Wednesday, 03 May 2006

Historians, Start Your Engines... The same day I get tagged by the History Carnival for my post on "Useable Pasts" sees my friend, the UPS man, arrive at my door to deliver Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography. How fortuitous. David Brown's book demonstrates one problem with the field of intellectual history: Intellectual historians often take the thinkers they write about at their word. I know you know the dead horse I wallop here.* For those who don't, a refresher course. The chapter on Social Darwinism and American Thought opens promisingly enough. "The New Deal changed everything," Brown writes. And it did. The influence of the New Deal and the reaction of those who, like Hofstadter, stood to Roosevelt's left cannot be quashed from any responsible intellectual history of the period. The New Deal shaped the dissertating Hofstadter's politics to a great extent, so much so that the former Communist critic of the New Deal created a mythic philosophical movement with which the New Dealers could pound their opponents. But from that point forward the quality of the chapter declines steeply. Example #1: But Hofstadter produced his thesis under the eye of Merle Curti, a pioneer in the emerging field of intellectual history. Liberated from the Progressive penchant for appointing heroes and villains, Hofstadter was able to merge both his politics and scholarship into a powerful critique of the great titans. (29) What? You want to know how Hofstadter "liberated himself from Progressive penchant for appointing heroes and villains," don't you? So do I. I've read few books as many times as I've read Social Darwinism and that statement so disconforms from my knowledge of the book that I'm barely able to type the following summary of Hofstadter's "Table of Contents": "The Coming of Darwinism": Summary of the period. "The Vogue of Spencer": Spencer is a big fat villain. "William Graham Sumner: Social Darwinist": So is Sumner. "Lester Ward: Critic": My Hero! "Evolution, Ethics, and Society": Huxley dreamy, Kidd nightmarish. "The Dissenters": My Heroes! "The Current of Pragmatism": Williams James and John Dewey! Give me a "P"! Give me an "R"! Give me . . . I could continue, but I think I've made my point. Hofstadter went to great lengths to create heroes and villains in his turn-of-the-century yarn. On some level, even Brown knows this: Hofstadter found a foil to Sumner's philosophy in the impressive scholarship of Lester Ward. (32) How, I wonder, does one have a foil without antipodes? And if Sumner plays foil to "the impressive" Lester Ward, how does that antipodal logic not cast Sumner as the villain and Ward as the hero? I'm baffled. I could continue all night, but I want to save some material for tomorrow. I'm only three pages into the chapter on Social Darwinism, but I should stop now, as I'm tempted to say, pace Ms. Parker, that this book should not be tossed lightly aside but hurled with great force. *Those with access to the OED can witness the fine pun I stumbled into...
The Wayback Machine: May 4, 2006 [Because many of my readers are of recent vintage—not to mention the fact that your Irvine Derridevils have a double-header tonight—I present to you this blast from the past. Originally posted on May 4, 2005, "How Not to Open, Close or Anything In-Between an Academic Essay" marked my entry into big-time blogging. No, not the sort of "big-time" that would unleash the hoards of boingboing on my (limited) bandwidth—but a more modest "big-time." My readership spiked from 25 to about 70 after this post, so I have a spot for it as soft as the one I have for its subject is sore. Note the reference to the fictional "A. Cephalous" which pepper it. Also note the overwrought prose of someone who tries far too hard. Ain't the fact that I don't have to do the former no more grand? Of the latter, the less said the better.] The discussion at The Valve keeps spurring memories of my erstwhile conversion to Church of Theory and Latter Day Feints in the Spring of '98. [Ugh.] The Critical Tradition clutched to my chest, I would speak to anyone willing to listen about "Butler's fascinating essay," presumably "Imitation and Gender Subordination," which at the time I felt "the most eye-opening thing I'd read all semester, in that the perspective it offered me [was] so different from what I assumed the 'gay' perspective to be that I [had] a distinct urge to round up everyone I know who's gay and interrogate them." [Maybe I should've mentioned that those quotations came from the statement of purpose that landed me this swank position at UCI. And this paragraph—did it really need to be this long? No.] [And now it isn't.] Very impolitic, I know, but at the time I only knew two verbs and "intervene" didn't work either. Also, I had spent the previous paragraph "intervening in Irigaray's critique of male-dominated hegemonic practices," and too much intervention left the young A. Cephalous feeling less effective than a Clintonian Democrat. (His phrase, not mine.) [Don't you love how I complain about tediously overwritten prose in tediously overwritten prose? I'm so ironic. And intentionally, no less.] And so when it came time to write an Honors thesis, I chose the topic closest to my heart: "a Wittgensteinian critique of the discursive function of the feminine and the cyborg in schlemihlhood in Thomas Pynchon's V. and Gravity's Rainbow." According to my abstract, By utilizing Donna Harraway's all-inclusive conception of cyborg identity I will investigate the realities Pynchon imposes on his characters' bodies without limiting the factual information provided about those realities to the demands on a system I impose on the text. Instead I will work with the epistemological boundaries present in the text itself, provided by the interaction of the historical details, literary allusions, and philosophical and scientific arguments. This will allow me to explicate the text's complexity without reducing it to a more palatable but less accurate representation of itself. [Why didn't I take the opportunity to...

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