My Photo


  • Creative Commons License

« Dear Purple, Pink & Brown Flannel Shirt, Relic of Youth & Grunge, | Main | In a Blatant Attempt to Win back My Love . . . »

Friday, 16 February 2007


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Rich Puchalsky

As the first insubstantial critic, I largely agree with N. Pepperell. Your comments have a clear normative basis; I think it's fairly clear where that comes from; it's not clear whether that context applies against a determined attempt to reject it. More at N. Pepperell's.


I meant substantial vis-a-vis hostile criticism. You framed yours as a gesture. (Insert emoticon here.)

Rich Puchalsky

Well, my response was a gesture; not as serious as N. Pepperell's. I just liked the image of the comment box as the insubstantial ghost, due to fade even before the blog post does.

Eileen A. Joy

First, I am glad I read this essay. 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).

Which 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 miscgenation 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 Ph.D. 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 to the "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, I'm afraid, 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 texts 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.


It might seem a little presumptuous of me to interject because I do not know very much at all about literary theory but the institutional spaces mentioned sound curiously reminiscent of what analytic philosophers have aspired to do, whether they achieved these aims is of course debatable.

Analytic philosophers tendency to approach philosophy at the level of individual problems can be seen as an attempt to enable communication. For example despite the great theoretical differences between logical positivists and typical contemporary analytic philosophers over things like the verifiability criterion of meaning and the conflation of analyticity and necessity an analytic philosopher can read an essay on universals by a positivist and still get a lot out of it. I do not think that analytic philosophy provides a model for the kind of project you are suggesting but the parallels are interesting. There are also similarities in how both analytic philosophy and your position are criticised, even the vocabulary used is similar. Today debate continues between positions which almost literally could not be more dissimilar, between realists and anti-realists, between relativists about various discourses and objectivists in various discourses and between believers in folk psychology who usually believe in things like intentions and between eliminativists who usually don’t.

As analytic philosophy becomes more specialised (not, usually, into specific positions but into different sets of puzzles) any model for struggling specialization developed by other disciplines in both the humanities and the sciences might be very useful.


Sorry to intrude, but, Eileen A. Joy, that was amazing!

On the 'secret desire to have things "whole" again, more "unified"', and on Scott Eric Kaufman's tacit appeal to a space outside the clash of theoretical positions, I can't help but recall Peggy Kamuf's critique of Gerald Graff's proposal to "teach the conflicts" -- and her subsequent historicisation of literary education -- in The Division of Literature, Or the University in Deconstruction.

But I want to say, in any case, that I enjoyed Scott's (if I may) paper very much.


The comments to this entry are closed.