Recently, over at Acephalous
, Scott Eric Kaufman has shared a "conclusionless" draft of his essay on the history of theory in the 1970s and 1980s, titled "Culture of Argument" [ver. 2.8]. I encourage everyone to read it, but for convenience's sake, I will share with you here some of its highlights, as well as the response I have posted on Kaufman's blog. If you find yourself really interested in this subject, you will also want to check out N. Pepperell's response at Rough Theory
. To hopefully not do "rough justice" to Kaufman's essay, here is my overly abbreviated version of his argument:
- Gone are the days of the early 1980s when important journals like Critical Inquiry were committed to a dialectical pluralism "in which key figures in the field debated each other openly before the entire profession";
- thanks to "the marked decline in the investment required to print and distribute a journal" [due to new publishing softwares, readily available], we have seen an explosion of sub-disciplines within sub-disciplines, which has contributed to the "balkanization" of the field of theory and to a situation where extra-disciplinary theories have developed that are, lamentable, cut off from purposeful engagement with "wider" conversations within the discipline [literary studies] at large;
- the only alternative to "balkanization" is "to embrace a kind of institutional thoughtlessness in which certain foundational ideas are denuded of their original theoretical entailments." So, for example, Laura Mulvey's important essay on the gaze in film studies has been utilized [in Kaufman's words, "routinized"] by other theorists for various purposes without taking into consideration all the dimensions of the Lacanian underpinnings of her original argument;
- the anthologies born out of the vigorous theory debates of the 1970s and 1980s "authorized a particular version of the critical past in order to empower a particular vision of the critical present," which version of the past has since ossified, such that the emergence of "virtuoso readers" [in the words of Frederic Jameson, critics who produce "bodies of criticism in which the practice of peculiar and sometimes eccentric textual interpretations is at one with the projection of a powerful, nonsystematized theoretical resonance"] has since become stymied;
- these Jamesonian "virtuoso readers," whom Kaufman valorizes [I believe] in his essay, "evince both Hegelian seriousness—an aggressive commitment to the consequences of their premises—and a keen eye for the particularities of the literary work before them";
- "The absence of Hegelian seriousness [in much current theoretical work] . . . is a byproduct of theory’s codification, in the form of anthologies, during the last years of the 1980s. Previously, these essays were encountered in the wild. They were still provocative, certainly, but as objects of debate instead of reverence. The ceaseless discussion about theory (broadly defined) in the period between its arrival in 1966 and its consolidation in the late 1980s trained a generation of literary scholars to see fine points of distinction between competing theoretical models. The generation of scholars following the advent of theory anthologies possessed a book—singular and imposing—containing a series of models applicable to literary texts. A 'theoretical approach' defined thus might employ one or more of these theories in an effort to make sense of a text, but in so doing these theories ceased to be discrete entities. They became, en masse, theoretical. Preauthorized, different texts from the theoretical canon could be applied with no regard for any internal contradictions such applications would entail"; therefore,
- "The incorporation of this vitiated form of theory into the professional mainstream has made it increasingly difficult for virtuoso critics to emerge because the entire process of professionalizaton—beginning with the teaching of theory, via anthology, to graduate students and extending to the kind of deep historical research currently required for publication, as well as the absence of a forum in which sustained theoretical debates can be held—precludes the development of Hegelian seriousness"; as a result:
- "Critics today no longer fear their methodology will be scrutinized at all, much less in the discipline’s flagship journals. They are free to borrow from different traditions in the service of producing 'interesting' readings. Nowhere is the abuse of this freedom more apparent than in the work of Homi Bhabha, who, as much as any currently prominent thinker, embodies the spirit of the age of the theory anthology. Almost every page in The Location of Culture (1994) yields citations appealing to anthologized authority—such as 'as Lacan reminds us' or 'the work of Said will not let us forget'—or which cite thinkers whose work is predicated on mutually exclusive assumptions"; so,
- "If we, as a discipline, are to promote the development of more Jamesonian virtuosos, the desire to introduce new theoretical models into the fold most be coupled with a commitment to what W.J.T. Mitchell, writing at the height of Critical Inquiry’s influence, called 'dialectical pluralism': 'the weeding out of error, the elimination of trivial or marginal contentions, and the clarification of fundamental and irreducible differences…the kind of communication which clarifies exactly what is at stake in any critical conflict'."
- Not quite concluding, Kaufman writes, "Stemming the creep of naïve eclecticism should be of the utmost concern, but doing so would require a forum in which an aggressive commitment to strong beliefs, weakly held, could be displayed," and a "new forum—one which shares the commitment to debate once embodied by Critical Inquiry—is necessary if we hope to see a new generation of Jamesonian virtuosos emerge."
Here is my somewhat tentative response:
First, I am glad I read Scott's essay, "Culture of Argument." Having been taught theory—mainly of the structuralist, narratological bent [Ricouer, Iser, Ingarden, Barthes, Brooke-Rose, Jakobson, Bahktin, Pavel, etc.]—while undertaking an MFA in fiction in the late 1980s, and then later—in the more classic "high theory" mode—as a PhD student in medieval literature, in the late 1990s, Scott's essay rang fairly true for me, at least as regards some of the earlier debates among literary studies theorists, the development and entrenchment of what might be called a theory canon [now ossified], and the ways in which certain theorists can be deployed alongside each other in an analysis of a literary text without regard for the intellectual "incoherences" that inhere in what might be called their obscene couplings [such that, as Scott argues, one should not invoke Foucault and Althusser in the same sentence as if they would agree about the psychic-social makeup of "the subject"]. Speaking as a medievalist, I am always glad to see anyone historicizing theory—it's an important project, and one significant book on this subject, written by a medievalist, that everyone should read, is Bruce Holsinger's The Premodern Condition
Scott's overall argument, however, I fear, has some serious Romantic (even Byronic/masculinist) tendencies, and also makes some (I think so, anyway) logical fallacies. On the more minor level of logical fallacies, I simply do not see the connection between "the marked decline in the investment required to print and distribute a journal" and theory's "balkanization." First, even desktop publishing is not cheap, and I speak from experience on this point. Printing and distribution are still an issue, and always will be, even with purely online journals like Postmodern Culture
that still need individual and institutional subscriptions (and institutional support in the way of staff hours, space, equipment, and supplies) to stay afloat. Yes, there has been what might be called a certain explosion in sub-field-type journals (of both the more traditional "print" and more contemporary electronic variety), but we have a sui generis
-type situation here: theory "balkanizes" itself, then the journals follow, not the other way around. Simply put, to say that the so-called "balkanization" of theory is somehow made possible through cheaper, more readily available publishing processes is pushing the supposed sequence of events just a bit too hard (while also ignoring the fact that publishing, even digital publishing, is hugely time- and cost-consuming).
This brings me to the idea of the "balkanization" of theory. Ever since the first time I saw this metaphor, in the Chronicle of Higher Education
, in fact, it has made me cringe. Its (supposedly) negative connotation is directly connected to the historical situation from which it draws its name: the Balkan (breakaway) states of the former Yugoslavia, and all of the problems (even bloody violence) attendant thereupon. What lies beneath the invocation of this history, if the invocation is meant to be negative (which, in Scott's critique, I believe it is), is a secret desire to have things "whole" again, more "unified." The processes of a metaphorical "balkanization" speak to a certain chaos and headless politics that can only be confusing and deadly, or at the very least, decadent. The threat of miscegenation and degeneracy looms ("sub-disciplines within sub-disciplines"). As to whether or not the obscene births of these so-called sub-disciplines, cut off from more broadly-inclusive and cross-disciplinary theoretical debates, is a good or bad thing for the field of literary studies as a whole: let us set that aside for the moment. For me, the more pressing question, at least as regards Scott's essay, is: why this yearning for the "One"? (A place/site, in other words, such as Critical Inquiry
's "Critical Responses" section, nostalgically drawn by Scott as lamentably "past," where everyone who matters could somehow gather and voice strong, yet weakly held, opinions and hold each other accountable.) There is something eerily totalitarian in this wish—that, somehow, all theoretical discourses could be drawn under one eye, where everyone would be responsible and accountable to everyone else, but this also assumes a kind of high arbiter, or set of "higher" value judgments that would structure the inevitable debates. (Of course, the fact that Scott also invokes Hegel over and over again in the most positive of ways is also telling in this respect.)
One last minor quibble regarding the logic of Scott's essay: it simply cannot be assumed that the establishment of theory anthologies, and hence the canonization of certain essays/book chapters/theorists, necessarily affects the way all later theorizing turns out. First of all, there are many, many programs in which theory is not taught via the anthology, or even the anthology-method. I was not taught theory this way; indeed, in my PhD program, I was taught theory by two professors (married to each other, in fact) who insisted we read whole books, and the list was eclectic, to say the least, and often unconnected to whatever has been included in "the anthology." Therefore, I read Foucault's Discipline and Punish
and Judith Butler's Bodies That Matter
, sure, but I also read Owen Flanagan's The Varieties of Moral Personality
, J.M. Bernstein's The Fate of Art
, Diane Elam's Feminism and Deconstruction
, Bill Readings' The University In Ruins
, Zygmunt Bauman's Postmodern Ethics
, and so on. Further, anyone with half a brain in a graduate program can intuit for themselves that one cannot really understand a theorist through extracts from that theorist's corpus (or, "whole body"). To understand any theory, and to deploy it as ethically and as intelligently as possible, is to also know that theorists, like any human being (like Jack London, for that matter, to steal a figure from Scott's essay), develop their thinking over a lifetime, and in the course of that lifetime, experience (and articulate) various shifts and changes (and even apostasies and paradoxical contradictions) in their thought. If this is not taken into account in the deployment of any theorist's thought (Foucault, for example, cannot be invoked just vis-à-vis Discipline and Punish
, without also taking into account his later writings on governmentality), there is a certain intellectual dishonesty that will result. I actually agree with Scott that much work in current theory suffers from this dishonesty (especially in relation to the theoretical "fogbank" Scott invokes by way of Homi Bhaba's work), and that this likely, as Scott also points out, has something to do with processes of hiring and tenure and the general rush everyone seems to be in these days. I have devoted much of my own career to the thought of Emmanuel Levinas (and to Derrida's writings on Levinas, as well as on ethics and justice more generally), and I recognize that I could spend my entire lifetime just reading those two (and whoever they might invoke) and no one else, and I would still be trying to figure out my own theoretics of violence, suffering, and justice, which is what I mainly work on (within the sub-discipline of Old English culture and literature). From an ethical, but also from a professional standpoint, I consider this theoretical labor enough for my own career. Which is also to say, it isn't necessarily a more vigorously pursued cross-disciplinarity that will "save" theory from its intellectual dishonesty, but rather, a deeper mining of just a few texts over the course of one's professional life might do the same trick and could be eminently valuable. Think of rabbinic scholars who devote their entire careers to reading (and thinking about/writing upon) the Talmud, and how the Talmud itself is that "One" site that gathers unto itself all readings, all rabbinical thought, which is, in itself, in the words of John Donne, "a little world made cunningly."
Regarding my larger concern with Scott's essay, why is what Scott terms "Hegelian seriousness" so devoutly to be wished? Why are "Jamesonian virtuosos" [read: singularly "great" theorist-geniuses] also, so desired? How shall we define "sophistication," and who shall judge that? It would be idiotic of me to argue against Scott that a certain "dialectical pluralism" is not to be wished for—pluralism I am all for, even dialectical pluralism. It's just that Scott leans so hard on the "dialectical" side of the term, by which he means "Hegelian seriousness." It's all very masculinist and forbidding (and also participates in a kind of queer heroic ethos), as if somehow we—the supposedly really smart literary critics—possess the means to judge, in pluperfectly "Hegelian" fashion, each other's ideas. It's awfully "disciplinary," isn't it? (Scott's argument is also dependent, to a certain extent, on the idea that theory should somehow be made more systematic, more centralized if even more cross-disciplinary, more scientific, more classically rhetorical, more epistemologically coherent—all mirages of modes of intellectual "validation" I thought theory had helped to demolish; this leads me to what would have to be an essay for another time—how theory, past and present, has never been able to escape its grounding in Western empirical thought even as it seeks to call that empiricism into question). Here's the sentence from Scott that really leaped off the page at me:
"Stemming the creep of naïve eclecticism should be of the utmost concern, but doing so would require a forum in which an aggressive commitment to strong beliefs, weakly held, could be displayed."
I've always been of the belief that we need more naïvete, and not less—if there is such a thing as genius, it often stems from a form of naïve questioning (ask anyone in the sciences how this works). Why an "aggressive" commitment? An "aggressive" commitment to a particular theory makes more sense in a discipline like human rights philosophy or sociology or bioethics, where more than the interpretation of the operations of language in a literary text really is at stake. Rather than gather at the wished-for forum (theory's lost "center"—e.g. the Critical Inquiry
of days gone by) where everyone could aggressively debate their theories of literary interpretation, and certain geniuses would emerge out of this tensile field of discussion, theoretical muscles rippling, I would rather slip away into a sub-discipline, and get lost.
[as a post-script, I would also just add here that I think some credit is due to the originator of the idea of "weak ontology"--Kaufman's strong beliefs, weakly held: the work of the political philosopher Stephen K. White, especially his book Sustaining Affirmation: The Strengths of Weak Ontology in Political Theory
; this is a very important book which I have plugged before on this blog]