(X-posted from the Valve)
As I’ve hinted, gestured at, and occasionally admitted, I’ve been working on an article about the history of theory in the ‘70s and ‘80s. If you’re interested in reading it—no need to play coy, I know you are—I’ve posted a conclusionless draft of it. (The reason for its conclusionlessness will be apparent to anyone who reads this post, or any other for that matter.) It won’t be the last thing I ever say about theory and the doing of it, but as it’s the culmination of three or four years of thinking seriously about this thing called theory, I’m fairly happy with it.
Some it may sound familiar, like you’ve read it or something like it somewhere before. That’s because you have. Following the example of Michael Bérubé, many of the local arguments—or as I like to call them, maneuvers—were born of blog. On the whole, though, most of it will be new. Here’s N. Pepperell’s summary of it:
Scott presents us with a tragedy of unintended consequences: new publication technologies, which on one level were liberatory for their ability to open up spaces for the discussion of marginalised areas of research, also facilitated the rise of isolated and balkanised intellectual micro-communities that incubated mutually-reinforcing in-group discourses and promoted hyper-specialisation and the growth of sub-sub-disciplines—fragmenting intellectual discourse and undermining the ability to recognise commonalities or to benefit from external critique. This process was further augmented by a canonisation of significant theoretical texts into a series of anthologies that were intended to raise the theoretical sophistication of the field by propagating important critical theoretic concepts. Unfortunately, the impact of such anthologies on pedagogical practice undermined this intended effect, resulting in a form of socialisation into theory as an eclectic and dehistoricised toolkit from which students were encouraged to mix and match ill-fitting conceptual tools. A somewhat more tacit narrative suggests that these technological and pedagogical shifts were spun in these particular directions - with these specific unintended consequences - in partial response to the broader context of the transformation of the academic job market in the 1970s and 1980s.
The consequence, Scott suggests, was a kind of institutionalisation of practically—if not necessarily intellectually—incommensurable micro-communities, alongside a general decline in the institutional and personal capacity to engage in serious and sustained critical debates across theoretical divides. This institutionalisation has progressed to the point where it is difficult to see where such engagements would take place, in the absence of the creation of fundamentally new kinds of institutional environments - a position Scott underscores with a poignant concluding quotation from Vijay Prashad, issuing a clarion call for overcoming the balkanised intellectual micro-communities that have developed in ethnic studies, but relegated to publishing this demand in the specialist Journal of Asian American Studies.
So Scott offers a clear, critical vision, articulated in the form of an historical account of how his object of critique has come to be. He advocates for the creation of new institutional spaces for interdisciplinary exchange—with a tacit nod to the internet as a potential technological enabler. He also puts forward some interesting critical standards—particularly in the form of a concept of “dialectical pluralism,” a strategy in which communities that share very few substantive assumptions might nevertheless benefit from the refinement that comes through the confrontation with fundamentally divergent theoretical and empirical traditions. While Scott uses the vocabulary of “incommensurability” in discussing such communities, he also appeals to a sort of meta-context of communicative ideals—those expressed in the notion that discussion amongst communities ought to take place based on “an aggressive commitment to strong beliefs, weakly held”—that point to a background network of shared norms that are conceptualised, at least potentially, to be comprehensible by, and defensible to, communities that might make claims that are incommensurable on other levels of abstraction.
I quote her summary rather than my abstract not only because it’s better, but because she takes the time to incorporate the strongest version of my argument into her critique of my methodology. (See her post—linked again for your convenience—and marvel as this engineer is repeatedly hoisted by his own petard.) Given the rumblings about faiths good, bad and unspeakable, I find comfort in the fact that the first substantial critic considered my argument in its strong form. If recent history is any indication, others may not be so charitable.
With good reason: they hold positions that can’t withstand the scrutiny a commitment to dialectical pluralism requires. (Being upbraided for excessive snark should stop me from extending this line of thought, but I have no shame . . . or, possibly, convictions. Hard to tell sometimes.) Dialectic requires a certain amount of seriousness, lest it become little more than contrarianism multiplied. If seriousness is not something you take seriously, I’m not your ideal interlocutor. All of which is only to say: should you want to have me hoisted by mine owne petar, you’ll need to pay your money at the gate. Metaphorically, of course . . .