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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

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

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

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

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

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

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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

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

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Friday, August 12, 2005

You must try again till you get it right

Posted by John Holbo on 08/12/05 at 11:43 AM

I'm late already getting on to The Literary Wittgenstein, but let me take one last swipe at sorting what seem to me obvious basics - but that other people obviously don't find so obvious. Some of this I've said before, but maybe I'll say it better. Then I'll try to say some interesting things about what Theory is and isn't & etc. Time permitting I'll add some notes on the history of Theory tomorrow.

The French Inhaler
A passage from a Paul Johnson review of Roger Kimball's The Rape of the Masters:

At one time, to teach art history at the college level required a knowledge of Italian and German - usually French too - and several years spent in Italy studying the Old Masters. The inflation of the subject, however, allowed large numbers of academics to secure positions without these qualifications. Instead they made do with "theory," which allows varieties of polysyllabic waffling to substitute for hard, detailed knowledge. To supply the need, this trend was imported into art history from literary criticism.

Johnson favors what we might call, after Zevon, the "French Inhaler" theory of how the humanities ended up hoovering up so much French theory: "How you gonna make your way in the world, woman?/When you weren't cut out for working/When you juuuust caaaan't con-cen-trate."

The big problem with this, of course, is that it's a ludicrous exercise in over-the-top contemptsmanship. A similar case: that much-mocked Showalter review by Joseph Epstein. Ann Althouse (of all people) nails Camille Paglia for similar excesses here. You've seen these sorts of things before, I presume.

What's the point? In the past I've quiped that Theory is from Tholia. (Zizek is, anyway.) Let me begin this anti-Theory post by conceding it's true that, sometimes, anti-Theory is from Mars. As in Signs. Intelligent, highly aggressive creatures - obviously intelligent enough to know that if you are allergic to water you should wear something waterproof when invading a planet covered with water. They came all this way to get stopped with a glass of water to the face? Ridiculous. Still, here are these conservatives (plus Paglia), bothering to attack, not bothering to take elementary defensive precautions. It's obviously a point of honor for Johnson to assume an air of effortless superiority when engaging the enemy. They can't lay a glove on him, which makes him very easy to knock out. Bérubé makes more or less this point while explaining what makes the Epstein piece awful. He notes that Epstein is not usually awful. Talking about the MLA turns him dumb. 

I bring this up because there is a persistent sense, in posts and comment threads I could point to, that Theory's Empire is surely 700 pages of French Inhaler fodder. Which would be bad. But such is not the case. Let me make a list of some things contributors to this volume are not (nor will their book transmit these in some viral fashion.) They are not anti-intellectual; not anti-philosophical; not opposed to 'difficulty'; not scared of Theory; not deluded about the possibility of 'immediate' contact with literature itself; not a vast right-wing conspiracy; not polemicists (more than anyone else in this fallen world of ours, on average). The same goes for me, Scott, Sean, some others. We aren't anti-intellectual, anti-philosophical, etc. The issue of Theory/anti-Theory needs to be debated, not diagnosed away.

Probably if you are determined to believe the contrary, there isn't anything I can say to change your mind. But I do implore you to consider the possibility that this debate is not a bundle of Culture War tics from the 80's. Don't bury this thing under an avalanche of hermeneutic suspicions without even bothering to check what it is

In short: of course there is Culture War polemic. But it is unfair to judge the anti-Theory side by this standard. You should judge a position by its most thoughtful expressions.

Compare the best of their days, to the worst of your days ... you won't win
The objection to this will be: the anti-Theory side appears geared up to do the opposite; to accentuate the negative; to stage a mass trial; to tar a range of works and ideas with a broad-brush. (Just look at this cover! They've got an agenda!) The way to keep the debate balanced is to fight fire with fire: meet insinuation with insinuation, guilt by association with guilt by association (I don't think anyone actually says so, but this is how it seems to go.)

Critics of Theory, like me, need to take seriously how easy and undesirable it is for us trigger a rhetorical race to the bottom. There is usually a point in our arguments where we shift from strict refutation to 'and this is important because there is a lot of it going around' or 'this is important because it shows a fundamental bad tendency.' Tendency talk, directed at vague targets, invites intellectual injustice. There isn't any getting around the need for such talk, sometimes; but you have to earn trust if you want to be believed. You can't expect your targets to do work you weren't willing to: sorting valid points from exaggeration and the small pleasures of personal irritation and disdain. This is of course what I had in mind when I quoted Mill last week: "Were we to search among men’s recorded thoughts for the choicest manifestations of human imbecility and prejudice, our specimens would be mostly taken from their opinions of the opinions of one another."

It can't be said that the editor's of Theory's Empire have entirely avoided these problems. The editorial matter that fronts the subsections is high-handed and polemical at points. If readers are put off by that, and never give the book a chance, the editors have themselves to blame for not striking a more diplomatic tone. But, as I've said before, the editors' evident desire to hit hard does not extend to including any harsh French Inhaler filler.

Turning to face the other side, there are many posts and fearfully lengthening threads out there, whose authors and contributors seem to think that 'Everything I need to know about anti-Theory I learned in Culture War' is timeless wisdom. There's a kind of French Exhaler theory making the rounds: anti-Theory is an irritable reflex sneeze when something foreign and scary gets up your nose. Yes, it's fine to contextualize. But it's possible to do it badly, by substituting contempt for your subject for serious intellectual engagement. (Paul Johnson is contextualizing, after all, when he suggests the Adorno's popularity is due to his shift in attention from the object to its political uses. Lots of leftists find art tough to grasp, so they clutch Adorno.) I'm not going to wade further into 'who's guilty of bad ad hominem? Don't be bad. 

The Varieties of Theory

One serious suspicion about the subject matter of Theory's Empire deserves address: is there enough there there, for critique purposes? Or, alternatively, too much?

Hints have been dropped that 'Theory' is more or less a polemical label stuck on by the enemies of those who - after it sticks - have the misfortune to 'do Theory'. This is an unhistorical view. But it is reasonable to suspect that Theory critics are really talking about something narrow - e.g. post-structuralism. So they should be more specific. Or something so large no critique could hit the whole thing. So they should be more specific. It is obvious Theory has changed over time, if it exists; equally obviously, different critics must have different conceptions of it.

Let me do my best to make clear what I take Theory to be, why I take it to have enough coherence to be an object of study, what I think is wrong with it. In an earlier post I make a big point of distinguishing two senses of 'theory', by way of explaining what I call the T-to-t fallacy. Let me quote myself at length (or just skip on ahead if you remember this part):

Let capital-T 'Theory' - as in Theory's Empire - denote a moderately culturally coherent cluster of philosophically-inflected academic writings. Certain figures, arguments and ideas; theme and variation on an intellectual style and sensibility, interlocking with shifting but not totally unsettled sets of questions, issues and subjects. Theory was born around 1965 and anything written before then is 'Theory' only in a somewhat strained, anachronistic sense ...

I don't want to insist on more than the following: 'Theory' is a name for an academic movement, or school or style of thought, or cluster of them. As such, it is prima facie reasonable to consider that a different school or style might be superior, or at least might be worthy of consideration as a competitor. The problem is that defenders of Theory have gotten into the bad habit of foiling the formulation of this thought.

The easy, one-step procedure: misinterpret anti-Theory arguments as if the target were theory in a lower case sense; what we might call 'Coleridgean theory': "The meanest of men has his theory; and to think at all is to theorise". Terry Eagleton's Introduction gives us the classic formulation of the T-to-t fallacy.

The economist J. M. Keynes once remarked that those economists who disliked theory, or claimed to get along better without it, were simply in the grip of an older theory. This is also true of literary students and critics ...

But when we plug in the relevant, distinct senses of the word we get: those opposed to one particular style of thought must think there is some other way of thinking that is preferable (or at least worthy of consideration). As a defense of Theory, let alone as a proof of false consciousness, this is a non-starter. Yet it is advanced as a decisive objection to 'resistance to Theory'.

I go on to explain that Keynes isn't committing the T-to-t fallacy because, for him, 'Theory' is the proper name of a school or style. Keynes is really contrasting Coleridgean theory - i.e. just plain thinking - with yet another sense. We may as well call it 'Millian', after another quote from that post: "whoever despises theory, let him give himself what airs of wisdom he may, is self-convicted as a quack." Here 'theory' denotes a typical product of basic rationalism (so there isn't anything distinctively Millian about it; I just like the quote and need a name.) Let us say that a theory, in this sense, is an abstract, general, explanatory account of a given subject-matter (although pretty clearly theories might lack one or more of these features and still count.) It needn't be scientific, but scientists theorize in this sense. The theorizer need not be a 'rationalist' in any robust philosophical sense. A working hypothesis is a theory. A model is a theory. A classification scheme may be a theory (although some might prefer not to call it that, or it might depend on whether the classification is motivated by some model or hypothesis.) Pretty clearly this notion is vague. The simpler the theory, the more the Millian shades off into the Coleridgean. Equally clearly, we sort of know what we are talking about.

Let me add one more sense, mostly by way of preemptively refusing to admit it: theory = philosophy. Sometimes those who 'do Theory' protest and say they are doing philosophy. I don't want to deny that Derrida is a philosopher, but it seems to me very confused to let this drive us to theory = philosophy. Rather, we should conclude that either capital-T Theory is a kind of philosophy or that there is no such thing, i.e. capital-T Theory is a useless pseudo-category. (If it is a kind of philosophy it does not = philosophy. It is but one school or style among many. And if it does not exist, it does not = philosophy. Philosophy is something.)

Now one simple point: the Theory/anti-Theory debate only concerns capital-T Theory. Mostly anti-Theory is an expression of philosophical rationalism. So anti-Theory is certainly not anti-Millian theory. Obviously no anti-Theorist is opposed to mentality, i.e. Coleridgean theory. Let me underscore the narrow targeting of Theory by quoting a passage from Valentine Cunningham in Theory's Empire. I quoted it once before, but this is important:

Theorists have indeed managed to pull off what is, by any standards, an astounding coup, or trick; have managed to wedge together a great many various subjects, concerns, directions, impulses, persuasions and activities that are going on in and around literature, and squeeze them all under the one large sheltering canopy of ‘Theory’. They have managed to compel so many divergent wings of what they call Theory under the one roof, persuaded so many sectional variants of interpretative work to sink their possible differences around a common conference table, in the one seminar with the sign Theory on its door. So while setting their faces, usually, against Grand Narratives and Keys to All Mythologies, as delusive and imperialist, and all that, Theorists have managed to erect that Grandest Narrative of all – Theory – the greatest intellectual colonizer of all time. How this wheeze was pulled off, how you can have the political and the personal subjects of literature – representations of selfhood and class and genre and race: the outside-concerns, the outward look of writing, the descriptive and documentary, the reformist intentions and the ideological instrumentality of writing – envisioned and envisionable as absolutely part and parcel of the often quite opposite and contradictory functions of writing – the merely formal, or the technically linguistic, or (as often) a deeply inward, world-denying, aporetic writing activity – rather defies ordinary logic. Foundationalism and anti-foundationalism, shall we say roughly the Marxist reading on the one hand, and the deconstructionist on the other, make awkward bed-partners, you might think. But Theory deftly marries them off, or at least has them more or less cheerfully all registered as guests in the same hotel room. (p. 27-8)

If you are anti-Theory, you are against this.

This gets considerably more complicated when we consider Theory on a longer time frame. The Higher Eclecticism is a recent development. Things looked different in 1985, very different in 1965. I do want to find time to write this up. The short version of my thesis (I've stated it before): Theory is a kind of late Romanticism, a counter-Enlightenment bloom; the Higher Eclecticism is the latest manifestation of this impulse. I always quote Schlegel: "It is equally deadly to the spirit to have a system and not to have one. One must resolve to combine the two." If you approve of Theory, you'll nod yes to this. You think there is a deep reason why things need to be heavily philosophical and in defiance of ordinary logic.

With my four senses of theory laid out, my one point made, I want now to eliminate one very clear and serious error that keeps rearing its head - an infernal whack-a-mole of conflation. A confusion gets projected onto the Theory/anti-Theory debate, giving it a confused look on its face. This isn't it's fault. I'm going to pick on Jodi again, who commits the error in question, and for good measure kids me for trying to eliminate it. She writes:

I don't know of many instances where great intellectual strides came about through the splitting of a word into itself and itself Capitalized (Holbo's suggestion?)

So let's stride. In a number of places Jodi says she is skeptical that the notion of theory in question is really useful, because she isn't sure what should be included. This is fair enough. There is a large gray area, which is worrisome. But she makes the serious mistake of considering that some things may be considered Theory that obviously won't be. This leads her to misunderstand anti-Theory. This happens in various threads I won't bother chasing down. I'll just quote this new post in which Jodi approves this post in no uncertain terms. "It clearly sets out the stakes of current discussion around theory." No. It does not. It straightfowardly misses what is at stake. It's just plain wrong.

In a handful of years, colleges will be flush with undergraduates who have had even more limited exposure to critical thought. And yet, this is what theory does best, providing models for just the sort of critical thought sorely lacking in students already.  ...

With this situation in mind, there has never been more of a time to celebrate theory, to teach theory, to encourage philosophy and abstraction and practices that need not be tethered to some measure of their practicality. This isn't the time to celebrate theory's end; rather this is the time to work strenuously for its resurrection, or to sit down for a seance with the theory version of the Goddess. It is no coincidence that Derrida spent so much of his career working in GREPH to advance the high school curriculum by promoting a "right to philosophy," which in the context of the discussion of Theory's Empire might as well be renamed the "right to theory."

To be anti-Theory is NOT to oppose philosophy or abstraction, certainly not to oppose critical thought. To suggest otherwise amounts to hopeless slippage between all possible senses of theory, possibly a few besides, producing the erroneous impression that to be anti-Theory means being opposed to every possible sense of theory. Obviously anti-Theorists, being mostly philosophically motivated, approve abstraction and philosophy and critical thinking. They are against Theory because they believe 'doing Theory' will tend to be negatively correlated with intellectual rigor. Probably the Theorist will fire back that I shouldn't therefore say this passage is wrong, merely that it gets at the dispute about how to teach critical thought effectively. But that is  inconsistent with what the passage says. The passage does not say that there is a dispute between contending schools of how to do philosophy. It seizes all mentality for theory, which is fine so long as you don't think that means Theory gets it. Capital-T Theory is something highly distinctive, per that Cunningham passage. It isn't somehow vaguely everything.

Now it is quite possible the author is perfectly aware he is slipping Theory a bit of friendly, utterly undeserved, ersatz privilege and necessity by sliding around semantically. It is possible that Jodi finds it amusing to cite a piece of plain nonsense as a "clear guide to the debate." I am not immune to the humor value, potentially, of pretending up is down, or needling your opponent by pretending you don't understand what he is talking about when you do. But I trust the whole debate so far has not been one long exercise in everyone understanding perfectly that Theory/anti-Theory is a legitimate philosophical issue, and Theory's Empire a legible and timely theme for a fine volume of essays, but some people pretending to understand nothing of the sort. That is, I trust what I just identified is a geuine confusion, to some extent.

Theory As Kitsch
Let me try another angle (one I've tried before).

In a WSJ op-ed (1999), Denis Dutton explains 'bad writing' by declaring the trouble with Theory, in my sense, is that it is "a kind of intellectual kitsch, analogous to bad art that declares itself "profound" or "moving" not by displaying its own intrinsic value but by borrowing these values from elsewhere. Just as a cigar box is elevated by a Rembrandt painting, or a living room is dignified by sets of finely bound but unread books, so these kitsch theorists mimic the effects of rigor and profundity without actually doing serious intellectual work. Their jargon-laden prose always suggests but never delivers genuine insight." I have to say the 'never' here is uncharitable; but the 'kitsch' bit admits of strong development. (Dutton knows it, too.)

I quote the eminent musicologist Carl Dahlhaus on the subject of kitsch:

Musical kitsch, whether rousing and high-flown or soothingly sentimental, is a decadent form of romantic music. When the noble simplicité of a classical style descends to the market place, the result is banality – the mere husks of classical forms – but hardly ever kitsch. Kitsch in music has hybrid ambitions which far outreach the capabilities of its actual structures and sounds, and are manifested in effects without cause, empty attitudinizing, and titles and instructions for performance which are not justified by the musical results. Instead of being content with modest achievements within its reach, musical kitsch has pretensions to big emotions, to “significance,” and these are rooted in what are still recognizably romantic preconceptions, however depraved. (Between Romanticism and Modernism, p. 12)

Let us start with Dahlhaus’ point about the banality of decadent classical forms and see if some even-handedness can win some respect. Banality is not a risk any Theorist runs, most days. But it is an aesthetic risk for much contemporary, mainstream Anglo-American philosophy. It is easy to become preoccupied with twiddling – in rigorous and precise fashion – with insignificant details. Kierkegaard has a good phrase for this form of life. He says some philosophers 'live their lives in parentheses;' Once upon a time, there was a problem; but it proved problematic; the workers on the problem were compelled to veer into parenthetical asides, talking round the problem with the problem. New problems appeared with the problem with the problem, and new parentheses to get round. Now there are those who, in a scholarly sense, are born, grow up, raise families and die, within a parenthesis – or a parenthesis within a parenthesis. Unhappy troglodytes, they never catch sight of the beginning or end of the arc of their problem’s progress, so frequently has its bright beam been parenthetically deflected! Analytic philosophy declines from noble simplicity to banality through a sort of knee-jerk syntactic rigorism: a conviction that if things look tidy, they must be shaping up.

There, see. I can be cruel to my kind.

Now, back to Theory. The Culler, Lamb edited anthology Just Being Difficult? is not successful, mostly because of the tedious fiction that the figures they are responding to, like Dutton, are opposed to difficulty. Peter Brooks indignantly declares that he wants to "evacuate the question of ‘bad writing’ and leave it for what it is, bad writing." He then confesses the discipline of literary studies – theory in particular – is afflicted with, "a certain critical hyperventilation, the promotion into books of what should not be books, and the claim to significance where one would prefer a modest elucidation .... Each new book of literary and cultural criticism must be an individual performance, strenuous, original, self-inventing." Brooks writes that some succeed but very many, "simply produce a kind of hypertrophy of rhetoric and alleged significance" (p.136). In short, Brooks agrees with Dutton: the problem is kitsch.

Now wasn't that nice? Getting them to agree like that? More from Dahlhaus:

Another thing which has always led to works being branded as kitsch is the sense that they are somehow mechanical, calculated, "manufactured." In other circumstances, an aesthetic theory that disparages the "making," the construction – the poiein that gives poetry its name – may itself be open to question and alien to art; but in the case of kitsch it hits the nail on the head. How a piece of musical kitsch is made, put together, is particularly obvious, even if only to listeners who are capable of hearing musical structures at all, because it is primitive; and since kitsch subscribes to the anti-mannerist principle, common to both romantic and classical art, that artifice must be concealed in art, its primitive construction contradicts and undermines its aesthetic intentions. Its pretensions to emotional immediacy collapse when the listener is able to see through its calculation ... The decisive point aesthetically is not, as the adherents of a sentimental, popular, aesthetic theory believe, the sincerity or insincerity of the emotions expressed in the music. For one thing, sincerity is a questionable aesthetic category, and for another, no one has the moral right to impugn the sincerity of the emotions that give rise to kitsch. What is decisive is the sheer inadequacy of the machinery, its rudimentary schematics, its spurious invention. (p. 12)

I could go on to discuss music as the untimely, quintessentially late Romanticism, mislaid in a positivist age. (As Zevon sings: "And you al-ways show up late.") But I hope it is perfectly obvious what I am getting at even without all that. The causes, forms and effects of kitsch and Theory are suspiciously parallel. So the concern about Theory is precisely analogous to that about kitsch: the sorts of peculiarities Cunningham describes are not marvellous romantic dances over abysses but disastrously crude, amateur play at pyrotechnic effect. There is something terribly mechanical about the industrial, institutional process of producing Theory. The need for pyrotechnic effects is a curse.

Jonathan Culler, Theory and Criticism After Structuralism:

What distinguishes the members of this genre [Theory] is their ability to function not as demonstrations within the parameters of a discipline but as redescriptions that challenge disciplinary boundaries. The works we allude to as "theory" are those that have had the power to make strange the familiar and to make readers conceive of their own thinking, behavior, and institutions in new ways. Though they may rely on familiar techniques of demonstration and argument, their force comes - and this is what places them in the genre I am identifying - not from the accepted procedures of a particular discipline but from the persuasive novelty of their redescriptions. (pp. 8-9)

But since the power doesn't come from within any regular discipline, where can it come from on a regular basis?

A distrust of 'classical' forms - conventional logic, standard argument; a Romantic insistence on tremendous effect - originality, overcoming; incapacity to find any way of regularly conjoining this distrust to this determination without resort to spurious invention. The point - be it noted - is not to insist that everything written by any Theorist is nonsense, but to indicate the source of the perennial suspicion that Theory tends to be bad, hence shouldn't be encouraged. The problem with High Eclecticism is the manifest inadequacy of the machinery for guaranteeing significance. (Does Derrida write kitsch? No, actually. But I think he is the cause of it in others.)

Goethe:

Man is born to a limited situation; he is able to understand simple, accessible, definite goals, and he accustoms himself to employing the means that happen to lie close at hand; but as soon as he oversteps his limits he knows neither what he wants nor what he ought to do, and it is all one whether he is distracted by the multiplicity of the things he encounters or whether his head is turned by their loftiness and dignity. It is always a misfortune when he is induced to strive after something which he cannot proceed towards through a practical activity.

The problem with Theory, as a normal feature disciplinary life, is it the nature of Theory never to be normal - always to be excessive and paradigm-shattering. You cannot oblige people to be this, on a regular basis, and expect them to maintain their intellectual honesty, not to mention dignity and equilibrium. Not that I want to restrain geniuses. (I'm sure if they really are, they will break any restraints I tried to install anyway.) I don't want to oblige ordinary scholars, who might do something modest and solid, to pretend to be geniuses and do something fantastic and shoddy.

Jonathan Culler's state-of-the-discipline piece for the MLA’s 1993 Introduction to Scholarship in Modern Languages and Literatures:

The widespread notion that theory has "taken over" literary studies in the United States since the late 1970’s comes not form the number of scholars or critics who consider themselves theorists or who "work in theory" but from the fact that, increasingly, for a piece of critical writing to appear generally significant, it has to seem theoretically significant.

Are scholars obliged to adopt outward forms that are probably doomed to only seem significant, as a condition of seeming generally significant? There's your Theory/anti-Theory debate. Not all of it, mind you, but much.

History Notes

Maybe I'll get around to it tomorrow. It's pretty important.


Comments

So, what you support is a way of thinking that strives to be normal and paradigm reinforcing (as opposed to excessive and paradigm shattering), a method or way of thinking characterized by honesty, dignity, and equilibrium that produces modest, solid scholarship?

Presumably this way of thinking would trust ‘classical’ forms - conventional logic, standard argument. It would not insist on originality or in overcoming anything at all. It should avoid eclectism in favor of significance.

So, making the familiar strange is not advisable, but making the familiar reassuring and comfortable is? Shock is not a goal of a work, but serious contemplation or perhaps recognition of the rationality of the world?

Are there examples of works that do this that you admire? Presumably Mill.

And, if you reject the putting all the eggs in the theory basket in the passage that you quoted and I had quoted from someone else, would you say that the plain thinking (I’m trying something else instead of ant-theory) approach that you advocate resists the bureaucratic cooptation and assessment going on now in higher education?

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

Unless I have misinterpreted, your post(s) suggest(s) that a certain form of theory (aka Theory) should be replaced with another form of theory (aka theory). Now, I was wondering what this second form of theory would look like? Are you proposing a) a return to previous forms of theory, b) a turn to a more practical, metholodogical kind of theory, closely connected to criticism (cf. the counter-anthology-thread), c) or to an analytical rather than continental kind of theory (cf. the ´Philosophy of Literature´-anthology), or to something else entirely? In other words, should we get rid of certain elements of Theory (view on language, society,...), of a certain style of writing (follow Searle rather than Derrida), of Theory´s pedagogical/critical deficiencies (it should help us to read and write better), ...? Although I am relatively sympathetic to the argument, I am not entirely sure what your alternative looks like. The alternatives I can come up with, moreover, seem to exist already, in some form or other (cf., again, the ´Philosophy of Literature´-anthology), something which you are probably aware of. But maybe I am not errm, getting your posts right.

By on 08/12/05 at 02:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t understand why making the familiar strange should be incompatible with conventional logic and argument. One is the syuzhet, the other is the fabula. Seems to me that it’s making the familiar strange (by whatever means) that freaks out the Culture War types (and understandably so, but screw them); it’s argufying (toward whatever conclusions) that irritates the philosophers.

(But what do I know? I’m just a science fiction writer.)

By David Moles on 08/12/05 at 03:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Trickster, I read it that theory and Theory are apples and oranges, or possible apples and monads. Little-t theory is a useful generic term for a certain sort of conceptual entity; big-T Theory is an umbrella term for a collection of related modern (or postmodern) schools of thought. They’re not really commensurable.

By David Moles on 08/12/05 at 03:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

“Paradigm shattering”.

I’m never sure how welcome my own unique perspective is, but to a free-lance eclectic like myself “Theory” is just another enforced paradigm. If I were to enroll in a Theory-based program, I’d have to read Lacan, and I don’t think that Lacan is worth it. People I’ve know who’ve gone to grad school have all learned to do what they were told.

In Foucault’s words, “"What can be seen here so visibly is a historically well-determined little pedagogy. A pedagogy that teaches the pupil that there is nothing outside the text....A pedagogy that gives to the master’s voice the limitless sovereignty that allows it to restate the text indefinitely.”

To me Theory really does not exist. My feelings about Foucault are the diametrical opposite of my feelings about Lacan, though my reading of Foucault, most of whose works I’ve read, would probably not fit into a Theory. (Does Bourdieu count as Theory? He shouldn’t, but he IS French. Ricoeur?)

For someone whose beef is with academic methodologism and paradigm-enforcement, Theory is just another Brand X Paradigm.

By John Emerson on 08/12/05 at 04:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Of course, the two terms are probably not commensurable (the fact that ´Theory´ is not the kind of theory that ´theory´ should be is what the original poster´s critique is all about, I guess). But I´m thinking that Mr Holbo is not simply taking issue with the fact that Theory has become an umbrella term (in fact, I had interpreted him as saying that Theory is actually something quite specific, but I may need to reread his piece). He seems to be arguing -again, I may be wrong here- that there are theoretical reasons why the project of Theory is wrong and why the project of theory or of a theory-to-be is or would be right. But -and that might be down to my not having read every comment to every post here- I still don´t really know what that alternative form of theory would look like (well, I can construe something ex negativo out of some of his comments -´f you approve of Theory, you’ll nod yes to this. You think there is a deep reason why things need to be heavily philosophical and in defiance of ordinary logic´, for instance-, but that does not yield a very detailed result).

By on 08/12/05 at 04:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, I’m amazed that, given the length of your post, you could go so long without actually giving an example of “Theory.” At one point, you even write that Derrida is *not* kitsch, though he may effect kitsch in other writers. 

First off, I don’t think kitsch is the way to go here.  Like camp, kitsch implies a “shit-eating grin”—as my father called it—to be present at all times.  Susan Buck-Morss, citing Benjamin, writes: “In his earliest notes, Benjamin interpreted ‘kitsch,’ the cluttered, aesthetic style of this mass marketing, as bourgeois class guilt: ‘the overproduction of commodities; the bad conscience of the producers.’ The social goal was material abundance, which is why the dream functioned legitimately on the manifest level of collective wish image” (*The Dialectics of Seeing* 284).  The point being that even if you view the style of Theory at one of kitsch, Benjamin would have us examine what dream is *behind* this kitsch, what utopian urges.

The other problem is that you give no definition or examples of kitsch.  Or of Theory.  But you do offer a bunch of undigested quotations from other people, from Warren Zevon to Mill to Dahlhaus to Culler to Goethe.  Isn’t that just the type of kitschiness that Scott has decried in Theory?  The undigested bits of other writers whose various worldviews don’t actually jibe with one another?

Some hypotheses:

1) Theory is no more “mechanical” than non-Theory.  It was, according to Catherine Gallagher, the very mechanism of New Criticism and biographical criticism that created the institutional crisis that allowed Theory to emerge in literature programs.  And American cultural studies, or High Eclecticism as you call it, was simply another attempt (misunderstood and imported from Birmingham) to avoid the mechanism of deconstruction.  The same goes for New Historicism and anecdotal criticism: turns to bits of ‘real history’ or ‘real life’ to enliven a deadened discourse. 

2) Theory is as much the fulfillment of the Enlightenment as it is an offshoot of Romanticism.  The simplistic binary between the two is not accepted in any field I’m familiar with.  (I’ve posted about this before.) My personal hero these days, Frank Ankersmit, argues that writers like Rorty and Derrida are simultaneously the finest achiements of the Enlightenment, even as they declare the death of the Enlightenment project.

3) To begin Theory in 1965 seems a bit short-sighted to me.  Structuralism, Lacanian analysis, and semiotics are as much a part of Theory as deconstruction is.  To those we might add Bakhtin and Russian formalism; Benjamin’s redemptive historical project; the Frankfurt School’s hermeneutics of suspicion; Hayden White’s tropological historicism; Geertz style anthropology; British leftwing historicism’s interrogation of tradition and nationalism; the political science extending from Gramsci to Laclau and Mouffe; and so on.  So Theory is an ugly soup of various strains of thought, some of which emerge before 1965 and some of which emerge much later.  All of which is to say, Theory as an institutional phenomenon must be separated from Theory and theories as sets of texts, methodologies, and so on.  The form Theory takes in the American academy has more to do with what preceded it, with the structure of academic institutions before Theory, than it does with any specific content in any of the individual schools of various theorists.  This is why strange bedfellows are all over the institutional version of Theory: like Pynchon’s “west” in *Mason * Dixon*, Theory was a land where all the various intellectual outcasts, rounders, migrants, tall-tales and rough-sleepers can find a place—even if, all told, they none of them agree with one another.  That they are now the Emperors of Ice Cream, and not the maginal doodles of dreamy Gauls, is an institutional fact as well, not a fact about the content of the theories. 

4) “Theory” isn’t normal not because it’s Theory but because the state of the tenure system demands that everyone (claim to) be disrupting the intellectual foundations of the world every time one writes something.  This is perhaps why the “return to aesthetics” pose passes itself off as the most radical performance, from Roland Barthes to Wendy Steiner to Danto.  To quote Culler’s blurb for Barthes’ *Lover’s Discourse*: “To bring back the sentimentality of ordinary love, he suggests, is a transgression of transgression, a violation of the orthodoxy that values radical transgression.” So, perhaps *Theory’s Empire* is itself simply a oneupsmanship of Theory: “No, *we* are the most marginalized, and so the truly transgressive force.”

I demand, before this discussion goes any further, some ACTUAL EXAMPLES OF ACTUAL THEORISTS.  In other words: what in the name of all that’s good and holy do you actually mean by the word “Theory”?  More specifically: WHO are you talking about here?

Because Bakhtin’s work isn’t kitsch.  Benjamin’s isn’t kitsch.  Roland Barthes’s isn’t kitsch.  Stuart Hall’s isn’t kitsch.  Michel de Certeau’s isn’t kitsch.  Rene Girard’s isn’t kitsch.  Ervin Goffman’s isn’t kitsch.  David Riesman’s isn’t kitsch.  Edward Said’s isn’t kitsch.  Jacques Derrida’s isn’t kitsch.  David Harvey’s isn’t kitsch.  Clifford Geertz’s isn’t kitsch.  Hayden White’s isn’t kitsch.  Perry and Benedict Anderson’s aren’t kitsch.  Terrence Hazzard’s isn’t kitsch.  Peter Brooks’ isn’t kitsch.  Robert Farris Thompson’s isn’t kitsch.

Where’s Waldo, John? 

And then, once you show us what’s Theory when he’s at home, I’d like to hear some ACTUAL CRITIQUES of the ACTUAL CONTENT of ACTUAL THEORISTS.

Until then, Theorists and anti-Theorists can all go choke on a Hickory Farms summer sausage, like Rocketman on the cover of the cover of a 1945 issue of *Time* magazine.

By on 08/12/05 at 04:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, yeah, it is something specific, it’s that specific collection of schools of thought (or else it’s the things they have in common). It’s not any kind of little-t theory at all. The alternative to Theory isn’t a theory or a collection of theories, it’s doing philosophy and cultural criticism some other way. (Which will of necessity involve theories, just as Theory involves theories. But probably different theories.)

John E—Just because Theory is culturally constructed doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. :)

By David Moles on 08/12/05 at 04:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"There is no method but to be very intelligent"--T. S. Eliot. 

Easy for him to say.

By on 08/12/05 at 04:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It would not insist on originality or in [sic] overcoming anything at all.

Well, I think I’d like to insist on overcoming my own ignorance about a great many aspects of literature.  And if doing so requires originality, I guess I’ll just have to grit my teeth and put up with it.

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

As the author of the post that “straightfowardly misses what is at stake”, I feel compelled to say how disappointing this particular citational move is, at least within this post.  After spending a lengthy amount of time defining Theory as such and such, thus carving out a ground that John chooses to defend, he then asserts that my argument is “plain wrong” because of its overly broad assessment of Theory, which is to say that my post and his begin from different suppositions as to what counts as theory.  In other words, whereas the disagreement is not about the soundness of an argument but rather the expansiveness of the defintion, John wants to turn it into a misunderstanding of the political stakes, something he can do since he holds me accountable for an argument that via the chicanery of his citational strategy supposedly assumes that the theory I am discussing is coterminous with the theory that is the product of so much definitional work in this post.

As an aside, I enjoy (not) also how, as a reference strategy, I get to be “the Theorist,” “the author,” and other generic monikers.  I’m no John Holbo, but still, a bit of conversational charity won’t hurt you, buddy.

Back to it, then.  John writes “The passage does not say that there is a dispute between contending schools of how to do philosophy. It seizes all mentality for theory, which is fine so long as you don’t think that means Theory gets it. Capital-T Theory is something highly distinctive, per that Cunningham passage.” I like this - he’s done the work of argument by substitution and slippage, and then I get blamed.  The irony here is compelling, if somewhat depressing, in that absent the Cunningham reference, there’d be little contention, something his post admits fairly cleanly.  Strangely, I don’t spend a lot of time capitalizing theory in the post in question, except of course when it’s at the beginning of a sentence.  John knows this, I assume, given his ability to read, but it’s apparently inconvenient, so I get scolded for not understanding the specificity of Theory, which is to say, the thing that John has just capitalized and given a specificity in his opening paragraphs, despite the obvious fact that he and I aren’t discussing the same material. 

And then, in a passage in which arrogance displaces what should have been a since of irony, Holbo writes:

Now it is quite possible the author is perfectly aware he is slipping Theory a bit of friendly, utterly undeserved, ersatz privilege and necessity by sliding around semantically. It is possible that Jodi finds it amusing to cite a piece of plain nonsense as a “clear guide to the debate.” I am not immune to the humor value, potentially, of pretending up is down, or needling your opponent by pretending you don’t understand what he is talking about when you do.

Again, his slippage between Theory and theory gets transformed metonymically into my and Jodi’s and Theory’s absurdity.  Weak, very weak.  But whatever.  Taken for what it’s worth, it’s also somewhat instructive, because it shows (I think clearly) how the really political move here is the definitional work of parsing Theory and anti-Theory (I alluded to this in a comment on a previous thread), and not the question of classroom efficacy.  This definitional work provides the enthymeme from which the rest of this twisted argument derives, in much the same way as initial groundings of something like “family values” helps sediment and influence future conversations. 

The argument that the anti-Theory folks somehow are out to save (which is to say, reclaim) critical thinking from the ineptitude of Theory requires this enthymemetic touch, because unless you accept the political/rhetorical split between Theory and anti-Theory, you’re stuck thinking that, well damn, some theory is actually really good theory, and some theory is actually really crappy theory, and then you would have to do the intellectual work of parsing and pursuing the good from the bad, rather than the simpler work of rescuing the good from the bad by throwing out good that looks, tastes, or feels a bit too much like its baser cousin.  This reminds me of this story I heard once about a charioteer and a couple of horses…

Anyway, I suspect John is smarter than this.  I suspect that he chose to engage in this bit of argumentative chicanery just because Jodi and the other Theory people irk him so.  But come on - if this is an example of the kind of work that anti-Theory people are doing to save critical thought, well, then they should think about directing their efforts at salvation on a target less fragile and less important.  No point trying to save a drowning child when you can’t swim.

Now, if John wants to try again, and as his title suggests, keep trying till he gets it right, more power to him.  But next time, let’s at least begin with a discussion that keys on where the real political stake is: the power to define and the delimiting of terms.  Then we can talk about the politics of this power, and the consequences for subsequent debate.

By Kenneth Rufo on 08/12/05 at 05:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Making predications about Theory without reference to specific critics and passages is sort of pointless, but most would agree that the Theory in question is generally in the Marxist tradition, with perhaps some Freudian or phenomenological influences.  The Frankfurt school was surely working in the marxist tradition as was Jameson. And that Marxist “anxiety of influence” is what lit. people (and these Valve discussions) continually evade or circumvent; the marxist hostility to postivism, to technology, and to any sort of analysis which opposes the marxist schema of dialectical and/or historical determinism may still be detected in the writing of postmod critics.

Marxism is the literary left’s Achilles heel--and unfortunately it sort of governs how and by what means discussion will take place; discourse about novels or about culture is generally processed through the lit. professional’s marxist filter. Outside of literature and perhaps a few historians or sociologists marxism is not valued; in APA-related disciplines, or the sciences, it is not sufficient to allow the ideology to prove your point for you: you need to do the research , find the data and the relevant details.

With marxist aesthetics (sort of an ersatz Scripture), or its bastard son postmodernism, that type of dirty work is never required. Merely intoning jargon--bourgeois, reification, consumerism etc. --and, voila, the ball is rolling. That type of continentalist dogma also infiltrates pomo as well, and the anglo-American analytical tradition stressing inductive/evidentiary claims, and arguments made from such claims is viewed as a type of intellectual sin, if not some characteristic peculiar to yankees or hicks. Marx himself leaned far more to inductivism and data-driven writing (his jargon and dogma though too often overpowering his more empirical, scientific tendencies), and it’s unlikely he would have approved of all the aesthetics and conceptualizing done in his name over the last 100 years.

By Vladicus on 08/12/05 at 05:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Kenneth,
Great response. It’s also interesting the way that the Holbo strategy refuses to engage, even denies, the material, institutional, and pedagogical issues your initial post raises. And this is a shame. It forfeits the opportunity to consider the challenge of teaching critical thinking when the testing, measure, outcomes, and assessment is being forced down the throat of the academy.

As Luther rightly points out as well, the Holbo post provides no indication of what counts as good or valuable theory and what is bad Theory. As far as I can tell, his point seems to rely on an implicit normative distinction: Theory is bad and theory is good (unavoidable, reasonable thinking). Theory is an icky practice that is not coterminous with the names most associated with it (Derrida, Foucault, Benjamin, Althusser, Butler, Jameson, White, Hall, Said, etc). But, since the work of these theorists is not Theory, then how are we to know when we are within its grasp?

Holbo says we know it when we see it (like the great argument for obscenity), yet, if that’s the case, then, like later arguments around obscenity, determining its expanse, boundaries, parameters (where there must be pasties, one could say) is a matter for community standards. So I wonder, then, whether all the discussion has done is suggest that there are different tribes, different communities.

And, then that’s a shame at a time when universities are becoming ever more corporatized, ever more molded into institutions for producing cogs (clearly part of the history of the university but not the entirety of it--here the ideal of knowledge and liberal arts is useful as a way of judging and countering the reality).

By Jodi on 08/12/05 at 06:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Because Bakhtin’s work isn’t kitsch.  Benjamin’s isn’t kitsch.  Roland Barthes’s isn’t kitsch.  Stuart Hall’s isn’t kitsch.  Michel de Certeau’s isn’t kitsch.  Rene Girard’s isn’t kitsch.  Ervin Goffman’s isn’t kitsch.  David Riesman’s isn’t kitsch.  Edward Said’s isn’t kitsch.  Jacques Derrida’s isn’t kitsch.  David Harvey’s isn’t kitsch.  Clifford Geertz’s isn’t kitsch.  Hayden White’s isn’t kitsch.  Perry and Benedict Anderson’s aren’t kitsch.  Terrence Hazzard’s isn’t kitsch.  Peter Brooks’ isn’t kitsch.  Robert Farris Thompson’s isn’t kitsch.

LB, I agree entirely with the sentiment, but you know which names you left off this list as well as I do.  (And I think you know the reasons why you did as well as I.  Not that there aren’t exceptions among the excluded, mind you.) However, since you’re the anonymous one, I’ll leave it up to you to state explicitly who you left off and why.  Burden of proof, I return thee to LB!

[T]he thing that John has just capitalized and given a specificity in his opening paragraphs, despite the obvious fact that he and I aren’t discussing the same material.

Kenneth, while I know you didn’t capitalize theory, John’s point (as I see it) is that your refusal to consider it a familial body of knowledge is a convenient evasion, one that needs to be shunned; hence his reconsideration of your definition in his terms.  As you say, “the real political stake is...the power to define and the delimiting of terms,” and John, by virtue of redefining your terms, proves your point.  However, as Sean mentioned in the other thread (and as Tim Burke’s been doing a bang up job demonstrating), it may be that there are no political stakes outside of the inflated ones those who do or don’t do Theory have imagined into existence.  That’s why I wanted to pin down what people believed the efficacy of their overtly political criticism to be.  The avoidance of that question makes me wonder if it is anything more than a palliative for political impotence.  (And I don’t mean that as a criticism: it’s the very reason I watch The Daily Show Monday through Thursday.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 08/12/05 at 07:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m sorry Scott, I’m not trying to be dense, but I don’t know what a “familial body of knowledge” entails, much less its “refusal” as a “convenient evasion.” Maybe I’m slow, maybe I’m underwhelmed by the lack of specificity as to what or who or when this Theory thing that Holbo and everyone keeps mentioning actually takes place.  I can cite loads of theory, but not so much Theory.  Could be my own cognitive failure, or it could be that I refuse to play along with a certain definitional politics, that is, with those politics that allow John to play the game of redefinition.

How John proves my point, which is made subsequent to his proof of it, is a mystery to me.  John doesn’t pursue the act of definition as a political enterprise.  His pursuit is to mention some “obvious basics,” or at least as obvious as he “takes” them to be.  The distinction between Theory and anti-Theory is his own peculiar hobby horse, beaten and bruised, and ridden unto exhaustion for the purposes of berating people more interested in talking about particular theoretical enterprises (including, btw, the act of defining out particularity by instituting the binary Theory/anti-Theory opposition), or more charitably, perhaps for the purposes of opening up a space for critical thinking that he feels is somehow being quashed by the big T.  An interesting thing, this big T, both utterly amorphous and yet undeniably threatening.

Look, John’s happy doing his shtick, and far be it from me to upend the act.  But if I say we should center our discussion on the process of definition, and John has already gone through that process, he hasn’t proved anything, even if he has provided evidence as to why I am correct in my prescription.  His definition, inflected by ego and suffering from its own forced artifice, is his, but its failures are ours.  Maybe it’s time to just discard the Theory/theory split altogether.

That being said, if John would like to complain about Marx and Marxism, or about what is often called postructuralism, or perhaps about hermeneutics, well, we could have a productive conversation about their utility, even if there were those among us who didn’t believe utility to be the preferable measure.  But he doesn’t seem to want to do that.  Too nuanced I guess.  If you (Scott) would like to have a conversation about why and how teachers and readers approach the art/practice of criticism, and whether particular metrics are good, bad, or ugly, well, we could do that.  But again, that’s now how this conversation is being approached.  If you and Tim want to argue that the specific political stakes identified in the teaching and practice of criticism and/or of theory are imaginary, useless, and/or dangerous, we could do that.  But again, that would require something bordering specificity, and so far, the split between Theory and anti-Theory seems to be operating in such a way as to actively discourage more complicated, more interesting questions and answers.  This does not strike me as the fault of theory, but rather the fault of those who would circumscribe it as an object (Theory) of derision (an object that, by necessity, has to homogenize the items that comprise it).

By Kenneth Rufo on 08/12/05 at 08:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If you are anti-Theory, you are against this Against what, some tiresome rhetorical screed by Val Cunningham?

Could John please offer us some examples of people he considers representative Theorists?? Ot texts he considers particularly egregious examples of Theory?

By Mouse on 08/12/05 at 08:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott, my list above was based on the Theory section of my personal library.  Mind you, I have a lot of crap in storage.  But the only major figures I purposely left off my list were Spivak and Bhabha.  I can’t speak to Spivak: I’ve never even read “Can the Subaltern Speak?” or the three-novels-plus-a-critique-of-imperialism one, so I can’t defend or attack her.  I’ve read most of what Bhabha has published, and while I like some of his work, I don’t consider him to be as major a player as was thought maybe ten years ago (and I think most poco scholars would agree).  or “anti-realist postcolonial writing.”

But Bhabha and Spivak can’t constitute Theory at the expense of all those great thinkers I did list.  Theory either includes the good, the bad, and the ugly, or it doesn’t include anything (i.e., it’s either a category or nothing).  The point is all about that baby and that bathwater.

Point: we didn’t have a Theory course at my undergrad college.  We had “literary methodologies.” That’s more to the point, isn’t it?

By on 08/12/05 at 08:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t know what a “familial body of knowledge” entails, much less its “refusal” as a “convenient evasion.”

Sorry about that: I refer there to John’s contention that the work categorized as Theory has a “family resemblence,” which he thinks originates around ‘65.  Now, I wouldn’t (and haven’t) defined Theory the same way John has: I think about it in the institutional context of which you speak, i.e. the fact that there’s a Critical Theory Institute and Critical Theory Emphasis at Irvine, that people claim to “do Theory,” that the people who I know who “do Theory” consider it a discrete body of knowledge that they can study systematically over through the courses offered by the CTI and CTE, &c.  I don’t believe I’m being vague when I say that since the existence of Theory is a given for the people I know who “do” it, I can borrow their constellation of thinkers and say “This is Theory.” That’s what I believe John’s done, except he’s taken it a step further and asked: “What is it that all these Theorists have in common?”

Scott, my list above was based on the Theory section of my personal library.  Mind you, I have a lot of crap in storage.

Ba-dum-dum-cha.  You have the soul of an old Jewish comic, LB. 

But seriously, I think that the majority of the thinkers you listed are both Theorists and scholars; but as I said earlier, somewhere, I think one of the upshots of these conversations is the creation of personal wheat-from-chaff hierarchies.  Who does what becomes a distinct question from who does what well, and I see that as a positive development.  (At least, for my own intellectual edification, I do.  And have no doubts about it: I’ve learned a hell of a lot about how I relate to Theory qua theory or vice versa over the past week.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 08/12/05 at 08:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Speaking from the peanut gallery again: for me “Theory” in the negative sense would mean Bhabha, Spivak, DeMan, Hartmann, Lacan, Althusser, anyone seriously influenced by Althusser or Lacan, some of Derrida, most people heavily influenced by Derrida, the more abstruse and vivid people in gender studies, and whichever Adornists and Marcusians still are around.

I’m being assured that these people aren’t all that important any more, but at a certain time they were very important in a way unpropitious to me, and they still are in certain places, I’m sure. (Perhaps by 2050 the last Theorist of this type will be hanging on by his fingernails in Southern Kansas State, the way the last process philosophers are now). 

However, as per my anti-methodological fixation, I’m sure that some other unappetizing paradigm is being enforced in the places I might have liked to have gone to.

By John Emerson on 08/12/05 at 09:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Can someone - John or anyone - please explain to me this passage from the VC quote:

“How this wheeze was pulled off, how you can have the political and the personal subjects of literature – representations of selfhood and class and genre and race: the outside-concerns, the outward look of writing, the descriptive and documentary, the reformist intentions and the ideological instrumentality of writing – envisioned and envisionable as absolutely part and parcel of the often quite opposite and contradictory functions of writing – the merely formal, or the technically linguistic, or (as often) a deeply inward, world-denying, aporetic writing activity – rather defies ordinary logic. “

So VC is imagining an absolute break or a hermetic seal between form and content? Or something else? Please do explain…

Because it seems to me that the worst of contemporary lit crit - and perhaps the worst of theory and its opposite - comes of the attempt to separate the two sides. To analyze literature as if it were all political, all content, without form and formal decisions… Or, conversely, all form - just an empty game.

Elucidation pleeze. Cause it seems kind of important, this VC quote, to yr argument....

Oh and what Jodi said…

By CR on 08/13/05 at 12:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, I’d love to hear if, say, Sean McCann or Scott agrees with this passage I just cited - if any practicing professor/future professor of english lit, pro or anti-theory, actually believes that bridging from form to content “rather defies ordinary logic.”

Because honestly, I’ve never met anyone who does anything else. Especially in the classroom. Very nearly always in writing as well…

Seriously - this describes 99.7 percent of literary criticism and analysis today… The remaining .3 percent being MFA prosody classes… (But even there, the best of them head across the bridge as well - does prosody mean anything and if so what?)

By CR on 08/13/05 at 12:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

CR, I think what Cunningham is getting at here is that you can’t have (a) meaningful representations of politics, society, & culture; and (b) the pure disseminated movement of textuality as differance, both at the same time.  This isn’t about form and content.  Rather—and Derrida would probably have agreed—if all writing is subject to dissemination, where meaning is both deferred and based on difference, how can one also talk about literature in terms of stable content such as political representations?  It’s Marxism versus deconstruction, not form versus content.

Which isn’t to say I endorse VC’s view.  Laclau and Mouffe’s post-marxian politics of articution, equivalence, and antagonism-as-a-structure-of- difference posits that social discourse (i.e., poltiical action) itself is subject to the same dissemination Derrida sees at work in texts.  This means that, for them, politics aren’t based on pre-existing identities, but rather that identities are created for political purposes by stitching together various social discourses floating around the aether and are formed in opposition to other discourses.  All this is properly instable, disseminated, and so on. 

Of course, this is one of the big issues in the sort of High Eclecticism that John and Scott have criticized, that might cite Marx, Althussier, Lacan, and Derrida in one argument about the last Prince album.  Sometimes such essays do display an undigested spewing of theoretical discourse.  At the same time, it is important to remember that theorists like Bhabha and Butler rest their work on the synthesis of seemingly disparate thinkers already worked over by Laclau and Mouffe.  Whether or not you buy their synthesis (which doesn’t, by the way, leave Lacan, Althussier, or Marx in any condition that would be recognized by hard-core Lacanians or Althussierians or Marxists) is another story.  But not to acknowledge that such work is out there is a problem in some of these anti-Theory positions.

By on 08/13/05 at 01:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Also, I should add that Cunningham’s writing is as gross as some of the theorists criticized elsewhere in *Theory’s Empire*.  Just look at that nasty sentence!  It’s actually quite similar to the one that won Butler that bad-writing contest: a long, boring, and vague way of saying something (a) fairly simple (i.e., Marxism and deconstruction have opposing directions of thought) and (b) the defense of which should be spread out over several sentences, not several awkwardly sutured clauses.

By on 08/13/05 at 01:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

LB -

Maybe I need to look at the whole piece, but in the sentence that I highlighted, VC isn’t talking about Marx vs. Derrida. In this sentence, it’s “the outward look of writing” vs. “the merely formal, or the technically linguistic, or (as often) a deeply inward, world-denying, aporetic writing activity.”

I understand (but don’t agree with) the distinction in the next sentence… But this one seems off the wall to me…

By CR on 08/13/05 at 02:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

CR, isolate that particular sentence and of course I don’t agree with it.  Contextualize it, as LB did, and it makes sense: a singular entity which has compelled “so many divergent wings of what they call Theory under the one roof, persuaded so many sectional variants of interpretative work to sink their possible differences around a common conference table, in the one seminar with the sign Theory on its door,” of course becomes something that’s all things to all people, and of course that defies ordinary logic.  All I can do is reiterate what LB said more eloquently than I will, but if it’ll make you happy, I’ll elaborate: you can’t have your cake and eat it too.  That’s what Cunningham’s talking about.  You can do one or the other, but you can’t do them both under the aegis of a singular and coherent philosophical position; thus, despite its practitioners claims to the contrary, Theory can’t be considered or defended as a coherent approach to literature.  And yet it is (complete with its own institutes to prove it). (I realize I’m arguing at cross-purposes with John here, but being that we’re not a hive mind, I don’t think he’ll have much of a problem with that.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 08/13/05 at 03:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther:

Even though Scott’s referring me back to your post, I’m not really sure where you and I disagree, at least in terms of what he said above. Well, there’s the Derrida and political representations thing… a version of the old anti-Derrida libel that the work is contentless spinning, grand hotel de l’abysse sort of thing.

I’d really rather not start up a derrida seminar, but politiical representations are of course representations, right? And thus apt candidates for Derridean deconstruction..

I mean how ridiculous to bring this to bear at this late stage of the game, right? But - Il n’y pas de hors-texte…

Scott,

I just don’t think you can throw that sentence aside - in the passage cited above, that IS the argument against theory. You seem to see VC saying, implicitly:

“The problem with theory is that it hallucinates a bridge between the text and the world that just isn’t there (except in the case of regular, non-theoretical literary criticism).”

Or, at least, if there’s something different that’s wrong about the bridge between text and world when the followers of Derrida and Marx cross it - vs. when, say, you cross it in your own work - I think this merits a little more explanation…

(Hate to drag us down a bit when we’re having fun, but I’d hate to think that you guys muffle your dissent when the Boss is in the room… That’s why I called you and Sean out, above… And that’s why I’m still worried that you seem to think VC’s mode of attack on theory is A-OK. When it patently contradicts everything that you and Sean and I do… We cross the bridge…

By CR on 08/13/05 at 09:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, moving down the row, a few responses. First, Jodi writes:

So, what you support is a way of thinking that strives to be normal and paradigm reinforcing (as opposed to excessive and paradigm shattering), a method or way of thinking characterized by honesty, dignity, and equilibrium that produces modest, solid scholarship?

No, obviously not. It’s not about enforcing mediocrity (did I sound like I was arguing for Harrison Bergeron as an ideal?) It’s about encouraging authenticity. Now that’s a conversation-killer of a term, I know. But all it means is: the suspicion is that, by making it standard - per the Culler quote - to ‘do Theory’, you encourage kitsch. Because Theory is, by definition, not normal. It’s discipline-busting, logic-busting, paradigm-breaking.

Presumably this way of thinking would trust ‘classical’ forms - conventional logic, standard argument. It would not insist on originality or in overcoming anything at all. It should avoid eclectism in favor of significance.

I trust standard arguments when I think they are good. (What do you do?) I would encourage originality and overcoming when something looks like it could use it; I would not insist on originality if the result is not going to be originality but some ersatz substitute. If you don’t have anything original to say, you should not speak nonsense. It is fine to be eclectic but generally not at the expense of significance. Although a bit of nonsense is nice, now and again.

So, making the familiar strange is not advisable, but making the familiar reassuring and comfortable is? Shock is not a goal of a work, but serious contemplation or perhaps recognition of the rationality of the world?

Making the familiar strange is often highly advisable. Presumably the familiar is already reassuring and comfortable, so I don’t suppose there is any especial need to pad it further. To the extent that the world is rational, it is good to recognize that. (Is there anything I’ve said that forbids me to hold these positions? Or suggests that I don’t hold them?)

Are there examples of works that do this that you admire? Presumably Mill.

Plato, Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche are my top four philosophers, not necessarily in that order. I like Mill very much but there is nothing Millian about what I am calling ‘Millian theory’. I just named it after him because of the ‘quack’ line.

Now obviously the next thing you will say is: but don’t all those figures, especially Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, manage strange discipline-bending tricks? Don’t they try to think reason through until they teeter over the abyss of irrationality? Why, yes. Yes they do. But for precisely that reason I think they are not good models for disciplinary work: if you encourage everyone to try to do this sort of thing at home, you will just get hyperventilating and kitsch. Obviously anyone who thinks they have the terpsichorean knack for abyss dancing should go ahead and dip their toe in. I don’t want to discourage genius. I just don’t think to oblige everyone to pretend that they are geniuses. (Also I don’t think there is the least danger that my tut-tutting is going to turn back the next Nietzsche. If you have it in you to bend and break whole disciplines to your supra-rational will, little old me isn’t going to be any obstacle.) To do Theory well, you have to be a genius. Nietzsche writes: Shelley could live in no nation, and a nation of Shelley’s could not exist. Something like that. I say: Theory is like Shelley and so: Theory can exist in no discipline, and a discipline of Theorists could not exist. By attempting to make Theory normal - standard - the presumption - literary studies tries to make a discipline of Theorists. The result is non-existent, qua what it is trying to be: we’ve got is a lot of metaphysical mash-up product, not so much genuine breaking on through to the other side. We’ve got lots of ordinay scholarly work, that might have been OK, marred by an obligatory overlay of stylistic kitsch. Not always, obviously. Some people pull it off. Yes.

My complaint about Theory - probably I should have made this clearer somewhere - is with the attempted normalization of it. That’s what makes the Romanticism of it turn decadent. So it’s an institutional complaint, if you like. Put this way: if Theory really were the tremendous, transforming thing it has to be - bloody hell everyone should be expected to resist it. And if it were a fraud - everyone should resist it. So either way resistance to Theory is healthy. Put it another way: if you oblige everyone to interrogate the boundaries, then that isn’t really interrogating the boundaries anymore.

And, if you reject the putting all the eggs in the theory basket in the passage that you quoted and I had quoted from someone else, would you say that the plain thinking (I’m trying something else instead of ant-theory) approach that you advocate resists the bureaucratic cooptation and assessment going on now in higher education?

The all the eggs in the same basket approach to theory just generates confusion about very different sorts of things. What I’m calling ‘Millian theory’ is more than plain thinking. It’s a general commitment to offering general accounts and giving reasons and explanations for things. (Science and rationalistic philosophy are developments of this line, but it comes in humbler forms as well.) The bureaucratic cooptation point seems to me a red herring. If I’m right, and Theory has a serious problem keeping itself from kitsch, we should hardly look to it for help. Bureaucrats do not fear kitsch. If I’m wrong and Theory is a wonderful transforming force without any real problems of the sort I suggest - then I’m wrong.

Moving on down ... [something gets cut here and refuses all attempts to edit it back in. I gave up trying and just posted it as a separate comment below.]

<style and Theory. As to my own prancing from high to low and back: well, I like that stuff. And Theory does it, and likes it. But I don’t really like Theory. As to the rest of your post: well, looking out at the contemporary scene, I don’t like the High Eclecticism. If you deny that exists, then I guess we can start there. As to the individuals. I don’t think it is fair to try to refute individuals by attacking Theory. Every individual is entitled to an individual trial. On the other hand, it is not unreasonable to try to isolate ‘tendencies’, although you have to be careful. I can’t do everything all at once. Just a blog post. “simultaneously the finest achiements of the Enlightenment, even as they declare the death of the Enlightenment project.” Sounds like the counter-Enlightenment, at least in my book. The standard gesture of the counter-Enlightenment, so far as I can see, is that the way beyond the rational world lies through the rational world (to paraphrase Wallace Stephens.) You think more cannily than the canny and end up uncanny. That’s the game. It’s not a game many people can play well, in my opinion. You should not oblige everyone to play it, as a point of disciplinary manners.</p>I don’t insist that you adopt my silly capitalization scheme, which even it’s own step-mother, me, has trouble loving. I don’t insist that you accept my potted four senses as they stand. You can tailor them to suit. But you can’t get by without something of the sort. The fact that the term is seriously ambiguous is not a matter of opinion. It is a minimal requirement of contributing to the debate that you distinguish enough senses to make sense of what people are actually doing. This means seeing that the contributors to Theory’s Empire are not against what you imply they are.

Back to Jodi, who writes:

It’s also interesting the way that the Holbo strategy refuses to engage, even denies, the material, institutional, and pedagogical issues your initial post raises. And this is a shame. It forfeits the opportunity to consider the challenge of teaching critical thinking when the testing, measure, outcomes, and assessment is being forced down the throat of the academy.

Where did I refuse to engage, let alone deny, these issues? A post will not discuss everything. Look, it should be clear I think teaching Theory is not a particularly effective way of teaching critical thinking. But my reasons for thinking Theory is not effective have to do with my critique of Theory itself. For me to argue that it’s bad because it’s a bad way of teaching critical thinking would flagrantly beg the question. So I didn’t. In general, the fact that there are other serious problems in academia does not mean that the problems I am trying to discuss aren’t real. Nor that I deny those other problems are problems, etc.

As Luther rightly points out as well, the Holbo post provides no indication of what counts as good or valuable theory and what is bad Theory. As far as I can tell, his point seems to rely on an implicit normative distinction: Theory is bad and theory is good (unavoidable, reasonable thinking). Theory is an icky practice that is not coterminous with the names most associated with it (Derrida, Foucault, Benjamin, Althusser, Butler, Jameson, White, Hall, Said, etc). But, since the work of these theorists is not Theory, then how are we to know when we are within its grasp?

Well, obviously I’m making normative distinctions left and right, implicit and explicit. Obviously I’m not saying Theory is bad and theory is good. Obviously there can be bad theories of an ordinary sort. (How could I possibly deny that anyone has ever had a bad theory about anything?) And I make a point of saying that my critique of Theory cannot hope to prove something like ‘every single thing that every Theorist has written is nonsense.’ I wouldn’t want to try to prove it, because it’s obviously false. I am, explicitly trying to isolate what I think are bad tendencies and weaknesses. You can’t convict individual figures through some guilt by association move. (I am sorry that I have to cause suspicon to fall on their heads, but that’s unavoidable in intellectual life. You suspect some people are confused because you think badly of their associations. Still, you should try to give them a fair consideration if it comes to that.) There are bad tendencies and weakness in analytic philosophy, too. I even mention some in the post. Bad tendency talk is not something we can always avoid. Because sometimes there are bad tendencies.

Holbo says we know it when we see it (like the great argument for obscenity), yet, if that’s the case, then, like later arguments around obscenity, determining its expanse, boundaries, parameters (where there must be pasties, one could say) is a matter for community standards. So I wonder, then, whether all the discussion has done is suggest that there are different tribes, different communities.

Look, this is quite elementary. There are vague predicates. ‘Theory’ is one. ‘Obscenity’ is another. ‘Bald’ is a third. Community standards is a legal device for handling cases where something vague is outlawed, as neither baldness nor Theory is. I’m not planning to pass a law against Theory, so there isn’t any need to operationalize the determination of whether something is in, or is not. I’m not planning on saying to anyone ‘you do Theory, so you are bad’. I am - see above - discussing something rather vague and noting that it has, in my opinion, certain unfortunate features and tendencies. If you are simply making the point that people may disagree about what counts as Theory: well, obviously. (Why would I deny it? It’s a vague category.) As to the claim that all the argument has done is suggest there are different tribes, different communities, certainly not: would you say that all discussion that involves vague predicates - all discussion of baldness, for example - merely suggests that there are different tribes. They never have anything to say about baldness? Vague things actually exist.

Maybe more later ...

[I’ve edited this for typos and clarity because I hit publish too soon. Oopsy.]

By John Holbo on 08/13/05 at 11:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The following bit got cut out of the middle of my comment above, after ‘moving on down’; it refuses to allow itself to be edited back in (for reasons that quite elude me). Here it is:

Luther, I understand what you mean about kitsch and the shit-eating grin. But I am quite serious about the 19th century musicology. Kitsch is a specific developmental threat when you refuse a certain sort of classical conformity, insist on originality and tremendous effect, and find you just can’t develop your ideas without padding them out with cliche and overblown theatrics. It’s part and parcel with my view that Theory is a sort of late-Romanticism, declined into decadence. (So if my term has certain inappropriate connotations, please see that it also have some appropriate ones I’m trying to corral.) I also, frankly, see a certain connection between playful, campy ironic style and Theory ...

By John Holbo on 08/13/05 at 11:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think that the important criticisms of your piece here, John, are those of Luther Blissett and to a lesser extent, of Kenneth Rufo.  To anyone who is willing to read charitably, the general outlines of your attack on Theory are well-established.  What you need at this point is specificity.

Since Theory is based around celebrity thinkers, what specificity means in this case is that you should start from the beginning of the tree, mention each major thinker in turn, and briefly say what you agree or disagree with in their work, in congruence with your general theory.  You could do this by linking to other people’s essays wihtout writing something of your own, if you agreed with someone else.  You start something like that when you seem to say that Derrida’s not part of your critique but his followers are.  “(Does Derrida write kitsch? No, actually. But I think he is the cause of it in others.)” I think that Luther’s right in that we generally get the outline of your critique, and that now we should know who really falls under it and who does not, and why.

This may sound like a very large task, but it need not be long for each thinker.  And if you really think that someone early in the tree indicates a break, such as “anyone who follows thinker X is covered by my critique”, then all you have to do for other thinkers is indicate that in your opinion they follow X.

One of the standard criticisms of Theory is that it is so vague that it gives critics nothing solid to disagree with.  I don’t think that anti-Theory should give people reason to make the same charge.

By on 08/13/05 at 11:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m trying to make one last post to address this point, Rich. You’re right.

By John Holbo on 08/13/05 at 12:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Good!  One last point—a good chunk of this latest post on Theory distinguishes what geniuses can do from what ordinary academics can do.  It’s like saying that if you’re Derrida, go ahead and Theorize, if you’re a Derridean, give it up.  I don’t think that this is very convincing if it turns out to be a reason not to criticize the major Theory thinkers.  It’s possible to imagine a argument that says that any Theorist who came up with something worthwhile is therefore a genius, and therefore your criticism doesn’t apply to them—a sort of deliberate loading of your guns with grapeshot.  One might imagine a job application form, “Can you do Theory?” with question 1 being “Are you a genius?  Answer yes or no.  If no, do not bother to fill out the rest of the form.” I’d guess that I don’t have to detail all of the different reasons why this doesn’t work.

By on 08/13/05 at 12:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, I am trying to get a fair sense of what you support and what you oppose. Although you may think that this is clear and self-evident, it isn’t to me, in part because the clarity and self-evidence relies on a notion (Theory) that you find helpful and that I find too vague to be useful. So, that end, my way to try to give your position a fair treatment has been to try to specify it absent the controversial terms.

So, you want to encourage significance, authenticity and originality, but be wary of slides into kitsch. (I’ll disagree with this because I think kitsch can actually tell us a lot about people, the world, ways of feeling, dominant themes, but I think this takes the discussion in a different direction. Or maybe you would agree, a bit, since you think a bit of nonsense can be nice now and again.)

You are against the ‘normalization’ and ‘institutionalization’ of Theory:

1. if Theory really were the tremendous, transforming thing it has to be - bloody hell everyone should be expected to resist it.
2. if it were a fraud - everyone should resist it. So either way resistance to Theory is healthy.
3. if you oblige everyone to interrogate the boundaries, then that isn’t really interrogating the boundaries anymore.

As you state these claims, I don’t disagree. But, then I think:
1.  you are resisting Theory, so maybe this is a sign that Theory is a tremendous, transforming thing
2.  you think Theory is a fraud, which isn’t right because you haven’t said that Theory is fraud, rather you think that geniuses do Theory
3.  Theory obliges people to interrogate boundaries; you are interrogating boundaries; you are practicing Theory.

On the tribes and communities: I know you are not trying to ‘pass a law against’ Theory. Yet, as you say, part of this discussion involves institutional practices, particularly those involved in the teaching and study of literature. To this extent, one can imagine your arguments used in decisions about curriculum, hiring, tenure, and whether to publish articles on that. So, they do become arguments involved in the constitution of communities.

By Jodi on 08/13/05 at 01:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

[The Valve seems to have eaten this, so if I double-post, well, it’s not my fault.]

I just don’t think you can throw that sentence aside - in the passage cited above, that IS the argument against theory.

I’m not throwing that sentence aside: I’m contextualizing it.  The argument is against Theory as a con, i.e. a singular, coherent and unassailable entity, one which is both deconstructive (and thus, following Derrida here, necessarily apolitical) and overtly political.  I don’t think Cunningham or myself is breaking new ground here: Derrida spent the last 15 years of his life wrestling the apolitical implications of deconstructive thought.  In other words, we’re not the first people to recognize that The Specters of Marx and The Politics of Friendship are almost incommensurable.  Derrida was.  As he said during an interview with Geoffrey Bennington shortly after the publication of The Politics of Friendship:

So, it’s not a political theory - part of what I’m trying to say in these texts [SoM & PoF] is not part of a theory that would be included in the field known as politology or political theory, and it’s not a deconstructive politics either.  I don’t think that there is such a thing as a deconstructive politics, if by the name ‘politics’ we mean a programme, an agenda, or even the name of a regime.

That Derrida struggled to articulate the connection that you’re assuming exists should tell you that I’m not entirely insane to be suggesting its existence. 

Hate to drag us down a bit when we’re having fun, but I’d hate to think that you guys muffle your dissent when the Boss is in the room.

John and I don’t entirely agree on the coherence of this thing called theory; in the other post (to which I’ve yet to respond), you jammed myself, Rich, Sean and Tim into a single “you guys” and replied to “us.” So now I’m being careful to distinguish my argument from John’s.  I don’t have a Boss, but I do love the Boss.  But only the classic material (and The Ghost of Tom Joad, which sounds like it could’ve come from the Nebraska sessions).

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 08/13/05 at 01:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m sorry, how does that quote acknowledge those two works to be incommensurable, exactly?  There seems this new (not really new) tendency to reduce JD’s project to a failed attempt at “wrestling the apolitical implications of deconstruction”...as if that was all he was ever concerned about.  I don’t buy it, and for one reason because what he objected to, and is indeed objecting to here (for the zillionth time), is precisely such a reduction of his work to a particular “project” or politics-with-a-program merely, etc.

Ghost of Tom Joad, yes, right up there with World Gone Wrong.

By Matt on 08/13/05 at 02:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Matt, I believe we’re agreeing (and not just about Springsteen and Dylan).  That quote points to Derrida’s intellectual honesty: he realized that the deconstructive method cannot entail any particular politics, not even his own.  My point, then, is the same as yours: deconstruction cannot be reduced to a particular project or politics-with-a-program; therefore the claim that it’s necessarily affiliated with the explicitly leftist thought of Judith Butler or Homi Bhabha or run-of-the-mill identitarian theorists makes no sense.  If follows neither from Derrida’s thought, his thought about his thought or his practice.  As I said, I don’t think we’re disagreeing here.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 08/13/05 at 03:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Theory obliges people to interrogate boundaries

I do not think there is a set entitled “Theory” which can be predicated, much less discussed. THe “Theory” being referred to here is, it seems safe to say, literary theory.  And yet even that is problematic. Marx’s writing is not just literary theory: is’s economic and political theory as well. So is Marx’s writing included in “Theory” being referred to? If so, then I think you are not speaking about literary theory, you are disucssing politics and economics. Similarly for Freud: if Freud is part of the theory, then a great chunk of psychological theory is included in the set. Then Professor Holbo’s Theory would encompass a few grand political/economic/psychological theories. At this point it is not literary theory at all.

That is really the case with lit. crit: it is parasitical on other disciplines:  psychology, marxist economics, linguistics, philosophy. Simply defining what are the relevant literary critical texts is probably futile if not silly. For instance Nietzsche’s writing would be very relevant to a discussion of many modernist writers, and to the pomo critics as well. So Nietzsche along with Marx and Freud are in a sense a far more substantial foundation than are Derrida and Lacan (who are obviously developing marxist/freudian themes), and Derrida and pomo must be read in relation to them (to see his departures as well as possible errors and oversights). Indeed I suggest without knowledge of the “modernist” thought of Big Daddies such as Marx, Nietzsche, Freud (and possibly other figures such as Wittegenstein or Darwin) the later figures are not understandable..

Theory as you are using it is quite imprecise if not invalid. Pomo reponded to the Big modernist Daddies and is predicated on their theories, for better or worse. It’s not justifiable to assume that postmodernism necessarily superceded or replaced the marxist or freduian issues, or at least the discussion should begin by arguing how and by what means pomo did replace the Big Daddies.

By vladicus on 08/13/05 at 04:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

’scuzi tho for clogging up your thread. really.

The issue in some sense still relates to the Derrida/Searle spat of the 80s/90s. (And if you automatically assume Derrida won that little duel you might be an anti-rationalist, vichy snob-aesthete). 

That spat shoud be decided upon, in person and by institution, before even including anything by Derrida or his acolytes in any discussion. If you value any sort of inductive methods, you are for Searle; if you are communicating about a world outside your own mind using words and statements, and you believe you’re saying something which your particular linguistic group can agree upon, you are for Professor Searle.  If you value reason and “clear and distinct” ideas (as Descartes required of all rational philosophy), and would rank value-neutral analysis above obscure, unverifiable, exceedingly verbose dadaist rants, then you are with Searle; and “Theory” with a capital T, AKA postmodernism, then is really just a sort of a bizarre game of debauched, wordy clerics meant to further their own belle-lettrist careers.

By ........... on 08/13/05 at 05:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If you value reason and “clear and distinct” ideas (as Descartes required of all rational philosophy), and would rank value-neutral analysis above obscure, unverifiable, exceedingly verbose dadaist rants, then you are with Searle; and “Theory” with a capital T, AKA postmodernism, then is really just a sort of a bizarre game of debauched, wordy clerics meant to further their own belle-lettrist careers.

I take it the anti-Theory people at the Valve will a) be keen to distance themselves from this kind of stuff and b) see what the ‘Theory side’ is often up against.

By on 08/13/05 at 06:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Our friend is in remission at the moment.

By John Emerson on 08/13/05 at 06:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

O yes, distance yourself, by all means, distance yourselves from it--the impropriety of it! The postmodern belle-lettrist must of course uphold the most refined standards of stalinist chi chi etiquette. 

Decon./Phil. of Language Showdown:

Searle, J. (USA) vs. Derrida J. (France)

Searle, victory by knockout, second round

(but if you are suitably irrational so as to not perceive Doc Searle’s victoty, you might still have what it takes to succeed as a grad student in various UC English departments)

By ........... on 08/13/05 at 07:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Will the elided one, AKA vladicus, AKA a couple other things, please see fit to raise the tone a couple notches. I realize the thread hasn’t exactly been a model of manners, but I’d like to see it start being more so rather than less so. If you want to make an argument about Searle/Derrida, make it.

By John Holbo on 08/13/05 at 10:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Our friends is now out of remission. He’s a code-switching hero.

By John Emerson on 08/13/05 at 10:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not suitably qualified to defend Searle’s entire corpus, nor his writings on speech acts, though I do think some of the analytical philosophers were right to criticize speech acts ala Austin and Searle as well as Wittgenstein of the PI: Russell dismissed that school as “the silly things that silly people say”.

I think Searle is correct in questioning the postmodernist challenge to the basic Enlightenment vision that there is an independently existing reality. Your stomach exists. You could give it any number of names. You could refer to it by a variable. And the name is obviously not identical to the organ, the thing being referred to, but the thing does exist independently of your thoughts. Cut open a normal human corpse and a stomach is there; yes the sense data enters our mind and the sense data is not the thing, but it’s far more likely that human sense data actually maps or represents the thing in reality (subject to parameters of human eyesight and nervous system) rather than that everyone is subject to mass delusion ( ie. Descartes subjective doubt, to which postmod seems sort of related, is also suspect and does not establish that one is correct in doubting empirical perception--we can doubt our stomach/hunger/need for food everyday but that doubt does not extend so far as to stop humans from eating).

All of this is silly if not futile, and we should recall that even Marxism starts from the premise of an objective Hobbesian materialism (later modified by Darwin)

Derrida and some postmodernists also seem (tho again JD also seems to quibble and switch his views when pressed) to doubt that language may refer in some clear and intelligible way to elements of physical reality, and they doubt that we can obtain objective truth about that reality. Searle questions all of this radical skepticism.  Most semi-intelligent humans realize that the language--words, statements--is not identical to the things/events being referred to, and if that all he is saying then that is a trivial point. Table or La Meaa : they are simply signs for the thing existing in reality. The denotation--"table" = flat thing made out of wood, metal, plastic, etc. with legs in the dining room which plate can rest on--can hardly be doubted; the connotations “table” could be vague, poetic, metaphorical, subjective to some degree etc. And I think Derrida and most lit. critics do conflate the denoative and connotative. There is little ambiguity to the denotative use of “table” once the language is learned, just as once the “ping” command is learned in networking, you know what it does. “ping” does something very specific as do any number of other DOS or Win. commands, and language often works that way, even in conversation. And that such defined commands/operations/functions can occur in no way entails some sort of grand platonic foundation or assumption. It still works from some basic Hobbesian causal view, of course updated and ramped up with electronics. The search for the platonic foundation and the attempts to undermine it are sort of misguided metaphysics as Searle points out. As one wag said, postmodernists, realizing that Platonism could not explain reality, decided to reject reality. (that’s for starters; much more could be said of course)

By ............ on 08/14/05 at 12:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

To begin with, I think the main reason why the Avengers have been considered a security risk should patently obvious--there are just too blasted many of you! The National Security Council can’t even keep track of who’s coming and going!

Therefore, in order to regain your priority privileges, you’ll be required to pare down your membership to core group of seven.

By Gyrich on 08/14/05 at 12:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Cut open a normal human corpse and a stomach is there;

Thus I refute Bishop Berkeley.

By on 08/14/05 at 07:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve been pretty downheartened by the immediate return of the “Theory’s Empire” discussion. It seemed like a “The masked serial killer is dead. No, he’s not!” moment, and so I walked out of the theater, even if this may seem to provide passive encouragement to masked serial killers. (Spoiler: “Theory” is not behind the mask.)

But I must praise “Gyrich” for providing perhaps the best example of “Retort to Holbo” in the short history of the genre.

By Ray Davis on 08/14/05 at 12:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Perhaps some apologies to Kenneth Rufo, as well as the “crazy” folks at Long Sunday, are in order.  Thanks.

By Name on 08/14/05 at 02:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Trickster, there’s more to being a first-class troll than that. An inability to distinguish interlocutors or arguments (all which is not Troll is The Enemy) and frequent falling back to gross personal insults are also important. Think harrassing phone calls rather than a determined writer of letters-to-the-editor.

By Ray Davis on 08/14/05 at 02:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

http://ghostinthewire.org/archives/2005/08/on_theory_and_i_1.php

By Matt on 08/14/05 at 08:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My failure to name names - specific Theorists I dislike - rather than quoting Valentine Cunningham’s paragraph a couple posts in a row, has come in for criticism. Part of my reply is: I have been arguing, generally and rather abstractly, for the presumptive merit and coherence of the theme of a certain big fat anthology lately out of Columbia UP. It’s rather modestly priced and possibly available at the library. (Even I’m not going to write you a 700 page blog post.) But in part I am genuinely at fault for brandishing flaming sword words like ‘anti-Theory’. What is it that I’m really ‘anti’, and to what extent? On the contemporary scene, I disapprove of what I have come to call the Higher Eclecticism, which is what the Cunningham paragraph I keep quoting describes. Metaphysical mash-up culture, if you will. It’s what I suggest is kitsch, per my previous post.

Since this thing is a general bad tendency; an unfortunate style; something unsuited to have the institutional dominance it has - I think it is reasonable, though of course not ideal, for me not to single out individual Theorists. I do, of course, think that many who ‘do Theory’ have reputations deserving puncture. But that has to be piecemeal work, although it is obviously will be tied into the general critique. I am sure much resistance to what I have been arguing is due to a sense that I am trying to refute in bulk. Label the lot ‘Theory’, bury the baggy monster. No muss, no fuss. Probably I haven’t done nearly enough to make clear I do realize that’s not acceptable procedure. If people still object to the general term - Theory - even after I formally abjure mass trials on that basis; if people doubt there’s some anthropological validity to Cunningham’s descripton of the discipline - well, I think that’s just wrong. When the time comes to write the chapter of intellectual history, you are going to need ‘Theory’, not literary theory, theory of literature. This isn’t to say that usability turns the term into the sort of thing you can refute. But balking at its usability seems pointless to me.

I could try to take potshots at some named individuals at this point, but my sense is that the best thing is let the topic cool off for a while.

Some trollstuff deleted from the thread.

By John Holbo on 08/14/05 at 10:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The sooner you get to names, the better. Especially if what you’re up to here is the reform of university literature departments. Because here’s the thing: there’s hardly anyone practicing pure “theory,” rather than theoretically inflected crit and analysis, anymore in actual English departments.

Can’t you see that this is what makes the whole seem ideologically driven and culture warish? Like a war on terror rather than on terrorists?

Anyway, do yr Wittgenstein bit, and then please do start cracking the lit crit open. Preferably very recent stuff!

By CR on 08/14/05 at 11:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

CR, this is another way in which my presentation has probably misled. I talk about Theory, rather loosely, as though there is some commonly met with pure entity - Theory an sich - that needs combatting. When the situation on the ground is that there is just a lot of stuff rather incidentally inflected in a Theory-ish way. Well, I do know that, and it’s mostly the chronic, low-grade inflections that I want to treat, in a reformist spirit. I get driven to somewhat reify the theme - Theory - by the need to first frame the reform in a general way; then ... well, then some other somewhat deforming aspects of the discussion take hold and I end up saying Theory rather than Theorists. If I start on the other end, by just focussing on a few individuals, the problem will be that people will object - quite reasonably, in a sense - that just hanging a few individuals is not enough to show that Theory as a whole is suspect. So focus on the big picture and you miss the actual individuals. Focus on the individuals and you never get to the big picture. It’s a dilemma. Getting beyond it requires a great deal of walking on eggshells, by me. Not something I always do well. And it seems to me it would help as well if the other side were less quick to try to spike the debate prematurely by implying there is something obviously wrong with the very notion of a critique along these lines.

Yes, I will get back to it. Focusing on recent stuff.

By John Holbo on 08/15/05 at 12:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Like a war on terror rather than on terrorists”—beautifully put, CR.

Not that terror isn’t something to fight, but it’s hard to fight it second-hand without veering onto iffy moral ground. I felt better backing up particular students who felt beaten down by particular Theory-wielding teachers and fellow-students than I do running from classroom to classroom swinging a broadsword in theorized students’ supposed behalf.

Right now, though, I’m most miffed by Lawrence having kicked off on Spicer without any warning while I’d started working on something else entirely. Durn his hide.

By Ray Davis on 08/15/05 at 12:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

In this conciliatory spirit, why don’t we try an experiment? Let’s agree to take a look at a recent issue of a journal in the field, one showing the practice of current literary theory. Then we can discuss specific articles, etc. It could be a Long Sunday/Valve collaborative event.

By Jonathan on 08/15/05 at 12:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John, I guess the other side of it for me is that the worst excesses I’ve personally seen from the “Theory” canon over the past year or two haven’t been in literary studies. They’ve been in stupid energy-wasting pseudo (do I betray my prejudices?) political writing. Which I find annoying, although not the most major political problem at hand.

On the other hand, literary studies seem (to me, anyway) to be in an interestingly eclectic (as opposed to worthlessly eclectic) condition at the moment. So, I look at what The Valve is for, and I look at what I have another website for, and it’s hard for me to justify bringing my annoyance into The Valve.

Because I work slowly, sometimes even though I’ve been aching to join a fight, the combatants have left the ring by the time I’ve finished tying my gloves. That’s frustrating, but there’s not much point in punching the post.

By Ray Davis on 08/15/05 at 12:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree with Ray.... About the state of literary studies at the moment… Part of what’s frustrating about this debate on the valve is that it seems to be at once about theory in general and theory in US literature departments. Two separate questions perhaps…

And Jonathan, I like you’re idea a lot. We’re you the one, way back at the beginning of the Valve, who brought forward the issue of Social Text? That was nicely done… But we need a specifically lit studies journal, right? ELH? God, I’m not so in love with any of them… PMLA is not my fav. Critical Inquiry is better, but again veers out of literature and into the interdisciplinary beyond.

I’m not sure how the Long Sunday folks would feel about it. Not everyone - or not even most - do “literature” by trade on LS. Jodi, for instance… In fact I’m the only one who I know for sure is currently employed in a dept. of english… (though there may be others for sure… I just don’t know...)

Anyway - it’d be interesting even if it just happened on the Valve.

By CR on 08/15/05 at 12:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

That was me. And I was derided by Brad Delong, Jodi Dean, Fort Kant, and Conscientious Objector, along with perhaps others, for my efforts. NLH might be a good candidate.

By Jonathan on 08/15/05 at 01:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

What’s the short short short version of what each said about the Social Text piece?

By CR on 08/15/05 at 01:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I did something of the sort a year or so ago. Read a whole year’s worth of PMLA and rated it. It’s a good thing to do, so I heartily second Jonathan’s proposal. One thing I was sort of hoping the Valve would do, from the get-go, would be review the reviews - in a point-people-to-the-good spirit, not just bash the bad.

We could pick up the latest issue of “Critical Inquiry” and just have at. Or do PMLA. (I don’t have a strong preference, but CI is clearly a likely candidate.) But give the Lit Witt a few weeks first. We need a break from this stuff.

By John Holbo on 08/15/05 at 01:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

How about the current issue of CI? 31.4 (summer 2005)... Not tons of lit stuff in there, but who cares… Stuff that I’d like to read one way or another…

I’d love to have a month or so to read it anyway. Like I keep telling everyone - and no one’s cutting me any slack or looking out for my feelings at all - I’ve got both a new baby and a new asst. prof. - so let’s give old CR some time to get ready, kay?

Check off on this and I’ll pitch to LS… No guarantees on that front, but I’ll be here…

By CR on 08/15/05 at 01:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You rated it, but you didn’t actually discuss the pieces by name, did you?

As memory serves, Delong mocked one of the quotes from the articles, Fort Kant and Dean thought I was being snide towards Social Text somehow, and CO compared me unfavorably to S.J. Perelman for some reason.

I’d again nominate New Literary History as the journal. The 36.1 number has a series of “Essays on the Humanities.” But CI might also be a good choice. It might also be instructive to choose a somewhat less famous journal, so that we could get a good sense of how publishing literature scholars actually use theory.

By Jonathan on 08/15/05 at 01:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t remember you being snide about Social Text…

Anyway - I just looked at NLH 36.1 (that’s winter 2005, right?) and I think it looks too meta… No actual lit crit there to work on… and I really think we need some meatandpotatoes stuff to work on, no?

They’re already having the debate we’re going to have about them… Dramamine time if we take that up…

By CR on 08/15/05 at 01:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Alright, where were all you people who want to read Critical Inquiry when I analyzed a full four year’s worth of issues in order to demonstrate the superiority of CI to other venues of academic debate!?!  That said, I think this is a great idea, although I’ll have to bow out of discussing Jennifer Bajorek’s article on Homeland Security, since I’ve heard and/or read about 18 versions of it by now...and have yet to find any of them all that convincing.  (Not a criticism of Theory, mind you, just that particular article.) But if you really want to involve me in this personally, y’all ought to decide to discuss the Spring ‘05 issue, half of which is devoted to a conference, hosted by UCI in honor of Hillis, that I not only attended but helped organize.  (How’s that for street cred?) All kidding aside, I think it’d be most productive--and I say this as someone who’s read an inordinate amount of CI this summer--to focus on the Winter 2004 symposium on “The Future of Theory” or the Winter 2005 issue on the legacy of Said.  You know, for the kids.  (Or coherence.  Whichever one isn’t the tagline from a subpar Cohen Brothers’ film.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 08/15/05 at 01:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I won’t discuss the “future of theory” issue of CI, which is an abomination before the artist formerly known as gd.

Only my man Jameson came through there… Anything but that.

By CR on 08/15/05 at 01:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Cambridge Quarterly’s current issue is a 40th anniversary “English Studies Now” fest.  Please please please no Critical Inquiry, wouldn’t that just be an invitation to more of the same headkicking and chestbeating?

By on 08/15/05 at 01:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry CR, I was only trying to recommend an issue in which all of the participants assumed they knew what this body of knowledge called or not called “Theory” was, and that it’d be useful to examine what a prominent theorists did and didn’t include on that list.  No offense intended.  I’m just trying to be useful here.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 08/15/05 at 04:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Increasingly, I’m sensing that Theory denotes a certain academic style, as exemplified in someone like Homi Bhabha. I have problems reconciling this with the ‘wrong philosophical turn’, though, unless this turn <style in question. It’s also then difficult for me to square the style definition with the claim that only a genius could do Theory. What I take this to mean is that if a non-genius tries it, it inevitably ends up as the Style known as Theory. But in that case, Theory itself is not definitively this style, but something like the attempt to challenge disciplinary boundaries, range over different disciplines with effortless elan etc. Obviously, if Theory is that academic style we can recognise in a Bhabha, then you demonstrably don’t have to be a genius to do it. I think Bhabha is an interesting example, as his style seems precisely a ‘sly subversion’ of conventional academic writing. For example, the dedication to (I think) Location of Culture, is absurdly lengthy and inclusive, in obvious ‘subversion’ of the convention. It’s self-conscious pastiche, and this clearly accords with the content of his writings. Needless to say, one can think of other Theorists who practice something <em>like</em> this style; others don’t practice it at all.

By Mark Kaplan on 08/15/05 at 06:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

should read ‘unless this turn lends itself to the style in question’

By on 08/15/05 at 06:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Mark, the contention is that the style is encouraged by a set of widely shared assumptions that are generally taken on faith.  I tried to summarize what I see as the relevant factors at your blog.  It’s my belif that what people mean when they say “doing Theory” is, in fact, widely understood and not that difficult to parse.  It means predominantly poststructuralism and poststructuralist influenced work, with room made for the gentle absorption of various figures (especially from the canon of Western Marxism) who can seem to be read in sympathetic ways--even if this depends on misunderstanding or manhandling.  (The, um, imperial absorption of not fully consistent thinkers under poststructuralist rubrics without much concern for coherence or implication is one of the features of Theory.  Ryan on Marx perhaps paved the way, but there are lots of other examples.  Bhaba is a great one. So too is Judith Butler.) This tactic is often in fact praised as “reading” or “reinterpreting” or “resignifying.”

This is a hastily assembled list, but consider whether most Theory, even the applied sort emphasized by CR, does not share a set something like this set of premises: the non- or problematically weak referentiality of language; the epistemological and moral dubiousness of realism; the pervasiveness of power operating primarily through cultural forces (and very rarely arising as a product of economic or political forces), with the consequence that all cultural or intellectual productions (except those of Theory) merit a hermeneutics of suspicion; the primary political and cultural role, and the illegitimacy, of normalization; the value of isolated acts of resistance to norms; the subversiveness per se of this set of intellectual assumptions.

These are, I think, the assumptions that guide Bhaba and others’ sense that sly subversion of conventional academic writing is a good and resonant thing to do.  The consequence is sometimes works of genius and otherwise a lot of kitsch.  Contra John, I want to defend useful mediocrity.  It’s all most of us are capable of and would be preferable to useless kitsch.  One consequence of Theory (as Timothy Burke has argued most eloquently) is that it undermines the possibility of useful mediocrity.

Laura, I hate to say it, but if the proposed experiment is to be of any value, the journal will have to be a flagship.  CI looks like the best choice to me.

By on 08/15/05 at 07:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan, would you mind telling me where I criticized you regarding Social Text? I have no recollection of this. Not that I wouldn’t have--it sounds just like something I would say, but I don’t recall doing it and so would like to know where/when etc.

By Jodi on 08/15/05 at 09:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

P.s., an additional thought, Mark.  One possible reason for the filiation you and others have noted between Theory and the habits of pre-Theory academic literary criticism is that almost all the points I suggested above are developments on what is arguably the fundamental assumption legitimizing the establishment of literary study as a distinctive discipline: that form is content.

By on 08/15/05 at 09:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t follow the reasoning behind the “flagship” remark, Sean.

Jodi, it was at Fort Kant. I believe all of the comments there were deleted at some point.

By Jonathan on 08/15/05 at 10:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

this thread should be reentitled: how to talk about literature and literary theory without ever making any claim about any text whatsoever

how about discussion of necessary and contingent truths, ala Tractatus....early Wittgenstein is opposed to merely probable inferences of whatever sort and thus to statements of ethics; since literary assessments are speculative and perhaps contingent at best there is really nothing to argue....

By ............ on 08/15/05 at 10:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

JG, the level of your tractarian scholarship is execrable. Go hang your head in shame. Necessary/contingent is a metaphysical distinction. Probable inference is a psychological, i.e. epistemological notion (read §5.15-5.156). Ethical claims are (according to the early Witt) nonsense, so neither probable nor improbable, neither necessary nor contingent. As to the claim that there is no arguing contingent or probabilistic claims: all states of affairs obtain contingently; natural science concerns these states of affairs; natural science is possible; there are scientific arguments. Ergo, it is possible to argue contingent or probabilistic claims.

(Honestly, what’s the use of an analytic philosopher troll who can’t do analytic philosophy?)

By John Holbo on 08/15/05 at 11:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, and literary assessments, being judgments of value, hence nonsense, are certainly not going to be contingent, even at best.

By John Holbo on 08/15/05 at 11:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

thats the point, bossman, to some degree though many would dispute that Wittgenstein’s account of induction is at all correct. He at one point denies, almost like Hume does, that any causal statements are possible; and so the possibility of making probabilistic inductive inferences more or less (ala Bayes) is verboten; only logical inference is permitted (5.135-->). So yr reading is quite off the mark, and at least by TLP standards a literary wittgenstein is a joke. (and i would say even the PI as well given public criteria and behaviorist leanings)

the only hope for wittgensteinian type of crit. via Tract. would be to read literary texts as somehow affirming various necessary (non-probable, if such things exist) inductive claims, ie natural science (say (biology or evolution)

By ........... on 08/15/05 at 11:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

moreover (though I realize yr J Edgarish self is getting ready to delete some more “troll” stuff) W. doesn’t deny ethics per se, he says that propositions regarding “higher” things such as ethics and aesthetics are meaningless, not the things themselves. No ethical or aesthetic propositions allowed? WHy the English department just closed.

By ......... on 08/15/05 at 11:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Nonono. He doesn’t forbid probabilistic inductive inference any more than Hume does. He of course denies that there are really facts about probability. “Either an event occurs or it does not; there is no middle way” (TLP, 5.153). But that’s not to say it is not possible to make probabilistic judgments. (You’re flubbing the metaphysics/epistemology distinction again. It’s pretty important.) He outlines a schema for probability judgments in 5.151.

Or think of it this way: it is possible to do logic with logical constants which do not - on his account - name any entities. Likewise: it is possible to forumulate probabilistic judgments which do not - on his account - mirror inherently probabilistic aspects of the world. (Why these judgments should tend to work out for us is a question he does not really address.) Trying to sort out Wittgenstein’s status as a literary figure is more delicate, admittedly.

By John Holbo on 08/15/05 at 11:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Look, did I say Wittgenstein denies ethics, per se? I did not. I made a careful point of saying ‘ethical claims’, not ‘ethics’. Of course he admits ethics. (How he does so is a bit of a puzzle.)

By John Holbo on 08/15/05 at 12:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan, the aim of the experiment you suggest is “showing the practice of current literary theory.” It would seem like a good idea, therefore, to find a journal that could provide the best possible versions of what is currently and widely taken to be literary theory.  A journal out of the mainsteam or that doesn’t feature prominent authors won’t be good for these purposes, nor will one that doesn’t exercise influence or attract wide readership.  A journal that is not highly respected will simply be unfair.  Hence the need for a flagship.  Where’s the mystery?

By on 08/15/05 at 12:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

if the inference--which would include probable statements, projections, estimations--concerns a “causal nexus” then it is “superstition” (5.135 area); thus, saying event x caused event/situation y, or most likely resulted in y, so is verboten. That is surely a type of induction.  He may not have intended that (and others have noted possible contradictions in TLP) and I think he is aware of probability issues, but denying that inferences can be made about causality would seem to block many inductive statements

By .............. on 08/15/05 at 12:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, yes. But, likewise, logical deductions are ‘superstitious’ if you believe there’s a Platonic ‘and’ out there somewhere. It doesn’t follow deduction is verboten. But you are right that W’s account leaves the metaphysical basis for the efficacy of causal reasoning not just obscure but pretty clearly absent. He can’t explain why it would work even as a heuristic. (Not such a good account, then.)

By John Holbo on 08/15/05 at 12:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I still think there’s something to criticizing “theory” in a general sense, since theory in the general sense is what undergraduates encounter, and to the extent that theory is an empire, I think that’s where the empire’s borders are policed.  I think there’s a number of poor arguments and practices out there which frequently have the effect of dissuading certain kinds of people from studying Theory, thereby ensuring that as few dissidents get inside the gates as possible.

So, without further ado, here’s my selected critiques of modern theoretical practice.

A love of the equivocation fallacy.  “Every instructor influences his students’ politics at least somewhat.  That’s why its ok for me to actively attempt to ensure my students accept socialism.  Of course I do not disclose that in the course description.” Theory
capitalized versus theory lower cased, and the mixing thereof.  Redefining common words that have well known connotations, then making arguments which suspiciously seem to take advantage of that connotation, all the while disclaiming any such intent.  Like reality in the sense of that stuff that’s real, and reality in the sense of the sensations we perceive.  Why not just call the latter perception?  It will save a lot of trouble when you go on to say that reality is subjective, and your students thinks of the first type of reality and get annoyed.

Conviction that the methods of theory necessarily are linked to a particular political viewpoint, ie, yours.  They’re not.  People who disagree with you yet use your methods aren’t “appropriating the discourse of Theory in service of their partisan goals.” They’re
“Doing Theory.” Just like you.

For example, it is easy to deconstruct many feminist writings- you just call the authors man-haters and go from there.  Find some word
choice that suggests ire directed at men, or which identifies men with something the author dislikes.  Put the author’s view into a
binary set, with “man-hating” on one side, and whatever you believe on the other.  Then reverse that binary and privilege your side.  Congrats, you’ve done theory.  When a student does this, or Rush Limbaugh does this, no amount of protestation on your part about a
lack of “revolutionary” qualities will assuage your students when they look at the writings you’ve assigned in class, and Limbaugh’s
rant, and conclude that they are logically coterminous, except that Limbaugh 1) is a dick, and 2) is more comprehensible.

Insistance that the fault for your foes not understanding you rests with them, not you.  Especially when addressing your students.  If
they don’t get it, maybe its because you’ve made it unnecessarily unclear?  Or, perhaps, your students understood precisely what you
wrote, and it just so happens that it is not what you meant?

Willingness to go awfully far on very little evidence.  Not every book has hidden commentary on every theme.  Or, in short, if I see an essay entitled “Huck Finn and Race,” I can expect that essay to have plenty of material to work with.  If I see an essay entitled “Huck Finn and Homoeroticism,” I can expect that essay to be based less on Huck Finn, and more on the author’s own views, written down with Huck Finn as a rock on which the author can construct his own edifice.  Students can usually tell when their instructor, or an author, is going off on their own and leaving the text behind.  They’re going to get cynical at this point.  I’m slightly less critical of this practice though- I mostly just think it needs to be disclosed.  Students will think “I thought we were going to study Huck Finn, not Verbose Author’s views on homoeroticism with a few anecdotes from Huck Finn tossed in for flavor.” Telling the student in advance will lessen the shock of finding out that you aren’t so much studying literature, as studying with literature.

Students are going to apply a few heuristics when deciding whether to study your subject.  Lets call the most important one the “blatantly full of crap” heuristic.  If a student hears 10 arguments from their instructor, and only understands one, but that one argument is such a massive whopper that the student is shocked to hear it issue from your lips, and if you insist that this whopper is integral to your field, or shared widely amongst your field, or whatever, that student will make certain assumptions about the other nine arguments.  That student will probably also not bother to learn about the other nine- why waste time?

All of these issues feed into each other.  The bad leaps of logic, like with the politics, can be detected by a student with a good brain, and no particulized knowledge.  The whacky freudian accusations of “phallocentrism” and so forth are similar.  The unnecessarily complex prose ensures that any good points are lost in the shuffle.  This guarantees that many students leave class on Theory thinking that its really about a bunch of academics attempting to brainwash students into a particular political viewpoint by making bizarre arguments filled with madeup words that have no fixed meaning all mixed up with a bunch of claims about disciplines the professors don’t understand.

Its no good to protest that you don’t personally do these things, or that these things aren’t intrinsic to theory.  That’s nice and all, but the point is that *people do this stuff,* and it needs to stop.  And since I’m not part of thevalve, I don’t have to add in a million qualifiers to every statement so that I avoid offending people.  Its quite liberating.

By on 08/15/05 at 12:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ok, my formatting is screwed up because I wrote that in Text before cutting and pasting it here.  Sorry.

By on 08/15/05 at 12:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think one of the more pernicious myths in our field is that the journals with the best reputations publish the best stuff. Remember how you made the comment about how articles often had to have the most interesting edges sanded off before they could get through peer-review? I think this happens less often in non-"flagship" journals. I don’t mean choosing an obscure or bad journal, just not necessarily something like CI or PMLA.

By Jonathan on 08/15/05 at 12:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Looking back, I keep worrying that people will misunderstand what I’m trying to say.

If I understand correctly, Holbo and company are attempting to grasp what this big nebulous thing called “Theory” is, and connect the dots between certain allegedly bad practices and the theoretical bases in various famous philosophers and methodologies that explain why they’ve become so prominent.

I’m not doing that.

I’m just pointing out stuff that happens in undergraduate education in literary studies that shouldn’t happen.  As it stands, I don’t feel the need to argue whether any of these things are integral to the practice of theory, or whether other people do these things too, or any of these other side issues.  I’m just saying that, right now, these are things which are happening.  There is a certain reputation which surrounds literary theory and which is known by undergraduates.  It didn’t arise on its own, and its not merely the creation of insidious conservative forces bent on destroying all that is good and pure.  It comes from actual practices of actual academics, and the quite reasonable reactions of students.

I do think that to an extent these things are self propagating.  For example, its easier to argue that theory somehow naturally supports a particular branch of feminism when the system by which students learn theory ensures that people who find that branch of feminism ludicrous will never pursue theory beyond their required english courses.

I guess what I’m saying is, by the time you’ve gotten to a deep argument on the exact merits of specific texts, 90% of the bullshit has already happened. 

Its like quibbling about questionable executive cabinent appointment processes, in a nation where the voting system itself is deeply corrupt.  Its a legitimate issue for discussion, but if its all you discuss, you will never understand how you got there in the first place, and its unlikely that anything will change.

By on 08/15/05 at 12:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

How about PMC?  Borderlands?  Contretemps?  Culture Machine?  Janus Head?  J_Spot?  N+1?  Naked Punch?  All exquisite publications, happy to leave the tired “culture wars” behind.

By Matt on 08/15/05 at 01:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, true, Jonathan.  But we’re not looking for undiscovered gems.  We’re looking, by your terms, for a barometer of current practice.  So in this case reputation matters.  For the test to be any good, we should be interested in the best possible example of the widely accepted or admired.  That means flagship.

By on 08/15/05 at 01:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It is true the logical connectives--and, or, conditionals-- do not name not facts as the words “chairs” or “computers” do, and, and are in some sense “given” (though an argument could probably be made that +, ~, -> etc. evolved from human activity, empirical needs, etc. grouping things/abacus, etc--they have pragmatic use) but that doesn’t make propositional logic untenable or mysterious or anywhere near as speculative as say predicting the stock market or baseball standings two weeks or a year from now.  So I don’t think that is valid comparison. And would Herr W. deny the connectives are facts all together? 

The “status of the connectives” is sort of an idealist ruse, one which Kant and others (Russell I believe) use to suggest “mind” or some realm of universals or platonic entities, but the mere fact that connectives, quantifiers, integrals, summation signs, etc. exist, and refer to operations not directy perceived in nature (it’s true, integrals don’t grow on trees--a fact empiricists from Hobbes to Mill seem to overlook regularly) points more to mental processes and human ways of thinking than to some transcendent mind or realm of universals.  And I suspect Witt., mostly nominalist with some reservations, would agree.

By ............ on 08/15/05 at 01:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Radical Philosophy is also very good, but Postmodern Culture would be my first choice, were I the one to choose.  All of these publications take up the (theory-ish) question--of where might lie the boundaries between literature and philosophy--in interesting and responsible ways.

By Matt on 08/15/05 at 01:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

PMC has the important advantage of being freely available on-line, or is it still?

By Jonathan on 08/15/05 at 01:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

PMC, Radical Philosophy, N+1 are terrific… I subscribe to the last two, far more likely willingly to read them than most stuff in my field…

But they aren’t mainstream academic literary journals. So the discussion wouldn’t be about what’s happening in English departments… But rather what’s happening on a sort of theoretical fringe…

This is a decision that we’d have to make… What we’re ultimately talking about…

(New Left Review is the only journal, for instance, that I actually can’t wait to receive… often read through the day it arrives… Has some absolutely outstanding lit crit, meta-stuff a la Moretti’s graphs and maps, lots of stuff on the nature of comp lit… But it’s again no one’s idea of a mainstream lit journal… Would that it were… So much so that while I’d love to send them some of my own stuff, I have a tough time imagining how to “translate” it into NLR format… Nearly impossible in a way… Another example of a great journal that just won’t fit in this discussion, I don’t think...)

I vote CI or ELH. CI leans more interdisciplinary/theory, ELH is a more straightforward lit journal…

By CR on 08/15/05 at 01:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan, I think they’ve restricted the archives to ProjectMuse, the bastards, but the current issue is still available.

By Matt on 08/15/05 at 02:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not going to spend much time reading posts by J. Holbo, even the short ones (or the one’s I agree with) so I’ll make this short and sweet, and directed not him but Jodi Dean.
It’s not theory itself that’s the problem, kiddo, any more than revolution: it’s the noble cause of permanence: as in permanent revolution. This has its origin in the jealousy of those in the humanities who see themselves as competing with the sciences.  Theoretical man is no more or less banal a concept than economic man.  Except that theory-heads have the habit of pretending by way of their advanced logic they are not bourgeois.
But theory itself IS THE THEORY OF THE ABSOLUTE BOURGEOIS: so contradictory in it’s essence that it’s best and truest practitioners are nothing more or less than poets of paradox. And I love them for that, honestly.
On the other hand, american academics, so desperate to be useful and practical as is the vulgar american can-do way of life, make asses of themselves and end up celebrating an art-as-life theology that leads them to celebrate the demi-fascisms of late romantics like Benjamin.  Bore me to hell. And condescend to the middle and the working classes as well, without getting the fucking joke: Anti-humanism begins in Monarchism not democracy.
Literature like law and politics is a craft, not a science. Theory-heads and Timber-ites, both miss the point.
But now technocrats defend literature as an enjoyable hobby.

By seth edenbaum on 08/15/05 at 04:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In craft there’s room for greater and lesser practitioners.
What’s Mozart without Handel (to love), or Manet without the Pompiers (to hate)? But J. Dean’s not doing anything more than proclaiming her own genius. Even science is not made by great men alone, but art and law are never.
When all must be ubermenschen, begins the rule of arrogant mediocrity.

By seth edenbaum on 08/15/05 at 04:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Correction:  PMC text-only archive is still available online.  Not a “Flagship”?  But it has “postmodern” in the title for Christ’s sake.  Or is Sean only interested in facile take-downs, then, this journal being the more responsible, entirely more interesting representative of “theory” in the field.

Above, John writes:

“CR, this is another way in which my presentation has probably misled. I talk about Theory, rather loosely, as though there is some commonly met with pure entity - Theory an sich - that needs combatting. When the situation on the ground is that there is just a lot of stuff rather incidentally inflected in a Theory-ish way. Well, I do know that, and it’s mostly the chronic, low-grade inflections that I want to treat, in a reformist spirit. I get driven to somewhat reify the theme - Theory - by the need to first frame the reform in a general way; then ... well, then some other somewhat deforming aspects of the discussion take hold and I end up saying Theory rather than Theorists. If I start on the other end, by just focussing on a few individuals, the problem will be that people will object - quite reasonably, in a sense - that just hanging a few individuals is not enough to show that Theory as a whole is suspect. So focus on the big picture and you miss the actual individuals. Focus on the individuals and you never get to the big picture. It’s a dilemma. Getting beyond it requires a great deal of walking on eggshells, by me. Not something I always do well. And it seems to me it would help as well if the other side were less quick to try to spike the debate prematurely by implying there is something obviously wrong with the very notion of a critique along these lines.

Yes, I will get back to it. Focusing on recent stuff."

I think the problem is more accurately described as follows:  If you take the second approach, the only responsible one in fact, then “hanging” as you say becomes infinitely more difficult, as it should be.  You seem to take for granted the fact that you would be entirely capable of “hanging” a few representative theorists.  Meanwhile, and similarly, Sean refuses to read PMC because it’s not a “flagship.”

Really, it’s not that difficult to see the evasions being made, and entirely in the service of the above conflations, which, it seems to me, and as Luther aptly points out in his first comment to this thread, amount to very little in the end. 

Well, carry on.

By Matt on 09/13/05 at 11:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Matt, your criticism of me as evasive seems to me evasive. First of all, generalizing about intellectual currents is not irresponsible. It’s sometimes necessary. (Do you deny that it is ever appropriate to generalize, critically, across thinkers, engaging in ‘tendency’ talk, or making general claims to which there are exceptions, rather than always talking about individual thinkers? Surely not.) Second, it is quite pointless to make such artificial heavy weather of the fact that I say ‘just hanging a few theorists’. This is another example of spiking the discussion prematurely, lest it take place, it seems to me. Saying ‘if I refute a few individuals, that won’t be enough to refute Theory’ is patently not bragging about how I can take down seven with one blow, or anything like that. (To be strictly logical about it, it is a conditional claim. If P then Q. You are pointing out that P might be false. Well, then, the conditional is true. Sorry to have to get so elementary about it ... but here we are.)

I guess it’s true that I think I have enough philosophy under my belt to claim that I think I can show some Theorists they are confused. I have tried to do so on numerous occasions. Is it wrong of me to think I am intellectually in the right? (Obviously thinking doesn’t make it so, but is just the expression of the thought objectionable to you. If so, why?)

By John Holbo on 09/13/05 at 11:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Matt, your criticism of me as evasive seems to me evasive.

Sheesh, do you always respond this way? 

Sometimes necessary––of course it is.  Theorists do it all the time.  But this is not a discussion still in its raw or “premature” stages, in at least two important senses. 

Number one:  You’ve declared the Theory’s Empire “event” over, or at least on hiatus until you feel like addressing the numerous legitimate concerns expressed over your approach. 

Number two:  More than a few rather sweeping claims were made about something called “theory” in the course of this discussion, claims which were hardly careful to qualify themselves as merely raw or premature.

Re:  P’s and Q’s...I didn’t say you were bragging, did I?  I simply emphasized the conditional.  I was reminding you that it remains as such.

In no way do I wish to question your knowledge of philosophy generally, which I both respect and admire.  Why leap to that defense? 

All the best.

By Matt on 09/14/05 at 12:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

OK OK Matt, I responded in an irritable manner because I was irritated. It seems to me that you are doing two things: objecting to how little progress has been made; doing so in a manner that slows down progress, by obliging me to explain and go over obvious points that - so it seems to me - are rather uninteresting. I write a conditional sentence. You point out, in an accusatory tone, that it is a conditional. Well, yes. It is a conditional. Is going around like this helpful? Was there any reason to assume I wasn’t aware that my conditional was a conditional? (If you weren’t accusing me of hubristically assuming I could bowl this lot over with my mighty brain, what were you accusing me of?)

And now we are REALLY not getting anywhere. We’ve gone from arguing about Theory, to arguing about why the discussion of Theory isn’t going anywhere, to arguing about why the discussion of why the discussion of Theory isn’t going anywhere isn’t going anywhere. I’m firing Zeno’s arrow at Theory, so it would seem. (Maybe I should put up an announcement stating that a discussion of Theory is scheduled to take place, an infinite number of years hence.)

Look, I’ll get back to it, and try to do better. (I don’t deny the need to discuss individuals. But there are preliminaries to that, and I have been frustrated with how they have been received. But obviously I just need to deal with that somehow.)

And I had this other thing scheduled to happen, the Lit Witt. (Not evasion. Prior commitment.) So I put the one thing aside. Hopefully everyone will be in a better mood when we pick it up again. 

We should try to be less snarky.

By John Holbo on 09/14/05 at 01:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The zeno’s arrow bit was quite f’n hilarious.

By CR on 09/14/05 at 01:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sure John, I don’t mean to hound you.

Even if I still think the argument about where to go, and above all how, is also well worth having, and that it can hardly be unexpected if the questions of framing, of historical, institutional and translational context come up when one’s “preliminaries” include such phrases as “a wrong philosophical turn,” “kitsch” and “theory...is squatting where I sit.”

I sincerely look forward to the future discussions here, whenever they come as, with you, I think they are important. 

There is no question that what is largely known as “theory” in America is in a state of emergency, or indeed largely deserves to be in one.  Like certain other empires, squatting and coming asunder at once, “theory” demands to be diagnosed properly and before too much time has passed.  Though it may not be enough to offer a pill or stitch up the seams. 

What would we like the word to come to mean?

By Matt on 09/14/05 at 02:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Truth be told, in the important category of avoiding the impression of merely preaching to the choir, I think The Valve may even have something on Long Sunday.

By Matt on 09/14/05 at 02:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Matt, as always you begin by questioning bona fides, and then seem surprised when they excite annoyed responses. Please note.  The test proposed by Jonathan was to read one journal “showing the practice of current literary theory.”

The definition of “Flagship”: “. . . 2: the finest, largest, or most important of a series, network, or chain” (Webster’s 9th New Collegiate Dictionary)

Note the first adjective and you will see the point of looking for a flagship is not to enable “facile take-downs” but to make the test as challenging as possible for my view of things. 

If you think that, because of its title or any other reason, PMC is the finest, largest, or most important example of the practice of current literary theory, and others agree with you, then I have no objection to discussing it.

By on 09/14/05 at 06:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s funny, I thought it meant:

# A ship that carries a fleet or squadron commander and bears the commander’s flag.
# The chief one of a related group: the flagship of a newspaper chain; the flagship of a line of reference books

Obviously, with a publication such as PMC one’s ability to casually conflate any great thinker with hir followers in order to diagnose and dismiss an entire philosophic turn will be complicated, if only b/c one encounters a significantly higher species of “follower” there, namely the translators

It would be a different kind of “war,” or less a war than something else, something good, perhaps.

That is, if you wish to pursue this line of “a wrong philosophic turn” etc.  If the target is only a certain (largely Anglo, largely parasitic and philistine) academic taste culture, then thank you for finally being careful to qualify it as such and de-puffering, i.e. refraining from falsely-facile take-downs.

But the challenge as always has been nothing short of working through and beyond theory.  Anyway that is the exigency of the word I for one would like to preserve, pursue and engage. 

As always.

By Matt on 09/14/05 at 04:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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