempt to pass himself off as a conceptual or philosophical writer.  *Location* makes more sense in the context of critical works like Wilson Harris’s *The Womb of Space*, which builds up a theory of cross-cultural relationships out of readings of Ellison, Faulkner, Rhys, and others.  *The Location of Culture* performs a similar task, only Bhabha stupidly disguises his syncretism of creative texts under a veil of half-digested theoretical quotations and references.

By on 07/12/05 at 10:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph, I’d wager the most successful readings balance between “interest” as a productive quality in the text (and of the reading) and Hegelian seriousness.  Also, I’m strongly inclined to agree with your account of Bhabha: the concrete reality of the colonial situation is abstracted out of The Location of Culture.  One question I have, and ask repeatedly in a rather annoying fashion, is Why? (LB begins to answer that, but I’m not entirely sure I’m convinced by his answer.)

Rich, I think “interest” is the primary criterion for much of what passes for Theory; but I what excatly the critic is interested in is often difficult to understand.  For instance, some deconstructive critics were interested in further undermining a metaphysics of presence; others were interested in doing so in order to generate “interesting” readings of literary texts.  You see where the confusion is: “interest” can apply to the text, the theory, and the reading of the text generated by the theory.  When the justification for a particular theoretical approach to a particular literary text is made on the basis of “it” being “interesting,” people have a difficult time determining what “it” is.  (Or they simply ignore the question.)

LB, I don’t think I advocate a return to philosophical consistency.  In fact, I chose Miller as my exemplary reader precisely because I wanted to stress that I wasn’t interested in such a return; what I am invested is a return to the vigorous debates about, among other things, philosophical consistency in order that we might have more critics of Miller’s stature.  Another way to say this: I pressured the disconnect between Miller and Bhabha because, as you say, “Bhabha stupidly disguises his sycretism of creative texts under a veil of half-digested theoretical quotations and references.” It’s the half-digested quality of his work to which I object, and it’s to a time of gustatory vigor I hope to return (and thus, again, my reasoning behind choosing Miller as my exemplar). 

You note that “if Bhabha had stuck to creative writers, there’d be no problem.  To create a unified argument out of a quilt from various novelists and poets is the status quo and rightly so.” Agreed.  Rightly so.  But I think one of the intentions of Theory’s Empire is to question the reasoning behind his attempt “to pass himself off as a conceptual or philosophical writer.” What’s the larger logic behind that move and how do we prevent literary critics from trying to pass for philosophers?  Where’s the cache, the payoff, in such a move?  Why is it there?  Should it be there?  These are questions that often fly undetected, as assumptions, in literature departments.  (Of course, I skirt the bigger issue: what’s the difference between “literary” and “critical” Theory?) So when you argue that Bhabha’s actual argument can be deciphered “once you get past the too-fashionable sutures of Said, Benjamin, Anderson, Arendt,” &c., I can’t help but thinking that Bhabha’s text doesn’t deserve the generous reading you make of it.  I don’t think there’s a there there without the theoretical edifice he’s constructed; or, if there is, it looks far different denuded of its theoretical appropriations.  If he can’t resort to “Derrida’s words” to address the colonialists’ “vigorous demand for narrative, embodied in the utilitarian or evolutionary ideologies of reason and progress” (98), his argument would have to rest more firmly on a close-reading of another text, one which would not immediately and automatically validate his argument.

If I’d intended to mislead my readers about the content of Bhabha’s work with randomly selected quotations, that’d be awful unfair.  However, I only pulled those out because they point to Bhabha’s rhetoric, i.e. the logic of his citations.  An earlier draft actually had a long footnote in which I documented, to absurdity, the number of time Bhabha made this rhetorical move; however, upon reading John McGowan’s complaint that anti-Theoretical rhetoric is oftentimes unnecessarily petty and peevish, I decided that since anyone familiar with Bhabha would recognize the gesture and the footnote could be seem as unnecessarily petty and peevish, I killed it. 

You’re right that Slaughterhouse-Five could very well be an example of a book with multiple determinisms.  I had a long footnote on Kim Stanley Robinson’s Antarctica (which I also burked) in which I let that play out.  It went something like this:

One could contend the author of this hypothetical novel intended to represent character’s capricious understanding of the forces beyond his or her control.  That, however, would require 1) the author have explicit knowledge of the theorists the critic invokes; 2) the character either produce ex nihilo reasonable simulacra of all the theories invoked by the critic or him- or herself already be familiar with those theories; and 3) that the author and character somehow manage to communicate their knowledge of the theories invoked by the critics.  One book which meets those criteria: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Antarctica, in which one of the central characters, nicknamed X, is said to have “read The Gotterdammerung and become a devotee of Frank Bailey, like and number of grad students around the world; then he had sought out Bailey’s roots in prepostcapitalist theory, and so had read Deleuze and Speier, and become a neoleftist; then gone further back and read Jameson and Williams and Sartre, and found it had all come from Sartre, and so became a Sartrean; then a Nietzshean, for really it all came from Nietzsche; and then he had read Marx and Engels, and become a Marxist” (75).  This retrograde procession continues until X decides “to meditate on fragments of Heraclitus and never read philosophy again” (ibid.).

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/12/05 at 02:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott,

Is it ok if I commment in the vein of a friend offering suggestions for a possible (currently hypothetical) future revision of this essay? You’ve done something pretty impressive with this already, and I suspect you could publish a version of this someplace beyond the Valve: PDF Edition that Holbo is going to assemble. It feels a little small to offer the kind of quick comment that seizes on one thing or another and demands you explain or defend your whole argument all over again. 

The comments below, then, are intended as hopefully helpful things to consider in case a further revision or expansion of this piece might be in the cards:

1. First, the opening doesn’t quite do it for me. The three titles and the authors’ names create an effect, but I guess I expected you to go on to say something about the “politics of interpretation.” In a sense that is what you’re doing later in the essay, but maybe you need more of a flag in the opening sentences to the effect that you’re going to talk about interpretation before you talk about the politics of it.

2. Your point about the tenor of conversation in Critical Inquiry back in the day is spot-on. It might be even stronger if you had some people responding directly to the Jameson point about the “linguistic turn,” since I notice that the essay of his you’re working with appeared in CI.

3. I’m a little confused about what you’re doing with the Jameson. In typical FJ fashion, he’s creating a series of distinctions and appraisals that are out ahead of everyone else. But not having read this essay, I don’t understand how FJ’s appreciation of what he sees as the good side of the ‘older’ criticism matters. Isn’t his goal to demolish all of the older stuff in favor of the new, hep linguistic cats?

(Perhaps I’ll continue to be confused even after I read the FJ essay… a common Jameson effect for me)

4. So why do we need TE again? Why not just the kind of civil (but consequential) debate you describe as happening on the pages of Critical Inquiry? If we’re “teaching the controversies” in the Graff-ian vein, wouldn’t we do better to assign a little smidgeon of Bhabha/Jameson/Spivak alongside people who critcize them both in terms of form (mode of argument) and content (the substantive claims)? Isn’ the job to make a better (more inclusive, dialogical, and questioning) anthology of literary theory and criticism than Norton has done, rather than an anthology that is avowedly Anti-Theory, as this one appears to be?

By Amardeep on 07/12/05 at 02:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m sure you’re right, Scott, that at some level the Althusserian account of the interpellation of the subject and the Foucauldian account (in Archaelogy) of its disappearance are in conflict.  But the conflict isn’t really that deep, is it?  The Foucauldian subject of D & P, isn’t really that different from the interpellated Althuserian subject, is it?  What the two accounts share, of course, is a sense that autonomous personhood is wholly the illusory creation of larger, limiting structures.  Even the idea of the disappearance of the subject isn’t really at odds with this way of looking at things.  In other words, would it really be wrong for a latterday American academic to recognize an affinity here?  I ask because, while I think you’re dead right to say that poststructuralist theory has encouaged an indifference to the demands of argument, I also think John’s not wrong to say that there really is a counterenlightenment affinity among the various major authorities claimed by Theory (which is one reason why those who don’t fit the pattern--Bakhtin, Habermas--don’t really prosper). 

btw, citational authority? a great and apt neologism.

By on 07/12/05 at 02:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Amardeep, I appreciate and welcome the attention to the bigger picture.  As I worked on this, I realized that it could become something worth shopping around--even though the CC issues are a little murky, I believe I retain the rights to what I publish here because I’m an official contributor, and therefore the copyright holder.  (Although I could be entirely wrong.) Anyhow, to address the issues you raise:

1.  I need a more immediate connection between my opening gambit and the first paragraph.  The entire essay is about the politics of interpretation, but I never actually mention the essays I quote there.  (Full disclosure: all that attention I paid to how an academic essay ought to open made the need for a hook more compelling than usual.) I could, but I wanted 1) to avoid discussing Benn Michaels again and 2) because the essays themselves didn’t frame the issues nearly so well as the titles.  Maybe tweaking that first sentence to stress that would remove some of the expectations that those particular essays in CI will be discussed would do the trick?

2.  The response to Jameson’s essay is better than you might think: Kenneth Burke makes it.  And boy does he ever.  In response to Jameson’s claim that “his strange reluctance to pronounce the word ideology itself” results from a “methodological repression” or “strategy of containment,” Burke mentions that his “theory of literary form” in Counter-Statement “is largely concerned with the role of an ‘ideology’ in the arousing and fulfilling of an audience’s expectations.  The issue comes to a focus in such sections as, ‘Form and Ideology’ (pp. 146-47); ‘Re-individuation of forms’ (pp. 148-49); and ‘Ideology’ (pp.161-63).” Jameson’s reply is short and consists in kind of sort of calling Burke a vulgar Marxist (and therefore unaligning him with the very virtuoso critics for which he had so recently been an exemplar) and redefining “ideology” to mean something Burke did not, in fact, mean when he wrote Counter-Statement

3.  Jameson’s goal in the essay is two-fold: 1) examine how Burke reached the level of intellectual sophistication he reached without the benefit of post-structuralist thought and 2) show how a virtouso critic can be recuperated by a critic influenced by post-structuralist thought and transformed into something better than the average post-structuralist thinker.  To wit: “At the beginning of the present essay, I proposed a checklist of the great contemporary critics, the greater readers of an age that has discovered the symbolic; what I then neglected to add was that the art and practice of virtuoso reading does not seem to me to be the noblest function, the most urgent mission, of the literary and cultural critic in our time.  In a society like ours, not stricken with aphasia so much as with amnesia, there is a higher priority than reading and that is history itself” (523).  Furthermore, Jameson regrets “that Burke finally did not want to teach us history, even though he watned to teach us how to grapple with it; but I will argue, for the bon usage of his work, that it be used to learn history, even against his own inclination” (ibid.).  When I decided to leave the extended discussion of Burke out--and insert Miller as an example of a post-structuralist who, “for the bon usage of his work,” could be used to learn about critical responsibility--I had to jettison the typically Jamesonian gesture to how it’s all really, really complicated but in the end it’s all History.  I was comfortable doing this because I treated his argument about virtuoso critics with Hegelian seriousness; when the Marxist teleology appeared, I noted that this conclusion doesn’t follow from his claims and decided to focus on the conclusion that does, thus the long section on Miller and critical responsibility.

4.  I’m still grappling with this issue.  I found reading TE had its intended effect on me, but I realize full well that I’m not it’s intended audience.  What I need to determine, and what I hope to determine over the next few weeks, is whether its evident flaws are damning--as they sometimes seem to be--or whether they’re incidental to book’s pedagogical imperative.

Sean, Foucault and Althusser thought there were deep compelling differences between their respective accounts of how tiny people construct and/or are constructed by gigantic forces.  I recognize that the two can seem similar, especially in the latterday American academy, but I think that’s because of--not simply coterminus to--the indifference to the demands of the argument.  If latterday American academics--who I’m now imaging as some strange adjunct to the Mormon hierarchy--did take the premises of the Althusserian or Foucauldian arguments seriously, that is, if they took the stakes of the argument seriously, it’d be difficult to mistake the two accounts.  In short, I think we agree that once arguments aren’t read closely--once they reach a level of carefully cultivated generality--it becomes irresistably easy to consider theories with wildly different premises but similar conclusions as being in all respects interchangeable.  Or maybe I’m misunderstanding the Althusserian and Foucauldian arguments.  (Also, thanks for the props.  I thought long and hard about whether a difference of degree merited a neologism, but then decided that sometimes the difference in degrees is so vast as to grant it some distinction.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/12/05 at 03:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The opening does it for me, for what that’s worth.

By Ray Davis on 07/14/05 at 12:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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