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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

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

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

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

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

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

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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Thursday, July 14, 2005

Theory’s Empire--It’s the Institution Stupid

Posted by Sean McCann on 07/14/05 at 11:54 AM

A consensus appears to be developing among at least some of us talking about TE that the major issues are institutional and sociological.  The problem (to the extent we agree there is one) is not any ideas particular to Theory, in other words, but the academic celebrity system, the tenure review process, and/or the guild process of professional training. 

If that is an emerging consensus, it’s one I find both encouraging and disheartening. 

Encouraging because I pretty much agree, institutional and professional constraints are the most salient factors in the existence of the alleged empire (and quite possibly, any set of bad and reductive ideas could flourish equally well among them).  Disheartening because no one seems to be much interested in talking about either Theory’s big ideas-- Michael’s valiant attempts with Heidegger and Derrida aside--or the claims of its critics.  To be cruel, you might call the situation symptomatic.  Get a bunch of literary academics together and they’ll be happy to talk about the institution of the profession till the cows come home.  It’s a topic whose powers of intoxication are only rivaled by the endlessly absorbing but-is-it-good-for-the-left discussion.  Genuine argument about ideas or, um, literature, on the other hand, is harder to find.

Perhaps that’s a sign that Theory’s empire is truly crumbling, or, as Mark suggests, that it’s become little more than routinized doctrine.  That sounds right to me, though I also suspect that Theory concepts won’t get much debate in the blogosphere because under scrutiny a good many are either uncontroversial or absurd.  (Over at Long Sunday, which as Ray suggests is an often interesting place where they really are eager to talk Theory, there’s a discussion going on about whether Capital is Real.  Resolved: “to assert that Capital is Real is to embrace neoliberal ideology.” This is a topic, may I suggest, that could only become a matter of debate after prolonged immersion in Slavoj Zizek.)

One downside of the emphasis on institutional factors is that it can easily turn into an alibi.  It can be mighty convenient, in other words, to believe that the problem is with trustees, or administrators, or a professional norm for which trustees and administrators are ultimately responsible.  Which is why I think it’s important to try to keep the ideological and intellectual convictions that exist perhaps symbiotically with those factors at the forefront.  That’s what Mark’s essay was trying to do, and whatever the limitations of the piece, the aim is an important one.

I think to the extent we’re agreed about anything, we agree that what’s at issue is in some way a reflection of the course of academic professionalism.  (Anyone who hasn’t yet seen Timothy Burke’s beautiful essay on Theory’s moment, should get there pronto.  It’s a blog masterpiece.) If so, it may be that while the academic humanities are distinctive in a number of crucial respects, they take part in a larger phenomenon.  In many of the established professions (law, say) recent decades have seen an explosion of growth and competition, with a concomitant expansion of hyperspecialization and a relative decline in the once prominent legitimation of public service and self-regulation.  (Or so says Steven Brint anyway.) The history of Theory tracks that story well.  The golden moment noted by Timothy, Scott, Mark and others coincided with a growth in the size and status of literary academia and a steep rise in the remuneration a humanities academic could expect to earn.  You can sense the brio even in retrospect and see the pay-off that increased sophistication often brought to literary study.  In subsequent decades, we’ve seen the effects of continued hyperspecialization (hat tip John Emerson) and, its underlying cause, a wildly irrational employment market.  The consequences are, yes, the combination of inflated rhetoric and crippling intellectual caution.  But also the decline of professional community, in its good as well as bad sides. 

To return to ideological factors (and to beat a dead horse I’ve ridden before), my belief is that this situation is particularly toxic in literary academia because of a historic professional self-image that cast literature as the anti-disciplinary discipline.  As a special kind of knowledge, or rather experience, literature was understood to rise above and cast into doubt the authority of other fields—especially mere “science.” To look back over the grand moments of Theory--in its Deconstructive, or New Historicist, or Cult Stud moments—is, I think, to see renewed and intensified versions of that attitude.  Not literature, but Theory now is the special kind of expertise that challenges all other expertise, the unique kind of training that subverts all other discipline.  In short, a professionalized assault on professionalism, one whose characteristic expression has been to turn expertise against the routine (and, to pick up on John Holbo’s point, to thereby license an unviable synthesis of the enlightenment and counterenlightenment).

No need to claim that the situation is utterly homogeneous, only to say that quite often the result has been the worst of both worlds.  As Ben Alpers notes over at Michael’s blog, mediocre work will always prevail in any academic discipline.  But Timothy adds an important point when he says “there’s a kind of missing generation of monographs . . .  an absence of substantive, minutely authoritative, carefully researched and highly specialized knowledge that serves as a foundation for more sweeping syntheses and broadly argued scholarship.” He’s talking about postcolonial history in particular, but I think the description applies still more intensely to literary academia.  The whole point of academic professionalism is to yoke mediocrity to a larger purpose.  Theory’s assault on routinized academic labor, combined with the institutional factors that encouraged it, freed some brilliant minds to become virtuosi.  They became our celebrities.  And, as Timothy notes, that assault also helped promote the undoubted good that the humanities now study far more than was once considered legitimate material.  But it also undermined the structures that encourage useful mediocrity.

What should be done about that institutionally?  I don’t know, though I feel pretty certain that graduate programs in literature should cease overproducing Ph.Ds.  (Easy for me to say, of course, since I’ve got a job and don’t teach in a graduate program.) One side of me believes that the way to go is, as Timothy suggests, to try to follow out the logic of where things seem to be headed already and, say, use the blogosphere to try to break the hold of guild authority.  (Heed the call of John Emerson!  Deprofessionalize literary criticism!) Another thinks that what we need is actually more professional discipline.  (Return to philology!) Ideally, I think they’ll be some combination of the two—and perhaps it’s inevitable, since as the saying in econ goes, situations that can’t continue, won’t.


Depends on what you mean by “real.” And “capital.” And “is.”

By Jonathan on 07/14/05 at 01:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

No doubt.

By on 07/14/05 at 01:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The “institutionalization” of Theory, in my view, has nothing whatsoever to do with trustees or administrators, who by and large have no input into curricular matters.  Rather, faculty have driven this process—as is still readily apparent if one reads descriptions for academic positions, in which expertise in “theory” frequently appears and has for many become a touchstone of supposed professional competence. In my own department (Spanish & Portuguese,) for years this has been the case, and we have interviewed many candidates whose research dealt with “anything but literature.”

I have sat in on job talks and dissertation defenses in which it occurred to me that a stranger coming into the room and listening for half an hour would have little idea of what field was involved—beyond guessing that it was something generally politico-historical with significant displays of one’s own good politics. 

Meanwhile, the graduate students to whom I teach theory (a required course) typically do not know how to read literary texts with any care but do know how to reduce those texts to ideological positions they can then either applaud or take issue with. But they can easily catch on to the use of literature as pretext, not text, or merely as an occasion for “textual harassment” (Felperin’s term).  They don’t know anything about versification or how to go about studying the structure of a work of fiction—and when I ask them if they’d like such a course they all eagerly say they would. BUT that course is not required, indeed is not offered—at least not in recent years. When I teach them, I don’t hide the fact that Theory is the coin of the realm. But I urge them to not be satisfied with being wannabe theorists, and to aim at the vanguard not the rearguard (which is what Theory in academe has become).

My own view of multi- and interdisplinary work (of which I’ve done a fair amount) is that by now it is little more than license to be ignorant in multiple fields. 

D. Patai

By Daphne Patai on 07/14/05 at 02:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

D. Patai,

How depressing.  Maybe I’ve been lucky but that’s not been my experience at all.  I must say that I also wonder how this kind of comment amounts to much more than the (somewhat familiar?) gig of professors complaining about their students?

Good for you for urging them “not to satisfied with wannabe theorists”.  If there are professors who do NOT caution against letting quasi-celebrity theorists think FOR them, as sufficient ends in themselves to parrot and mimic, then that is indeed lamentable.  But blaming the theorists themselves for the very existence of students who do not know the first thing about “studying the structure of a work of fiction” seems to me misplaced. 

Furthermore, is it just possible that the watering-down or sociologizing of English departments (or rather their students?) is part of larger cultural and indeed wordly phenomena (marked by a shift in economies of interest, among other things, neither purely lamentably nor certainly without its dangers)?  Phenomena about which certain theorists are, rather admirably it might be said, trying hard to think both productively and critically?

If your target is cross-disciplinary studies generally, or the protection of the canons, then maybe quoting some Derrida would indeed be in order (and not just to sound apocalyptic).  Forgive me if this is glib, but one could start with “Eyes of the University” or “Limited Inc” among other texts (and Derrida is certainly not the only one, by any means, who contributed to the realization of the ‘porousness of certain borders’).

By Matt on 07/14/05 at 03:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My own view of multi- and interdisplinary work (of which I’ve done a fair amount) is that by now it is little more than license to be ignorant in multiple fields.

My view is that it’s better to give specific examples of the work so licensed.

By Jonathan on 07/14/05 at 03:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"They don’t know anything about versification or how to go about studying the structure of a work of fiction...”

That’s a disaster, and not just for literary studies.  I’ve been pursuing the application of the newer psychologies—cognitive, neuro-, evolutionalry—to literature for a long time. And I’m convinced that one thing literature has to offer those disciplines is literary form, all the multiple ways texts are structured. But we need people who can analyze and describe that form, and with more discipline and eye for detail than the New Critics.

By bbenzon on 07/14/05 at 03:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"A consensus appears to be developing among at least some of us talking about TE that the major issues are institutional and sociological.  The problem (to the extent we agree there is one) is not any ideas particular to Theory, in other words, but the academic celebrity system, the tenure review process, and/or the guild process of professional training.”

As an outsider, I’m sceptical about this.  If you look at other academic disciplines, they have academic celebrity, tenure review, and so on, but they avoid some of the same problems.

There are some problems that really do seem to be taking place across all academic disciplines.  Overproduction, for example.  Scott has a good post on his blog mourning what he sees as the loss of erudition, but I don’t see anything particular to literary studies in this.  There has been a loss of erudition in every field, as part of the runaway process by which academic knowledge is created.  People give up on being well-rounded out of necessity; there is nothing cultural about it.

Saying that the problems of Theory (if any) have little to do with ideas, but everything to do with institutional and sociological issues, seems like a form of historical determinism.  And I think that while a new fashion was clearly due after the New Criticism, there is substantial historical leeway over what it could have been.

Perhaps what is needed is a new genre, the alternate-history literary studies novel.  (There was a very good thread on alternate-history SF here recently).  You know, the mysterious accident that happens to Derrida, or the accidental feed of a Russian Formalist work into a popular 1966 version of ELIZA, followed by—who knows what.  Even better, since novels are long, do it Stanislaw Lem style merely as reviews of imaginary novels.

By on 07/14/05 at 03:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for the comment, Daphne--and for co-editing the collection.  I said in an earlier post that I think the contributions are of uneven quality, but I was grateful to read so many substantial and thoughtful essays between one set of covers.  It’s a valuable and important project, and I’m thankful to you and your co-editor for having done it.

I didn’t mean to suggest that any of us believes that trustees or administrators are directly responsible for curricula or scholarly production.  The suggestion, rather, is that various institutional factors--e.g., the pressure on young scholars to produce quick and ample product that will be evaluated by quantity rather than quality, the terrible effects of an irrational job market and the consequent drive to both hyperspecialization and caution, a celebrity system that rewards flashiness, the narrowness of guild authority, etc.--all combine to foster the kinds of problems you note.  I quite agree with you, though, that to fully understand the situation we need to consult not just the interests, but the ideas, and ideologies, of academics.  I also agree with you that one major feature of the institutionalization of Theory, and (paradoxically) of hyperprofessionalizaton, has been the disappearance of agreed on topics of study and methodologies.  Theory is just a place holder in this situation, I think.  It’s the only thing that the discipline can agree is important, largely because it has minimal content.  And, agreed, however extensive the problem, that situation at least creates the very real possibility of both ignorance and the absence of meaningful intellectual community.

By on 07/14/05 at 03:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I must have been very unclear in my post.  I meant to say something very much along the lines of what both Daphne and Rich say.

By on 07/14/05 at 03:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

On defining “theory.”

One reason it’s so hard to define (apart from the fact that its predominant use is as a “plus word” in literature departments, lacking specific content) is because it’s not really a noun anymore but part of a verb phrase “to do theory.” (And this has spread to other fields: women’s studies job ads also typically require ability to do theory and to teach theory, and this means the typical assistant professor in WoSt, with a humanities degree, will find herself teaching anthropology, biology, etc., in some catch-all course). And most people in language and literature departments know they need to claim that they “do theory.” Again, look not just at job ads, but also at self-descriptions on websites.  Most of what it means, of course, is merely that they apply someone else’s “theory” and thus become second- and third-rate theorizers.  Yes, it has happened with other academic fashions, too, but in the past, as far as I can tell, there wasn’t a monolithic entity that so dominated the rhetoric of the field(s).  And indeed why not? Since critics of “theory” are regularly consigned to some outer pale where they pathetically try to “defend their privileges” or their ignorance. Cf. the Norton’s jibes, and that of most any “theory” anthology.  I don’t think that at an earlier time one was so stigmatized by not adhering to a particular trend or fashion. True, it’s a complex fashion, so one could, in theory, find some bit of it conducive to one’s own work or inclinations.  Still, the censorious and condescending tone has played a large part in cowing poor graduate students and young academics into feeling they MUST be part of this scene or they’re nothing.


By Daphne Patai on 07/14/05 at 06:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This is my first post on a blog of any kind, so pardon me if I commit some blogging faux pas, like writing 2,500 words; but this is a place to “vent,” is it not, as well as e-vent? I guess I am wondering about the “event” in which we are supposedly engaged (and I don’t mean this in the Derridean sense, though I am reminded of the eternal return): almost everything I have read so far online, including the malcontent about “Theory” and the sociological problems of the discipline with respect to “output”), has been floating around the Academy in some form or another since I began in college (in the late ‘80s) to participate in debate beyond where to find the cheapest beer over which to discuss the social construction of the subject (more on this below).  As a mere undergraduate, I was bothered by the pervasive anti-intellectualism of those who reacted so fervently to deconstructionism as though it were rotting the core of our culture with claims to the unknowability of truth. (Evidently these people did not receive a very thorough “traditional” education, as they had never encountered pre-Socratic philosophy or Nominalism, but that is another matter). I recall vividly a Houston lawyer button-holing me at a Rhodes Scholar’s cocktail reception in which he demanded to know in “250 words or less” what Derrida’s major claims were, though he was obviously pretty sure already what the main claim was (there is no truth!!) and prepared to tell me that it was deplorable--so sure that I did not get to 250 words before he started talking about the 750 word editorial he read about it.

It strikes me that this cultural history—outside the Academy, the one that floats around in that mish-mash of mediatized opinion and knee-jerk distaste for intellectual inquiry—has re- framed the very core of our profession, and exists regardless of what the current academic climate or debate is. I certainly do not identify positively with professors throughout history (the Parisian professors of the 14th and 15th centuries did truly bad stuff, like murder, alongside their Scholastic nitpicking), but it seems like American culture offers a pretty clear case of a sadly appropriated intellectual class: we have climbed into middle class respectability only to be vilified (that old saw) as corruptors of youth, and purveyors of triviata (that paradox of the corrupting power of meaningless ideas). We have provided an institutional locale for “radical” ideas, which can thus be circumscribed and mocked gleefully by anybody who cares to toss a rotten tomato at a nerd. Not only do we “tolerate” this condition, we love it, because it feeds that powerful loop of victimization that allows us to take summers off to write articles, books, and blogs.

In any event, Theory is manifestly not to blame for this cultural climate, though perhaps the situation has worsened through the public exposure of some of the more hyperbolic practitioners—the “stars” everybody talks about (who are not really “stars” in any kind of powerful way; no matter how much money they make, they still get paid less than a first-year attorney from a Top 10 law school, though they will do a lot less work).

But the anti-Theory theorists—and more confusingly, those who claim not to be anti-theory as they pursue a critique of Theory—seem also to have appropriated all of the general “defensive” ground that a proponent of Theory might take, all the while recognizing that the only possible position somebody who practices theory might take is that they do not practice Theory. It’s like the (righteous) paranoid in a science fiction movie who knows the aliens have landed and screams as he is carted away (by aliens!), “Of course they’ll DENY being aliens!” Does it not strike others that this is a wholly unproductive debate? A group of readers, frustrated locally and perhaps universally, have decided to conjure up a dragon to slay, cobbling their dragon together from the many hundreds of “snakes” they imagine to be haunting the dens of the Academy. We DO have deep problems in our profession, but this does not seem like one of them to me. And yet--here’s the real irony--I feel compelled to take the “issue” seriously, because lots of other people have told me it is a problem.

It reminds me, however, of the successful invention of Political Correctness by the Far Right (and I DON’T mean the analogy to extend to actual politics, merely the rhetorical technique). There was indeed something like an attempt to restore dignity to denigrated groups by an effort to change the language in which they were described (perhaps misguided, but certainly not carceral and mean-spirited, as it was often characterized). But that effort has never had the energy nor the power ascribed to it by the Right, which continues to blast at its favorite straw man in ever-more hysterical tones. For an almost parodic example, see the June 2005 issue of the American Enterprise, the vent-rag of the American Enterprise Institute, where you will find an article in which political correctness is blamed for riots in three cities (including Los Angeles, where I lived at the time, after the Rodney King decision), because female police officers in all three cases were unable to apply the appropriate police techniques because they were, you know, women (and thus weak and not suited to police fieldwork, etc.). You would think that, at a certain point, conservatives would simply stop talking about political correctness, recognizing that they won the battle of words, since you will be hard-pressed to find a positive attestation of the phrase by a proponent of, say, a more diverse workplace. But they desperately need this enemy, and their desperation shows in the wild logic of their offensive sallies against the chimera. Is it possibly because they won the rhetorical battle but LOST the battle of ideas? that most Americans really would prefer to use civil discourse and not offend people publicly (to take a narrow example)?

There are certainly People-who-Theorize, and many of them have gained national prestige and notoriety by theorizing. Some of them use the word “Theory” in a loose, encompassing sense to describe what they do as writers and teachers. Some of these people are also “bad people,” who throw their weight around, badger their colleagues, and otherwise fail to work and play well with others. Though I was not yet born, I am certain that others who have posted will attest to bullying in the Academy long before the advent of t/Theory. And it is not clear that theory makes you a more powerful bully, except insofar as it might help you outwit your target (but if it IS better at this, well, the traditional humanist education principle “lectio transit mores” is in big trouble....). In any event, from my perspective, there has not been any Vast Theory Conspiracy any more dangerous the garden-variety huddling of intellectuals who share a common passion and, it needs to be said, political agenda in their institutions. But, as to the political agenda, one could very easily hop on board a policy to advance women in science without being a Theory Head; you can simply make recourse to that good old liberal, humanist tradition of political critique.

I cannot agree more with John McGowan (over on Berube’s blog) that the major problem for most of us in the Academy is remaining sharp and self-conscious about the kind of work we do daily, weekly, monthly and yearly: our habits of thought and mind matter most. I also agree that this question of our work is deeply “constructed” by the pressures of the discipline. But if this is a consensus, then I guess I am mystified as to why I have not heard much productive talk about the positive ways in which we in the Academy can support the “small-scale” work of our colleagues, some of whom may not be “intervening” in totally original ways, but may be conducting micro-studies that will add up, over time, to major shifts of focus in a field. Do each of you encourage junior faculty to work closely with literary texts, to seek venues that support such work? Do each of you laud such work in department meetings when it emerges? Do you make the case for the “tenurability” of young professors who are not simply following the latest trend? When a new hire is made, do you seek candidates who will volunteer humbly that they are not re-arranging the field entirely? Would we know a non-theoretical candidate when we met one? And again, one could be Richard Rorty’s Theory King on the Weekend, and still engage in such supportive mentoring of colleagues in one’s own department, irrespective of their chosen emphasis.

I am not surprised at all that the most substantive exchange on The Valve Book Event has been over Bauerlein’s essay, since the question of social constructionism is THE essential claim that runs through the various branches of modern critical theory (that is, all of those branches that intersect, but are not coincident with, literary theory). I first heard it formulated (as an undergrad) as a critique of the “transcendental subject,” but that critique quickly evolved into a commonly-held principle shaping various sub-disciplines that used it to ply their own conceptual territory. In literary studies, the question of the author (and here, Wimsatt and Beardsley must own up to their bastard progeny in American post-structuralism, just as Socrates must acknowledge Alcibiades) was re-cast in philosophical terms via Derrida’s practice. But isn’t it pretty clear that this extension of Derrida was a matter of translating a practice of reading and critique into a (dubiously general) principle in a domain of thought where it was not originally formulated? Derrida’s infrequent encounters with literature and painting, one notes, are much more sympathetic than either his encounters with philosophers or than the forms of deconstruction practiced by American literary critics. Derrida took on big figures from the philosophical tradition and he did so with wit and playful irony, never taking himself too seriously even when he seemed to be most serious. I think this is a question of style (and lack thereof) rather than principle. Readers have perennially tangled with their authors, played with their terms, re-cast them as despots and tyrants working on their thought who must be resisted and re-written (anxiety of influence, anyone?). Derrida did so masterfully, and his followers did so slavishly. This is not a sin of Theory, but a sin of practice. And the deeper sin, of course, is to believe that your practice has the legitimacy of an ironclad principle. But I digress…

I would like to say more about Foucault’s version of this critique of the human subject, which has much more far-reaching implications than Derrida’s, primarily because it poses as a historical model, but I will say this: need we not remind ourselves that Foucault and Derrida argued vigorously over their theories of the linguistic construction of the subject, or, rather, Foucault’s rejection of a key Derridean premise? These questions go way beyond anything simple like, “Well, isn’t it obvious that our theoreticians have not read their theory.” I agree with Daphne that the disappearance of what used to be called the common-place has been papered over by the discourse of theory, but even the discourse of theory (however you happen to slice it up) is so encompassing that little short of a PhD in continental philosophy would prepare you for a real intellectual engagement with all its major figures. We just make do with where our reading interests (and sub-disciplinary needs) send us. I note, for example, how few of my colleagues in the English departments where I have taught tangle with Gaddamer, and the only reason I’ve read much of him is because Jauss read him, and Jauss has been more influential on my particular discipline than, say, Stanley Fish.

Finally, a disclosure and a little note on philology: I am a medievalist, and no field of literary study has been more resistant to t/Theory than mine, partly because our field was deeply enmeshed in the development of Philology in the 19th century, and we carry along with this history the sense that we have been fighting certain theoretical battles for some time. We can thus take our time with the “new” stuff. (We also have retrenched conservatives, just like all fields, and perhaps more of them, but I am trying to be positive) I won’t rehearse John McGowan’s thumbnail history of criticism (over on Berube’s blog) of the discipline of English (or quibble with his claim about Dante), but I will say that philology—and New Philology, its theoretically-dressed modern variant—operates at the intersection of criticism and empirical research, an intersection (in my opinion) where the most powerful ideas in literary study have emerged. Without the technical disciplines of codicology and paleography, medieval studies would not exist except in John Keats’ fantasy world of knights “alone and palely loitering.” Philologists of the 19th c. prided themselves on their interdisciplinarity and their hard-nosed pursuit of objective fact, but they were not scientific in the modern sense of developing a rigorous methodology with repeatable methods valid in all cases. Philology was—and IS—a craft of interpretation, with an incredibly wide net (so wide that one’s eyes pop out at some of the claims 19th c scholars made about the culture lying dimly behind the texts under consideration). Indeed, the emergence of linguistics as a scientific study of language led ineluctably to the decline of “philology” as a noble practice. Linguistics edged out philology in the close technical study of language, while foregoing the “interpretive” gestures of philology, especially with respect to written language and historical language, both of which are increasingly inconsequential in linguistic study.
Note, for example, that Whorf, reporting to the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian in 1941, nods to the continuing interest in philology, but distinguishes it from proper linguistic study: “As the major linguistic difficulties are conquered, the study becomes more and more philological; that is to say, subject matter, cultural data, and history play an increasing role… This is philology. But at the base of philology we must have linguistics.” But Philip Gove, in his triumphalist essay, “Linguistic Advances and Lexicography,” written as flak for Webster’s Third International, recognizes that “Linguistics has had...hardly any effect on meaning and vocabulary,” but goes on to trumpet the exciting breakthroughs in phonology and pronunciation, adding: “This should not be surprising, since linguistics became a science through scientific observation of the sounds of language, and philologists who had known for over 100 years all there was to know about historical sound shifts did not become linguists until they took to studying scientifically the sounds of their own speech in the early decades of this century.” We are peering here into a discipline’s anxious displacement of the Old Monolith, which has failed as a “science” to progress (note the needless repetition of “science” and its variants), and thus had—and the determinism here is palpable—to evolve into linguistics. There are many of us who cannot help but think that something was lost in this transition, in the shift between Whorf and Gove: some theoretical ground, and some practice, as well.

This little history, which is less familiar perhaps to American scholars working in modern fields, especially in modern American literature, is the essential backdrop to Derrida’s critique of Saussure, by the way. Most American literary scholars got post-structuralism before they got linguistic structuralism (in all its variants), and wrongly equated it with their own sense of formalism. But the larger point is that American academic institutions have pressured scholars to remake themselves as “scientists,” even if they work in non-scientific fields. The love affair with the importation of exotic methodologies from other disciplines—especially anthropology and linguistics, but also philosophy—is nothing other than discipline envy, and it plagues our professional identity, while also making our “product” look like an inferior version of a real science.

If you made it this far, I thank you for your time and the opportunity to join this discussion.

By on 07/14/05 at 07:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

” . . . they desperately need this enemy . . .”

Such needs are widespread.

By bbenzon on 07/14/05 at 07:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I considered posting this over at Berube’s site, but everything’s all linked up at this point anyway, so here goes:

I don’t have much to add to Berube’s take on Bauerlein’s take on social construction, except to say that I was shocked that Bauerlein failed to even cite Berger and Luckmann’s *The Social Construction of Reality*.  Not that one need mention every book on a given subject, but *SCR* is at once radical and sane—which makes it the proper object for critical inquiry.

Regarding Sean’s post, I think the overarching issue—more than and encompassing celebrity scholars, political agendas, shoddy scholarship, theory pastiche, and so on—is this: What exactly are we doing when we study and teach English? 

The profession of English studies no longer has a coherent self-identity (or several coherent self-identities even).  Not many people still think that studying Great Literature makes one a good person.  More and more people are abandoning the 1990s version of this, in which changing the canon could change the world.

So why study English?  Of all the humanities, it and philosophy have very little rationale any longer.  Historians can at least claim that they are synthesizing great quantities of hard to access archival work and making it available to a democratic citizenry that needs history to be good, informed democratic citizens.  But what are we claiming to *teach* when we teach English?  Say what you will about cultural studies, but at least it attempted to produce a coherent rationale, however misguided it was (i.e., in basically attempting a sort of “close reading” model of sociology/anthropology).

Anymore, I try to convince myself that, at heart, those of us in the field of English are like medieval monks: our main job is to conserve, protect, and redeem the writing produced by our cultures.  Which leads me to believe that more scholarship should attend to the sheer weirdness of humans doing something as useless as writing a novel or a poem or an essay—should attend, that is, to the weirdness of creativity in language.

But until institutions—or at least individual departments—begin to produce coherent rationales for the study of English literature, all the subsequent problems (rock-star academics, herdish scholarship, crazy claims, etc.) will remain.

By on 07/14/05 at 08:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

akinch, agree completely that the pressure to be a science (and the related effort to define oneself against “science") is a major problem.  That’s in good part what I meant to refer to by professionalism. 

But this question--"Does it not strike others that this is a wholly unproductive debate?"-- closes the possibility of any debate at all.  It’s not the case, btw, that A Theorist could only defend herself in this discussion by denying the role.  She could defend Theory.  Alas, there’s been been precious little of that in this dicussion. 

The fact that Theory or PC or whatever is attacked by the right, btw, doesn’t necessarily have any bearing on the points made here or in TE.  Politics may make strange bedfellows, but it should be pretty obvious that you can dislike Theory without being a winger, just as you can dislike shallow orthodoxy without having to believe in a conspiracy.

btw, the salaries of literary celebrities?  Tough to get data, of course, but I feel quite confident that the exceed the starting salary of a first year law associate.

LB: “what are we claiming to *teach* when we teach English? How bout literature, and understanding it?

By on 07/14/05 at 09:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"How bout literature, and understanding it?”

Sean, that begs the question.  Why should a student major in English?  Why should universities spend money on English departments?  Even if we can be sure we are “producing knowledge,” aren’t we producing knowledge about something that very few people care (or need care) about? 

I’m playing devil’s advocate, of course, but I think it’s odd that English/Comp-Lit and Philosophy are the only two university programs that have no coherent reason for why anyone should major in them.

By on 07/14/05 at 10:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

akinch writes:

But the anti-Theory theorists—and more confusingly, those who claim not to be anti-theory as they pursue a critique of Theory—seem also to have appropriated all of the general “defensive” ground that a proponent of Theory might take, all the while recognizing that the only possible position somebody who practices theory might take is that they do not practice Theory.

Are you actually saying it is confused to be in favor of theory while being anti-Theory, or only confusing. Confusing, yes. Confused, no. Or do you say differently. If so, why?

By John Holbo on 07/14/05 at 10:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Why should universities spend money on English departments?”

One reason they do it is because English deparments teach all those writing courses. This has little to do with theory or literature, but it’s a justification for the English department.

By bbenzon on 07/14/05 at 10:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

bbenson’s point about writing courses gets to the heart of the issue I raised.

To my knowledge, rhet/comp is one of the few healthy academic job markets in the humanities.  More and more universities are strengthening their comp programs, even as these same programs rely on grad student labor for the actual freshman-level comp courses. 

Increasingly, I think English should move toward a “writing-centered” focus.  That is to say, rhetoric, philology, composition, creative writing, practical criticism, and theory should all be merged in the interest of fostering an atmosphere of “critical writing.” This would mean breaking down the stupid and elitist boundaries within English departments, according to which grad students and adjuncts are given comp courses and full-time profs (and maybe some Elect grad students) are given lit courses.

By on 07/14/05 at 11:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

it’s odd that English/Comp-Lit and Philosophy are the only two university programs that have no coherent reason for why anyone should major in them

You actually raise two questions here, LB.  One is why it makes sense for society as a whole to devote significant resources to the study of lit.  That’s an interesting question, which I hope to come back to later.  But the other question--why anyone should major in literature--isn’t really an issue.  They should major in it for the same reason they might major in any other discipline that isn’t directly vocational training--because it’s interesting, because it will enrich their lives intellectualy, culturally, aesthetically.  Because it’s important. Because they like it.

By on 07/15/05 at 08:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther: “I was shocked that Bauerlein failed to even cite Berger and Luckmann’s *The Social Construction of Reality*”

I didn’t think SCR was that radical, perhaps because it was so clearly written, even though it was also a major sociological work.  Too clearly written to be useful as a literary studies citation.  My primary theory for why Theory takes its current form is that its purposeful obscurantism is a type of boundary-setting.

Berger, by the way, wrote some pretty good sociology popularizations.

Luther again: “Why should a student major in English?  Why should universities spend money on English departments?  Even if we can be sure we are “producing knowledge,” aren’t we producing knowledge about something that very few people care (or need care) about?”

I don’t think that this is very good Devil’s Advocacy, because it presupposes that anyone who might object has a stereotyped, positivistic view about knowledge production and usefulness.  That’s a form of idealism that isn’t really current anymore.

By on 07/15/05 at 10:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, I’m trying to express a real concern, one that funks undergrads, grad students, and junior faculty especially (that is, once folks get tenure, they seem to stop worrying about these issues): What are we doing and *why* are we doing it?

I don’t agree that my post constructed a positivistic Devil’s Advocate.  Basically, I’m asking “What’s the point of teaching and writing about what we teach and write about?” I have my own answers, but I think institutions and the field of literature as a whole needs to start producing coherent answers.  And these answers will also weigh in on the issue of what literature studies has to offer the university as a whole.

By on 07/15/05 at 11:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"This would mean breaking down the stupid and elitist boundaries within English departments, according to which grad students and adjuncts are given comp courses and full-time profs (and maybe some Elect grad students) are given lit courses.”

Not only that, but that same value system places a professional interest in the study of literature higher on the totem pole than the study of writing and composition (not to mention technical writing).  This raises snarl of institutional issues.

By bbenzon on 07/15/05 at 11:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hmm.  If undergrads, grad students, and junior faculty especially worry about it, but tenured faculty and society as a whole generally don’t, then maybe it’s just job anxiety.  The displacement of individual concern as general concern for something more abstract.  That’s annoying pseudo-psychology, but it’s intended to point out that it’s problematic to make your focus primarily internal to literary studies.

Let’s see, somewhere back on “John and Belle Have A Blog” I sprawled through the comment section to come up with a completely naive justification for literary studies, which I thought was best to attempt before I had read anything on the subject.  (You obviously can’t attempt to be naive once you know anything).  If I recall correctly, it said that interest in literature, if generalized to spoken words as well as written, was intrinsic to humanity, if we can judge by the historical record.  This was probably because communication through language is biologically intrinisic to humanity, and that literature at its base was especially skillful use of language.  And finally, from a humanistic sense (without which we can’t justify universities at all), anything of interest to humanity is worth studying.  Does that help?  Admittedly it doesn’t say anything about why Theory as opposed to anything else, but it is intended to answer the question “Why should universities spend money on English departments?”

By on 07/15/05 at 11:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean McCann writes: “btw, the salaries of literary celebrities?  Tough to get data, of course, but I feel quite confident that the exceed the starting salary of a first year law associate. “

Well, the legal economy has not fared wonderfully since I was in grad school (up for a time, then back down), but my friends who were leaving Michigan for Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles were shunning offers less than $120,000 in 1999-9. Since I have taught only at public universities, salary information has been public and I can tell you that there are only a few of the so-called “stars” who come near this figure. Perhaps they fare better at private schools, where the salaries are not disclosed. (Is there a relationship between that high figure and the public disclosure? I can tell you that the state legislatures of Virginia and Montana do pay pretty close attention to faculty salaries...) Yeah, sure, a few exceed 120k and some probably exceed it by as much as my own annual salary. But is that a hair you want to split? And what good would that do? Prove that our stars really are high-paid attorneys? (whoops! was I talking about Stanley Fish unconsciously this entire time? Fish who recently wrote in Critical Inquiry about the perpetuation of the bureaucracy of the Academy?)

My point--and it was a small one--was simply that there is an exaggerated sense of the importance of these stars in the field in setting the direction of study for other scholars. And the moment of theory--with its hieratic quality, borrowed again from the French and again borrowed with substantially less style--certainly made these starts seem, for a time, more important than they were. But it seems to me that attributing undue influence to these big names by a way of critique and opposition is a form of contributing to the fiction that they are really that important. I am pretty comfortable with my ability to read Continental philosophy on my own--comfortable in the sense that I get it a little, and obviously don’t get it all, and lack the bigger context--and I was not taught by a star to do so. I suspect there are many who would say the same thing.

--Ashby Kinch

By on 07/15/05 at 11:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ashby Kinch, thank you. 

I read the whole thing, twice, and couldn’t agree more.

By Matt on 07/15/05 at 01:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Returning to what Luther Blisset said I’ve often wondered also about the neglect of Rom Harre’s work in social constructionism. Except as Bhaskar’s teacher I don’t see him mentioned.

What I think happened with social constructionism was that it got welded onto the utopian forms of the politics of gender, sexuality, etc., which rose out of the collapse of the New Left around 1972-5. People decided still to be revolutionary, but in a different way whihc was not macho and male-dominated the way the New Left was, and which also devoted to near goals instead of World Revolution.

In any case, social constructionism does not have to be leftist or relativistic. It’s a way of looking at the old culture/nature self/society relationships.

I actually think that Foucault’s work was misinterpreted , except that it was so much fun for him that he played along with it.  When he shows that “sexuality” was a construct of power (or however you say it), to me it not only meant that psychoanalysts can’t know your truth by knowing your seuality, but also that you can’t know yourself or liberate yourself by knowing or liberating your sexuality. But the stuff I read by Foucauldians seems sexuality-obsessed.

During the period 10+ years ago when I was still trying to be legit, I did publish something (based on Harre and Foucault in part) on the social construction of the self in ancient China. I put it at my URL.

By John Emerson on 07/15/05 at 04:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Why teach or study literature?  A few folks above have mentioned the importance of writing as a practical skill, but no one has mentioned reading… the habit of asking, while reading a text, “Who is saying this, and why?” applies equally well to narrative fiction and to what you read in the newspaper.  That may be classical criticism, and not Theory, but it’s a skill I’d like to see more widespread.

(I’m in the sciences, not the humanities, by the way, in case you want to know where I’m coming from.)

By on 07/21/05 at 01:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

”...Philosophy are the only two university programs that have no coherent reason for why anyone should major in them.”

In terms of a Ultilitrain defence of philosophy one might point to the superb job preformance of philosophy majors ( no really, it is actually really, really high), One might point to the general analytic skills it creates. One might point to the importance of a civilization keeping in touch with it’s roots i.e philosophy, one might suggest that good philosophy is needed to defend us from bad philosophy ( which will form naturally, with or without the help of a philosophy department). One might point to the practical applicability of ethics to a variety of contexts. One might disscuss how it can and should and sometimes does inspire great art. One might suggest that philosophy is going to happen whatever we do so we might as well give it an academic context. One might suggest that philosophy’s direct applications have been greatly underestimated, consider the importance of philosophy to the formation of computer science, or the philosophical intrests of many physicists ( i.e Niels Bohr).

But I think all this would be missing the point, to me the pursuit of such general, vitally important truths is intrinsticilly important.

By on 02/12/06 at 04:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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