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Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Theory Tuesday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Michael on 07/12 at 09:25 AM
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