Tuesday, 11 July 2006

The Two Are Not One [x-posted from the Valve ] In “The End of the Poststructuralist Era,” from Follies of the Wise, Frederick Crews charts the hasty marriage and slow estrangement of poststructuralist thought and New Left activism. His argument, and its implications, may surprise you. You see, the Yale School of deconstruction’s “manifest aim was ... to bring a spirit of erudite whimsy into the discussion of familiar [canonical] books, which would be rendered only more endearing by the discovery that their meanings were more multitudinous and undecidable than anyone had yet surmised” (308). Too true, too true. Only, why would the discovery of even “more multitudinous and undecidable” dimensions to canonical literature open up the canon to previously marginalized voices? Wouldn’t deconstruction have the opposite effect? Hillis, speaking here in his 1986 presidential address, certainly thought so: As everyone knows, literary study in the past few years has undergone a sudden, almost universal turn away from theory in the ordinary sense of an orientation toward language as such and has made a corresponding turn toward history, culture, society, politics, institutions, class and gender conditions. (283) Color me confused. Here I thought theory necessarily entailed the commitments it so recently acquired. Here I thought older modes of criticism possessed the retrograde politics. Here I thought a lot of things a little historical perspective shattered. Why? Because the explanations were conceptual. Because they’re always conceptual. Poststructuralist thought always allies itself with a progressive politics, and poststructuralist thinkers always fold the latter into the former. The result? Opposition to poststructuralist thought necessarily entails an opposition to the progressiveness of its immanent politics. Now I can complain that those politics aren’t immanent, that no textual orientation contains an immanent politics, but I will be shouted down by those who experience as natural their political and theoretical commitments, who cannot disentangle them because, well, because no one can offer a convincing reason that they should. For the better part of two decades, literary critics have used a poststructuralist theoretical approach to generate a body of progressive thought, so of course the two appear inseparable. Factor in the overwhelming number of conservative critics who fancy themselves poststructuralists, then think about it: If everyone who does what they do shares the same politics, and everyone who doesn’t, doesn’t, why would they question a connection that feels so natural to them? They have no reason to. So they haven’t. I have, but from the wrong direction. I started in the ‘70s moving forward, from the moment when the former radicals gained purchase in the discipline. All this time, I should have been looking at it from the other direction, from the ‘80s moving backwards. To point out, as Hillis does above, that “theory in the ordinary sense” existed independently of the commitments it eventually acquired. Conceptual arguments be damned, I say, I have history. The two are not one, not naturally. They may be one of this lot, but more than likely not. Just a simple couple whose marriage, while productive,...
On The Adaptive Unconscious & It Not Being a Terrible Idea [I should dedicate this post to Ray Davis, without whom I couldn't have written it. But who dedicates posts to people? That said, one item he linked to deserves special consideration, as it proves stuff written years ago possesses commensurate quantities of wit and intelligence to things posted within the past 24 hours. Also, I remember now why I miss him, and regret again whatever part I played in driving him away. But enough of that. To the post!] Today is one of those rare days I regret not being a "professional" blogger. I have so much on my plate—so much which seems urgent—that I hardly know where to focus my attention. So I'll let someone else decide: Following Ray's links, I stumbled on Jonah Lehrer's lukewarm defense of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink. Unbeknownst to you, dear readers, I wrote a very similar account not only of Gladwell's book, but of all popular neuroscience, in which I declared sublime those "meta-" moments that only books about human consciousness provide. For example: Picture in your mind the face of Marilyn Monroe. Ready? You just used your fusiform gyrus. (219) Blows my mind every time. I love books that produce the physiological effects they describe in the act of describing them. Steven Pinker's explanations may be just-so stories, but the processes for which they account are solid science. When he says "when Y, then X," you can be certain that when a guy confronts Y, his brain explodes with X—even if X didn't develop because a greater percentage of monkeys who could scuttle up trees one-handed in the rain survived than didn't. Now, thanks to Lehrer, I can trumpet Timothy D. Wilson's Strangers to Ourselves too, only without all the caveats Gladwell inspired. For one, the complaint about the dearth of footnotes evaporates. Wilson documents the studies he cites, and I've spent the past couple of hours browsing through those articles. I'm surprised by what I've found. More often than not, the claims the authors propound are far more radical than those Wilson attributes to them. He tones them down, renders them more palatable to the regnant orthodoxy. Which is odd. Most popular science writers inflate the importance of the research they cite in order to grab the reader's attention. (Norman Holland and Steven Pinker spring to mind.) Why does Wilson take the opposite tack? I'm not sure. It may be constitutional. Anyone who can "teach the conflicts"—that is the first non-paywalled link I could find—the way Wilson can possesses the rare talent for fairness in the face of vicious intellectual bluster. He presents all arguments—the psychoanalytic included—in their strongest forms and that, apparently, entails deflating the work of contemporary cognitive science while inflating the importance of psychoanalytic "findings." With the exception of Occam's Razor's appearance on page 79 —there is "no need to introduce additional theoretical constructs"—psychoanalysis seems a viable, if frequently problematic, alternative to contemporary cognitive theory. (Which, of course, merely validates the "scientific" quality of Freud's intuitions. Not that Wilson...

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