Friday, 08 July 2005

A Theory of Everything? Jesus, Man, I Have a Dissertation to Write... In "Theory of Everything," Michael Berube argues: Bauerlein’s complaint about theory anthologies is that they are not sufficiently critical of theory, except when—and this is a remarkable escape clause—“one school of thought in the grouping reproves another.” As I say over there, I don’t think that’s necessarily an escape clause, nor do I think it’s entirely accurate. The extent of criticism I see of someone else’s theoretical position--and this aligns with Amardeep’s point that the best contributions in Theory’s Empire could themselves be considered theorists--is often painfully superficial, i.e. less “criticism” than dismissal. But an informed criticism of, say, Derrida would require an incredible investment of time (not to mention intellectual energy), and if you already know you’ve an aversion to the arguments produced by a deconstructive critic you’re unlikely to make that investment. Is this, as you suggest, intellectual laziness? Because I’d say it’s a matter of perspective-plus-prioritization. If I sidle up to a deconstructive critic and we talk about literature from his perspective, I’ll need to be walked through his argument’s finer points, and if I’m an ass about it, he’ll think me intellectual lazy (and an ass). If we talk about literature from my perspective, I’ll have to walk him through my arugment’s historical nuances, and if he’s an ass about it, I’ll think him intellectually lazy (and an ass). The problem, as I see it, is that English departments are populated by an unusually large number of asses (whether we arrived so or became such through practice, practice, practice is another matter entirely). The thing is, even if we’re not asses about our ignorance, its etiology’s still the same: I’m not too quick on the aporia for the same reason the deconstructive critic isn’t too quick on the historical nuances, i.e. we’re not at the present moment interested in each other’s approach to literature. I don’t think that’s intellectual laziness so much as simple prioritization. Given an infinite amount of time, I’d read everything and be able to speak intelligently about it all; given that I have a limited amount of time to produce this dissertation, write another article before my tenure review, &c., I focus my reading on 1) critical debates within my favored approach and 2) secondary material produced by scholars who share that approach. Does that mean I’m not curious? Certainly not...but it does mean that I’m more likely to dismiss, say, a Freudian argument than attempt to engage it on its own terms. (Because I’m an ass.) As Berube noted, the Balkanization of the discipline’s such that you can hire an entire junior faculty and not have a single one of them conversant with their selected peers’ sub- or sub-sub-disciplines. Note: Jonathan Mayhew has an interesting entry on how these meta-theoretical debates contribute nothing to the study of literature but do an excellent job creating a sense of shared community (through perpetual argument) in English departments. (That's not exactly what he says, but it is suggested by his comments.)
The Pseudonymunculus Returns, or Last Month's Squid Fancy, Anyone? [Apologies in advance to those whose sites I cluttered with redundant trackbacks. Must remember: press "Post" once. Remain patient. Patient.] The latest Chronicle pseudonymunculus to discuss the (potential) professional pitfalls of blogging, one "Ivan Tribble," reveals the real problem with the academic hiring process: namely, that candidates are vetted by search committees as imperfect and impolitic in their lives as the candidates are in theirs. What say ye, masses? Daniel Drezner suggests that Ivan Tribble's department avoid adding to its collective imperfection by never hiring anyone ever again. I'm inclined to agree. J. Rice criticizes Tribble for condemning academics who have interests outside academia. Again, I agree. KF wants to know why Tribble assumes that professors who blog responsibly will turn turncoat once hired and air departmental dirty laundry. So do I. Finally, Colin wonders whether Tribble's candidates will recognize themselves in the article and file a formal complaint. This one I'm not so sure about, but I'm not an overly litigious fellow. Why, do you ask, have I taken you on a little tour of the results Technorati returns when you search for blogs that link to the Chronicle article? (FYI: I could link to many more.) Because anonymous or not, the almost instant response of working academics to an article published in the Chronicle is the very reason more academics ought to be blogging, not evidence of why more shouldn't. Why is that? Because I'm not intelligent enough to encompass an issue on my lonesome. In my perhaps over-enthusiastic response to the opening of the Valve, I noted the difference between what I thought academia would be like and what it turned out to be. What I thought it would be: an intellectual forum in which stimulating ideas were bandied back and forth by parties arguing in good faith. What it turned out to be (quoting Appiah again): an environment in which "the intertwining of academic and social agendas has given rise to an outlandish rhetorical inflation, a storming-of-the-Bastille bombast brought to bear on theoretical niceties." My point? This is a blog, people. As Mr. Tribble correctly observes, I don't need a point to write an entry. Having a point isn't an enabling condition of blogging, it's an enabling constraint. I could begin with a point (enabling condition) and communicate it to the world in the totaliterian fashion favored by totalitarians, but I could easily begin by entering a conversation (enabling constraint) among fellow academics and contribute to it. Sometimes even constructively. Or I could hunker down in my departmental office and silently grumble about the specious venditations of every one else employed by my employer. Like the dreadful Dr. De Tenebration who published fourteen articles last year, and the insufferable Dr. Oegopsid, always carrying the latest issue of Squid Fancy, &c. Were I inclined to grumble so, my mutterances would be heard by a party of one. No conversation. No feedback. No plaudits. Nothing. Still, I could always cart my muttertations to the Chronicle for anonymous publication....

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