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.
I think the question at the heart of the debate is whether theory is self-corrective. How do bad ideas get thrown out, and good ones survive? The Theory’s Empire hypothesis is that bad ideas simply stick around fovever, even after they’ve been refuted. Clearly there is some selection process, however. “Theory” today is not what is was 10 years ago. It’s just that the selection process is way too messy for a convenient account of “paradigm” shifts. And what counts as a bad idea, anyway?Posted by Jonathan on 07/13 at 03:20 PM
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.
I’m totally down with that, but doesn’t the correspondence theory of truth still have value when you’re talking, not about whether something people believe is true, but whether it’s true that they believe it? Likewise, might it not be worthwhile to call for people to be a little more precise about whether they’re discussing the discoveries of gravity and Neptune or the inventions of “gravity” and “Neptune”? I think that’s what gets up the scientists’ noses: You’re clear about the difference, but Heidegger isn’t; and while I’m sure Heidegger understood it, I’ve read enough modern stuff from writers who didn’t, or enjoyed pretending they didn’t, that it makes me nervous sometimes.
(And yet, if you really want to get all Popperian and falsifiable on astronomy’s ass, you might end up coming full circle and having to admit that “Neptune” and “gravity” are all, with our language-intermediated brains, that we really have to work with...)Posted by David Moles on 07/13 at 03:53 PM
I have actually read very few constructionist works that claim that x or y was “invented” that did not also invite their readers to consider the polysemousness of the term “invent” along the lines Michael so lucidly explains. It may be, though, that to find those nuances one has to already, to some extent, identify with the methodological, theoretical, and/or ethical bent of the work. Certainly, we can’t expect all constructionist arguments to contain a standard boilerplate section on the difference between brute fact and social fact. Much of that distinction is simply assumed into texts that, often, are later accused of conflating the two concepts.
The fact is, it doesn’t even have to be as complicated as Heidegger makes it. No constructionist worth a damn would say that Gravity only exists because Newton said it does. What that person *would* say, however, is that the method by which we induce laws like gravity--i.e., science (or, more particularly, physics)--is a particular way of asking and answering questions about the world/universe. Not only that, but it is, quite obviously, a particularly *useful* way of asking and answering those questions (though it has contributed to its share of problems as well).
But there are also other ways to inquire about one’s world, and they often lead to different answers, and they are often useful in different ways. Trying to say one mode of inquiry is “better” than the other is where things get tricky. It can be, and is, done, but rarely in the form of fruitful debate. In fact, if a modern-day Dr. Johnson stubbed his toe on a rock to refute my antifoundational, constructionist ways, I would simply respond by saying, “Hurts, huh? Then why the hell’d you do it?”
BTW, Michael, I’m not a “Kuhnian,” but I *do* have a theory that accounts for the production of anomaly in writing studies. Just to let you know.Posted by on 07/13 at 05:18 PM
As your example of Heidegger illustrates, social constructionism is not another term for academic laziness. What is an example of laziness is the way postmodernism or Derrida are dismissed sweepingly as an effect of the Sokal Affair (we don’t have to read these French guys because they have been shown to be frauds) or the way Heidegger’s philosophy is treated through secondary sources because the primary texts are immersed in the filth of Nazism. The hard work of reading and criticizing these kinds of works is what academic theorizing is all about. Abstracting this kind of effort, labeling the abstraction “Theory” (as if it is a unified endeavor), and then condemning the abstraction as hegemonic or banal, is a dishonest excuse for real laziness.Posted by on 07/13 at 05:25 PM
Wait, wait - did I take the blame for all of this? I don’t think I meant to! After all I didn’t know Michael was going to review Mark’s article for the Valve (or even the Carburetor) when I asked Mark (and Bob and Carol and Ted and no never mind) to write that article for B&W - did I now. I don’t think I even knew (it was a long time ago) Michael was part of the Valvothon at all - no I’m pretty sure I didn’t.
But no matter. I’m so pleased to know it was both an intervention and a transgression that I’m willing to take the blame for the 1919 World Series if necessary.Posted by Ophelia Benson on 07/13 at 06:00 PM
Chris, I think you point to two different audiences dismissing two different things. The Sokal affair hasn’t had the same impact on academic and general audiences. (It’s not as if all the Intro. to Theory classes ditched Lacan and Deleuze.) Similarly, social constructivism is dismissed on the one hand by academics, like Bauerlein, who don’t see it as necessarily lazy but as more conducive to academic laziness than other approaches (more on that shortly); and, on the other, by conservatives who belief it flouts God’s laws, codified ca. 1950 but extant for time immemorial.
Michael, I think pointing to the Neptune example as the generative engine of the constructivism Bauerlein abhors isn’t fair. (Granted, that’s his fault, not yours, but still.) A much more salient example--and one which would bring to the fore the problem many academics have with social constructivism--would be something like, say, homosexuality. The reason this rankles isn’t that the scholars doing it are lazy; no, the reason it’s abusive is that they often take an ahistorical, universal approach to, say, an early modern work and tease from it an argument about the performance of gender...in which said performance is understood in terms of contemporary performances (both oppressive and liberatory). For reasons I can’t fully fathom, many social constructivists don’t treat the premises of their argument with the Hegelian seriousness. (As I discuss in my contribution on the Valve.) If gender is performance, either it’s wholly so or it has some material or biological substrate. If it’s wholly so--and almost no one believes this--an appropriately serious critic would have to build that performance from the ground up. If it’s partially so--and this is what most constructivists believe--then 1) the material/biological substrate needs to be defined and 2) the subsequent performances must be shown to interact with that substrate and build upon each other. How often do you see that happen? What’s the ratio of responsibly constructivist readings to ones in which a critic assumes an early modern women’s performances with her substrate identical to a contemporary one’s with hers--a little more repressed here, mind you, and here too, and over here as well, but still--and then whiz off on a critical account of a “woman” who, qua “women,” never existed?
In short--and since that was unreasonably long, I will keep this short--what Bauerlein objects to, I believe, is the abuse of the social constructivist argument for careerist ends. That’s all. Resume with your regularly scheduled lives.Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/13 at 07:12 PM
"It’s buried so deep we’ll have to use a heidegger.”
While a few of your readers seem convinced, I have to admit that I remain confused – confused, that is, about what exactly (you think) Heidegger is saying about truth, human consciousness, and discovery.
If he is simply saying that truth is a property of sentences – as opposed to things – and that sentences exist only in the minds of language users, then that seems fine and good. Before Newton conceived of his ideas and equations, there was nothing that we could call “true” – nothing to which the term could attach itself.
But it doesn’t seem to stop there, with a minimal version of truth tacked onto the idea that work or that we like. Heidegger says that “entities became accessible in themselves to Dasein” by way of Newton’s laws and such. These entitles are “uncovered” – as opposed to “discovered”? – as having previously existed and as reaffirming the truth of the theory.
But how would that work? What are these entities that were only accessible once Newton conceived his ideas? Where these entities rocks and stones and trees? I suppose not. Were they the physical actions of said rocks, stones, etc.? Again, no – if your reading is to be accepted.
Are they the patterns of the actions of the rocks – the relative, comparative rates at which they fall and move? Or, beyond that, the equations that express and can be used to predict those patterns?
Maybe that’s it. The statements expressing the patterns – the equations and such – are the entities that “became accessible” and are “uncovered.” But wait. Those equations and descriptions of patterns are the theory itself, aren’t they? So, in the end, the theory makes the theory real. The theory uncovers itself. And, from there, it seems that the theory must validate itself – make itself true of the entities (namely, itself) that it uncovers.
Now…if my first, simpler version of Heidegger is right, them I’m fine. There’s simply nothing all that interesting to say about truth.
But Heidegger (here and elsewhere) and Theorists (here and most everywhere) seem insistent on wanting more. They want to come up with their own anti-foundational theory of Truth – their own method for exposing its “constructedness.” And they want to say that this means something – that this “discovery” has some weight behind it.
Heidegger, with his step-by-step explanation still wants to talk about how things become true – still wants to talk about the nature of “becoming true.” And it still sounds like theories make themselves true, by “uncovering” themselves and calling it proof. (And, in turn, hard-core Truth devotees still want him to explain why the entities that Newton’s theory uncovers are different and more successful than the entities that a teleological or gods-and-pixies theories uncover.)
And this, perhaps, is why anti-Theory folks attack Heidegger and his followers. He sounds, at times, like the self-fulfilling profits of new theoetical methods and models. And moreover, he starts off by saying something small and good and worldly – but them wants to leave the world behind.
Thank you for the enjoyable and thought-provoking post!
Best, PeterPosted by on 07/13 at 07:27 PM
Michael, that’s a fascinating discussion of Heidegger and way beyond my ability to respond to. But, to be fair, it’s not exactly on point. The list of heideggereans in the American literary academy is a short one. So the question would be whether social constructivists typically share your epistemelogical sophistication, or whether Mark has it right and the standard is frequently quite low and the degree of care exercised is not especially impressive. Mark’s essay is admittedly a polemic and longer on assertion than evidence, which is why I emphasized Schwartz’s piece in particular. Its argument is not far out of keeping with Mark’s, and it assembles a fair body of evidence. A fair, empirical question would be whether his characterization of cultural studies holds broadly true.
Jonathan’s point is one way of framing this question: is there in fact much self-correction in Theory or is change more a result of fashion? There are predictable answers to that question, so it might be better to put it another way: does it often happen that social constructivist arguments are actually arguments in which the possibility will be entertained that what’s at issue isn’t actually socially constructed? Has there ever been a conference where someone (aside from Walter Benn Michaels) stood up and said, “you haven’t convinced me that x is a social construction,” and didn’t automatically seem outside the realm of polite discussion?
I think the discussion of “truths about human affairs” vs. “truths about physics” is likewise not completely on point. I don’t know of anyone who wouldn’t readily concede to the distinction. The question at issue, I think, is whether in the literary academy interpretation is handled with sufficient concern for getting at the truths of human affairs. If I’m interested in, um, what caused the Civil War as opposed to why Mt. Vesuvius erupted, I’m obviously interested in human affairs. If I think the Civil War occured because, Abraham Lincoln hated southerners, I’d be making a stupid argument (in all liklihood hte product of bias) with a huge preponderance of the evidence against it. If I argued that there’s no saying which view is right and everybody has their own construction based on their own interests, I’d be doing the kind of constructionism Mark and Schwartz believe is common. I’ve heard enough of that kind of claim to think they’ve got a serious point.
A final note. I don’t think it actually says much that one Appiah essay is oft cited by postcolonialists or that John is footnoted in Levin’s essay. The question in this context would be whether the editors of TE had created a false picture of Appiah or Theory by excluding him. The fact that but one essay of his is part of the canon, that (if I understand right) little else of his is actually invoked, and that he apparently himself believes that his work is out of keeping with most work in the literary academy suggests that this isn’t the case. Put differently, an anthology of Theory without Foucault or Lacan or Butler or Spivak or Bhaba would intuitively strike most literary academicians as incomplete. I wish seriously that it were otherwise, but doubt that an anthology without John or Appiah would evoke that reaction.Posted by Sean McCann on 07/13 at 08:55 PM
What’s the ratio of responsibly constructivist readings to ones in which a critic assumes an early modern women’s performances with her substrate identical to a contemporary one’s with hers--a little more repressed here, mind you, and here too, and over here as well, but still--and then whiz off on a critical account of a “woman” who, qua “women,” never existed?
-- Scott Eric Kaufman (Comment #6)
So the question would be whether social constructivists typically share your epistemelogical sophistication, or whether Mark has it right and the standard is frequently quite low and the degree of care exercised is not especially impressive.
-- Sean McCann (Comment #8)
We all know that there’s a lot of mediocre work, in any discipline, in any subfield. To note that many social constructivists are mediocre thinkers, doing mediocre work is thus perhaps unfortunate, but not at all surprising.
The real questions are: are social constructivists any more likely to be mediocre than anti-constructivists? And, if they are, why are they more likely to be so?
Even if one could prove that if you compare a random work with social constructivist assumptions to a random work with anti-constructivist assumptions, the latter is less likely to be mediocre than the former, one would still not have proven that social constructivism leads to mediocrity.
To agree partly with what I take to be Bauerlein’s argument, mediocrity in academia is deeply tied to careerism. Or, to put it another way (risking the danger of accidentally adopting Sean’s joking suggestion re: evolutionary psychology) the adaptive forms of mediocrity (i.e. the ones that will survive, that is, get published) are the ones that fit into whatever the dominant paradigm (drat! Kuhn again! fwiw, I mean the term in a looser, if still post-Kuhnian, sense) happens to be at the moment. And in a lot of humanistic disciplines, those paradigms currently involves some form of social constructivism. So it’s unsurprising that many or even most mediocre books and articles that end up in print in these disciplines are social constructivist, just as it;s unsurprising that much mediocre political science of the 1950s was behaviorist in orientation.
So the bottom line for me is that, given the status of social constructivism in the humanities, simply cataloging mediocre social constructivism does not really tell me much about what its inherent strengths and weaknesses are.Posted by on 07/13 at 10:13 PM
Jonathan: And what counts as a bad idea, anyway?
Well, as I indicated last week, Jonathan Culler’s idea of constructing a “performance/ competence” scheme for literary interpretation, along the lines of Chomskian grammar, was pretty bad. As Mary Pratt pointed out, there is no such thing as “interpretive competence,” i.e., a grammar of all possible interpretations which interpreters use to generate meaning. And while we’re on the subject, I should add that I think the most severely antihumanist aspects of the generation of 1968 haven’t stood up very well. I’ll say more about this on a Theory Tuesday when I get to Althusser. In the meantime, look at the way Baudrillard has dropped off the map of Major Positions. And rightly so.
David Moles: might it not be worthwhile to call for people to be a little more precise about whether they’re discussing the discoveries of gravity and Neptune or the inventions of “gravity” and “Neptune”?
In a word, yes. I’m trying to do that here, and I’ve been at it ever since I started writing about Down syndrome—which just happens to be a fascinating case of a phenomenon that sits at the juncture of “brute” fact and “social” fact.
Lance: I have actually read very few constructionist works that claim that x or y was “invented” that did not also invite their readers to consider the polysemousness of the term “invent” along the lines Michael so lucidly explains.
Yeah, but we still have to deal with the caricatures, for some of which we need to take responsibility.
The fact is, it doesn’t even have to be as complicated as Heidegger makes it.
This is a brute fact if ever I saw one. I reread ¶¶ 43 and 44 in the course of writing this post, and Oh. My. God. Just be thankful that I spared you endless reams of “entities within-the-world are ontologically conceivable only if the phenomenon of within-the-world-ness has been clarified. But within-the-world-ness is based upon the phenomenon of the world, which, for its part, as an essential item in the structure of Being-in-the-world, belongs to the constitution of Dasein.” Spared you, that is—until now!
And Ophelia, you are to be blamed for everything that’s been set in motion since Mark’s article went up, especially the severe logorrhea that has plagued this blog all week. But you’re off the hook for the 1919 Series. As John Sayles has shown, the blame for that lies squarely with late capitalism.
Chris, Scott, Peter, Sean-- I’ll get to you in the next comment. Don’t want to overload this one.Posted by on 07/13 at 10:15 PM
Yes, then theory is self-corrective to some degree; that is, bad ideas like Culler’s attempt at a Chomksian “structuralist poetics” hasn’t really stood the test or led to other productive ideas. It was a dead end, in a sense, and would have been even without Pratt’s refutation.
I’ve read the Bauerlein essay now, and I have to say your analysis is right on the money. I really don’t know anyone who is a “social constructionist’ in his definition of the term.Posted by Jonathan on 07/13 at 10:44 PM
Okay, I admit it.
As a first-time poster, I immediately had typist’s remorse, imagining all the better ways I could have expressed myself. But Sean’s note actually made me want to add a few things, specifically to my too-quick, closing connection between Theory and Heidegger (and the Theorists who love him).
Sean seems correct that the real issue might simply be with how Heidegger and his pronouncements have been used. He’s proffered as one more philosopher or theorist who gets mentioned (“As Heidegger has shown us…”) as a way of bypassing argument.
In addition, this move often becomes a way of quickly and unapologetically not talking about the text at hand (novel, poem, whatever) and focusing instead about something bigger, more important, more culturally and politically imposing. But that’s a different point.
My point was that perhaps Heidegger gets a bad rap not simply for his epistemology and his claims about truth – but for a style that, like some theoretical texts, promises much more than it can deliver. Or rather, is not content with the truths it can actually offer.
“Truth is a property of sentences.” “All texts and readers are ideologically constructed” “Always historicize.” “You cannot transcend your culture.” “There’s nothing outside the text.” Can we actually do anything with these new “foundations” as they stand? Can these sweeping truths have practical consequences? And even if I’m oversimplifying, isn’t that how they were used and promoted? Weren’t certain promises made?
P.S. Now I regret this one.Posted by on 07/13 at 10:59 PM
Chris: Abstracting this kind of effort, labeling the abstraction “Theory” (as if it is a unified endeavor), and then condemning the abstraction as hegemonic or banal, is a dishonest excuse for real laziness.
I sincerely hope it won’t be. My initial impression on reading Theory’s Empire is that some of the essays are smart and responsive efforts to grapple with this or that baleful aspect of theory, and some are attempts to provide readers with reasons not to bother. I’m rooting for the first group.
Scott: If gender is performance, either it’s wholly so or it has some material or biological substrate. If it’s wholly so—and almost no one believes this—an appropriately serious critic would have to build that performance from the ground up. If it’s partially so—and this is what most constructivists believe—then 1) the material/biological substrate needs to be defined and 2) the subsequent performances must be shown to interact with that substrate and build upon each other. How often do you see that happen?
Not often—but I have seen many, many arguments about Butler’s initial formulation in Gender Trouble. (I cited one of them last week, Amanda Anderson’s Social Text essay, “Debatable Performances.") What you’re (justifiably) complaining about, however, is “presentism,” or the ahistorical projection of current conceptions onto historical periods to which they might not be appropriate. Any decent hermeneut—say, Gadamer or Ricoeur—would object to this too. And yet, as Lance suggests, we can’t keep asking people to reinvent the constructionist wheel, either: “we can’t expect all constructionist arguments to contain a standard boilerplate section on the difference between brute fact and social fact.” Nor can we expect people to parse out the material/ biological substrate and the social performances every time out. We can, however, ask them to be more rigorous about the idea of “social construction.”
Peter: I have to admit that I remain confused—confused, that is, about what exactly (you think) Heidegger is saying about truth, human consciousness, and discovery.
If he is simply saying that truth is a property of sentences—as opposed to things—and that sentences exist only in the minds of language users, then that seems fine and good.
Unfortunately, Peter, he’s not saying that. He’s saying that “truth” is something prior to sentences. Newton’s discovery of gravity (in H’s account) opened up a whole new world about which assertions could be made, and we foolish people (in H’s account) have mistaken those assertions as truth-claims when in fact Truth-as-disclosure (or uncovering) is the condition of possibility for assertions.
To put this roughly (for I know no other way), Heidegger thinks of physicists, philosophers, and poets as creating worlds about which assertions can be made. “The ultimate business of philosophy,” he writes, in a sentence that’s portentous even for him, “is to preserve the force of the most elemental words in which Dasein expresses itself.” The only difference between the words of the physicists and the words of the philosophers and poets is that the former give us access to a world that exists outside Dasein and is indifferent to our piddling human consciousness. Nonetheless, Dasein decides what is true and false—for Dasein.
According to Heidegger. Me, I think this is a wonderful way of reconceiving the meaning of truth. I have never decided whether I believe that it’s actually true. I think Heidegger eventually tried to become one of those people who invent or redefine the elemental words in which Dasein expresses itself, but then, I don’t care very much for Heidegger’s late work, with all its talk of the jug and the fourfold and the “it-gives-being” and the unfolding of the West as ereignis. I just don’t get it, honestly.
Sean: I’ll get to you in the next comment, I promise.Posted by on 07/13 at 11:11 PM
Sean: Michael, that’s a fascinating discussion of Heidegger and way beyond my ability to respond to. But, to be fair, it’s not exactly on point. The list of heideggereans in the American literary academy is a short one. So the question would be whether social constructivists typically share your epistemelogical sophistication, or whether Mark has it right and the standard is frequently quite low and the degree of care exercised is not especially impressive.
Flattery will get you nowhere, Sean, so you lose five cultural studies bonus points. But the fact that my reply isn’t exactly on point is the point, and I’m sorry if I sound impish about this. Mark Bauerlein is right that the standard of argumentation regarding “social construction” can be quite low. But his own citation of Heidegger as a foolish kind of social constructionist should have met a much higher argumentative standard. Yes, Mark’s essay was a polemic, but let’s not sell the guy short—he’s very smart, he knows his way around philosophy (whereas I am a complete ignoramus about Charles Sanders Peirce, with whose work Mark is familiar), and you can’t squeak an excluded middle or a reductio past him even on a cloudy night. After all, part of “doing theory,” with a small or a capital T, involves careful parsing of t/Theorists’ arguments, even or especially when one opposes them.
I don’t think it actually says much that one Appiah essay is oft cited by postcolonialists or that John is footnoted in Levin’s essay. . . Put differently, an anthology of Theory without Foucault or Lacan or Butler or Spivak or Bhabha would intuitively strike most literary academicians as incomplete. I wish seriously that it were otherwise, but doubt that an anthology without John or Appiah would evoke that reaction.
Perhaps this is the difference between Theory and merely “doing theory”? Because I really think there’s no question that John McGowan and Anthony Appiah do theory, and that (to return to polemic mode) at its worst TE simply grabs at whatever handle is most ready-to-hand in order to box Theory about the ears. I’ll tell you what: since you and I both wish things were otherwise, let’s make them so. Anthologies of theory are socially constructed, after all.
And as for Schwartz and cultural studies: when I got fed up with certain directions in contemporary cultural studies, I edited a collection of essays written by people who were willing and (more than) able to criticize those directions and try to reset the agenda. Hey, maybe the Valve could devote three days to The Aesthetics of Cultural Studies! I’m kidding (even I have my limits when it comes to self-absorption), but I think you’re right to cite Nagel on how arguing against theory is like wrestling with a fog bank, you’re right to suggest that theory could be imagined otherwise, and you’re especially right to have written this:
(Here’s a prediction. TE has already generated more extensive, vigorous, and fair discussion in the blogosphere than it ever will in the journals and conferences of literary academia.)
Long live the blogosphere, and here’s to our fledgling attempts to create an ideal speech situation that respects the heterogeneity of language-games.Posted by on 07/13 at 11:11 PM
Michael, you have made my head hurt.
I’m really trying to understand what you’re saying here, but in the key point of Heidegger, it seems to me that:
1) Either Heidegger is actually saying what Bauerlein says he’s saying; or
2) Heidegger is making only the trivially tautological point that before Newton thought of his laws, he hadn’t thought of them.
Neither explanation makes much sense.Posted by on 07/13 at 11:44 PM
Simon, I’m sorry to have made your head hurt—no, wait, I’m not sorry. Heidegger’s is a profoundly difficult argument, and when I first encountered it, it made my head hurt for months and months.
So, as Neil Innes once said, “I’ve suffered for my music . . . and now it’s your turn.”
Heidegger’s trying to parse the entire history of Western philosophy here, by adjudicating the dispute between idealists (who refer everything to the perceiving observer) and realists (who refer everything to the external world perceived by that observer). He’s saying that idealists have “an advantage in principle” insofar as they realize that “Being and Reality are only ‘in the consciousness’”—so far as we humans are concerned. (We may have “created” Neptune in 1846, but Neptune the planet does not care what we think about it.) But he’s also saying that realists have a superior account of the world when it comes to understanding entities (like Neptune) that have nothing to do with our consciousness of them, until we become conscious of them and begin to make assertions about them.
So it’s neither (a) nor (b). Heidegger is not saying that Newton’s laws are inextricable from Newton’s historical moment, and he’s not saying that Newton hadn’t thought of his laws before he thought of them. He’s offering us, in a vexingly crabbed and byzantine manner, a way of thinking about Newton’s discovery that lets us imagine the (classical) theory of gravity as simultaneously an uncovering of the Eternal Language of the Universe and as a curious invention that allowed us puny humans to make assertions about the universe.
Is this any clearer? I’m looking for ways to make this point more accessible than Heidegger ever cared to, and I could use some pointers.Posted by on 07/14 at 12:54 AM
Damn, I am now in utter cultural studies bonus points deficit. But, you know, if you wanted to hang one on Mark you could also have said that he makes a genetic argument about the lamentable prominence of the genetic fallacy. He has a polemical case for doing it, but it is polemical.
Granted, Appiah and John M do theory. I’d be glad if this discussion helps bring a better tomorrow where it didn’t seem obvious to all concerned that there was this other thing called Theory. (Chris’s point really does show why social constructivism is a perfectly viable way of proceeding. In almost any other way but genealogically and institutionally, it’s virtually impossible to make a good definition of Theory--though I’d like to believe my own could hold up, of course--but it is a pretty indisputable fact about social reality that in the academic discipline of literary study all understand pretty much what Theory means, and can recognize its many institutional structures.) But really, I think it’s devoutly to be wished that the social construction of anthologies of theory and criticism would just vanish from this particular world.
Ben’s correction of my proposed tests is I have to admit dead-on. Still, a note about other knowledge of the social world we all share--that, as Ben says, “there’s a lot of mediocre work, in any discipline, in any subfield” (a point John M. makes as well). True, true, true. But to hazard a pretty sweeping empirical claim, English is the rare field where mediocre work doesn’t just exist or even prosper, it’s rewarded. Michael, in your first post on Mark’s essay, you mentioned a handful of admirable books. The ones I know, I agree on completely, and I’ve made a similar case myself that good work in literary scholarship continues to be done. But, the people you mention are not, well, academic celebrities. (Where, alas, is the fanzine devoted to Amanda Anderson? When will the New Yorker do its profile?) And the influence they have as yet in the discipline is a small one. Are there other disciplines where the very pinnacle of the profession includes many producing sheer wind? If so, there’s a serious problem with the institutions of scholarship in general. If not, there’s arguably a problem distinctive to the literary end of the racket.Posted by Sean McCann on 07/14 at 01:00 AM
Could we name some names about the rewarded mediocre work? Why not?Posted by Jonathan on 07/14 at 01:07 AM
(Where, alas, is the fanzine devoted to Amanda Anderson? When will the New Yorker do its profile?)
Sean, I have been working on this issue for years, and I have even produced my own Amanda fanzine. Just you wait. In 2009 the New Yorker will do its profile, and you and I will exchange high-fives on Professor Anderson’s behalf.
And the influence they have as yet in the discipline is a small one.
How small is small? Amanda Anderson is the head of the English department at Johns Hopkins, and she even has her very own Wikipedia page (though I place more emphasis on the former than the latter). She’s not an obscure toiler in the dark satanic mills of the Amalgamated Humanities Division of Compass Pointern State. You can say she’s not a celebrity, but you can’t say that the discipline doesn’t recognize brilliant, contrarian, feminist-Habermasian work like hers. If indeed the charge against Theory is a charge against Theory-celebrity, as I’ve suggested before, then it is an indictment of the reward systems of the profession rather than an indictment of the arguments advanced by people doing theory. And I think we should distinguish one from the other.Posted by on 07/14 at 01:40 AM
Of course I contend that Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto are “out there” independent of social construct, having been an Astronomy professor, and having been Mission Planning Engineer for the Voyage II flyby of Uranus (Miranda was one of my responsibilities). And yet… the “discoverer” or “inventor” of Uranus did not, at first, accept that it was a Planet, as, by definition, all the planets were known. He was, after all, a music teacher in Bath, and leaped at the chance to name it after King George III. AND his sister, the abused opera singer, was co-dicoverer/co-inventor, and politicolegal truth established her as Assistant Astronomer Royal and most famous female scientist in the world. AND Neptune was discovered first in France or in England, take sides, and Pluto in America. AND Galileo saw Uranus first through a telescope, but didn’t know what he saw and recorded in his notebook. AND Pluto is arguably not a planet, but merely the largest Trans-Neptunian Kuiper Belt Object known so far. SOMETHING is out there, but we see through a telescope glass darkly, male, female, transgendered, nationalized, marginalized, imperialized, postcolonialized, enmeshed in old theory, revolting towards new theory, dragged down by chains of theory to drown in a sea of ink and flickering phosphor phish. “Natural and healthy evolution of a discipline” begs the question, as Evolution is itself a system of science, healthy presumes a medicalized view of the body, and discipline is most surely a social construct, unless you fall into the snowbanks of Two Cultures. Academic? That’s an anomaly, a 20th century fad, for Science to be dominated by the University, instead of by the Victorian Men of Leisure & Museum Curators, and liberal Curates and Naturalists in the 19th Century; or the virtual corporate web entity of cyborgs right now; or the unimaginable transhumanism beyond the Singularity. Will the argument persist in the Escahton of Charles Stross, the galaxy-spanning culturea of Vernor Vinge and Iain Banks> Leptons to leptons; quarks to quarks.Posted by Jonathan Vos Post on 07/14 at 05:27 AM
Bhaba, Berlant, Butler, Moon, Lowe . . .
She’s not an obscure toiler in the dark satanic mills of the Amalgamated Humanities Division of Compass Pointern State. You can say she’s not a celebrity, but you can’t say that the discipline doesn’t recognize brilliant, contrarian, feminist-Habermasian work like hers.
Of course, but that’s a rather manichean choice. (Then again, having seen the way some respond to Anderson, I’d say John M has it right, and much of the discipline wouldn’t recognize a brilliant habermasian argument if it hit them with a stick.) Timothy Burke says all much more eloquently than I can and notes somewhere I think that empires don’t necessarily exert uniform domination.
actually, the indictiment is against a discipline that seems eager to embrace banal and often incoherent arguments so long as they’re swaddled in sufficiently muddy prose and an exaggerated air of self-importance. that’s an institutional problem, yes, but also an intellectual culture. To go back to your favored example of the Sokal affair, Michael, I think that eagerness accounts for at least some of what gripped those of us who were horrified, or gleeful, about the phenomenon. There’s a difference, in other words, between foolishness and eager foolishness.Posted by Sean McCann on 07/14 at 08:42 AM
Is this any clearer? I’m looking for ways to make this point more accessible than Heidegger ever cared to, and I could use some pointers.
Michael, thanks to you I just noticed Bauerlein’s comment on Heidegger, and that sure is a doozy of a misreading. For what it’s worth on making Heidegger clearer, I always find, in “Being and Time” at least, that it helps to remember his concepts of thrownness and being-in-the-world, as well as his opposition between the ontic and ontological. For those who haven’t read it (and it’s every bit as convoluted as people make it out to be, so don’t drop all the fun stuff you’re doing to pick up a copy), thrownness basically means that Dasein is always already in the world, in a situation, in (and here’s being-in-the-world) a web of relations to other things. It’s in working on and handling those things that it comes to understand its relation to those things and, eventually, itself. This relates to the ontic and ontological insofar as (and this is how I like to think of them for simplicity’s sake) the ontic is how and what things and objects appear to be, while the ontological is the deeper, more fundamental character of what and how they are.
That’s incredibly dumbed-down, I know, and it’s very dangerous to toss off a sentence like “how they are” in a discussion of Heidegger. That said, it might still clarify the Newton example. Basically, Newton is “thrown” into a world, a constellation objects to which he stands in relation. Maybe he looks around and says things like “that apple fell from the tree” and “I push on this rock and it moves, but it’s hard because it’s heavy.” All these are more at the ontic level. Eventually, though, he starts to realize that the apple falls to the ground and rests the same way he rests on the ground, or that when he pushes a very heavy rock it actually is pushing back on him with equal force. By doing this he starts to arrive at his laws (of gravity, inertia, etc.) that describe how objects relate to each other at this deeper, fundamental level.
So it’s actually not really a social constructionist argument, which is why Baurlein’s citation of Heidegger as an example is rather irksome. I don’t think Heidegger says that Newton discovered the laws because of his historical moment or situation, but rather that he uncovered them in a historical moment, after which everyone could see and say “oh, so that’s why things have always been that way.” In fact, since Newton’s laws deal with something that might tentatively be termed ontological in Heidegger’s sense, Heidegger would probably respond to Bauerlein, “Well of course other people in other places would eventually realize that.” Basically, the laws were already there, but Newton happened to work on things in such a way the he uncovered them.
That said, Heidegger is really kind of a minor point in this whole discussion except insofar as Bauerlein’s citation of him is an example of the sort of quick, shoddy work that Bauerlein implicitly or explicitly condemns in Theory. Ironic, huh? OK, I’ll shut up now.Posted by on 07/14 at 09:20 AM
There was a book in African Studies that I once thought of writing an essay or blog entry about that to me exemplified mediocre work that banally followed the blueprint of Said’s Orientalism to a T. But I hesitated because it just seemed cruel, in the end. The author got a tenure-track post as a low-paying, non-selective, high-teaching-load institution. He/she not heavily cited or highly influential, and he/she seems, on my one brief encounter with him/her, to be a nice person. (Just to keep the details vague.)
The point about mediocre work doesn’t to me seem to be largely about rewards. There are a few cases where people do seem to have hit the jackpot, but mostly I’m concerned with the way that particular blueprints (including “social construction") do really become a template that helps fill the library shelves with a bunch of completely disposable monographs. However, this is where Michael’s got a point. The thing that fills the shelves is not social construction as an idea per se, it is a system of training, apprenticeship and guild authentifiction of academics in the humanities that demands the monograph as a sign of completion. Ask authors to be more thoughtful about an idea, or in more cases, a trope like “social construction”, and many will simply turn to whatever the next template or truism is. It’s true that it quickly became a labor-saving device, and still is for some, but the drive to find forms of academic argument that will improve the risk/reward ratio of scholarly writing will survive the demise of social construction as a trope unless there’s a change in the institutional form of the academy itself.
However, I think Bauerlein says a lot which is valid about a style of academic rhetoric (which is not confined to social construction) and about the unreasoned instrumentalism that suffuses a lot of claims about the constructedness of knowledge--e.g., that his substantive critique of “social construction” is pretty fair.Posted by Timothy Burke on 07/14 at 10:44 AM
Refusing to criticize someone’s work because you pity him and his job is far more insulting than anything you could say about the book.Posted by Jonathan on 07/14 at 10:57 AM
I’m trying to think of any knowledge in the humanities that is NOT socially constructed. Isn’t that what makes the humanities the humanities? Almost all significant controversies have to do with interpretations, not facts.
I suspect that the line between social construction and “the world out there” is itself socially constructed, so that definitions of “social construction” will not be identical from field to field. The more I think about it, the less I know where this line should be drawn.Posted by Jonathan on 07/14 at 11:02 AM
Sean: having seen the way some respond to Anderson, I’d say John M has it right, and much of the discipline wouldn’t recognize a brilliant habermasian argument if it hit them with a stick.
Hell, I was her colleague for eight years at Illinois (I was trying to confine that list-of-good-works to those written by people I know personally), and John M is entirely right about this. I doubt there’s anything about Theory’s Empire that impelled him to make the point (no one in the volume, so far as I’ve seen, argues that Habermas should be given a fairer hearing), but it’s a point worth making no matter what.
Timothy: There was a book in African Studies that I once thought of writing an essay or blog entry about that to me exemplified mediocre work that banally followed the blueprint of Said’s Orientalism to a T. But I hesitated because it just seemed cruel, in the end. The author got a tenure-track post as a low-paying, non-selective, high-teaching-load institution. He/she not heavily cited or highly influential, and he/she seems, on my one brief encounter with him/her, to be a nice person.
All I can say is ouch. I’ve reviewed lots of books I don’t like (never a pleasant experience, especially when one meets the author), and there was one review about which I cringed for months upon learning that I taken the work of someone teaching at a community college and smushed it like a bug. Jonathan (Goodwin), it’s not pity for his job—it’s simply the (belated, in my case) recognition that those of us who enjoy the best working conditions in the profession could stand to be a little more gracious toward people teaching and writing in far less fortunate circumstances. This business is nasty enough as it is.
Brian, thanks so much for the wonderfully lucid intro to Being and Time. All I’ll add about “thrownness” is this: Heidegger’s complaint about Descartes and his legacy is that in such attempts to “prove” the existence of the world, the question of the kind of Being who’s providing the account always comes, as he puts it, “too late.” Hence his impatience with epistemology: “the ‘scandal of philosophy’ is not that this proof has yet to be given, but that such proofs are expected and attempted again and again” (¶ 43 (a), 249).
Jonathan Mayhew: I suspect that the line between social construction and “the world out there” is itself socially constructed, so that definitions of “social construction” will not be identical from field to field. The more I think about it, the less I know where this line should be drawn.
Damn you for summarizing my 20-page essay on Sokal and Searle in two compact sentences. All I can add is that when it comes to the question of whether color is a brute fact or a social fact, Searle professes to be an agnostic.
Jonathan Vos Post: the “discoverer” or “inventor” of Uranus did not, at first, accept that it was a Planet, as, by definition, all the planets were known
Thanks for adding that item to the mix! The discovery of Neptune, I think, is every bit as good a demonstration case for Kuhn as was the discovery of oxygen. And I am such a Voyager spacecraft fan; I’m thrilled to hear that you were one of the people responsible for it all. The Uranus flyby was 1986, wasn’t it? And the Reagan Administration wanted to cut the program’s funding. We would have missed seeing those eerie clouds, that gossamer ring, and Miranda. The Neptune encounter three years later was awesome, as well, and imho Pluto isn’t really a planet.Posted by Michael on 07/14 at 11:30 AM
Michael, I take a keen interest in how scientific revolutions occur, having been in the leading edge of several. Kuhn was mostly right, in my experience.
I’ve been personally involved in the origins of the personal computer reolution in the early and mid 1970s, and hypertext (working with Ted Nelson); Artificial Intelligence ( a M.S. for devising an Automated Theorem Prover that would run on the massively parallel supercomputers which did not then exist); writing the world’s first PhD dissertation on Nanotechnology (too ahead of its time, so neither accepted nor rejected in 1977, but technically still an “incomplete"); was the first to propose the Artificial Meteorite Strike Spectroscopy that’s the core technology of Deep Impact; was in what was intriguingly called “the Voyager-Uranus Intersetellar Mission;” and then designed Moon Bases, Mars Bases, and Interstellar spacecraft for NASA.
Creativity does not follow strictly logical laws, nor is the “Ideocosm” (space of all possible ideas) explored rationally by most people or groups. For instance, I have a tendency to dream equations at night, and find them (on awakening) to often be true.
Possibly the dreamed equation that had the greatest impact on the real world was my triple integral of a function projected from 9-dimensional parameter space on the Uranus flyby of Voyager II, which I dreamed, refined during the morning shower, and immediately pitched (upon, you know, dressing and driving to JPL) to Dr. Edward Stone, Chief Scientist of Voyager, and later JPL Director. On its basis, several months work of several people were thrown out (they hated me for that) and a new concept applied to the flyby, including a completely different aiming and timing of photographs of Miranda, a part of the mission with which I (as Mission Planning Engineer) was tasked.
You’ve seen those photos of Miranda, which would NOT have been possible without my dream equations. But I only got the “group participation award” from NASA, same as the secretaries and janitors, because of people whose cruder early work was on the cutting room floor, and other specifically got awarded for the “smear campaign” to reduce smear of imaging by multiaxis attutude control. In a nutshell, I showed that a quadratic fit was needed, to replace a previous linear fit, and that when one plunges through the ring plane of Uranus, one needs to minimize the rate of change of smear, rather than (as had been done at Jupiter and Saturn), smear itself. This gives VERY different times and angles for flyby telescopy, and greatly enhanced probability of getting a greater number of less-smeared pictures.
I’m not the only one who does this; an American Mathematical Monthly this year printed a misleading dream proof that P=NP, based on the mathematician on an arbitrarily long round trip interstellar mission. So there is a dream, math, science, science fiction tangle here.
I now claim circa 1,200 lifetime publications, presentations, and broadcasts to my credit (not counting the 40 megabytes of text I wrote for my magicdragon.com domain. Caltech degree-holder, ex-astronomer, and encyclopedist Eric W. Weisstein is lead author, as cited, in over a thousand MathWorld pages (the other contributors are listed on each page, and centrally indexed). There’s that guy who, in some sense, edited over 100,000 wikipedia pages (with his demography bot). Proper use of dreaming and the web, in combination, can’t make a bad writer good, but can make a good one more prolific, by at least a factor of 10. Isaac Asimov, Paul Erdos, Leonhard Euler, and their ilk may not have needed this, but we mere mortals can always use a 1000% speedup. It’s only a matter of time before an “author” of several people, conscious and unconscious, plus machine aid, will achieve a million publications. And onward to the singularity…Posted by Jonathan Vos Post on 07/14 at 12:20 PM
I’m just saying that if people ask, “Please name for me the mediocre works that you have in mind”, there’s an element of gratutious cruelty in offering up a list of specifics. Particularly because it seems to me the problem of mediocrity that I think Bauerlein is properly concerned with is a systemic problem created by systemic pressures. Nicolas Thomas once remarked of a lot of postcolonial theory that it takes “Derrida, Lacan and Fanon and puts them in a blender” and then treats that as sufficient, or as Bauerlein observes about Sedgwick’s arguments, as an axiomatic starting place. Thomas was surely not talking about the most cited, most discussed work, in some ways, but about the ordinary span of work in “colonial studies”.
It’s a slippery thing to describe and discuss, particularly because the most egregiously formulaic kinds of claims, tropes, presentations and so on aren’t even to be found in monographs, but in journal articles, conference papers, comments at conferences, banal rhetorical gestures in faculty meetings: in short, in the everyday work practices of academia rather than its most formal textual products. Nor are those moments trivial: they exert enormous regulatory force on scholarly practice and identity. But it’s like discussing quicksilver: you might be convinced by my claims and observations, but nothing evidentiarily formal or external to me distinguishes what I have to say from someone else who says the exact opposite, that they’ve never seen anything of the sort--or for that matter from a David Horowitz type character who comes along and says that it’s far far worse than all that.
I suppose the one thing we could try to do would be to compile our secret catalogs of “mediocre” work and look for repeated “statistically improbable phrases”, a la Amazon--to have a banality index rather like a citation index. Seems like a lot of work for a modest point, that certain kinds of intellectual tropes increasingly invaded the everyday craftmanship of humanistic scholarship to its detriment at a certain moment, and that there are advantages for everyone to clearing out the cobwebs and refreshing the room a bit.Posted by Timothy Burke on 07/14 at 12:20 PM
Mediocre just means “tending to the statistical average” in any given universe of texts. I like the idea of a banality index, but wouldn’t it get rather large and cumbersome? After all, by definition nothing stands out very clearly for being mediocre. It’s like trying to identify the most non-descript person in the room....Posted by Jonathan on 07/14 at 12:44 PM
The presumption that whoever is being reviewed, squashed like a bug, etc., can’t possibly respond on even ground because of the status hierarchy is (sadly), at one level, accurate, but also comes very close to unwarranted condescenion.
It’s much better to use specific cases when you’re talking about what’s wrong with the field. There is no system to name.Posted by Jonathan on 07/14 at 01:11 PM
I’m adding the “Mayhew” to my subsequent comments so as not to be confused with another commenter with the same first name. #29 is my comment, #30 is his.Posted by Jonathan Mayhew on 07/14 at 01:17 PM
Jonathan Goodwin: The presumption that whoever is being reviewed, squashed like a bug, etc., can’t possibly respond on even ground because of the status hierarchy is (sadly), at one level, accurate, but also comes very close to unwarranted condescenion.
It’s not a question of whether someone can respond on even ground. It’s a question of whether your 500- or 1000-word quarterly-journal review will trash someone’s career altogether. Say Professor X publishes a mediocre or derivative book as an assistant professor. You have to think, is this book so weak and/or wrongheaded that I should write a review that might eventually ensure that its author never gets the chance to write a second, more substantial, book? (That question implies a second question: is this book merely uninspired, or is it much more serious—an example of something that’s “wrong with the field” as a whole?) It’s far less troubling to write a negative review of a book written by a more established scholar whose work (in your humble opinion) is overestimated.
Timothy: It’s a slippery thing to describe and discuss, particularly because the most egregiously formulaic kinds of claims, tropes, presentations and so on aren’t even to be found in monographs, but in journal articles, conference papers, comments at conferences, banal rhetorical gestures in faculty meetings: in short, in the everyday work practices of academia rather than its most formal textual products. Nor are those moments trivial: they exert enormous regulatory force on scholarly practice and identity.
I think this is exactly right, except that I’d add a couple more everyday work practices to the list, like letters of rec and tenure reviews. And you might know that I’m an especially big fan of inane conference comments. The question is how we can possibly devise a banality index that will cover not only published material but all forms of professional exchange. This seems to me a question of such technical complexity that we need to turn to. . . .
Jonathan Vos Post: I showed that a quadratic fit was needed, to replace a previous linear fit, and that when one plunges through the ring plane of Uranus, one needs to minimize the rate of change of smear, rather than (as had been done at Jupiter and Saturn), smear itself.
OK, I’m in awe. I haven’t plunged through the ring plane of Uranus myself, though I am aware that the planet’s axis is almost parallel to the plane of the ecliptic, so that it’s basically tipped on its side. I keep this knowledge uppermost in my mind just in case I find myself approaching the outer planets. But I was gripped by the Voyager missions on the day in 1981 when I saw Voyager 1’s pictures of a crescent Saturn (which, of course, have to be taken from “behind” Saturn), so thank you, thank you for dreaming the equation for the Uranus flyby.Posted by on 07/14 at 01:52 PM
Always late to the party:
Michael: “Heidegger’s trying to parse the entire history of Western philosophy here, by adjudicating the dispute between idealists (who refer everything to the perceiving observer) and realists (who refer everything to the external world perceived by that observer).”
And on the docket for the afternoon: Jarndyce v. Jarndyce? (“Ah the old questions, the old answers. There’s nothing like them!”)
Hey Sean and Michael, thanks for directing my attention to Amanda Anderson; I just located her essay “Pragmatism Character,” which begins with a quote from William James’ lectures on Pragmatism—his earlier attempt to ‘mediate’ the same dispute. Smart, challenging, interesting stuff, analyzing how the character of parties to a debate ‘informs’ their positions—though, as a methodology, among less capable practitioners, prone to devolution into gossip, I imagine.
I wonder whether my own early aversion to Theory had more to do with the obnoxious personalities of the practitioners I had met—and of the theorists whose work I sampled--than with the content of Theory and its implications for reading and interpretation. (I miss some of the tweedy ‘conservative’ types—they were erudite, chatty, congenial, funny, sometimes raunchy. One tweedy linguist I knew told me the dirtiest limerick I have ever heard; I’ve never forgotten it and am waiting until retirement to repeat it. Many of those old guys were very hard working, very smart, and very professional.)
At times reading in the blogosphere can be like listening to Howard Stern; a cacophonous, obnoxious, unedifying, yet still funny and engrossing guilty pleasure. But at its best, as in these Theory Tuesday threads (giant sucking sound), the blogosphere seems to invite / evoke / permit / engender(?) / what-have-you less mediated, less tentative, less guarded, less frightened, more spontaneous, more direct, more lively, more honest, talk. That is, talk that reveals the speaker’s character and temperament and personality (charming traits that attracted many of us to literary studies from, say philosophy, in the first place) more fully than other venues. I enjoy hanging out here and get some of what I most miss from grad school--contact with good smart folks.
(Oh, and Peter: I regret every word I have ever written, including this one.)Posted by on 07/14 at 01:57 PM
How could a single review do that work? Seems to me that one very negative review combined with other positive ones indicates that a book will have a greater impact than one greeted with bland notices.Posted by Jonathan on 07/14 at 01:58 PM
Let’s see where THIS goes… On the trivial politicolegal side, it’s only a matter of time before “Your Honor, my client is not responsible, due to his genetically controlled brain mechanism....” In the serious side, we may be on the edge of measuring mechanisms of social construction of reality, and eliminating the Theory that doesn’t fit the data. This and the Theory thread have mentioned Natural Selection of ideas. The meme of Memes predates dawkins et al by decades. I wrote a paper for my Psycholinguistics course at Caltech, circa 1969, on what were then called “Mememes.”
“Researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), part of the National Institutes of Health, have discovered a genetically controlled brain mechanism responsible for social behavior in humans — one of the most important but least understood aspects of human nature. The findings are reported in Nature Neuroscience, published online on July 10, 2005....”Posted by Jonathan Vos Post on 07/14 at 03:56 PM
And, Michael, you’re exactly right. Voyager II zoomed past Jupiter and Saturn essential in their ring/moon planes, so that aiming the scan platform’s telecopes was a matter of slow motion along one controlled axis. It took quite a fight, as I suggested, to convince people that it was precisely because Uranus’ spin axis was tilted so dramatically, and the ring/moon plane with it, that we had to maneuver the spacecraft along 2 axes at once, whipping around fast while plunging through the plane.
At the Caltech press conference during the Uranus encounter, I fielded a reporter’s question (although I was merely in the audience, the poject engineers could not come up with an answer on their feet). The question was: if something hit Uranus and shoved its axis around, why didn’t the axis keep going?
My answer was that Uranus was, to a first order, a gyrosciope, which prcessed perpendicular to the force of the putative collision only so long as momentum was being transferred. I started to say something about the effect this would have on magnetism, given the theory of dynamo of metallic liquid hydrogen at the core, but cut myself off, as it seemed too speculative. I missed a great chance to thereby say: “and expect a significant anomaly in the orientation of the Uranian magnetic field.” It turned out to be not centered anywhere near the geometric center of the planet, and skew to the rotaqtion axis.
Sir Arthur C. Clarke has essayed on why distinguished scientists sometimes miss the obvious in their predictions. (1) Failure of Imagination; (2) failure of nerve.
That was a failure of nerve on my part. As when I was writing a science fiction story about the murder of John Lennon, before it happened, and said to myself—“no, I can’t bear this,” and changed it. Later I published “John Lennon Meets T.S. Eliot” in the anthology 13 Rock Fantasies, in Germany. Couldn’t publish my verse play in the USA, as every single line was apropriated from either a Eliot play or poem (and his estate wouldn’t give permission to mingle with mere pop music), or a Lennon/McCartney song (and Michael Jackson’s staff wouldn’t give me permission, on the basis of “who is the T.S. Eliot clown, anyway?Posted by Jonathan Vos Post on 07/14 at 04:07 PM
How could a single review do that work? Seems to me that one very negative review combined with other positive ones indicates that a book will have a greater impact than one greeted with bland notices.
Ah, that would be the case in a sane world. But in a world where some promotion and tenure committees are known to look for any excuse to turn down a candidate, even parsing the number and quality of adjectives in external referees’ letters to determine whether they are sufficiently laudatory, and (quite often) taking the most critical and/ or least generous reading of a candidate’s work as necessarily the most “accurate” reading, one treads more carefully.Posted by Michael on 07/14 at 04:28 PM
But external reviews for tenure are different than book reviews published in scholarly journals, right? And how widespread is the hypercritical process you describe? I have an estimate, but you would certainly know more about it than I do.Posted by Jonathan on 07/14 at 04:33 PM
Book reviews published externally can hurt a candidate under some circumstances.
But it’s more this: suppose what you want to do is complain that a work is mediocre, meaning average or ordinary. Not actively, aggressively bad or seriously flawed, just mediocre, and mediocre because it’s using some form of standard-issue theory or trope (social construction or otherwise) to limp to the finish line. Work that I think has a serious problem which is atypical in its flaws I’m willing to review if asked (either a public published review or a peer review). I’ve hatcheted a couple of academic books over the years. But it’s hard to work up much enthusiasm for saying that something’s just kind of, you know, not bad but not much good either. The presumption of it worries me, for one--it means I must think that my stuff’s much better than the average, or it means that I despondently consider my own stuff mediocre and thus I recognize mediocrity when I see it. Not too appetizing either way. But ok, I can work my way through that. I’m still struggling with why it’s worth isolating out in a review a single work to define a phenomenon which is by definition about a pattern.
I have thought of writing a review essay on mediocre work that follows the lead of Orientalism; my rough beginning drafts of it have ended up sounding somewhat like Bauerlein on social construction, except that I do try to name a range of “ordinary” works and then point to exemplary works that don’t just follow the blueprint. That seems a more comfortable exercise to me than singling out one person’s book as an exemplary case of mediocrity.Posted by Timothy Burke on 07/14 at 05:13 PM
If someone doesn’t agree with your premises or analysis, then unexemplified discussions of system and pattern quickly become frustrating. More is better, I agree.Posted by Jonathan on 07/14 at 05:18 PM
You say Isacc Newton and I think of errant 7 irons. Here is a review of your very own Penn State campus golf course. It gets a good write-up. Enjoy.Posted by on 07/14 at 07:14 PM
It’s good, Michael, to see more agreement about Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction, a work that set a terrible example for all the first year grad students introduced to theory through its pages. The attribution of post-structuralism to the spirit of ‘68 would have surprised the contributors to the Hopkins structuralism conference of 1966. It would also have surprised Derrida to hear his work given a Leftist political motivation. When he lectured at UCLA in 1988 and an audience member asked him why he wasn’t more political, he replied, “Deconstruction has no politics. It can be used for the Left or for the Right.” Statements like that were what made deconstruction vulnerable to charges of mandarinism in the 80s.
I agree, also, that social constructionist work may be rigorous, detailed, and empirical. If we want to know the construction of something, we should detail its parts. But too often I’ve seen social constructionist premises used to skirt those details. It’s the popularity of the outlook that’s at stake. The point of the Partisan Review essay was to indicate how the time pressures of the career schedule prompt younger scholars toward shortcuts, and any approach that lightens the evidentiary load is desirable. (Sean McCann noted that six years was not so quick a time to get a book out, but if we consider the time presses take to make decisions, the beginning years of adjustment to a department, teaching, and service, and the tenure meeting taking place in late Fall of the 5th year, things look a lot shorter.) I’ve read manuscripts for about 20 presses in recent years, and too often I’ve found earnest intelligence and good ideas spoiled by hasty frameworks and weak evidence. Social constructionism tempts them, encouraging, for instance, the “Representations of . . .” and “Images of . . .” subtitle.
But we should clarify what social constructionism signifies. It doesn’t mean only that some images, ideas, discourses, etc. are composed of social, historical, and political elements, nor does it simply say that all ideas etc. have a social origin. Rather, it applies to epistemological claims, and has bigger ambitions. In a word, social constructionism denies that knowledge can be entirely independent of a social setting broadly defined. That’s what gives it an edge, and that’s why people like it.
Epistemological realism is its opposite, although realism may accept the social origin of knowledge and the thorough contingency of many things held to be knowledge. What raises knowledge to non-constructionist status is scientific method, peer review, and the test of time. If a knoweldge claim survives rival claims, if different people with different acculturations and at different times examine the claim and find it strong, if it provides reliable grounds for beliefs that prove themselves in multiple situations, then we have no good reason to deny them independent truth.
The issue bears upon the Heidegger example. You’re corrections are, I admit, stronger than my original citation. Chalk that up to the foolishness of citing any sentence of Heidegger’s out of context.
We might ask, though, whether Heidegger’s premise is meaningful for us today. He says that various scientific laws “are true only so long as Dasein is. Before there was any Dasein, there was no truth.” This is a definition of truth as aletheia, as “showing.” That things show themselves as already existing before Dasein noticed them doesn’t change the nature of their “uncovering.”
Now, it seems to me that the only reason Heidegger insists on this point, and chooses scientific examples to make it, is that he sees the modern world and science in particular as settling into an ontic, “thing"-oriented way of seeing and thinking. We have forgotten the ontic-ontological difference, the fundamental qustions about Being and its presentation to Dasein. The world is growing more mechanical, inquiry more scientistic, and human being more psychological and utilitarian.
Can we get from this situation, though, to your distinction between “entities that are independent of human consciousness (like planets)” and “entities that are not”? Isn’t more correct to say “entities that show themselves independent . . .”? Your turn to that distinction suggests to me that you are impatient with Heidegger’s outlook. (Certainly the quirky mysticism of the later essays tried one’s patience.) If so, I’m with you.
MarkPosted by on 07/14 at 08:41 PM
Michael, I offer my observations only to illustrate a person with two college degrees still being baffled.
What you say in ct #16 that Heidegger is saying, seems to me fairly synonymous with Bauerlein’s rebuttal to Heidegger, which you then go on to call a serious misreading of Heidegger.
The only way I can parse it is this:
I’d said that I thought Heidegger was “making only the trivially tautological point that before Newton thought of his laws, he hadn’t thought of them.” Perhaps, instead of making that trivial point, he is observing that to make that point would be trivial.Posted by on 07/15 at 04:09 AM
Sorry to have misattributed Eagletonian fallacies to you, Michael. Looking at your first post, and my post, it is clear that I was projecting a bit. But it seems to me also that one thing you wrote did legitimately invite what I am happy to admit was a misreading:
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?
This sounded to me like you were saying: internal criticism should be sufficient. There isn’t any obvious need to countenance external critics. Now that would be a strange thing to think (as I point out in my post.) I took your foot to be slipping, so that you ended up in a spot you couldn’t really mean to be in, due to the pun I complained about. Hence I pinned Eagleton to you.Posted by jholbo on 07/15 at 05:14 AM
This discussion of theory and its mediocrity seems to me wildly belated. Yes, I realize that it corresponds to the publication of the Theory Anthology that we’re all to be discussing, except that we are not actually discussing the anthology so much as the reign of theory which in my experience is all but over. The kind of theory that Valve critics are here critiquing--institutionalized intellectual laziness, rewards for mediocrity, strict education in the secret untruth of all apparent truth--reached its peak 10 years ago and has been dismantled by countless discussions exactly like this one that have appeared since that time.
Today, literary studies is not a field in the grip of Theory. It’s a field in the grip of identity crisis--any residual clinging to Theory <i>as a unifying principle<i> is an effect of nostalgia.Posted by on 07/15 at 09:05 AM
Pollian, that type of observation seems to me a part of the problem, in some ways--responding to some kind of academic discussion by saying, “Oh, but we did that already, it’s very passe, move on to the next thing, nothing to see here, move along.” One of the things that was so dizzying about the reign of high theory in the American academy was precisely this kind of constant moving of the goalposts of the avant-garde or au courant, a sense that everything had to speed so fast down the road to somewhere, that the last thing said was obsolete as soon as it was uttered.
We experience the need for retrospectives at different times: some people have long since buried corpses that others of us have living upstairs in our attics. I’ve colleagues who if you say, “Theory is dead”, they’ll say, “I didn’t even know he was sick!”
Part of the reason I keep emphasizing the deeper drivers behind some of the institutional problems associated with high theory is that I don’t see any reason to think that those drivers no longer exist. The incentive structure in academia strikes me as being just as flawed as it was in the 1980s and 1990s, the publication crisis is still with us, and so on.Posted by Timothy Burke on 07/15 at 09:27 AM
- Posted by deb on 07/15 at 09:05 PM
From Mark’s recent post:
“The issue bears upon the Heidegger example. You’re corrections are, I admit, stronger than my original citation. Chalk that up to the foolishness of citing any sentence of Heidegger’s out of context.
We might ask, though, whether Heidegger’s premise is meaningful for us today. He says that various scientific laws “are true only so long as Dasein is. Before there was any Dasein, there was no truth.” This is a definition of truth as aletheia, as “showing.” That things show themselves as already existing before Dasein noticed them doesn’t change the nature of their “uncovering.””
Two things here: although, above, Michael suggested that Dasein was essentially a codeword for consciousness, the more we attempt to broach Heidegger the more careful we have to be. As many probably know, Dasein means, literally, being-there (da: there; Sein, being). In other words, it is the there of Being—which is another way to say that it is the way in which Being as such and in general reveals or discloses itself in the world. Where in the world? There (i.e. any determinate and indeed actual place). But Dasein, asside from being a particular being, also has a lot of snazzy features, which is why an analysis of its structures occupies the first half of _Being and Time_. One of those features is that, unlike other beings, Dasein is concerned about itself--that is, it can question the nature of its own being. Dasein seeks to understand itself and to grasp itself in its finite (and Heidegger would say “authentic”) totality. In a sense, this could boil down to wondering, “what am I?”, “what am I supposed to do with my life?”, “why am I me and not someone else?” and the like.
This leads to the second point: there are two models of truth at work here that should probably be distinguished (not that they’re different from each other in some kind of exclusive way). That is, _aletheia_, or “showing”--or better, “un-concealing”; better b/c it emphasizes an immanent rather than transcendent relation to what is uncovered--is the condition for the possibility for truth understood as adequation; the former--Heidegger would call it more “primordial”--form of truth as the revelation of Being by way of a being (or Dasein) in the world is the radical process that opens the world to understanding, and then to more familiar forms of truth that involve squaring the general with the particular (to put it somewhat abstractly). So, if Heidegger says that before Dasein there was no truth, it is because before Dasein there was no Being as such; and if there was no Being as such before Dasein, this is because Being needs the finitude of a being--it needs to be disclosed in a being _capable_ of disclosing, of asking questions about Being--if it is to distinguish itself from Nothing (which is really what Being looks like without Dasein).
Apologies for the jargon--I’m happy to try to clarify any muddy bits.
--ChrisPosted by on 07/16 at 11:50 PM
Your blog is a great discovery. Many thanks. I’ve put you among my links. (Perhaps I could ask you to return the favor?).
tom potockiPosted by tom potocki on 08/07 at 03:14 AM
I think that’s not possible Tom, everyone would need to ask that favor to Michael, if yes.Posted by skin care on 10/06 at 12:37 PM