Theory of everything
Hello again, everyone. I have nothing on the Supreme Court or on Rove-Plame today. Today, it’s time to get back to Mark Bauerlein’s Butterflies and Wheels essay on “Theory’s Empire.”
But first, the bad news: as hideously long as this post is (over 3500 words, nearly Holbonian in heft), this is only a warmup. I’ve agreed to participate in The Valve’s distributed-intelligence review of Theory’s Empire sometime between July 12 and July 14, and I told John Holbo that I would confine myself to commenting on Bauerlein’s essay, “Social Constructionism: Philosophy for the Academic Workplace.” Mark your calendars, or don’t. I’m also slated to review the entire volume for The Common Review later this year, so I’ll attend to the other 700 pages of the book then, in 2000 words or less. And last but not least, Bauerlein’s B&W essay raises a number of interesting points about the institutional status of literary theory these days, and I’m going to save those questions for another post. I’ll explain why as I go.
To the text, then. Bauerlein opens by explaining why we need Theory’s Empire:
Why another door-stopper volume on a subject already well-covered by anthologies and reference books from Norton, Johns Hopkins, Penguin, University of Florida Press, etc.? Because in the last 30 years, theory has undergone a paradoxical decline, and the existing anthologies have failed to register the change. Glance at the roster of names and texts in the table of contents and you’ll find a predictable roll call of deconstruction, feminism, new historicism, neopragmatism, postcolonial studies, and gender theory. Examine the approach to those subjects and you’ll find it an expository one, as if the job of the volumes were to lay out ideas and methods without criticism (except when one school of thought in the grouping reproves another). The effect is declarative, not “Here are some ideas and interpretations to consider” but “Here is what theorists say and do.”
I’ll start with the trivial point first. Thirty years? Literary theory has been in decline for thirty years? That would take us back to . . . let me think . . . 1975. How strange! In 1975, deconstruction was still just a-rumbling in a few seminar rooms at Yale; feminism was still larval; New Historicism had not been invented; nobody except Fredric Jameson was doing Marxist anything on these shores; postcolonial criticism was still on the horizon; the work of Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall was still largely unread in the U.S.; and queer theory would have to wait another decade to be invented. In 1975, the hottest items in the theory store were reader-response criticism (Wolfgang Iser, The Implied Reader, 1974), and structuralism (Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics, 1975; Robert Scholes, Textual Power, 1975 [update: what a lousy memory I have! Scholes’ book was published in 1985. Iser and Culler must suffice to make the point, then]). Oh yes, and Susan Sontag was reading Roland Barthes. But that’s about it. Now, of course it’s possible to lament the appearance of deconstruction, feminism, New Historicism, postcolonialism, queer theory, and cultural studies, and possible to say that theory ruined everything (whatever you imagine “everything” to be). But it’s quite odd to characterize the explosion of theory as always already the decline of theory. It’s a little like saying that the Beatles were all downhill after 1962. (I choose my analogy carefully: after all, it’s entirely plausible to say that the Beatles peaked in 1966, though of course the point is worth arguing.)
Now for the more important point. Bauerlein’s complaint about theory anthologies is that they are not sufficiently critical of theory, except when—and this is a remarkable escape clause—“one school of thought in the grouping reproves another.” For some reason, this kind of “criticism” is not enough: it simply doesn’t count when a feminist criticizes a deconstructionist or a queer theorist criticizes a feminist. But why not? And why doesn’t it count when a feminist criticizes a feminist or a postcolonialist criticizes a postcolonialist, as happens roughly ten or twenty times a day?
The reason it doesn’t count is that Theory is monolithic—indeed, a monolith made up of monoliths. Theory, as Bauerlein argues toward the end of his essay and as Patai and Corral argue in the introduction to Theory’s Empire, does not admit of criticism; and likewise, the different schools of Theory do not permit dissent from their premises. Thus, the only way a student can get a reliable assessment of what’s what in Theory is to read the work of people who are hostile to every branch of it. This is a strange view of the theoretical enterprises of the past thirty years, and as I’ll explain in a moment, it seems to me to be driven more by the curious phenomenon of theory-celebrity than by the actual theoretical-critical work on the ground.
If the theories represented were fresh and new, not yet assimilated into scholarship and teaching, then an introductory volume that merely expounded them would make sense. The same could be said if the theories amounted to a methodological competence that students must attain in order to participate in the discipline, or if the theories had reached a point of historical importance such that one studied them as one would, say, the utopian social theories surrounding communist reform, no matter how wrongheaded they were. But Theory lost its novelty some two decades ago, and many years have passed since anybody except the theorists themselves took the latest versions seriously.
Actually, most of the introductory volumes began to appear in the early 1990s. Before then, all we had was Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction, a book so glib and unreliable that I would not inflict it on any serious student. But as I’ve learned from Theory’s Empire, the event that inspired the volume was actually the publication of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, which was published in 2001 and which is, if anything, the least expository volume in the business. That’s the reason I’ve assigned selections from the Norton in my “Intro to Graduate Study” course over the past two years: as opposed to dreary introduction-to-theory volumes that offer chapter after expository chapter on how Queer Theory Says X and New Historicism Does Y, the Norton simply gives students excerpts from the primary texts themselves, accompanied by detailed headnotes.
But, it turns out, that’s precisely what Bauerlein et al. are objecting to—not the expository nature of the Norton Anthology, but the Norton Anthology nature of the Norton Anthology. That’ll become clearer in a moment. In the meantime:
And as for disciplinary competence, the humanities are so splintered and compartmentalized that one can pursue a happy career without ever reading a word of Bhabha or Butler.
This is quite true, and I’ll say more about it in my followup post. One of my first-year students said much the same thing to me as we were reading the Norton last year—or, rather, she informed me that one of her other professors had said much the same thing. Why bother with Derrida, she asked, when three-quarters of the faculty in the English department know next to nothing about Derrida?
A fine question, and it could be asked of the work of Bhabha and Butler as well. But then that would mean that Theory doesn’t quite have the kind of stranglehold on the study of literature that the term “empire” is clearly meant to suggest.
Finally, while the historical import of Theory remains to be seen, indications of oblivion are gathering. Not only are the theorists largely unread outside of graduate classrooms, but even among younger scholars within the humanities fields the reading of them usually doesn’t extend beyond the anthologies and a few landmarks such as Discipline and Punish.
This, by contrast, is palpably untrue. The people in my wing of the enterprise have witnessed a very different phenomenon, one related to the splintering and compartmentalizing Bauerlein noted above: almost every young assistant professor at Illinois or Penn State, over the past ten years, has been thoroughly conversant in one or two areas of theory. They didn’t pray to a specific Theory God every morning and evening, but they were generally familiar with debates in one or another area of the field, and often contributed to those debates themselves.
This is a phenomenon worth remarking on in more detail, so again, I’ll save it for the followup post. But I’ll say this much for now: beginning in the late 1970s, the University of Illinois had a “Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory” (it was responsible for the 1983 Marxism conference and the 1990 cultural studies conference) and when I arrived in 1989, the Unit simply invited assistant professors to “affiliate” with the Unit if they had any interest in matters theoretical. By the late 1990s, however, a good number of new hires in Communications, History, Anthropology, Sociology, and even Kinesiology—as well as the stalwarts from English and the modern languages—were affiliating with the Unit as a matter of course. This is not a triumphalist narrative; on the contrary, it underscores Bauerlein’s next point. Theory had in fact “declined” at Illinois between the late 1970s and late 1990s, but only because one or another of its aspects had become another name for business as usual.
One wouldn’t realize the diminishing value of Theory by perusing the anthologies, though. In fact, one gets the opposite impression—and rightly so. For, while Theory has become a humdrum intellectual matter within the humanities and a nonexistent or frivolous one without, it has indeed acquired a professional prestige that is as strong as ever. This is the paradox of its success, and failure.
Reread this passage slowly if you want to figure out what’s going on. The first sentence tells us that theory’s value is heading south, and the anthologies mask this fact; the second tells us that the masking itself gives us the right impression, and the third that theory’s prestige is as strong as ever. Theory’s value, then, remains high in the humanities—but only because the humanities as a whole have been so devalued. How have the humanities been devalued? By Theory.
And then things get confusing.
Intellectually speaking, twenty-five years ago Theory was an adventure of thought with real stakes. Reading “Différance” and working backward into Heidegger’s and Hegel’s ontology, or “The Rhetoric of Temporality” and sensing the tragic truth at the heart of Romantic irony, one apprehended something fundamental enough to affect not just one’s literary method but one’s entire belief system. No doubt the same was true for an earlier generation and its interpretation of Wordsworth or T. S. Eliot. But this time it was Derrida and Baudrillard, and the institution was starting to catch up to it with “Theory specialist” entries in the MLA Job List, Introduction to Theory and Interpretation courses for first-year graduate students, and press editors searching for theory books to fill out their next year’s catalogue.
Five years into its decline, in other words, theory was an adventure of thought with real stakes—and Bauerlein’s examples are Derrida and de Man. One apprehended something fundamental enough to affect not just one’s literary method but one’s entire belief system: jeez, you know, it sounds as if this stuff might just be worth teaching to people today, even if only to say, “here’s what Theory was like when Theory was worth doing.” But then the very next passage casts its lot with Bill Bennett:
In an inverse way, the public seemed to agree when William Bennett initiated the academic Culture Wars with To Reclaim a Legacy, an NEH report that decried Theory for destroying the traditional study of literature with politicized agendas and anti-humanist dogma. He was right, and a public outcry followed, but that only confirmed to junior theorists the power and insight of their practice.
Now, I know enough of Bauerlein’s work to know that he hates it when people simply declare things that they need to argue, so I have to think that the pat announcement that Bennett was right is simply a mistake. And as for that public outcry: well, actually, there was no “public” outcry. There was an outpouring of right-wing screeds that eventually gave us the P.C. controversy of the early 1990s and the full flowering of the career of Dinesh D’Souza, yes, but most of the general public did not actually rise up and say, “see here, we liked reading ‘The Rhetoric of Temporality’ and sensing the tragic truth at the heart of Romantic irony, but this anti-humanist dogma has to go.”
And then I come around to agreeing with Bauerlein’s account of things again:
Ten years later, however, the experience had changed. As theorists became endowed chairs, department heads, series editors, and MLA presidents, as they were profiled in the New York Times Magazine and invited to lecture around the world, the institutional effects of Theory displaced its intellectual nature. It didn’t have to happen, but that’s the way the new crop of graduate students experienced it. Not only were too many Theory articles and books published and too many Theory papers delivered, but too many high-profile incursions of the humanities into public discourse had a Theory provenance. The academic gossip in Lingua Franca highlighted Theory much more than traditional scholarship, David Lodge’s popular novels portrayed the spread of theory as a human comedy, and People Magazine hired a prominent academic feminist as its TV critic.
I think this is really the heart of Bauerlein’s complaint. In the early 1990s, the profession witnessed for the first time the phenomenon of theory-celebrity, and it was weird and often odious. Some theorists hated it, and some reveled in it. It was actually weirder than Bauerlein lets on, too: for one thing, the machinery of theory-celebrity was put together, in part, by the workings of the P.C. scaremongering itself, as more and more academics came forward to explain just what it was that they were doing. That machinery put Henry Louis Gates on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, and it produced Hurricane Camille Paglia at the same time. It was kind of indiscriminate that way.
And then, oddly, just when Bauerlein gets to the celebrity phenomenon (where he can score any number of points, having written perceptively in the past on epigonism and territorialism in the field), there are a couple of false notes.
One theorist became known for finding her “inner life,” another for a skirt made of men’s neckties, another for unionizing TAs. It was fun and heady, especially when conservatives struck back with profiles of Theorists in action such as Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals, sallies which enraged many academics and soundly defeated them in public settings, but pleased the more canny ones who understood that being denounced was better than not being talked about at all (especially if you had tenure).
Suddenly it’s time for Spot the Theorist! The one with the inner life is Jane Tompkins. The one with the necktie-skirt is Jane Gallop. And the one having heady fun by unionizing TAs is, I think, Cary Nelson. Now, I’ve seen people sneer at the idea of graduate student unionization before this—I recall Alan Wolfe describing it most alarmingly, in the pages of the New Republic, as “advocating class struggle within the university,” and I was grateful at the time that Professor Wolfe did not call out the Pinkertons to begin busting heads. But I have never seen it likened to Gallop’s or Tompkins’ forms of “self-actualization” (or whatever that’s called). I leave it to you, O readers, to make of this what you will.
As for Roger Kimball, the idea that he soundly defeated anyone in a public setting is absurd—unless you mean “public setting” more or less as a synonym for “public outcry” above, in which you’re probably invoking an obscure sense of the term in which “public” means “the forums of the American Enterprise Institute.” But Louis Menand’s New Republic review of Tenured Radicals was sufficiently devastating to persuade most intelligent readers that Kimball was a less than reliable guide to the contemporary scene.
On a side note, keep Bauerlein’s complaints about academic celebrity in mind when, a bit later on, he speaks of the “growing isolation of humanities professors from American society.” You would think that the phenomenon of humanities professors working with unions, writing for the popular press, and being the subject of magazine gossip would suggest, both for good and for ill, that humanities professors were less isolated from American society than were their predecessors in 1975. As it happens, these days Bauerlein himself is doing (by all accounts) terrific work as a researcher with the National Endowment for the Arts when he’s not teaching at Emory. So perhaps he meant that humanities professors are increasingly isolated from American society with one notable exception. But I think he meant that he doesn’t like the way humanities professors are isolated from American society and he doesn’t like the way they aren’t.
And now it’s time for the Telling Anecdote.
When a colleague of mine returned from an MLA convention in Toronto around that time, he told a story that nicely illustrated the trend. One afternoon he hopped on a shuttle bus and sat down next to a young scholar who told him she’d just returned from a panel. He replied that he’d just returned from France, where he’d been studying for a semester.
“What are they talking about?” she asked.
“Is there any new theory?”
“Yeah, in a way,” he answered. “It’s called ‘erudition.’”
“What’s that?” she wondered.
“Well, you read and read, and you get your languages, and you go into politics, religion, law, contemporary events, and just about everything else.” (He’s a 16th-century French literature scholar who comes alive in archives.)
She was puzzled. “But what’s the theory?”
“To be honest, there isn’t any theory,” he said.
“That’s impossible.” He shrugged. “Okay, then, give me the names, the people heading it.”
“There aren’t any names. Nobody’s heading it.”
A trivial exchange, yes, but it signals the professional meaning and moral barrenness Theory accrued in the Nineties.
Hmm. Either this is a trivial exchange, or it signals the professional meaning and moral (!) barrenness Theory accrued in the Nineties. I think Bauerlein wants to go with (b), myself. But I’m not going to fault him for predicating this part of the argument on a story that a colleague told him, for, as it happens, I was on that very shuttle bus, and I can tell you that the conversation unfolded almost exactly this way. If anything, Bauerlein is being too kind to this jejune young woman, for as I recall, she couldn’t even spell “erudition.” She didn’t simply ask, “what’s that?”; she asked Bauerlein’s colleague to write the word on a pad of paper for her.
Now, seriously. Why would Bauerlein relay this trivial exchange as a sign of moral barrenness and so forth? What is gained by portraying young would-be Theorists as blithering idiots, and non-Theorists as distinguished, erudite folk who come alive in archives?
Many things, surely, but this above all—the one thing about the history of the profession that Bauerlein neglects to mention. In the 1980s, most of the literature professors who were most horrified by theory were not, despite a Christopher Ricks here and a Frederick Crews there, a very impressive bunch. On the contrary, in those days, we upper-level undergraduates and graduate students had a whole mess of people who’d gotten tenure in the 1960s back when there was a severe shortage of college professors (I know it sounds strange) and the standards for tenure were, shall we say, quite low. Some of those professors didn’t produce any scholarship of note between 1970 and 1985 (some didn’t produce any scholarship at all), and guess what? Assistant professors came up for tenure who were working in feminism or deconstruction, and some of their elders had the task of reviewing their work even though they didn’t even know how to distinguish a good feminist or deconstructive argument from a bad one, or a derivative one, or a brilliant one. Meanwhile, graduate students like me were not inspired by faculty members who complained that New Historicist readings of Wordsworth were destroying the integrity of “Tintern Abbey” (a real example) or that feminists were interested in nineteenth-century British novels only because they were hostile to marriage (another real example). We decided, on the basis of a preponderance of the available evidence, that the “anti-Theorists” of the 1980s consisted largely of dodderers and deadwood. (And we knew what “erudition” was, too!) So when Bauerlein writes that “Theory quickly seized the vanguard terrain and cast its detractors as merely anti-Theory—retrograde, bitter, superseded,” he surely does so in the knowledge that twenty years ago, a good number (though not all!) of literature professors who denounced every kind of theory as “froggy nonsense” (yet another real example) were simply not the most intellectually active or curious people in the department. They certainly weren’t reading “Différance” and working backward into Heidegger’s and Hegel’s ontology.
Bauerlein registers this only indirectly, by insisting that “Theory needs new antagonists whose intelligence is unquestioned,” and that Theory’s Empire is just what the doctor ordered. For the record, the volume’s lineup is quite strong (though I wouldn’t call all of these folks “new antagonists”), and it was sometimes true, as Bauerlein charges, that “whenever a non-theorist tackled a Theory (Fred Crews on psychoanalysis, John Searle on deconstruction), his or her arguments were denounced as anti-intellectual bile.” The charge of anti-intellectualism was thrown around especially carelessly, as I recall, just as the charge of “elitism” is thrown around with abandon today. (Imagine being charged with anti-intellectualism one decade, and elitism the next. It must be vexing.) And so now, it appears, the charges will be reversed: “The more popular Theory became,” Bauerlein writes, “the less it inspired deep commitments among searching minds.” So now it’s the anti-Theorists who are the smart kids, the searching minds. People still reading and writing about Theory are just camp followers.
Which reminds me that there’s one other thing missing from Bauerlein’s account, and it’s central to his argument that Theory brooks no dissent: namely, the work of many of the scholars of his and my generation (he earned his doctorate a year before I did). Let me put it in the form of a challenge. Anyone who thinks that theory has lost its power to inspire searching minds simply hasn’t read, or hasn’t heard of, books like Amanda Anderson’s The Powers of Distance: Cosmopolitanism and the Cultivation of Detachment, John Frow’s Cultural Studies and Cultural Value, Rita Felski’s The Gender of Modernity, or Grant Farred’s What’s My Name? Black Vernacular Intellectuals. (And if it’s stinging dissent from Theorists you want, check out Anderson’s “Debatable Performances: Restaging Contentious Feminisms” or Tim Dean’s “On the Eve of a Queer Future”). Sometimes I wonder if I’m simply leading a charmed life: how is it that I happen to hang out with people like Amanda and Grant, and how is it that I’m surrounded by books like Bill Maxwell’s New Negro, Old Left or Rachel Adams’s Sideshow U.S.A. or my esteemed co-blogger’s Democracy’s Children or essays by James Berger and Joseph Valente and Janet Lyon? Am I just lucky in my choice of friends and associates, or do the anti-Theorists have their radar tuned exclusively to the Celebrities and their Epigones?
Probably both. Hey, I am leading a charmed life!
More to come whenever I can manage it. In the meantime, remember, tomorrow is Thursday, and Thursday is John McGowan Day. I’ll be back on Friday with a Fun List.
Why bother with Derrida, she asked, when three-quarters of the faculty in the English department know next to nothing about Derrida?
Substituting “Milton” for “Derrida” in that sentence, I completely fail to get the point.Posted by Anderson on 07/06 at 06:57 PM
thanks for this. your characterization of the “anti-theorists” of the mid 80s reminds me of Stephen Melville’s reflection on the curricular changes in my own department at Syracuse University (written as a memorial for Bill Readings). Melville writes:
The department that was graced with this influx of new personnel had, of course, its own peculiar history-one that had resulted in a small and relatively weak group of faculty approaching retirement age, and a distinct second generation of professionally ambitious faculty members hired in the early to mid-seventies and thus forming a distinct mid-level in the department. Many of these faculty had been strongly influenced by Mas’ud Zavarzadeh, whose version of Marxism did much to shape their general notion of theory-a notion of theory not wholly shared by the new hires. But as long as one spoke only in general terms of “theory,” it seemed clear that the majority of the department favored moving ever more firmly in that direction, and when the department found itself obliged to look outside for a new chair, it became an explicit part of that search that the new chair would be expected to oversee the construction of a new, theoretically ordered curriculum. As a result of that search, Steven Mailloux was hired as chair, and full scale curricular discussions began in earnest.
Some features of this general situation are worth remarking. Although in the build-up to the curricular discussions, things tended to be cast in terms of some opposition between “traditional literary study” and “theory,” there was never any serious question about which way the department was going to go-the numbers had already decided that-and there was no serious defense of traditional literary study offered within the discussions because the faculty in question were largely unable to mount such a defense, which is to say that they did not understand, or were unable or unwilling to articulate, the ground of their own activity. If their position was to be registered at all, it would have to be ventriloquized from elsewhere in the department-something that did happen to some degree as the debates unfolded. The absence of any strongly held “traditional” position within the department was damaging to the actual course of the discussions, but it also called out in interesting ways for diagnosis, something of which I take to be reflected in Bill’s later willingness to review the history of the university and its presiding ideas. While this absence was in part a symptom of the weakness of the most senior layer of the faculty, it also represented a differend of sorts between a group of faculty whose notion of theory was predicated on a professionalism that was already alien to the “traditional” group and in the face of which that group was, to a high degree, unable to speak, unable to make itself heard. If one gives this fact full weight, then there are two narratives intertwined from the beginning at Syracuse: one that sees whatever happened there unfolding as result of the conflict within literary study between traditional and newer, theoretically informed approaches, and another that sees those same events in terms of a deeper conflict between a silenced past of the university and a present in which administrative interests and a newly professionalized faculty worked together on grounds rendered usefully opaque by the invocation of “theory.”
I’m looking forward to your coming articles.Posted by on 07/06 at 07:03 PM
In his review essay in boundary 2, “Political Dreams, Economic Woes, and Inquiry in the Humanities”, (which I believe has come up before on your blog), Bauerlein had this to say about anecdotes:
These self-references force the question, Why must one person’s experience play such a central role in discussions of literary theory and academic reform? Local anecdotes and personal statements may reveal some of the human costs of certain policies, but they insufficiently validate recommendations that involve millions of dollars, long-standing administrative structures, vast populations, and competing interest groups.Posted by eb on 07/06 at 09:11 PM
Bravo, Michael! We envy you your charmed life, which you have richly earned.
Of all the pearls you have strewn before us, I take this to chew: organising TAs is one small piece of God’s work on this planet. Until the least among us have received justice, none of us have received justice.Posted by on 07/06 at 09:56 PM
feminism was still larval
Dorothy Day? Susan B Anthony? Elizabeth Cady Stanton? Virginia Woolf? Jane Addams?
I’ll grant you that academic recognition lifted the idea of feminism to less-fringe status in the public discourse, but this still seems a bit harsh.
Just saying.Posted by julia on 07/06 at 10:00 PM
Oops! Sorry, Julia, didn’t mean to suggest that modern feminism was still gestating from 1848. I meant only that academic feminism, in 1975, consisted of a book by Kate Millett. Even that old chestnut, Dorothy Dinnerstein’s The Mermaid and the Minotaur, wasn’t published until 1976. The major work of Nancy Chodorow, Nina Baym, Annette Kolodny, Elaine Showalter, Susan Gubar, Sandra Gilbert—still to come. By 1985 it was a different world—so different, in fact, that Showalter’s collection, The New Feminist Criticism, named what was already an “old” feminist criticism, challenged in turn by books like Toril Moi’s Sexual/Textual Politics (also published in 1985).
And Jon S.: oh, lord, Syracuse. What a scene that must have been (they interviewed me in 1989, just as they were making the transition of which Melville writes); every department had its theory-literature split in those days, but only one department had the Zavarzadeh Factor. I can say this much, though: Bauerlein would likely agree with Melville that “the absence of any strongly held ‘traditional’ position within the department was damaging to the actual course of the discussions.” I would agree with that, too.
Anderson: I don’t get the point either. Thanks for not getting it in precisely the same way. I’ll say more about this next week.Posted by on 07/06 at 10:25 PM
In a weird way, coming from a non-lit theory background, B. sounds quite a bit like my old indie friends. You know, saying things like “I like Modest Mouse’s demo tapes from the late 90’s but they sold out after their first tour where they sacrificed relationships and money to play shitty clubs for 20 kids”, and “You know who is a brilliant musician, Beyonce” in order to have indie cred by not liking any indie music. I wonder if he has any tattoos he regrets.Posted by on 07/07 at 12:07 AM
I have an unrelated question, but I don’t have a better place to post it. Michael, how long does it take you to bat these long posts out? Of course, this is your field, and you know all of the stuff in advance, but I’m still impressed. Each one of these would take me a few hours.
How quickly do you read? One of the reasons that I’m grateful for blogs is that some of the A-listers can do the heavy lifting for me. I suspect that Brad deLong is able to read 3 or 4 times faster than I can. Not fair.
As an aside this may be why those of us who are slow (and I don’t mean that in a terribly pejorative sense) tend to be conservative and traditionalist. We can’t read as much stuff, so, we want to make sure that we only read the good stuff that will stand the test of time.Posted by on 07/07 at 01:43 AM
And here I thought from the title that you’d given up on literary criticism and switched to physics to become a string theorist. It’s true there are a lot of equations, but the canonical texts are much shorter.
Actually, the reception of string theory in physics departments is similar to that of “Theory” in literature departments—remarkable rapid success coupled with a great deal of grumbling and suspicion that there was less there than met the eye. But these academic squabbles never captured the popular imagination like the ones in the humanities did.Posted by Sean on 07/07 at 03:00 AM
I have to confess having been an anti-theorist of the mid-’90s, as an older undergraduate at Rutgers.
That hostility waned later, but it was borne of frustration from having wanted this ‘erudition’—studying languages and classics, art history and other things—while having to cling to the older, sometimes deadwood English profs in order to read a text without interrogating the binary hyperliminals of the inchoate subjective of 15-year-old French theory. While, of course, the French (bless them) had already abandoned the hard stuff for a more humanist read.
You just wanted to read the damn books and put them in context, at first, so that you could levy that context on new things you encountered. George Eliot, Mill on the Floss—like Jane Austen but smarter, more psychological, prose balanced on knife-edge. Trollope: What’s this? Ornate, fustier—how does this fit the quilt?
There’s quite a bit to the tale, and it’s nothing uniquely interesting, but that old frustration at never getting enough grounding, enough context, undoubtably leads, somehow, to our continually trying to bait Crooked Timber into a comedy blog war.
Which we will win, make no mistake.Posted by Gavin M. on 07/07 at 05:27 AM
Actually, I’m pretty, er, conservative about such things, Gavin. I’ve taught theory to undergraduates only on rare occasions—in my honors seminars on postmodernism and American fiction. The rest of my undergraduate courses are wall-to-wall literature, with plenty of close reading. I always historicize, just like Jameson told me to, and I sometimes introduce undergraduates to critical debates over (for example) Hurston or DeLillo. But full-dress interrogations of binary anything—these I save for graduate students who want to know what all the fuss was, and is, about.
Abby, don’t even ask. This damn post took all afternoon and began aggravating my wife around 4 pm. I can write 1000 words/hr, max, and when I get up to that speed, the Quality Control suffers accordingly, and the tics and solecisms slip in. And remember, Mark Bauerlein posted his essay three weeks ago; Judith Halberstam’s is two months old, and I just got around to it last week.
And Sean, I imagine that string theory’s career (big splash, much grumbling, slow and steady comeback) is rather different from the story of “Theory” for another reason as well. Yes, you all avoided having your arcane disciplinary disputes hashed out by the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. But beyond that, you physicists proceed with your elegant equations in the belief that some of them will eventually pan out even if we can’t test string theory empirically (unless we build a supercollider the size of the solar system, etc.), whereas the charge against literary theory is precisely that it could produce anything it wanted. And, of course, things have sometimes gotten quite ugly when “theorists” on my side of the quad say glib things about the “constructedness” of scientific knowledge. I admitted as much in this essay, but I don’t think any scientists (save for Alan Sokal, who emailed me a long response) read that one.Posted by Michael on 07/07 at 07:35 AM
Is ‘destroying the integrity of “Tintern Abbey”’ a geeky meta-joke on Romanticism? Not that there’s anything wrong with geeky meta-jokes.
I laughed, anyway.Posted by on 07/07 at 09:11 AM
Posted by Daybreak on 07/07 at 11:27 AM
I think that when I’m calm and not overly anxious or agitated, I can manage 600 words per hour. 250-300 is more like normal, if I want the thing to be reasonably polished. A 2000 word paper would be a 4 or 5=hour affair. And I guess that’s why I’m not a humanities professor.Posted by on 07/07 at 11:46 AM
If the Eagleton book is so glib and unreliable (which I agree it is), what is the effect of its adoption in countless intro to theory courses over the years? I used a Leroy Searles anthology, Critical Theory After 1965, that contained only primary texts of theory, to avoid the trap of such works, but I got the feeling the students would have preferred something much glibber.Posted by Jonathan on 07/07 at 12:12 PM
Post-Theory is an interesting read. The drawback with Bordwell’s work in general is that the definition of his own ostensibly nontheoretical position grows out what you might call his own theoretical position of positivism or neopositivism (I can’t remember which term is more commonly used to refer to him). His work is just as confined by fundamental philosophical assumptions as any other theory--moreso, I would argue. That said, it was a hell of a lot easier to read than Metz and Deleuze.
I think theory has a different history in film studies than in literary studies, though, because heavy theory was particularly important in the development and definition of film studies as a legitimate academic discipline back in the 1960s-1970s. In a sense, it would be more difficult today to have a right-wing, “can’t we drop all that theory junk and get back to old-fashioned film analysis?” campaign in film studies, since there wasn’t really an older discipline to go back to. Not that there aren’t people out there who have problems with film theory - I’m just wondering if any of them come from the same culture-war perspective that seems to reduce so many attacks on literary theory to mere hackery.Posted by on 07/07 at 12:50 PM
I’m just wondering if any of them come from the same culture-war perspective that seems to reduce so many attacks on literary theory to mere hackery. Well, Carroll’s attacks come from the left, so it’s not the same “culture-war perspective,” but he certainly seems to think that theory, especially psychoanalysis, is “hackery.” Personally, I think this comes from his resentment toward continental philosophy.
An old stalwart in film studies, Bordwell is admittedly more ambivalent toward theory. No, he can’t say: “let’s get back to old-fashioned film analysis” but he can say (and does) let’s get to analyzing the formal, cognitive properties of film instead of wasting all this energy “making meaning,” that is, plumbing a film for a meaning that is really nothing more than a product of a particular theoretical framework.
\*/Posted by Daybreak on 07/07 at 01:13 PM
The paradox of simultaneous success and failure you cite in Bauerlein’s essay early on is the crux of the matter for me.
Only, I don’t think it’s symptomatic of Bauerlein. If anything, it’s in the rhetoric of the volume as a whole.
What I think is interesting is the way the more intellectually serious adherents of the anti-Theory charge are themselves potentially legible as ‘theorists’ of a sort. I wouldn’t be surprised if in ten years, some of the contributors to volumes like Theory’s Empire find themselves anthologized in the next edition of the Norton. (Something similar has already occurred with Arif Dirlik and postcolonial theory.)
The Anti-Theorists would be happy in such a scenario, because it would prove their point that Theory swallows everything. Paradoxically, the Theorists would also be happy, because it would prove the formal elasticity of the field.
One efficient way to solve this logical morass would be to simply abolish the word “Theory,” pro or contra.Posted by Amardeep on 07/07 at 01:16 PM
Aha, but these days “it can lead to anything” is precisely the charge labeled against string theory by its critics; see e.g. Peter Woit’s blog. John Horgan got a whole book out of the idea, The End of Science. And the view from the perspectives of the hungry young students and the defensive older guard is precisely analogous. There’s a PhD thesis to be written here, I’m telling you.
I enjoyed the Tikkun essay, having long thought that Sokal had something to say but went way too far, spreading more heat than light (raising the entropy rather than doing useful work, one might say). Too bad it wasn’t published in Physics Today.Posted by Sean on 07/07 at 01:27 PM
Daybreak, two remarks.
1) Sorry for the poor wording of my first comment. I didn’t mean to imply that culture warriors dismiss Theory as hackery (though they might do so); instead, I meant that because of the ideological bent of their criticism, their critiques of theory tend to descend into hackery. That is, they might begin with valid, substantive arguments, but drop them or don’t push them far enough, instead falling back on some blanket “professors are crazy/liberals/bad scholars” argument - basically, ad hominem attacks.
2) As for Bordwell, I sympathize with his call to drop the more convulted strains of film theory and introduce (or reintroduce) some formalist rigor. I just think his cognitivist model has its own set of binding and at-times incredibly limiting assumptions about how film works, what it does, and what/how it “means.” That sort of rigor can make a wonderful tool to attaining a deeper understanding of a film (or, for that matter, any text), but Bordwell’s method always makes me feel that the formal elements (and the reactions/thought processes they provoke) simply are what they are. That said, his work does make a wonderful counterbalance to film theory that occasionally veers a bit too far from the object it purports to be analyzing.Posted by on 07/07 at 04:54 PM
I wonder, sometimes, whether some of the more vulgar opposition to Theory is less an intellectual reaction to the particular theories than it is an emotional reaction to the general difficulty of studying English in college. And by “difficulty” I don’t mean the prose of Jacques Derrida; I mean, rather, that it’s not easy for most people to move from high school English—where literature is understood in terms of character, plot, symbolism, craft, one’s own personal experience, the author’s biography, the explicit or nearly-explicit intent of the author, etc.—to college-level English, where texts are approached in a much more systematic, theoretical (in a broad sense) way.
It can be disorienting, or at least it was for me. I’d been expecting an extension of the kind of generalist conversation I’d enjoyed in high school, and instead I found myself in classes that were intended for students who were training to be professional scholars of literature. (I had a similar experience in philosophy classes, which didn’t seem to have much similarity to the late-night, wide-sodden existentializing I’d previously thought of as philosophy.)
And I was angry, at first. Not only did it seem distant from the experience of analyzing a book with which I was familiar, but it was really hard work. My brain hadn’t been trained to flex that way, and I spent a lot of time and energy simply trying to keep up with what my professor and my classmates were saying. There wasn’t much mental energy left for me to be insightful and witty and thoughtful (and to earn the professorial approval I’d been accustomed to getting).
Eventually, I realized that I was just a generalist. And the academic study of English, or the academic study of pretty much anything, isn’t what generalists are suited to. And I suspect that there are legions of bright conservative generalists—the people who’ve been leading the charge against Theory—who had similar experiences but didn’t have the perspective (as I did, natch’) to accept that not every field of human endeavor should be tailored to fit their particular interests and talents.
I realize this description doesn’t fit Bauerlein, but it’s relevant, perhaps, that the classes I had that led me away from the study of English weren’t even particularly Theory-heavy (I got most of my Theory in art history classes). They were, however, professionalized in the sense that I think Michael’s talking about. They were taught by professors who had a very strong sense of the academic, systematic, contributing-one-more-brick-to-the-edifice-of -human-knowledge notion of being a scholar.
The work that comes out of this perspective is always going to be somewhat alien, and therefore offensive, to the generalists. And to the musty traditionalists. And it’s going to spawn reaction even from the earlier practioners of professional literary study, who find themselves out of their depth in many of the new fields of study that have sprung up since they were young and intellectually virile and cramming for their orals. It’s an understandable reaction, but it often leads to the kind of incoherence and anti-intellectualism Michael’s criticizing (I remember reading Harold Bloom’s attacks on theory in The Western Canon and wondering whether he’d even read any of it, and where the man who wrote The Anxiety of Influence got off complaining about the outlandishness of other’s people theories and prose).
None of this is to say that Theory should be the prime stuff of undergraduate English education. There is sometimes a conflict, I suspect, between the desire of professors to teach classes that revolve around their current theoretical interests and the students who are interested only in becoming more erudite, and I don’t know that every English department has negotatiated this conflict well. But it’s a very different question than the question of whether professors should, as scholars, be studying theory. What else would we have them do?
-DanPosted by on 07/07 at 05:47 PM
Eagleton’s book is a gold mine. If you’re teaching theory and your students are searching for paper topics, tell them to find an assertion by Eagleton on any theorist and then write a paper in which they evaluate the assertion’s validity.
The best thing in it, iirc, is his Keynes quote or paraphrase, to the effect that those who claim to be theory-free are just in the grips of some theory they’re unconscious of. And that’s at the very beginning, so you can skip the rest of the book.Posted by Anderson on 07/07 at 06:28 PM
Bauerlein’s complaint about theory anthologies is that they are not sufficiently critical of theory, except when—and this is a remarkable escape clause—“one school of thought in the grouping reproves another.”
I don’t think that’s necessarily an escape clause, nor do I think it’s entirely accurate. The extent of criticism I see of someone else’s theoretical position--and this aligns with Amardeep’s point that the best contributions in Theory’s Empire could themselves be considered theorists--is often painfully superficial, i.e. less “criticism” than dismissal. But an informed criticism of, say, Derrida would require an incredible investment of time (not to mention intellectual energy), and if you already know you’ve an aversion to the arguments produced by a deconstructive critic you’re unlikely to make that investment. Is this, as you suggest, intellectual laziness? Because I’d say it’s a matter of perspective-plus-prioritization.
If I sidle up to a deconstructive critic and we talk about literature from his perspective, I’ll need to be walked through his argument’s finer points, and if I’m an ass about it, he’ll think me intellectual lazy (and an ass). If we talk about literature from my perspective, I’ll have to walk him through my arugment’s historical nuances, and if he’s an ass about it, I’ll think him intellectually lazy (and an ass). The problem, as I see it, is that English departments are populated by an unusually large number of asses (whether we arrived so or became such through practice, practice, practice is another matter entirely).
The thing is, even if we’re not asses about our ignorance, its etiology’s still the same: I’m not too quick on the aporia for the same reason the deconstructive critic isn’t too quick on the historical nuances, i.e. we’re not at the present moment interested in each other’s approach to literature. I don’t think that’s intellectual laziness so much as simple prioritization. Given an infinite amount of time, I’d read everything and be able to speak intelligently about it all; given that I have a limited amount of time to produce this dissertation, write another article before my tenure review, &c., I focus my reading on 1) critical debates within my favored approach and 2) secondary material produced by scholars who share that approach. Does that mean I’m not curious? Certainly not...but it does mean that I’m more likely to dismiss, say, a Freudian argument than attempt to engage it on its own terms. (Because I’m an ass.) As you noted, the Balkanization of the discipline’s such that you can hire an entire junior faculty and not have a single one of them conversant with their selected peers’ sub- or sub-sub-disciplines.Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/07 at 06:36 PM
Sean, thanks for pointing to my weblog as a place people can follow what’s been going on in a different sort of controversy over “Theory”. Over the years I’ve been fascinated by the similarities and differences between the story of string theory and that of literary theory. String theory is about a decade or so behind literary theory (it only got off the ground in late 1984), so I’m curious to see if the current situation of theory in the humanities gives any clues as to where string theory will be ten years from now.
A caricature of the similarities (here you can put “string” or “literary” in front of “theory”, interchangeably):
1. Theory is difficult:
This makes up a large part of its appeal to the intellectually ambitious. It also makes theorists prone to arrogant behavior. Often they’re convinced that they must be really smart because they can do theory, and that non-theorists on the whole are just second-raters not bright enough to do theory. They spend a lot of time marveling at how brilliant leading theorists are.
For most people it can take many years of immersion in the subject to even start to get a real handle on the major ideas of theory and up to speed on where it is now. In the standard length of funding one has to complete a Ph.D. program, there may not be time both to master theory and to acquire the conventional body of knowledge traditionally expected of scholars. Non-theorists tend to believe theorists are lacking in erudition.
Academic departments find that many of the smartest young people on the market are theorists, so hire them despite misgivings about their erudition. Once in place, theorists feel that as an embattled minority, they must stick up for their side. They promote the hiring of theorists and oppose the hiring of non-theorists. Some ugly battles ensue, but on the whole the theorists are more disciplined and single-minded than their opponents, so they start to dominate many prominent departments.
Due to the difficulty of theory, much theoretical writing is pretty impenetrable. Sometimes this is just because the ideas involved are difficult, sometimes it is because the writer is not thinking clearly. A major scandal occurred when one or more prominent theoretical journals published some utter nonsense, not realizing this until too late.
2. Theory opens up lots of new topics for scholars to write about:
While non-theorists struggle to come up with something new to say about subjects that have been worked over for years, theorists have a wide range of new and exciting sounding topics to write about. Academia is like the proverbial shark that must keep moving. A huge number of new topics suitable for articles and monographs are needed each year to keep the business going, and theory can provide these.
There are however some major differences. There has always been “theory” in physics, but it has traditionally been subject to the discipline of experiment. Since the mid-seventies particle physics is a victim of its own success. While not completely satisfactory, the “standard model” agrees completely with experiment, making it hard to improve on it. In contrast literary theory is not a science, but an inherently different kind of endeavor. One major factor in the success of string theory is that it was strongly promoted by the most impressive genius in the field (Edward Witten). Imagine the best of Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, de Man and others all rolled up into one person, who then tells everyone that a certain kind of new theory is what they should all be doing.
About Sokal: I think his most impressive achievement was not his critique of extreme ideas about the social construction of physical reality, but his conclusive demonstration that leading academic figures couldn’t recognize nonsense for what it was and would happily publish it. The Bogdanov brothers have done the same job for theoretical physics, and I really wish Sokal would turn his attention to the scandalous nonsense now appearing all the time in print in his own field.
Note that while some of the excesses in string theory and literary theory are similar, they’re quite different subjects and the failure of the string theory project in no way implies a similar failure in literary theory.Posted by Peter Woit on 07/07 at 07:11 PM
I’m so sorry to have let this thread languish all day. It’s not fair, I know—drop a huge post on Wednesday, forget all about it on Thursday. But I was consumed by, ahem, Recent Events.
Scott first. I think we agree about disciplinary balkanization, though I’m not entirely sure that it’s a bad thing, as I suggested in my response to Halberstam last week. But you’re right to suggest that people who are deeply committed to deconstruction (for instance) are likely to deal with historicists (for instance) like ships passing in the night. You’re also right to suggest that most skeptical engagements with theory this or that are “often painfully superficial, i.e. less ‘criticism’ than dismissal.” But that’s precisely why Bauerlein shouldn’t discount one school’s critique of another. The day a feminist summons the time, resources, and intellectual energy to mount a searching critique of deconstruction (or vice versa) is a good day, which is why all those debates about reading like/as a woman 20 years ago were so compelling. Likewise with Fish’s critique of Wolfgang Iser in diacritics, which I’ve written about at some length. It’s so much easier for different strands of theory to ignore or talk past each other; when there’s a serious intellectual dispute between theorists or theories, seriously engaged, it’s usually quite illuminating—about the theories involved, and about the terms of dispute. (I think Amanda Anderson’s next book, The Way We Argue Now, will be particularly smart about this.) And this points to another problem with Bauerlein’s piece, its tendency to throw out self-cancelling charges one after the other. To wit: he’s right about the degree to which various theories insulate themselves from other possible accounts of the world, and this too has a lot to do with epigonism and territorialism. But by the same token, he’s wrong to dismiss out of hand those rare occasions when theories actually argue with each other.
Anderson, yes, Eagleton’s book is a gold mine in that respect, but I still can’t subject students to it. Even the useful pedagogical task you suggest strikes me as an exercise in giving students bad information and challenging them to correct it.
Daniel, I think you’re right; much of the resistance to theory partakes of a much broader resistance to the professionalization of literary study, and I think Daniel Green’s response to me at the Valve makes this point emphatically.
Brian, Daybreak: I haven’t read Post-Theory but I’m familiar with Bordwell’s work, and I have to say that I’m generally sympathetic—insofar as film theory, in the 1980s, became (thanks to debates in journals like Screen and m/f) a wholly-owned subsidiary of Lacan Enterprises, and by the mid-1990s it was about time for some smart formalism.
Jonathan, Amardeep, let me get back to you in another comment. I don’t want to overload this one.Posted by Michael on 07/07 at 09:35 PM
If the Eagleton book is so glib and unreliable (which I agree it is), what is the effect of its adoption in countless intro to theory courses over the years?
Bad. Kudos for using Leroy Searle’s anthology. When I used the Norton, some students told me they would have preferred something glibber—and skimmier. That reaction, taken together with the expository books themselves, convinces me that I was right to assign the Norton (the Searle would have been OK too) and that the anti-Theory folk would do better to complain about the expository books than about the anthologies.
Amardeep, I think your comment is about ten years ahead of the game—and I mean that in the best possible way. It reminds me of what the smart money said about the ALSC ten years ago, namely, that if it survives the desires of its founders, it will become another professional organization arguing about the study of literature. (The Valve is already more interesting than the early ALSC ever was.) 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; 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.Posted by Michael on 07/07 at 10:11 PM
Re: Daniel’s post
I used to wonder that as well—whether college English was too pre-professional for what a generally-curious person might want to gain from it.
Rutgers was an extreme case in those days (and might be still): Nearly all incoming students were assigned to remedial English composition classes to help make up for the generally terrible state of public education in New Jersey. And what they did, the subset of the English Department responsible for that curriculum, was to start the sudents immediately on Ways of Reading and other such texts, ‘mainstreaming’ them into current critical debates.
The results were pretty much appalling. When I was tutoring there, I’d encounter students who knew what a reader-response critique was, and the rudiments of who Derrida and Lacan were, and many details like that, but who couldn’t spell or punctuate or set out a reasoned argument on paper—and who came in for tutoring because the ‘remedial writing’ classes made no effort to teach such things.
Many other students (and I found this almost as troubling) learned ‘the critical essay’ as a method by which one chose from perhaps six or seven accepted theoretical modes, and plugged examples from the text into the chosen template. For instance, a ‘feminist’ critique would have been one in which you’d find something that looked sexist in a text, and would compare it to our own superior knowledge about such things. Just off the top of one’s head: Miss Havisham represented the Victorian ideal of the powerlessness of women in the absence of the male gaze—whereas NOW, we know that women need not wait in an airless room for a suitor who never returns.
Or, perhaps: The ‘Intended’ in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness represented the Colonialist ideal of the powerlessness of women in the absence of white male protection—whereas NOW, we know that women need not be shot by Belgians when males are taken captive on a steamboat.
I’m making these up of course, but the notion in play at the time, in that part of the English Department, was that students could take these templates and plug in bits of text, and a critical argument would result. And it seemed at the time (and I’m far less ardent about such things now, for various reasons, but in that context, in the ‘90s, it seemed quite imminent) that PC and reliance on literary theory as a substitute for original and flexible thinking were real and crippling problems on the left—and that cranks like Alan Bloom, as unlikeable as they were, had something valuable to say about cultivating habits of mind, rather than habits of speech and discourse.Posted by Gavin M. on 07/07 at 11:30 PM
The notion in play at the time, in that part of the English Department, was that students could take these templates and plug in bits of text, and a critical argument would result.
This does sound appalling. The idea of teaching theory and criticism as some kind of Ever-Ready Interpretation Generator makes my eyes roll back in my head (and I say this as someone who supports “intro to principles of interpretation” in the undergraduate curriculum). It practically invites Lentricchia’s “tell me your theory and I’ll tell you in advance what you’ll say about any work of literature,” and it reminds me why I’ve never assigned any of those expository “New Historicism does X, queer theory does Y” books.Posted by Michael on 07/08 at 08:28 AM
"Who is Zavarzadeh?” I asked Google.
He’s the guy who said “What Berube’s teaching seeks is moral clarity, which has become the conservative touchstone in reading the “event” (William J. Bennett, Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism) not analytical critique.”Posted by John Emerson on 07/08 at 10:39 AM
A lot to chew on, Michael, and while I think you underestimate the public reaction fomented by Bennett, Kimball, and others, you’re probably right about some of the hasty historicizing of academic theory in the piece. But you’re absolutely right on one big point: setting the serious issue of ta unionization alongside the skirt and the “self” was a dumb gesture.Posted by on 07/08 at 12:15 PM
Thanks, Mark. In the same vein, I have to admit that it was dumb of me to dismiss the response to To Reclaim a Legacy. I went back and checked on this over the past two days, and you’re right, there was an enormous outcry from all sides, especially but not exclusively among educators. Some of that outcry was prompted more by Bennett’s public remarks than by the booklet itself, but that’s how these things happen.
And just to make my final point completely clear (because I didn’t quite nail it in the sixth comment above): the fact that Theory / anti-Theory so often appeared, when you and I were graduate students, as a struggle between the firebrands and the deadwood was not necessarily a good thing for Theory. I think it exempted some aspects of theory from skeptical scrutiny early on, and then led to a number of wagon-circling manueuvers in the 1990s as the P.C. nonsense and the various cults of personality took hold.Posted by Michael on 07/08 at 12:53 PM
"the fact that Theory / anti-Theory so often appeared, when you and I were graduate students, as a struggle between the firebrands and the deadwood was not necessarily a good thing for Theory. I think it exempted some aspects of theory from skeptical scrutiny early on, and then led to a number of wagon-circling manueuvers in the 1990s as the P.C. nonsense and the various cults of personality took hold.”
Just so - or at least, that is certainly how it strikes an outsider. Struggles between the firebrands and the deadwood always do tend to do that exempting from skeptical scrutiny thing; and struggles between firebrands and deadwood are so endemic and inevitable (generation succeeding generation, Oedipal struggle, the new king killing the old king, what are you rebelling against: what have you got, etc etc etc) that exemption from skeptical scrutiny can seem like a doom it is hopeless to try to avoid. But in reality of course the two are completely different subjects. Firebrands can be passionately wrong about everything; deadwood can be right in a boring old way; new doesn’t mean better, old doesn’t mean worse, new doesn’t mean worse, old doesn’t mean better - I tell you what, honey, you just can’t tell.
But it is an extraneous factor. Who is more hip is simply an extraneous factor, and the way it bleeds into questions about the merits of cognitive subjects seems unfortunate. It’s very interesting for the sociology of knowledge though.Posted by Ophelia Benson on 07/08 at 04:29 PM
I second Michael’s and Ophelia’s dismay at the polarizing Theory/anti-Theory debates of the 1980s. It did, indeed, free Theory from making better defenses against the rare intelligent critiques of it at the time. I’ll also mention another drawback: the effect on “second generation” theorists. I mean people who earned their PhDs around the mid-70s and who were smart, well-read, and professionally savvy, but who put their intelligence too much in the service of a mentor (de Man, etc.). For all their irreverent gestures toward the deadwood, they were still disciples, and they fomented the Theory/anti-Theory debate as much as Abrams or Donoghue. I’m not sure why this was, perhaps because the job market was drying up and resources were looking scarce and professional insecurity was rising. But when they made Derrida and others into a cause, they lost some of their intellectual bearings.Posted by on 07/08 at 06:22 PM
I agree that it’s interesting for the sociology of knowledge, Ophelia, and I’m glad you don’t find it to be a peripheral question—as an informed outsider. My recent thinking about this (still very much under construction) has been informed not only by challenges from the Valve, B&W, and the younger generation of the ALSC but also by my experiences over the past two years with the intro-to-grad-study course, about which I’ll say more in a separate post. (I’d place the second generation a bit later, Mark, but I’d agree that the discipleship—particularly around de Man, about which Guillory has written compellingly—was decisive.) So I’ve been trying to parse out just what in the anti-Theory response is a critique of (a) the celebrity phenomenon and its attendant wagon-circling, (b) the faddish leftism associated with theory, which is not identical to (a) but can go hand in hand with it, (c) the forbidding and/or unappealing prose of some theoretical modes, and (d) the actual arguments, point by point, of one or another theorist.
Just one small point in defense of the too-ready acceptance of certain outlandish theories twenty years ago (I’m thinking especially of Baudrillard, who has aged very badly, and whose work after For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign is interesting to me now mainly as an example of one extravagant rhetorical mode): it doesn’t surprise or dismay me, in retrospect, that people who loved Romanticism or modernism would be so willing to entertain a certain outlandishness in criticism and theory. We have, as I once argued to Alan Sokal, a very high tolerance level for things that don’t seem to make any damn sense at first; it’s an occupational hazard. The question remains, of course—and this is largely a question for that second generation Mark speaks of—just how much of those things that don’t make any damn sense are worth our sustained time and attention.Posted by Michael on 07/08 at 10:06 PM
The contrast between theory with a capital D in 1985--Derrida and de Man--and the left eclecticism of 2005, might be instructive. That is, at a certain point theory meant mostly deconstruction, and “anti-theory” meant resistance to deconstruction. With multiple theories now, with none the clear leader, it is impossible to be for or against theory in general.
I don’t mean to oversiimplly: there were always multiple theoretical positions. I just think there was a moment when there was a clearly dominant view of “theory"--as opposed to today’s eclectic mix of feminism, queer studies, postcolononial studies, new historicisms, and cultural studies, each drawing on various Marxist, psychoanalytic, and Foucauldian perspectives.Posted by Jonathan on 07/08 at 11:01 PM
Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/08 at 11:22 PM
Seconding Kevin Drum, I found this quite fascinating throughout, all the while thinking that (even though I was married to a classicist for some years) I really have far less than the background required to genuinely (in any sense) understand it. I know it’s old news, but if you can find the time, your thoughts on l’affaire Sokal would certainly make great reading for the nerds in your audience.Posted by on 07/09 at 08:16 AM
Sure thing, Andy. My 3000-word review essay on Sokal and Bricmont’s Fashionable Nonsense is here, and if you’re really curious, my weirder and more academic essay on Sokal, left politics, science, and social constructionism is here.
Scott, Jonathan’s largely right—the first loud and nasty clash over Theory/ anti-Theory, in the late 1970s- early 1980s was all about deconstruction. de Man, Hartmann, Hillis Miller on one side, M. H. Abrams, E. D. Hirsch, and Gerald Graff on the other. (Graff joined the Theory team a few years after the publication of Literature Against Itself.) Only after feminist and African-American scholars had revised the canon, and historicist/ queer theories had begun to take hold, was there an explicitly politically conservative backlash against theory-leftism. And, of course, the debate about whether deconstruction even has a politics went on for most of the decade. (I think it was Neil Hertz who said, in diacritics, that there is no politics to the arbitrariness of the sign—I really should remember, because I think this is right.)Posted by Michael on 07/09 at 08:50 AM
Doesn’t look as though this has been said already, so I’ll offer it. Seems to me that Bauerlein’s issue might be: “theory” is that kind of approach to reading that threatens the institution, the humanities, etc.; the institution, etc., survived; therefore theory must have lost. I can’t help but hear Bauerlein—as you presented him, MB, and maybe this is just a factor of my reading too hastily—as being akin to someone writing about rock and roll being dead in, say, 1968 because no one was burning records and Beatle wigs in parking-lot pyres anymore.
Of course, the disappearance or attenuation (or death) of lit crit celebrities certainly has more to do with theory no longer being a threat anymore, too.Posted by on 07/09 at 10:17 AM
Guillory is strong on claims that deconstruction in its deManian version was somehow anti-institutional--a fairly absurd claim on the face of but one that was bandied about quite a bit.
The right certainly hated deconstruction, to the extent that it was aware of it, but the real pc wars happened after the hey-day of deconstruction. I remember first hearing of “p.c” in the late 80s. Richard Terdiman, visiting from Santa Cruz, said that there people used the term ironically, in a sort of self-deprecating way, as in “Oh, eating meat is not p.c.” It was only a little later that the right seized on this usage with no irony whatsoever. Of course, deconstruction could always be included generally in the attack on other sorts of literary theory, sometimes in an intellectually incoherent way, as though it were identical to other theories to which it was actually opposed. Another connnection: the attack on obscurantism and “bad writing” could sweep up both deconstruction and whole swaths of postcolonial studies and poststructuralist queer theory.Posted by Jonathan on 07/09 at 10:35 AM
Michael, I riffed off Jonathan’s statement about “theory with a capital D in 1985.” You’re obviously much sharper about what happened in 1985--he says, with deference to the wisdom of your years, not the number--but my research has shown that the debate (at least within the academy) had moved away from “theory with a capital D” by then. The Critical Inquiry debates of the late ‘70s--in particular, the circles Abrams, Wellek, Hartman, Miller, Jameson, &c. described around each other in the “Critical Response” section in ‘77-’79--were an animal apart from the debates, also in Critical Inquiry, around ‘85. Special issues of the time included “‘Race,’ Writing and Difference” (which does seem deconstructive), “The Trial(s) of Psychoanalysis” and “Politics and Poetic Value.” In other words, I responded to Jonathan’s claim that “theory with a capital D” was still the dominant theoretical discourse in ‘85 because it doesn’t jive with my archival work (which, admittedly, is largely concerned with how academics talked to each other). But, as always, I could be horribly off-the-mark.
That said, I think Jonathan’s spot-on about the wide swath of conservative’s attack on theory (and willful obscurantism, &c.) (Also, I hope Jonathan doesn’t think my first response an attack. I’m not arguing here so much as requesting clarification.)Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/09 at 12:16 PM
I didn’t take that as an attack at all. You’d have to get a lot more personal with me for that!
I chose the year 1985 based on my own subjective memory and my bookshelf. I have books on my shelf from around then like Lyric Poetry: After New Criticism, which emphasizes Culleresque deconstructions. A book on translation, also from Cornell UP, from around the same time featuring basically Derridean approaches to translation. I was living in Ithaca NY at the time and reading Diacritics, which frequently featured new Derrida texts. The Yale school was ascendant on campuses like Cornell. Contrast this to 1979, when I was still undergraduate, and thought of deconstruction as something really new and exciting and avant-garde. Popularizations of structuralism like those of Culler were still relatively fresh (1975 for Structuralist Poetics).
It’s true that by the time something seems ascendant it might already be passé. Thus the debate in places like Critical Inquiry probably had already moved past theory with a capital D by 85. The archive of my memory is known to be highly unreliable. Oftentimes when I go back and check the date of something I am way off. I tend to use personal landmarks to estimate dates, but often where one was situated has a distorting effect. Also, I am a hispanist not a scholar of English, so I also see things through that filter.Posted by Jonathan on 07/09 at 01:05 PM
As someone who is only vaguely interested in the subject,is there a better glib intro to theory than Eagleton’s? It’s an interesting topic but I don’t do it for a living and I don’t want to work that hard.Posted by on 07/09 at 01:23 PM
Yeah, Michael, I don’t find the sociology of knowledge aspect a bit peripheral. (Especially since I’ve just co-written a book on the subject. I didn’t know that was what it was about while we were writing, but once we’d finished, my co-author told me that’s what we’d done. How like M. Jourdain I felt - ‘Oh, is that what this is!’
“So I’ve been trying to parse out just what in the anti-Theory response is a critique of (a) the celebrity phenomenon and its attendant wagon-circling, (b) the faddish leftism associated with theory, which is not identical to (a) but can go hand in hand with it, (c) the forbidding and/or unappealing prose of some theoretical modes, and (d) the actual arguments, point by point, of one or another theorist.”
Just so. A very good thing to parse! Because the whole subject is so tangled up with (a)-(c) that it makes dispassionate consideration of (d) extremely difficult. I know from my own experience that too strong a mix of (a) and (c) can be enough to make me too bad-tempered to read sensibly.Posted by Ophelia Benson on 07/09 at 04:17 PM
Ophelia-- I think there’s been good work done under the heading of (d) by both theorists and anti-Theorists. One of the reasons no one speaks Cullerian structuralism any more, for instance, is that in 1982 Mary Louise Pratt published a devastating essay demonstrating the incoherence of Culler’s attempt to marry the Chomskian performance/ competence distinction to literary criticism. (The essay is “Interpretive Strategies/Strategic Interpretations: On Anglo-American Reader-Response Criticism.” boundary 2 11.1-2: 201-31.) Culler’s idea was that structuralism, applied to literary criticism, could give us a grammar of all possible interpretations and all possible interpretive modes. I know, it sounds mad. Mad, I say! These days, when people ask (as they always do) how this could have happened, I explain that Chomskian linguistics got confused with Saussurean linguistics pretty much the way Vincent Price/ Jeff Goldblum got fused with the fly—by tragic accident. (It has to do with the 60-year time lag in Saussure’s reception in English.) Also, as noted above, Bordwell’s response to the all-Lacan-all-the-time mode of film theory was salutary. Other examples come to mind, but I should get to . . .
davids question: can anyone help here? I’m so biased in favor of the anthologies (Norton and Leroy Searle—primary texts with introductions rather than expositions) that I don’t know what to say. Though I should say (and it’ll sound strange after my dismissal of Culler’s Structuralist Poetics in the preceding paragraph) that Culler’s On Deconstruction remains the best single introduction to that interesting topic.Posted by on 07/10 at 08:31 AM
"I explain that Chomskian linguistics got confused with Saussurean linguistics pretty much the way Vincent Price/ Jeff Goldblum got fused with the fly—by tragic accident.”
As Martha said to George - phrasemaker! (In other words, very droll.)
“It has to do with the 60-year time lag in Saussure’s reception in English.”
That’s interesting. According to John Searle’s article in Theory’s Emp, the same problem works in the other direction for Derrida and Wittgenstein. Searle says Derrida was working from a pre-Wittgensteinian view of language which rendered what he said simply utterly beside the point to currently working philosophers of language. There’s an interesting bit where Searle tries to convince Derrida that philosophers of language already know that ‘many, perhaps most, concepts do not have sharp boundaries’ and Derrida simply flatly rejects the idea (TE pp 147-8).Posted by Ophelia Benson on 07/10 at 01:11 PM
Bauerlein’s piece in TE ends up finally offering his alternative to social constructivism: “Truth, facts, objectivity—those require too much reading, too many library visits . . .” Clearly, he hasn’t realized the shortcut: all the true books are always put on the third floor of the library.Posted by on 07/10 at 05:24 PM
MarkC, the third floor is off limits to all students who do not wish to die a most painful death. And Ophelia, I’m looking forward to Searle’s reply (though I still wish he’d agreed to have his initial reply to Derrida reprinted in the book Limited Inc.), but in the meantime, you know who’s really good on Derrida and Wittgenstein (i.e., much, much smarter than I am about either one)—Henry Staten, whose 1984 book, Wittengstein and Derrida (catchy title, that) is worth a look.Posted by Michael on 07/10 at 07:54 PM
As someone who is only vaguely interested in the subject, is there a better glib intro to theory than Eagleton’s? It’s an interesting topic but I don’t do it for a living and I don’t want to work that hard.
Eagleton’s is the one I got as an engaged amateur.
Although truly, I’ve always wanted to see a ‘For Dummies’ book, being a dummy.Posted by Gavin M. on 07/11 at 05:40 AM
Thanks, Michael, I’ve made a note of that. (Also done a mental chacha to it - WITTgenstein and DER RI DA; repeat.)Posted by Ophelia Benson on 07/11 at 11:03 AM
Another data point: J. Hillis Miller was president of the MLA in 1986 and so he delivered a presidential address at the annual meeting. That address was printed in PMLA for May of 1987, with responses to it in the January 1988 issue. In that address Miller lamented the decline of interest in deconstruction.Posted by bill benzon on 07/12 at 07:15 AM
Bauerlein’s complaint about theory anthologies is that they are not sufficiently critical of theory, except when—and this is a remarkable escape clause—“one school of thought in the grouping reproves another.”
When I was an undergraduate at UCLA, the collection The Problem of Evil edited by Robert Adams and Marilyn McCord Adams was something of a revelation to me. It seemed that every essay in the book built on the the previous one, suggesting difficulties with whatever approach to the problem had just been offered, and trying a different take on tackling the problem, or pointing out a different way in which The Problem really was problematical.
It was gorgeous. I got a really fine overview of the evolution of thought on this one problem in a concise dialog between the essays. It was the first and only time I have been moved to compliment an anthologist on the sheer mastery of the collecting and ordering of a collection. I had never previously seen an anthology that so thoroughly related its parts to each other and so thoroughly felt like a journey through the evolution of an idea. Anthologies in my experience more resembled loose collations of various thoughts on a more-or-less unified topic, some good, some less so, but generally not assembled in such a way as to interact with, and build on, each other so much as to serve as a roll call of seminal writers or seminal works.
I mention all this, because I took Bauerlein’s point to be that the standard works on Theory don’t do what the Adams anthology does, but should. I took him to be suggesting that a collection on Theory ought to be collected in such a way as to explicitly highlight the evolution of thought within the field, focusing on points of disagreement and setting up a dialog between the different schools of thought as they evolved and drew away from each other.
I say all this without even the most rudimentary knowledge of the content of the standard anthologies on Theory, and so I may well be stuffed full of wild blueberry muffins, but it’s my idiothing and I thought I’d offer it up for whatever it might be worth..Posted by on 07/13 at 05:07 PM
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