Sunday, February 18, 2007

RE: The Sharp Report of Scott Eric Kaufman's Owne Petard

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:

  1. 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";
  2. 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;
  3. 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;
  4. 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;
  5. 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";
  6. "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,
  7. "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:
  8. "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,
  9. "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'."
  10. 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 (Chicago, 2005).

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]


Eileen Joy said...

Scott--thanks for such a considered [for now] response; it's late and I have to got bed [!], with much to do tomorrow, but I meant to add to my earlier post that I hope you understand my response was written somewhat speedily and in the spirit of real engagement with what obviously represents some serious reading and reflection on your part, and I sincerely hope you will correct any misrepresentations I may have made of your analysis/argument. I, too, will have more to say tomorrow, or thereabout. Also, if you want a fabulous overview of and responses to Stephen White's work on "weak ontology," pick up the special issue of The Hedgehog Review on "Weak Ontologies" [Summer 2005].

Anonymous said...

Thanks Eileen and Scott for this stimulating discussion. This is all interesting to me, as it touches on persons and ideas I am presently working with/on, so I state now that my reply is selective and narrow.

I am curious about the notion of "Hegelian seriousness" and Hegelianism as, by implication, a potential "totalitarian wish," and would like to hear more. It seems to me that "Hegel" and "Hegelian" are both cliches that have been exhausted of any explanatory value after two centuries (or so) of usages and simplifications; i.e., I am not sure how helpful they are as descriptors.

But perhaps something remains in these phrases that is helpful. Tentatively speaking, I'd hazard to say that a social theory that aspires to explain a social whole – or, better, a social theory that explains the extent to which any idea (or theory) of a social whole is ideological in an historically particular way – can be unscandalously described as "Hegelian." So, Adorno's work on the culture industry and Jameson's book on postmodernism satisfy that definition (both thinkers, moreover, are honest about their relation to Hegel and are less aggressively cagey than Althusser). I think Jameson's book (while now more a "classic" rather than "the next hot thing") is persuasive. Admittedly, being a former student of Jameson but by no means a virtuoso, I am a bit invested! I do not think, however, that what Jameson calls "totality thinking" (which is to my mind neo-Hegelian in kind) can be equated with "totalitarian wishes." No one here has said that, to be clear, but it seems to me to be an implication. Of course, Hegel has been associated with "totalitarianism" before by thinkers having to deal with such things in real time. For Lukács, say, Hegel was the code-word for Stalin(ism) in the absence of his ability, thanks to his situation in the Party, to speak directly about Stalin. My point, then, is that usages of Hegel, Hegelian, and Hegelianism come at the end of a long and contested (and bloody) history, and that these are worth unpacking, too, in the hopes of keeping us honest about why we should *still* read Hegel and try out his thoughts from the inside rather than from the outside, where we risk reducing those ideas to slogans. Three cheers for completest reading projects, in other words.

Now, not everyone has a taste for totality thinking, and really that too is a slogan. Situated knowledges and praxes of embodiment in many instances can't be ignored or, frankly, beat; and, granted, totality can be anything from those so-called "equipmental totalities," to "body," to "society." Might Scott's essay mean to keep us from slogans or epithets, all the while asking us to keep our eclectic eyes on the postulated whole, be it hog or ball of wax? I'll hang up and listen for the answer.

Andrew Cole

Eileen Joy said...

"I'll hang up and listen for the answer."--I love that.

I'll respond to Andrew, then in another comment post, to Scott. First, I wish I had not invoked the term "totalitarian" [my inner Hegel hater made me do it, and I was typing my thoughts "on the fly" without too much revisitation]; I think I can be fairly certain that Scott is not asking in his essay [which is part analytical history and part, I believe, manifesto for change] for a police-state-type supervision of the development of theoretical arguments; at the same time, I think there is a desire, on Scott's part, for some kind of achievable "totality" or "wholeness" of theoretical debate, such that all ideas could somehow coalesce and be made better through continual scrutiny and revision-under-scrutiny. I just don't think that's possible, and I'm not sure I would even want that. In any field or discipline, what might be called intellectual honesty will always be an issue, but less oversight rather than more often allows things to happen in dark corners and crevices and "outside the building" that prove to be very beneficial in the long run [I think, related to this, that the *location* of theory's development can be critical: where, exactly, was Walter Benjamin *situated* as he developed his thought & writing, as opposed to, say, where Jameson or Bhaba was *situated*, and how does this ultimately matter?]. Ultimately, I think the desire for a space within which a more "aggressive" [???], self-scrutinizing set of theoretical debates could occur will have to admit that such spaces can exist, and we can even make them anew, right now, but they will only ever be partial, and they will likely be taken over, very quickly, by scholars deemed more "important" than others--they will never be fully inclusive of all thought on any given subject. There is a point at which I also find some of Scott's proposals for a more vigorously self-critical theory as too tilted toward the normative--how can the very philosophy that has debunked the idea of "normative" subject itself to a set of critical norms? That said, yes, we could use more forums for the development of, let's say, a theory for literary interpretation that is more broadly inclusive of what is being thought *across* more disciplines and sub-disciplines, although there is a point at which things could, literally, just get too "heavy," which brings me to this thought: is theory's problem *really* that it has become too sequestered in sub-disciplines, or is it rather, that it hasn't found a subject worthy of its exertions [actually, I would say that in a field like sociology or human rights philosophy, it has, but we still have the problem of the sequestering of these fields from each other]? In other words, instead of worrying about whether or not some scholars are misapplying specific theorists to particular texts, or yanking theorists out of their more full context of their thought in order to "routinize" their ideas in the service of interpreting a literary text [or even history itself], and all this in the absence of some form of higher [if even peer-based] judgment, I wonder if the real question we should be asking ourselves, *especially* in relation to the question [or is it the problem?] of inter-disciplinarity, should be: what are some of the most pressing socio-historical problems that *we*, across the disciplines [both in the humanities and in the sciences], could tackle together, with the most sophisticated theoretical tools at our disposal? Problems related to the question of whether or not we have free will [and what might be at stake in that question] might be one place to start.

As to Scott's invocation of "Hegelian seriousness," thank you, Andrew for unpacking for us some of what is involved in invoking Hegel's name. I just don't think we need to invoke Hegel at all, any more than we need to invoke Aristotle, if we want to have a conversation about critical "seriousness." Indeed, the matter of theory's compulsive citationality would be a subject for another day [are we not, on some level, trapped within the rational languages and schemes the classical authors first fashioned for us, and how do we get out of those? could I fashion a new theoretical idea by way of Dante without recourse to Plato or Derrida? why have we made our web of inferences so thick and strangulating?]. In any case, I think that Scott can make a very convincing argument about why a certain type of critical seriousness should matter in the future development of theory, and he doesn't need Hegel to do this, or, conversely, if he feels he does need Hegel, then he should not allow "Hegelian seriousness" to also become an unexamined epithet--he should take us to the "inside" of that, and back out again, and let us know why it matters that the seriouness he is avowing must be Hegelian.

As to Andrew's final comment that Scott might simply be asking us to be wary of slogan-type theory while also asking us to keep our eyes on what might be called the "postulated whole"--it's not, in and of itself, a bad idea; if it could be done, it would do some good intellectual service, and provide a better roadmap than the ones we might posses now for tracing new routes to *better* theories. But, I just still don't think we've begun to ask the important questions as regards *application*.

Eileen Joy said...

Scott, first, let me iterate again that my response was written *fast* and I regret some phrasing. For now, let's dump "totalitarian," "heroic," and "Byronic/masculinist." But having said that, as a reader who is reading for content but also for content-in-rhetoric, that a lot of your language describing the kind of critical engagement you are [I think] desiring within theory relies on terms of strength or lack thereof [strong, aggressive, virtuosic, vitiated, etc.--"vir"=man], and I also think there is a real nostlagic longing on your part for a supposedly more Edenic period in theory when certain scholars were more virtuosic and less "sloppy" with their material [ideas + texts]. Similarly, you posit a fallen present, where "the quality of theoretical work being done is not what it ought to be, nor what it once was." Maybe you're right, and I'd have to read *everything* in literary studies spanning a forty-year-plus time frame to know for sure, but my basic instincts are telling me that the intellectual decadence [or, enervation?] you trace is only part of the story.

Another part of the story could be glimpsed in medieval studies, where I would argue some of the best work in theory is being done today--work, moreover, that is vigorously cross-disciplinary and committed to a rigorous historicism. Some examples would include a book I plugged here a few days ago, David Gary Shaw's "The Social Self in Medieval Britain," but would also include work by Jeffrey J. Cohen, Michael Uebel, Steven Kruger, Carolyn Dinshaw, Louise Fradenburg, Peter Brown, Paul Strohm, Bruce Holsinger, Andrew Cole, Kathleen Biddick, Jodi Enders, Claire Sponsler, Catherine Brown, Anna Klosowska, Nancy Partner, Allen Frantzen, Clare Lees, Gillian Overing, Michelle Warren, Laurie Finke and Martin Shichtman, Kathy Lavezzo, John Ganim, D. Vance Smith, Karma Lochrie, Patrick Geary, Caroline Walker Bynum, David Wallace, Stephanie Trigg, Sarah Stanbury, Carol Clover, Mary Dockray Miller, Dyan Elliott, Geraldine Heng--I could go on and on, and I apologize right now for important names I am sure I am omitting. These scholars, and more like them in medieval studies are not just deploying theory; they are developing it, while also historicizing it in ways that have never been attempted before by postmodern critics who mainly view the Middle Ages as a kind of static foundation upon which they can build an emergent and "new" modernity [this is especially prevalent in sociology, where thinkers such as Anthony Giddens, Scott Lash, Zygmunt Bauman, Bryan Turner, Chris Shilling, etc. have need of a Middle Ages that serves as a holding site for various traditions and ossified social strata from which modernity "breaks"].

Likewise, I would argue that in contemporary historiography studies, some of the best work *ever* in literary theory and other theory has been accomplished, especially in the work of scholars such as Hayden White, Dominick LaCapra, Saul Freidlander, F.K. Ankersmit, Berel Lang, Philip Pomper, Roger Chartier, Hans Kellner, Peter Novick, etc. Moreover, in cultural studies I would say some of the best theory is being done--currently--that could be said to properly belong to a truly cross-disciplinary model that draws heavily upon literary interpretation as well as upon "high theory"--here, I am thinking of writers like Andreas Huyssens, Eric L. Santner, Gerhard Richter, Christopher Tilley, and Jonathan Culler, but I would also point to essay collections such as Mieke Bal's and Bryan Gonzales's "The Practice of Cultural Analysis: Exposing Interdisciplinary Interpretation" [Stanford, 1999]. If it were up to me, those practicing and "thinking" theory in English departments-- whether in the sub-department of Arab studies or gender studies or diasporic studies, etc.--would pay more attention to the development of theory within medieval studies, sociology [especially sociology of the body], historiography, and cultural studies [especially in non-North American contexts].

So, that's one thing. As to your wish for a "center" of theoretical discourse, even if it cannot hold, as you say, like Andrew, I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing--to be able to glimpse, somehow and somewhere, the outlines of what might be called the "whole" conversation, such that no one is off talking to themselves in an empty room and, as a result, either reinventing wheels or making planes that can't fly--but I wonder about your characterization of certain disciplines, like Arab studies, offering "truncated" narratives of the formation of their respective "subjects," which narratives would supposedly benefit from being subjected to some kind of outside purview or more "total" disciplinary viewpoint. I worry a lot, in this instance, about what is being privileged here--that somewhere outside the sub-discipline of a subaltern group there resides a more coherent and more "full" theoretics for *figuring*, or making more *apparent* the subaltern identity. I'm out of my element [and league] on this question, so I shall just leave it open as a question.

I understand, Scott, that you are not advocating any kind of "normative" vision of anything, or even final consensus on any particular theoretical question, while at the same time you believe that a certain *lack* of good venues for critcal self-reflection has led to, let's just say it out loud, garbage? badly written prose? a dearth of sustained attention to certain textual matters? a lot of crap masquerading as intelligently-designed thought getting published in journals and undergirding the structures of individual careers? Yes, yes, and yes--you can be blind and get that. But that was, is, and shall always be the case, and not just in the field of literary studies, but in all disciplines, even in the sciences, where at least they have more strenuous methods for testing each other's hypotheses. But still. I'm not quite sure how to grapple with your idea that "we're out of shape and our technique is sloppy." I wonder if the reverse is true, again, in medieval studies, where the stern opprobrium against theory has meant that scholars committed to theory have had to work twice as hard to convince their audiences of its value, especially as regards historicist readings of medieval texts. And let's face it, medieval studies has always been a stern master, and not much in the way of "sloppy" ever gets through [I'm not so foolish as to argue that there is no "bad" scholarship in medieval studies--of course there is; it's just that obsessive-compulsive scholarly behavior runs pretty high around "these parts" and when it comes to "doing theory," especially, many of us believe so much is at stake regarding the work we have to do convincing our peers of its value that we can't afford to play too loose with our material; of course, at the end of some days, we might also say "fuck 'em if they don't like and they want to stay in the dark ages, it's their party"].

And boy oh boy would non-medievalists benefit from reading medievalists, especially right now. If that's what you're really talkin' 'bout--I'm with you!

Cheers, Eileen

SEK said...

Me: (shaking fist at sky) Blogger!

I'll try to recapitulate what I'd written tomorrow.

Anonymous said...


A couple thoughts here; sorry for the time lapse.

First of all, while it's true that Scott is looking to a piece of the past (the "Critical Responses" forum) for his model of debate, and also using terms borrowed from physical training, those truths about his rhetoric and forms of argument do not make his argument itself more or less valid. Romantic forms of nostalgia were frequently criticized by 20th Century theorists, but such criticisms were only valuable when they were supported by fact (as they are in Raymond Williams's The Country and the City). The ultimate implication of an across-the-board distate for "Edenic" argument is a refusal to believe that the study of the past holds value for the present.

In a similar vein, let us refuse the slippage between desiring to get lost, and desiring that lostness should become a universal model. If Scott's rhetoric of physical fitness and combat is distateful to you, perhaps that is because you want to do something else with your criticism that does not require "muscle." Other kinds of criticism are enormously important; for example, I value criticism that re-creates moments of epiphanic discovery. The justification for Scott's gladiatorial rhetoric lies in the contradiction between the grand aims of much postmodern theory (for example, the implication that it can lead to a revolution in the way we read, or write, or conduct public life), and the critique of the desire for efficacy as masculinist. Perhaps Scott's article will spur other writers to define more clearly how we can have political struggle without using words to fight.

I respect your lists of contemporary critics working in medieval studies, cultural studies, and elsewhere, but I sense that they are a different kind of group than the figures to whom Scott refers. A plethora of scholars doing good work, and citing Derrida or Butler, do not equal Derrida or Butler. They are not necessarily capable, unless they re-define their projects, of starting the kinds of dialogues Scott wants to see return.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

This is a fascinating discussion. Thanks for instigating it, Scott and Eileen.

There's so much at stake here -- and so much already on the table -- that I hesitate to bring in more background and history (esp. because I agree with Eileen that "doing theory"'s obsession with citation can often get in the way of analysis and argument rather than create a more lucid path). Still, partly at stake here is an important question about gender, work, the heroic [manly] author, and envalued modes of scholarship: see the discussion in this post, where Eileen and N50 talk about just these issues. When I was in graduate school, way back in the Dark Ages (actually, I now realize, way back when Critical Inquiry was that agonistic utopia that Scott described), theory was quite separate from, say, medieval studies. Theory was taught as a separate course, and scholars wrung their hands about the dangers of bringing it out of segregation. Mostly, too, theory was a body of work that derived from continental and classical philosophy. It was mainly written by a bunch of guys who worked within a very long Western tradition even as they rejected it (Derrida, Hegel, Husserl, Foucault ...) To find a more 'applied' version of theory, you'd have to look to a women's literature or a minority literature course. That's where you'd encounter the feminism, subaltern studies, postcolonial analyses that didn't count as theory in the way that the angry inheritors of Plato, Eliot, Jameson did.

OK, that is overgeneralizing, but its main contours are true. This was also a time when Guillory was thinking about cultural capital and the inclusiveness/totality/integrity/timelessness/beauty/etc of the canon was being debated in terms not all that different from some reappearing in this argument.

Second, on fragmentation, wholeness, unity, and the possibility of having a field called theory or English, see the debate that unfolded at Inside HigherEd between Judith Halberstam (The Death of English) and Margaret Soltan (No Field, No Future).

Eileen Joy said...

Joseph--I am in the midst of grading a stack of "Othello" papers [crikey!], which is going to take a good portion of my day, and I'll post more thoughtfully later to your very helpful comments re: Scott's arguments, but I do want to make one quick clarification right now regarding the point I was trying to make about the kind of theoretical work being done currently in medieval studies: I *do* understand that Scott is addressing what so-called "theorists" do [i.e., Jameson, Mitchell & company, Bhaba, etc.] as opposed to say, what medievalists "using" theory are doing, but it is precisely to that question of that so-called divide ["doing" theory versus "using" theory] that I think Scott *is* partly addressing in his essay, and what I am trying to say with my list of particular scholars in medieval theory and other fields is to say: look, everyone, these people aren't just "using" theory, they are actually developing theory. It's my opinion, admittedly, but there is work being done now in medieval studies which is far above and beyond just applying theorists [like Derrida or Foucault] to medieval texts and history. At a Medieval Academy meeting in Miami, Fl two years ago, Leah Marcus participated on special panel made up of non-medievalists who were discussing David Wallace's [excellent] book "Premodern Places: Calais to Surinam, Chaucer to Aphra Behn." At that meeting, Marcus argued that, whereas some of the most important work in theory had previously been happening in early modern studies [by which she obviously meant the "new historicism" of Greenblatt, Gallagher, and company], she believed the most important work *now* being done was happening in medieval studies. I will provide a few more specific examples beyond just names:

"The Marxist Premodern," ed. Bruce Holsinger and Ethan Knapp, special issue of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies [34.3, Fall 2004]

Paul Strohm, "Theory and the Premodern Text" [book]

Bruce Holsinger, "The Premodern Condition" [book]

Louise Fradenburg, "Sacrifice Your Love: Psychoanalysis, Historicism, Chaucer" [book]

Carolyn Dinshaw, "Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern" [book]

Nancy Partner, "No Sex, No Gender," article in Speculum [68.2, April 1993]

Kathleen Biddick, "The Shock of Medievalism" [book]

Glenn Burger and Steven Kruger, eds., "Queering the Middle Ages/Historicizing Postmodernity" [essay collection]

Karma Lochrie, "Heterosyncracies: Female Sexuality When Normal Wasn't" [book]

Jeffrey J. Cohen, "Medieval Identity Machines" [book]

Jeffrey J. Cohen, ed., "The Postcolonial Middle Ages" [essay collection]

I should probably stop myself here [for now], but I want to stress, again, that these works do not just "apply" or "use" theory--they historicize theory, and in doing so, actually reformulate it. Now, if only scholars in other sub-fields of literary and historical studies would pay attention to this fact, part of what Scott is arguing for in his essay would actually happen: a vigorous testing of theoretical ideas *across* the various sub-fields of disciplines focused on textual interpretation.

Also, just one "wee" angry note, okay? To imply that scholars in medieval studies are not "capable" of the kind of work Scott is urging in his essay is just . . . a freaking moronic thing to say! Most of the "theorists" Scott cites, with admiration or opprobium, were/are situated in English departments, and therefore are also situated in a literary sub-field, like, um, early modern studies [Greenblatt, Gallagher], nineteenth-century lit. [J. Hillis Miller, Hartmann], postcolonial literature [Bhaba], etc. And the reason medieval literature scholars could not also belong to this group? Hello? [Okay, one reason might be that, yes, historically, there has been too much resistance to theory in medieval studies, but not anymore, okay? Not anymore. Yet, the fact that some outside of medieval studies would assume medievalists are not "capable" of "doing" theory speaks to the very harmful sub-division of intellectual work Scott speaks to in his essay.]

Anonymous said...

I’d also like to add my word of thanks to Eileen, Scott, and others. The stimulating conversation here has happily diverted me from the text I am supposed to be reading this morning, so I offer what I’ve been thinking about instead of the social politics of early modern blackletter:

In a bit of a departure from the main thread of conversation, I’d like to make the case for “interesting readings” of literary texts. It seems there’s a great preoccupation with getting one’s theory straight, but not with the motivations that might prompt one to undertake such a philosophical consideration in the first place. I agree with Scott, et al, that a deep consideration of one’s theoretical position is always in order: I for one don’t want to get Foucault on my Athusser, or Althusser on my Foucault. Nor do I buy the “ready-to-wear” psychoanalysis that is surfacing all over. Yet often enough these are seriously secondary concerns as I’m reading a given book, article, or whatnot: if I complain of shallowness in an author’s use of Mulvey, it is because I didn’t think the author had anything moving or interesting to say about whatever text is under consideration. If I’m taken with a reading (and if I’m reflective/honest about that), I’ll hardly notice the Mulvey; I’ve read her argument, which simply allows me to see (a la theoria) what is at stake in a particular interpretation. Granted, what I’m talking about here are readings that take a literary text as the primary object of scrutiny.

Often the critical enterprise works otherwise, so that readings of a literary text are used to develop, support, or consolidate a theoretical position. Especially in these cases, I think it is even more crucial to have something interesting to say about the literary texts that are recruited or deployed. In other words, the literary text should not be put in service to theorizing if there’s nothing of literary value at stake in the endeavor. Everyone here might agree with this statement, I’ll venture because most of us are literature scholars. Were we philosophers, however, ready assent to such a claim would be harder to come by. The most cultivated example of such aesthetic barrenness probably comes from analytic philosophy, wherein simple thought experiments are supposed to clarify the philosophical position under development. We might all agree that Davidson’s “swamp man” is a bad story, since it possesses only the rudiments of narrative form (okay, even if some of us like swamp-man stories, this one is really extreme in its badness). The simplicity of the story would be the point of its use in a philosophical debate, however, since one doesn’t have to worry about the possible nuances or subtleties of a deliberately bald narrative. My point in bringing in such an obviously different set of critical methods is to warn us against assuming that the literary stuff will follow the theoretical rigor. It won’t. We should demand sophistication in our literary considerations as much as we do our theoretical ones. We should also recognize that these are not identical, even if they are mutually informing.

In drawing this ramble to a close, I’ll include a personal anecdote that perhaps sums up my position better than anything I’ve said hitherto. I’m coupled with a theorist, who, when he wants to tease me after reading my work, says, “yeah, this is great, except that you don’t cite Nietzsche, Kant, or Hegel.” He’s serious to a point, but only a point: although he supports the type of intellectual rigor that Scott’s essay promotes, he would also caution me against “posering up” my work, or allowing the real reasons I’m working on a said literary/cultural problem to be obscured by disciplinary concerns that are ridiculous in their original habitat (if you want an example of a divisive discipline, visit philosophy). The same goes for his use of literary materials: I demand that he consider Coetzee, Shakespeare, or Camus, not as universal exemplars of any philosophical model, but rather as novelists or playwright-poets working within and against certain historical and intellectual currents. That said, I wouldn’t urge him to confine his theoretical discourse solely to that which might be said in relation to a particularized literary context.

After reading this string of thoughtful responses, I think what we are talking about here is a way of avoiding bad work. And, to be clear, I believe both the scenarios I initially describe would produce bad work, because they similarly pit the theoretical against the literary in a way that keeps both categories discrete. Working to incorporate both into critical analysis is monumentally difficult, and it is only furthered by a push on the theory side by essays like Scott’s (so thank you, Scott, for that theoretically muscular body check). I think we should also push back from the other side, putting aside how embarrassed we sometimes act about our admiration for various literary bodies. If we want to get lost, I say get lost in hedonistic aesthesis.

sorry so long,

Holly Crocker

Anonymous said...


It would be unforgivable of me to suggest that for some reason medieval scholars were prevented from doing work of equal merit to scholars working on later periods. It would, in fact, be moronic.

That isn't what I mean at all. Rather, I am talking about the difference between the historically grounded application of theory, and the production of theory in the abstract.

There is an odd relationship between abstract, "timeless" philosophizing, and the concrete historical study of texts, which always seems to make engagements with texts subordinate to theory.

Here's how this works: a historically-minded scholar takes a work of theory -- for example, Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition, which is certainly not a work of literary studies. He or she applies it to texts from the medieval period, and finds that it needs to be revised to account properly for those texts and that time.

The result is a work that does develop Lyotard, but can't make the same ahistorical claims as he does. The work therefore can't "counter" another book, similarly influenced but historically and theoretically divergent, about Lyotard and modernity or Lyotard and the Victorian era.

Thus, even while the literary scholar may reject all claims to ahistorical universality, his work affirms it by drawing on Lyotard in a work about Chaucer or Richard Rolle.

Now, looking at Holsinger's actual work The Premodern Condition, we can see that he is doing something different from this -- Holsinger is using medieval studies to change how we look at modern theoretical work.

This is why the possibility of Edenic argument is so critical: it has to be permissible for modern theorists to use medievalisms without being accused of Edenic distortions. Unfortunately, there is a lot of resistance to such projects. Look at the reaction to Foucault's book The Use of Pleasure. It is routinely dismissed as inferior to the first volume of his history of sexuality, precisely because of its supposedly nostalgic method.

Its nostalgia is its virtue: it is a set of innovative and valuable theoretical propositions grounded in close readings of classical texts.


I could not agree with this more; I would also add, to your citation of Davidson, Rorty's atrocious thought experiments in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.

I'm not entirely sure how this relates to the question of interesting readings. Were I to explain the matter to a philosopher, I would try to explain that the philosopher's pleasure in finding the truth correlates to the literary critic's pleasure in aesthetic achievement, because a literary critic sees truth as something that can only exist within detailed, dynamic, and internally consistent contexts (e.g. within prose narratives or poetic wholes).

Anonymous said...

I think Holly has zeroed in on what appears to be motivating Kaufman's rather anemic reflection on micro-academic-communities (surely, even added up, all the literature disciplines would constitute one, admittedly bigger, micro-community) and his call for a return to the mythic good old days of firm debate. It does, as Holly observes, all appear to come down to simply denigrating bad work.

Sure, out with bad, partial, ungrounded, mistaken theory application. Let's all be founders of discourse. I'm down with that. Only problem here is that there might just be some very obvious historical reasons why there aren't more "founders" to be found. We all have our own pantheons, and mine doesn't include Jameson or even Mulvey (said with tongue firmly in cheek), but perhaps we could agree that no one on the order of a Hegel or a Nietzsche or a Freud or a Marx has come along in the field of literary humanism since....well, since who?

So why such a circuitous route to denouncing bad work? Do we need Kugelmass's dubious distinction between appliers of theory and "abstract" and "ahistorical" philosophizers to furnish us with a template for determining what is "timeless" and what is not?

I would suggest that there are criteria external to the discipline of literary exegesis and theory that might better guide us. They have something to do with sanity, with happiness, and with justice. But I repeat myself.

Eileen Joy said...

I found myself today, in between reading papers on "Othello," allowing myself to get too worked up over some of Kugelmass's comments regarding how medieval studies doesn't or can't do what Lyotard [maybe] does in "The Postmodern Condition," and then, thanks to Holly's and Michael's comments, I was happily diverted to another pathway of thought. Although I must profess myself [still] confused about how Joseph is invoking [or, meaning] "the production of theory in the abstract" and/or "ahistorical universality"--without mangling Joseph's original intentions, I will just say here that, as far as I know, neither of these two things actually exists.

I am glad that both Holly and Michael, in different ways, have highlighted the question of "interesting" readings, hedonistic aesthesis, and in Michael's words, "sanity, happiness, and justice." My problem with what might be called "high theory," ever since graduate school, has mainly revolved around two issues: enjoyment and ethics. I would be a liar if I didn't admit that, on one level, I am a shameless aesthete, while on another level, I find myself incessantly worrying about whether art, and more pointedly, the critical interpretation of art, can have a so-called "higher purpose." My intuitive feeling is that the critical understanding of the operations and effects of the imaginative realm [including dreams, but also painting, music, literature, etc.] might be able to play an important role in what Michael calls "sanity" and "happiness" and even "justice." It can also be, to steal from Holly, simply, beautifully "interesting" [even, enchanting, and yes, I want to be enchanted, and I yearn for it]. And this brings me, too, to something JJC posted in response to some of my meanderings about BABEL in another comment thread:

"I wonder if the human isn't most visible where history as a closed system fails and art as an open and less temporal order burgeons?"

I'd like to think our work--theoretically historicized or ahistorically abstract, in medieval studies or elsewhere--had something to do with the exploration of "the human" in the terms JJC employs above. I'd like to be able to enjoy myself in Holly's "hedonistic aesthesis," but I also hope I can keep thinking about why *thinking about* literary texts in "interesting" ways might be of benefit to anyone's sanity, somewhere, at some appointed time. But at the very least, yes, let's not bore each other, and let's at least admit that sometimes "handling" certain literary "bodies" [again, as Holly puts it] can produce certain pleasures that need not be embarassing in and of themselves. Maybe, sometimes, "seriousness" is the last thing we need [although we all, I think, can thank Scott for calling our attention to the importance of theoretical rigor].

SEK said...

I'm actually glad Blogger ate my response last night, because as I thought about the matter today, I realized how unsatisfactory it was. That said, I don't think I'm any closer to a satisfactory response right now. Lame as it is to say "Y'all have presented some serious challenges to my argument and I need some time to think about them," I'm on the verge of doing just that. You see, even reading my first response to Eileen, I realize I'm merely recapitulating what I've already written.

Were I to psychologize my own motivations, I'd say it was because I'm still too invested in the act of formulating and writing the article to do anything but defend it. Which, by-the-by, is not what I want to do. Goes against the spirit of my own argument, actually. It'd be a strong opinion, strongly held -- which if I'm to believed, is a terrible, terrible thing. So here's what I propose: we ignore the whole blogospheric momentum thing and take a little time to consider our arguments more seriously. (We'll pretend I didn't say all that stuff at the MLA for the time being, because I'll be needing to reconsider that too now.)

That said, I do want to address a couple of issues: Eileen, you need not apologize for the tone or diction of your response. It's completely unnecessary. If I'm to advocate a return to a more confrontational mode of critical debate, I can't take offense at the casual employment of a "totalitarian" here or "masculinist" there. (I don't want anyone to know I'm a hypocrite, after all.) When I read your response, all I thought was "someone took time and energy to engage the ideas I've expended so much time and energy on." I was too grateful -- flattered, actually -- to be bothered by anything so piddling as foundational disagreement.

In fact, so moved was I that I haven't been able to write an adequate response, convinced as I am by your piercing critique...which is why I need to take a few days to process it before I respond. Were I to respond now, I'm afraid I'd slip into familiar polemical positions instead of, you know, thinking.

All of which sounds like a cop-out, I know, but it isn't. Believe you me, I'm more invested in this puppy than any of y'all are; it's just that I'd rather be right later than dogged now, and I'm not entirely sure I could accomplish that right now. (Yes, this sounds like -- and may well be -- a comment on blogs as a genre, but I'm not quite ready to commit to that point either.)

All of that said, I need to think about Holly's comment more. The tension between "interesting," "responsible" and "posing" is one that I've wrestled to a draw on numerous occasions, but one which I should pin before I send this essay off.

Finally, I would like to hear more from Michael, as his comment -- pardon my Sartre -- smacks of bad faith. His diction slips into dismissiveness in a way Eileen's doesn't, but I'm not sure why. In the interest of engaged comity, however, I'll say that I'm eager to hear more from Michael on the failings of my essay. I realize there's no way that won't sound snarky, but I hereby profess that it isn't. (That sounds even worse. This is a hole I won't be able to dig myself out of, I suspect, but vis-a-vis my own argument, I really want to encourage dissenting voices to arise and beat with objects blunt and heavy.)

(Is this the longest non-answer in The History of Blog? I think it may be. No, I'm not proud.)

Anonymous said...

Kaufman, in your response to Eileen, I think you put your finger on why the essay is, in my view, anemic. You wrote: "I'm not advocating any particular vision of anything."

That's a bit of a problem, no?

I have no sense from reading the essay what the real stakes are. It seems, as I suggested (thanks to Holly's observation), that it boils down to denouncing lame applications of theory. I don't find that unusually controversial. You also want to see big (mainly) "boys" (sorta) slug it out in CI again. OK, why not, but also why? I guess I could go for that, though I never found it truly productive of anything. So you'll probably want to show how that will really matter. What do you imagine will change as a result, and what would the world look like if it does? I take it there will be crowds of Jamesonian virtuosos and Hegelian strong (and grave) men running around. And that's a good thing because...?

(Also you'll want show why current debates in theory are not as rich or productive of "Jamesonian virtuosos" as the one model you (I would respectfully submit, arbitrarily) champion. I would like to hear how the debates in New Literary History that Ralph Cohen has been staging for roughly 40 years and the exchanges in texts like Contigency, Hegemony, Universality or The Psychic Life of Power are productive or unproductive. Either way, you have some explaining to do it seems.)

Your nostalgia doesn't trouble me so much as your vision of the future. I'm sure you have one that is more complex, meaningful, and dare I say inspiring than the one hinted at in the essay.

Anonymous said...

Dammit. I forgot to mention Signs, and that journal's spin-off publications like Provoking Feminisms, a collection that includes, in addition to my partner's essay on privacy, responses and replies to responses following each of the main essays. I can think of other professional venues where exchanges of a substantive nature take place, but I wonder yet how many Jamesonian virtuosos were spawned. And, of course, I wonder to what end.

Eileen Joy said...

Scott--I'm not sure my criticisms of some aspects of your essay are "piercing" [look! it's another masculine metaphor!--okay, just kidding, seriously], especially since much of my blog writing is, let's just say, *fast*. But I did read your essay, with care, more than once, and I do care about what you are trying to do, while I also, on one hand, share Michael's reservations about your essay's "anemic" qualities, and on the other hand, also think it shakes its fist overly strenuously at paper tigers. I would also ask you to consider how, in the midst of an argument bemoaning "sub-disciplines within sub-disciplines," your own argument considers "theory" within a very narrow ambit of figures--mainly male, mainly situated in English departments, mainly "virtuosic," however you define that. In any case, definitely take your time with rehtinking, rewriting, re-whatevering, and we'll all still be here when another draft emerges. Good luck with it!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

See I Cite here for some translation into the political sphere, including this:
It is one thing to recognize the contestability of one's fundaments when one is thinking, reading, and writing. In some ways, it is simply another way to understand good old Kantian reflexivity/universalizability. It may even be another way of 'including oneself in the picture' and recognizing that any view that one has of the whole is already part of that very whole, inside it, operating within it. Yet, it is another thing entirely to engage politically from such a view...Generosity toward incommensurable views or positions is one mode of accommodation. In the political world, this is rarely possible (modus vivendi is one fragile possibility)...Perhaps, though, conflict over the details, the working through of momentary compromises is not trivial. Perhaps it is a kind of inching forward toward a necessarily impossible and unattainable resolution.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

For those following along, some of the discussion is proceeding here, in a post at The Valve by Joseph Kugelmass. Eileen's response to what I post directly above from I Cite is considered there as well.