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Friday, 16 September 2005

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In order not to hijack the comments thread at The Valve, I'm writing a longish post below in response to CR's comments. (See also this post chez Acephalous.)... [Read More]

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camicao

Hi Scott, I really agree with you. Maybe it's just me being cranky on an overworked saturday morning, after 4 weeks of not being to be a scholar because of my classes, but some of us actually study subjects that are shrouded by the past and which require philological and material reconstructions in order to be understood, interpreted and projected into more abstract models. Scholars who work on theory should work on theory. That's fine. But don't pretend to make historical statements that are unfounded. And I will stay out of high theory debates because that's not my specialty. This notion that everyone is an expert in everything or should be, or pretend to be, and have -tude about it, is a load of crap. I believe that literary critics who work on theory are rigorous and can do important work. Such theorists need to recognize that historicist literary scholarship also has its merits. We're not all the same. There's too much to know and examine from too many points of view. OK I have to go and wipe up some cat vomit now. I mean it. I'm not being creative when I say that. My cat just puked.

CR

I don't disagree with you, in a certain sense, Scott. Yes - the grand claim maker stands on the back of hundreds of library workers. No doubt.

My question is - where are the grand claim makers? Where did they disappear to? The dustiness is all well and good (even if it's not my thing - and I overstate that a bit for effect on the Valve) - but what doesn't it all add up to if it emerges as the sole sanctioned activity...

Know what I mean?

(Of course, this brings to bear a strange "class" configuration within literary academia. And who gets to determine who picks nits and who gets to shout? But without both shouting and nitpicking, we're screwed... And I'm afraid the tide has turned against the shouters...)

Scott Eric Kaufman

Cam,

You capture in this sentence what I danced around in my post: Some of us actually study subjects that are shrouded by the past and which require philological and material reconstructions in order to be understood, interpreted and projected into more abstract models. I feel like valuable work, theoretical or otherwise, cannot be done without careful attention paid to the context in which a work's written and read. The latter is especially important if one plans to theorize a work's continued and future significance.

CR,

My question is - where are the grand claim makers? Where did they disappear to?

I think there's an absence of the kind of synthetic superstars--those who dance from Freud to Nietzsche to Hegel and back again--who ruled days past, but I don't think there's a dearth of ideas, or that the work currently being done isn't considered by those who do theory to be of critical importance. I think what we're seeing isn't the result of less celebrity aspirants so much as less celebrity-enthralled audiences. The Lacanians have split from the Foucauldians in ways that make critics who appeal to both thinkers suspect to both audiences. The fact that, say, I didn't see many of the faces familiar to me from Derrida's seminars at Zizek's lectures indicates that, on some level, theory has specialized in ways that make the kind of thinkers whose absence you lament difficult to both produce and disseminate.

And who gets to determine who picks nits and who gets to shout?

We do, of course. When I came to UCI, I came here to "do theory" and study Joyce. I chose to do otherwise, to become the foot stool of future theorists, and I don't regret the decision.

Stephen Schryer

I think (vs. CR) that the distinction between "grand claim makers" and "library workers" is spurious. Good theory is good scholarship - i.e., it draws general conclusions (relevant for a wide variety of other researchers) from careful combing of an archive of materials. Bad theory, by contrast, is also bad scholarship - i.e., general conclusions floating alone with nothing to support them.

The relevant class distinction should instead be between good scholarship that is broad, and good scholarship that is narrow. The former synthesizes a broader range of materials and is thus relevant to more researchers - think, for example of John Guillory's Cultural Capital or Michael McKeon's The Origins of the English Novel. Not everyone has the energy or ability to produce this kind of work.

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