Wednesday, 13 July 2005

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Theory's Empire: Ersatz Theoretical Ecumenicalism & Criticism qua Criticism Because the Technorati tags at the Valve seem not to be working, I'm cross-posting the completed version of the essay here: If asked to defend the publication of Theory’s Empire in twenty-six words, I’d write: "The Politics of Theories of Interpretation,” pp. 235-247 E.D. Hirsch, Jr. “Is There a Politics of Interpretation?” pp. 248-258 Walter Benn Michaels “The Politics of Interpretation,” pp. 259-278 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak Pilfered from the September, 1982 Critical Inquiry‘s table of contents, those twenty-six words represent the value of Theory’s Empire far more eloquently than I will. For most of its history, each number of Critical Inquiry contained a section entitled "Critical Response."[1] If the small sample above fails to indicate the stature of the critics who participated in this forum, the names of the two I omitted--Stanley Fish and Michael Fried--should seal the deal. At this early point in Theory's institutional history, representatives of particular theoretical approaches debated the merits of their respective approaches in one of the discipline's flag-ship journals. These debates were civil on the whole. Frank Kermode's response to Denis Donoghue is typical: "Like all sensible men I feel that to be read carefully by Denis Donoghue is a privilege rather than an ordeal; but although I am clearly to blame insofar as I allowed him to misunderstand me, I can't at all admit that he has damaged the argument I was trying to develop."[2] When uncivil, they were at least playfully so, as when Walter Davis anticipates his Fishing: "He'll pounce on some out of the way statement in your essay and cleverly use it to obscure the issues, incorporate every good point you've made, and then leave you in the embarrassing position of either already unwittingly agreeing with him or committed to an impossible position you never took."[3] This decorum provided the proponents of all theoretical orientations a forum in which to test the strengths and weaknesses of their own (and alternative) approaches. I've long thought the pages of early Critical Inquiry, peppered with the productive conflict of clashing theoretical models, a far better introduction to literary theory than any of the available anthologies: Hazard Adams' Critical Theory Since Plato, David Richter's The Critical Tradition, not to mention the latest entry, Vincent Leitch's The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. All of three of these anthologies attempt to encompass the history of "Theory" with a roll-call of primary sources that speak past more often than they speak to each other. (And, as I will explain shortly, they produce scholars who follow suit.) Each anthology glosses the importance of the works it includes in introductions to individuals thinkers, discreet movements or both. But even though they're typically written in the present tense, the rhetoric of these glosses is static and a-historical. Consider Hans Robert Jauss, whose "views of the historical nature of literary evaluation have influenced," according to The Norton, "debates over the literary canon in ways important to feminist, African American, and postcolonial critics."[4] Instead of framing the debates in...
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Theory's Empire: It's The Erudition, Dumb-Ass (In case Typepad's links are still borking, if you've come from here or here, scroll down to my second comment for not-so-exciting story ... because seriously, I said it was about two people talking about cats. I hope you weren't expecting fireworks.) Few of the substantial responses to Mark Bauerlein's recent review of Theory's Empire ignored the "erudition exchange" (quoted below the fold in full). Michael Berube, sitting in the very same bus, verifies that the exchange took place and even expands upon it. Apparently this poor graduate student couldn't even spell e-r-u-d-i-t-i-o-n. Even as the Theory's Empire symposium swung into gear, I couldn't stop thinking about the way people responded to the "erudition exchange." Sure, I could point to the irony of people forwarding the review around livejournal--"Look! I know why I hate English professors: they're not erudite anymore. They only repeat what other people say. Mark Bauerlein says so. Pass it on!"--but I knew its status as a meme with wheels had more to do with something other than a lazy confirmation of other people's supposed intellectual shortcomings. And I think it is. But until I started seeing the responses to Adam Kotsko's contribution to the colloquium, I didn't know what it was. Now I think I maybe do: it's the erudition, dumb-ass. No, not the "erudition exchange," nor even what it's meant to convey. It's the actual lack of a culture in which erudition is valued as anything other than an ideal. What do I mean? As I re-read Hillis Miller's response to M.H. Abrams (whose response to Hillis Miller's earlier response to Abrams is the subject of Adam's response to Abrams) about criticism's parasitic but salutary relation to literature, I was struck (for the 91st time this week) by Miller's massive and intimidating erudition. He can jump from German Romanticism to Greek etymology to Hardy to Hebrew to Heidegger to Wallace Stevens in a single paragraph. Not only does he seem to remember everything he's ever read, he's able to contextualize it in the service of a deconstructive reading of a poem. Now, despite the evident hatred of the Right for the epistemic relativism deconstruction--at least in the Right's version--necessarily entails, I think even Alan Bloom would agree that Miller is a figure who's imbibed all his culture, Western Culture, has offered him. In short, Miller is a figure who puts to lie the conservative belief that Western Culture breeds traditional values. (Not that it's that difficult a notion to put to lie.) Then again, it's not as if the Right has had to contend with figures like Miller lately, i.e. it's not like graduate schools are producing thinkers of Miller's stature anymore, and the reason, I'm this close to contending, isn't that students backslide into the sins of deconstruction, identitarian politics or advocacy criticism. No, the reason is that it's no longer necessary to read Heidegger before reading Derrida. (Not that there's anything to profound in that statement.) But, whereas it's always been easy to...

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