I've reread Gerald Graff's Clueless in Academe [see part I] and come away strongly confirmed in my initial impression that Graff is preoccupied with a much narrower band of the academic spectrum than his title suggests. That's not a big deal, and Graff more or less admits it in comments. But let me illustrate this point by way of moving on to something related and a bit more consequential. I will be quite critical but let me first thank prof. Graff for showing up so unexpectedly the first time and having a nice little discussion with us. He will be an exceptionally good sport if he puts up with it a second time.
Graff narrates a bit of autobiography: "I had classmates who excelled at schoolwork and would later have been called nerds, but these without exception were science or mathematics whizzes, technical geniuses rather than masters of argument or cultural analysis" (p. 215). The implication is that science, math - in general technical disciplines, e.g. logic - aren't concerned with argument. 'Arguing' is what one does in the liberal arts, in places like English departments. I am sure Graff will say this was just a silly slip if he shows up in comments again. I quote it as symptomatic of the degree to which - while apparently discussing 'argument' - Graff is in fact focusing on something quite narrow: the crisis of what counts as an argument in literary studies. At other points similar confusions about scope lead to serious confusion.
Here, a page earlier, Graff praises Street Smarts and Critical Theory, by Thomas McLaughlin:
McLaughlin argues persuasively that "critical theory," contrary to both its adherents and opponents, is not the monopoly of academic intellectuals but pervades the thinking of nonacademics. "Not all the sharp minds get to go to college," McLaughlin writes, "and not all the theorists are in the academy." McLaughin posts 'vernacular theory', which can "happen in lunch break gripes about the boss and the bureaucracy, in women's caustic jokes about the power and foolishness of men, in fanzines where ordinary fans review and discuss new music, in discussion groups on the Internet, in television calls to C-SPAN and talk radio, in letters to the editor, in living room complaints about fifty-seven channels and nothing on, in interoffice memos, in speeches to civic or business groups, in action-oriented newsletters within movements for social change, in pamphlets and broadsides, in articles and books, in kids' games about school and home, in rap music, in coffee shop bull sessions after a movie. (p. 213-4)
I haven't read McLaughlin; our library doesn't have a copy; but what Graff is doing - what McLaughlin must be doing - is conflating two senses of 'theory' that, so it seems to me, must be kept distinct if we are to have any profitable discussion of what actually interests Graff; namely, the crisis of what counts as an argument in literary studies; the crisis of the uncertainly post-theory humanities.
Two senses of 'theory':
First, there is what we may as well call capital-T Theory, i.e. an indefinite, roughly identifiable cluster of intellectual styles and sensibilities - modes plus manners - dominant in American English departments for a generation. There was no Theory before about 1960, although one may grant for the sake of the argument that its intellectual roots go deep, mostly into post-Kantian counter-Enlightenment philosophy and associated Romantic stuff. (But, sure, toss Kenneth Burke on the pile. It's complicated, obviously.) Briefly, 'Theory' picks out a style and a period.
Second, there is what we may call lower-case-t theory. Coleridge: “The meanest of men has his theory; and to think at all is to theorise.”
Obviously it isn't true that the meanest of men have always done something that has only ever been done since about 1965, mostly by English professors. Ergo, "Critical theory" only pervades the thinking of nonacademics if 'theory' just means 'thinking', as per Coleridge. McLaughlin's thesis is false, or it boils down to the dull tautology that thinking pervades thought. Attempts to dress this up as the discovery of 'vernacular theory' constitute unhealthy mystification of Theory, when ostensibly the point is healthy de-mystification. Signs of trouble emerge almost immediately. Graff hints that those who criticize Theory do not realize that they are hereby, absurdly, setting themselves against thought itself. But clearly the sensible thing to conclude from the fact that Theory has many enemies, whereas theory has none, is that Theory and theory are not the same.
The fallacy that Theory = theory needs a catchy name. Meno accuses Socrates of being a stingray. 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. Actually, what Graff and McLaughlin produce is just one genus of the species. 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. The page I linked above gives a blurb of sorts for the McLaughlin book, saying he understands 'critical theory' to mean "raising serious, sustained questions about cultural practice and ideology." So resistance to critical theory = a refusal to be intellectually serious in a quite broad sense. In each case a false equation produces the illusion that Theory is necessary, thereby obviating the need to provide any basic account about why 'doing Theory' might be better than doing something else.
The puffer is a standard Theory defense mechanism. But it is
tedious and ought not to be employed; it truly doesn't get anyone
anywhere. By foreclosing perfectly real possibilities, it forestalls a sober reckoning which is, quite frankly, in
everyone's interest. Literary studies needs, above all else, to take
stock of what it has got and what it is worth.
Graff and McLaughlin will
retort that of course they see the distinction between Theory and
theory, if I want to put it that way. (They aren't complete idiots.)
Their point is not to deny the obvious differences but to highlight
reinforcing links between academic modes of thought and ordinary
thought. The problem with this is that it is, again, trivial or at best not to
the present point, i.e. the crisis in the humanities. Of course it is
going to turn out that Theory has something to do with human mental
life. How could it be otherwise? Where does this observation take us?
Is theory, i.e. thinking, an appropriate thing for humans to do? Yes.
Does theory bear some relation to Theory? Yes. Does it follow that
Theory, i.e. a highly idiosyncratic cluster of academic modes and manners, is an appropriate thing for professors to engage in? No, it
does not follow. But it is that last question that we need an answer
to. It is the hard question.
The question of the value of Theory does not hinge on what it has in
common with ordinary thought, or with philosophy as a whole, or with
moderately systematic reflections about any given subject-matter, or with the general practice of asking serious questions about culture and ideology. The question
of the value of Theory hinges on what specifically distinguishes it from these quite general things that can all be done otherwise than by means of Theory. I do realize that Graff is ostensibly discussing curricular matters but - truly - I think it is the crisis of what counts as an argument, i.e. the question of why Theory is good, that spurs him to discuss how to teach argument. And I think discussing the latter ends up not really shedding light. Yes, the way to teach 18-year olds is to find some point of connection between what you want to teach and what they know. No doubt you can impart a bit of Foucault, a dab of Marx and a touch of Zizek by connecting it with what kids have seen in the movies. But this is really just a general argument for starting with the movies, not for ending by teaching a bit of Foucault, a dab of Marx and a touch of Zizek. Why not start with the movies and end ... somewhere else?
To be continued. I want to talk about the trouble with thorough-going eclecticism about Theory, which is the dominant mode today. Probably I'll leave Graff out of it, since this isn't what he is writing about, but I would be gratified if he would continue to contribute.