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Thursday, July 14, 2005

Theory Thursday

Guest post by John McGowan

By adding a Theory Thursday to Michael’s Theory Tuesday, we will quickly discover how many masochists we can count among this blog’s faithful readers.

I had originally intended to use this post to fulminate against the following sentence in the “Introduction” to Theory’s Empire:  “Our chief aim is to provide students and interested readers with effective intellectual tools to help them redeem the study of literature as an activity worth pursuing in its own right.” There are many, many reasons—about which I could go on at tedious length—why that sentence sticks in my craw.  But, like any self-respecting English teacher, I’m going to ask the class what they think.  Does the study of literature—and (surely it is implied) literature itself—need to be “redeemed”?  And is the royal road to redemption to understand that study as “an activity worth pursuing in its own right”?  Answers to be posted in the comments section.  And remember: 15% of your final grade is awarded for “participation.”

I have been put off my polemical horse by the general reasonableness of the discussion of Theory’s Empire over at the Valve.  The number of participants is a bit disappointing, but the general quality of the conversation is good, and its tone is even better.  This is not yet another round in the culture and theory wars, which have wearied hardier souls than mine long before our current late date in history.  Is it possible that academics interested in such questions have won their way through to a place where they can be discussed and examined calmly?  As someone whose most usual stance has been a plague on both your houses, I am hopeful.  In any case, John Holbo is to be commended for using the blogosphere in this innovative and promising way.  Even if this first conversation is a little halting, I hope this model proves, like so many other things on the web, a snowball, gathering more and more readers—and participants—as he stages similar events in the future. 

I will confine myself today to thinking a bit about “criticism”—an activity that stands in uncertain relation to “theory.” I’ll start by saying that I am uninterested in whether or not every act of criticism relies on implicit, even if unexamined or unacknowledged, assumptions that a more self-conscious “theory” would make explicit.  I seldom agree with Stanley Fish about anything, but I do think he is right that claims about the theoretical underpinnings of all practices are, whether true or not, without significant consequences.  The theory/practice model offers us a highly dubious understanding of human behavior.  Habits—both personal and social, and ossified in vocabularies as well as in various rituals and routines—are at least as crucially the background of our practices as any ideas or theories we might have about what we are or want to be doing.  And habits are notoriously resistant to being changed by thinking.  Habits are changed when you start doing something differently—and you need to do that different thing lots of times to undo the old settled ways.

Criticism as a practice, then, rests on the habits inculcated by training.  We don’t call them “disciplines” for nothing.  And criticism is like playing the piano; you can’t learn how to do it by reading an instruction manual.  You learn how to do it by doing it under the tutelage of someone who is more adept and who criticizes your fledgling efforts and urges you to practice, practice, practice.  “Theory,” in this view, is not what underpins “criticism,” but is simply another practice, one with different aims, stakes, and protocols.  To be very crude about it, “criticism” is the practice of interpreting and judging specific texts, while “theory” is the practice of making wider claims about the characteristics of many texts (Aristotle on tragedy) or of a culture (Carlyle on “The Signs of the Times”) or of a set of practices (Wittgenstein on “language games”). 

As both Morris Dickstein and Marjorie Perloff indicate in their contributions to Theory’s Empire, criticism is relatively rare in the tradition.  The four elements of “poetics” identified by Perloff do not include interpretation of single texts.  The ancients—Aristotle, Longinus, Quintillian—were closer to producing advice manuals for writers than to offering guides for readers.  Interpretation enters from the Christian side, an outgrowth of Biblical hermeneutics.  Dante was the first person to suggest that secular works might also require learned interpretation.  But it is not until the late seventeenth century, with the French neo-classical writers and “the battle of the Ancients and the Moderns” in England, that literary criticism really arrives on the scene.  And it does so in a policing and pedagogical function.  Criticism—first as evaluation and only later as interpretation—is necessary because the insufficiently educated are making bad judgments.  Their taste needs to be cultivated.  We might prefer Addison’s displays of how a gentleman reads, thinks, and behaves to Boileau’s laying down the law of the unities, but both writers are engaged in the same enterprise. Growing literacy among relatively uneducated peoples calls forth teachers who will help them discern the good from the trash and to properly understand difficult works.

It is not surprising, then, that criticism moved into the classroom once compulsory schooling took hold in the nineteenth century.  It was already a pedagogical enterprise.  And it is not surprising that “English” as a school subject originated in the colonies, specifically India, because those to the manner born don’t need these lessons.  For all his commitment to education and to culture, Matthew Arnold rarely provides an interpretation of a literary work.  He assumes that the audience of his essays is perfectly capable of understanding particular poems on their own.  He is, of course, very worried that English readers have the wrong tastes, but he never imagines that they do not understand what they read. But democratic education soon produces that concern—and schoolboys and schoolgirls were set to producing “explications du texte” of various sorts in English, French, and American classrooms.

Just about the time that compulsory elementary education takes hold, we also get the creation of the modern research university.  English as a “subject” had arisen for the pedagogical reasons I have suggested combined with nationalistic ones (inculcation into the national culture).  Now, in the university, English needed to become a “discipline,” not just a school subject.  The two available models for the new American universities were the scholarly Germans (the philologists) and the quasi-amateur English “men of letters.” (For reasons I do not know, French university practices had no influence at Hopkins and Chicago, the two original research universities.) At first, the Germans won the day handily, with Babbitt’s “humanism” the only respectable alternative to full-bore scholarship.  Criticism was something for the news papers, the stuff of reviews not of serious academic work.  It took the social upheavals of the 1920s, the tremendous influence and prestige of the Anglophile T. S. Eliot, and the scientistic trappings of New Criticism’s account of its work and of the poetic object, to make criticism academically respectable.  Dickstein tells this story well.  Producing an interpretation of a literary text, after around 1930, counted as “research” in the modern university.  So we got lots of such interpretations.

Is there a moral to this story?  Not particularly.  As many have noted, New Criticism was, and remains to some extent, a valuable pedagogical tool.  As others—including Michael in this post on Judith Halberstam’s essay—have noted, the techniques of attentive reading developed by New Criticism are valuable aids to understanding.  Criticism was—and remains—a worthy enterprise. Literacy can be enhanced by practicing criticism. That not all English professors are critics in their written work seems neither here nor there to me.  That was always the case, since there were always professors who were textual editors, biographers, etymologists, and literary historians.  Probably most English professors are critics at least some of the time in their classrooms.  But there has never been a seamless connection between what we teachers do in the classroom and what we publish as scholars.  Dissing criticism or recommending that all scholars be critics is as silly as dissing theory or insisting that all scholars be theorists.

Posted by John McGowan on 07/14 at 10:48 AM
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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Engine trouble

Today’s my contribution-to-the-Valve day, which means—lucky you!—another really, really long post on the debate over “Theory” in literary and cultural studies.  This post won’t appear on the Valve’s site, but it is Valve-related nonetheless.  So just for today, I’m renaming this blog “the Carburetor.”

I haven’t finished reading Theory’s Empire, so I can’t attempt anything like a review of the whole; besides, I’ve agreed to review the thing as a whole later this year for The Common Review, one of those “print” journals.  I told John Holbo that I could offer a few remarks on one essay, Mark Bauerlein’s “Social Constructionism: Philosophy for the Academic Workplace.” But some time after I made that promise, an essay by Bauerlein appeared on Butterflies and Wheels, and then I replied to that; in effect, then, July 6-13 has been transformed into Criticize Mark Bauerlein Week on this persnickety blog.  It’s good to see that Ophelia Benson has taken the blame for all this (and for the record, Ophelia, it was both an intervention and a transgression!  for this you get extra bonus cultural studies points, if you want them).

Tomorrow, by the way, John McGowan will pick up the baton; he’s also written a fine post on Theory’s Empire, and will likely do a followup here.  So for now, I suppose, John and I are agreeing to serve as the Agents of Empire.  Cue scary Darth Vader music.

First, though, I’d like to chime in on John Holbo’s initial post on the Valve.  After all, this is supposed to be something like a conversation—and I can hardly pass by a sentence that tells me that one of my claims “is wrong for a reason so simple it is hard to take seriously,” now, can I?

The claim in question is this (it comes from one of my comments on last week’s post):

No doubt a future edition of the Norton will include some Theory’s Empire contributors; at the same time, I have to remark that TE – and Bauerlein’s essay about it – practically invites that response. What’s more, some of the contributors, like Anthony Appiah, are already considered to be people who helped to build the theoretical edifice.

John H responds (btw, I’m on a first-name basis with John, but will call him John H here so as distinguish him from John McGowan):

Michael’s sense is that, at the end of the day, it is absurd to posture as if you are ‘outside theory’—let alone part of a small band of scrappy rebels, darting nimbly past the rigid defenses of some sinister monolith. Whatever is intellectually valuable in a book like Theory’s Empire will eventually be acknowledged and taken up, and not in some nightmarish ‘you-will-be-assimilated’ way either.

This is wrong for a reason so simple it is hard to take seriously. But it should be taken seriously.

But John, that is not what I meant at all.  That is not it, at all.  I wasn’t saying that it’s absurd to posture as if you’re “outside theory”; most of the contributors to TE are quite clearly outside, against, opposed to, and even underneath (and trying to topple) “Theory.”

John H confuses my remark with a bit from Terry Eagleton, which he quotes later on (“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.” From the introduction to Literary Theory: An Introduction.) Rather, I was picking up on the conclusion of Bauerlein’s essay, in which he writes, “some of Theory’s premises will be expelled, some names discredited, but others will be strengthened. That is the natural and healthy evolution of a discipline, and Theory has been able to resist it for too long.” If that happens, then it is only natural and healthy that a future edition of the Norton Anthology (or a similar volume) would include some of the arguments made against Theory-with-a-capital-T in TE.  Simple as that.  John H’s resistance to this claim puts TE’s critics in a strange bind: after all, one of the premises of the anthology is that its arguments and contributors have gone unheard for too long.  I was merely suggesting that some of them might eventually be heard more widely as informed critics of theory.  I hope the anthology’s fans are not now going to indulge in the cultural politics of marginality—you know, the dynamic that stretches from the Romantics to Kurt Cobain, in which the success of an “intervention” or “transgression” is inversely proportional to the number of people who know about it.

Second, my point about Appiah was a slightly different (and more suspicious) point.  John cuts off my original sentence after its semicolon, but after the semicolon, there’s this:

What’s more, some of the contributors, like Anthony Appiah, are already considered to be people who helped to build the theoretical edifice; but then, TE excerpts Appiah only for his (generous and well-aimed) complaint about the bien-pensant mode of criticism, and doesn’t provide any excerpts from In My Father’s House.  So there’s a bit of cherrypicking going on in that respect.

My point here is simply that you’d never know, from reading TE, that Appiah is also the author of one of the most widely-cited essays of the 1990s, “Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial?” And this kind of thing goes on throughout the volume.  Why, in Richard Levin’s essay, you can find an approving citation of a theorist named John McGowan (!), for his claim that some political critics “blithely claim political and material consequences for [their] theorizing that they never try to justify.” So yeah, you could say that John McGowan and I are somewhat skeptical of the idea that Theory is an Empire, and that it’s insufficiently self-critical.  When McGowan and Appiah are adduced by Theory’s critics, you know that the house of Theory, far from being the house of cards depicted on the book’s cover, is in fact a house of many mansions.

OK, now to Bauerlein’s essay.  Even when I try to read it as crabbily as possible, I find that I can’t disagree with everything in it, or even half of everything in it.  Between my characterization of Terry Eagleton’s book as “so glib and unreliable that I would not inflict it on any serious student” and Mark’s characterization of it as “a textbook case of commentary by genetic fallacy and ethical consequence,” there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference.  (Eagleton is especially bad on Heidegger, and we’ll come back to Heidegger.) Likewise, Bauerlein is right to remark on the speed-up of academic research in the humanities and the overextension of the book-for-tenure criterion.  But I’m not convinced of his link between the academic publishing-production line and the espousal of social constructionist beliefs.  In his concluding paragraph, Bauerlein writes:

This is the bare and banal advantage of social constructionism: it saves time. Truth, facts, objectivity—those require too much reading, too many library visits, too much time soliciting interlibrary loan materials, scrolling through microfilm records, double-checking sources, and looking beyond academic trends that come and go. A philosophy that discredits the foundations of such time-consuming research is a professional blessing. It is the belief-system of inquirers who need an alibi for not reading the extra book, traveling to the other archives, or listening to the other point of view. This is why constructionism is the prevailing creed in the humanities today. It is the epistemology of scholarship in haste, of professors under the gun.

OK, social constructionists are either lazy sods or lazy careerist sods.  Very well.  There are two ways to reply to this, and I see that Sean McCann has already taken one of them in his Valve post:

There are two weak points to this argument as Mark frames it, I think.  One is that his prime example, the need for young scholars to publish a book within six years to earn tenure, doesn’t really suggest overwhelming pressure. . . .  The other is that professional burdens alone can’t fully explain why any particular set of reductive ideas becomes more attractive than any other.  As Nagel jokingly suggests in an offhand conclusion, evolutionary psychology would provide the same simple gratifications (big theory, easily applied to an endless range of material, gratifyingly counterintuitive results arrived at via circular argument, no particular need for evidence or careful reasoning) that Mark sees in social constructionism.

Indeed, one can imagine an entire profession of lazy anti-constructionists, publishing tome after tome in which they simply assume that X, Y and Z have always been the case.  Which brings me to point two: done well, the making of social constructionist arguments does involve work.  (Of course it’s possible to make social constructionist arguments badly.  It’s possible to do anything badly.) So if anyone wants to argue that X is socially constructed (historically variable, culturally contingent, etc.), he or she is not actually exempt from going to the library and scrolling through those microfilm records.  If you’re going to argue that cultural practice X, which some people think of as natural and unchanging, is in fact socially constructed, historically variable, or culturally contingent, the burden is on you to demonstrate that it can be and has been otherwise.  When Bauerlein argues that most social constructionists do not do this, but, rather, simply assume that it has already been proven that everything is socially constructed, he’s got a point.  And when he says,

The most obvious advantage constructionism provides lies in its territorial nature, for by undermining truth and objectivity, constructionism bolsters the humanities as an academic whole, carving out a space in the university for practices of interpretation and subjectivity. One can witness this turf function in critiques by literary and cultural theorists of their institutional competitors – the scientists.

– he’s got another point.  Some other time on this longwinded blog, perhaps, I will join Theory-critics in lamenting the sloppy appropriations of Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions in the humanities (quick question: how many “Kuhnian” humanists have an account of the production of anomalies in their fields?  for Kuhn, of course, mature paradigms produce anomalies, and without anomalies, you don’t have paradigm shifts).  For now, I’ll object only to Bauerlein’s claim that constructionism “undermines truth and objectivity,” for, of course, the definition of “truth” is precisely what’s at stake here.  The question is whether truths about human affairs, as opposed to truths about physics, should be understood according to the “correspondence theory of truth” (in which our beliefs correspond to the reality of the world out there) or the “coherence theory of truth” (in which truth is a matter of human deliberation).  As I remarked in an earlier post, there are philosophers like Sam Harris who believe that “To be an ethical realist is to believe that in ethics, as in physics, there are truths waiting to be discovered – and thus we can be right or wrong in our beliefs about them,” and then there are people like me who think that this ethics-is-just-like-physics model is not only misleading but dangerous.  People like me prefer to believe that humans invent ethical truths, and that such truths are not waiting silently out there in the ether for us to discover them, like Neptune or something.

Which brings me to Martin Heidegger.  Early in the essay, Mark adduces Heidegger as an example of social constructionism gone haywire.  I apologize for the length of this quotation, but the point is a critical one, so please bear with me.

Constructionists extend the fact that knowledge materializes in cognitive and linguistic structures which have social determinants into the belief that knowledge has no claim to transcend them. That knowledge cannot transcend the conditions of its origination stems from the notion that cognition is never innocent, that cognition has designs and desires shaping its knowledge-building process, that knowing always has an instrumental purpose. This human dimension is local and situational, constructionists argue, a historical context for knowledge outside of which the knowledge has no general warrant. Even the most ahistorical kinds of knowledge, the principles of logic, mathematics, and science, have a social basis, one obscured by thinkers who have abstracted that knowledge from its rightful setting and used it for purposes of their own. Thus Martin Heidegger claims in a well-known illustration, “Before Newton’s laws were discovered, they were not ‘true’. . . .Through Newton the laws became true” (Being and Time). We only think the laws preceded Newton’s conception because, Heidegger explains, that is how entities “show themselves.”

But even though Newton’s laws arose at a particular historical moment, in one man’s mind, why assume that the laws are inextricable from that moment? There is abundant evidence for believing that the truth of Newton’s laws is independent of Newton’s mind, language, class, education, etc. The simple fact that persons of different languages and cultures implement those laws effectively implies their transhistorical and cross-cultural capacity. Engineers and physicists confirm the laws daily without any knowledge of Newton’s circumstances. Three hundred years of experimentation and theory have altered Newton’s laws only by restricting their physical purview. In short, Newton’s laws have been justified in vastly different times and places. Yes, scientists and engineers have de-historicized Newtonian knowledge, pared it down to a few set principles (nobody actually reads the Principia). But though abstract and expedient, the laws of Newtonian physics still have a truth-value, and that value is related not to Newton’s world, but to how well the laws predict outcomes, how reliably they stand up to testing, how useful they are in physical domains.

To think otherwise is to deny the distinction between the contents of knowledge and the context of their emergence.

This is a severe misreading of ¶¶ 43 and 44 of Being and Time.  What Heidegger actually says, in those concluding sections of Part I of the book, is this (and for those of you who aren’t Heidegger devotees, “Dasein,” or “Being-there,” is Heidegger’s neologism for human consciousness):

Newton’s laws, the principle of contradiction, any truth whatever—these are true only so long as Dasein is.  Before there was any Dasein, there was no truth; nor will there be any after Dasein is no more. . . .  Before Newton’s laws were discovered, they were not “true”; it does not follow that they were false, or even that they would become false if ontically no discoveredness were any longer possible. . . .

To say that before Newton his laws were neither true nor false, cannot signify that before him there were no such entities as have been uncovered and pointed out by those laws.  Through Newton the laws became true; and with them, entities became accessible in themselves to Dasein.  Once entities have been uncovered, they show themselves precisely as entities which beforehand already were.  Such uncovering is the kind of Being which belongs to “truth.” (I.6 ¶ 44(c), 269).

Once again: to say that before Newton his laws were neither true nor false cannot signify that before him there were no such entities as have been uncovered and pointed out by those laws. And: once entities have been uncovered, they show themselves precisely as entities which beforehand already were. Heidegger is emphatically not saying that “Newton’s laws arose at a particular historical moment, in one man’s mind” and that therefore they are “inextricable from that moment.”

Now, I apologize for Heidegger’s highly convoluted and neologistic prose.  (I imagine that some readers are already thinking, “come back, Derrida, all is forgiven.”) But here’s what he’s saying, and here’s why it matters. 

In Heidegger’s reading, we could say that the discovery of Neptune in 1846 could plausibly be described, from a strictly human vantage point, as the “invention” of Neptune.  I choose Neptune for two reasons: first, because it was the first planet for which humans actively searched, applying Newtonian principles to try to account for “distortions” in the orbit of Uranus (which had been discovered by accident in 1781), and its discovery was a matter of some controversy.  Second, because I believe it makes no damn sense to say, “Neptune is socially constructed.” But before we began to look for it, the planet “Neptune” simply did not exist in any human consciousness, just as “gravity” had never meant “a universal force of nature” until Newton enunciated its principles (which turn out to hold only for entities traveling less than four-tenths the speed of light, but let it go for now).  And yet once humans had invented (from their standpoint) the concept of gravity and the existence of Neptune, they understood these things precisely as things that were not susceptible to mere human invention.

This is the critical insight to bring to bear on any post-Sokal discussion of social constructionist shilly-shallying and fashionable nonsense.  The basic physical processes of the universe precede us; they have literally constructed us; they do not depend on our understanding or belief.  And yet, there are two final points to be made here, one trivial, one not: first, our knowledge of those processes is a social phenomenon.  A whole mess of social and historical processes have to be in place before anyone goes around troubling him or herself with the alleged perturbations of the planet Uranus (for which, tellingly, the discovery of Neptune did not entirely account) rather than, say, quoting Aristotle or Scripture on the subject.  That’s the trivial point.  The more important point, Heidegger’s point, is that all perceptions, understandings, misunderstandings, and debates about such matters take place in human consciousness, and it is absolutely crucial to understand which matters involve entities that are independent of human consciousness (like planets) and which matter involve entities that are not (like philosophies).  For Heidegger, this insight is but a stepping-stone on the road to the larger argument that mere assertions (including this one) are not the delivery vehicles of Truth, but, rather, simple “present-to-hand” ways of dealing with “ready-to-hand” entities.  That is, for Heidegger, the sentence “Neptune is the next planet after Uranus” is no more important a statement of Truth than “the hammer is too heavy for the job”; such assertions, he thinks, are little more than tools about tools.  Truth, Heidegger argues, resides instead in what he calls “disclosure” or “uncovering” (according to his reading of the Greek word aletheia), and he uses Newton’s “dis-covering” of gravity as his primary example.  But because (Heidegger claims) we have forgotten the question of Being, and neglected to ask what kind of entity it is that goes around asking questions about Being, we have mistakenly believed that assertions are the loci of truth when in fact it is a more “primordial” form of dis-closure that makes factual assertions possible in the first place.

Make of it what you will, but that’s Heidegger for you.  Twenty years ago I wrote a seminar paper about what happens to Heidegger’s work once he realizes the performative self-contradiction involved in arguing that assertions are not the vehicles of truth, but that’s kind of beside the point.  The point, for now, is that the planet Neptune is not socially constructed, and neither is gravity—and that Heidegger’s compelling yet deeply idiosyncratic way of making this point is far more complex than Bauerlein lets on, and gives quite a bit of latitude to the domain of “social construction” in its insistence that Dasein lives and argues in a world of its own making.

Posted by Michael on 07/13 at 01:27 PM
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Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Theory Tuesday

Last week I posted a long reply to Mark Bauerlein’s short essay on Theory’s Empire; tomorrow I’m planning to post a more modest reply to his essay in that volume.  (The issue is “social constructionism” and the claims made for and against it, if you’re interested.) But I promised last week that I would also say a few words about my own take on the institutional status of “theory” in the humanities.  The more I thought about it over the past few days, though, the more unwieldy the subject became (funny how that happens), so I’ve decided that I’ll make this a mini-series—and keep each entry in the series at a reasonable length.  So for the next few weeks, Tuesdays will be Theory Tuesdays, in which I’ll offer you (at no cost!) a handful of the things I’ve taught to first-year graduate students at Penn State.

First, though, a hearty thank you to Kevin Drum for linking to last week’s post.  I couldn’t help noticing, over the weekend, that some of Kevin’s commenters have very little tolerance for any talk of “literary theory,” and some of them were quite confident that the Alan Sokal hoax of 1996 proved to them that they need never bother to find out what any of the fuss in the past thirty or forty years has been about.  I should be used to this kind of thing by now, but I’m not.  I honestly don’t think there’s another field of intellectual endeavor that gets this kind of treatment from allegedly intelligent people.  Yes, the Sokal hoax was bad, but it did not, in fact, demonstrate that all of interpretive theory is vacuous.  A journal (Social Text—I’ve published in it twice, and I count some friends among the editors, too) accepted a hoax essay, full of nonsense, largely because the editors were so pleased and surprised to get a submission from a physicist.  The journal isn’t peer-reviewed, and they didn’t send the essay out for a reading by someone who knew his or her physics.  In other words, they done screwed the pooch—and, as I said in this essay, the response to the hoax was in some respects worse than the hoax itself.  But over the past nine years, during which I’ve had a couple of pleasant and substantive exchanges with Sokal, I’ve found that his biggest fans can be a rather disappointing bunch.  The conversations go something like this.  I say, “what do you think of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s insistence on ‘incommensurability’ and the ‘heterogeneity of language-games’?” and they say, “I think that French stuff is bullshit.” And I say, “OK, well, since I’m skeptical of Lyotard’s dogmatism in some respects, what do you think of Habermas and his account of ‘communicative action’ and reciprocal recognition?” And they say, “yeah, whatever, it’s all the same to me.” And I say, “Uh, no, actually, Lyotard and Habermas are about as opposed as it’s possible to be, and they even think of ‘opposition’ in different terms.  And you might want to consider that some forms of opposition really are incommensurable—pick one, any one, from recent headlines—even as you consider that it’s a good idea to try to create ‘speech situtations’ that are free of domination.” And they say, “look, didn’t Alan Sokal prove that all this was so much fashionable nonsense?” (Or, in the words of one Kevin Drum commenter, “The Sokal Hoax says all that needs to be said about lit crit folks.  They’re really no different from fundamentalists—they’re both against the reality-based crowd.” This position has been seconded by, among others, Noam Chomsky and Barbara Ehrenreich.)

Look, people screw up every once in a while.  The physicists had their Pons-Fleischmann cold fusion scandal in 1989, the historians have had a few high-profile plagiarists in recent years, and we had the Sokal hoax.  And yes, some of those French folk have provided pretty easy targets, especially the ones influenced by the late work of Jacques Lacan, many of whom apparently decided in the late 1960s and early 1970s that they should write bizarre and/or apocalyptic and/or ignorant things about math and science.  But the Sokal hoax did not prove that language is a transparent vehicle onto the world, or that cultural practices don’t change over time, or that interpretation is really a strikingly simple thing when you really look at it.  It punctured a few balloons, and it insisted that humanists who write about science should, ideally, know what the hell they’re talking about, but it didn’t answer any of the questions about language and culture that constitute our stock in trade.  (If it did, then literary theory really would be dead, and this facetious post wouldn’t have been facetious at all.)

So, then, on with the first installment in the mini-series.  Let’s start with a particularly vexatious example: the question of deconstruction.

As I mentioned last week, during my initial attempt to teach “Introduction to Materials and Methods” to our first-year graduate students, one student informed me that one of her other professors had questioned why we were bothering with Derrida in an introductory course when three-quarters of the faculty in the English department know next to nothing about Derrida.  I thought this was a reasonable question, so I tried to offer a thorough answer.  First, I replied that the student’s (or her professor’s) estimate was probably a little low: there are only a couple of people in the department who really know their Derrida.  I know a little Derrida here and there, just the basics, not a great deal—and the man did write a great deal.  Many of my colleagues would say more or less the same.  Nous parlons Derrida un petit peu.

It’s in this sense that Mark Bauerlein is right to speak of the “decline” of theory.  Once upon a time—some of my commenters say the late 1970s, some say the early 1980s, and I say think generally of the vast cultural period between the first appearance of the Ramones and the first appearance of Culture Club—deconstruction was so dominant, and its practitioners so confident that they and they alone were Doing Criticism, that you just couldn’t avoid Derrida et al. if you were a curious or responsible member of the discipline.  As I noted last week, many of the professors who dismissed Derrida in those days were not intellectually inspiring people; but on the other side, some of the professors who professed deconstruction did so with missionary zeal.  The result, for graduate students like me (I started out in 1983), was that we very quickly got the impression that deconstruction was something we ought to know about, regardless of whether we would grow to live and breathe it.  Derrida-Foucault-Barthes-Lacan took on the appearance of the Four French Horsemen of the Apocalypse, though Barthes fell out of favor precipitously after 1980, and Foucault took over whole districts of literary studies by the end of the decade.  As Peter Brooks tells the story (in a fine essay, “Aesthetics and Ideology—What Happened to Poetics?”), the 1980s witnessed an entire division of literary scholars switching horses:

At the moment when the media discovered “deconstruction,” and accused professors of turning from the evaluative and normative function of criticism, another kind of swerve was in fact taking place, one which would turn even many of the deconstructionists into practitioners of ideological and cultural critique.  It was as if what appeared as the triumphal entry through the porticos of American academia of such structuralist demigods as Saussure, Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss, and Barthes, and such useful attendant priests as Todorov, Genette, Greimas, had prepared, not the cult of Derrida and de Man that we began to celebrate, but the masked arrival of the cult of Foucault.

Again, Bauerlein is right to suggest that no one theorist or school of theorists dominates the scene in quite that way today, and personally, I think this is a Good Thing.  If, as Bauerlein writes, “the humanities are so splintered and compartmentalized that one can pursue a happy career without ever reading a word of Bhabha or Butler,” then people like me have no business trying to re-create the days when the road to disciplinary relevance quite clearly ran through Derrida and deconstruction.  (There’s an ancillary point to be made here about the personalities of dissertation directors and the politics of discipleship, but I’ll save that for a later installment.)

So, Student X, I said (not her real name—her real name was Z), you don’t really need to know this or that text by Derrida in order to make your way through graduate school or the profession at large. However, and this is a seriously italic “however,” you should be aware that deconstruction has seeped into the groundwater of the discipline, even as the term itself lost any distinct referent long ago.  It has been “disseminated,” in fact, in just the way that deconstruction itself suggests: the word is now floating around out there, and cannot be recalled to its point of origin.  “To deconstruct” now seems to mean something like “to challenge and/or overturn” or even “to read carefully with a skeptical eye,” as in the familiar warning, “don’t sign your lease before you deconstruct it.” But that’s not what literary critics and theorists are doing when they “deconstruct” something.  They’re doing something more distinct and specific, and you need to know what that is, so that you can recognize it in the future.  You don’t need to be able to cite Derrida’s Dissemination chapter and verse.  But you do need to know what a deconstructive argument looks and sounds like, and you need to know what implicit and explicit claims are at stake in such an argument, because you will encounter these arguments in essays and books where they will not declare their names.

For example, when someone says that the opposition between A and B is not really an opposition between two different things but, rather, an opposition that is internal to A, that’s a broadly deconstructive move.  When someone says that the set of all correctly transmitted and understood messages is a subset of all imaginable messages that can be incorrectly transmitted or misunderstood, such that misunderstanding is the condition of possibility of understanding, that’s a deconstructive move.  (That one sounds weird, sure, but think of it this way: every letter is, in principle, capable of being delivered to the wrong address.  The good people of the Postal Service correctly deliver the vast majority of letters that pass through their hands, true enough.  Only rarely, and only in Chicago, do they throw thousands of letters into underground tunnels.  But still, if you want to stress the precariousness of it all, you can think of every letter being haunted by the possibility of its loss or “misdelivery,” just as you can think of every utterance, including this one, as being susceptible to distortion and incomprehension.  It’s in that sense that the priests of the cult of Derrida once chanted, as they fanned out across the country from New Haven, “all reading is misreading.” And guess what?  They were misunderstood.) And when someone says that a series of oppositions is being generated by a term that is actually part of one of those oppositions and hiding out amongst them, particularly if the term is “writing,” well, then you get something like this passage from Derrida’s “Plato’s Pharmacy”:

It is not enough to say that writing is conceived out of this or that series of oppositions.  Plato thinks of writing, and tries to comprehend it, to dominate it, on the basis of opposition as such.  In order for these contrary values (good/ evil, true/ false, essence/ appearance, inside/ outside, etc.) to be in opposition, each of the terms must be simply external to the other, which means that one of these oppositions (the opposition between inside and outside) must already be accredited as the matrix of all possible opposition.  And one of the elements of the system (or of the series) must also stand as the very possibility of systematicity or seriality in general.

OK, take that in for a moment, and now, take a very deep breath and get ready for an inelegant sentence full of complicated “if” clauses.  Keep in mind, too, that the pharmakon of which Derrida writes here (he’s commenting on Plato’s Phaedrus) means both “cure” and “poison,” and that Plato writes of writing itself as such a pharmakon.  (Just as Rousseau writes of writing—and masturbation, go figure—as a “dangerous supplement,” where “supplement” means both “unnecessary appendage to a thing that is already complete and sufficient” and “absolutely essential element that fills up a thing and makes it complete and sufficient.” I tell you, with Janus-faced words like pharmakon and “supplement,” uneeda deconstructive reading—not to untangle the contradictions, but to render them palpable and strange.)

And if one got to thinking that something like the pharmakon—or writing—far from being governed by these oppositions, opens up their very possibility without letting itself be comprehended by them; if one got to thinking that it can only be out of something like writing—or the pharmakon—that the strange difference between inside and outside can spring; if, consequently, one got to thinking that writing as a pharmakon cannot simply be assigned a site within what it situates, cannot be subsumed under concepts whose contours it draws, leaves only its ghost to a logic that can only seek to govern it insofar as logic arises from it—one would then have to bend into strange contortions what could no longer even simply be called logic or discourse.  (My emphasis in boldface.)

The “then” clause is a bit of a letdown, I think; all the action is going on in those coy “if”s.  And though the point may not, in the end, be a decisive contribution to the history of philosophy (as some philosophers have argued), it is nevertheless of some use to those of us who study language and literature: the attempt to create a string of oppositions, one of which is the opposition between speech and writing, has as its condition of possibility the existence of principles of opposition and of seriality.  But if those principles of opposition and seriality exist within language (and it would be awfully hard to speak or write of them if they did not), then what Plato’s doing in the Phaedrus involves some very deft sleight-of-hand, in which writing is assigned a site within which it situates.

And the reason why this kind of thing drew the attention of literary critics and theorists should be obvious: whereas philosophers tend to say, “never mind these petty details of Plato’s language—it’s the concepts that are important,” we language-and-literature people look at this and say, “yes, but the concepts are expressed in language, and what’s more, one of those central concepts has to do with the status of language as a vehicle for communication.” We could add that Plato stages the quarrels between literature and philosophy by means of some of the most self-consciously “literary” philosophical texts ever written, but we don’t want to get into an argument, now, do we.

But, as I told Student X, you don’t have to memorize all this (although the Phaedrus also says some very interesting things about memory, which Derrida does not fail to notice).  You should simply take away from this the sense that whenever someone comes upon a series of oppositions and says, “hold on a second, one of these oppositions”—say, inside/ outside—“is not like the others, because it’s the condition of possibility for the series itself,” or “this opposition”—say, speech/ writing—“is built on the premise that thing A is unlike thing B even though both A and B share features that are occluded by the terms of the opposition”, or “this opposition”—say, male/ female—“is predicated on the exclusion of everything that troubles or blurs the terms of opposition,” then you’re dealing with a deconstructive argument.  And over the past thirty years, these arguments have been as common as rain, and they’ve seeped into the disciplinary groundwater.  Whether you like them or not, you should be able to recognize them for what they are when you run into them.

Next week:  the importance of “defamiliarization,” and two cheers for Russian Formalism.

Posted by Michael on 07/12 at 09:25 AM
Theory Tuesday • (113) Comments • (5770) TrackbacksPermalink

Monday, July 11, 2005

48 Hours

On Tuesday of last week, voting along party lines, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed House Resolution 177, “establishing a select committee to examine the academic atmosphere and the degree to which faculty have the opportunity to instruct and students have the opportunity to learn in an environment conducive to the pursuit of knowledge and truth at State-related and State-owned colleges and universities and community colleges in this Commonwealth.” It’s nice that my local Republican representatives have decided that the House should take the time to make sure that I have the “opportunity” to instruct my students, and that my students have the “opportunity” to learn.  Specifically, the select committee is charged with determining whether:

(1) faculty are hired, fired, promoted and granted tenure based on their professional competence and subject matter knowledge and with a view of helping students explore and understand various methodologies and perspectives;

(2) students have an academic environment, quality life [sic] on campus and reasonable access to course materials that create an environment conducive to learning, the development of critical thinking and the exploration and expression of independent thought and that the students are evaluated based on their subject knowledge; and

(3) that students are graded based on academic merit, without regard for ideological views, and that academic freedom and the right to explore and express independent thought is available to and practiced freely by faculty and students.

The committee can call hearings and conduct investigations until June 30, 2006—or it “may extend the investigation for additional time,” until November 30—whereupon it will “make a report of its findings and any recommendations for remedial legislation and other appropriate action.”

Oh, and by the way, here’s a “resolved” clause so important that the original document puts it in ALL CAPS:

RESOLVED, THAT IF AN INDIVIDUAL MAKES AN ALLEGATION AGAINST A FACULTY MEMBER CLAIMING BIAS, THE FACULTY MEMBER MUST BE GIVEN AT LEAST 48 HOURS’ NOTICE OF THE SPECIFICS OF THE ALLEGATION PRIOR TO THE TESTIMONY BEING GIVEN AND BE GIVEN AN OPPORTUNITY TO TESTIFY AT THE SAME HEARING AS THE INDIVIDUAL MAKING THE ALLEGATION.

That’s nice too, isn’t it?  First the legislature wants to ensure that I have the opportunity to instruct my students, and then it gives me the opportunity to testify at the same hearing as any student making an allegation against me.  So many “opportunities” here!  I appreciate the 48 hours’ notice so that I can set my affairs in order, too.  I hear that the original language was much harsher, and that House Republicans were simply planning to dispatch the special House Public Enemies Van to the offices of accused faculty members, and then lead them out of their buildings and into the back of the van under armed guard.  But the House dropped that provision in favor of this one, reportedly because people might get the wrong idea about this bill.

Now, regular readers of this blog will know that the language of paragraphs (1)-(3) in the first “resolved” clause is based on David Horowitz’s “Academic Bill of Rights,” and you may know that Horowitz has hailed H.R. 177 as “a tremendous victory for academic freedom”.  You may also know that Horowitz claimed victory last month as well, when the American Council on Education and 25 other higher education organizations issued a two-page statement in support of “intellectual pluralism and academic freedom” on American campuses.  As Scott Jaschik wrote in Inside Higher Ed on June 23,

Organizers hoped the statement would deflate the movement in state legislatures and Congress to enact the Academic Bill of Rights. Horowitz called the statement “a major victory” for his campaign and said that it opened up the possibility that he would work directly with colleges on remaining differences of opinion, rather than seeking legislation.

Well, so much for that little “let’s head D. Ho. off at the pass” strategy, folks!  But let’s get this much straight.  The ACE-and-friends statement was not a major victory for Horowitz.  Claiming victory is a political tactic, people, and Horowitz is exceptionally good at it.  Indeed, if Horowitz were the head of the National Hockey League Players’ Association, he would have claimed victory by now.  “The lockout has been a tremendous success,” he’d be saying.  “We couldn’t have asked for anything better.” So I didn’t worry about Horowitz claiming victory last month; on the contrary, I was quoted at the end of that June 23 article, to the effect that the ACE statement was no big deal:

Bérubé said that the statement from college groups embraces only “the innocuous parts” of Horowitz’s proposals while rejecting “the truly obnoxious aspect,” a move to have legislators “be empowered to investigate individual teachers and reading lists.”

Yeah, well, so much for my little strategy, too.  Because you know what?  This latest “tremendous victory” for David Horowitz really is a tremendous victory, and it retroactively makes a victory out of what, in June, had effectively been a tie.  Now we’ve got the Horowitz-inspired ACE document, drafted in the hopes of deflating ABOR-influenced bills in state legislatures, and we’ve got a Horowitz-inspired bill passed by a state legislature, too.  And this one includes one of the most obnoxious aspects of Horowitz’s campaign: the power to investigate individual teachers and reading lists.

Though we do get 48 hours to respond.

I have only a few (rather predictable) remarks about all this.

One.  We got punk’d.  The ACE, the AAUP, and every other organization that believed it could derail Horowitz’s campaign simply by reiterating the very rhetoric he’d gotten from these organizations’ previous statements, from the AAUP’s 1915 General Report of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure on forward, and publishing it all in a statement supporting “intellectual pluralism”—y’all got taken.  Badly.  Believe me, I’ve been there, and I know.

Two.  Shame to say, Pennsylvania now has—officially, indisputably—the most gullible lower legislative house in the country.  They didn’t fall for this nonsense in any of the other states where Horowitzian bills have been introduced.  They didn’t fall for it California, or Colorado, or Georgia, or Ohio.  They’re not falling for it in Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Tennessee, or Washington.  Damn, they didn’t even fall for it in Florida, for goodness’ sake.  Only in Pennsylvania has a state legislature adopted a Horowitzian professor-investigating scheme.  Congratulations, Pennsylvania House Republicans!  You have now outdone the rest of the Republic, even unto the most dogmatic creationists in the legislative chambers of the other 49 states.  I do hope your investigations go well.  Which brings me to . . .

Three.  If I were a crafty SOB like Horowitz, and wanted to throw a spanner in the local right-wing works, I’d go after the most nebulous clause in paragraphs (1)-(3), the one that asks whether “students have an academic environment, quality life [sic] on campus and reasonable access to course materials that create an environment conducive to learning.” I’d begin gathering statements from gay, African-American and other minority students about whether their quality of campus life creates an environment conducive to learning.  I’d flood the legislature with complaints about College Republicans and their little “affirmative action bake sales,” which are patently obvious attempts to insult and belittle black and Hispanic students.  I’d make H.R. 177 a referendum on investigating incidents of racism, sexism, and homophobia throughout the State-related and State-owned colleges and universities of this fair Commonwealth.  It would be a terrible mess, and it would lead to all manner of strange allegations.  But that’s what I’d do if I were a crafty SOB.  Just saying.

Four.  Finally, there’s the question of how all this affects me as a professor at the Pennsylvania State University.  I’m not really sure yet.  I was planning to offer a course on slave narratives and American literature, but now I don’t know whether the syllabus is sufficiently respectful of different points of view.  With all due respect to my esteemed U.S. Senator, Rick Santorum, I know that my current syllabus does not contain any material that suggests that slavery might have been better than abortion.  I was going to assign the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, but until now had given no thought to asking students to research the Anthony family’s account of what it was like to own Douglass.  Nor was I going to ask students to read any material on slavery’s economic benefits, any Christian defenses of the rightness of slavery, or any examples of the once-widespread argument that slaves were constitutionally incapable of self-governance.  And as Horowitz’s “Students for Academic Freedom” correctly notes, “you can’t get a good education if they’re only telling you half the story.” So I could probably use some help putting together my reading list, lest it turn out to be unacceptably hostile to certain “dissenting” points of view.

Those of you (in academe or out) who live in Pennsylvania, who have been to Pennsylvania, or who have heard of Pennsylvania might take some interest in this.  Please contact Pennsylvania Representative Mark B. Cohen (D - Philadelphia County), who recently wrote on Dr. B.’s blog that

This pseudo-investigation has the potential to cause intimidation of many professors and to make the investigators a national laughingstock.

Not a single text of a Pennsylvania complaint was released, but the Horowitz web site, Students for Academic Freedom, quotes one student as saying he or she was victimized for conservative beliefs because his or her paper was both spellchecked and proofread and therefore had to be deserving of a high grade.

Concerned Pennsylvania legislators could use back-up support from state and national members of the academic community. We need to know about reality-based practices and principles to be able to win the media war against Horowitz developed theories and fantasies.

Rep. Cohen, this humble blog stands ready and willing to provide backup support.  My book in progress has an entire chapter on Horowitzian attacks on professors, and I’d be happy to provide you with a manuscript copy of the chapter (and whatever else you think might help) as a public service to my fellow citizens.  And readers, feel free to offer advice, information, and survival tips.

Posted by Michael on 07/11 at 01:21 PM
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Friday, July 08, 2005

Deferring

I’m postponing the post I’d planned for today, so as not to get in the way of yesterday’s guest post from John McGowan (below).  I’ll be back on Monday with either this or that, or perhaps both.

Posted by Michael on 07/08 at 08:26 AM
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Thursday, July 07, 2005

The Rhetorics of Violence

"We condemn utterly these barbaric attacks. We send our profound condolences to the victims and their families.

“All of our countries have suffered from the impact of terrorism. Those responsible have no respect for human life. We are united in our resolve to confront and defeat this terrorism that is not an attack on one nation, but all nations and on civilized people everywhere.

“We will not allow violence to change our societies or our values, nor will we allow it to stop the work of this summit. We will continue our deliberations in the interest of a better world.

“Here at the summit, the world’s leaders are striving to combat world poverty and save and improve human life.

“The perpetrators of today’s attacks are intent on destroying human life. The terrorists will not succeed. Today’s bombings will not weaken in any way our resolve to uphold the most deeply held principles of our societies and to defeat those who impose their fanaticism and extremism on all of us.

“We shall prevail and they shall not.”
--Tony Blair after today’s bombings in London

“The weight of these sad times we must obey, Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” (Albany at the end of King Lear)

The weight of our sad times has nearly turned me into a pacifist.  I will admit that, finally, pacifism leaves me in a position that I experience as intellectually and emotionally incoherent.  But my response to today’s bombings in London is a sickening: “Here we go again.” So I am casting about for some alternative narrative to replace the all too predictable one we are about to reenact.

The rhetoric of response to violence is predicated on understanding violence itself as rhetorical.  The terrorists are trying to “send us a message.” Their message is: give up your way of life or we will destroy you.  Once their actions are interpreted in this way, the tenor of the response is pre-scripted.  As Tony Blair said it today: “We will not allow violence to change our societies and our values.” How we will send our message?  By imposing our will on theirs.  “We shall prevail and they shall not.” Their initiatory act of violence calls forth our responding acts of violence.

What differentiates our violence from theirs?  Three things: 1) our aims are moral; theirs are not; 2) they kill innocent people; we do not; and 3) their actions are “gratuitous”; ours are “necessary.” (Lurking behind all three is the old schoolboy standard: “he started it.”)

Pacifism calls all these familiar rhetorical moves into question.  It insists that violence can never be instrumental, that it never simply produces the ends toward which it aims.  The effects of violence—on the perpetrator as well as the victim—are incalculable.  History suggests that violence is a great destroyer.  But it does not create anything.  You cannot preserve a way of life through violence; once you take up arms, kiss your old way of life good-bye.  The attacks of September 11th did change America—not through what the terrorists did, but through what we did in response. 

Consider the counter-example of Spain.  The Madrid bombings were as horrible as anything you might image or dread.  But they did not dictate a complete change in the society’s prevailing foci or goals.  What if we were to respond to terrorist attacks the way we respond to earthquakes?  Take reasonable precautions, but don’t act as if there is some method to render the event impossible, or think that attacking a perceived source of the danger will prevent all future attacks.  Most of all, don’t allow obsession with the danger or investment in non-effective means of preventing it overwhelm getting on with the life one wants, chooses, and enjoys.  If you can’t live in peace with the possibility of earthquakes, don’t live in California.  Various observers noted that it was not the residents of New York City who voted on the basis of security fears or dreams last November. 

Yes, maybe it is true that you can’t move somewhere to gain immunity from the threat of terrorism (although surely some places are less likely targets than others).  But that’s not the point, which is, rather, pacifism’s pragmatic claim that violence cannot get you the results for which it aims.  Precautions are one thing, striking out at “the enemy” is another.  There are various arguments about why violence (in general) is counter-productive and why violence against terrorists (in particular) is counter-productive.  I will assume that you are familiar with these and move on.  The arguments here are empirical and, to say the least, open to debate.  It would be very difficult to prove that not only was every historical instance of violence unable to achieve its aim, but also that violence necessarily (not just contingently) must fail instrumentally.  Surely, the implausibility of such a sweeping argument partially explains why humans keep resorting to violence to get things done.  But, at least, pacifism calls our attention to the fact that violence, to say the least, is a very uncertain means to accomplish anything.  So if the end is something we care about deeply, we will be well advised to consider other means.  Violence has a nasty habit of proving indiscriminate in its destruction.

I turn now from pacifism’s pragmatism (the focus on instrumentality) to what I think of as its realism.  Of course, in matters of violence, the manly rhetoric of determination, will, prevailing, and necessity is considered “realistic”—and is opposed to the namby-pamby, pie-in-the-sky idealism of the pacifist who refuses to face facts.  I beg to differ.  The most abiding lesson I have learned in the four years since September 11th is the persistent inability of humans—as a species? Who knows?  But certainly in many instances—to call a spade a spade.  The rhetorics of violence divert our attention away from the maimed and suffering and dead bodies that are violence’s most real product.  Think of the ways that “sacrifice” and “victory” were deployed in Bush’s recent speech about the Iraq War.  Was there any connection offered between these terms and the dead bodies our war is producing daily?  Pacifism calls us to the fact that violence means killing and maiming; it means inflicting physical harm and pain on humans.  It tells us to be suspicious—very suspicious—of the words in which we cloak violence, in which we justify it, and in which we avoid apprehending its real effects on the ground.  Get real.  By jumping away to the message violence sends about our resolve or to the desired results we imagine it will produce, we cultivate a blindness that renders our claims to be “realists” delusionary. 

Pacifism also calls us to get real about the justificatory distinctions made between “innocent” and non-innocent victims.  Ever since the Blitz of 1940, warfare has pretty much obliterated the distinction between combatants and non-combatants.  (And in what sense are soldiers not innocent?  The sliding from “civilians” to “innocent” is usually unmarked, but incredibly problematic.  Is the civilian Donald Rumsfeld more innocent than the soldier in the field?  You get into very swampy moral ground once you start claiming that some people deserve to be the victims of violence.  But even if we could establish and endorse that distinction in theory, contemporary warfare can’t abide by it in practice. ) The poet Robert Hass, in a recent visit to Chapel Hill, said that he had read somewhere that 90% of the casualties in World War I were soldiers, but that 90% of the casualties in wars since 1939 were not soldiers.  I can’t vouch for the figures, but the trend is undeniable.  To think that “our” violence can be so “surgical” that only the non-innocent will feel its brunt is another delusion, one that the Pentagon has developed a whole new vocabulary to create and preserve.

I guess I must add here—since liberals are so often willfully misunderstood on this score—that I condemn and abhor today’s bombings.  I am only saying that pacifism has some very solid reasons for saying that once you begin making distinctions between “good” violence and “bad” violence, or between “acceptable” violence and “criminal” violence, or between “surgical” violence and “indiscriminate” violence, the consequences, more often than not, are lamentable—and the rhetorics deployed to make those distinctions prove a means for not even seeing the consequences.

Pacifism’s realism also extends to a candid look at the joy humans can take in destruction.  Since violence has proven so unreliable throughout history, our attraction to it can’t be simply its instrumental efficacy.  Push aside the rhetorics of necessity and/or of moralism and it’s not hard to see the glee of the teenager who throws a brick through a plate glass window or the child who stomps on the sand castle.  The last four years have also taught me how bourgeois I am.  I love the life that I have constructed painstakingly over fifty years—and the people with whom I share that life.  I am enormously grateful to the peace and stability that has made that act of construction possible and that makes its continuation likely.  Contempt for all things bourgeois runs deep within modernity from both the right and the left.  Having thrown my lot in with the arts early in life, I have gone through my own anti-bourgeois phases.  And, even today, my understanding of the bourgeois virtues is carefully distanced from the ethos of capitalism.  I will spare you an articulation of my bourgeois loyalties at this time and place. 

The current point is that, for many, peace is boring, constraining, complex, and frustrating.  They accept gleefully the opportunity to flee domesticity and the difficulties of getting along with others. (Much of the frustration on the ground in Iraq is that it is a “political” war, really more a policing action than combat, the kind of action for which our soldiers are poorly trained and equipped.  Many of them would feel a whole lot better if it was no-holds-barred, shoot-‘em-up simple.) Politicians love making those “resolve” speeches.  It offers them their Churchillian moment—and puts the messy compromises of politics and the entangling details of enacting policy on the back burner.  Violence as destruction offers a clear field for action.  Pacifism asks us to cast a cold eye on this human capacity to take joy in violence, irrespective of its consequences or its legitimacy.  We need to devise ways to push a leash on or divert such capacities—and we should be wary of the high-minded or instrumental rhetorics that often mask a love of violence for its simplicity and the heady sense of vitality it affords. 

Posted by John McGowan on 07/07 at 12:28 PM
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