Wednesday, 19 November 2008

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How not to use Theory's Empire Scanning through the critical literature on Kafka—the dissertation finished, I'm free to pursue old ideas—I run into an essay which uses Theory's Empire in the very manner the anthology's critics assumed everyone would. I will, however, Google-proof my exasperation by replacing all mentions of Derrida and things Derridean with cognates of the word carrot. The essay begins: The 2005 volume includes major reassessments of poststructuralist theory, notably [The Carrot's] . . . . The emphasis on "undecidability" in Kafka can be viewed as symptomatic of the influence of [Carrot] Theory embraced by the American literary academy in the 1970s and 1980s . . . . But [lowercase-c carrot's] skeptical effect undermined the certitude that Kafka was a politically important novelist. For its detractors, the [carrotist] view that there is "nothing outside of the text" ignores that texts like Kafka's have shaped human lives and human history. Reductive enough for you? No? How about this? Wellek, who helped to introduce [Carrot] theory to American literature departments, now asserts that [carrots] have destroyed literary studies, while Frederick Crews argues that "[the Carrot's] judgment that 'there is nothing outside the text' automatically precludes recourse to evidence." In Crews's view, "both [the Carrot] and his myriad followers think nothing of appropriating and denaturing propositions from systems of thought whose premises they have already rejected." Thomas Nagel goes further in condemning "post-modern relativism" as a "quick fix" which puts reason to sleep. In Theory's Empire, [the Carrot]'s language is described as a "maze," a "prison house of language," a "limbo of combined attention and nonassertion." These assessments appeal to raw authority. Crews and Nagel hate on [the Carrot] and rightly so. Why? Because [the Carrot's] language is as empty and invidious as that of Kafka's bureaucrats: [T]o what degree do [the Carrot's] rhetorical devices and ingenious language games resemble the language of the Courtiers who torture Joseph K.? Care to guess what conclusion the author draws? I take comfort in the thought that everyone will admit this is an awful appropriation of the thought forwarded in Theory's Empire—that it is to academic argument what posts on Kos are to nuanced political thought—but remember that this sort of anti-intellectual response is exactly what the anthology's detractors warned would follow if it ever gained traction. While I think this falls under "the abuses" instead of "the uses" of the collection, I still feel the queasy creep of wrongness starting to settle in . . . .

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