Sunday, 21 May 2006

Theory vs. Continental Philosophy: BLOGFIGHT! This is an updated version—in the sense that I've elaborated some points and abridged others—of an email I wrote yesterday. Writing it clarified some issues for me and my interlocutor, so I thought I'd post another version up here tonight. I've decided to elide the names of those persons who don't have a significant web-presence, since I don't have their permission to write about their lives and work. There's something about modernist literature which lends itself to and/or is consonant with continental philosophy. Joyce, Proust, Woolf, &c. attract people who study Lacan, Deleuze, Derrida, &c. The attraction is some combination of the characteristics of the text and the characteristics of the minds attracted to such texts, but whatever the explanation, the effect is palpable. There's certainly a relationship between continental philosophy and European modernism, as evidenced by the fact that almost everyone who works on the latter does so through the former. I'm being careful here to specify "continental philosophy" instead of Theory, since it's "continental philosophy" and not Theory which interests literary modernists. The reason? Modernism starts, depending on who you ask, with the European-inflected thought of William James on Gertrude Stein; or with Bergson's influence on Woolf and Joyce; or with any number of French intellectuals on Joyce, Beckett, and Pound; &c. There's a kind of historicist heart to the modernist's embrace of continental philosophy, since it's often essential to understanding the formal properties of the works being studied or the works which have influenced them. So, as an undergraduate I studied with M.P., a Joycean who split time between Santa Cruz and Paris in the '70s. He attended Lacan's seminars, worked with Derrida, and wrote a dissertation on Joyce under the direction of Fredric Jameson and Hayden White. (In graduate school, he, T.B.—now a notorious historicist—and M.B.W.—now just notorious—were close friends.) M.P. fancied himself a continental philosopher of sorts, but when he hit the market, he was considered a "theorist" because he was a continental philosopher of sorts who worked in an English department. My graduate school agenda, hatched with M.P. during many a long office hour, was to continue to massage my philosophically-inclined Joycean interests by coming to Irvine, where I could work with Derrida (who got a backchannel letter from M.P. vouching for me, a copy of which was sent to N.M., a prominent Wake scholar. To round out my undergraduate education, I sought out a guy in the French department named John Protevi. (You may know him as a frequent commenter on Michael's blog.) He's the editor of the Yale University Press's Dictionary of Continental Philosophy, and his personal interests are in Foucault and all things Deleuzoguattarian. He and I clicked, so I started reading Foucault and many things Deleuzoguattarian, learning about the conflicts internal to the continental tradition. So my graduate project, such that it was, entailed me coming to Irvine and continuing this course of study. When I got here, however, I discovered what I still take to be the central difference...
Lovely Viral Erudition "How much time 'til that post's done?" "Another 15 minutes at least." As CR noted, my intellectual biography revolved around the professors I worked with more than the ideas they helped me think through.* I could chalk that up to the empahsis of that particular post, but there's something to the notion that we adapt to our intellectual environs, and that the most imposing predators therein are the professors we work with. Let me weave a few conversations together here: CR: "I have found that the closer that I keep to the issues that are actually important to me, what keeps me up at night thinking and reading and writing, the happier I am and, so far, the better I do. The trick, as is always the trick in intellectual production, is adapting what is most authentically mine to what the market demands." Laura: "But my point is that you’re wrong to claim that love must end before 'pointed interest' (which I take to be the most you think a professional critic ought to own up to) can begin. You’ve every right to say there’s no place for love in your personal experience of writing about literature, and perhaps even within the culture of your institution, but there are no grounds for asserting that it’s also how things must work for everybody else. Reasoned, communicable academic scholarship and criticism is perfectly compatible with love, warmth, pleasure, curiosity, respect and enjoyment. I would even go so far as to say the very best criticism must harbour some sympathy for the object of its attention. It’s a negative capability thing. Marco Roth: "It seems to me that an interesting debate could be had about the idea of love implied in the essay. Can’t we go from love of a single author to love of styles that remind us of our first love? Can the circle of our affections widen without betraying us to pseudo-science? But surely the purpose of a profession ought to have some relationship to the reasons people have for entering it. And—thinking psychologically rather than professionally—what does actually happen in English departments?" Now thrust this all into the intellectual environment of an English department during graduate study and witness love's ideal evolution: You come to graduate school with love. You're forced to adapt that love to professional ends, preferably without soiling or despoiling it, in order to survive graduate school. You take your professionalized love to the MLA and hope that it enhances your performance and increases the odds that you'll land a job you can stomach. You land such a job and allow that love to guide your intellectual development for the rest of your days. Somewhere beneath that professional veneer your first love continues to inform the work. The formal properties of the academic article deaden interest in their content. Love enlivens the tired form. It inflates the flattened prose and communicates to the reader its contagion. Case in point. Now I'm gonna read Shakespeare. Why? Greenblatt...

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