Ritual ribbing and roasting of the MLA as always this year. Everyone chatting around the fire. (See also here.) And Chun and I had a civil back-and-forth. But I can understand why people are tired of it, too. (Here's where we were this time last year.)
The problem, such as it is, is that the likes of Scott McLemee's Chron Piece - which he describes as an inconsequential squib - is obviously an inconsequential squib, not a platform engineered to take the strain as culture warriors and regular folks pile on heavily from all sides. It's therefore unfair to hold McLemee liable for injuries. On the other hand, I can see why - if you think the MLA isn't a complete joke - these pieces are frustrating. In effect, if not in intent, they foreclose serious debate. Since no other kind of piece on the MLA gets written for general consumption, everyone is now on a hairtrigger with their jokes and mockery. But the measure of serious scholarship should not be one's ability to soldier on reading your paper even though people in the audience are squeezing whoopee cushions at odd intervals. On the gripping hand, if something is funny, you are just plain allowed to make fun of it. That's some sort of moral rule.
The same goes for debate about the Bad Writing Contests "Philosophy and Literature" used to sponsor. I posted not long ago about a recent anthology devoted to defenses against such charges. I marvel at the uselessness, for it is no good pretending people don't have a right to make fun; it's even worse to arm oneself with obtuse refusals even to acknowledge that it's a joke, and treat it accordingly.
Here again one can sympathize, in a sense, with scholarly concern that mockery forecloses respectful, open, reasoned debate. But in another, more accurate sense, one cannot sympathize. Because the targets in question are not in the respectful, open, reasoned debate business. Take Judith Butler. In her NY Times op-ed, on the occasion of receiving her prize, she explains why it is necessary for scholars to produce such stuff (and, by implication, why such contests are deplorable):
Herbert Marcuse once described the way philosophers who champion common sense scold those who propagate a more radical perspective: "The intellectual is called on the carpet .... Don't you conceal something? You talk a language which is suspect. You don't talk like the rest of us, like the man in the street, but rather like a foreigner who does not belong here. We have to cut you down to size, expose your tricks, purge you."
The accused then responds that "if what he says could be said in terms of ordinary language he would probably have done so in the first place." Understanding what the critical intellectual has to say, Marcuse goes on, "presupposes the collapse and invalidation of precisely that universe of discourse and behavior into which you want to translate it."
Mutatis mutandis, understanding how Bad Writing Contests are funny may presuppose the collapse and invalidation of precisely that universe of MLA discourse and behavior that is the butt of the joke. Judith Butler fails to apprehend the crucially performative aspect of this subversive critical work - the way in which Bad Writing Contests provide a voice to those on the margins by challenging the dominant hegemony of 'theory' in literary studies.
I could extend that riff, but you get the joke. Just as you give up the right to insist on hushed reverence for all things academic when you title your paper, "Dude, where's my reliable symbolic order?", so you give up your right to demand fair and open-minded consideration of your views when you yourself explicitly advocate adopting language which functions expressly to short-circuit critical dissent by presupposing that one's opponents are not just wrong but basically in a state of complete intellectual collapse. Given that this is her attitude, Judith Butler was never going to listen to Denis Dutton's criticisms of her views in any case. He is, as she says, the editor of "a small, culturally conservative academic journal". Being a figure on the margins - whom Butler is working to silence, by collapsing any language in which he can express his views - what does Dutton have to lose by mocking, rather than arguing?
So it is not just the case that Bad Writing Contests and squibs mocking the MLA are funny. Serious criticism is implicit. And yet ... when you philosophize with a hammer, every philosophical problem starts to look like a nail. It is hard to deny the MLA has taken a hammering. How fair is that? It seems worthwhile to set aside squibs and Bad Writing Contests - however delightful and instructive - and try to build a platform that will support more moderate and open consideration of such questions.
Since I am an inveterate and intemperate theory basher, and a firm believer that mockery and humor are acceptable weapons, I am an unlikely volunteer for such a (probably thankless) task. But one problem with my stuff is that, although I am sure there is a problem with 'theory' in literary studies - and I am fairly sure I know what it is, more or less - I can't say, honestly, that I'm in a position to say how serious or extensive it is. (See here for a moment of clarity.) I have run into this difficulty in trying to craft a good conclusion for my dialogue (PDF). So last week I went to the library and checked out the new bound edition of the first three issues of the PMLA ("Publications of the Modern Language Association") for 2003 and I read it cover to cover. Twice. 40 essays and articles of various lengths. 710 pages - minus ads, indexes, and organizational minutiae I permitted myself to skip. It wasn't easy. When I got to the third issue a quote from Heine cropped up, causing fellow-feeling to well profoundly in my breast:
I cannot promise you, dear reader, anything very captivating in the next chapter. If you become bored by the stupid stuff in it, console yourself by thinking of what a dreary time I must have had writing it! I would recommend that once in a while you skip several pages - for in that way, you will arrive much sooner at the end. Oh! How I wish I could do the same thing!
But my will was strong. This exercise was supposed to constitute a semi-blind, semi-valid test of various theses I advance in my dialogue. I'll give you the brutal short version of them. Theory is dead - but in the rather fraught sense in which God is dead for Nietzsche. Folks in literary studies still feel a rather obscure obligation to exhibit 'theoretical significance'. The result of feeling obliged to be theoretically significant when you don't actually believe in theory is not 'difficult' writing so much as a characteristic sort of philosophic kitsch. Denis Dutton uses that term in a WSJ piece:
The pretentiousness of the worst academic writing betrays it as a kind of intellectual kitsch, analogous to bad art that declares itself “profound” or “moving” not by displaying its own intrinsic value but by borrowing these values from elsewhere. Just as a cigar box is elevated by a Rembrandt painting, or a living room is dignified by sets of finely bound but unread books, so these kitsch theorists mimic the effects of rigor and profundity without actually doing serious intellectual work. Their jargon-laden prose always suggests but never delivers genuine insight.
In my dialogue I settle, more or less, on kitsch as the proper criterion of 'bad' writing. (It is obvious that 'difficulty' is neither here nor there, because the likes of Dutton - and myself - don't mind difficulty. And lots of bad, kitschy 'theory' writings are not, per se, difficult.) I quote the eminent musicologist (and student of Adorno, I believe) Carl Dahlhaus, on the distinguishing characteristics of musical kitsch:
Musical kitsch, whether rousing and high-flown or soothingly sentimental, is a decadent form of romantic music. When the noble simplicité of a classical style descends to the market place, the result is banality – the mere husks of classical forms – but hardly ever kitsch. Kitsch in music has hybrid ambitions which far outreach the capabilities of its actual structures and sounds, and are manifested in effects without cause, empty attitudinizing, and titles and instructions for performance which are not justified by the musical results. Instead of being content with modest achievements within its reach, musical kitsch has pretensions to big emotions, to “significance,” and these are rooted in what are still recognizably romantic preconceptions, however depraved.
In my dialogue I muse about how bad analytic philosophy is banal, never kitsch: highly formalized non-problems, handled with admirable rigor. Whereas bad 'theory' - perhaps one could say: bad continental philosophy - is kitsch, never merely banal. Romanticism gone rancid. Anyway, one sign that kitsch is really the problem is that a number of writers who reflexively fulminate against charges of 'bad writing' more or less grant the point about kitsch. An example is Peter Brooks (in Just Being Difficult) who wants to “evacuate the question of ‘bad writing’ and leave it for what it is, bad writing.” He then remarks that the literary criticism – theory in particular – is afflicted with, “a certain critical hyperventilation, the promotion into books of what should not be books, and the claim to significance where one would prefer a modest elucidation ... Each new book of literary and cultural criticism must be an individual performance, strenuous, original, self-inventing.” Many writers, “simply produce a kind of hypertrophy of rhetoric and alleged significance.” In short, kitsch.
It's all here, probably, if you keep scrolling down. Francis the Talking Mule knows all, sees all. That is his power.
But how much literary studies stuff is kitsch?
So little old I, three issues of the PLMA in hand, composed a tabular checklist, ticking off little boxes and taking copious notes as I went.
And - pardon me, dear reader, while I actually get to the point - it didn't turn out to be that bad. And, yes, I am keenly aware of the limitations of my methodology and instrumentation. Garbage in, garbage out. I am that garbage. We'll have to get back to that. I graded each piece on form and content. Here are the cold, hard, pseudo-quantitive results:
My chart omits mentioning by name which pieces I found good, bad, ugly, so forth. This seems to me a sort of mercy. Sort of the reverse of giving some members of firing squads blanks, so no one will know who really shot the poor guy. I'm making it so none of the victims can really know he/she was executed. I would be annoyed if someone told google I wrote an ugly, trivial paper, then failed to offer any reasons. So I am withholding names. (If anyone is burning with curiosity about how I rated any given piece, send an email.) I am intending (but not promising) to turn this post into the first in a series, in which I discuss some of the papers in detail. But I don't intend to justify my judgment in every case. I did try to be quite charitable. It's one thing to snipe and rant as I tend to most days. Once you set out to do a survey, you have to calm down and be generous or the exercise is pointless. I wrestled with the snarky angel of my nature.
It might be objected however that, by not naming names, I have gravely slandered the journal as a whole - the editors, perhaps. If I don't say exactly what I don't like, no one can possibly respond. Well, let the chart be taken just as an expression of my overall impression of a big pile of papers I read. If you know what I'm like, you can infer what the PMLA is probably like. And if you think you know my biases and mental problems, you can recalibrate or ignore accordingly.
And here's another reason the editors shouldn't mind too much. My results are in a sense harsh - slightly more than half the material found to be valueless or worse - but I'm not sure that this is really as bad a result as people might have expected (given the dire state of the MLA's honor, according to some.) After all, it's me doing the judging; and it's generally agreed that most academic articles, in all fields, are pretty thin gruel due to chronic overproduction. If half a top journal's contents are worthless - so long as some of the content is quite good - is that so bad? Also, it seems noteworthy that there are twice as many well-written as badly-written pieces, and the vast majority turned out to be just so-so, formally speaking. And there were no funny titles, as it turned out.
I'd better explain the terms I use in my little chart. Formally 'good' writing has personality, notable clarity, a sharp edge or spring-heeled gait - anything that makes you sit up and take notice without benefit of coffee, after slogging through three or more pieces lacking these good qualities.
Formally 'OK' writing is a generous category, according to me. Scholars are licensed to write plodding, pedantic prose, within limits. (After all, scholars are often plodding pedants.) I do not propose to revoke this license. Scholars are also allowed to talk in silly ways. They may 'interrogate sites of hegemonic dominance' if they like, so long as what they actually mean can be adequately extracted with only a little extra effort.
Formally 'bad' writing is stuff that looks like it came out of the postmodernism generator. Or else it's got serious fascist octopus at the crossroads-type problems. (One of each of these types, in the event.)
I may seem to be begging the question about what counts as good and bad form. But I'm not, because you can tell what I'm talking about. If you think good writing looks like a Homi Bhabha essay, and Orwell was a poor deluded fool who thought it makes sense to say writing should be clear like a windowpane - then simply invert my results. I am saying that very little in the PMLA looks like Homi Bhabha, for better or worse; and some stuff in the PMLA is the antipodes of Bhabha, if you can stomach that sort of thing.
Content was graded as follows. 'Good' was supposed to mean - well, good. 'OK' was supposed to be a nod to the undeniable fact that most of these pieces are really supposed to appeal to specialists. (As Doctor Johnson observes of a lonely historian: his book shows "all the excellencies that narration can admit" concerning a subject "of which none desires to be informed." Alas, so it may be.) For purposes of my survey, I did my best to muster prosthetic, catholic enthusiasm. Since most of the pieces were historicist reflections on society and culture - and I'm all right with that - I think I did all right. But I probably tended to give 'good' grades to stuff that just plain appealed to me more. I tried to reserve 'OK' for pieces that could only be interesting to specialists, either because the presentation is in some way pointlessly off-putting or the kernel too slight, compared to the thick husk. I gave 'OK' to pieces that surely have little hope of inspiring anyone to be a specialist in a given area, because they are not winning advertisements for it.
'Trivial' requires some explanation. Roughly, it takes off from the Dahlhaus's quote about 'trivial' music, i.e. kitsch. Stuff like that - but intellectual, rather than musical - I deemed trivial. Of course, back on earth, this is just me making judgments. I am the kind of guy who thinks Judith Butler produces kitsch, so if she is actually a towering philosophical genius - then my kitsch-meter is way too twitchy, and you can adjust my results accordingly.
A schema for a not untypical 'trivial' paper: paper x argues for the constructedness/contingency - ergo arbitrariness - of concept/category/boundary y, on the basis of an examination of work(s) z. The exercise is trivial because the author regards it as deeply inappropriate to doubt that all concepts/categories/boundaries are constructed, etc., etc. So the paper employs an inappropriate style of argument (empirical argument for an a priori truth) to a conclusion the author him or herself must regard as too obvious to really bear mentioning. Doubts about the correctness of the paper's conclusions do not fall within the scope of the paper, as it were.
The effect, overall, is a sort of absent-minded epistemological itchiness. Authors generically scratching away at their categories and concepts while gazing with unfocused eyes at ... whatever they happen to be looking at. Quite a number of pieces struck me as trivial in more or less this way. But quite a number of pieces seemed trivial for other sorts of reasons. Mostly it seemed to me that bad 'theory' was a significant contributing factor. But sometimes it was just a case of things not coming together - very old-fashioned ways to fail.
What I just wrote is not at all adequate as an elucidation of 'trivial'. And the foregoing description of absent-minded epistemological itchiness - although unsightly irritation of the intellectual epidermis is common - is not drawn to the life either. Well, I'm doing my best. Only a blog post, you understand.
Maybe these pieces struck me as trivial because it is genuinely quite unclear why the authors themselves regard them as interesting. They aren't well-written, and don't make any attempt to draw the generally interested reader in - convince him or her a specific subject is especially interesting and worthy of study in its own right. I don't mean these pieces aren't infotainment. I am not demanding to be amused. I mean: if you aren't leaning on something, you've got to stand on your own two feet or you'll fall down. Most of these pieces don't stand on their own feet; but they aren't leaning on anything either. They are heavily inflected with 'theory', but it's too impressionistic and amateurish to be the point. There is no sense of shared methodology, unless it is a shared sense that no methodology can really be trusted; so pieces by different scholars can't be constructively coordinated. In the most elementary sense, there is no consensus whatsoever about what would constitute a good argument, or even good evidence. Certainly there are no overarching positive projects in view. But this really is a problem. If your piece is at best just a humble brick in the disciplinary wall, there had better be a wall. It's OK not to believe in such a wall - i.e. to think current categories all need to be radically interrogated, etc., etc. - but then you'd better find some way to stand on your own two feet. You can't expect to be valued as a scholar toiling worthily in some worthy little pidgeonhole if you don't believe in the hole, and don't believe it would be worth occupying if it did exist.
Moving right along.
'Bad' I reserved for pieces in which obvious and extremely embarrassing intellectual errors are committed. (In my opinion, of course.) So: if someone unreflectively presupposes radical social constructivism, by way of arguing for radical social constructivism - well, that's trivial. If someone offers a really, really awful but not tightly tautological argument for social constructivism - well, that's bad. (And, by the by, I didn't just fail people for being social constructivists. I only failed them for incompetence, which I recognize is not the same thing.) It is a nice question whether it is worse to perpetrate tautological emptiness with an aura of significance or egregious unsoundness/invalidity with an aura of significance.
That's enough for today.
I'll extend this series - or not - as time and inclination dictate.