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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
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Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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

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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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Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Theory’s Empire--Wrestling the Fog Bank

Posted by Sean McCann on 07/12/05 at 12:38 PM

If you’re even slightly simpatico, you’ve got to feel bad for the editors of Theory’s Empire.  There’s no more basic feature of “theory” in the literary academy than its committed antiformalism and its hostility to definition of any kind.  Despite John McGowan’s suggestions to the contrary, there seems to be pretty universal agreement—among defenders as well as opponents—that for some decades now there has indeed been an identifiable fashion (marked by rhetorical style, ethos, and commonly invoked authorities, however eclectic) that all agree to call Theory.  But good luck getting its defenders to articulate core principles, methods, or topics.  As Thomas Nagel says, arguing against Theory is like wrestling a fog bank.  So putting together a critical anthology that would be both comprehensive and structurally coherent must have been quite a task for Daphne Patai and Will Corral.

I sympathize big time.  But unfortunately, the effort shows.  Theory’s Empire is about as loose and baggy a monster as they come.  And frankly a very uneven collection.  There are many excellent and substantial essays. (I’d be grateful for being introduced to Stephen Adam Schwartz alone.) But there are also a lot of short book reviews, occasional lectures, and what seem simply like place markers.  (E.g., Marks, Fromm, Spitzer, Harpham—whose other work I personally admire.  Why is this stuff here?!).  Alas, for a collection that means to land some devastating blows, a lot in the book is not really first rank stuff, leading to a collection that manages to seem both massive and thin.  More importantly, the anthology doesn’t really have a structure.  Though it’s divided into eight sections, few of their titles appear to correlate strongly with their contents, and almost every section bleeds uncontrollably into others.

As I say, you can’t really blame Patai and Corral for this problem: “Theory as a profession”; “Identities”; “Theory as surrogate politics,” to name but three of the sections—these are typically treated by Theory-heads as different faces of a single issue.  So it’s hopeless trying to separate out subproblems.  But if you were looking for a lucid, comprehensive map, Theory’s Empire can’t provide it.  Add to this the fact that the many voices in the collection inevitably have different interests and concerns, and the upshot is less the focused assault that one might have hoped for than, as McGowan notes, what often seems like a chorus of disgruntlement. 

Are there major themes to be taken from that chorus?  In my fantasies, I yearn for TE to convince its readers of what I think are two major conclusions toward which it leads: (1) Though they’ve been frequently, if not characteristically exaggerated to the point of absurdity, some of the widely shared beliefs made commonplace by Theory are, at least in some versions, perfectly reasonable—and at a certain point in the history of the literary academy may plausibly have seemed badly needed.  (2) Criticism of Theory is not inevitably motivated by anti-intellectualism or political or cultural conservatism or characterized by intemperate bluster.  (Indeed, if TE could convince the Theory stalwarts of that latter, simple and rightfully inarguable point, it would be a momentous accomplishment.  Can it possibly be done?  Doubtful, for reasons to which I’ll return below.) If in fact both those conclusions are plausible, the major question is just why the Theory debate has been so strident so long, and with only a few hints of cooling down.  A number of the pieces in TE (e.g., Donaghue, Schwartz, Appiah) have interesting suggestions to make on that front, only Schwartz really pursues it at any length.  In my view, at the end of the day it’s the major and unresolved question.  I’ll come back to it below.

But first, a quick thought on the question put front and center by McGowan and Michael Bérubé and sure to be emphasized by all hostile readers—motivation.  Why did TE seem worth doing to Patai and Corral and worth discussing at length to Valvesters?  For those of us who share Patai and Corral’s conviction that the hegemony of Theory does in fact exist and is a genuine intellectual and institutional problem, there’s not much to wonder about here, but as John M and Michael’s responses suggest, it will be the first question to be raised by Theory’s defenders—especially by voices less reasonable and humane than theirs.  Both John and Michael all but directly say: hey, why get so worked up?  Things aren’t as bad as you think.

Most critics of Theory answer that challenge by turning first to the big guns—as say, Merquior, Goodhart, Jacoby do here.  The antihumanist dogmatism prevalent in much Theory talk, they suggest, is fundamentally threatening to our ability to think clearly, behave morally, act politically, and value art at all—leaving open the possibility for moderate voices like Michael and John to say: isn’t this all a bit over the top?  So, for the moment, let’s just mention a less emphatic reason why it’s well and good to criticize Theory and criticize it harshly indeed.  Not first because it threatens humanity, or civilization, or art, or rationality but because it’s there.  Leave aside for the moment the question of whether Theory is an empire or whether it’s dangerous to humanity.  It exists, it’s far from lacking in prominence, and in huge land masses of sodden material, it is, as a number of the essays in this collection demonstrate, intellectually unimpressive indeed.  Whether the stakes are high or low, whether the problem is big or small, it can’t be a bad thing to indict sloppy argument, shoddy prose, and smug moralism.  As Appiah says, “discriminating between what is and what isn’t worthwhile is the purpose of intellectual judgment” (446). 

It’s also, of course, fundamental to professional self-governance.  An intellectual community can’t flourish if bad or just weak work goes regularly unchallenged—or is prominently rewarded—and, more pressingly, if both an ethos and an institutional pattern develop that discourage argument and challenge.  I think Scott is absolutely right, as is Mark Bauerlein in his essay in the collection, to suggest that a hallmark of the current literary academy is the strikingly low level of serious debate.  (Here’s a prediction.  TE has already generated more extensive, vigorous, and fair discussion in the blogosphere than it ever will in the journals and conferences of literary academia.) Mark suggests that there are sociological as well as intellectual reasons for this phenomenon—on which, again, I hope more below.  But Scott surely has an important point when he suggests that one consequence of the poststructuralist disdain for reason has been to license an indiscriminate theoretical eclecticism and one that encourages the sense that there’s not much purpose to disagreement.  It’s not, as Michael puts it with arched brow, that Theory brooks no dissent, but that it makes argument seem unworthy, or unimportant, or just impossible. 

How did this happen?  John M. suggests we look to market causes.  I think that makes a lot of sense and want to return to the point, but first let’s consider some of the intellectual questions.  As I say, reading over TE, I was struck by the way that so many of the ideas criticized by the book look like extreme exaggerations of reasonable intuitions.  In different ways, Cunningham, Tallis, and Searle all make this point: poststructuralist theory takes plausible views of language or literature (or, it might be added, society) and, for reasons that still need clarification, extends or distorts them to an extraordinary degree.  It occurred to me that it would probably be possible to list the core intuitions of Theory in abbreviated and basic form.  Here’s my shot at summarizing four that in highly elaborate fashion crop up throughout Theory talk:

1) Language is a complex and imperfect instrument of profound importance to our sense of what it means to be a self-conscious human being.  Because communication makes use of conventional codes, it’s always possible for a listener to misinterpret the intentions of a speaker or for a sentence to be given more or different meanings than a speaker intends (a matter which explicitly or not may become a reflexive resource and thematic concern of literary texts).  And the various possibilities for imperfect communication are comparable to, or perhaps consistent with or related to, the other senses in which individuals are less than fully autonomous, rational, self-directed beings.

2) Many commonplace beliefs, practices, and institutions owe far more to persistent habit, superstition, and ideology (in a word, culture) than to reason or evidence.  These include once prevalent beliefs about the properties and boundaries of literature.  They also include more fundamental matters—e.g., the social reproduction of race, gender, sexuality, and, to a degree, of class—whose role in shaping our individual and social lives may be of greater importance than explicit legal or governmental structures.  Literature plays a role in establishing and legitimizing, as well as in revealing and challenging those tacit beliefs, practices, and institutions and in this way is connected to more extensive social problems.

3) The existence of those social conventions, and our understanding of them, is shaped by systematic social inequities.  We have good reason, therefore, to be highly attuned to the way interest as well as culture affects belief.

4) Taking full cognizance of these matters could have emancipatory consequences.

A highly reductive list, no doubt.  But I think it would be fair to say that a major portion of Theory talk amounts to extremely complicated and elaborate refinements on these basic intuitions.  Summarizing them in this fashion is useful, I hope, for two reasons: because it makes clear why reasonable minds would find such notions perfectly acceptable; and because it illuminates the ways in which plausible—in fact, to some degree pretty much obvious—ideas have been exaggerated by the Theory academy to implausible extremes.  The deconstructive account of language in this respect is, say, not unlike the foucauldian account of a carceral society—a reductive, unidimensional, and melodramatic elaboration of perceptions that no reasonable mind would dispute.

If I’m right, and the habit of absurd exaggeration is a hallmark of Theory, the obvious question would be why the habit exists.  To put it differently, why, virtually from the beginning, did both the advocacy for and opposition to Theory come cloaked in the language of culture war, and why to this day does it excite endless shouting matches in Crooked Timber threads?

Both Michael and John M. propose an historical explanation that emphasizes the stodgy unreceptiveness of the American literary academy in the seventies and eighties.  No doubt there’s something to that history.  But it downplays the degree to which a highly confrontational language of ultimate ends was always a central rhetorical tactic of Theory speak.  Of Grammatology did look forward with anticipation to the apocalyptic end of an alleged western metaphysics.  (“The future can only be anticipated in the form of an absolute danger.  It is that which breaks absolutely with constituted normality and can only be proclaimed, presented as a sort of monstrosity.”) And as Mark, along with Harpham says, for those of us who fell under the sway, that millennial tone was thrilling.  The Order of Things did look forward happily to the end of man.  And, as Richard Levin’s contribution to TE demonstrates with a long, and in retrospect, I think, embarrassing list of quotations, the cultural materialist vanguard in Shakespeare scholarship did relentlessly call into question the bona fides of any criticism not taking the party line.  Extremism, in other words, was not forced on Theory.  It was part of the stance from the get go.  As Donaghue says in his contribution to TE, what distinguished Theory from less grandiose ideas about literature, language, and culture—Theory vs. theory in Holbonic terms—was precisely the way it claimed “total explanatory force” and in this way came to seem not something to argue over or consider, but a doctrine, or doctrines, that could either be accepted or resisted.  Put differently, Theory promised not just to revise your ideas about language, or literature, or society, but to transform your life. 

If so, what made the American literary academy so receptive to this grand style?  Mark’s argument that social constructionism is a “philosophy for the academic workplace,” like John M.’s comments about market factors deserves to be taken very seriously indeed, I think.  Both the employment market in literary academia and the social institutions of review and promotion may well encourage careless and rhetorically exaggerated work, while also undermining the professional institutions of academic community and peer review.  (More on this later, I hope.) But that can’t be the whole story.  Take Mark’s case: the “terms and principles” of social constructionism “fit the schedules and competitions of professional life,” enabling young scholars under intense pressure to produce the quantity of scholarship they need to get by, while undermining their interest in its quality (349).  There are two weak points to this argument as Mark frames it, I think.  One is that his prime example, the need for young scholars to publish a book within six years to earn tenure, doesn’t really suggest overwhelming pressure.  Unless you’re a wunderkind like Michael, it can feel awful indeed trying to write a decent book in six years, but it’s not really a very onerous burden—and, of course, nothing that’s not faced in other disciplines.  The other is that professional burdens alone can’t fully explain why any particular set of reductive ideas becomes more attractive than any other.  As Nagel jokingly suggests in an offhand conclusion, evolutionary psychology would provide the same simple gratifications (big theory, easily applied to an endless range of material, gratifyingly counterintuitive results arrived at via circular argument, no particular need for evidence or careful reasoning) that Mark sees in social constructionism.  Why have the particular, admittedly eclectic range of exaggerated ideas associated with Theory prospered in the literary academy?

Here, I think you have to begin by looking to ideology—professional ideology, that is.  As a number of contributors to TE suggest without really pursuing, the professional discipline of literary study has traditionally defined itself, and cast itself in opposition to other fields (especially “science”), in ways that make it uniquely susceptible to the kinds of grand irrationalism propagated by Theory.  Michael acknowledges this over in the comments at his blog when he says that it’s an “occupational hazard” of literary academia to have “a very high tolerance level for things that don’t seem to make any damn sense at first.” My inclination, for which I think the Theory phenomenon gives warrant, is to drop the “at first” and probably for that reason to be a little more pained about this situation than Michael appears to be.  Literary academia has not just a tolerance for things that don’t make sense; it has a professional affinity for them.  As John Guillory among others has shown, that attraction long precedes the arrival of Theory.  It is, as John Holbo rightly says, a legacy of the late romantic ideology which, via the influence of the modernists and the new critics, was so important to the making of the postwar academic study of literature.  Theory didn’t create this situation.  What it did was to provide a grand philosophy and a forbiddingly technical language for justifying and exacerbating it.

To my mind, the contribution to TE that best captures this phenomenon is, along with Raymond Tallis’s careful rejoinder to the Derridean linguistic unconscious, Stephen Adam Schwartz’s patient devastation of the epistemology and ethos of Cultural Studies.  Schwartz does the mavens of Cultural Studies the service of reading their programmatically antiprogrammatic statements carefully, and (rightly, I think) discovers in the “antidiscipline” a latterday version of the historical avant-garde.  (Ian Hunter makes a very similar argument, in an outlying contribution to the Cultural Studies tome itself.) Let me quote from Schwartz’s excellent essay at length:

In a sense, cultural studies represents less the sort of total politicization of the study of culture that it claims to be (and that its critics bemoan) than it does a generalized aestheticism: an extension of aesthetic—specifically Dada and surrealist—avant-gardism to intellectual work.  The generalized call to transgression of all social norms; the sacralization of mundane and everyday cultural artifacts by a hyperarticulate and often arcane theoretical discourse; the formation of cadres on the basis of elective affinities; the radical posturing and apocalyptic, vanguardist rhetoric; above all, the almost total absence of genuinely political aims and the almost complete political ineffectuality of the endeavor are all traits that cultural studies has in common with its surrealist precursors.  Their aesthetics is essentially a romantic one.

That’s dead-on, I think.  What is Theory?  None of its defenders will define it, but Schwartz gives a good handle.  It’s the marriage of academic professionalism and aesthetic avant-gardism.  It’s an unlikely, awkward, and ultimately ugly marriage, and one whose consequences and implications deserve more consideration.  Among other things, I think it raises some interesting implications about the culture of late capitalism, as the lingo goes.  But more on that and other unresolved matters in another post. 


Comments

Quick point, then I’ll mull over this more:

The “Restoring Reason” unit--the one most likely to draw a firestorm because of its Sokality--contains one article from Z Papers, one from The New Republic, and two from the Times Literary Supplement.  I’ll be writing about this later--Stayed Tuned, Folks!--but I think that this section in particular needed work of the caliber of, say, John Guillory’s recent article about the Sokal Hoax.  Four out of the five articles are far too fluffly to have a measurable impact on the debate over the value of Enlightenment rationality in the humanities.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/12/05 at 02:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean, might the hubristic rhetoric of Theory be simply a function of (a) the pressure to contribute “original” or “groundbreaking” scholarship in a humanities environment in which (b) what constitutes originality of groundbreakingness is totally unclear to everyone involved?

I just finished reading Girard’s *Violence and the Sacred* for a diss chapter on Toni Morrison and was amazed that, at the height of Theory in America, Girard claimed that his theory of mimetic violence and sacrifice could explain myth, religion, violence, desire, and everything else.  Of course, in subsequent interviews and articles, Girard tones down his rhetoric.  But one senses a deep-seated *need* to talk one’s project up as groundbreaking—even when it obviously *is* groundbreaking, as in Girard’s case.

Part of this comes down to the shell-game many academics like to play, in which those working in earlier fields than others pull the “originality” rug out from under other scholars; “O, Langland’s *Piers Plowman* was “postmodern” so your entire project defining postmodernism is bunk.” And the scholar of the Greek novel replies, “O, medievalist, don’t you know that the prose of the early 3rd century exhibits all the characteristics you claim define medieval romance?” And so on.  It’s the crankiness of music fanatics: “Sonic Youth are simply Creedence with more distortion pedals.  The Shins are the Kinks.  The Kinks’ are simply turn of the century musichall tunes.”

The pressure to be original makes us write stupid things.  After writing a dissertation proposal about contemporary American and Caribbean fiction that studiously avoided the term “postmodernism,” I was required by the Dissertation Committee to explain how my project will break new ground in discussions of postmodernism.  So I generated a few giant claims, threw together a bunch of “theory,” got the project approved, and have since spent time writing a series of long, involved close readings of novels.  Partly, this is because a Dissertation Committee made up of a medievalist, a Renaissance scholar, a Victorianist, and a sociologist of literature knew nothing about Wilson Harris, Ishmael Reed, Steve Erickson, Joanna Scott, and other novelists I was proposing to write about.  What they knew was “postmodernism” and they wanted me to speak to a “non-specialized” audience.  So the problem of originality is compounded by an over-specialization in which the only scholarship to cross national and historical disciplinary lines are Great Theoretical Statements about things like Late Capitalism, Postmodernism, Postcoloniality, the Novel and the Police, Queerness, and so on. 

Ok.  I’ve ceased making sense.  Goodday.

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

I just love the rhetorical desperation of the term “Late Capitalism.” It’s late, very very late.  The revolution will come soon. 

Anyway, here are two attempted definitions of Theory to chew over:

“Theory is the sound made by the shifting ice floes of academic disciplines, breaking up or grinding against one another.”

-- Stefan Collini

“Theory is the name for the questions that arise when the answers we have about a topic no longer seem adequate to our understanding.”

-- Gerald Graff

By on 07/12/05 at 04:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Maybe it’s just “late” in the sense that in some parts of the American South the Civil War is refered to as “the late unpleasantness.”

By David Moles on 07/12/05 at 04:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

David:

That’s even better.  Hurray, capitalism is already over!

By on 07/12/05 at 04:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

LB, that sounds right to me, and I hope to have more to say about the sociology of the profession in a future post.  But, I wouldn’t quite say “simply a function.” I think an important ideological ingredient is necessary as well. 

Blah, Graff’s definition sounds to me far too generous for the phenomenon we’re describing here.  The suggestion that capital “T” Theory is just a form of inquiry like any other is, I think, the whole premise people like John H, Scott, and myself would like to skewer in this discussion.  When it’s convenient, that is what Theory-heads, say.  But I think it’s not a convinving claim, and one that is belied elsewhere by the kinds of grandiose rhetoric Schwartz aptly notes.

By on 07/12/05 at 07:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Of course, with the word coming at the beginning of the sentence, it’s hard to tell whether Messrs. Graff and Collini meant “Theory” or just “theory”.

By David Moles on 07/12/05 at 08:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

McGowan lost me when he came out against peevishness and whining. It’s as if he knows me personally, and wants to destroy me. I suppose that he’s against cursing the darkness too.

I think Scott is absolutely right, as is Mark Bauerlein in his essay in the collection, to suggest that a hallmark of the current literary academy is the strikingly low level of serious debate.

As a rank outsider, my observation is that it’s a Westphalian or Austro-Hungarian system, with a large number of independent duchys, lordships, counties, and other sorts of semi-autonomous realms which have agreed not to bother one another very much. To me the bureaucratic nature of academia sticks out like a sore thumb.

By John Emerson on 07/12/05 at 08:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean,

I just read the Schwartz essay, and I liked most of what he was doing—up to the part you quote. The invocation of the surrealists (who are lumped in with dada, and also with a generalized “avant-garde"). These are really quite different movements—from each other as well as from the cultural studies thinking in the Grossberg/Nelson anthology (not to mention Romanticism)—and it seems quite iffey to lump them all together. I like it better when he sticks with cultural studies’ confused *politics*.

A question: is it really true that the field hasn’t gone anywhere since 1990? I suspect that someone could mount a counter-argument, with books like Paul Gilroy’s “Against Race” as possible ammunition.

About the flaws in TE, yes, sure. But when was the last time you bought a big anthology? Most of them are pretty predictable, and bad. (Take the hallowed Cultural Studies anthology, for a salient example...)

By Amardeep on 07/12/05 at 10:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Schwartz (as quoted above): “[...] the almost total absence of genuinely political aims and the almost complete political ineffectuality of the endeavor are all traits that cultural studies has in common with its surrealist precursors.”

This is the part that really solidifies Schwartz’ analysis, for me. On Bérubé’s blog, in his “Theory Tuesday” post, he refers in an aside to Noam Chomsky and Barbara Ehrenreich agreeing that Theory is nonsense. 

And that indicates a problem.  I’m having trouble thinking of any Theorists who have come anywhere close to being as politically influential as Chomsky or Ehrenreich, despite Theory’s constellation of concerns with race/class/gender, transgression, feminism, queer theory, Marxism—all explicitly political ideas.  I haven’t read much Ehrenreich, but Chomsky has been chewing this bone for years—holding up Enlightenment leftism against Theory, and saying that Theory actually harms leftist politics.

I’ve never found Chomsky to be all that convincing on this topic, for reasons that don’t seem worth addressing here.  (I’ve never found the Theorists’ “But we’re just professors! We just study things, we don’t do politics” defense to be convincing either; many Theorists are public intellectuals.) But Schwartz provides an alternate explanation for Theory’s political impotence that doesn’t rely on Chomsky’s argument.

By on 07/12/05 at 11:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich--
He doesn’t qualify as a purveyor of “cultural studies,” but one guy who was deeply engaged with Theory while having a demonstrable effect on the political discourse (at least as big as Ehrenreich’s) was Edward Said.

By on 07/13/05 at 02:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Amardeep, I’m sure you’re right that Dada and surrealism differ seriously from each other, as each also differs more seriously still from other of the avant-gardes--futurism, say.  (Schwartz does emphasize the comparison to surrealism in particular.) But in at least one respect--the determination to level, through the example of subversive elites, the differences between art and everyday life and the assumption that the project amounts to an assault on the fundamental nature of bourgeois society--they had something in common.  I think Schwartz is right to say of surrealism in particular that its determination to emancipate the aesthetic, along with its expectation that the total aestheticization of life would also mean its political transformation, was a particularly intense variant of late romanticism.  Schiller to the nth degree, plus Freud.

I think Schwartz is right, too, to see the confused politics of cult studs as being of a piece with this aesthetic vision, and in this way not unlike the political vision of surrealism.  As I mentioned, in the Grossberg edited tome, Ian Hunter made a similar argument--that the major goal of cultural studies was to overcome the institutional seperation of culture from other areas of life, with an inflated sense of the importance of the pursuit--and it’s striking how isolated his voice looks in that book.  (In fact, apart from Donaghue in TE, I’ve never come across anyone in the U.S. who even mentions Hunter.  I hope to say more about him later.) What Schwartz adds in particular is the emphasis on cult studs intense methodological and political individualism. Along with the exclusive concern with culture, it’s that individualism that consigns the politics to the triviality Rich notes--and, as it happens, makes the American variant of cultural studies look so damn American.  Tom Frank is withering about this, btw.

I think this is worth mentioning because it points to a reason for the affinity of cultural studies people with the poststructuralists they often invoke, and who you wouldn’t think either genealogically or logically be necessary to them.  The affinity lies in good part, I think, with the understanding that deconstruction shares something of the surrealist vision of the complete aestehticization of life.

I’m sure you’re right that there’s been stuff since 1990 that doesn’t fit Schwartz’s model--as there was, like Hunter or Simon Frith, that didn’t fit it at the time.  (Though I think in retrospect that it’s clear that cultural studies didn’t and couldn’t become a field.) In principle, there’s no reason that you couldn’t do some kind of good cultural studies, as in principle there’s no reason social constructionism can’t be a valuable kind of inquiry.  But that hasn’t been the predominant face, I think.

By on 07/13/05 at 06:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Josh.  I knew that I must be forgetting at least one person with major political impact.

By on 07/13/05 at 07:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not sure Said counts as that much of an example.  Wasn’t it The Question of Palestine that made him politically influential?  That’s a book more in the Chomsky mold and has little in common with Said’s literary criticism or later cultural theorizing.

By on 07/13/05 at 09:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m quoted by blah in this discussion as having said, “Theory is the name for the questions that arise when the answers we have about a topic no longer seem adequate to our understanding.” To which Sean McCann responds that “Graff’s definition,” which makes theory “just a form of inquiry like any other,” is unconvincing.

I don’t believe the words attributed to me are actually mine.  What I have actually written, in several places, is that “theory” is what breaks out when consensus breaks down, so that assumptions that once went without saying now have to be explicitly formulated and debated.  I still think this is a useful observation and if true would explain why attacks on theory as such only generate more theory. 

It also might shed light on a certain confusion in our discussions, where it’s not clear whether what people are angry about is actually “theory” or certain versions of current theory, usually poststructuralism or deconstruction. 

Since the word “apocalyptic” is used several times in this discussion to characterize these current versions of theory, I’d like to point out that much of Derrida’s writing is strongly and explicitly ANTI-apocalyptic: Derrida argues that it’s naive to think one can simply break from Western metaphysics or logocentric discourse or what you will.  The book POSITIONS may be his clearest statement of this view, but in WRITING AND DIFFERENCE Derrida also has a sharp critique of Foucault’s belief in such an apocalyptic break in MADNESS AND CIVILIZATION. 

I mention this point as one modest example of how attacks on recent versions of theory are often careless about the facts. 

Gerald Graff

By on 07/30/05 at 01:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for the correction, Gerald, and my apologies for the mistake.  I think we still differ on two or perhaps three points.  Much of current Theory is not just a response to lack of consensus, but (as, say Lyotard notes) actively hostile to the value of consensus and inclined to doubt its legitimacy where it exists.  One very minor examples of this would be the way, in the long thread of comments to my initial post on Stanley Fish, Luther Blisset suggested that consensus was equivalent to domination.  This, it seems to me, is not an unusual attitude among those who count themselves as supporters of Theory.  I share your sense that debate is a very good thing indeed.  But I don’t think there’s very much of it in literary academia and that it least correlates strongly with the devotion to Theory. 

No reason you should know this, of course, but there has actually been quite a lot of talk in these parts about what people are talking about when they talk about Theory.  I think there;s a fair degree of consensus that there is actually a phenomenon that it makes sense to refer to with a capital T--that being the theory that does not take an object. 

Finally, Derrida’s critique of Foucault aside, I personally doubt the depth of his anti-apocalypticism.  I posted some quotations on the comment thread to Adam Kotsko’s post that help to explain why.  I don’t think those remarks are trivial or out of keeping with Derrida’s thinking generally.

By on 07/30/05 at 04:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean --

I’m getting to this discussion very, very late, and I won’t be surprised in the least to see my remarks plummet into oblivion.  But I have some questions nonetheless, particularly in regard to the Schwartz piece.

It seems that the thrust of Schwartz’s piece is to lay bare the dubious or contradictory principles that drive culture studies.  Specifically, he wants to show that the norms so often invoked as repositories of power and oppression are themselves part of what we call culture.  How can norms and truth-claims be categorically dismissed as instruments of social control and domination, he asks, when culture itself is founded upon these sorts of shared, accepted beliefs? 

But Schwartz doesn’t spend enough time, as others in this thread have noted, distinguishing between specific *types* of norms, a project with which cult studies is often concerned.

Also, there’s Schwartz’s emphasis upon cult studies’ intense methodological and political individualism.  He makes it seem as though cult studiers are out to promote difference for difference’s sake, as though the guiding aim of cult studies is to locate instances of institutionally or ideologically silenced/excluded subjects so that their voices, however politically ineffectual or frivolous, may be recovered and heard.  I agree with him that there is a quite a bit passing for scholarship that does this very thing.

But the projects undertaken by gender theorists, queer theorists, and race studies are clearly doing something quite different from what Schwartz describes.  I’m thinking of projects that seek to recover and represent subjects marginalized on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, or skin color.  These projects aren’t merely symbolic acts of subversion or insurrection, as Schwartz insinuates; they are a form of political engagement.  Cult studies projects that seek to tell us something hitherto unknown or ignored about a particular group of people at a particular historical moment are important because they reconfigure and complicate notions of self, nation, the artist, religion, and, yes, culture, in relation to a sociohistorical milieu.

That is all.

By on 05/08/07 at 12:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This is a rather unsophisticated comment given the present audience, but I just want to register my great enthusiasm for Schwartz’s truly excellent essay.

I have just finished a course (nominally in the Education department) informed by all of the preconceptions he lays out, and finding his essay gave me a tremendous sense of validation and of my own sanity. I doubt Dr. Schwartz will ever see this, but I would like to express my gratitude as well as my admiration.

By on 08/07/07 at 12:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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