Thoughts related to our Theory's Empire event at the Valve.
In my fantasies, I yearn for TE to convince its readers of what I think are two major conclusions toward which it leads: (1) Though they’ve been frequently, if not characteristically exaggerated to the point of absurdity, some of the widely shared beliefs made commonplace by Theory are, at least in some versions, perfectly reasonable—and at a certain point in the history of the literary academy may plausibly have seemed badly needed. (2) Criticism of Theory is not inevitably motivated by anti-intellectualism or political or cultural conservatism or characterized by intemperate bluster.
Yes. Intellectual debates over Theory ought not to be conducted at the level of that scene in The Jerk - the sniper at the gas station. (Here's a wav file; transcript here.) Critics of Theory indulge in "die, textface!" over-aggression and miss their target. Defenders of Theory cultivate a "he hates these cans!" incapacity to gauge their critics' motives. (What is the Latin for 'can hatred'? There ought to be a word for the fallacy of saying critics of Theory 'fear difficulty'. Call it: argument from can hatred.) It is easy to conclude the debate is just a mordant, inconsequential clash of mild personality disorders. Why not just accept 1 and 2 and have yourselves a nice conversation? This is obviously why I like Theory's Empire. Yet trying to get as far as 1 + 2, you may only get as far as Groundhog Day; each morning the same old tune. Here's part of a comment to my post:
As someone mentioned earlier, this whole after-the-book defense has a bizarre wiff of preemption to it. I don’t mean to be rude, but one could reasonably suggest that such a squirrely defense of a grossly irresponsible book amounts to no more than an elaborate straw man beat-up, beginning and ending (though chock full of promises and deferrals) with a glib, and hardly original, diagnosis. In short, it strikes one as the work of a gifted politician. And God help us to save literature from them!
Oh, for the sweet love of the arrow-like nature of time, when are you supposed to discuss a book except after-the-book? What could an open, round-table discussion of a scholarly book from a major university press possibly be construed as 'preempting'? Studied silence? It's not as though we are not willing to hear criticism of the volume. (At least he didn't want to be rude. At least he thinks I'm a gifted political operator working to destroy literature.)
I'm not complaining about how the event is coming off. Complaining about one cranky comment would not be complaining that my glass is half empty, it would be complaining that the meniscus level of the fluid is not actually above the level of the glass. That would be unreasonable. I think the event is going extremely well and I'm proud and really glad I put in the work to make it happen. (I used to be a bit like the sniper, truth be told. So if some folks think I hate cans, it's karmic payback.)
I'm only playing this sour-seeming note here at J&B because I am frankly a bit gobsmacked by a comment Scott Kaufmann left to John McGowan's post. Scott responds to McGowan's wondering hope that perhaps "academics interested in such questions have won their way through to a place where they can be discussed and examined calmly?" Scott says nope.
I think it’s largely a product of a self-selecting audience. I assure you that I could reignite the culture wars in my home department (UCI) with a reference to Clarence Thomas. But the people who participated--and many, many more people read than commented, at least if the feedback I’ve received via email is any indication--are aware that the stakes of participating in this debate are both much, much higher (the permanent record of one’s participation is and for the foreseeable future but a google away) and much, much lower (the lack of acceptance, nay, the hostility of the academic community at large to the idea of serious scholarship or scholarly interaction taking place on a blog). (Could I nest any more clauses in that sentence?) After I sent out the CFP on the event--which for reasons unknown to me went out with this week’s batch instead of last’s--I received a number of, shall we say, “impolitic” emails from people who wondered why they should bother with the event. That they felt compelled to email me vehement statements of their apathy surprised me, but then I realized: the people who would participate aren’t the ones who would see this as a forum in which to shout everyone else down. (Mostly because, unfamiliar with the medium, they probably don’t realize that you can indeed, through trollish repetition, shout everyone else down. But in the meantime, their ignorance contributes to our bliss. Or what-not.)
Can it really be that participating in our event might be professionally dangerous? People bothered to send him email? Can it really be that so many people think it is so clearly terrible? I honestly don't know what to think.