Whilst rereading Rereading Jack London (1996) I often stumble across statements like “Naturalism’s claim to be a catalyst for change is perpetually undermined by its own combination of pessimistic determinism and Social Darwinism” (151). Readers familiar with this humble blogger’s dissertation immediately recognize one cog in Christopher Hugh Gair’s claim that’ll cause some consternation, but I’m not on the Social Darwinian beat for the time being. I want to focus on the category of the claim itself, on what it means to refer offhand to a body of thought so grossly generalized as to never resemble that to which it presumably points. To put it another way: any summary of Marxism will, to the studious Marxist, summarize vulgar Marxism. Another still: everyone else’s interpretation of Das Kapital so exaggerates some sub-sub-sub-claim of a point itself so inconsequential that to call what he or she preaches “Marxism” sends Marx sliding down a slippery slope (at the bottom of which Andrew and Dale Carnegie consume crumpets while discussing the merits of the responsibility assumption). Given that contemporary “categorical” debates are always hotly contested, why are critics so comfortable with historical categories? At what point does the need to qualify end and a category’s life as a cog begin? I ask this in part because of CR’s comment yesterday:
And the thing is, things are heading now in the other direction. Ebb tide. Toward serious scholarship, historicism in the New Historicist sense, but even worse: textual criticism is coming back (for non-initiates, that doesn’t mean close reading but rather hanging out in libraries, looking at multiple copies of the same dusty book—yuck!) Theoretical extravagance is regarded as outre and kind of silly. [...] In other words, a specter’s haunting English, a specter that brings narrowness, specialization, horrendous boredom, and useless expertise.
CR implies that theory is as parasitic on the work of “serious scholars” as their work is on whatever unacknowledged theories subtend it. If that’s the case—if these categorical beasts are as beastly as I contend—then despite the horrendous boredom works of “serious scholarship” ostensibly entail, without such work the quality of theoretical tinkering will decline. The machine’s only as reliable as its cogs. What disaster would befall the machinist who depends on cogs of talc! Springs all sprung but the talc cogs have evaporated and the machine, dear readers, the machine, its innards dusted with a fine coat of talc, grit for future gears.
Grit for future gears!
Given that any theoretical approach necessarily builds on these historical commonplaces, its fate is inextricably bound to the claims beneath the claims beneath its claims. If some of those are of dubious quality, then no matter how sophisticated or interesting the theoretical edifice built upon them, they fall with the foundation. Everywhere I turn I find foundations I wouldn’t even pitch a tent upon. (Much less build a house.) Since muddy foundations and putty cogs endanger all in equal measure, the call to continue pouring water on dirt from mixers made of talc seems to me the worst possible solution for all involved.
To put it another way (back on the beat!), the critical race theorist whose formulation of racialism involves a discussion of Social Darwinism in Gilded Age or Progressive America either 1) discovers the fact that Social Darwinism did not exist as advertised and adjusts his account to reflect more accurately the lineage of contemporary racial politics or 2) he never learns that Social Darwinism as advertised was a myth, never adjusts his account and, consequently, disseminates an inaccurate (and depending on the nature of the inaccuracy, potentially dangerous) account of race in contemporary America.
One question I demand answered by all invested parties is whether what I’ve said here rings true or is 1) simply more evidence of my substantial historicist bias or 2) another example of the same empiricist logic behind my persnickety resistance to psychoanalysis.
This argument, I should add, elides the fact that the writer’s as responsible for the quality of the work written as his or her approach, evidence or what-not. I can still sit down and read with enjoyment David Wallace’s Chaucerian Polity. We all feel this way about certain authors, as well. For example, I always find myself mesmerized by J.G. Ballard, but were you to describe to me the plot of Concrete Island, there’s little chance I’d be interested in reading it.