Monday, August 29, 2005

Too many cooks spoil the brouhaha

Which is one reason why I didn't join in the Theory's Empire dustup (now in remission) over at The Valve and other related sites. (Another is that I didn't have the book.) I did follow along, though, and I was struck by how defensive some people were about the very idea of such a collection. Isn't it obvious that taking a critical view of Theory isn't the same as (in increasing order of horrificness) 1) embracing bad old theories of literary meaning; 2) duh, being a troglodyte; 3) voting Republican?

However, I recently picked up the volume, and I have to admit that my first impression of it was that such viscerally negative reactions are perfectly understandable (if not particularly constructive). Like many other defenses of culture against Theory, the overall tone here seems – so far, anyway – to be not of level-headed engagement with esteemed but misguided colleagues, but instead of pouring boiling oil onto the barbarians at the gates (or on those already inside, raping and pillaging defenseless literature). I have still only skimmed it, but I've already run across some seriously snarky rhetoric: words like "glut" and "parrot" and "gospel" and "otiose" and "pervasive" and "gurus" and "bizarre" and "labyrinthine" and "obsessive." (No naked emperors yet, though; could we really have seen the last of that one??) The introduction sets the tone to which I refer; I was struck, for example, by this poisonous patch of purple prose, the peroration of the piece:
[I]t is evident that today's theoretical vocabulary has led to an intellectual void at the core of our educational endeavors, scarcely masked by all the posturing, political zealotry, pretentiousness[,] general lack of seriousness, and the massive opportunism that is particularly glaring in the extraordinary indifference to or outright attacks on logic and consistency (p.13).
Holy smoke! Not surprisingly, the most common digs at Theorists, here as elsewhere, are the ones attributing to them not simply some intellectual failing, but also some moral vice, usually hypocrisy: they reject all dogmatism – except their own! They claim to be working for the downtrodden – but they're self-absorbed fatcats! They claim to be doing new and exciting things – but they're unoriginal conformists, just putting new labels on the same tired old crap! Et cetera!

Now I would be the last to deny that this old shoe can find plenty of feet to fill it. (I actually have no clue as to the extent of the problem, as described. I last took an English course in 1980 (which was perfectly fine), and I haven't really run into it that much myself. On the other hand, there is a vaguely analogous doctrinal divide in philosophy between "analytic" and "continental" philosophy; but it's not the same – even though Hegel, for example, is making a half-hearted comeback, no-one's getting rich and famous touting Hegelian Theory, and stacking whole departments with ambitious acolytes. It did get ugly a while back, though, I understand, with power grabs at the annual convention, etc. But nothing like the Theory wars, since no-one cares about philosophy anyway.) The more worthless the material in question, though, the less informative it is to hear that we need to rouse the troops to combat it. Politically motivated sophomoric-relativist nonsense? Sounds ghastly; let's get rid of it. But 700 pages of abuse is not going to get us there, so I sincerely hope this isn't all there is to the book.

Of course the editors are as concerned to deny personal animus as they are to disavow regressive tendencies (i.e., "the predictable charges hurled against critics of Theory"). No,
what is particularly noticeably in our authors' writings is the general lack of ad hominem attacks, even when confronting some of the more preposterous and unreadably convoluted theories. They concentrate not on personality—as central an issue as Theory's stars have made this in cultivating their public personae—but instead on logic, reason, and evidence, concepts without which [oh, thanks so much for pointing this out] it is impossible to have any sort of fruitful intellectual exchange. They are mindful [...] that the habit of many theorists to make claims without showing any awareness of the highly contentious nature of their premises and reasoning is a symptom of the poor standard of argumentation prevailing in modern literary theory (p.7).
Amazing. An ad hominem attack right in the middle of a passage trumpeting the virtuous lack of same. Not promising. However, Morris Dickstein, a contributor to the book and the editor of a decent anthology on pragmatism, assures us that "Theory’s Empire confines itself to serious academic critiques," so I suppose I should keep reading.

Of particular interest to me are the selections making up the section entitled "Restoring Reason," which discusses the science-wars aspect of the matter (with perhaps predictably heavy emphasis on the Sokal affair). I turned to these first, because that's where the stuff about truth and objectivity is (our barbarians are relativists, after all, when they're not being dogmatic). I have mixed feelings about the results, but that's a topic for another post.

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