January 23, 2005

Theory or anti-theory Theory?

Cultural conservatives in Australia often make a bit of fuss about something they call 'Theory', which is associated with political correctness, the cultural wars and the professionalization of academe. It has been a very messy and frustrating "debate."

Though I've never really understood what was meant by 'Theory' exactly, I roughly understand it to be related to the literary institution, the philosophy that is discussed in these pages, a theoretically informed criticism and philosophical aesthetics. From my expereinces in philosophy departments in Australia the resistance to 'Theory' often expressed an Anglo-American concern or anxiety to imported French and German philosophy (Hegel Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida etc) by lefty academics.

This historical understanding accords with Mark Kaplin's interpretation over at Charlotte Street. Mark says:

"...the objection (or 'resistance') to theory [more] typically ... refers to a phalanx of mainly ‘imported’ theories which have become increasingly influential in academia throughout the past 30 years or so. These are, very broadly: Marxism (in various guises), psychoanalysis and 'deconstruction'. If what unites these various 'theories' or schools is equidistance from (what had been) orthodox criticism, then 'Theory' would hardly be a particularly coherent or useful category.

It might also seem that this concern with 'theory' is a rather Anglo-centric one, if one thinks of how, in Germany and France, for instance, theoretically and philosophically informed criticism has long been the norm. The brilliance of Benjamin’s analyses of Kafka and others, Adorno or Bloch’s thinking on and by literature, or the meditative essays of Blanchot, are all testimony to the rewards of a theoretically informed criticism."

Okay, that is my cultural background which informs the way I approach this issue.

I mention this because the concern with 'Theory' has resurfaced in the blogosphere with a variety of responses to Gerald Graff's new book, Clueless in Academe. This text is seen to reopening the door on the debate about theory (feminism, post-colonial criticism, deconstruction etc) as well as asking what is a liberal arts education supposed to be about these days?

As Armadeep Singh asks:

Do we really know what we're doing when we teach literature? ... More closely: It is often assumed unproblematically that [the] key goals in the English classroom are to enable students to 1) do close readings, 2) think analytically and critically, and 3) write persuasive arguments in support of their ideas. But all of these are actually things that should be defined more carefully than they usually are, and probably also questioned and contested. What does a close reading consist of exactly? Is there a philosophical or ethical reason why students should do them? And what is an argument exactly? Why is it so devilishly difficult to get students to develop and sustain them?"

I had read Graff's earlier text Beyond the Culture Wars several years ago,and from memory the 'beyond' referred to teaching the culture (canon) wars of the 1980s and 1990s in academia. He argued that it was necessary to bring the controveries to the centre of the academic curriculum in literary studies instead of trying to hide the disagreements about the canon and politics.

Now the responses to Graff's text go beyond the literary institution as they touch on Richard Rorty and continental philosophers such as Derrida. Philosophy is a part of the debate over Thoery. What are the concerns here?

John Holbo says:

"I accuse Theory of being a puffer fish. When you can see you are about to be attacked, inflate to several times your actual size in an attempt to intimidate the attacker into backing off .... We see the puffer in action when thinkers like Derrida imply that Theory is just philosophy, so that resistance to Theory = resistance to philosophy; and when thinkers like de Man imply that Theory is just attention to the nature of language, so that resistance to theory = resistance to language; and when Eagleton declares these days that Theory is just moderately systematic self-reflective study of a subject matter, so resistance to Theory = resistance to any kind of systematic thinking."

I translate that into this:

Those who do 'Theory' (continental philosophy) do not argue.

Why do I do that kind of translation?

Because of my cultural background that I mentioned above. In this context the conflicts were not taught nor the issues addressed. The no argument claim was a very standard criticism made by analytic philosophers about continental philosophy. The standard criticism said that those who write texts earmarked as continental philosophers o not argue. So we (philosophers) do not have to engage with them, as they are non-philosophers. We only engage with those who argue in the way that we do.

At the time (the 1990s) I've found this pretty self-serving, as it meant that the analytic philosohers did not have to do the hard yards and read the texts or engage with them. It was all about gatekeeping (power) not philosophy.

So it was always unclear what the issues between the analytic and continental schools were. The history of the toubled relationship was little guide (Kant is a pivotal dividing figure) as there was little philosophical contact. Rorty can be seen as the change agent here.

Times move on. We are now online. Before we step into these troubled waters we need to see what is Graff saying. We can do this as the Introduction and Chapter I of Clueless in Academe is online (as a pdf file).

I will take a closer look in next post.


Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at January 23, 2005 04:38 PM | TrackBack

But, Gary, since 'theory doesn't argue' is not a premise but a conclusion; also, since you don't actually say what (if anything) is wrong with the one argument you do quote - the one about 'theory' being used equivocally as a synonym for 'philosophy' when really it is at most a name of a particular cluster of styles or thinkers; also, since none of my arguments are analytic philosophy-based; also, since it is rather uncharitable of you simply to assume critics of theory suffer from 'anxiety' in the presence of French and German imports. Well, to make a long story short, why isn't it perfectly reasonable of me to respond to your dismissal of my arguments by turning what you have written around, like so?

What you are advancing is a very standard criticism of analytic philosophy on behalf of continental philosophy. Those who write texts earmarked (in this case wrongly) as analytic philosophy cannot understand the deep thoughts of continental philosophy (even if, like Holbo, they study the history of continental philosophy AND theory.) So we do not have to engage with them, as they are non-philosophers. We only engage with those who 'argue' in the way that we do.

I've always found this pretty self-serving, as it means that you do not have to read critics of theory or engage with them. It is about gatekeeping not critical inquiry, as there is no move to consider whether all the noise about 'teaching the conflicts' amounts to any teaching of the conflicts.

Now isn't this excessively harsh as a judgment on what you have written? But it is just the mirror-image of what you wrote about me. The moral of the story: We'll never get any teaching of the conflicts done this way. You have to start by actually considering whether the other side has arguments, and whether they are any good. Merely assuming it can all be put down to intellectually inadequate anxiety doesn't cut it.

If you are actually curious about my arguments against theory, check out my long mock-Platonic dialogue (linked from the recent post entitled Precluding Untheoretic Prescript.) Then, if you think the arguments are bad, you can explain what it is about the arguments that makes them bad.



Posted by: jholbo on January 25, 2005 12:52 PM


Sorry and apologies.

I wasn't gunning for you.My intent was to open up the issue by pulling the different threads together from where i was situated then to read Graff's chapter, then get back.

I think that it is an important issue and that we do need to place it in the centre, which is what you have done. I applaud you for that.

My standard argument attributed to analytic philosophers wasn't directed at you. It referred back to my own experiences when I was in a philosophy department in Australia and taught philosophy. Philosophers stopped conducting themselves as philosophers when they came to the issue of Theory.

I'll revise my post to reflect this, then get back to the points you raised.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on January 25, 2005 01:25 PM

I think my interest in this pseudo-debate ended with the initial acute dismissal of Terry Eagleton on pas au-dela.

Posted by: anon on January 25, 2005 01:38 PM

The obsession with the pseudo-entity "theory" as popularly used to dismiss continental and particularly French Heideggerian philosophy without addressing any arguments as such is *bad* for reasons that are so extremely obvious to anyone genuinely concerned as to beg the question why they even deserve attention in the first place, unless one is motivated primarily by the ego rush of vanquishing straw men and buttressing one's credentials in the unbearably self-reflexive, pompous, reductive world of analytic philosophy. Some might say.

Posted by: Matt on January 25, 2005 01:57 PM

I'm not sure polemics are the most useful tact here; please accept my most humble apologies.

Posted by: Matt on January 25, 2005 01:58 PM

Analytics are just so goddamn fucking boring.

Posted by: anon on January 25, 2005 01:59 PM

It is perfectly reasonable of you to respond to my dismissal of your arguments by turning what I have written around as you did.

Point taken.

I'm not interested in the polemics. That has gone on for too long and got us nowhere.

When I wrote the post I had assumed that Graff would address the issue of Theory in Chapter I; but, scanning though it just know, it is clear that he does not.

So on the point that you raise:

"you don't actually say what (if anything) is wrong with the one argument you do quote - the one about 'theory' being used equivocally as a synonym for 'philosophy', when really it is at most a name of a particular cluster of styles or thinkers;"

I agree.

That is why I distinquished between the philosophy and literary institutions. The issues raised by the conflict over Theory are different in each of them.

In the philosophy institution I would guess 'Theory' raises the issue of are their different ways of philosophy? Rather than what are we doing when we teach philosophy?

My guess is that most philosphers (analytic and continental) would say that we are teaching students to think critically and not confuse arguments with polemics.

So how do we go about doing this? That's when we split.

Then we split on the content?

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on January 25, 2005 02:42 PM

you write:

"I think my interest in this pseudo-debate ended with the initial acute dismissal of Terry Eagleton on pas au-dela."

Eagleton is mostly talking about the literary institution. I'm not sure that his remarks carry over to the philosophical one. Most of this debate is about literary theory, not philosophy (where the content is about realism, objectivity and truth).

However, I do concur with Matt about Eagleton's texts re postmodernism (though I have yet to read 'After Theory',I have read the 1996 'The Illusions of Postmodernism'). Matt says:

'...what Eagleton fails to do is rigorously distinguish between what is generally slandered as "postmodernism" and the subtle insights of poststructuralism. (The latter, of course, raises difficult questions for a neo-Marxist.) In fact Eagleton more often than not fails to acknowledge any distinction whatsoever. So he risks taking the worst sloganized prejudices of the tired "culture wars" as both his beginning and, unfortunately, his end point. Just hang in there, ye academics, don't bother to read Derrida, wink, nudge, nudge.'

Tis well said.

Your other comment:

"Analytics are just so goddamn fucking boring."

Well not if you see analytics as part an academic culture of argument and listen to what Graff is saying.

He points to the difficulties students have when they encounter that culture and find that they have to figure things out for themselves because no one tells what is about. Hence the sense of being clueless and dumb.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on January 25, 2005 03:11 PM

your polemic describes what does go on in philosophy departments----it has been my bitter experience as well-- but I'm more or less convinced that the bigotry and prejudice you describe is not all that goes on.

So we can leave that stuff on the side of the road and move on.

Moving on is a more fruitful approach as we may learn something from the encounter with those willing to engage in tems of the academic culture they say they are a part of and uphold.

What we need to do is find people making arguments and deal with those--just as you did in your second review of Eagleton's 'After Theory.'

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on January 25, 2005 04:21 PM

Gary, fair enough. Very judicious of you.

Posted by: Matt on January 25, 2005 06:27 PM

I came across this review of Eagleton's 'After Theory.' What I find interesting is this bit:

"Eagleton articulates a set of ideas about the nature of human happiness and of the collective life necessary to achieve it that is often persuasive and beautiful. From Aristotle he takes the notion that happiness is not, as capitalist ideology insists, a matter of achieving wealth or success or indeed any goal but of fulfilling one's nature as a human being, the flourishing of one's innate capacities for excellence and virtue.

But if the good life means becoming more fully human by developing the virtues, it takes both strenuous practice (one becomes brave or compassionate by being brave or compassionate) and the social conditions that make such practice possible.

Ethics, in other words, is a subset of politics. "If you want to be good, you need a good society," Eagleton writes; "nobody can thrive when they are starving, miserable or oppressed." A true ethics is thus a materialist one, a morality not of feeling but of acting: feeding the hungry, comforting the sick."

Eagleton is rediscovering the philosophical roots of Marx.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on January 25, 2005 07:17 PM

I prefer the second page myself:

"All this is admirable and powerful, but there are problems. For one thing, the argument isn't nearly as coherent as I've made it sound, but proceeds instead by zigs and zags, often little more than a grab-bag of discussions, definitions and digressions, as Eagleton tries to tackle every issue he thinks the present situation demands but without having integrated them all into a coherent framework. Reading his two previous books, The Gatekeeper, a memoir, and Figures of Dissent, a collection of reviews, one discovers that he's adapted nearly a score of passages from those works for the present one. (His fertility, it turns out, is partly a matter of shameless self-plagiarism.) No wonder the book feels patched together.

For another thing, Eagleton's argument is often not much of an argument at all but rather a series of assertions that sympathetic readers are likely to agree with but that hardly stand up to the kind of rigorous analysis he himself uses so tellingly against his opponents. The fact is that for all his polish and brilliance as an explicator of other people's ideas, Eagleton has never been much of an original thinker. (Those who can, think up Marxism; those who can't, apply such insights to Clarissa or Wuthering Heights.) He even acknowledges as much in The Gatekeeper, referring to a youthful job as an encyclopedia salesman as his "earliest experience of peddling ideas to the masses, a project which was later to become my full-time occupation." The remark may be funny, but it's no joke. Here, trying to create a kind of moral-political Theory of Everything, he gets badly out of his depth."

Although the third page degenerates a bit too far, lamentably resorting to the pseudo-category of "anti-Americanism." As for Aristotle, there are probably better disciples than Eagleton.

Posted by: Matt on January 27, 2005 01:35 AM

What can I say?

I agree with the above description of the way that Eagleton argues. It is a witty consumer guide.

But hell, I can accept that kind of polished rhetoric after reading Bataille, Klossowski and now Blanchot.

Philosophers can reconstruct his arguments if they want.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on January 27, 2005 11:46 AM

yeah you are right. Theory raises anxieties and concerns within the literary institution, and I would add the art institution, where formalism reigned for so long.

Theory came to be in the 1980s and 1990s with its concerns about what constitutes a literary or art work, the canon, how we read the text, a criticism of the mathew Arnold conception of literature and ethical improvement.

Are we not dealing with aesthetics that calls itself by another name?--one marked more by politics than philosophical aesthetics .

I see the moment of theory as signifying a change in the culture of the art and literary institutions.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on February 13, 2005 06:59 PM
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