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Theory Tuesday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by on 07/12 at 09:25 AM
  1. It’s funny—the practice of deconstruction comes to me as second nature (maybe because of my UC Santa Cruz education), but the original texts are almost completely opaque. I don’t have any trouble with Barthes or Eco or even big chunks of Foucault, but with Derrida I always feel like I’m reading a text in some Borgesian game-language, where the words are familiar but their referents have all been changed. (Situate, trouble, seriality, recognition: These are terms of art, and while I can guess at their meanings the way I’d guess at the meaning of a poetic metaphor, I know that I’m missing many of their agreed-on connotations.)

    I wish there was a way of talking about this stuff that didn’t require moving to the Country of Theory for four or five years and learning the language by immersion, because if there was, even Kevin Drum’s readers might realize that Theory’s heart was in the right place. (And maybe it would be easier to tell whether some of the secondary and tertiary texts really know what they’re talking about.)

    I suppose it’s more clear in the original French. Différance probably comes more naturally if you already know différence and différer.

    Posted by David Moles  on  07/12  at  11:29 AM
  2. Yeah, I agree with you about Derrida’s prose, which is why I treated it like it was some rare and dangerous beast.  But you know, it’s not Borges I hear in all those repetitions.  Every once in a while I hear Samuel Beckett, that crafty old punster who wrote his late works in French(Comment c’est, indeed)—and I hear Beckett all over Baudrillard and Lyotard, too.  Just saying.

    Anyway, I think that Kevin Drum’s skeptical readers would reply that it doesn’t matter if Theory’s heart is in the right place, if no one can understand what comes out of its mouth.  I have some limited sympathy with that reply, myself.  But theorists = fundamentalists?  That’s too stupid for words.

    Posted by Michael  on  07/12  at  11:58 AM
  3. I like this quote from John Holbo’s introduction to this week of Theory’s Empire:

    “Despite its philosophic and academic character, Theory has never exerted significant influence on Anglophone academic philosophy. But Theory achieved considerable dominance of English departments, especially in America, by about 1985; after which its influence declined to some degree.”

    Yes, quite.  Of course Anglophone academic philosophy hasn’t had much of a significant influence on anything outside of Angophone academic philosophy.  At least you can say of the French and Germans that their philosophers and theorists are actually involved in the real world as philosophers and theorists.  To be honest this whole anti-Theory thing strikes me, again as one who has always read novels only for pleasure, as just so much whining. A lot like the puritan indie scene.

    Posted by  on  07/12  at  12:12 PM
  4. Opps,

    David,

    It may help to read Husserl (or a good secondary source on Husserl since that man couldn’t write and his translators were even worse).  My only complaint against my friends (literally my friends, not the profs) in literature departments is when they pick up philosophers, who do speak a very different language, without doing the background study.

    Posted by  on  07/12  at  12:15 PM
  5. Didn’t you criticize Bauerlein for his use of the anecdote of the shuttle bus, which you said was trivial?  The existence of one person who needed “erudition” spelled and another who came alive in archives did not mean that all Theorists were like the first and all non-Theorists like the second.  So when you write: “The conversations go something like this.  I say, “what do you think of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s insistence on ‘incommensurability’ and the ‘heterogeneity of language-games’?” and they say, “I think that French stuff is bullshit.””—aren’t you using the same rhetorical maneuver?

    And when I look again at your quote from the anonymous Kevin Drum commenter: “The Sokal Hoax says all that needs to be said about lit crit folks.  They’re really no different from fundamentalists—they’re both against the reality-based crowd.””, isn’t it really expressing the same disagreement that you have with Bauerlein about social constructedness?  Your extended essay on Sokal examines the distinction between “brute fact” and “social fact” at length, and addresses the controversy between Enlightenment leftism and anti-foundational leftism.  Isn’t that evocative phrase “reality-based” a way of declaring allegiance to the Enlightenment leftism side of this controversy, against the anti-foundationalism that does appear to be held by stereotypical “lit crit folks”?  I understand the annoyance at the wholesale dismissal of your field due to one hoax, but the statement doesn’t seem to be as odd as you imply that it is.

    Posted by  on  07/12  at  12:18 PM
  6. I would have thought that Student Z was really Student S.

    Posted by  on  07/12  at  12:26 PM
  7. Michael—Beckett’s a great analogy. I often can’t tell with Beckett whether I’m supposed to pay attention to the meanings of the words or just groove on the sounds.

    Anthony—If you can think of a good secondary source on Husserl, I’d love to check it out. (One of my great regrets is that life is too short to read deeply enough in all the subjects I’d like to know more about.)

    Rich—I think it’s an important difference, in terms of rhetorical strategy, that Michael’s examples are clearly fictional, and Bauerlein’s isn’t. (I’m not arguing for one over the other—I’ve been guilty of both, myself, and will probably continue to be—just pointing out the distinction.) Also, you’re right about “reality-based”, but Michael’s also right about the stupidity of the other half of the sentence. Especially because what the reality-based community is really opposing isn’t fundamentalism but spin doctoring—what you might call the bullshit-based community (in a Frankfurtian sense). Now, someone could probably make a fruitful argument about how the current administration’s appropriated postmodernist rhetorical strategies, but that’s not what Drum’s commenter was doing.

    Posted by David Moles  on  07/12  at  12:38 PM
  8. Unless the “series of oppositions” already has some organizing principle (other than being made up of oppositions) then it will always be true--trivially true--that the distinction between members and non-members of the series is unlike the others since it’s what makes them a series at all.

    As for the proposition that what appears to be an opposition may actually be something else, what is this but the “unity and struggle of opposites” familiar from Marxian dialectics as expounded in Engels and Lenin?

    Michael, your exposition is admirably clear--demonstrating by example that these matters need not be expressed in Terms Too Deep For Me. But it does seem also to confirm that once you get past the (intentionally?) rebarbative prose, what the Theory people are saying is generally either banal or old news.

    Posted by  on  07/12  at  12:40 PM
  9. I’d almost feel sorry for Drum, who has some of the most obnoxious commenters in the blogosphere, except that I figure you get what you are willing to put up with, at least in the comment section.

    Deconstruction is all very well and good, but I am all excited about next week.  I have a crush on Viktor Shklovsky.

    Posted by bitchphd  on  07/12  at  01:03 PM
  10. I know that it’s dreadfully anti-intellectual of me, but this stuff makes my head hurt.  I feel like I should just stick to the Phaedrus itself.  Is there a cartoon cheat-sheet to this stuff?  Pictures might help.

    I eagerly await your discussions of Russian formalism and hope to learn a bit more about Bakhtin too.  (The only thing I know about him is his theories on the carnivalesque, and I’ve heard that it’s very hard to know what he actually wrote, since a lot of it was doctored by Stalin, but maybe I’m wrong on that.

    Posted by  on  07/12  at  01:04 PM
  11. "Samuel Beckett, that crafty old punster who wrote his late works in French(Comment c’est, indeed)”

    *La Derniere Bande* (The last tape, but “*le* bande” would be a pun on the thing that BANDO (spelt as pronounced) helps men get.)

    --Krapp

    Posted by  on  07/12  at  01:13 PM
  12. David Moles writes: “Also, you’re right about “reality-based”, but Michael’s also right about the stupidity of the other half of the sentence. Especially because what the reality-based community is really opposing isn’t fundamentalism but spin doctoring [...]”

    I’m not sure I agree.  I mean, on one level of course it’s stupid to say “They [presumably, literary studies academics] are no different from fundamentalists”.  But reading it charitably, I see the connection.  Fundamentalism requires a highly elaborate intellectual superstructure, because the foundational texts of the various religions don’t really “plainly say” things.  They require interpretation in order to gloss over contradictions and cover unforeseen cases; they can develop a highly formalized technical vocabulary and overlapping systems of rationalization, by which the various possible meanings of the text are brought to a predetermined conclusion.  To an outsider, that can look very similar to anti-foundational literary studies.  Look at Eagleton’s _Literary Theory: An Introduction_ and the way that every literary text, for him, leads back to the ineluctable truths of Marxist determinism.  Without any reference to reality, or any constraint on the possible interpretations of the text, it’s quite possible to see the complicated procedures of the literary theorist as a sort of extended restatement of the theorist’s fundamental beliefs.

    Posted by  on  07/12  at  01:21 PM
  13. ” the Sokal hoax did not prove that language is a transparent vehicle onto the world...”

    My vehicle is not transparent but a sort of silvery gray. And is a Volvo. Sorry, Stanley Fish.

    Posted by  on  07/12  at  01:27 PM
  14. That was an excellent post.  I hope Theory Tuesdays go on for a long, long time.

    Since I have nothing more intelligent to add, I’ll just say:  HEYYYY, MR. PLATO!

    Posted by Greg Nog  on  07/12  at  01:35 PM
  15. Michael,
    I like your metaphor of “groundwater” very much. I tried to teach basic, ‘baby theory’ to undergrads in the “gateway” course for the English major, which was really difficult and frustrating in all sorts of ways, and which I’ll never do again (for practical reason, though—not because I’m anti-theory.) One of the reasons why it was so frustrating was because I was using those Bedford editions with the commissioned essays in the back which each demonstrate X reading, and I kept finding myself saying things like “No ones does a ‘pure’ Derridean [insert many other theorists here, too] reading anymore—though you might come across one from 1982—but more important, deconstruction has had a big influence on a lot of approaches practiced today.” In other words —it’s in the groundwater.  So why didn’t I just show them current articles on the texts they were reading and maybe point out some of the critical assumptions and explain where they were coming from?  That would have been a whole lot more useful to them, not to mention a heckuva lot easier for me.  (Abby, Derrida makes my head hurt, too!  And I actually kind of dig the stuff.)

    Looking forward to more Theory Tuesdays!

    Posted by  on  07/12  at  01:38 PM
  16. I’ll be following Theory Tuesdays with interest as well. Isn’t one of the issues here about a certain level of hubris that motivates a) the Social Text decision to publish Sokal to annex the hard sciences into the broad movement of social theory, b) the requirement by the “reality-based community” that academic work should have a newspaper-ready abstract, rather than one which might be aimed at other specialists, and c) your student’s view that the knowledge that might not be instrumental to her work is easily identifiable and should be excluded. I am far from a lit theory expert, but one of the things that strikes me about, say, Focuault and Derrida (as opposed to, say, Kristeva and Baudrillard) is their attention to the detailed craft of scholarship, which I recognise plays a role in making it difficult to understand. That defense of scholarship is one of the most valuable things I find in your work.

    One of the things I find handy in having a background in contemporary artistic production is simply not being afraid to not-understand, and that’s an attitude I try and encourage in teaching “theory”. I guess I am still skeptical of the commensurability of theory and the building of the “common social platform” of progressive politics in its humanist form. Certainly, there are plenty of very bad examples when the difficulties are glossed over, Eagleton being a prime example.

    (Rich, I’m sorry, but using Eagleton as your model of literary theory doesn’t get your arguments too far with me. The guy simply stopped listening to what’s going on decades ago.)

    Posted by Danny  on  07/12  at  02:32 PM
  17. It’s in that sense that the priests of the cult of Derrida once chanted, as they fanned out across the country from New Haven, “all reading is misreading.” And guess what?  They were misunderstood.

    Now that’s funny.

    A wonderful essay, Michael, and one that fills me with a bit of hope. You nuance guys do have your work cut out for yez, though as evidenced by Ehrenreich’s infamous and anonymous (and who knows? possibly apocryphal) “DNA heckler”:

    When social psychologist Phoebe Ellsworth took the podium at a recent interdisciplinary seminar on emotions, she was already feeling rattled. Colleagues who’d presented earlier had warned her that the crowd was tough and had little patience for the reduction of human experience to numbers or bold generalizations about emotions across cultures. Ellsworth had a plan: She would pre-empt criticism by playing the critic, offering a social history of psychological approaches to the topic. But no sooner had the word “experiment” passed her lips than the hands shot up. Audience members pointed out that the experimental method is the brainchild of white Victorian males. Ellsworth agreed that white Victorian males had done their share of damage in the world but noted that, nonetheless, their efforts had led to the discovery of DNA. This short-lived dialogue between paradigms ground to a halt with the retort: “You believe in DNA?”

    Short of adopting the London Muslim approach of feeling obliged to ritually condemn every extreme idiot who declares himself to be in your camp, how are we to deal with such folks? Assuming they’re not apocryphal, that is. The patient correction and explication bit has been my usual recourse in analogous situations in my line of work, but I’ll confess to holding less and less enthusiasm and patience in that realm. Which is why I very much value essays like this, exhortations to be a bit less hortatory, if you will.

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  07/12  at  02:38 PM
  18. Physics got its kharmic payback with the Bogdanoff affair.

    See http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/bogdanoff/ for the gory details.

    Posted by Steinn Sigurdsson  on  07/12  at  02:40 PM
  19. "Is there a cartoon cheat-sheet to this stuff?  Pictures might help.”

    Hey, I could go for that!

    I suspect there might be something of value out there in Theory Land, but I’ll be damned if I can suss it out from discussions like this one.

    Here is my problem with Theory fandom:

    To the casual visitor, it comes across as a jargon-loaded, name-dropping, solipsistic little world dealing with ideas as difficult to get a hold of as well-oiled chunks of Jell-O, populated by people who seem utterly determined to keep it that way.

    Now, I wouldn’t be surprised if most physicists and evolutionary biologists had an awfully hard time chatting casually with laymen about their work, and who would prefer immersing themselves in in-group nattering.

    But there are scientists who are willing and able to describe their work in ways that are engaging, informative, and even entertaining. They don’t start out, as Michael does in this passage . . .

    I say, “what do you think of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s insistence on ‘incommensurability’ and the ‘heterogeneity of language-games’?”

    . . . by launching right into matters that an outside observer appears to be scholastic esoterica as divorced from quotidian reality as discussions of the packing density of angels on pinheads.

    I mean, sheesh, if you want to teach a layman about evolution, you don’t launch right into a comparison of gradualism and punctuated equilibrium and then snort and roll your eyes when they walk away shaking their heads.

    Posted by  on  07/12  at  03:04 PM
  20. Danny writes: “(Rich, I’m sorry, but using Eagleton as your model of literary theory doesn’t get your arguments too far with me. The guy simply stopped listening to what’s going on decades ago.)”

    I wasn’t claiming that the guy who said that literary theorists are no different than fundamentalists was right, I was saying that I understand how he might have come to that conclusion, and that the conclusion isn’t really as obviously stupid as Michael said it was.  Like it or not, for people outside literary studies, Eagleton’s book is what they are most likely to encounter.  I recently asked for a good popularization of literary theory on a popular literary blog, and Eagleton’s book was the only one suggested.  I think that someone recently asked the same question here, and the best that Michael could come up with was one of the anthologies—which do not really count, I believe, as popularizations.

    I’ll add that it’s a bad sign in itself that there apparently aren’t many popularizations, and no immediately agreed on good popularizations.  Quantum theory and cosmology are difficult fields, full of jargon, and they have popularizations galore.  I would guess that there must also be large-scale popular interest in literary theory, given the number of people interested in high- or low-culture literature.

    Posted by  on  07/12  at  03:22 PM
  21. Excellent post, Michael.  I would add a tweak to Rich’s fundamentalism comment.  I do think the analogy is quite foolish, but to the extent that people mistake theories of language and cultural practice for ways of life, there is fodder for debate.  When I teach any post-structural theory, for instance, I always have to explain that it is theory, an explanatory tool used to analyze linguistic practices.  It cannot function as a worldview in the end.

    An anecdote that roundabout makes the point.  I was in a sociology of science class back in grad school with a top notch philosopher of science running it (Helen Longino if anyone is familiar).  We were discussing a particular version of social constructionism and in the middle of the discussion, a distressed history phd shouted at myself and a few others debating the point, “do you think you can just walk through that wall”!?  Now, had I known what I do about String Theory at the time, I would have said, “No, but cutting edge physics says it is conceivable though highly remote that you could.”

    In any case, I think people who tend to react badly and fearfully to theory, who find all sorts of comfort in the Sokol hoax, believe that deconstruction is a weird uber-skepticism, and in fact end up attributing a rather Cartesian fecklessness of perception to deconstructionsts.  That is, it is a creed of disbelief that is ironically grounded in the notion that meaning is fundamentally unstable.  A lack of origin to hold meaning stable does not mean one believes one can fly or pass through walls like a ghost.  That is a kind of mysticized idealism.  In a not terribly interesting way, the kind of person Michael chastises for their simplistic life preserver of “reality-based” living is actually attacking a scarecrow of idealism.  I doubt therefore I can make shit up.  That is not Derrida. 

    But try explaining to someone that they are actually afeerd of a kind of post-Cartesian neoPlatonism not Derrida.  Or that cutting edge physics is “theorizing” much wilder possibilities than the kind of “fringey scholarship” that haters of post-structuralism like to imagine it is.

    How many universes did Derrida argue there were? 

    One last thing is the expectation that theories of language should be easy to understand.  Part of the anger is that some feel they should not be given a headache when trying to understand meaning.  Why?  Why on earth should it be simple to explain how people create exquisite, infinite variations of meaning from elaborate sqeaking and grunting rituals?  I find that a very difficult problem to sort out and the feeling one is entitled to a simpler answer is a little willful and a lot deluded.  Language isn’t simple even though its effects can seem that way.

    Posted by  on  07/12  at  03:39 PM
  22. > Of course Anglophone academic philosophy hasn’t had much of a significant influence on anything outside of Angophone academic philosophy.

    Anglophone academic philosophy has had plenty of influence in areas as divergent as law, linguistics, cognitive science, and biology.

    But does territorial chest-thumping like this really tell us anything about the quality of Anglophone philosophy, or of Theory? I doubt it. Good work is good work whether or not it’s influential; and influential crap is still crap. Perhaps it’s even worse crap if it’s influential, as it’s been spread all over the place.

    Posted by  on  07/12  at  04:04 PM
  23. Some Guy said: “...the feeling one is entitled to a simpler answer is a little willful and a lot deluded.  Language isn’t simple even though its effects can seem that way.”

    Yeah, what you said.  (When I agreed with Abby that Derrida makes my head hurt, it was with affection.  But then I run marathons—clearly I like pain.) FYI: it’s not only literary/cultural theory that gets this (from students, from the public)—I teach Old and Middle English linguistics courses and in the past had at least one student who complained that the “elitist jargon” (i-mutation, Middle English Open Syllable Lengthening, and the like) of the course was off-putting.  It’s a problem for the humanities and social sciences in general—that we have specialized terminology surprises many.  Now I warn students early and often and reassure them I will *teach* them these terms, and that they should think of it as—gasp!—learning something new.  And in the future I may quote “Some Guy.” smile

    Posted by  on  07/12  at  04:24 PM
  24. The “then” clause is a bit of a letdown, I think; all the action is going on in those coy “if”s.

    Granted, the discussion of the pharmakon is fascinating and rhetorically exhilirating, Michael, and that it describes a powerful and resiliant intuition about language that has been important to many a literary figure.  But, c’mon, the above sentence is a bit of a cop-out.  The “then” clause pretty clearly says that the derridean view of writing is a fundamental challenge to logic--that logic is a creation of the disavowed priority of writing and that acknowledging that repressed truth will demand a departure from logic as we’ve previously known it.  That’s a pretty strong claim to describe simply as a letdown.

    Posted by  on  07/12  at  04:39 PM
  25. Some Guy says: “When I teach any post-structural theory, for instance, I always have to explain that it is theory, an explanatory tool used to analyze linguistic practices.  It cannot function as a worldview in the end.”

    Would that it were so, but this is simply not the case.  Here’s Derrida from Of Grammatology (in Spivack’s trans): “the history of truth, of the truth of truth, has always been . . . the debasement of writing, and its repression outside ‘full’ speech.” (3)
    And: “the unity of all that allows itself to be attempted today through the most diverse concepts of science and writing, is, in principle, more or less covertly yet always, determined by an historico-metaphysical epoch of which we merely glimpse the closure.” (4)

    If that’s not a worldview, I don’t know what would be.  It’s worth acknowledging this because some of the frustration people express with poststructuralist theory has to do with the sense that its defenders won’t come clean about what they hold.  Envisioning the end of western metaphysics, on the one hand, and saying that you’re just proposing an explanatory tool for analyzing language, on the other, which is the kind of move that Derrida and derrideans do make, would be a pretty good example of that evasiveness.

    Posted by  on  07/12  at  04:58 PM
  26. Tina, I remain unconvinced. Perhaps because in the case of Theory (unlike linguistics or economics or quantum mechanics) no one has ever bothered to teach me the terms — let alone reassure me that they will teach me the terms. smile

    I actually think that the simpler answer isn’t out of reach. I’ve seen parts of the beast here and there — on this very blog, for instance.

    The tricky bit, I think, is that by their nature literary criticism and the philosophy of language attract language games and neologisms. A good deconstructionist could probably have fun making an argument that for Theorists to have an agreed-upon working vocabulary would itself be anti-Theoretical. smile

    And of course it doesn’t help that like most people in most disciplines, most scholars of language don’t actually write very well.

    Still, like Rich, I do wonder where that good popularization is.

    Posted by David Moles  on  07/12  at  05:06 PM
  27. This whole Sokal thing reminds me of the gay marriage “debate” in this country.  Why the hell should scientists care what English professors are doing, even if those professors are drawing parallels between Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and deconstruction?  Does that somehow threaten the sacred institution of science?

    It strikes me as the height of insecurity to be offended if somebody out there is using “your” langauge in ways you don’t like, especially if that person isn’t influencing anybody in your particular coterie (as if N. Katherine Hayles’ synthesis of chaos/complexity and literary theory is somehow going to reflect badly on, say, a meteorologist at Oklahoma State studying finite non-periodic orbits of tornado-producing supercells.)

    Besides, I don’t see many poets, novelists, literary scholars, or philosophers getting all up in arms everytime a new, brilliant scientific theory turns out to need a metaphor for its explanation--"black holes,” “strings,” “chaos,” “small-worlds,” etc.--or when mathematicians aestheticize their discipline by referring to “elegant” and “inelegant” solutions to problems.

    The fact is, I am not a scientist.  So, if I combine rhetorical hermeneutics with complexity theory to show how disciplines are *both* heteroglot, amorphous agglomerations of talk, texts, and practices, *and* relatively stable, distinct nodes in a network of other disciplinary nodes, then I am virtually bound to “get it wrong” to some extent when I talk about complexity.  But the fact is, there remains heuristic value for rhetorical hermeneutics in complexity-related concepts like scale-independence, emergence, and non-periodicity.

    Live and let pilfer, I say.

    Posted by  on  07/12  at  05:08 PM
  28. It strikes me as the height of insecurity to be offended if somebody out there is using “your” langauge in ways you don’t like, especially if that person isn’t influencing anybody in your particular coterie...

    So, is what you’re saying that scientists should only talk to other scientists and humanities scholars should only talk to other humanities scholars? Or that scientists should assume that humanities students don’t need to know anything about science, and humanities scholars should assume that scientists don’t need to know anything about the humanities? That it doesn’t matter if humanities scholars are teaching their students bad physics, or if scientists are teaching their students bad cultural history? That doesn’t seem like a recipe for a society with a rich intellectual life.

    Posted by David Moles  on  07/12  at  05:36 PM
  29. It strikes me as the height of insecurity to be offended if somebody out there is using “your” langauge in ways you don’t like, especially if that person isn’t influencing anybody in your particular coterie (as if N. Katherine Hayles’ synthesis of chaos/complexity and literary theory is somehow going to reflect badly on, say, a meteorologist at Oklahoma State studying finite non-periodic orbits of tornado-producing supercells.)

    This is not a particularly bad point.

    The problem, however, comes when people forget that the metaphor is a metaphor, and start thinking that their superficial understanding of - say - what the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is about can actually tell them something nonmetaphorical about feminist criticism of Engels. I’ve got nothing against using scientific concepts as similes to illuminate the arts: that’s what I do. But in the deep end of that pool, you’ve got Deepak Chopra using the phrase “quantum mechanics” to mean “scientists are maroons.”

    And that kind of stuff is all over the place, often (as in the case of Evolutionary Psychology) in pernicious form, and so I don’t blame people for getting flinchy about misappropriation of terminology.

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  07/12  at  05:38 PM
  30. Long live Theory Tuesdays!

    I’m struck by how little de Man arises in a discussion of deconstruction.  Is that hangover from the Le Soir scandal, or is PdM’s critical stock genuinely low these days?

    Posted by Anderson  on  07/12  at  05:43 PM
  31. Michael, thanks for the review of Derrida.  I think, though, that it’s important to add a few caveats here.

    First of all, Derrida was concerned largely—at first, anyway—with philosophical texts, with texts that claimed for themselves an exceeding degree of conceptual order and rigor.  It is only in that context that Derrida’s insights into binary oppositions really make a difference.  I’ve never understood what it would really mean to deconstruct a novel or a poem; any novel or poem really worth the time of study tends to undermine and play with its own binaries on its own.  Derrida is essentially a rhetorician, showing the reliance of metaphysics on actual, material signifiers and not on pure, immaterial concepts and spirits and Ideas.  I’ve never come across a decent poem or novel or play that didn’t *begin* with that assumption (i.e., that the artist is working with language as material). 

    The connection between deconstruction and philosophy brings me to a second point: Derrida’s prose is difficult, sometimes needlessly so.  But very often it’s the case that the difficulty rests in the fact that Derrida is taking on some of the most notoriously dense philosophical/psychological writings out there: Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, Husserl, Freud, Lacan, and, most importantly, Hegel.  After spending 12 weeks in a seminar on Hegel’s *Phenomenology*, I found Derrida much easier to follow.  (NB: Sean, when Derrida claims to transform logic as we know it, he’s coming out of Hegel, who had challenged the law of the excluded middle, without which symbolic logic, say, runs into some serious problems). 

    Derrida is Hegel/Marx without the teleologies and without the desire to ground all oppositions in one master term: Spirit or Capital.  Hegel had already shown that binary terms contain each other; he then proposed that what follows from an opposition is historical and conceptually superior to the two binary terms as such.  Derrida breaks down the opposition, but refuses to suggest that that process is somehow “progress.”

    Posted by  on  07/12  at  06:03 PM
  32. For those looking for popularizations and comic books, how about: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0863161391/qid=1121206181/sr=1-10/ref=sr_1_10/102-0348586-7259318?v=glance&s=books

    Can’t speak to its content (perhaps someone else here can), since I haven’t read it, but there are more in the series (Lacan, Fanon, Saussure, etc.).

    Posted by  on  07/12  at  06:11 PM
  33. David--far from advocating the kind of Balkanized disciplinarity you see in my comment (and, upon rereading, I can see how you got that impression), I think the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities ought to all be talking *more* to each other.  I’d be happy to explain more (since that’s the essence of the concluding chapter of my diss) via email, if you like. 

    Chris--I agree that science is rich with metaphors we can use to illuminate concepts in the humanities.  But there is also a significant number of scientists (mostly social, but some natural), and some liberal arts types as well, who are questioning traditional distinctions between natural and social systems and, hence, between physics and metaphysics.  And they’re not always doing so metaphorically, or at least not unambiguously so.  Some attempts are pretty bad, admittedly (see Bonnie Kyburz’s recent article in *College English* on chaos theory and writing).  But some are pretty well-wrought, responsible, thoughtful, and potentially productive (see Hayles’ intro to *Chaos and Order*, Law and Mol’s intro to *Complexities*, or--the old standbys--Reed and Harvey’s “The New Science and the Old” and Priogine and Stengers *Order Out of Chaos*.  Or, for those of you who thought reading Derrida was hard, try reading Michel Serres--though my personal jury is still out on him).  I think such work is still considered fringe by most scientists, but not so much for lack of rigor (in my opinion, at least) as for an inability to fit into preexisting disciplinary categories.

    Posted by  on  07/12  at  06:19 PM
  34. Re: Derrida For Beginners

    The more general Philosophy For Beginners features one priceless didactic image: the section on the Frankfurt School has a lovely matrimonial portrait of Marx and Freud (Sigmund, appropriately, donning the white gown), with Hegel behind, overseeing the procedings with a shotgun.

    Posted by Dan  on  07/12  at  06:31 PM
  35. Lance: So is there an arena other than complexity studies in which those boundaries are being challenged persuasively? That’s a sincere question: I’m familiar with some of the work done in the Santa Fe Institute realm - and have criticized some of the ways in which some of the “complex systems” folks seem to veer from accuracy in their representations of the physical world. But if there’s a realm where working across disciplines seems to make inherent snese, I think that’s it.

    Also: the resentment some “hard scientists” feel over social scientists “pilfering” of mental tools is occasionally reciprocated.

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  07/12  at  06:34 PM
  36. Thanks for all the comments!  Theory Tuesdays are off to a smashing start, and I’m glad to see so many bracing comments (OK, Sean, you’re right, the “then” clause isn’t contentless, but you know, I’m not all that keen on what deconstruction has to say about what happens when we depart from logic as we’ve previously known it).  I have only a moment to reply right now, though, so let me apologize to Stefan Jones, who writes,

    there are scientists who are willing and able to describe their work in ways that are engaging, informative, and even entertaining. They don’t start out, as Michael does in this passage . . .

    I say, “what do you think of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s insistence on ‘incommensurability’ and the ‘heterogeneity of language-games’?”

    . . . by launching right into matters that an outside observer appears to be scholastic esoterica as divorced from quotidian reality as discussions of the packing density of angels on pinheads.

    True enough!  I should have given an example.  Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa (that’s jargon for you).  OK, here goes.  The clash between theocracy and democracy may well be incommensurable:  neither discourse can justify itself in the terms of the other, and they start from premises so different that it seems impossible to imagine any points of contact.  Likewise, when person A says, “reason must be left to operate as it will, and interrogate all forms of received authority,” and person B says, “no, reason must operate within the limits prescribed by revelation,” you’re probably dealing with an incommensurability.  (The latter position is actually the stated policy of Brigham Young University.  You can imagine how Enlightenment invocations of reason and academic freedom go over there.)

    More later.  And thanks again.

    Posted by Michael  on  07/12  at  06:42 PM
  37. [playful mock condescension]
    There, that wasn’t so hard, wasn’t it?
    [/playful mock condescenion]

    Seriously, if you can explain the whole enterprise from ground zero just as clearly, and especially taking time to explain why we’re doing this*, you’d be well on the way to creating the work of popularization others bring up above.

    I understand that popularization isn’t the purpose of this particular venue, but keep it in mind.

    * As opposed to, say, teaching kids to diagram sentences.

    Posted by  on  07/12  at  07:04 PM
  38. Me neither, Michael.  Thanks for the entertaining post, btw.

    Posted by Sean McCann  on  07/12  at  07:45 PM
  39. I would absolutely buy that. And the only way I ever learned to diagram a sentence was in terms of trasformational grammar…

    Posted by David Moles  on  07/12  at  07:45 PM
  40. Mercy.  And more to the point, bravo.  I have walked among the Theory people, though I myself am of the Anglo-American Analyst tribe, and this is the first time I have found it sensible to think of Jacques Derrida in the same mental breath with Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein.  I wonder if that isn’t partly because the language of Theory is so difficult that many immigrants speak not the language, but a rather dubious creole which borrows words from Theory but uses them to mean entirely other things, or nothing at all?  But at any event, while I won’t go so far as to say that you’ve made deconstruction make sense for me, you’ve performed the almost comparable miracle of showing me glimmers of sense within it, and given me the inkling that further sense may be derived out of it.

    I would gently like to suggest, however, that imputing disinterest in Plato’s language to philosophers may be almost as gross a caricature as the one you’re seeking to dispell.

    Posted by  on  07/12  at  07:51 PM
  41. "Likewise, when person A says, “reason must be left to operate as it will, and interrogate all forms of received authority,” and person B says, “no, reason must operate within the limits prescribed by revelation,” you’re probably dealing with an incommensurability.”

    Is this really a serious example?  Person A and B both seem to largely agree on what “reason” and “received authority” (of which revelation is a subset) mean, so that one is saying “reason over received authority” and the other “received authority over reason”.  That isn’t an incommensurability, it’s a very common kind of societal disagreement, in which both parties understand each other and their corresponding value systems fairly well.  Of course value systems start with different premises.  If this is really supposed to be a translation of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s incommensurability idea into non-jargon, then it appears that Lyotard was replicating very early sociology, using “discourses” instead of sociological terminology so that the material can be reworked as literary studies.  So I must have missed something.

    Tone is always difficult to transmit through comment box text, so I can’t tell whether Tina is intending to be condescending with “those looking for popularizations and comic books”.  I would guess so with “Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa (that’s jargon for you)”, but, again, who knows?  So I’ll turn to Some Guy, who definitely is being condescending whether intentionally or not:  “One last thing is the expectation that theories of language should be easy to understand.  Part of the anger is that some feel they should not be given a headache when trying to understand meaning.  Why?  Why on earth should it be simple to explain how people create exquisite, infinite variations of meaning from elaborate sqeaking and grunting rituals?”

    Some Guy, no one expects mathematics, physics, biology, or sociology to be simple, yet there are popularizations of all of those fields.  Creating popularizations is part of the basic responsibility of academia in a democratic society.  If you can’t explain your field, then that is your problem, not the problem of your readers, and indicates that there is something wrong with what you are doing.  Blaming the complaints about obscurantism on the anger of the dullard who gets a headache from trying to understand anything is a cop out.

    Posted by  on  07/12  at  08:11 PM
  42. I agree with Ulrika. They didn’t call it the “linguistic turn” for nothing. It is ridiculous to say that philosophers don’t care about language. In fact, one of my big complaints with how philosophy is done nowadays is that if focuses too much on language.

    But, one of the reasons that I have serious problems with The Theory Crowd is the continuing veneration of Derrida. In analytic philosophy circles, his work is considered, at best, an incredibly poor misreading of philosophical texts or, at worst, fraudelent.

    He is famous for taking quotes and texts out of context, misusing language, and just generally mucking things up. The only area I am familiar with in this regard is his laughably bad readings of Nietzsche, but I have read similar critiques of Derrida’s work in other areas.

    Now, there are plenty of Theory people I disagree with (like Foucault) who nevertheless seem to be working hard to get it right and can be respected for that effort. But until Lit Crit decisively rejects Derrida, I will continue to view the discipline a little bit askance.

    Posted by Patrick  on  07/12  at  08:18 PM
  43. Chris--thanks for the links.  Very interesting.  I don’t know about other “arenas,” partly because I’ve been pretty focused on complexity for the last couple years, and partly because there’s a very real sense in which “complexity” isn’t an arena so much as an attitude--to quote Jim Porter, a compositionist (that’s my field):  “It’s a mode of questioning and a manner of positioning” rather than a static methodological prescription (Porter says this of rhetorical ethics, but it’s equally true of complexity). As such, it can be imported into nearly any “arena” of scholarly inquiry. 

    The closest thing I can think of, to try to answer your question, would be the work being done by the Distributed Knolwedge Research Collective (http://www.dkrc.org), which is affiliated with the Graduate School for Library and Information Science at the U of Illinois.

    Posted by  on  07/12  at  08:27 PM
  44. In analytic philosophy circles, his work is considered, at best, an incredibly poor misreading of philosophical texts or, at worst, fraudelent.

    Once upon a time, when philosophers were more rigorous about such things, this was called the “argument from authority,” and it was considered a logical fallacy.

    He is famous for taking quotes and texts out of context, misusing language, and just generally mucking things up. The only area I am familiar with in this regard is his laughably bad readings of Nietzsche, but I have read similar critiques of Derrida’s work in other areas.

    He certainly does muck things up.  Bad him!  But I would need examples of his taking texts out of context, especially since his theory, such as it is, insists that meaning is context-dependent.

    And Ulrika, you’re right, my swipe at philosophers was a pre-linguistic-turn caricature.  But the way some of them have gone on about Derrida ("he never deals with the serious philosophers”; “oops, I mean he never deals with the major texts of the serious philosophers he does deal with”; “well, when he does deal with the major texts of serious philosophers, serious philosophers do not take him seriously”; and my favorite, “any philosopher who does take him seriously, like Rorty, is not a real philosopher anyway") offers one of the worst examples of disciplinary wagon-circling in academe.  And that’s saying something.

    Posted by  on  07/12  at  08:34 PM
  45. Once upon a time, when philosophers were more rigorous about such things, this was called the “argument from authority,” and it was considered a logical fallacy.

    Ooh. Elegantly put.

    Still, I think Patrick’s statement was phrased a bit harshly, and would have benefited from citations. But aren’t we discussing, in part, how scholars in some fields are viewed by scholars in other fields?

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  07/12  at  08:44 PM
  46. Oh, and just to repeat myself (though this rarely works, because, like deconstruction says, every repetition brings with it a little bit of différance), I say all this as not that big a Derrida fan.

    Anderson:  I suppose I could throw in a little de Man.  But what’s the difference? —That’s a joke, folks.  It’s from a decon-demonstration that’s so simple and expository that I should be flogged for not including it in the main text.  “What’s the difference” is a question that, on a literal reading, asks for a “difference” that the rhetorical reading renders ridiculous or moot.  Most of the time, we go through the world knowing the difference:  only meatheads, like Edith Bunker (who actually explains to Archie the difference between lacing his bowling shoes under and over when he asks, “what’s the difference"), go around answering rhetorical questions.  The rhetorical question is rhetorical because it’s not a question, natch.  No biggie.  We get it.  But here’s the catch:  how do you know when a question is rhetorical?  Is this question rhetorical?  Nothing about the words themselves gives the cue.  If there is a contradiction between the literal and rhetorical reading of a text, then, it can only be realized by means of a kind of “performance” of the text.  That’s why the closing line of Yeats’s “Among School Children” (how can we know the dancer from the dance) is so brilliant, and that’s why de Man was right to put as much interpretive pressure on the line as it would bear.  Which is plenty.

    Posted by Michael  on  07/12  at  08:46 PM
  47. "When someone says that the set of all correctly transmitted and understood messages is a subset of all imaginable messages that can be incorrectly transmitted or misunderstood, such that misunderstanding is the condition of possibility of understanding, that’s a deconstructive move.”

    Michael, that observation is an interesting parallel to Adorno’s aphorism in Minima Moralia that goes like, “Truth arising through misunderstanding.”

    Posted by  on  07/12  at  10:40 PM
  48. I would have thought that Student Z was really Student S.

    Betsy, my apologies for not saying until now that this made me laugh and laugh.  It’s a Roland Barthes Joke, folks, and it has to do with the principles of narrative realism and the exquisite dance Barthes performs in S/Z on the text of Balzac’s “Sarrasine,” but remember, like I said, Barthes fell out of favor after 1980.  All the more reason to read him today, I say.

    Posted by Michael  on  07/12  at  10:52 PM
  49. Michael, if you have to explain the joke, that means everyone who got it’s probably already finished laughing.  (I know I have.  Damn, that sounded harsh.  It shouldn’t have.  What I mean is, it was already funny and I already laughed before you explained it.  Grr...you know what’s really annoying.  The guy who explains why a joke shouldn’t have been explained because he’s so super-duper-smart he already understood it.  That guy is a dork.  He should be shunned.)

    Also, that’s the second time you’ve mentioned Barthes falling out of favor in 1980.  Maybe in English Departments he has, but from what I can tell--i.e. from my conversations with people in film studies departments--Barthes and Lacanians still rule the day.

    BTW, in what will amount to a sycophantic request, I’d love for you to check out/comment on my contribution to the Theory’s Empire festivities on the Valve.  (Click here.) I only say this because, given your comments on my timeline in the other thread, I’d really like to see if you agree with the timeline and conceptualization of the institutionalization of Theory (vs. theory, as I now feel strangely obliged to say).  By which I really mean: “Stranger!  Can I impose upon you?”

    Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman  on  07/12  at  11:11 PM
  50. Michael,

    I’m going to add my usual caution about not assuming that English, or literary studies, is synecdochic for the humanities.  Now, granted, the entire debate is pitched that way because it’s largely MLA types having the argument, and granted, literature is an important humanity (what’s the singular of “a humanities”?) but surely you will grant that there are some differences.  These differences matter because literary studies doesn’t “represent” the debates over theorizing, interpretation and empiricism as they play out in Communication Studies or History (especially History of Science and Technology, where the French are more often read and cited than in some other areas of history writing), two fields I know pretty well.  Those debates have their own contours and sometimes they look like literature and sometimes they don’t.

    BTW, the guy who said that France has given up on philosophy and is now back to empiricism obviously didn’t do much empirical research into what kinds of books are coming out in France.  My Francophone colleagues around here seem to be reading plenty of new theory books in French.

    OTOH, a friend of mine just landed a job at a Francophone social science department steeped in what we’d call “French Theory”.  She gave a jobtalk on the Birmingham School (most of which is still not translated into French) and they were all excited by the “new” ideas.  Just goes to show that novelity is half the game, and it cuts both ways.  I’m sure someone’s already written an essay about how the power of theory has a lot to do with the political economy of translation and language fluency in Europe and North America.  Or maybe the point’s too obvious to warrant an article.

    --Jonathan

    Posted by Jonathan  on  07/12  at  11:31 PM
  51. Once upon a time, when philosophers were more rigorous about such things, this was called the “argument from authority,” and it was considered a logical fallacy.

    Nice put-down, but simply reporting what people think isn’t necessarily an argument. And most analytic philosophers do think Derrida is seriously lacking.

    Posted by  on  07/12  at  11:34 PM
  52. All I can say, Jonathan, is that you are right.  Damn your rightness.  But for anyone who’s interested in more of your rightness in these disciplinary matters, I recommend your essay in The Aesthetics of Cultural Studies.

    And Scott, I knew you got the joke. I knew you got it before you knew you got it.  In fact, I heard you laughing long before the twelfth comment was posted.  But I insist that I still have a few readers—even as I do my best to scare them off—who do not pick up on S/Z jokes just like that.  Three phonemes walk into a bar . . . that one got me banned from the Catskills.  And thanks for the link to your entry in the Valvorama.

    Posted by Michael  on  07/12  at  11:39 PM
  53. Simply reporting what people think isn’t necessarily an argument. And most analytic philosophers do think Derrida is seriously lacking.

    Hmm.  If this is an argument, then I should reply to it.  But first, it would have to provide reasons for why analytic philosophers find Derrida seriously lacking, and it would have to argue that (for example) meaning is determinate and language offers a transparent window onto the real.  On the other hand, if it is not an argument, then I could play games with it, and say that many serious scholars in the humanities find analytic philosophers seriously lacking.  Of course, then I’d have to ask Rich Puchalsky if we had ourselves a genuine incommensurability here.

    But now I’m curious:  it’s one thing for analytic philosophers to sneer at Derrida; Derrida is puckish, garrulous, playful, and often annoying.  But what do analytic philosophers think of Heidegger?  Is he insufficiently “rigorous” for “real” philosophers?

    Posted by Michael  on  07/12  at  11:55 PM
  54. Since we are lit & lang people, I went back to “the text,” the Greek one, Plato’s Phaedrus, where pharmakon seems to me to be used in the more general sense of a drug or medicine, which can cure or cause harm, depending on whether the correct quantities are prescribed, etc.. There are shades of it meaning a charm, as in a philter, as in a love potion. Whether Plato meant pharmakon to mean “cure” or “remedy” in this dialogue is indeed “open” to the interpreters---it’s in Phaedo that pharmakon is very bad for you, period. As in the hemlock.

    Posted by Kristina Chew  on  07/13  at  12:10 AM
  55. Michael, you don’t know the half of it.  I started laughing way back in 1998.  As an undergraduate.  There I was, a junior, sitting in Middleton Library working on what would become the Crap Honors Thesis to top all Crap Honors Theses, reading Marginal Forces/Cultural Centers while surreptitiously crunching on Cheetos--alright, not so surreptitiously--the whole time muttering “I get the joke, I get the joke, I get the joke.” For hours, then days, then months I mantra’d my little heart out in that library, waiting for the delivery of the punch-line that I and I alone would understand, and now that day has come.  Ha!  Ha ha ha!  Ha ha ha ha ha! 

    Wait, what do you mean I’m still a lowly graduate student?  What’s that, Mr. Tribble?  I’ll never have a job, never be tenured?  But, but, but, I understood the joke.  I’m special.  Give me tenure!  Now!

    Aaaaaaaaaand SCENE!

    Let that be a lesson to you, children.  If you don’t shun slightly off-kilter potential stalkers, you’re liable to wind up with a Cheeto-eatin’ fool posting nonsense on your blogs. 

    I was about to “Seriously though,” but after that performance, I don’t know how much illocutionary force a “Seriously though” would have, so instead I’ll say: I look forward to reading your comments, and I sincerely hope you don’t feel reading my essay an imposition.

    P.S.  For the record, the quality (or significant lack thereof) of my Crap Honors Thesis had absolutely nothing to do with the quality of its sources.

    Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman  on  07/13  at  12:54 AM
  56. The war on critical theory was only the vanguard in a full-scale right-wing counterrevolution. They would like to take us back before Marx, Freud, and Darwin. The easily misunderstood and difficult French theorists fell into their hands.

    The wingers did a pretty good job with Marx by now. It is possible, if you wish nothing to shake your upper-middle-class haute bourgeois boat, to go through college learning nothing about Marxism, since the superficial assumption is that since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Marxism is over, and that all Marxists are / were Communists.

    The point of the critical theory which has a more socially oriented emphasis (Foucault, Bourdieu, Adorno, Habermas) is to show that assumptions about society are not natural. They are “constructed.” If the language sometimes seems awkward from a traditional English major’s perspective—a guardianship of language meant to keep out the banausic and those who hadn’t acquired the elements of style (Wallace and Strunk)—it is meant to draw attention to this artificiality.

    The wingers are working on Darwin, as we know. It’s extremely ironic that Intelligent Design has co-opted some of the methods of theory.

    I’m sure they’re also working on Freud, so that their hate-fests (recently on the upswing due to the London incidents) against anything Muslim cannot be questioned.

    Posted by  on  07/13  at  01:42 AM
  57. I’m not sure what you mean in saying that the physicists had an equivalent of the Sokal affair when Pons and Fleischman claimed they had achieved cold fusion. Pons and Fleischman are chemists. The physicists almost all doubted the results from the start, as the article you cite says.

    Much better for your purposes is the so-called Bogdanov (or Bogdanoff) affair, in which two brothers published papers, in decent to very good journals, that when examined (once their bona fides was called into doubt) turn out to be worthless.

    It’s not clear what the motivation of the Bogdanovs has been; but unlike Sokal, they have never acknowledged any intention to perpetrate a hoax. Nevertheless the press has played up the apparent similarities, presumably because showing up the physicists as Sokal did the Social Text people makes for a satisfying storyline.

    The best summary of the affair is by John Baez. See also his note at sci.physics.research in 2002.

    As for Derrida, a good place to start in seeing how “deconstruction” works is the discussion of the frame in <object for (aesthetic) judgment, and at the same time acknowledges that the frame (or “parergon”—Kant’s word, taken over by D.) can enter into judgment, prejudicing it by infecting the object with charm (that is, with ornamental irrelevancies). The frame has to be outside the picture, and yet it is always threatening to get into the picture. (Kant doesn’t even mention—but Derrida is well aware of them—the difficulties that arise when an artist “breaks frame”. This even though Kant read Sterne: the examples of literary art in the Critique are disappointingly humdrum.)

    Later in the Critique (and in Truth, which is a kind of running commentary on Kant’s work) Kant finds himself setting art and nature on a merry-go-round: each imitates the other, which (as Derrida notes) puts the notion of imitation in jeopardy, if in imitation there must be an original. The result is a bit like those drawings of Escher or Saul Steinberg in which you see two hands, each of which is drawing the other.

    An analytic philosopher, noticing Kant’s perplexities, might well try to iron out the wrinkles, and reconstruct the argument so as to yield something coherent. Derrida instead takes the perplexities to indicate a fundamental instability in the concepts, which is not going to be removed by more careful definitions or more precise statements of the arguments. In the case of art and nature, I tend to agree.

    Posted by Dennis Des Chene  on  07/13  at  01:45 AM
  58. Oh, good one. You got me.

    Except, I didn’t quite make an appeal to authority, in the logical sense. An appeal to authority has the form “X is true because Y says X is true, and only because of that.” But what did I actually say? I said that the view of Derrida as being a poor scholar was nigh-universal in the English-speaking philosophical community. THEN I SAID THAT THIS WAS BORNE OUT IN MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE. And then I thought we should conclude that Derrida’s writings in these areas should have a low epistemic value.
    Imagine the following scenario, and you tell me if it is an appeal to authority:
    I read about Intelligent Design. Then, I read that all serious biologists who study evolution reject Intelligent Design. I decide to check out Intelligent Design in a few areas, and I find them wanting. Thus, I conclude that Intelligent Design has low epistemic value.

    Am I appealing to authority there? I don’t thinks so. Or at least not in any way that is inappropriate.
    __________________________________________

    About Heidegger: Yes, there are many analytic philosophers who think what he has to say is interesting and profound. And some disagree. Just like people disagree over Kant or Aquinas. But doesn’t this hurt your argument? Doesn’t it give lie to the fact that analytic philosphers don’t care about continental thinkers? In fact, there has been a resurgence in continental scholarship in analytic departments: Hegel, Marx, Nietszche, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre (Korsgaard anyone?), Habermas (Rawls?) and Heidegger have all been the topics of vigorous debates. Yet despite this, all of them still think that Derrida is a very poor scholar.

    Besides, what are you trying to prove? Analytic philosophers think that Heidegger has something interesting to say, therefore Derrida can’t be a bad scholar? Um...non sequitur anyone?

    ____________________________________________

    Citations are silly in blog comments, but here are some anyway. I’ll focus on Nietzsche since that is what I am most informed upon:

    General Nietszche resources that discuss post-modernist and Derridan interpretations of that thinker, showing them wanting:

    -Richard Schact: (1983) and (1995)
    -Maudmarie Clark: (1990)
    -Brian Leiter (1992) and (2002)

    But if you are tired of Nietzsche, and want a critique of Derrida’s work on Husserl:
    J. Claude Evans Strategy of Deconstruction (1991)

    _____________________________________________

    Yet another logical fallacy:

    “But the way some of them have gone on about Derrida ("he never deals with the serious philosophers”; “oops, I mean he never deals with the major texts of the serious philosophers he does deal with”; “well, when he does deal with the major texts of serious philosophers, serious philosophers do not take him seriously”; and my favorite, “any philosopher who does take him seriously, like Rorty, is not a real philosopher anyway") offers one of the worst examples of disciplinary wagon-circling in academe.  And that’s saying something.”

    After acknowledging that he engaged in a strawman/caricature once, he goes on to do it again! Does he cite anyone? Does he show that these views about Derrida are widespread?

    Look, this isn’t about the continental/analytic divide (turf). The analytic side has gotten over that silliness and engages in rigorous discussion of many formerly taboo continental figures: Nietzsche, Hegel, Habermas, Marx, Heidegger, and even Foucault (an example: http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2004/08/some_thoughts_o.html).

    And it isn’t about scepticism versus realism. We have people who are as sceptical about absolute truth as Derrida in the analytic camp, though they may not put it quite that way.

    Rather, this is about the claims of specific philosophers about the specific claims of Derrida in his scholarship, and these have generally been found wanting.

    The failure of the Lit Crit crowd to see this, I maintain, is an important and revealing one about the quality of argument allowed in that field.

    Posted by Patrick  on  07/13  at  09:00 AM
  59. I didn’t quite make an appeal to authority, in the logical sense. An appeal to authority has the form “X is true because Y says X is true, and only because of that.” But what did I actually say? I said that the view of Derrida as being a poor scholar was nigh-universal in the English-speaking philosophical community. THEN I SAID THAT THIS WAS BORNE OUT IN MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE.

    Um, this is “X is true because almost all of English-speaking Y says X is true,” followed by an appeal to personal experience in all caps.

    Besides, what are you trying to prove? Analytic philosophers think that Heidegger has something interesting to say, therefore Derrida can’t be a bad scholar? Um...non sequitur anyone?

    Please calm down, and stop attributing implicit arguments to me and then calling them non sequiturs.  My question about Heidegger was a real one, not a rhetorical one.  Much of Derrida, from the “destruction of Western metaphysics” to the intense and/or fanciful readings of literary texts, amounts to something like a Heideggerian reading of Heidegger.  So I was asking out of curiosity.  The point of this post, after all, was to explain how I teach students to recognize deconstructive arguments.  It was not a to-the-mat defense of all things Derridean.  The fact that it’s sparked this kind of reaction, however, suggests that something odd is going on here.  (And for the record, I find Heidegger’s readings of Sophocles and Holderlin pretty loopy.  Interesting, creative, but loopy.  Likewise, Heidegger has often been charged with simply making up stuff about ancient Greek words.  I was wondering what people might have to say about all that.)

    Finally, the analogy between Derrida and Intelligent Design is not a “serious” analogy.  Had I attributed such an argument to an unnamed interlocutor, I would no doubt be accused of engaging in strawman/ caricature.

    Dennis, thanks for straightening me out on cold fusion.

    Posted by Michael  on  07/13  at  09:28 AM
  60. On behalf of those of us who didn’t get the Z/S joke before the explanation: we still don’t get it. But that’s okay, we’re here for the bits that work for us ( the line from Yeats! ) and for the comfortable sounds of adult conversation.

    Posted by  on  07/13  at  10:32 AM
  61. Having had this argument when Derrida passed away, I hesitate to join this latest fray among friends--but here I am wading in!

    I will say I agree more with Rich at comment 41.  Also, to Michael, it is not only Eherenreich and Chomsky who say that most literary crit theorists are unnecessarily complicated in their use of quantum mechanics physics style jargon (recognizing that Michael was not saying only those two were being critical). 

    I think it is important to note that Gore Vidal, in his essays in the 1950s and early 1960s was very prescient on this subject and was very critical of literary theory from the get-go.  In addition, one should check out the British (quite skeptical) Marxist, EP Thompson’s “Poverty of Theory”, which is largely an attack on French philosophers, Marxist and otherwise (largely Althusser, admittedly), for their lack of fealty to empricism.

    When one finds Eherenreich, Chomsky, Vidal, and Thompson saying that lit crit or related theories are of little practical value as guides to understanding our society, this is something to consider (though it is not a substitute for the arguing the case against lit crit on the merits).

    While Michael and others conviinced me last time round that there is some merit to lit crit theory, I remain skeptical because of the aforementioned over-complication in the use of jargon and refusal, in the case of Derrida, to write to be understood.

    Allow me an analogy we haven’t yet discussed:  We lawyers, to take an example close to home to me, have done much over the last three decades to lose our Latin and other complicated jargon.  I find it funny that my corporate clients always want to use legalese while I am often writing contracts in “plain English"." The culture does lag, doesn’t it?  I believe lit crit would also be wise to lose much of its jargon.  If the result of lit crit theory losing its jargon is, as Rich says, sociology, that’s a good thing.  For I believe one of the academe’s greatest needs in my view is to find ways for all disciplines to show how they relate to each other, as CP Snow asked us to do back in the 1950s.  Social realism in literature, for example, is very much related to sociology.  Just ask Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis--or Graham Greene or even Stephen Jay Gould.  All dead, but their writings tell us much about how they feel about this argument we’re having.

    Posted by Mitchell Freedman  on  07/13  at  10:38 AM
  62. Rich wrote: Is this really a serious example?  Person A and B both seem to largely agree on what “reason” and “received authority” (of which revelation is a subset) mean, so that one is saying “reason over received authority” and the other “received authority over reason”.  That isn’t an incommensurability, it’s a very common kind of societal disagreement, in which both parties understand each other and their corresponding value systems fairly well.

    Michael wrote: [W]henever someone comes upon a series of oppositions and says, “hold on a second… this opposition… is built on the premise that thing A is unlike thing B even though both A and B share features that are occluded by the terms of the opposition”… then you’re dealing with a deconstructive argument.

    Sweet deconstructive move, Rich!

    Posted by David Moles  on  07/13  at  11:19 AM
  63. Is it possible to read Derrida’s evasiveness, opacity, and just plain impishness in his writings not as so many attempts to articulate a coherent philosophy (after all, he claimed never to have advocated a literary critical movement called “deconstruction") but, rather, as rhetorical tactics designed to resist and even undermine what he must have seen as the epistemic steamroller of modernism (in the form of the western metaphysics of presence?) Espeically considering that Derrida was a Jew, writing in the wake of WWII and overt anti-semitism in Algeria?

    Such a reading would seem to be supported by the fact that Derrida has been retroactively associated with philosophers like Foucault and Lyotard, whose disillusionment with Marxist philosophy (energized no doubt by the events of May, 1968 in France--student riots, general strikes, near revolution, massive police mobilization and brutality, dissolution of the general assembly, near declaration of martial law) led Lyotard to “wage war on totality” and Foucault to posit a distributed rather than centralized theory of power? 

    In other words, it’s possible to see the entire postmodern/poststructural “project” not only as a philosophical movement but also, and even primarily, a *politically resistant* set of consciously, and performatively, rhetorical acts.  Would not, then, obscurity, opacity, evasiveness, hyperbole, and other much-decried trademarks of “Theory” be warranted, even laudable, tactics?

    Of course, the time has long since come to move forward from such tactics (which pretty much everybody I know in English who was ever smitten with pomo has done) and cautiously, reflectively begin to make positive-but-provisional assertions about what we do, don’t, can, and cannot know about this world. 

    But there was a time for Derrida.  He was a brilliant rhetorician.

    Posted by  on  07/13  at  11:57 AM
  64. FYI for Rich Puchalsky (comment 41) and anyone else who might have thought I was being condescending in linking to the Derrida comic book (comment 32):  oh my gosh, no!  I was trying to be sincerely helpful!  Someone asked for a comic book (perhaps facetiously) and someone asked for a popularization (definitely sincerely) and then I remembered that there was just such a thing.

    Posted by  on  07/13  at  12:17 PM
  65. Well, yes, it didn’t seem to be an incommensurability, as that term was described, because it’s an opposition in which the two sides are playing out long-established and well-understood roles, which roles are themselves both part of Western culture.

    Of course I don’t know what I’m talking about; I haven’t read Jean-Francois Lyotard, and am only responding to a dashed-off and perhaps sarcastic attempt to simplify one particular concept that he uses.  Which is why I’m puzzled by Michael’s follow-up with ridicule: “Of course, then I’d have to ask Rich Puchalsky if we had ourselves a genuine incommensurability here.” My experience as a teacher is very small compared to Bérubé’s, but I never found ridicule to be a highly effective didactic technique.  So what’s its purpose in this case?

    Posted by  on  07/13  at  12:20 PM
  66. Misreading.  Ah…

    I, too, was in graduate school in the 80s, but Gayatri Spivak and Robert Scholes had already decamped from Iowa.  And I was under the spell of someone who had been debunked just as the “theorists” have been since: B.F. Skinner.

    “Skinner.”

    Just say his name and see the reactions you get.  People still think he raised his daughters in boxes.  Or, if they are a little more “learned,” that Noam Chomsky wiped the floor with him long ago.

    Still, like Derrida, Skinner was a man of extensive breadth and a voracious reader and writer--someone who said a great deal, and not nearly all of it junk.  Like Derrida, it is also easy to find things in Skinner to mock.

    And neither should be mocked.

    If Skinner’s book Verbal Behavior had been read by the Theorists of the seventies and eighties, I suspect that discussions could have been grounded in a way that might have kept the worst aspects of “Theory” from appearing.  From, at least, getting out of hand.  But no one read Skinner.

    Just like those who scoff at Derrida today, those who scoffed at Skinner (and still scoff) have rarely read him--certainly, they haven’t read Verbal Behavior.

    As I am something of a “New Historicist,” Skinner allows me to provide a theoretical frame to the language act consistent with the way I want to approach study of that act.  In other words, he’s useful to me--just as Derrida is useful to other scholars.

    It’s frustrating to see people deliberately blinding themselves to something that they can use and--in the cases of both Skinner and Derrida--something that influences many of the ways we see things today.  Michael, you demonstrate quite clearly the influence of deconstruction.  Believe me, the influence of Skinner’s Radical Behaviorism is just as great.

    And even more ignored.

    Posted by Aaron Barlow  on  07/13  at  12:26 PM
  67. Barthes fell out of favor?  I was still grooving on (and being assigned to read) him in the early-mid 90s, though admittedly more as a side dish than a main course.

    The groundwater argument was put most concisely by my grad school advisor, who asked me, on his typical rummaging through whatever books his students had on hand, why I was reading Of Grammatology.  I said, I feel bad that I haven’t read it.  His response was, “yes, you have.” Which proved to be true.

    (He was also responsible for my favorite Theory 101 example of the Derridean supplement: Star Trek: The Next Generation. But I digress.)

    Posted by Misha  on  07/13  at  12:26 PM
  68. Speaking of Heidegger being “charged with simply making up stuff about ancient Greek words,” what do you make of those who accuse Derrida of ignoring the other valences of “pharmakon” in “Plato’s Pharmacy”? Personally, I think it only strengthens Derrida’s argument though it does seem to undermine the dichotomy that he wants to hang on Plato.

    And Lance, I often think the same thing about Derrida. But I have to admit that such a reading would be problematic in as far as describing them as “*politically resistant* set of consciously, and performatively, rhetorical acts” would seem to conflict with the critique of the metaphysics of presence that Derrida seems to undertake. Perhaps what is important about what he does is not so much that the acts are “politically resistant” as they redefine what politics is and how it is carried out.

    Posted by  on  07/13  at  12:32 PM
  69. Tina: “Someone asked for a comic book (perhaps facetiously) and someone asked for a popularization (definitely sincerely) and then I remembered that there was just such a thing.”

    Thanks, Tina.  Has anyone read this comic book, and is it actualy worth reading?  I was about to go to the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism next, after being dissatisfied with Eagleton’s introductory book, but it seems both expensive ($40 used) and like it might take more time than I really have.

    Posted by  on  07/13  at  12:33 PM
  70. Aaron Barlow wrote: It’s frustrating to see people deliberately blinding themselves to something that they can use and--in the cases of both Skinner and Derrida--something that influences many of the ways we see things today.  Michael, you demonstrate quite clearly the influence of deconstruction.  Believe me, the influence of Skinner’s Radical Behaviorism is just as great.

    I think this is exactly the point that needs to be made. The one person from whom I’ve learned most of my “theory” holds fast to the idea that the bad reputations of certain thinkers are not excuses for not reading them. She’s always been careful to acknowledge weaknesses and mistakes in their arguments, but never once let her students get away with dismissing an influential thinker altogether. Her approach was never to evaluate the general worth of a name, but to glean whatever tools and methods could be from the thinker’s work.

    A few years ago in a grad seminar I had a bit of a verbal smackdown with an art history student who clearly saw himself as the French Theory Guy. He was annoying because he would say things like “But how can you say that? You’re forgetting Lacan.” Or “I think Derrida has shown conclusively that the method you’re practicing is untenable.” In other words, he couldn’t form arguments, but had to fill in the space left by this inability by dropping names.

    And frankly, those who dismiss, out-of-hand, either Derrida or Skinner are doing the same thing. Witness:

    Rather, this is about the claims of specific philosophers about the specific claims of Derrida in his scholarship, and these have generally been found wanting.

    The failure of the Lit Crit crowd to see this, I maintain, is an important and revealing one about the quality of argument allowed in that field.

    Patrick tries to claim that this assertion regards specific claims, but in fact it uses the mere existence of specific claims to make an unsupportably general one. As a tactic, that is nearly identical to name-dropping.

    In any case, I think it ought to be obvious that any sweeping dismissal of an entire field ("the Lit Crit crowd") on the basis of association is a fantastically lazy move (as well as a weird kind of ultimatum: “stop believing that or you’re stupid"). There are plenty of idiots in English departments, but that hardly convicts us all of being numbskulls.

    Posted by Lee  on  07/13  at  01:12 PM
  71. Hmm.  If this is an argument, then I should reply to it.  But first, it would have to provide reasons for why analytic philosophers find Derrida seriously lacking, and it would have to argue that (for example) meaning is determinate and language offers a transparent window onto the real. 

    Why would it have to do that? Here’s a much better reason why analytic philosophers find Derrida lacking: these stunning conclusions you cite (meaning is indeterminate, language does not offer a transparent window on the real) are commonplace, old hat. And one can give nice, clear arguments for them, without Derrida’s bombastic, borderline-unreadable prose.

    On the other hand, if it is not an argument, then I could play games with it, and say that many serious scholars in the humanities find analytic philosophers seriously lacking.

    Ha, ha, very funny. If you don’t mind my asking, why the defensiveness?

    Posted by  on  07/13  at  01:14 PM
  72. Chana--I too am often put off by Derrida’s prose. But the fact that a conclusion is “old hat” says nothing about the quality of the argument itself. And there’s a bit of murkiness (rather than clarity) in the claim that the conclusion “language does not offer a transparent window onto the real” can be clearly argued in language. I don’t believe, myself, that language is fatally compromised in that regard, but I would never dismiss the question, or those who ask it, out of hand.

    Posted by Lee  on  07/13  at  01:24 PM
  73. Though Derrida is not my cup of tea, I suspect that the point of the arcane and indirect style is that his meaning is tied up in the process of reading through his prose. Deconstruction is not simply in the assertion of paradox and/or self-contradition, but the process through which one displays (I suppose I might even say, dis plays) and engages with the paradox. In that respect, Derrida’s prose has an edge of the poetic, or even the mystical.

    As I said, not my cup of tea.  I prefer a more straight-forward mode of thought.

    Posted by bill benzon  on  07/13  at  01:48 PM
  74. As a mere tourist in this rarefied habitat, I appreciated the S/Z-joke explanation.  Never did get to graduate school, since graduation was such a daunting prerequisite, and perhaps I’m not the only remedial MB reader--please!

    As for this one: Three phonemes walk into a bar...

    Yes, it’s intrinsically funny-- but for the right reasons?  I may very well be missing something here.  Is the line entirely self-fulfilling, with no potential punchline that could possibly top the setup itself?  Having only a passing acquaintance with phonemes and their ambulation and drinking habits, I’m insecure in appreciating this.

    If the punchline doesn’t exist, I shall be forced to invent it.  Hey, ya gotta cope somehow.

    Thanks, ‘Fessor.

    Thanks, prof!

    Posted by  on  07/13  at  01:59 PM
  75. Your post is very interesting and insightful; I am always uberexcited when you post on the issues of literary theory and philosophy.  I vote for more posts in those areas.

    I would just like to nitpick about your characterization of Noam Chomsky’s position w.r.t. to Theory (I’ll just slack a bit and call it “postmodernism” from now on.) It is true that Noam Chomsky certainly does not endorse, and has been very critical of, postmodern writers, especially Derrida.  Some of the harsher things are described at http://www.zmag.org/ScienceWars/forumchom.htm

    However, he is always careful to preface his views with the possibility that he is simply “not getting” or grossly misunderstands the postmodern works he’s reading.  You may take this to be simply a point of fake rhetoric, which he uses to achieve some kind of humble effect—which is not unreasonable.  But I got the impression that his disclaimer means a bit more, that is, he takes the claims made by postmodernists seriously—seriously enough that he is careful not to presuppose his *own* standards of argumentation when talking to postmodern writers.  This is apparent in what I thought was a fairly insightful essay: 
    http://www.zmag.org/chomsky/articles/95-science.html
    His debate with Foucault also supports the idea that he has, in some serious way, attempted to understand the ideas of postmodernism. 

    Also, returning to the Sokal-Hoax aftermath, Chomsky seems to be a great example of Sokal’s assertion that (very) liberal political conclusions/attitudes can be formed based on, and not in spite of, rationality.  Chomsky’s (political) conclusions seem to be so similar to those of postmodern writers (maybe “conclusions” is not the right term, but you get what I’m saying) that a lot of dorky little book publishers are quick to place Chomsky in the postmodernist camp ("Postmodern Encounters” comes to mind.)

    In any case, I believe whatever hostility is found in his treatment of postmodernism comes from particular postmodern “critiques” of science, and writing about technicalities of science, which he is naturally sensitive to, and for good reason; a lot of those radical “critiques” are garbage.  There are plenty critiques of science from the humanities (he mentions Ruth Hubbard, and I believe Helen Longino would fall in the same camp) that he endorses and views as quite legitimate.  So to summarize, I don’t think Chomsky seconds the idea that postmodern philosophers (let alone lit. critics, though I don’t mean to suggest they are disjoint) are like fundamentalists, much less that their work is “bullshit” —his position seems quite far from this, and much more nuanced.

    Posted by Postmodernist  on  07/13  at  02:11 PM
  76. Three phonemes walk into a bar . . . that one got me banned from the Catskills. 

    Everybody’s a clitic.

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  07/13  at  02:14 PM
  77. --Bartender says, “May I see your ID’s please, gentlemen?

    The first phoneme replies, “‘K.”

    Second phoneme replies, “‘M.”

    Third phoneme says, “Yeowww-- I forgot my ID!”

    Bartender says, “I’ve heard that dipthong and dance before!”

    But seriously: thanks, Chris.  And pardon the careless redundancy at the close of my last post, MB.

    Posted by  on  07/13  at  02:50 PM
  78. "Here’s a much better reason why analytic philosophers find Derrida lacking: these stunning conclusions you cite (meaning is indeterminate, language does not offer a transparent window on the real) are commonplace, old hat. And one can give nice, clear arguments for them, without Derrida’s bombastic, borderline-unreadable prose.”

    And Searle says that Derrida’s insistence on arguing from a pre-Wittgensteinian idea of language causes ‘a good deal of the confusion in literary theory’ (Theory’s Empire, p. 171). The problem with old-hattery is that it can just end up wasting massive time inventing a wheel that’s already rolled off down the road a good many decades ago.

    -----------------

    “Also, returning to the Sokal-Hoax aftermath, Chomsky seems to be a great example of Sokal’s assertion that (very) liberal political conclusions/attitudes can be formed based on, and not in spite of, rationality.”

    And this comes as a surprise to people? It’s news that rationality tends to be a left thing at least as much as a right thing, and often far more so?

    Posted by Ophelia Benson  on  07/13  at  03:09 PM
  79. I think it’s time to call in some sociologists and anthropologists for a quick study on behaviour in the comments.

    Posted by Danny  on  07/13  at  03:48 PM
  80. Rich wrote: My experience as a teacher is very small compared to Bérubé’s, but I never found ridicule to be a highly effective didactic technique.  So what’s its purpose in this case?

    I didn’t read that as ridicule, but then it wasn’t pointed at me.

    Posted by David Moles  on  07/13  at  03:56 PM
  81. Lee wrote: Her approach was never to evaluate the general worth of a name, but to glean whatever tools and methods could be from the thinker’s work.

    Lee, that’s exactly why I’d rather have the popularization than be continually pointed back to the original texts. I don’t have any patience with folks like your French Theory Guy who tell me that I can’t really understand a given passage from Theorist X (or Philosopher Y, for that matter) without having internalized the gestalt of his entire body of work.

    (Also why I’m waiting for a modern quantifiable Marxism, but that’s another story...)

    Posted by David Moles  on  07/13  at  04:00 PM
  82. The problem with theory, as with much of modernist intellectualism, is that it attempts to claim a quasi-scientific authority for its arguments.  The deconstructive philosophical defense of literary speech is nothing more than a rationalists’ defense of empiricism, made while steadfastly refusing to get your boots muddied. Is this why analytic philosophers, futurists, libertarians and theory-heads all seem to read science and ‘speculative’ fiction?  This is also I imagine why lawyers tend to mock legal philosophers.
    Theory and analytic philosophy have too much in common, not the least of which is an inability to understand the difference between experience and idea, or art and illustration.

    The most annoying thing about all this is the snobbery. The Europeans, whatever their titles or positions acted as public intellectuals; and Sokal and Chomsky ideological dumbasses or not, have at least been an activist on issues the non academic left are concerned with.  But this changes nothing. What we end up with is a debate between those who say the speaking subject is not a worthy topic of discussion and those who say that there’s nothing more worthy of discussion than what they wore on saturday night: a war between the nerds and narcissists. And the narcissists think they’re being radical!? What’s this Sarah Bernhardt?

    The Europeans know they’re bourgeois, they understood that their words have limits. They describe them. They made the jokes at their own expense.  Americans, being incapable of self-reflection only laugh at other people.

    To his credit Michael Berube is only a reader and professor of literature, with all the bourgois accoutrements of such a career, and one also follows and speeks publicly on politics.  This isn’t much different than those foreign thinkers American lit crit types have idolized over the years, or maybe the American model is finally changing.

    And Ophelia B. Have you ever read Chomsky’s responses to questions about how govenrment should be run. That is: concrete solutions to concrete problems?
    It’s a hoot.

    Posted by seth edenbaum  on  07/13  at  04:32 PM
  83. Okay, Seth, I think I have a picture of what you’re against, but what are you in favor of?

    Posted by David Moles  on  07/13  at  04:36 PM
  84. Your post is very interesting and insightful; I am always uberexcited when you
    post on the issues of literary theory and philosophy.  I vote for more posts in
    those areas.

    I would just like to nitpick about your characterization of Noam Chomsky’s
    position w.r.t. to Theory (I’ll just slack a bit and call it “postmodernism” from
    now on.) It is true that Noam Chomsky certainly does not endorse, and has
    been very critical of, postmodern writers, especially Derrida.  Some of the
    harsher things are described at http://www.zmag.org/ScienceWars/
    forumchom.htm. 

    However, he is always careful to preface his views with the possibility that he is
    simply “not getting” or grossly misunderstands the postmodern works he’s
    reading.  You may take this to be simply a point of fake rhetoric, which he uses
    to achieve some kind of humble effect—which is not unreasonable.  But I got
    the impression that his disclaimer means a bit more, that is, he takes the claims
    made by postmodernists seriously—seriously enough that he is careful not to
    presuppose his *own* standards of argumentation when talking to postmodern
    writers.  This is apparent in what I thought was a fairly insightful essay: 
    http://www.zmag.org/chomsky/articles/95-science.html
    His debate with Foucault also supports the idea that he has, in some serious
    way, attempted to understand the ideas of postmodernism. 

    Also, returning to the Sokal-Hoax aftermath, Chomsky seems to be a great
    example of Sokal’s assertion that (very) liberal political conclusions/attitudes
    can be formed based on, and not in spite of, rationality.  Chomsky’s (political)
    conclusions seem to be so similar to those of postmodern writers (maybe
    “conclusions” is not the right term, but you get what I’m saying) that a lot of
    dorky little book publishers are quick to place Chomsky in the postmodernist
    camp ("Postmodern Encounters” comes to mind.)

    In any case, I believe whatever hostility is found in his treatment of
    postmodernism comes from particular postmodern “critiques” of science, and
    writing about technicalities of science, which he is naturally sensitive to, and for
    good reason; a lot of those radical “critiques” are garbage.  There are plenty
    critiques of science from the humanities (he mentions Ruth Hubbard, and I
    believe Helen Longino would fall in the same camp) that he endorses and views
    as quite legitimate.  So to summarize, I don’t think Chomsky seconds the idea
    that postmodern philosophers (let alone lit. critics, though I don’t mean to
    suggest they are disjoint) are like fundamentalists, much less that their work is
    “bullshit” —his position seems quite far from this, and much more nuanced.

    Posted by Postmodernist  on  07/13  at  05:32 PM
  85. "[Hegel] had challenged the law of the excluded middle, without which symbolic logic, say, runs into some serious problems”

    This is not true.  If by “symbolic logic” you mean “first order predicate logic”, or “propositional logic”, then all there is to say is that these languages *assume* the law of excluded middle, or that the law of the excluded middle is a theorem in these languages.  There are plenty of logics (intuitionist logics being the classical, no pun intended, example) which reject the law of excluded middle (for philosophical reasons or otherwise) and do just fine.  It’s just a choice that depends on the kind of reasoning one wants to capture.

    Posted by  on  07/13  at  05:38 PM
  86. Two points. One: I don’t associate theory with post modernism but with a decadent late modernism which claims that through some sort of rationalist argument that we can close the divide between action and reflection, creating a sort of total intellectual/esthetic consciousness: a consciousness by design, hence the popularity of Sci-Fi and other sorts of Stalinist over-determination.

    Two: I’ve told this one before but there’s an old story about Chomsky’s childhood, that he was troubled by the abuse meted out to a fat kid in his class; not only troubled however but uncomprehending. The story goes, and I remember it being told by fans, that Chomsky at the age of 7 or so (and at Oak Lane Country Day School- my alma mater) did not understand why anyone would attack another human being as a result of something (obesity) over which that person had no control.
    It doesn’t matter how rational Chomsky is, if he is not capable of understanding the irrationality of others, if he is incapable of observing and learning not only from human ideas but from human behavior than his philosophy as such is of limited use.  As far as politics is concerned Chomsky is a good news reporter-and that’s rare enough- but not more.

    In response to David Moles:
    A lawyer- a good lawyer- wants to be a good lawyer more than he wants to be right. In fact if he chooses to do what he thinks is right in any way that contradicts his duty to be a good lawyer he can be disbarred or even jailed.
    A writer- a good writer- wants to be a good writer more than he wants to be right. I think even Saul Bellow, if you pulled him out of his grave and got him drunk enough would agree.

    Critics and philosophers follow behind skilled tradesmen.
    In law at least, no philosopher would argue the point.

    Posted by seth edenbaum  on  07/13  at  06:14 PM
  87. Seth--There are ethical principles underwriting the idea that a lawyer has a duty to the law. In other words, someone determined that it was good (or “right") to disbar or jail lawyers who ignored the law in favor of their own personal ethical opinions.  Even an ambulance chaser could tell you that.

    Posted by Lee  on  07/13  at  06:33 PM
  88. Lee, you need to go a little farther so I know where you’re going.

    Posted by seth edenbaum  on  07/13  at  06:44 PM
  89. But isn’t being right (or, at least, as not-wrong as possible) part of what makes a good critic or a good philosopher?

    Posted by David Moles  on  07/13  at  07:09 PM
  90. Which is why I’m puzzled by Michael’s follow-up with ridicule: “Of course, then I’d have to ask Rich Puchalsky if we had ourselves a genuine incommensurability here.” My experience as a teacher is very small compared to Bérubé’s, but I never found ridicule to be a highly effective didactic technique.  So what’s its purpose in this case?

    My apologies, Rich.  This wasn’t ridicule; it was an allusion to your comment 41, and I’m sorry that you took it as snarky.  Your comment seemed to suggest that parties to a disagreement would have to disagree about nearly everything, including the definitions of “reason” and “revelation,” for there to be an incommensurability worthy of the name.  I don’t think that’s necessary; I think if one side vests authority in human logic, and the other vests authority in God, you’ve got quite enough trouble as it is.  And I sometimes wonder if the impasse between analytic and Contintental philosophy is so deep as to be incommensurable.  I was just nodding in your direction, honest.  I think you set the bar for “incommensurability” too high, myself, but I think your comment (41) was great.  Once again, sorry to have given offense where none was intended.  Damn this “language” shit. 

    Posted by Michael  on  07/13  at  09:39 PM
  91. And Chana, Ophelia, bill benzon, I do hope it’s clear (clear as day, clear as my lucid prose) that Derrida isn’t my cup of tea either.  Never has been.  But I don’t make any claim that he has discovered true sentences or principles of language that no one ever thought of before.  I do make the claim that deconstructive arguments are all over the place and that people should recognize them for what they are; I make the ancillary claim that Derrida’s mode of presenting them is distinctive and much-imitated.

    Richard Rorty has often suggested that we treat Derrida’s work as a new kind of writing, a form of commentary on philosophy that owes something stylistically to Heidegger and to the experiments of literary modernism.  Twenty years ago, when he made that claim to a bunch of graduate students at Virginia, he deeply offended those among them who regarded Derrida as being the bearer of some Revealed Truth.  But I think it’s a decent enough way of thinking about Derrida’s strange prose.  And I remain as mystified by the people who think that Derrida must be publicly repudiated if literary criticism is to be considered legitimate as by the people who once believed that Derrida had descended from the poststructuralist mountaintop with the tablets.

    Posted by Michael  on  07/13  at  09:51 PM
  92. When I say something akin to “When someone says that the set of all correctly transmitted and understood messages is a subset of all imaginable messages that can be incorrectly transmitted or misunderstood, such that misunderstanding is the condition of possibility of understanding,” I am not making “a deconstructive move.” I cite the inventor of Information Theory, the man who named the Bit, Claude Shannon, with whom I had profound conversations. The probability that EVERY one of N letters gets delivered to one of the wrong N people becomes, in the limit of large N, precisely 1/e where e is the base of the natural logarithms.  Sokol made an important point that there are deep structures in the universe, whether you consider them Physics or Mathematics, which are NOT mere social constructs (although Physics and Mathematics are, for us, social processes by imperfect people). Whether or not you believe in a Platonic Ideal, it is foolish to believe that there is NO external universe, and NO laws without polotical contingency.  You can’t legislate “pi” to be 3, and not be a fool.  You can’t legislate away the law of Universal Gravitation.  You can’t eliminate the Law of Supply and Demand by fiat. If you think so, you are not a Theorist.  You are a Solipsist.  In which case, why are you reading MY posting?

    Posted by Jonathan Vos Post  on  07/13  at  10:01 PM
  93. Actually, I understand that the state of Indiana legislated the value of pi as 3.3. You wouldn’t believe the circles they have there.

    Posted by Lee  on  07/13  at  10:19 PM
  94. People have been getting that wrong for a long time.  1 Kings 7:23 in the King James Version states, “And [Solomon] made a molten sea, ten cubits from the one brim to the other: it was round all about, and his height was five cubits: and a line of thirty cubits did compass it round about”.  2 Chronicles 4:2 states that the object was “round in compass” and that a line of 30 cubits “did compass it round about”. 30 cubits divided by 10 cubits for a shape “round in compass” (i.e. circular) means that, since pi is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, pi = 3.0000. Does that mean that the laws of geometry have changed since the days of the Old Testament, or in the state of Indiana? I think not.  I think that the text must be understood in the context of all possible texts, in a lawful universe, which includes errors and unreliable narrators. If the authors/editors of Kings or Chronicles told us that a circle was 355 cubits around and 113 cubits across, I’d know that they did the same Math as the Chinese mathematician and astronomer Zu Chongzhi did in the 5th century. I would not deconstruct the ethnicities and relative political systems of the Far East and Middle East. Only in Eric Blair’s Room 101 is 2 + 2 = 5, and that took torture.

    Posted by Jonathan Vos Post  on  07/14  at  12:18 AM
  95. Michael writes: “Your comment seemed to suggest that parties to a disagreement would have to disagree about nearly everything, including the definitions of “reason” and “revelation,” for there to be an incommensurability worthy of the name.  I don’t think that’s necessary;[...]”

    Well, I’m sorry that I saw snarkiness where none was intended, but in a thread that starts with complaints about ignorant yet arrogant commenters who are confident that their lack of knowledge qualifies them to reject Theory, I think that you can see why refering to me as the arbiter of incommensurability might be taken as a slam.

    Anyways, I’m still not getting the value of the concept of incommensurability as you’ve described it.  You write, along with the above:

    “The clash between theocracy and democracy may well be incommensurable:  neither discourse can justify itself in the terms of the other, and they start from premises so different that it seems impossible to imagine any points of contact.”

    But from a sociological viewpoint (not that I’m a sociologist either) I see enormous numbers of points of contact.  Ever since the French Revolution, the roles of advocate of reason vs. advocate of God have been well understood, played out countless times.  Their discourse in a certain sense does justify itself in terms of the other, because each requires the Other.  And they require very little to transform into each other; I would guess that anyone here could imagine themselves switching from a democratic discourse to a theocratic one or vice versa simply by having a conversion experience or a loss of faith. 

    And I don’t get the bit about “language-games”; both discourses seem like part of the same Western cultural package.  If you really wanted incommensurability, you could try out either “reason must be left to operate as it will, and interrogate all forms of received authority,” or “no, reason must operate within the limits prescribed by revelation” on a member of a previously uncontacted tribal culture, and I would guess that they would find them both to be fairly meaningless concepts even if there were no language difficulties.  But that would really be a basic sociology idea, not a theory of language one.

    So, once again, I don’t get it.  I could go into a long humble apologia about how maybe I don’t get it because I’m the equivalent of tone-deaf or something, but that’s Chomsky’s line of rhetoric, and it works better coming from him.  I’ll just say that this, to me, is a classic example of why ignorant non-literary-studies Theory sceptics complain about obscurantism; there doesn’t appear to be enough here that’s different from basic sociology to require its own specialized vocabulary.

    Posted by  on  07/14  at  12:50 AM
  96. At number 95 and counting, there doesn’t seem much point to commenting, but I’m feeling expansive after draining some venom, and so I thank you as another appreciative reader of these last few posts. Codger that I am, I was taken aback by the idea that Theory may have been said to be celebrating triumphs (outside of Yale) as of the Ramones’ first album in 1976. (In 1978, I was an earlier Derrida reader than any of my college professors, and probably owned more Ramones albums [on tape], too.) But otherwise I was nodding and grinding my goat-bristled toothless jaws in agreement. I still enjoy Derrida’s essay more than anything else I’ve read on the Phaedrus, and I say this as a Pater fan.

    Posted by Ray Davis  on  07/14  at  01:01 AM
  97. Rich--I have some sympathy with what you’re saying. It’s very close to Walter Benn Michaels’s critique of recent humanities chatter, wherein all intellectual differences become falsely viewed as the equivalent of “cultural” differences.” But I think you’re being dishonest when you say you “don’t get it.” I mean, you and I can agree on what “reason” means, and then we can agree on what “revelation” means, but if we then fundamentally disagree about which is more important, our reasons for disagreeing with one another will consistently exist in different registers. You’ll say “but logically, x proceeds from y,” and I’ll say, “sure, but the Bible says z.”

    I’m guessing you’re really only defending some strict OED definition of “incommensurable,” which is frankly a far more obscurantist move than using a word and then defining how one is using it, as MB did.

    Posted by Lee  on  07/14  at  01:23 AM
  98. hi there.

    it is the middle of the night, although not as late as it often is; then again, it is not as late as it once always was, before the decline of everything, which this particular commentator would put smack dab in late 1979, which had, i have been trying to figure out, as much to do w/ the end of music as it did w/ the end of carter, as it did w/ the end of clever media in general, & this is all i remember, b/c i wasnt even 18 until the advent of culture club & by then i cared about very little.

    if i look to my left, oddly, i will find an entire passle (probably spelled wrong) of books i just cannot read, which i figure MOST people who say they have read them have not read: walter ben-ya-min; monsieur virillio (lots); any- & everyone influenced by or who has ever claimed to be influenced by lacan; or deleuze, or guatarri (rip to one or the other, i forget); i could go on until whoever is probably not reading this turned blue from boredom, but i must not forget the line of art critics that begin in my mind w/ hal foster & frederic jameson, but probably dont-- for i went to Art School, lest i forget, where NONE of this stuff ever should have been, well, brought up would have been okay, but for heavens sake it has DOMINATED art for the last 25 years, until art has become as boring as being forced into eternal servitude reading the abovenoted & all of the rest forever & ever unto oblivion, if one cannot read it as poetry (which yr correspondent here was told to do & has not yet been able to manage).

    imneverho, precious few people have actually read much of it, although they have leafed thru quite a bit so they can drop the proper names into the proper conversations. the ones who have (at least in art school, where every good artist of the last millenia has been either dyslexic, manic depressive, on drugs, or a combination of the above & so therefore unable to get thru any of it) have, as noted above, dominated art & thereby put a spear thru it-- i mean, how many times does anyone --need-- to see art, or read literature that carries little meaning beyond its surface language, or how the signs of today mean more than the signifieds of today or-- or-- oh, it is all so similar. it cant even be explained any more. “michael jackson & bubbles” unto the guy who wrote “fight club.” i cant spell his name. i am not going to try.

    what i remember of derrida, before he faded into his cell of wherever he is w/ the other 2 (if they rotate members, sometimes i hope one is my father.  maybe one day will be w), is that he used to --jog-- around yale & he would throw himself at redheads. my best friend was at grad school at yale, but she was very thin & her hair was not red. i was not at yale, my hair was red, i was not thin, although perhaps he like them very thin. but i had my share of horrid naked poststructuralists that i had to throw out of my bedroom, so i always thought of derrida in those terms. prejudiced, i suppose, but i hate that stuff anyway. all of it.

    i wish we could just go back to rimbaud & ruining our lives thru dissasembling our senses, not deconstructing our language. that just seems so petty.

    {please note proximity of whining parrot which affects my ability to write.}

    Posted by  on  07/14  at  02:38 AM
  99. i must say, however, that i -can- in a way tolerate foucault (although not bataille, who seems to me to be a surrealist whose bones were picked up after all the other surrealists were already taken), but largely for his absolute madness in living. had he stripped his writing down as much as the art theorists had stripped the bones of the surrealists as they dug for bataille, i would have liked his work better.

    & i cannot say, in truth, that any of it compares to hearing “piss factory” for the first time, or even the second time, or the hundredth (after one hasnt listend to it for a while). &, although it is not the job of academia to even acknowledge the power of recordings of “piss factory,” SOMEONE out there needs to record them & it is a brutal truth that people have forgotten how to do what was once such a basic & necessary (if not simple) thing.

    Posted by  on  07/14  at  02:49 AM
  100. I quoted the Bible, not out of my own belief, but because it exemplified one of the 5 approaches to Truth—revealed truth, as Rich Pulasky has suggested.  I mentioned Physics, having once been a Physics major at Caltech under Nobel laureate Feynman, and I’m married to a Physics professor, and I’ve published Physics papers at conferences, but also because the Sokol argument started this thread, and Physics (more than other sciences) exemplified one of the 5 approaches to Truth—empirical, experimental truth. 

    I mentioned mathematics, via Pi, which exemplified one of the 5 approaches to Truth—axiomatic truth, as with Euclid. I have a B.S. and officially equivalent of an M.S. in Math, and have been an Adjunct Professor of Math, with several hundred (including online) publications.

    Michael mentioned the Ramones, not just for chronology, but because it exemplified one of the 5 approaches to Truth—aesthetic truth. Fine.  I have many artists in my family; my brother played bass and wrote lyrics for the Planets, who used to open for Kiss and the New York Dolls; I was Publishing Editor of Sound Options, a 24-page music newspaper in New Jersey. I have published over 220 poems, several plays, 30+ short stories, worked in film TV, CD-ROM, and other artistic media.

    Politics is based on a fifth approach to Truth—majoritarian/legal/military truth.  I’ve been anelected councilman in two communities in two different states, and worked in law firms.

    Each of these uses the same word “truth,” but in an incommeasurable way. Each has a different paradigm, a different stance, a different process and standard of proof.

    On the one hand, the troubles of the world would be less if people stopped conflating and confusing these. Philosophy and Theory can sometimes help.  On the other hand, sntheses of these can be important.  Pythagoras, in showing the mathematical nature of harmony, broke Music loose from Musika (which included dance, costume, etc.) and elevated it to the divine, alongside Astronomy.

    Yet not every one of the 10 pairs of the 5 types of truth have shed much light, and to try to combine 3 or 4 or all 5 is beyond human ability.

    Truth, Beauty, Power, Revelation, Structure, Verifiability, Freedom—surely we agree that these matter, even if we are caught in language games and cannot agree on what it is that we agree on.

    Or am I wrong, and if so, by what modality?

    Posted by Jonathan Vos Post  on  07/14  at  05:05 AM
  101. Lee, what I don’t get is what special meaning “Jean-Francois Lyotard’s insistence on ‘incommensurability’” is supposed to add.  Sure, you can define incommensurability to mean this kind of incommensurability.  But if what you’re really talking about is the conflict of value systems, why bring in Jean-Francis Lyotard or the word “incommensurability”?

    Posted by  on  07/14  at  07:29 AM
  102. ’Truth’ is a metaphysical designation scientists use to add rhetorical punch when describing or defending their preoccupation with facts.

    Posted by seth edenbaum  on  07/14  at  09:34 AM
  103. Aw, shucks… I can’t resist that one.

    In Skinnerian terms, truth is simply a measure of response within a framework of expectation.  The truth of a statement, in other words, is nothing but its effectiveness.  If the predicted response to the statement is forthcoming, the statement is “truthful.”

    It’s much more complex than that, of course, but we ain’t in class, here.

    Posted by Aaron Barlow  on  07/14  at  09:54 AM
  104. Two words: James Joyce. Could he be the harbinger, or, to put it simply, the nutshell version of all that the French “Four Horsemen” later provoked? Wasn’t he Foucaultian when subverting the power of “making sense”; Derridaen when deconstructing any logical discourse; Lacanian when inviting the reader to punctuate and/or throwing the reader into the angst-ridden void of constant flux; and, last but not at all least, a Barthesian when breaking with the fascist nature of words and their obliged meanings, not to mention syntax? Would a non-prepared reader of his not be subject to the utter dis-centered effect that Lacan proposed as the tool for discovering Dasein? So yes, Theory can be annoying and trouble making, but doesn’t it usually come in to pick the pieces that great artists left behind, therefore answering to what Lacan would call a demand for meaning?

    Posted by  on  07/14  at  10:44 AM
  105. okay, i reread this in the daytime, & it -is- hard for me, b/c i am one of the dyslexic types abovenoted, not a language dyslexic type, but a spatial dyslexic (meaning i couldnt master symbolic logic, even though i was wanted in the philosophy department). & so much of this is symbolic logic that, even though i had to TA it --i was the TA for theory & crit before it had its own department in the world of art, i always had to be the person holding out for the ramones, if you will, but i would have been anyway. i am afraid.

    w/ all of the saussures flying about me, i -still- must take note that the -art- & writing that has been generated from taking the deconstructionist point has JUST NOT BEEN VERY GOOD. one simply cannot compare the art that came before the 80s (w/ the very slim exceptions of mike kelley &-- &-- then one has to really think. & he’s really a 70s person anyway) to anything which came before.

    it is not a matter of the -discipline- of criticism, & how it works, destroying work, but of how seriously it has been taken by other disciplines taking it up &, largely, by WHO in those disciplines employs it. for, you know, it is REALLY easy to intellectualize work, it is A LOT easier to dry it out rather than burn from w/in (how many rimbauds or eve rosettis has history produced?? & how long have they lived??) so we have gotten a container-ships worth of horrible work that will long be forgotten after the world has been blown to nano-bits by whichever fundamentalist group could not deconstruct anything further than buildings & human bodies.

    i spend A LOT of time worrying about this, which i suppose at this time is quite obvious.

    there were 2 branches of the arts at the end of the 70s; i remember them, strangely, b/c i had very limited control over my own person until the early 80s (even though i was married & divorced (that took until i was 19) my parents would not emancipate a minor, so i was stuck into university against my wishes). one was clearly interesting, & yes, had some deconstruction going on-- the other, oh it was -pure- theory, done by solid academics, made in the mold of podhoretz only w/ a little bit of required leftist flush.

    strangely, they both contained members of the --decimated-- rock crowd, after AIDS began to eat those people alive, & very quickly. the side that won, clearly, was the --less-- interesting crowd: fewer rockers, more marketers, people who were easier led, & easier to follow. {----note that i am certainly not speaking of present company----} but that is wherefrom most of the art-trash that we have now originates.

    & now i am rambling, but i could ramble forever. it is a terrible subject, & beyond theory, in =practice= something has gone terribly wrong. & i am not certain it can be remedied until the world has turned to rubble.

    Posted by  on  07/14  at  06:21 PM
  106. make that “even rosettis.”

    i dont know who eve rosetti is.

    sometimes i hate my typing skills.

    my mother made me learn to type.

    it -has- saved my life, or at least saved something or other under certain circumstances.

    Posted by  on  07/14  at  06:23 PM
  107. edi, sister are you drunk?
    I am, and I have to say I like what you say even when I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about, but that may be because like you I went to art school, and I doubt anyone else here knows who Mike Kelly is anyway. I would disagree about him being a 70’s person. Dan Graham! Now Dan’s a 70’s kinda guy.  And you’re absolutely right about the art-post-theory thing: dry as a bone, and hypocritical as all getout. That’s where I first learned to hate theory. Hal Foster will do that to you. Douglas Crimp… oy.
    Loved the ‘flying saussures’

    Posted by seth edenbaum  on  07/14  at  06:38 PM
  108. nah-- dry as a bone.

    never drink.

    i think of mike kelly as a 70s person, as, if this makes any sense at all-- i had a boyfriend named jeff isaak, who was not only 24 when i was 14 (my mother --loved-- him, oh heavens was he goodlooking), but was chris isaak’s older brother. he, at one point had a girlfriend named branda miller. now when jeff isaak got bored w/ branda miller (i was married, age 16, at this point, yet still i think branda miller was as boring as i am sober), he would go pick up “nymphomaniacs at the bus station” (among other sundry, i am sure) according to his best friend, & i know jeff isaak well, so i am certain this is true. when jeff isaak did this, branda miller would attempt to find some comfort w/ mike kelly. this would have become more incestuous after college, i suppose, but my closest friend really liked mike kelly, who taught where we went (but we knew him later) so i put i stop to the shenaningans.

    if that has made any sense, i can make it make even less by saying that a semi-famous video artist (not the MOST famous, but definitely one in the second tier) was jeff isaak’s boyfriend when i was jeff isaak’s girlfriend.

    the same closest friend & i went to a nearly empty art faire thing last year & the abovenoted video artist glared at me, even though the place should have been packed, the moment he saw me. i mean, it has been -years-; then again, he isnt a thing like gay any more.

    this is the kind of thing i miss amongst a world that has been dominated by theory.

    fluxus bleeds 60s artists that bleed into 70s artists (as do a few other 60s artists ie eva hesse, gordon matta-clarke (i hope i have the date right)). chris burden is a 70s artist. paul mccarthy is a 70s artist. vito acconcci is a 70s artist. even carolee schneeman is a 70s artist (although she may have done some of her work earlier, if not much). after the end of the 70s, nobody bleeds ANYthing any more. jeff koons is an 80s artist. david salle is an 80s artist. that idiot who painted the spread eagled mom w/ the window blinds & her son stealing money from her purse is an 80s artist. sherrie levine is an 80s artist. barbara kruger is an 80s -designer- turned 80s artist (which she will tell you herself, which may make her last longer). jane holzer, who has suddenly decided she was too “shy” to tell anyone her name, as the “graf” artists in nyc did (although i knew it, as barf, age 17, art student in l.a.), is an 80s artist. from these et al, everything else springs.

    Posted by  on  07/14  at  08:20 PM
  109. i always forget to edit, mea culpa. mea -minima- culpa, actually, as there are all sorts of idiots crawling wadc who own the “maxima” that belongs in that sentence, so:

    i was 14 when i was jeff isaak’s girlfriend.

    as much as i hate to tell anyone my actual age, it is easily found on the internet, so:

    he, i, & various others went to otis art institute at the time mike kelly was at calarts, all in 1978. so i am talking about the 70s-- then, later, i got shoved into real university, whereat chris burden taught & then later mike kelly-- neither of whom seemed to like teaching any more than i liked attending, which was a Good Point in those post-bacchanalian (probably spelled wrong) days.

    that was the 80s.

    at which point came art that is all about --theory-- & unreadable literature, or literature where they dont want you to write too much, or please dont write too much like joyce or-- just write simple sentences. please.

    you know, i dont even try any more & if they dont want to publish me like this, then they dont have to publish me. sometimes they just add the capitalization on their own. sometimes they publish it when i tell them not to. sometimes they just ignore me. i have resigned myself, so i dont much care. it is easier not to have ones feelings hurt that way, at the very least, i think.

    Posted by  on  07/14  at  08:32 PM
  110. Funny, I discovered your blog out of the whimsical desire to see what would happen by “Googling” “literary theory is dead”.  A second shot with “Lyotard is bullshit” led me here again.  I really enjoyed this and other posts, and the thoughtful comments as well.

    I haven’t agonized over theory issues since I left grad humanities and got into a reality-based context, i.e., doing tasks valued enough to be well-paid for them.  But occasionally I do wonder if I’ve missed something having not delved more profoundly in poisoned wells like Derrida (this due to second-level reflection that generates sincere circumspection of my own intellectual dogmatism and laziness).  I cling to the idea that if something of real worth/truth value (yes the irony LED is flashing) exists in anything, whether it’s Plato, Kant, Derrida, or a Bif Naked tune, that the kernel ideas can be summarized in cogent English.

    Reading this passage reminds me why I’ve never been able to get past the immediate and viceral emperor’s clothes reaction that attends any attempt at entry:

    In order for these contrary values (good/ evil, true/ false, essence/ appearance, inside/ outside, etc.) to be in opposition, each of the terms must be simply external to the other, which means that one of these oppositions (the opposition between inside and outside) must already be accredited as the matrix of all possible opposition. 

    Perhaps the agony lies in the act of translation, but what the hell does “accredited as the matrix of all possible opposition” mean?  Even when I can limn a sentence like this to my own satisfaction there’s no assurance that this doesn’t diverge greatly from the intention.  (Theorists do have a transparent intentional relationship to their writings don’t they?  Does Derrida find any irony in using the term ‘opposition’ with such a hypostatic sense of reference that it begs the question of Platonic externals?)

    Wading through levels of jargon and the necessary apprenticeship in any field are inevitable prerequisites to masterful play.  But with passages such as this, it’s not so much that there are terms that I don’t yet grasp, such as the way the average cultural studies would feel entering into statistical programming (this example is transparent to me):

    proc freq data=&flagvar._eval order=data ;
    weight count;
    tables &flagvar / binomial ;
    by cycle type;
    ods output binomialprop=&flagvar._bin
    (keep=cycle type Name1 nValue1 where=(Name1 in (’XL_BIN’ ‘XU_BIN’wink));
    run;

    Rather it’s the overwhelming sense that a stable matrix of concepts and terms has not been worked out, and, allowing that the author truly has a clear concept in mind and wishes to convey it as succinctly as possible, has not put the effort into building a systematic frame of referents (pun intended).  I’m left with the sense that Derrida leaves something like this with a “yes that’s it” degree of polish without having taken the effort to turn this into language that conveys the intended meaning clearly to the mind that is, in opposition, not within his own.

    btw: loved the macho pieces; whatever I’ve failed to do with Derrida I certainly have compensated for in the felling of dangerously large trees with chainsaws; years ago when living in Cville I helped Michael Levinson by painting his house --and if you’re embarassed at your own inability to use tools rest assured that your mentor (who is a perfectly nice person as well as an accomplished one) is unable to change a lightbulb without assistance;

    Posted by  on  08/01  at  05:00 PM
  111. Funny, I discovered your blog out of the whimsical desire to see what would happen by “Googling”

    “literary theory is dead”.  A second shot with “Lyotard is bullshit” led me here again.  I really

    enjoyed this and other posts, and the thoughtful comments as well.

    I haven’t agonized over theory issues since I left grad humanities and got into a reality-based

    context, i.e., doing tasks valued enough to be well-paid for them.  But occasionally I do wonder if

    I’ve missed something having not delved more profoundly in poisoned wells like Derrida (this due to

    second-level reflection that generates sincere circumspection of my own intellectual dogmatism and

    laziness).  I cling to the idea that if something of real worth/truth value (yes the irony LED is

    flashing) exists in anything, whether it’s Plato, Kant, Derrida, or a Bif Naked tune, that the

    kernel ideas can be summarized in cogent English.

    Reading this passage reminds me why I’ve never been able to get past the immediate and viceral

    emperor’s clothes reaction that attends any attempt at entry:

    In order for these contrary values (good/ evil, true/ false, essence/ appearance, inside/ outside,

    etc.) to be in opposition, each of the terms must be simply external to the other, which means that

    one of these oppositions (the opposition between inside and outside) must already be accredited as

    the matrix of all possible opposition. 

    Perhaps the agony lies in the act of translation, but what the hell does “accredited as the matrix

    of all possible opposition” mean?  Even when I can limn a sentence like this to my own satisfaction

    there’s no assurance that this doesn’t diverge greatly from the intention.  (Theorists do have a

    transparent intentional relationship to their writings don’t they?  Does Derrida find any irony in

    using the term ‘opposition’ with such a hypostatic sense of reference that it begs the question of

    Platonic externals?)

    Wading through levels of jargon and the necessary apprenticeship in any field are inevitable

    prerequisites to masterful play.  But with passages such as this, it’s not so much that there are

    terms that I don’t yet grasp, such as the way the average cultural studies would feel entering into

    statistical programming (this example is transparent to me):

    proc freq data=&flagvar._eval order=data ;
    weight count;
    tables &flagvar / binomial ;
    by cycle type;
    ods output binomialprop=&flagvar._bin
    (keep=cycle type Name1 nValue1 where=(Name1 in (’XL_BIN’ ‘XU_BIN’wink));
    run;

    Rather it’s the overwhelming sense that a stable matrix of concepts and terms has not been worked

    out, and, allowing that the author truly has a clear concept in mind and wishes to convey it as

    succinctly as possible, has not put the effort into building a systematic frame of referents (pun

    intended).  I’m left with the sense that Derrida leaves something like this with a “yes that’s it”

    degree of polish without having taken the effort to turn this into language that conveys the

    intended meaning clearly to the mind that is, in opposition, not within his own.

    btw: loved the macho pieces; whatever I’ve failed to do with Derrida I certainly have compensated

    for in the felling of dangerously large trees with chainsaws; years ago when living in Cville I

    helped Michael Levinson by painting his house --and if you’re embarassed at your own inability to

    use tools rest assured that your mentor (who is a perfectly nice person as well as an accomplished

    one) is unable to change a lightbulb without assistance;

    Posted by  on  08/01  at  07:13 PM
  112. Greeting. Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent.
    I am from Nigeria and learning to speak English, tell me right I wrote the following sentence: “Foraticket specializes discount airline tickets.”

    With respect :(, Queenie.

    Posted by Queenie  on  04/02  at  03:22 AM
  113. It is a coincidence that I just google your blog. It is very informative and the way you present it is very astounding.

    Posted by Lajolla Dentist  on  09/12  at  10:34 PM

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