Wednesday, 06 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.)

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