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January 22, 2005

Comments

Rich Puchalsky

I think that you're really dodging the issue here. Since you are a philosopher, it seems like you should clearly own up to whether you think you are arguing or argufying with all of the aristocratic stuff.

In the top half of your post above, you talk about lifemanship. OK, lifemanship is clearly B.S. as an argument, so you're owning up that your aristocratic points are merely mockery.

But then there's a part called "Here's another angle", in which you try to creep back in through the side window in order to say, well all that mockery which fills so much of the dialogue really does do some argumentative work after all.

But does it? All that you seem to be saying is that Theorists have a Romantic temperament, that they reject good rational arguments in favor of gestures. So the theorist deploys his or her theoretical apparatus in the same way that Dr. Frankenstein deployed his -- it only seems to do something if there is lightning and thunder crashing outside -- and if challenged, relies on "well, I'm a special person with special insights." But all Romantics think that they are special. It doesn't necessarily mean that they are literally or figuratively setting themselves up as aristocrats.

It's the same with the "transformative effects". Dr. Frankenstein says that look, I have all this lab equipment, and I've set it up so that it's all bubbling away impressively, and there's lightning and thunder outside, so how can it *not* transgressively bring the monster to life? I think that it's more than sufficient to either bring in a chemist to point out that the good doctor's setup doesn't actually do anything, or to just point to the lifeless body on the table and say, look, there's really no monster. Asking the good doctor whether he bought a fake patent of nobility to make it easier to move into the castle may make him blush, but it doesn't do much in the way of attacking his actual procedure.


BTW "spontaneous critical wisdom as deep-seated as our conviction that the earth moves around the sun". Interesting coincidence. Are people really convinced that the earth moves around the sun, or is that just shorthand for "scientists have proved it in a way that I don't understand and I want to borrow their authority"?

Gary Farber

In the spirit of the All Knowledge May Be Found In Old Science Fiction Fandom Ploy, I give you a sample of one of Bob Shaw's Fansmanship Lectures, circa 1953, from issue #7 of Slant. (A bit more here.)

jholbo

Fair enough, Rich. I'm just horsing around on a Saturday night. At a minimum, what I want to claim is this:

1) Theory postures as democratic. It isn't.

2) A lot of good literary criticism is aristocratic and consists substantially of argufying.

3) 2) obviously has the potential to draw the sting of 1) to some degree.

4) The reasons why this potential is in fact not realized are complex and interesting to investigate. Why is theory bad but Nabokov's elegant nonsense good? That is hard to pin down.

That should do for starters.

jholbo

I might mention as well that there is an almost inevitable shell-game played by defenders of theory. If you are attacked by sober analysts, posture as a brilliant Romantic. On the other hand, if some traditional humanist complains about all this clatter of jargon, pose as a sober analyst. I try to have Socrates come at theory from both angles to keep the pea from being shifted to the other cup. But I also do feel that good literary criticism is usually a hybrid of argument and argufment; and this is a strange fact.

Gary, those links are hilarious.

Rich Puchalsky

OK, just horsing around, but why should anyone *care* whether Theory's pretensions towards democracy are real or not? Your "2) A lot of good literary criticism is aristocratic and consists substantially of argufying." contains two wholly different and to my eye unrelated types of claims:

2.
a.) lit crit is aristocratic
b.) lit crit consists substantially of argufying, i.e. their arguments have no logical validity and are really just gestures

Since you're a philosopher, I can see why you'd go to town on 2b. That one is important to everyone because rational argumentation is a core technique of all academia. But why should people care about 2a? Because it shows that lit crit people are big fat hypocrites that don't live up to Theory's democratic pretensions? But so what? That's a fun kind of thing to talk about when chatting over coffee, but as a philosophical argument it has a distinct name -- ad homenum. If you're telling Theorists to make better arguments, doesn't it hurt your case to throw in a shoddy one just for fun?

And I don't really understand your 4. The answer to "Why is theory bad but Nabokov's elegant nonsense good?" appears self-evident: because Nabokov is a world-class talented writer and Theorists are not. You don't go to a great writer for a logical argument. You do go to academics for logical arguments. Nabokov can do things that Theorists can not both because he has writing talent that they don't have and because he is in a different social position than they are in.

Jonathan

I've always described Dylan's move in "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest" as an ad homenum--the part where he goes "that's not a house, it's..."

Rich Puchalsky

Ah, Jonathan, thank you for the spelling correction. You know, that was the first thing that "Me" brought up as well. Maybe baa was right about the core concerns of English departments.

Jonathan

Pedantry? Yes. Someone's got to do it.

And here's a challenge: instead of talking about the problems of literary studies, let's do it how we think it should be done. Starting now.

jholbo

The short answer as to why it's more complicated is that some theory folk are quite brilliant, in their way - just like Nabokov. Sifting that out, trying to weigh and measure it, gets complicated when you are also trying to gauge the state of the culture. And I don't think my basic argument is illegitimately ad hominem. I am simply using the things that folks like Eagleton actually write to work back to an understanding of what they are really doing. Part of the problem here is that 'aristocrat' isn't really a satisfactory term past a certain point. Yes, I realize I started it. But I think that as an organizational trope in the dialogue it works OK. I need to come up with a soberer successor notion for these sorts of discussions. One thing I may not make clear in the dialogue is the degree to which it is crucial to Eagleton's self-conception that, whatever trouble theory may have, at least the days of the complacently self-confident gentleman scholar are over forever. I do think it is important to get people to see that, whatever benefits theory may have provided, it has been by and large an intensification of the very tendencies Eagleton (and others) think have been defeated, and which they most strenuously deplore. You are right that this point in itself may seem small. But a failure to clear-eyed about all this clogs discussions of these issues and prevents progress.

Rich Puchalsky

Pedantry? Someone has to do it? Making a spelling flame on someone's comment is a long-standing and distinguished tactic that has nothing to do with pedantry. In fact, it predates the Internet. Look at the link that Gary Farber supplied:

"With a sigh of relief Hall seized on the deliberate misspelling of his name, pointing out that anyone who had ever studied history (ie gone to school) would know how to spell 'Norman' properly."

And the "let's not talk about it, let's just do it right, starting now" bit is a classic as well.

jholbo

Sorry, Jonathan, I posted my typically negative comment immediately after you posted your polite request for a little positivity for a change. I do entirely agree that the best thing for complainers like me to do is just build an alternative that we like, which other people can then judge on the merits.

Jonathan

That was hardly a flame, Rich. Don't you like Bob Dylan?

I think that practitioners can more readily appreciate how complex the problems of literary analysis are. That's why I think everyone should do it.

Rich Puchalsky

John writes: "it is crucial to Eagleton's self-conception that, whatever trouble theory may have, at least the days of the complacently self-confident gentleman scholar are over forever."

Perhaps some of the trouble that I have with your argument is that it seems to treat "gentleman scholar" as one descriptor rather than two. Gentleman equates to aristocrat, and scholar (in the sense used) equates to amateur. You are alluding to two different Theory attacks on the gentleman-scholar: attacking amateurs for not being professional enough (thus the Eagleton quote about the shiny dials and the people flipping coins), and attacking aristocrats for not being democratic enough.

But these are separable. After all, one can have aristocrat-professionals and commoner-amateurs.

So, treating them as separate, you have two different attacks on Eagleton. One of them is the refutation of his attack on amateurism. This one goes "Eagleton says that he's using shiny dials, but he really isn't, his methods are logical trash." I fully agree that this argument is the kind that you should be making.

The other one is the refutation of his attack on aristocracy. But since, as you say, you're not really saying that aristocracy is bad or that democracy is better than aristocracy, this seems to come down to just making fun of pretensions. And you're mixing it up with your first attack on his methods, linking them when they shouldn't really be linked.

After all, what you call an "intensification of the very tendencies Eagleton (and others) think have been defeated" seems to mean "The amateurism that used to be deplored is still amateurism, only now it is concealed under a layer of fake professionalism", not "Literary critics are now even more pretentious than they used to be." The attack on false professionalism is an attack on method, the one on aristocratic pretention seems ad hominem.

One last aside about Nabokov: I'm really making two arguments about him, one that he's more talented as a writer (and your assertion that some theorists are just as talented in that sense may relate to my earlier question about why there aren't any really popular literary theory popularizations) and one about his social position. Society expects argument from academics, entertainment from writers, so it isn't that surprising that you'd be entertained by Nabokov and feel that the same kind of thing was somehow illegitimate from an academic.

Jonathan

I think one thing we all need to admit here is that the line about the "port-induced stupor" was really good.

Rich Puchalsky

Oops. When I wrote above "The attack on false professionalism is an attack on method, the one on aristocratic pretention seems ad hominem" what I meant to write was that the attack on *democratic* pretension seems ad hominem -- that you are attacking Eagleton for pretending to be democratic when he really isn't.

And, of course, when I wrote "pretention", it should have been spelled "pretension". Let's get that one out of the way now, before Dylan is googled again.

Jonathan

Rich, your comment privileges lived experience over bricolage, falsely and revealingly. And I must point out that you never responded to my query about the gamma quadrant or the phallologocentrism of so-called "string" theory.

slolernr

There is a story that Nabokov ended up teaching at Cornell only because they denied him tenure at Harvard. During the Crimson's debate over retaining him, a professor is supposed to have said to his colleagues, "well, look, would the zoology department tenure a particularly talented elephant?" So much the worse for Boston, or anyway Cambridge.

But more to the point, I think we put up with Nabokov and not Eagleton (those of us who, like John, do) because Eagleton, as a zoologist, is not a particularly talented elephant. Which is to say we think like Cornell's department of English (pre-Culler, it goes without saying) and not like Harvard's.

Lawrence White

Perhaps this comment would work better on John's next post, but I was wondering what had happened to the response to Me's criticism of analytic philosophy (as opposed to his defense of theory)?

While I share most of the distaste for theory expressed in these threads, I also share, in some form, Me's distaste for analytic philosophy. For instance, I question the following claim of John's:

"Most analysis does not tip the balance in any spiritual crisis of the age because it does not DO much because it merely says what is already there - but more clearly."

I agree that theory does not make the social difference theorists think it does, but I disagree that analysis "merely says what is already there," if by that John means it leaves things as they are. My experience, albeit the experience of a moderately successfull undergraduate philosophy major, was that analysis told us that "what is already there" isn't what we thought it was. For example, we studied philosophy of personal identity for fifteen weeks, and the conclusion was, in analytic terms, you couldn't say there was any such thing. No theory of personal identity could withstand our analysis. The main thing I learned was that any theory, even that of highly respected Anglo-American professors of philosophy, pushed on hard enough, eventually cracks. Analysis, after all, breaks things up.

Hence I too thought there was something sterile about analysis. Sterility doesn't disqualify any of its claims, but it puts limits on the enterprise. If I may risk saying something stupid: anyone interested in making meaning, in creating rather than perceiving (which I take to be the project of writers & their amanuenses, critics who believe there's such a things as literature) wants to work beyond those limits. Not entirely beyond those limits, but some part of their project will be out there. Hence the sense that some kinds of "argufying" are still worthwhile.

Gary Farber

"Gary, those links are hilarious."

It probably would help if they were annotated for those who are not in the handful of us considerably familiar with fandom of the 40's, 50's, etc. Aside from noting the many hilarious fan works of Bob Shaw's for decades, cementing his reputation as one of fandom's greatest humorists, and his many fine sf novels and stories (anyone remember "slow glass"?), I'll simply mention that one of the most prominent neofen (young new fan) of 1953 was a young lad who published a number of copies of his new fanzine, Spaceship; his name was, and is, "Robert Silverberg.". (I used to have several issues, back in the day when I was doing displays and talks on fanhistory, and before my apartment building mostly burned up in 1991.)

David Weman

" Why is theory bad but Nabokov's elegant nonsense good? That is hard to pin down."

Because it's inelegant nonsense?

jholbo

Well, yes. But only mostly.

slolernr

Oh, and shouldn't it be "argufication", following "solidify", or else "argufaction", following "putrefy"?

William S

Aristocrats don’t justify themselves because they already have authority. That the authority is unjust doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. So what about theory? Its authority is bogus, but not in that it is contradictory, but in that it is not of the proper kind. But they believe it is of the proper kind. But why would they justify themselves such that you could have a basis for saying they do not really think this is how they are? They are hypocrites and aristocrats both. Is one worse, or is the latter only the occasion for the writing?

As to ‘life’ and ‘theory’. They both contain an explicit sense of the completeness of the project. I think Susan alludes to this in her discussion of the assumptions about universal languages, which is interesting in that the supposed rejection of this by theorists is replaced by a commitment to some other sort of universal commitment and competence; a necessary awareness of the completeness of project. Where for theory it precedes critical work, is a sort of ambition?

These criteria of analysis seem like analysis is a sort of engineering. But to build what? Insofar as we continue to answer this question descriptions of method, I don't see how we can get any clearer.

Lawrence,

But just because your mind was changed and something learned doesn’t mean that what you learned wasn’t always there or always true. This a core part of the issues of these many posts and comments that is invisible, but particularly relevant I think, and indicated by the foundation of much of the problem in judgments about Nabokov. Talking about the different expectation we have of different people is not adequate as it does not address the issue of their authority and scope of authority. Some people read Nabokov’s criticism because they think it is good criticism. Composition of the mind and its education is the issue. Also related to the style of the dialogue, which only Susan has explicitly mentioned, in that it is also an attempt to deal with the appeal of Nabokov as one who’s judgments mattered and seem tightly interwoven with his skill as a writer.

Motoko
...a professor is supposed to have said to his colleagues, "well, look, would the zoology department tenure a particularly talented elephant?"

I believe it was Roman Jakobson who said that.

jholbo

Really? Roman Jakobson? That's a fascinating factoid.

Lawrence White

William S:

Sorry, but I'm having an obtuse morning & am not quite following you. Could you please explain again? What is the thing that was possibly "always there" or "always true"? Thanks.

William S

Lawrence,

"For instance, I question the following claim of John's:
'Most analysis does not tip the balance in any spiritual crisis of the age because it does not DO much because it merely says what is already there - but more clearly.'
... I disagree that analysis "merely says what is already there," if by that John means it leaves things as they are. My experience, albeit the experience of a moderately successfull undergraduate philosophy major, was that analysis told us that "what is already there" isn't what we thought it was. For example, we studied philosophy of personal identity for fifteen weeks, and the conclusion was, in analytic terms, you couldn't say there was any such thing. No theory of personal identity could withstand our analysis."

You couldn't say there was any such thing, which is not the same as saying there was no such thing, and you could still have discussions about whether or not there was any such thing long after the class finished. So, what is now there that wasn't there before? You could only say that there was no such thing, in some general sense, if the methods of analysis were themselves justified. So even if you were to say there was no such thing as personal identity, the methods would remain the same as ever. And so what has changed?

Either the fact that one "cannot say" that there is such a thing about personal identity, since one actually always CAN say it, or the method used to arrive at that conclusion was always there or always true.

But, to look for analysis to leave things as they are, yet makes things clearer, is a description of a method, not a justification or criterion, it seems to me. The title of the journal could be reconciled as an expression of ambition. Failed ambition is not the same as contradiction in a general sense of the term.

Lots of fun, this thread.

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