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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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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

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Thursday, July 14, 2005

Thinking About Theory’s Empire

Posted by Morris Dickstein, Guest Author, on 07/14/05 at 11:37 PM

This is a guest post by Morris Dickstein, contributor to Theory’s Empire and author of many things. He has a new book out: A Mirror in the Roadway: Literature and the Real World. You can read a sample chapter here. Here is a review. - the editor

Because of the impressive scope and seriousness of the essays in Theory’s Empire, the book ultimately gives a devastating account of the academic literary culture of the last thirty years. To their credit, the editors excluded the many journalistic attacks on theory that came out in the 1980s and ‘90s. Most of them were based on little acquaintance with the work itself; instead they offered second-hand accounts of barbarisms of style, the preposterous titles of MLA papers, and the knee-jerk political bent of much of the writing itself. Theory’s Empire also leaves out politically motivated attacks by neoconservatives, invariably arising out of a biased and superficial familiarity with theory. Once in a while such critiques made telling points, usually in a satirical vein, and they helped make English professors the laughingstock of both the larger public and serious professionals in other fields. But they contributed little to the debate within literary studies itself, which, despite its political turn, had effectively opted out of the public sphere, acknowledging criticism within its own frame of discourse. Theory-minded academics saw little but retrograde ignorance, willed malice, and anti-intellectualism in these tendentious accounts, and it had no public language of its own to respond in kind.

Instead of reprinting such attacks, Theory’s Empire confines itself to serious academic critiques, some of them by distinguished students of earlier theory, including René Wellek and M. H. Abrams, along with many others by writers well versed in contemporary trends, beginning with knowledgeable older critics like Frank Kermode, Denis Donoghue, Eugene Goodheart, and Frederick Crews, who had strong roots in the literary life of an earlier era. The anthology reminds us that since 1970, the twists and turns of literary and cultural theory have been subjected to a steady stream of intelligent criticism, which was ignored by theorists in exactly the same way they mocked or disregarded the journalistic attacks. There have been exceptions. Since his early Village Voice piece on the p.c. controversy, Michael Bérubé has often responded both privately and publicly to critics of theory and occasionally even conceded them a few points, as he did recently in answering Mark Bauerlein. Stanley Fish has always been geared up for public debate. The earlier clash between Hillis Miller and Abrams showed how useful an exchange could be between supporters of poststructuralist theory and well-informed critics. But this could not happen as long as theorists saw criticism as a futile form of “resistance” by the aging dinosaurs of the old criticism.

Writers hostile to theory were sometimes guilty of the same closed-mindedness. My own book on criticism, Double Agent (Oxford, 1992), concluded with a dialogue between a critic of theory who was about my age and a younger colleague more sympathetic to it. It was a piece of writing in which I took some pride. It treated criticism as a subject for living conversation. (To my delight, one of the editors at Oxford took it for an actual conversation and asked me whether I’d secured permission to use it.) Few readers guessed that both points of view were entirely my own; I’d used the dialogue form to probe my own ambivalence. But the well-known British reviewer in the New York Times Book Review thundered that I was too soft on theory: this was a time for diatribe, not dialogue, as if there were ever a time when dialogue was out of bounds. I had also written far more polemical essays, but the editors of Theory’s Empire surprised me by choosing something quite different: an argumentative but historical account of the growth of practical criticism from the Edinburgh reviewers and the New Criticism to Roland Barthes’s structuralist narratology and Derrida’s deconstruction. This was my first clue to the kind of anthology they had in mind, much more substantial and less rhetorical than the one I’d initially imagined.

Today the theory era is effectively ending and the public intellectual tradition is reasserting itself, along with a renewed attention in the aesthetic that many theorists dismissed as no more than an ideological formation. But thanks to tenure and the intellectual investments we make as graduate students, theory will have a long afterlife. It will also continue to inflect how many important issues are discussed, including the role of language in literature, the degree to which literary works reference the world outside the text, the role of social construction including class, race, and gender in forming our conventions of representation (as writers) and interpretation (as critics). Critical movements leave behind a residue of common sense after the dust of their polemics has settled and the most extreme positions have been abandoned. The New Criticism left its mark on how everyone reads, especially poetry, long after its assumptions about the organic unity of the text had been roundly rejected. Deconstruction terminated the notion, never entertained by any great critic in the past, that a literary text could be cracked open with a single definitive interpretation. Poststructuralism in general helped us question the belief that we could find a disinterested stance that would make some kind of definitive critical understanding possible, perhaps even objectively true. This I think is what Sean means when he says that theorists have taken some reasonable positions to ridiculous extremes.

More and more, as Stephen Adam Schwartz argues in this volume, the evolution of theory fits the pattern of a classic twentieth-century avant garde. It pursued vast goals, such as the overthrow of Western metaphysics, with exaggerated confidence and in a sectarian spirit. Like many modernist movements, it ignored earlier traditions or appropriated them selectively. It tended to caricature its immediate predecessors and attack positions no one had ever held. The hostility it pursued only confirmed its sense of bringing light to a benighted world. We recall that Lacan came of age among the surrealists, that Barthes was an early exponent of Brecht and the Nouveau Roman, that Derrida’s playful, punning language is deeply indebted to Joyce, especially in experimental works like Glas. Like so much of the work of early modernism, postructuralist writing flew in the face of older standards of beauty and coherence; its style drew the same kind of fire that had been directed Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, The Rites of Spring, The Waste Land, and Ulysses, a barrage of criticism and outrage that was as much moral as aesthetic.

But not every avant-garde movement has the same fate: some (like impressionism or mainstream modernism) leave behind an enduring body of work, others (like Dada) merely the memory of an ingenious course of provocative gestures, as evanescent as if written in sand. I suspect Theory will leave us more than that, if not in permanently readable works then in a handful of cautionary lessons. But it has also left us a legacy of pseudo-issues, such as the question of truth or objectivity in interpretation, that are more easily negotiated in practice than adjudicated in theory. The best essays in Theory’s Empire all take a sensible middle ground on this issue. As Goodheart remarks,

Criticism is not about the quest for a singular truth or a consensus view of its object. It presupposes a literary sensibility and its patient cultivation. It assumes a variety of critical temperaments and of personal, social, and historical experience in critics. The disagreements as well as agreements that occur among critics presuppose a common ground of intelligence, training, open-mindedness, flexibility, sophistication, and taste, ideals not often realized. (509)

Far from being elitist or old-fashioned, this notion of “a literary sensibility and its patient cultivation” is the sine qua non of any genuine critic, as shown in the quality of his or her engagement with actual works. This is an experiential test more than a conceptual one. This gut feeling for literature was a quality often dismissed by theorists, who associated it with the despised man-of-letters tradition and certainly did not cultivate it in their students. Yet when influential theorists like Barthes, Bloom, Said, Todorov, or Lentricchia veered sharply away from an earlier, more abstract approach, it was to some distinct notion of the literary - and the human within the literary - that they returned. For this reason, a sensuous, aphoristic critic like Barthes, a writer who is always right there on the page, whose work has a strong personal accent and an exceptional feeling for language, will survive when many of contemporaries are forgotten. This is not a quality often stressed in graduate school.

When an avant garde succeeds it is institutionalized, routinized, and finally trivialized, but this is not where recent theory most fell short. Nor should its major flaw be found in its obtuseness toward earlier theory, which John Ellis establishes so clearly in his essay. Such exuberant claims to novelty are a reflex of any avant garde, though they sit badly in anything that passes for scholarship. Theory respected no foundations but its own, which it rarely questioned. But its chief weakness lay in its hostile or neglectful dealings with literature itself. If we asked what made the critics of theory so incensed, it was this loss of the literary by those who should have been its most ardent guardians. Unlike the major critics in our tradition (but very much like earlier literary academics, philological, historical, even New Critical), they treated literature as material for knowledge rather than a source of personal power, affect, wisdom or beauty. As critics of humanism, they saw literature as symptom and ideology or as discourse in the service of power. They rejected its claims to autonomy or truth. Theory often raised important questions, some of which we are debating here today, but in its professionalized form it too readily fell into what Swift nicely called “the mechanical operation of the spirit.” Perhaps prematurely, Theory’s Empire writes a bittersweet obituary for the theory years but not one that’s ungenerous or undeserved. 


Comments

I was going to ask about this passage

“Deconstruction terminated the notion, never entertained by any great critic in the past, that a literary text could be cracked open with a single definitive interpretation.”

If the notion was never entertained by any great critic in the past, was it really deconstruction that terminated the notion, and what was it that it terminated anyway? A notion held only by mediocrities?

But

“Like many modernist movements, it ignored earlier traditions or appropriated them selectively. It tended to caricature its immediate predecessors and attack positions no one had ever held. The hostility it pursued only confirmed its sense of bringing light to a benighted world.”

that passage perhaps answers my question. No, not really; or only in its own view; or what deconstruction terminated was an already-toppling structure.

“If we asked what made the critics of theory so incensed, it was this loss of the literary by those who should have been its most ardent guardians.”

You betcha. Especially in a situation in which the literary was hardly in a dominant or hegemonic or all-powerful position in the first place. Hanging on by one fingernail in a world where movies and tv have already done more than enough to get rid of the pesky literary, is more like it.

By Ophelia Benson on 07/15/05 at 03:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What I meant was this, Ophelia: In making their case for skepticism or indeterminacy in interpretation, poststructuralists exaggerated their predecessors’ faith in truth or objectivity. Almost the definition of a classic is that it remains alive from generation to generation even as its meaning shifts. New readers, new critics, new times invariably give it a different emphasis. Even in the same generation it has different meanings for different people. Good critics have always understood this.
Morris

By on 07/15/05 at 06:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’d just like to make an obvious point, that the attacking of positions that no one seriously maintained is hardly confined to capital-T Theory. These days I hang out on an evolutionary psychology list and these folks are doing that all that time, at least when they are in manifesto and polemical mode. Surely this is a common tactic in intellectual warfare.

At the same time I have begun to wonder about that “gap,” the one that allows for a position that’s attacked despite the fact that no one maintains it. What I’m wondering is that if, in the aftermath of such an attack, the gap thus revealed isn’t populated by new positions that no one had thought of before. In the larger view, is this business of creating and attacking straw men a tactic for colonizing and domesticating new intellectual territory?

By bbenzon on 07/15/05 at 08:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Morris. I understood that part (and have been saying, or snarling, much the same thing for years). What I meant (but I said it in a pointlessly convoluted way) was: if what deconstruction terminated was a notion that no one (or at least no great critic) in the past entertained anyway, then deconstruction didn’t really terminate it.

In other words (very other), the posture of Only We Have At Last Seen Through This Imposture when people have been seeing through it since before John Donne was weaned - can get very irritating. As you point out (more politely).

By Ophelia Benson on 07/15/05 at 08:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Not confined to Theory, no - but by God one does encounter a lot of it in Theory.

By Ophelia Benson on 07/15/05 at 09:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

We may spend overmuch time arguing either against idiots’ misinterpretations of other people or idiots’ misinterpretations of ourselves. (See Miriam Elizabeth Burstein’s recent post for a Theory-neutral example of idiocy.) This is understandable: it covers us, it itches, so we scratch. What turns us into fleas upon those fleas ad infinitum is when we keep the other persons’ names on the idiots’ misinterpretations.

(I possibly speak as one of the idiots.)

But my favorite “Theorists” displayed as passionate a love for literature as Hugh Kenner or Fritz Senn, neither of whom were members of any pre-Theory careerist school whatsoever. Derrida was quite open about his adoration of Joyce, and his anxiety over writing on Joyce wasn’t a question of influence but worthiness.

And I still like some Dada, tootoo. One point of reading literature (as opposed to best-sellers and best-sellers only, with required English 101 texts guaranteed best-sellers) is that the race is not always to the swift, nor even to the winners.

By Ray Davis on 07/16/05 at 01:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

bbenzon, one way I’ve tried to explain (to academics) the difference between science fiction and the older tradition of utopia/dystopia is that the former takes their straw men, tries to make them live, and then steps back to see what happens. I think it might be said that a similar impulse to truly inhabit the apparently dismissable could drive many a philosophical, critical, scientific, mathematical, cinematic, or otherwise disreputable pioneer—with, as you note, a anticlimactic law-and-orderly homestead following on.

(I have to admit I’ve never agreed with the ‘60s-ish notion that offensively dumb politics which right-wingers dislike somehow advances the cause of socialist democracy by triangulation, even though that seems formally similar to what I just described. But then I don’t think aesthetic interest has much overlap with political efficacy, except occasionally as encouragement.)

By Ray Davis on 07/16/05 at 02:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

That puts it all exactly right, I think.  To my mind, the fact that Theory was an avant-garde (with roots in the historical avant-garde) is key--as is the fact that as you note, Morris, avant-gardism fits awkwardly with scholarship.  The vangardism explains the confrontational attitude, of course (which inhabits even Hillis Miller’s smugly dismissive treatment of Abrams), but it also explains the hostility to literature itself.  Let bombardment ring on the museum walls. 

The marriage of vangardism to scholarship is the crux of the issue, I think.  It’s a necessary limitation of the scholarly perspective to treat literature as a subject of knowledge, I think.  But it’s only when that attitude becomes the exclusive or imperial stance demanded by vangardism that it becomes crippling--i.e., mine isn’t one approach to lit, but the only legitimate one.  That’s why I hope that in the wake of theory we’ll get not only more and better genuine aesthetic criticism but also more and better, and more humble, scholarship.

By on 07/18/05 at 08:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

What do you mean by aesthetic criticism?

Evaluative assertions that X is superb, Y middling, and Z low-rent? Or attempts to describe and analyze how X achieves its effects?

One of the things that interests me, for example, is simply describing and analyzing texts, and “looking under the hood” for possible mental mechanisms (couched in cognitive and neural terms) and processes at work. I may make explicitly evaluative comments here and there, but mostly in framing the article, not in the central core. I think there’s lots of room for this sort of work.

By bbenzon on 07/18/05 at 09:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Aesthetic criticism, as I see it, does not mean strict formalism, which can grow deadly and mechanical. Similarly, evaluative criticism doesn’t mean superficial thumbs-up, thumbs-down judgments like those of the typical TV movie reviewer. The two facets of criticism together, as they must be, entail putting your whole human weight, including your politics, morality, and psychological empathy, into any reading, but also understanding the work in relation to the predecessors and conventions the author was working with, perhaps even revising and overthrowing. Goodheart puts it well in TE (520), trying to show that aesthetic criticism isn’t the opposite of historical criticism, as some New Historicists would have us believe: Criticism “does require us to resist our premature impulse to pass moral and political judgment,” he says. “Literary experience is not a pure thing; it is an amalgam of interests that includes the political, the historical, the ethical, and so on, but not necessarily at the expense of the aesthetic.”
I agree with you, Sean, about the strain between avant-gardism and serious intellectual work. The latter does often look to the big leap, the major epistemological break. But when it falls short it’s often less than worthless. So I too would wish for a humbler (though not unambitious) scholarship.

By on 07/18/05 at 10:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think it could be added in this spirit that the gut-feeling for literature despised by Theory was often opposed by not much more than a gut-feeling against the reverence for it--an alluring sentiment that for all the recent change in sensibility still seems pretty commonplace.  This is one of John H’s most devastating points, I think.  Theory’s alleged alternative to sensibility (while it partook of the sins of methodologism John E hammers) really turned out to be another form of sensibility.  This was of a piece with the false charge of philosophical naivete often leveled by defenders of Theory.  I think in retrospect it’s clear (especially in light, say, of Searle’s contribution to TE) that it was the Theorists who were often fatally drawn to philosophically naive positions.  You still see all the time the canard that if we can’t have absolutely indubitable proof, then reliable knowledge is impossible.

By on 07/18/05 at 01:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Morris Dickstein makes a serious point about Theory’s Empire: that the contributors represent a diversity of perspectives, politics, disciplines, ages, and professional ranks, and they all believe that, in one way or another, the ascent of theory over criticism has been damaging to literary studies.

By on 07/18/05 at 02:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It is not only literary studies that have been damaged by the ascent of Theory; often it seems to be rationality itself.  This is why Will Corral and I decided to include in our book the section called “Restoring Reason.” In our experience, even graduate students often lack any familiarity with science and logic, and hence are very vulnerable to dismissals of scientific reasoning and rationality, the sort of dismissals found in many Theory anthologies.  We give examples of these in our introduction to Theory’s Empire.  I believe there has been a pretty clear trajectory between the adulation of science and desire to pretend literary criticism was or could be a science (views I found very unconvincing when I was exposed to them in graduate school in the late 1960s) to the more recent— and far more economical—utter disdain for science and pretense that it is nothing but ideology.
We also discuss in our introduction how such claims (which we note no one actually lives by; even postmodernists go right on getting flu shots and antibiotics) have fed the grandiosity of much current Theory, which has helped position erstwhile not-so-relevant literature professors as the preeminent commentators on everything, i.e., the only ones who can “see through” the rhetoric of science. At one point in our intro., we refer to “resentful rivals”—which seems an apt description of how Theorists often act in relation to literary and other creativity.

DP

By Daphne Patai on 07/18/05 at 05:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"We give examples of these in our introduction to Theory’s Empire.”

Indeed you do. I made a note of a striking one the other day, because I plan to comment on it at B&W: it connects with a basic mistake that I keep encountering and pitching a fit about (as does P Z Myers): the inaccurate but pervasive idea that science claims to ‘prove’ its truth claims. Pure strawman.

It’s on page 17, note 24:

“Adding to the confusion of students of literature (who typically have little understanding of science), the editors state that ‘it is impossible to offer final proof that any scientific theory is actually in contact with what it purports to explain’...Thus the editors can conclude, ‘we cannot say that one theory is more true than another.’”

Oy veh.

By Ophelia Benson on 07/18/05 at 08:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Daphne,

Stop trying to steal my gig.

Seriously, it\’s no use talking logically to these post mod. sunday school maoist buttphags.

By Troll of Sorrow on 07/18/05 at 10:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Wow, very rarely do I think a comment ought to be deleted, but one in which the argument descends to “post mod. sunday school maoist buttphags” almost convinces me otherwise.  Seriously, Troll of Sorrow--if you are, indeed, the same Troll of Sorrow who’s commented on my blog--you and I both know you’re capable of something more intellectually substantial than this.  The conversation has, by and large, been incredibly productive and civil; why not try and continue that trend instead of derailing the conversation entirely?

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/18/05 at 11:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, troll of sorrow, tone it down or you’ll get deleted.

By John Holbo on 07/19/05 at 03:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The only literary theory that’s ever really interested me is the theory of literature.  But that’s not what capital-T Theory is and never has been.  It’s a theory of criticism or perhaps it’s theory that fails to distinguish between literature and criticism and declares that failure to be a major virtue. I guess that I realized things were lost when Eugenio Donato published his review of Mytholoques in diacritics in 1975. He argues, more or less, that the Levi-Strauss that is of interest to literary critics is not the analyst of and theoretician of La Pensée sauvage. No, the Levi-Strauss of interest is the Levi-Strauss who continually inserts himself into his work – as he did in his early essay on Oedipus in which he asserted that his analysis is but one more retelling of the myth – and thus elides the distinction between thinker and his subject.

It has always seemed to me that the best way to regard that aspect of Levi-Strauss is simply to treat it as moments of confusion. And you ignore them, not emulate them, much less elevate the scrupulous and ironic emulation of such moments into a high critical art. Once you do that it’s not too long before critical theory becomes theory of the critic and literature is forgotten.

So that’s one confusion, between critic and literature. I believe there’s another as well.

When I took a Milton course in my junior year at Hopkins I did so, not because I was particularly interested in Milton, but because the course we being taught by Don Cameron Allen, and he was retiring. This would be my only chance to take a course from this legend – who, it turned out, had the comic delivery of W. C. Fields. In that course I learned that, and a bit of why, Milton is great. And I became able to distinguish between that and my merely personal taste in literature.  I didn’t particularly like Paradise Lost, but, yes, it really is a great piece of work.

I think that is an important distinction to make, between one’s personal taste and excellence.  I don’t think it is an easy distinction, nor one that can be made reliably.  But it is a distinction one must strive to make.  The striving is important. If you don’t do it, then you open the way to a criticism that becomes personal advocacy disguised as political analysis.

When those two distinctions collapse, you have Theory.

By bbenzon on 07/19/05 at 09:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A reflection on Mark’s comment on “the ascent of theory over criticism”: Few if any of the varied contributors to TE are anti-theory, as you might say Leavis was or Ricks has often seemed to be. Many of them have been notable commentators on theory, beginning with Wellek and Abrams and including Ellis, Goodheart, Mark B., and many others in the book. But in recent decades, many writers with no gift for theory have merely mimicked its tactics and vocabulary, simply as part of the institutionalization of theory. As a result we’ve seen more than one generation of pseudo-theory, which doesn’t arise from any intimate encounter with literature and does little to shed light on literature. Similarly, much that passes for historical criticism is really pseudo-historicism, arbitrary, unconvincing, and thoroughly rejected by most working historians. Both theoretical and historical approaches are intrinsically valuable but work best when they serve criticism - that is, the charged encounter with actual literary works - rather than serving as alternatives to it or distractions from it.

By on 07/19/05 at 12:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

To those who see the matter differently, statements such as “much that passes for historical criticism is really pseudo-historicism, arbitrary, unconvincing, and thoroughly rejected by most working historians” seem to be overgeneralizations.

Perhaps instead we could have an example of the supposed pseudo-historicism, and then debate its merits. I don’t think there’s enough of this getting down to cases in the TE volume.

By Jonathan on 07/19/05 at 01:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think Dickstein’s comment about deconstruction is quite right. The vulgarized idea that deconstruction leaves behind is not that one can interpret a text in multiple ways, which is, as Ophelia points out, a non-starter, but that the multiplicity is incorporated in the way the text is constituted. The moment of writing is never able to exert an such top down command upon the product that one can use an ideal of that moment and those intentions to interpret the text.

That, I think, utterly changes the program of literary criticism. It is like changing the investigation of consciousness from one of trying to find Descartes unified mental substance, or assuming it, to one of trying to understand the diverse functions (feeling, understanding, computing, etc) that make up the mental, and discarding the unified mental substance altogether.  Two radically different research programs grow out of those two different goals. 

So, for example, the example. Derrida’ concentration on the examples in texts dedicated to the explication of concepts infuriates and puzzles his critics, who assume that examples are variables within the larger topical structure of the text, and are so subordinate to the ideas that flow from the ideal moment of writing. The deconstructive idea here is still hotly disputed.

By roger on 07/19/05 at 02:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dickstein writes in the linked chapter at the top of this page:

“When Winston Smith gives way to his tormentor, O’Brien, near the end of Nineteen Eighty-Four, he becomes a kind of postmodernist, renouncing his sense of fact, his adherence to truth, the very evidence of his senses.”

Right, that’s what postmodernists do. They renounce the evidence of their senses. Like Descartes. No wait! Descartes is not a postmodernist, and even though he was French, he was French so long ago that everyone just sort of agrees that it doesn’t matter. So no, I don’t mean Descartes. Although I guess that one could write that when Descartes questions the very evidence of his senses, he became a kind of postmodernist. The reason authors such as the one quoted above don’t apply the same criticisms against the giants of philosophy that they run against the contemporary postmodernists is that people like Descartes are hard to bitch-slap and get away with it. Pitiful.

By on 08/18/05 at 11:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not sure whether John Ransom is objecting to my reading of Orwell or my use of the term “postmodernist.” Again and again in both his essays and his last two novels, Orwell complains that “the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world.” ("Looking Back on the Spanish War") When O’Brien breaks down Winston Smith’s sense of truth, he achieves the same effect. For Orwell totalitarianism is, among other things, a form of epistemological relativism. If this is not “postmodernist” I don’t know what is.

By on 08/18/05 at 12:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think, compared to older literary criticism (written before, for example, New Criticism, or even during—the essay on “Le Bateau Ivre” in the Limits of Symbolism, for example), current theory and papers that make use of it are much more mature and interesting, The earlier attitude seems to me to be this: “Let’s congratulate this author for being a genious.  Ooh! look how great he is.” The current attitude: “Let’s look at the ways in which this piece of literature functions in context, in the larger society, how other people might have responded to it and used it, how it itself responds to and uses the ideas and events current when it was published, and finally let’s address the problem of how we can use it ourselves—responsibly.”

Frankly there is nothing more ridiculous than the notion that the works of Shakespeare or any great author were written for us, personally, and I think the great insight of theory was to begin critiquing all the platitudes about literary greatness and posterity, to show that writing was a social and not a metaphysical or spiritual act.  I’m in favor of anything that attacks the idea of literature’s spiritual transcendence, as if reading pretty words and feeling things somehow excused one from the need to think.

By Alex Leibowitz on 08/18/05 at 12:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

’to show that writing was a social and not a metaphysical or spiritual act’

But are those the only options? Do those three adjectives exhaust the possibilities? Can ‘writing’ of various kinds be social and something or somethings else, something more, without being ‘metaphysical or spiritual’? Is there something between mere handwavings about greatness and beauty, which only take one so far, and ending up with a thud at ‘social’?

By Ophelia Benson on 08/18/05 at 02:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Just skimming this article and the comments makes me very glad I decided not to go to grad school for English literature. I felt that Paglia’s point was very straightforward and to watch people puzzling over it is quite amusing. If you can’t tell from a mile away that a piece of writing has been written in a workshop then I’m not sure what to say. I see the stuff everyday on the New York subway in that poetry series they have, they’re usually the poems written by the younger American writers.
Mr. Dickstein reminds me of another English professor at CUNY who, for some reason, played footsie with the Po-mos, the post-structuralists, Carol Gilligan(sp.?) and all the rest of them. I never believed his(this professor’s) heart was in it. He was probably just trying to get along.

Sincerely,
G. Balanchine

P.S. and why exactly after the Social Text debacle is Stanley Fish taken seriously anymore? I did read a short response to Sokal’s article that he wrote and as far as I could tell, he said, ‘oh we didn’t really mean that reality, or Nature has no independent existence’.

By on 08/18/05 at 02:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Mr. Dickstein has given us a concise and tactful analysis of this present post-theory moment. As an art historian who is always slightly suspicious about the supposed dominance of the text, the recent renewed interest in aesthetic experience and aesthetic value is heartening. I would even go so far as to say that we still have something to learn from arch formalists such as Clement Greenberg. Postmodern theory taught us Greenberg (and other formalist’s) narrow-mindedness, but it has yet to replace (or have a desire to replace) that narrowmindedness with an alternative aesthetic.

That said, an image is even more slippery to decode than words and is subject to the same lack of “top down” control “roger” comments on above. The interesting thing about this collection of essays is that it seems to be undertaking its critique, for the most part,on the grounds of the aesthetic inadequacy of theory rather than its political dimensions. Among the more fruitful conclusions mentioned by Dickstein is that theory was yet another avant-garde, which makes a great deal of sense to me. It/theory (though what a holistic “it” is remains elusive) never fit easily with other theories of interpretation, such as iconography...and is perhaps better understood as existing somewhere between production and critique.

By on 08/18/05 at 05:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Morris writes in part:

“For Orwell totalitarianism is, among other things, a form of epistemological relativism. If this is not “postmodernist” I don’t know what is.”

That’s not what postmodernism is. We should hesitate to draw conclusions that paint our co-discussants as idiots. It’s possible that we talk with idiots, and one should not rule out the need to say something like that. Totally legitimate if that’s the considered view. But I do think we should *hesitate* to draw such conclusions, in line with the virtue of intellectual charity.

Let me put my point to you this way: to what extent do the great masters of philosophy share the same problems as postmodernists? There’s a big problem critics of postmodernism face. That’s the “where does it come from” problem. If postmodernism is so stupid, if what PMs believe is that they can stand in front of an oncoming train, regard the presence of that train on a track as an illusion or mere appearance or mere interpretation of the world, such that the PM would not be run over by the train, then we solve one problem—the packing off of the PMs—but create another: where did they come from? They are not sui generis.

Let me put it again another way: What master of the philosophic tradition are you willing to up against in your animus against PM? In fact, a lot of the criticisms against someone like Derrida are pure nonsense; purse ‘bullshit.’ Derrida is an incredibly insightful interpreter of the classical tradition. His essays on Plato’s Pharmakon and Rousseau’s Confessions are fantastic, insightful, frequently beautiful, everything I would ever want and have enjoyed so many times from other masters of the Western tradition. But leave him aside, perhaps for another day (if you agree). But the criticisms of someone like Derrida (certainly not only him) could be made against pretty much any other grand teacher in the philosophic tradition. And so I often find criticisms of him (and those like him) superficial and uninformative.

By on 08/18/05 at 05:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A participant above writes:

“Just skimming this article and the comments makes me very glad I decided not to go to grad school for English literature. I felt that Paglia’s point was very straightforward and to watch people puzzling over it is quite amusing. If you can’t tell from a mile away that a piece of writing has been written in a workshop then I’m not sure what to say.”

Does everyone see what is going on? We are encouraging people not to think critically. Because there’s no doubt that if the individual above had gone to graduate school in English literature, she or he would’ve been a better human being for it. People should be careful about what they hope for. A lot of the academics that some want to dismiss and abuse in some polemical context are the very ones who do the best work with students. And getting observers of discussions to conclude how great it is not to have encountered the debates and problems of literary analysis is a step backwards, colleagues, and not a step forward.

By on 08/18/05 at 05:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, ALDaily linked to an old post, so some of these issues have been dealt with, ad nauseam, already.  I recommend you look around and note that no one is discouraging the practice of critical thought.  My contribution to the Theory’s Empire event, for example, demonstrated how uncritical much of what passes for “Theory” has become since the heyday of Critical Inquiry.  I offer an alternate path for contemporary criticism which leads back to the hot but honest contests of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.  It’s far too easy to argue, as you’ve done here, that what currently passes for “Theory” is coterminus with whatever skill set you believe allows people to “think critically.” (If you click on John Holbo’s name above and to the left, you’ll find links to the past couple of essays he’s posted in which he discusses this issue at characteristic length.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 08/18/05 at 06:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The comment Mr. Ransom makes, that “there’s no doubt that if the individual above had gone to graduate school in English literature, she or he would’ve been a better human being for it” is in its own way the very kind of moral superiorirty that critics of pomo object to...it verges on the offensive. One can and should argue with the content or character of the original poster’s analysis, or even take them to task for not being aware of the nature of the critical field they are relieved not to have to encountered. But to say that that graduate school necessarily makes better human beings flies in the face of my personal encounters with fellow grad students and professors. Intelligence and acute critical faculties do not necessarily lead to “better human beings” who lead more humane lives.

By on 08/18/05 at 06:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Because there’s no doubt that if the individual above had gone to graduate school in English literature, she or he would’ve been a better human being for it.”

There’s no doubt? None? None at all? Well - so much for epistemic relativism, at least!

By Ophelia Benson on 08/18/05 at 06:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hello,

Two assertions:

Art is not about being a better person, and most assuredly neither is going to grad school for English Lit.
Art is not political.

A conjecture:

Yes, where did PM come from? I’ve heard rumors that it’s really recycled right-wing French philosophy from the 1930s. I think Foucault was meant in particular. Any comments?

A question:

Would someone convince me or provide a reasonable explanation why Sokal’s hoax on “Social Text” should not have permanently discredited PM and all those associated with it? Why didn’t “Social Text” just fold up immediately? (Is it still around? I haven’t looked at academic journals in a long time).

Спасибо.

George Balanchine

‘Music can express nothing, that’s my conviction. It expresses only itself and by expressing itself it creates forms.’

Stravinsky

By on 08/18/05 at 11:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I find the anti-polemical, pro-engagement stance of Dicksteins remarks not entirely convincing. If one is really interested in discussion, then one doesnt collate all of ones opponents into an imaginary category such as “theory”. The intellectual world here has been divided into “theory” and “criticism (of theory?)”: but this is a construction, and it seems to me it is one that has been invented, in order to have simplified notion of what is going on: there has to be two sides, and they have to fight each other: the world of philosophy and ideas is transformed into football (or war). Statements
like “today the theory era is effectively ending” belong completely to this construction and do not correspond to a reality: they signify something like - “our team is doing much better, we are surely winning”.

By on 08/19/05 at 01:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Frankly there is nothing more ridiculous than the notion that the works of Shakespeare or any great author were written for us, personally . . .” But they were written for us, and personally, in the same sense, or very near to it, that Beethoven expressed when he wrote above the ms. of the Missa Solemnis, “From the heart - may it go again to the heart.”

By on 08/19/05 at 05:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

If the great masters of the philosophic tradition had all anticipated the concerns of the postmodernists, then what precisely was original about postmodernism? And why does Derrida in his book on Grammatology and in essays like “White Mythology” present himself as a sweeping critic of the Western philosophical tradition. Few have denied that Derrida is a brilliant reader and seductive and playful writer, a gift rarely to be found in the work of his acolytes. He could also give subtlety and ingenuity a bad name, as in his various defenses of Paul de Man’s early newspaper articles. Ransom thinks that critics of postmodernism are mostly idiots, ignorant of the great philosophers, but this simply name-calling, not argument.

By on 08/19/05 at 10:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t know if postmodernism is always so original. Thinking doesn’t have to be original to be valuable, interesting, part of the debate. My contention is that postmodernism is part of the debate. It pays attention to developments in human self-reflection, as with Saussure’s very important reflections on language, and Wittgenstein’s attention to the same topic. I think critics of postmodernism have been seduced into dismissing postmodernism as a bad joke and this has poisoned the discussion. I don’t claim that critics of postmod are ignorant of the great philosophers, but I do think that lots of the criticisms of postmodernism ignore relevant comparisons to the great thinkers. Your bit comparing postmodern thinking to Winston Smith’s collapse in the face of his 1984 torturers is a good example of that. I see less of a big break between postmod and long-standing concerns in Western philosophy, and to that extent I disagree with Derrida’s attempt to treat his own thinking as radically apart. Though I do respect the tactical realities behind that: lots of theorists present their views as radically new for marketing reasons, and I think that frequently distorts what’s going on. Postmod is sinned against much more than sinning. I agree with Lyotard that postmod is a condition and is not reducible to a ‘position’ that can be agreed with or disagreed with. But clearly I need to write my own silly book on this topic.

By on 08/19/05 at 10:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Mark:

I don’t think it was the critics of “Theory” who invented or popularized the use of the word as an umbrella term for different modes of discourse in English departments and certain of the Humanities. 

In fact, it was the self-identified practitioners of these discourses who adopted the term.  For instance, if you look at Jonathon Culler in Framing the Sign, he designates the term “Theory” as a certain genre of literary criticism in opposition to the older, traditionalist humanistic genre of criticism and based largely on Contintal Philosophy and Post-Structuralism. 

Perhaps the article has yet to be written, but I would be very surprised if one could not compile a very long list of literary theorists who have happily accepted the term “Theory” as referring to a set of critical schools.  In my own time in a graduate English department, I recall this use of the term “Theory” as entirely uncontroversial. 

It is interesting to see some people now starting to disavow this usage.  I am undecided about how useful the term “Theory” actually is, but I think it is undeniable that as a historical matter its usage does show a self-conscious alliance among many practioners in English and Humanities Departments and a shared understanding that they were attempting to answer a related set of questions using a related set of tools to do so.  It can be debated whether this alliance and shared understanding were specious, but I don’t think the existence of this understanding is open to serious debate. 

In short, this usage of the term “Theory” is not of recent vintage and was not invented as a means to attack those tagged with the label “Theory.” It was just the term that happened to be lying around. 

John and Morris:

I do have a strong opinion that the term “Postmodern” is not very useful, at least not anymore.  As I understand it, it originated as a label to distinguish certain artistic modes and styles (in literature, architecture, and so forth) from the style known as “modernism.” It was then used to refer to a unique cultural epoch, probably around the time of Lyotard’s and Jameson’s books.  After that it was used as a term to designate certain philophers, scholars, and critics who used Continental Philosphy and Post Structuralism.  It was this latest evolution of the term that has broadened it so far as to empty it of real content.  Keep in mind that many (if not most) of the major thinkers labeled as “Postmodernists” did not themselves adopt this term and might not have approved of it.  For instance, I recall reading a late interview of Foucault where he was very skeptical of the concept.  I also know that Rorty has stated that he does not think the term is helpful. 

Nevertheless, this usage of the term “Postmodern” remains and there is probably little we can do to change it.  But general arguments about what “Postmodernism” is, and whether that is good or bad, are really not going to get us very far. 

For instance, if the term Postmodernism is used as a synonym for relativism, well there is a long history of arguments in Western Philosophy over relativism and accuations of relativism.  In that instance, “Postmodernism” doesn’t designate anything particularly revolutionary.

By on 08/19/05 at 12:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I should know better than to stick my head in above my level, but ...

I dropped out of a Ph.D. program in English, for various reasons, only one of which is relevant to this thread.  No aversion to theory; I went in deeply interested in theory and planning a de Man-heavy dissertation. 

A striking and disappointing thing about my classes and my collegues’ projects was how many of them had nothing to do with “literature” as a subject.  Basically, I was in school with faculty and students who wanted to do sociology, history, philosophy, political theory, etc., but not in those departments, and thus not with any professional training therein.

I guess what I expected English to offer was the study of literature as a fine art, like painting or music.  Undoubtedly there are other ways to study literature ... but aren’t there other departments to do that in?  And where else would one study literature as an art form?  It seemed to me that the one comp lit course I took came a lot closer to that goal (but it was a bit late for me to pick up languages).

As it was, I was left appreciating the truth of de Man’s remark that English is a department devoted to the study of everything but its own subject matter.  To the extent that de Man’s work suggested why that was a more or less inevitable result, I was persuaded out of writing the dissertation.  ("If only more of de Man’s readers had that reaction,” you are thinking.)

By Anderson on 08/19/05 at 12:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Please admit that this can only be ironic: “...if the individual above had gone to graduate school in English literature, she or he would’ve been a better human being for it.”

By on 08/19/05 at 01:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John Ransom--nice points; and, of course, you have written a book on the subject, one that is not at all silly! hope you are well.

By Jodi on 08/19/05 at 03:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Whatever postmodernism is, one of the most egregious of postmod sins (or sins of those belle-lettrist careerists who fancy themselves as somehow contributing to “Theory” discussions) is to assume that the writings of the Big Guns who preceded postmod--say Nietzsche, Marx, Freud--have been replaced or necessarily modified.  Nietzsche may not be the favorite of analytical types nor of the auto-didactic left, but there is much in his writing that works at least as qualitative psychology (or perhaps it’s poesy of some strange and terrifying sort). 

That a Foucault latched on to FN late in his career may be somewhat interesting, but the authentic Nietzschean would, I assert, be more than a bit perturbed at how MF makes use of FN’s themes.  They may share some distaste at the State, whether marxist or bourgeois, and perhaps a type of disdain for liberal ideals, but MF falls far short of affirming Nietzshcean goals of strength, of health, of the will to power. 

“There are many kinds of hemlock, and fate usually finds an opportunity to set a cup of this poison to the lips of the free spirit--to “punish” him, as everyone then says. What do the women around him do then? They will cry and lament and perhaps disturb the thinker’s twilight peace, as they did in the prison of Athens. “O Crito, have someone take these women away!” said Socrates at last.” (Menschliches allzu Menschliches)

By snake on 08/19/05 at 05:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

blah,

I think the slippage between the study of literature as a fine art and as capital-T theory is a natural one, in that, as some post somewhere or other on this website pointed out, someone studying a subject must ask questions about the method and nature of their study.

A can of worms pops open when a professor or critic is faced with the task of describing the terms of what he or she is doing. To my mind, a satisfactory description is profoundly evasive for anyone unwilling to accept the idea that English Professor or novel some apriori, fundamental metaphyscial category. So critics look at themselves, look at their culure, and, to some extent, refuse to reject ideas or possible explanations for their project on their face--even if those explanations are self-incriminating or require the the tools and concepts established by a different academic discipline. After reading Foucault, its almost impossible not to feel obligated to content with this way of thinking.

I have no idea if this makes any sense, but, in writing this, it seems to me that these conversations about Wittgenstein are partly about seeking a way through this conundrum of endlessly bifurcating discourse so that we can get back to some form of, so to speak, solid ground.

By Tim Sullivan on 08/19/05 at 05:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Whoops. My post should have been addressed to anderson.

By Tim Sullivan on 08/19/05 at 05:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If lit. people had spine, not only would “postmodernism” or Wittgenstein be on the table for discussion but the literary canon itself would be included. THere are some perhaps who feel not only nauseated hearing the name “Derrida” mentioned, but cringe at the thought of the likes of Harry Bloom prattling on about Coleridge or Faulkner. Coleridge doesn’t need a Harry Bloom to sell his writing, nor does Coleridge need any MH Abrams-come-lately to provide the final word on “Rime” or Dejection or any other of his works.  The LitCrit business might do well to read some Wittgenstein (though that’s questionable, and if you read “Witt.’s Poker” you might come to realize that) or other analytical philosophy, but shouldn’t it first look at the texts themselves?  Maybe Coleridge’s “Rime” should be tossed out along with Dover editions of Shakespeare and so forth, but Harry Bloom’s not one to make that decision. Harry Bloom and Fred Jameson are not in business to provide objective, value-neutral discussions of lit.; they take it as a given that they are dealing with masterpieces, and then make use of au courant leftist-aesthetics to help pitch the canon to their student-dupes.

By snake on 08/19/05 at 06:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

First time I’ve ever heard anyone suggest that Bloom was using leftist aesthetics or that Jameson was trying to pitch the canon.  Where do you get that stuff?

By on 08/19/05 at 06:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Following nausea induced by a few passages of his Freudian-gnostic readings (misreadings) of Shelley and other romantic writers, I haven’t read that much of Bloom. So? Bloom has mentioned his opposition to New Critics and to the french postmods and marxists, and perhaps deserves some respect for the latter (I think his student Camille Paglia’s denunciation of Derrida, Lacan, and Foucault is, however brief, not a bad piece of invective), yet he seems to wedge literary figures into his own bizarre theory of “misprision” and anxiety; reading say the Red Badge of Courage many of us probably don’t think “what is the relationship of this text to earlier works of literature” but of the obvious themes: the perils of heroism, absurdity of war, sacrifice, and the connection of the text to the Civil War. (I’m one for historical readings but not necessarily marxist historical readings); Crane’s skillful syntax and imagery also something the semi-awake reader notices.

The point is that the lit.critic is in general a parasite, usually one who has any number of reasons to misinterpret or subjectivize the texts he chooses as his “vehicle.”

By snake on 08/19/05 at 06:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If one examines big T Theory, one is faced with a choice: either accept neostructuralist deconceptualism or conclude that society, ironically, has intrinsic meaning, given that sexuality is interchangeable with language. Debord uses the term ‘objectivism’ to denote the economy, and subsequent genre, of dialectic consciousness. Therefore, the characteristic theme of neostructuralist deconceptualism is not situationism, but subsituationism. Which leads us right back to where we started.

By on 08/20/05 at 06:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I liked this article.  It was entertaining.  Does this mean that all us non-theorists can legitimately get academic jobs now, even if we don’t pander to the purse-string-holding, has-been theorists who insist on being there every time we get interviewed?

By on 08/20/05 at 09:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That would be nice, Puplet. If you’ve got the strength of character to deal with colleagues who think you’re not “theoretical” because you’re dumb / malicious / “conservative,” you may have a chance.

By on 08/20/05 at 09:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If only the death of theory was the same as the death of theorists… Well, perhaps this is going a bit far but then so is theorists thinking non-theorists are dumb.  I write biography and, at one interview I attended recently, I was asked, ‘What theoretical models of biography do you deploy in your research?’ I explained that I’d asked Hermione Lee a similar question years ago.  She’d replied, ‘Well, you read lots of biographies and then you have a go at writing one yourself: there’s no theory or handbook for it as such’.  Coming from someone recognised as one the best biographers of our time, I thought this’d be fine response but they just squinted and looked at me funny.  Yes, despite an Oxford degree, a PhD, four years of teaching, and a contract with a reputable publisher for my first monograph, they still thought I was really, really stupid…

In a consolatory email, one emeritus professor friend of mine told me what I should have said was ‘I’m a cyclical Marxist with a twist of Althusser’. I’ve been practising in front of the mirror but it’s no use. I still don’t know what it means and still can’t bring myself to say it without giggling.

By on 08/21/05 at 07:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve been wondering why this thread has, all of a sudden, revived.  Is it because it’s been listed in Dennis Dutton’s Arts & Letters Daily?

By bbenzon on 08/21/05 at 08:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A literary movement that ‘terminated the notion, never entertained by any great critic in the past, that a literary text could be cracked open with a single definitive interpretation’ and ‘attack[ed] positions no one had ever held’ is surely an Ozymandias in reverse—an imposingly sculptured body of work, lying dishevelled in the desert, without a proverbial leg to stand on.

By on 08/21/05 at 09:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Surely we all remember James’ joke about the history of theory reception, in his little book ‘Pragmatism’. To paraphrase:

First, critics claim the new theory is completely wacko, utterly destructive of thought, truth, and morality.

Second, they admit there’s a lot of truth in the theory, but that everyone knew all that already.

Third, they claim to have thought up the new theory.

I see a lot of the first two steps in some of the comments on this thread.

By on 08/22/05 at 05:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A few comments. Someone asks:

Please admit that this can only be ironic: “...if the individual above had gone to graduate school in English literature, she or he would’ve been a better human being for it.”

No I do not think that irony is the preferred emotional state for statements of this type. Let’s say that you and I were on some kind of grant together, and we found out that we would be involved in a course on theory and literature or literature and theory, etc. We’d read Bloom, Derrida, Aristotle, and other great names that I can’t think of right now. We would be in seventh heaven. And why? Because we would know that at the end of that course, we would be one heck of a lot deeper in our thinking about all sorts of texts than when we went into it. And so no it’s not ironic. People become better through education. Or would any of us like to claim that keeping, for instance, women out of educational institutions is just fine, because after all, being educated doesn’t make one a better human being! My God!

And then another says:

f only the death of theory was the same as the death of theorists… Well, perhaps this is going a bit far but then so is theorists thinking non-theorists are dumb.  I write biography and, at one interview I attended recently, I was asked, ‘What theoretical models of biography do you deploy in your research?’ I explained that I’d asked Hermione Lee a similar question years ago.  She’d replied, ‘Well, you read lots of biographies and then you have a go at writing one yourself: there’s no theory or handbook for it as such’.  Coming from someone recognised as one the best biographers of our time, I thought this’d be fine response but they just squinted and looked at me funny.  Yes, despite an Oxford degree, a PhD, four years of teaching, and a contract with a reputable publisher for my first monograph, they still thought I was really, really stupid…

In a consolatory email, one emeritus professor friend of mine told me what I should have said was ‘I’m a cyclical Marxist with a twist of Althusser’. I’ve been practising in front of the mirror but it’s no use. I still don’t know what it means and still can’t bring myself to say it without giggling.

To which I respond: the emeritus professor friend of yours is either pulling you along, in order to make you feel better, or is an idiot. Because is it really the contention of the emeritus profesor you refer to, that it’s really just fine to go into a job interview with no consciousness whatsoever about the debates involved in the work of biography? No understanding of the difficulties of presenting someone else’s life? Giving a job to someone who has no idea what “the discussion” on this topic might be all about?

I would be amazed. And if it had been me, I would’ve striked you off the list right away. People *do* have to be stricken off the list of course. And why? I would not unreasonably say to myself: ‘this individual is not sufficiently reflective on the activity of biography. Certainly I do not require that everyone agree with every school of biography! But a knowledge of those approaches, a reflection on them—that I do think is important both in this department and for the students hwo take our courses!’

You were not mishandled. It is rather those, prominent in this exchange, who mishandle you with their implied promises of theory-less expertise.

By on 08/22/05 at 04:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

References to Aristotle indicate the type of search for authority characteristic of lit. people. People in the lit. business are not often concerned with argument or validation by inductive or analytical methods; Lit’s far closer to canonical law, and clericalism, jesuistries, if not Scripture, than it is to either psychology or logic.  Only in LitLand is Aristotle still taken seriously (Copernicus anybody?). And leftist lit. critics and marxists also function in this dogmatic fashion as well. Once the young lit. cleric finds his proper schema-theoretical system-dogma, he then may fit his favorite puzzling texts in to the system: what were once characters in a play or novel, courtly figures, “types” are now members of the bourgeosie or proletariat with the appropriate values attached.

Literary erudition in and of itself is not good nor necessarily a sign of some advanced cognitive skills.  Becoming fluent in french as a second language does require some study, as does writing lengthy “critical” analyses of various stories, but such study is not so pertinent to various obvious contexts: technological, industrial, medical, etc.  And the rhetorical skills of the belle-lettrist may be developed by students/writers in other non-aesthetically-oriented disciplines requiring writing skills such as history or economics.

By snake on 08/22/05 at 07:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Author-i-TAY, yass, snake, we must discern the proper textual and scholarly AUTHOR-I-TAY! There’s little need for percay bitch shelley’s own words, when Harry Bloom can explain it all for ya. Harry Bloom, AuthoriTAY

By jake on 08/22/05 at 08:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John R., How nice to get some feedback on the whole job search thing!

What proof do you have, though, that the very best literary biographers are faking their ‘theory-less expertise’? What if they actually believed that literary theory, and jargon, and abstraction got in the way of their business of recreating, to the best of their ability, the texture, the heart of their subjects and their times?

Perhaps writing biography and knowing lots of theories about it are entirely different things. After all, biography is grounded in meticulous archival research - something which theorists have never been particularly good at.  (Habermas hinges on a version of nineteenth-century Europe that never really existed; Foucault’s History of Sexuality, meanwhile, is chockful of errors that could have easily been remedied with six months in front of a microfilm reader.)

Richard Holmes, England’s first professor of biography, calls biography a ‘handshake across time’.  Fundamentally, his abstract musings - such as they are - on the nature of biography are all variations of this one, grand, dauntingly theory-less idea. Don’t you think he’d be a rather odd choice of appointment if, actually, he was hiding all his theoretical knowledge away and unwilling to share them with anyone?

By on 08/22/05 at 08:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Easy, snake, easy. In general, inhabitants of this thread should know that - because Morris isn’t a blogger - I, John Holbo, am in charge of making sure the discussion does not go down in flames. Kindly do not give me a headache, trying to decide when the line has been crossed.

By John Holbo on 08/22/05 at 10:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dearest Puplet,

Thou hast felt the wrath of Ransom, dost thou feel chastened?

“Art history[theory] is to artists, what ornithology is to birds.”

Barnett Newman

Edward Villela discussing the ballet “Apollo” and Balanchine:
“ [Balachine said],’What you don’t understand really is that we’re poets of gesture. We really speak with our bodies, but we also speak with the insight of the gesture. You have to understand style’. He was a man of sixty at that time, wearing a double-breasted suit with loafers, and a cowboy shirt and string tie. He said, ‘I’m going to dance Apollo for you.’ So he did, and it was a revelation. Then I could understand what the man was talking about, the music seemed to emanate from his body...”

Edward Villela discussing dance, George Balanchine:

“The most wonderful thing was that he was such a great dancer that he would show you and you really didn’t need words. He stood in front of you and you just tried to follow him. That was tough because his musicality was so extraordinary and stylistically the steps were so fascinating...He was probably the single greatest dancer I have ever seen in my life. I do not mean technically, junping high and doing nine pirouettes. I mean in dance terms, real dance.”

Sincerely,
Igor Stravinsky

By on 08/23/05 at 03:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Somehow we’ve slipped into or have risen up to parody. Of what? Don’t know.

By bbenzon on 08/23/05 at 06:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I worry that if no-one bothers to point out that “Sam Boogliodemus“‘s contribution above (8/20, 5:07 PM) was constructed with help from the “Postmodernism Generator,” then he/she/it will return with a post claiming to have shown that we are all charlatans and fools.  So consider it pointed out (Debord says what?).

snake says: “Only in LitLand is Aristotle still taken seriously (Copernicus anybody?)” Ooh, right, forgot about Copernicus.  Take that, Michael Frede (Myles Burnyeat, Hilary Putnam, John McDowell, ..., ....)!

bbenzon, I think your ALD hypothesis is correct.

By Dave Maier on 08/23/05 at 04:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Read it again, Holofernes: LitLand. Putnam and McDowell are not really in LitLand (tho I betcha you izz)--they are philosophes are they not? Kant himself was well-aware of Copernicus and Newton. NO mierda.

Lit. as in literature: I have no doubt McDowell knows at least something about modern science and analytical philosophy, tho I think someone like Putnam is trying to sort of idealize philosophy again, and in a sense reject Quine’s affirmation of, well, truth as synthetic a posteriori (and Witt.’s PI might itself meet that Syn A.P. criteria) ; Harold Bloom and Fish or, ye gods, any feminist moron you care to name don’t know jack about any of this…

like most attempts at some lit/phil dialogue this is all sort of pointless. If you accept some form of analytic/synthetic model, then one, I think most would agree, must situate lit. on the synthetic side: it’s some type of induction, whether social realism/historical writing or subjective and/or beat expressionism. If induction then confirmation and “contingency” are problems.

The question is more of representation and “mapping” prior to ideological/political issues; or, if unconcerned with the actual truth value/representation one could I guess just examine literary syntax more or less.

The representation issue was what I thought some Wittgensteinian type would address.

By snake on 08/24/05 at 12:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Snake,

Put your email up or send me an email, I’d be interested in corresponding, if you have the time.

Sincerely,
the ghost of George Balanchine

By on 08/24/05 at 04:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hello,

This thread is dead.

Sincerely,
The ghost of Balanchine

By on 08/24/05 at 11:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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