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January 24, 2004


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» Trivial Constructionism from Matthew Yglesias
There's a very good point coming near the end of John Holbo's latest tirade on the subject of "theory":A schema for a not untypical 'trivial' paper: paper x argues for the constructedness/contingency - ergo arbitrariness - of concept/category/boundary ... [Read More]


Adam Kotsko

Even though I was a staunch defender of the enterprise of theory, I have to agree that well over half of the stuff published in journals generally is of no interest to anyone. During my obligatory tours of secondary literature, I often find myself thinking, "This is all it takes to get published?"

I am a fan of doing close textual analysis without having a clear expectation of what I will find -- that is, making some kind of an effort to let the text itself speak. Then bring in Baudrillard if you must, but I've read a few too many papers where the author clearly thought, for example, "White Noise reminds me of Baudriallard. I'm going to write a paper on my half-digested impression of Baudrillard and pair it with my fleeting impression of White Noise." Still, there is at least marginal value in this paper: it points out the possible connection between the two works and might inspire someone else to write a good paper on the same topic.

My standard for a good theoretical paper: one in which the work of literature itself is allowed to disagree with and even disprove the theory. For instance, one could do a paper about Lacan and Updike and set it up so that Updike would have a fair shot at being "better" than Lacan, rather than being taken as evidence for a theory that was accepted a priori.

Because -- and here I make my effort not to totally contradict everything I said on the last thread on this topic -- isn't this what all the "real" theory people do anyway? Derrida allows his philosophy to be informed by Artaud and Jabes and many different literary figures, without the assumption that they're of lesser significance. Lacan similarly engages in his own kind of literary criticism, and Heidegger obviously spent half his career exegeting a few poems. I know John doesn't especially like the figures I mention, but I just mention this to say that viewing them as some kind of immutable authority, for which literature can only serve as an illustration, contradicts the supposed authority's own intention.


So, John, how many essays achieved "good" in both categories, form and content? How many achieved "bad" in both? Another way to put this: do those who write badly tend also to think badly? It seems to be highly unlikely that any essay whose language seems to come out of the "postmodernism generator" could reveal much serious thought. This is not to deny that serious thought could have gone into it, but in an essay constructed almost wholly of chunks of jargon, how could you tell? Orwell wrote that "ready-made words and phrases" have a tendency to "think your thoughts for you." If there is any truth to that at all, then the distinction between form and content would be hard to maintain in this kind of situation. Bad style (that is, ready-made pseudo-theoretical words and phrases) simply IS bad content, isn't it?


Thanks, Ayjay. The correlation is obviously important, and the reason I didn't include it in my announcement was that, frankly, I didn't trust myself to separate out the variables in grading sufficiently well that I could report a strong correlation as a result. (Of course, if I don't trust myself to grade, why do the exercise at all? Hmmm.) Anyway, both of the pieces that I graded as 'bad', formally, were also graded as 'bad' for content. But really I could just have easily have graded them as trivial. That might actually have been more accurate. (But I was in a foul mood. I think they both deserve to be deemed bad AND trivial.) On the positive side, three out of four of the well written pieces had good content. The fourth was a sort of funny case. In fact, they were all funny cases. I mean to have a follow-up post in which I explain a little better.


Adam, just a quick comment. There is obviously not much point trying to parse too fine the semantics of 'tolerable' vs. 'trivial'. (You are basically agreeing with me overall. I see that.) But take your case of the bad DeLillo/Baudrillard paper. When it comes to half-digested matter, wrapped in superficial impressions - we can all roll our own, frankly, on a moment's notice. So 'this might inspire someone else to do better' is not really good enough to raise papers out of the triviality category into the 'this deserves to exist' category. (I doubt you really disagree.)

Chun the Unavoidable

I have a lot to say about this, but I don't understand why you dismiss the argument from inconsequentialism about Denis Dutton. It rather neatly explains the attention-getting stunt that was the "Bad Writing Contest."

I'm toying around with doing a similar piece using an analytic philosophy journal. I expect "needless formalism" and "aridity" to be major factors in the rankings.


Hi, Chun, I'm not sure what exactly you are getting at about Dutton. There is, admittedly, an ambiguity in my presentation: first I say that this stuff is just a joke, i.e. inconsequential, then I sort of imply there is a point. That's not so clear. But that doesn't seem to be what you are hinting at. Anyway, feel free to clarify.

As to doing the same to an analytic philosophy journal: feel free. It would be entirely fair, and I would be stupefied if 'needless formalism' and 'aridity' didn't put in quite respectable showings. In fact, I will go further: it would be quite interesting to know to what degree an outsider found three issues of, say, "The Journal of Philosophy", to be worth reading.

Chun the Unavoidable

I mean that Butler has a good point about him and his journal being inconsequential; and, if you think that makes her some kind of hypocrite since she wishes to revoice the voiceless, typeset the marginalized, privilege alterity, etc., then you have a lot of explaining to do.


Chun, I actually like "Philosophy and Literature" very much - as you know. Admittedly, my little off-the-cuff table-turn on Butler was a bit heavy handed. I don't actually think that Butler is a dreadful hypocrite. And I don't envision her as a sort of Madame DeFarge, clicking the knitting needles of performativity and gender, or anything like that. And I don't think that Denis "A & L Daily" Dutton needs any help finding an audience for the stuff he thinks is good. The problem with Butler's philosophy is that - so it seems to me - she spends her time crafting rhetorical strategies for presupposing that the opposition is wrong, which is basically dull in my book. So there is a certain 'turnabout is fair play' fairness to Dutton's response. I don't think that Dutton is a sympathy case, but there is a sense in which - within literary studies - his point of view is 'marginalized'. If Butler really values giving a voice to the marginalized, then she ought to be stepping aside so we can hear Dutton. Obviously she isn't, which just shows that what she really thinks is important is not privileging alterity, per se, but ... well, maybe she could be a little clearer about what the important thing really is.

Chun the Unavoidable

I haven't published anything in Philosophy and Literature, but I know people who have; and--let me tell you--it was no fun having to dodge the ladies spitting on them in the street at San Diego.

I think the journal sometimes publishes interesting stuff, but it's also been tainted by Dutton's kitschy brand of rightcultism. It's to the point where it looks as good on your cv as something in The New Criterion.

Ophelia Benson


"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."

Why, John? You probably have a reason, but you didn't say what it is. Why for the purposes of this discussion, I wonder, are scholars allowed to talk in silly ways? Particularly that kind of silly way? Isn't that particular kind of silly way part of the problem you're discussing? Or isn't it. If it is, why omit it? If it isn't...why isn't it?

These aren't rhetorical questions; I'm really curious.

Adam Kotsko

John, You're right that I don't really disagree.

Ophelia, Maybe he means that scholars are allowed to talk in apparently silly ways in those cases where, on further investigation, it turns out not to be really silly. For example, if the "common speech" way of saying "interrogate sites of hegemonic dominance" is excessively wordy, then "interrogate sites of hegemonic dominance" is justified as a piece of jargon. It's unclear how high the burden of proof should be for a particular jargon term -- the burden of proof likely varies in proportion to the reader's preferred field of inquiry, politics, favorite authors, astrological sign, etc.

Ophelia Benson


Yup, it definitely is unclear which jargon is okay and which not. That's another one of those irregular verbs, of course. I use succinct, precise terminology, you use jargon, she uses trendy gibberish.

Oddly, I've noticed lately I tend to love sociological jargon. Degradation ceremony, moral panic, dyadic withdrawal - I love those. I wonder why I like those and seldom like the theory variety. Of course it could be mere prejudice, but I don't think it is quite that simple. I have some vague ideas about why, but they're pretty vague - so I won't bother stating them now.

I will say one thing though. One reason to love the sociological phrases is because they work in such an economical way to defamiliarize the familiar. Oh, degradation ceremony, of course, that's what's going on there! What an interesting way to describe it.

And theory jargon just doesn't seem to have that knack. It deadens rather than enlivening, sounds stale rather than new. Odd to think that sociologists are better with language than lit crits. That can't be right...


Sheesh. I guess the problem I have with "theory" is how it's perfectly useless to anyone but a professor or English grad student.

Read, learn & reflect. But don't waste time on theory, for heaven's sake -- do it on your own, without the dismal professors.


Ophelia, your question is a reasonable one. I think there is (almost certainly) something kitschy about 'interrogate sites of hegemonic dominance' because it hints at rigor and technicality that is, in all likelihood, not forthcoming. So why give these pieces OK grades for form if my project is to sniff out offending kitsch?

I gave such things a pass if they stayed at the level of 'mostly harmless', e.g. if there was an overall low incidence of jargon. About the worst thing that can be said about such phraseology - in small amounts - is that it is vague. (You know that 'interrogating sites of hegemonic dominance' means 'looking at cases of the powerful being bad', at the very least.) But we think it's acceptable to write vaguely sometimes.

Adam is right that sometimes there is a sort of economy to this stuff, too. Sometimes what you need is a way to express a vague thought briefly. And sometimes - rarely, but it happens - someone is actually using 'hegemonic', for example, as a technical term of some sort. That can happen.


Maybe I should add that by 'low incidence' I mean: maybe just a sentence or two per page is jargony, and the rest is jargon-free.

And I see now that my response to Adam's point was too slighting. He is pointing out that sometimes jargon can be an efficient way of making a definite point. Whereas I rather impatiently divide it into two piles: vague and technical. This leaves out the possibility of definiteness of content without technicality. Fair enough.

Ophelia Benson

Yup, I can accept that, John (am I generous or what). I can see using 'hegemonic' (other people using it, that is; by now it would be sure to make me break out in a rash if I tried, but that's just me). But all four in a small space, plus the added effect of having all four in a small space which makes the four more like about eleven - that I have grave reservations about. But perhaps you yourself piled them up that way, like a small traffic mishap, in the enthusiasm of posting, and in fact the articles you gave an ok avoided the clotting effect. At any rate, I'll stop quibbling now. Gotta go, I have tickets to a degradation ceremony.


Chun, you're a fortunate writer if you're able to avoid any publishers tainted by kitsch. Few among my heroes had valuable CVs before they reached retirement age.

I read everything (except possibly my own weblog) as an outsider, and I'll admit I get less from analytic philosophy journals than from "Philosophy and Literature", and get not noticeably more from "Philosophy and Literature" than from "PMLA" or "Critical Inquiry". As I've said before, most of the attackers of "difficulty" are at least as dull as what they're attacking, and dullness is the real enemy (to us outsiders).

The question I posed Francis was why I (as a fairly early outside admirer of Derrida, anyway) don't get nearly as much from *any* of those journals as from "Behavioral & Brain Sciences" or a good weblog or a good fanzine (or the latest issue of "Paradoxa", or an old issue of the "James Joyce Quarterly"). As John Holbo indicates, post-structuralist rhetoric promises a revolution of carnival jouissance, and so we're especially prone to hoot and boo if we're then presented with the same old awkwardly puffed-up Frog Kings. Yes, I know everyone has to make a living, but if you're making a living at hedonism, shouldn't some pleasure other than self-aggrandizement be manifest? I hate to think that Godard was right in having his wife mouth "Pleasure is no fun."

Josh Lukin

Dammit, Ray, The Bellona Times is a web journal. "Weblog" indeed. Next you'll be using bastard neologisms like "sci-fi."

I've had the sense, based in part on the gossip in The Profession, for some time that the authors of Trivial papers who don't mind the possibility of their work being editorially pounded into a house style know that PMLA is the journal to go for. A survey of MFS or ALH might produce better results. Among journals where theory is meant to dominate, Diacritics used to represent the cutting edge. Dunno what shape it's in now.

Ophelia Benson

Yeah, same here. Butterflies and Wheels is a website or an internet resource or a sort of magazine - not no weblog. And it is of course enthralling. Obviously.


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