[Now spectacularly X-posted to The Valve]
Spring Quarter's Critical Theory Emphasis mini-seminar will be led by Nancy Fraser and is entitled "Reframing Justice in a Globalizing World." I speak not to the content of the CTE event (about which I know nothing) but the rhetoric of its presentation. Passing over for the moment the importance of the seminar indicated by continuing activity its title implies—"Fear not! You're part of a movement of reframers. You are not now nor will you ever be reframing alone!"—I focus instead on the title of the third session: "From the Framing of Politics to the Politics of Framing."
That's a classic chiasmus . . . even if it lacks the poetry of Yeats' "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death." Yeats plays with the tension produced by chiasmus in "An Irish Airman." Observe the final four lines:
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
Note the imperfection of the outer the chiasmus. The element of "balance" occupies the initial position in both. The idea behind a chiasmus is to create the impression of order. Yeats exploits this by inverting the already inverted terms. The logic of chiasmus demands the second and third lines above read
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years to come . . .
Instead Yeats layers the inversions. The airman's past and future—inversive figures from the present moment—occupy the same position in the chiasmus. Both refer to breaths wasted when compared to the heroic death he anticipates. The airman refers to balance while his words undermine the balance of his rhetorical gesture. Yeats strains against the strictures of chiasmus in order to demonstrate the manner in which life does. The failed establishment of poetic order emphasizes the struggle against what Beckett infamously christens "the mess." The airmen strives "to find a form that accommodates the mess." Only the mess always wins. The contest to create the order one fails to discern in the world will turn tragic in the end. (On this Beckett insists.)
A certain breed of literary scholars failed to learn from this. I admit that my initial infatuation with Deleuzian philosophy stemmed from its opposition to all things hierarchical. Its rhizomes embraced the messiness of the world and I liked that. You know: "To every chiasmus inheres a line-of-flight." But then there's the other trend in literary scholarship: that of the unacknowledged or crypto-hierarchy which often sails under the flag of Theory. Certainly the perfectly chiasmatic and orderly theoretical works of literature should not condemn the entire enterprise . . . but in panel and session titles like the ones above I see the creep of the worst infecting the best. Fraser's chiasmus is a clever implement designed to channel the conversation in a sorely limited direction. As Brook Thomas explains of another such chiasmus:
There is a tendency to transform the chiasmatic relationship from one of difference into one of identity. This tendency is neatly illustrated in Warner's transformation of Montrose's formulation, "the historicity of texts and the textuality of history," into the assertion that "the text is historical; and history is textual." This replacement of difference by identity leads to another tendency—that of disciplinary imperialism, masquerading as interdisciplinary work. The chiasmatic coupling of two disciplines has the appearance of interdisciplinarity. But, if, as in the case of Warner, the other discipline can be reduced to textuality, the most perceptive cultural critics turn out to be—lo and behold—readers of texts. Since everything is a text and since literary critics are trained to read texts, some feel quite comfortable moving to texts produced in disciplines outside their field and telling the naive (but professionally trained) practioners of those fields how those texts should be read. (10)
Thomas refers to this tendency as "disciplinary arrogance." I'd stress that it's abetted by the convenience of a philosophical position which reduces everything to "the text" via declarations that il n'y a pas de hors-text. If one assumes Derrida's correct isn't what necessarily follows from it a kind of disciplinary imperialism? (This obviously wouldn't stem from Derrida's work so much as chiasmatic appropriations and elaborations of his thought.)
All of which is only to implore you to distrust unmessy chiasmus. I think. But it's been a "the option" day today . . . which means I may only be cranky.