« Bad Hair Day | Main | Pixies »

January 27, 2005


Rich Puchalsky

There's a lot to react to here, but I'll start with this Hesse quote:

"I can make you understand my association, but I cannot so affect a single one of you that my private association will become a valid symbol for you in your turn, a mechanism which infallibly reacts on call and always follows the same course."

You use this as a preliminary for criticizing the "feuilletonistic antipodes of this attitude" as exemplified by Judith Butler. But what if the original idea from Hesse is impossible? Isn't it a standard claim of postmodernism -- or not even postmodernism, of cultural relativism -- that there are no "legitimate", universally comprehensible associations that work across subcultures? If Judith Butler were to take this idea a little further, and say that all associations are really personal, then there really would be nothing different in her use of her private associations than in the supposedly more rigorous use of universal ones. These universal ones would be, instead, merely those popularized to a narrow part of the population by a certain class-based educational system etc.

To the extent that there is some truth to this idea -- and I think there must be *some* truth to it, as no one has yet come up with a rigorous schema of poetic associations even for a single culture -- I don't see your distinction in value between honest and dishonest feuilletonism. If you're writing poetry, then the success of your associations are judged by their success. If you're writing analysis, then the success of your analysis is judged by its rigor. If you're mashing them up such that it's bad writing *and* bad analysis, what good is it? Is it any better for anyone that you are doing it honestly, in full self-knowledge, rather than hiding it from yourself or others?

I suggest that you mean as "honest feuilletonism" is what I've previously referred to as a commitment to wittiness as the highest authorial value. If done well, this results in works that are witty, which is of course valuable in itself. But wit tends to exist in inverse proportion to either analytic or artistic substance.

Scott McLemee

Hesse and Krauss end up defining the term by reference to the worst (or at least the most mediocre) cases. Kracauer's "The Mass Ornament," or some of Benjamin's short pieces, also count as feuilletons, and they are substantial essays rather than middlebrow junk. And Barthes's "Mythologies" are quite feuilletonistic, when you get right down to it.

No "commitment to wittiness as the highest authorial value" in any of these cases.

Rich Puchalsky

Well, I certainly can't argue with someone who really knows the subject about what a feuilleton is. All I can do is point out the passage in John Holbo's attempted generalization of the concept to blog posts that made me think that wittiness might really be the quality under consideration:

"The cardinal vice of the bad feuilleton is not admitting you are a feuilleton - say, because you are pretending to be rigorous philosophy, or scholarship. Admitting your true nature is the first step. (If two thirds of the books in literary studies were turned into articles, and two thirds of the articles - and 95% of those with silly titles - were demoted to blog posts, the whole business might perk right up. A blog post with a silly title can be good and clever.)"

A blog post with a silly title may or may not be middlebrow -- some such posts are substantial essays. But "good and clever" equates, for me and in the context of blogging, to wittiness.


Let me preface this comment by saying that I know and respect Kim Emery. Your comment about her work here is startlingly inane. I wonder when exactly the notion of reading something before passing judgement on it became extinct in the blogosphere. She has a book from the SUNY-Press; I expect that your ILL could get it for you (if they don't prohibit works with "lesbian" in the title). There's also an essay in a recent collection on The Well of Loneliness.

You could also email her and ask if she's an "autistic poetic genius" or just someone incapable of understanding technical philosophy because she's written about Judith Butler.


"Literary theory is a glass-bead game whose reward for the ludic player is the knowledge that once he masters it, he will be admired by his peers as ludicrous."

Gore Vidal, Screening History (Cambridge, Mass.: 1992), 4.

But I think Vidal was wrong, there are famous literary theorists nowadays, or anyway many of them more famous (among undergraduates) than the literature they ostensibly theorize upon.


Now that I have onomastic evidence that you are Thomas Pynchon, you of all people know that no theorist rivals your fame.


You are right that I'm being unfair to Emery, Jonathan. I did look in the library. We just don't have her stuff, despite having a pretty good collection. I can order some. So I did my post anyway while frankly acknowledging I hadn't read her. Fair enough. I wanted to use the passage because I wanted something that moved in the opposite direction as the Butler piece. (Which is not really an excuse, I realize. But if I hadn't used her, I could have used someone else.) Do you deny that her work contains a Butleresque mix - personal and intellectual entangled as in Butler's use of Hegel in the passage in question? I retract the snark about her being an autistic poet. I didn't mean that to sound quite so bad. Just the standard Plato point about how some people are personally inspired but have no idea where the inspiration comes from. It does seem to me so manifestly implausible that the character of her work is as impersonal as she insists. Do you deny it, Jonathan?

I suppose the big reason why I felt confident in writing this sight unseen is that I simply don't believe there is much in literary studies currently that works the way Emery suggests her scholarship works. (So I would be surprised if she were the extremely rare exception.) Namely, there isn't much that is so profoundly over the heads of a lay audience due to its scholarship or technicality. I'm not saying that just anyone can write the stuff. But there is very little done that is so abstruse that it has a right to be incomprehensible to intelligent outsiders - unless it truly is a highly personal sort of poetry in which catches from Hegel are supposed to be invested with great, highly personal pathos, for example.

Well, OK, there are a couple things that are justified in being abstruse. Studies of meter in poetry, for example. And you are right that I should read before I snark. It's bad form. I honestly didn't mean for it to come out so snarky. I just meant to say that surely her work is more personal than she lets on to the article writer. And this is actually quite an important point.


I should add that I have no idea whether Butler is capable of understanding technical philosophy. But what she does in her writings is not technical philosophy but poetic deployment of technical philosophical expressions as a way of expressing a personal sensibility.


If you read her book or other work, we can have a discussion about this. I otherwise refuse on principle. I also think that you should contact her yourself. In fact, I'd think it'd be the minimum courtesy you could extend to someone after making these kinds of comments about them.

There's also the matter of taking the Believer article as a reliable and complete exposition.


I'll send her an email requesting a copy of the paper, apologizing for snarking without reading and generally encouraging the whole 'right of reply' thing. That is certainly fair enough. (I really didn't mean it to come out so snarky. I just let my mouth run away with me. Bad form.) Let me also clarify - before anyone else makes this complaint in comments - that I am not objecting in principle to folks writing difficult things. It isn't a moral truth that you shouldn't write difficult things, obviously. It is just the case that you shouldn't employ difficulty as part of a sort of hide-the-pea trick, pretending you are playing a Glass Bead Game when really you are not. As the narrator of Hesse's novel explains: "The only way to learn the rules of this Game of games is to take the usual prescribed course which requires many years; and none of the initiates could ever possibly have any interest in making these rules easier to learn." It is beguiling to think of applying this model to literary studies but not really accurate.

Lawrence White

Several points:

(1) Note how John's condensation program (book --> essay, essay --> squib) would also help w/2 large problems in the business: overpublication & premature professionalization.

(2) Anyone who hears a voice "almost cracking" in the phrase "[a]nd so I was confronted by what can only be called the transferability of the attribute" has a tin ear.

(3) Has anyone noticed that the greatest part of theoretical criticism of pop culture is dull? How do you make show business dull? & that it is less insightful than the average water-cooler discussion of these same artifacts?


I think we all agree it's unfair (yet tempting!)to snark someone unread. Likewise, I think we can understand why Jonathan was irked at cavalier dismissal of a colleague's work. John has already made clear that this was not his intent, so perhaps I can note that there's something unsatisfying in Jonathan's remark that:

If you read her book or other work, we can have a discussion about this. I otherwise refuse on principle.

What's the principle involved? Maybe it's simple economy. Who wants to waste time on the skeptic who says "I haven't read Tyler Burge, but I just know Ayn Rand is better." This seems like a lost conversation from the start. A different case is the skeptic who says "analytic philosophy is usually pointless nit-picking, and so I bet Burge is pointless too." Here, it seems eminently possible to provide a justification for Burge that connects his work to topics of general philsophical interest. The only principle that would prevent me from doing so is cussedness (you trash Burge, you get nothing from me, etc.).

Jonathan's comments (here and before) give the sense that there's something almost degrading about justifying literary theorists (or maybe any intellectual field) to ignorant skeptics. I don't think this is so. And I think it's an position that will inevitably hurt people doing good theoretical work.

As an aside, I think Lawrence White's comment #1 is spot-on.


Little is as annoying as the pseudo-Socrates gambit. Especially on the internet. The problematics of literary theory, if we want to call it that, are so much more complex than anything that analytic philosophy concerns itself with, that attempting to discuss the one in terms of the other is simple casuistry. You're left with "but what is truth" and metaphysical gestures clamoring in mutual incomprehension.

Please note that I'm making no value-judgment about the complexity mentioned above. I think this point is clear; if consciousness is a hard problem, then how hard is the analysis of complex, culturally mediated interactions of creating and perceiving consciousnesses as manifest in a poem or novel? Impossible. I think if thought about how hard the problem is, you'd have more patience with the obviously unsatisfactory attempts.

Rich Puchalsky

baa, I think that you misunderstand the nature of Jonathan's objection. So far, he's said little or nothing about the actual content of what John Holbo writes, other than to:

1) Insist that we can not discuss what John Holbo writes until we have read the sources that he cites. The Emery objection is just the same thing over again, abetted by JH's own lack of civility with the "autistic poet" bit. Since every text cites others, this quickly leads to the conclusion that you can not discuss literary theory unless you are an expert.

2) As a backup, insist that literary theory is so complex that no matter how shoddily it is done, you have to give its doers credit. "if consciousness is a hard problem, then how hard is the analysis of complex, culturally mediated interactions of creating and perceiving consciousnesses as manifest in a poem or novel" avoids the fact that people write novels and poems every day. It's like saying that you need to know classical mechanics in order to describe a billiards game. Jonathan likes the grand mysterian gesture that, again, serves as a reason why nothing can really be said.

Jonathan, I would prefer a simple "back off, hoi polloi" rather than a democratic pretence of "literary criticism -- anyone can do it!" followed by a passive aggresive attempt to make sure that people don't actually do it.


Actually Rich, it was John who hadn't read what he was talking about. I generally think that's a good idea, but that could just be my print-paradigm.

People play catch everyday. Does anyone understand how that works? I mean, yeah, I throw the ball, and you catch it. But the computational processes that enable it? Are they understood? At all? Then there's the historioludicity to consider.

Literary studies has conventions and technical concepts* like any field of study, and that you cannot simply ignore them and start anew because you sense that they don't meet your personal standards of rigor, particularly when that standard is imported from a completely different discipline. The interpretation of poetry will not reduce to the philosophy of language.

*"Are they coherent" and "can they be coherent" are two different questions.

Rich Puchalsky

I agree that John hadn't read Emery -- he said as much in his original. I disagree that it was a bad idea for him to deduce something about Emery even though he hadn't read her. (I agree that it was a bad idea for him to call her an autistic poet genius, but that's really another matter.) If you want to insist that we can talk about no one's ideas at second hand, you are effectively insisting that this subject can not be talked about except by experts, because no one else has time to read all the sources.

I wouldn't bring this up except that you have a pattern of doing it. For instance, I characterized Eagleton with a secondary source that described the current direction of his work in a straightforward fashion, so that I could disagree with that direction as an illustration of general principles (i.e. "academic work shouldn't be done towards political goals"). Rather than disagree with the accuracy of my source, you said that I shouldn't write anything about Eagleton before reading his work. If my source was actually wrong, you should have said so; saying that I must form all judgements about people's positions by reading and summarizing their writing for myself excludes me from any sort of conversation in this field.

Now you're doing the same sort of thing to John Holbo. He, I assume, has read a great deal of the basic texts in literary theory, but he hasn't read all of them. So all you need do is catch something on the periphery of what he's read in order to trip him up with a high-minded call for primary sources only. I notice that you don't directly disagree with him about, for example, Eagleton, and it is impossible to avoid the suspicion that this is because he has actually read Eagleton.

As for the ball catching analogy, I thought I was fairly clear. If you want to describe two people playing ball, you don't need to know how they do computationally, that's at a completely different level of analysis. Nor does the literary critic have to solve the problem of conciousness before he or she settles down to describing a particular novel, or even a class of novels. Implying that they do is a form of weird gigantism -- John Holbo's puffer fish writ large. It is easy to be a mysterian if you say that no problems can be solved unless everything is understood at the most basic level.


It is a different level of analysis, but how do you which levels of analysis are sufficient for your task? How do you even know what your task is? What does it mean to "describe" a novel? Summarize it? Explain how it relates to a tradition? Historical circumstance? Analyze its narrative structure? Why do people throw and catch small objects at each other? Where did this come from? Can you explain this without resorting to silly stories about the savannah? Is the fact that it can be done directly related to what's unique about the species?

The reason I won't attempt to discuss Eagleton with someone who hasn't read him at all is that the bar to informed participation is set very low. You don't need any training to understand his arguments, I don't think, so you don't need "expert" guidance. Furthermore, I think it would be self-evident why your third-hand quotation was an oversimplification if you would make the minimal effort to verify it. I foresaw tedious internet-Socraticism as well.

I do disagree with John about his characterization of Eagleton, as it turns out, primarily because I' more forgiving of imprecision (forest-tree issues, etc.)

Chomsky has often made statements about how no one can explain to him so-called "theoretical" concepts in the social sciences and the humanities. Coming from him, that has a lot of rhetorical force. And he does read things.

Rich Puchalsky

Jonathan, I know that I'm reaching the point of diminishing returns here, but I'll try again. It is true that a physicist, a historian, a sociologist, and an evolutionary biologist might all have something interesting to say about ball-playing. That doesn't mean that you get to be all of them put together. It is true that a text might be studied by a historian, a sociologist, a linguist, and so on -- but that doesn't mean that literary theory encompasses all of these other fields. If you can't define what you do, that doesn't mean that your subject expands to be, mystically, all conciousness, it just means that you can't define what you do.

It's as if you were declaring that your field was ball-ology. Except that in this case, you're boasting that you've got really big balls -- they are all texts that ever have or could be written, no, all language, no, all culture. I'm sorry, but no one really believes that your balls are that big.

As for Eagleton, I as slowly reading his Literary Theory: An Introduction. (Slowly because my copy is at Barnes & Noble.) I have to say that my impressions of the beginning bear out what John Holbo has said about it. In particular, the jaunty assertion that he's going to show how all sorts of famous texts were written as reflections of their socioeconomic conditions (sorry, can't give you the exact quote -- my copy isn't in front of me) strikes me as the worst sort of Vulgar Marxism. Maybe once I'm done, you'll be able to tell me what's wrong with my third-hand quotation if it turns out not to be self-evident. But I suspect that by then, in order to really understand, I'll have to read something else by Eagleton.

One last misunderstanding. When I said that you didn't disagree with John, I didn't mean that you didn't disagree with him about Eagleton in general -- I knew that you must, since you recommended him, and John wrote that he really dislikes his work. What I meant was that other than saying that John should Email him his dialogue (impossible, by the way, as Eagleton doesn't seem to like Email), you've never bothered to state in so many words why John is wrong about him.

Actually, you've now given us six words: that you're more "forgiving of imprecision (forest-tree issues", which, while a bit vague, is better than before. Though it doesn't address John's core issues with Eagleton, really. If you'd like to write more, go ahead -- nothing is stopping you from debating with John. He's read Eagleton. But instead you seem to like to characterize the debate as if *my* level of knowledge represents the most informed non-literary-theorist part of it. Why is that?


Literature is a difficult thing to understand. We know very little about how it is written and read. Attempts to generalize about it involve, inevitably, assumptions of prior knowledge and isolable imprecision. Deriding the need for the former is ignorant, and focusing exclusively on the latter is myopic.

A system of literary criticism that starts ab initio is potentially curious but certainly worthless. I'm sure that's not what you were wanting to do, though I detect, in your apparent reluctance to read anything in the field, the signs of it. The book you're reading by Eagleton is a survey of trends in literary theory and incidental criticism of them from a broadly Marxist perspective. I think it will give you an idea of the footnotes to Plato then in fashion.The After Theory book deals with more recent developments, which I suspect you'll also find personally offensive.

Why my, to me, truistic claim that literary theory is impossible (and thus, of course, a failure) inspires such a reaction is puzzling. I'm certainly not defending the particular contours of any given failure. I happen to be very interested currently in what cognitive science can tell us about narrative, and what, if anything, this research reveals about the way that experience is condensed and transformed in literary production. I'm not going to make any grandiose claims about it; and you'll find, provided you look at what literature professors actually publish, a perhaps surprising lack of any type of grandiose claim. What overreach and syncresis you find is just the price of admission to this level of abstraction (nb: not a value-judgment). Granted, there are different degrees. And appreciation requires less, though it's still there.

I have exchanged lengthy emails with Professor Holbo over the years on the subject of his dialogue. I fear that my comments weren't terribly helpful, but I did try; and I don't have anything further to add at the moment. I'm afraid I have no idea if Eagleton would respond to it or not, but I'd certainly send it to him if I had written it.

des von bladet

The trouble with Hesse, of course, is that he lacks any real insight into the spiritual and philosophical dimensions of life.


Just a few words in response to Rich and baa. Thank you for defending the basic propriety of my talking about Emery's work without reading it, just on the basis of the "Believer" article. (We'll let the poet line slide, yes.) It's true that people just have to reason like this. If X is influenced by Butler and I think Butler is foolish, it is not unreasonable to infer that X is probably foolish. (I can't read everyone. I have make some cuts on the basis of what seem reasonable surmises.) The danger comes rather in the double-counting. You cite your believe that X is foolish as supportive evidence that Butler is foolish. Obviously this is circular and totally illegitimate. In my post, I don't do this, but I am on the verge of doing it. Better to pull back from the edge.

Rich Puchalsky

Jonathan, you've written three statements that, in conjunction, are quite impressive:

1. "Literature is a difficult thing to understand. We know very little about how it is written and read. Attempts to generalize about it involve, inevitably, assumptions of prior knowledge and isolable imprecision."


2. "A system of literary criticism that starts ab initio is potentially curious but certainly worthless. I'm sure that's not what you were wanting to do, though I detect, in your apparent reluctance to read anything in the field, the signs of it."


3. "Why my, to me, truistic claim that literary theory is impossible (and thus, of course, a failure) inspires such a reaction is puzzling."

Wow. Where to start?

OK, I'll start by disposing of yet another repetition of the big balls claim. You also write: "I happen to be very interested currently in what cognitive science can tell us about narrative [...]". What makes you think that whatever cognitive science can tell us about narrative is part of literary studies? If cognitive science does tell us something about narrative, then that information is part of cognitive science. Literary theory people certainly are not qualified to do research in cognitive science. You seem to think that any information about literature from whatever source becomes part of your field -- well, it doesn't. You may borrow scattered concepts and bits of (generally misused, or so I hear) technique from sociology, linguistics, and so on, but that doesn't make you a sociologist or a linguist, and it doesn't mean that your field encompasses theirs.

So, what can your field do? Well, your statement 1 above says that you find literature difficult to understand, and that you know very little about how it is written and read, although there is apparently ("very little", presumably) accumulated prior knowledge. But statement 3 says that you have defined literary theory in such a way that it is *truistically* impossible and a failure.

Jonathan, no other academic field that I know of defines its work as being truistically impossible and a failure. If this is really widely believed, then why does anyone keep working in this field? Please don't use any reference to high culture and/or canonically great books in your answer; we know that literary theorists have given up on that justification. (Or, rather, that there is a conservative group that wants to go back to such a justification, but that is rejected among the current practitioners of literary theory. I suspect, by the way, that most of the minor store of "accumulated knowledge" that you wrote about was accumulated by this group). And why shouldn't people kick you out of the academy wholesale? After all, if you are truistically failures, why should people pay you to fail?

Now let's go back to statement 2. If you really believed your own statement that literary theory is impossible, then statement 2 becomes incoherent, to say the least. What could be wrong with starting ab initio? After all, you say that the current approach is a truistic failure despite whatever knowledge has been accumulated, so what could be lost in tossing it out and starting again, however ignorantly? If it is a truistic failure because of the way the problem has been defined, then perhaps redefining it will help, if not, then an ab initio approach can not fail more than what is already a truistic failure.

I should say that I don't believe that you really mean what you are saying here. I think that you're going to reply with something that comes down to a complicated equivocation between "literature", "literary criticism", "literary theory", and "literary studies", in which you can be as mysterian as you like about the one without affecting the other.

But on the off chance that you do take your position seriously, I should point out that I have indeed tried to come up with a basic *intellectual justification* for literary criticism as an academic field ab initio -- not a system of literary criticism itself, which would be rather a large job. An intellectual justification for literary theory is what, by your own assertion, you are completely unable to supply. And your lack of one is, I believe, the underlying reason for the ongoing MLA-ridicule which is the subject of many of these threads. A naive justification is really what you need, if you can't supply a sophisticated one. And of course, the time to attempt such a thing is before one has read anything, not after.

Lawrence White

Let me use Mr. von Bledet's contribution as an excuse to say that John's whole presentation would be stronger if it lost the Hesse bits. I skipped all those parts.


It's difficult for me to avoid the impression that most of your arguments, Rich, come from personal incredulity, spiced with a hint of indignation. So unless the discussion takes a more productive turn, I'm not going to be contributing much more.

There's an impressive amount of work applying concepts from cognitive science to literary and cultural study. Mark Turner, David Herman, Norm Holland, David Bordwell, Alan Richardson, Ellen Spolsky, and Marie-Laure Ryan are just a few names. I won't ask you to read any of it, because I know how that'll go, but it is there. There are related but different studies by people who focus primarily on evolutionary psychology: Nancy Easterlin, Joseph Carroll, and Lisa Zunshine are some who come to mind. I believe that Pinker has commented positively upon their efforts; and Turner has co-written books with George Lakoff, but I admire the rhetorical force of your argument from abject ignorance re the potential rigor and validity of such work.

What I define to be a failure is a literary theory that would have any explanatory capacity. (I should add that this would apply to just about any theory in the social sciences, much less the humanities.) Some of it aspires to this condition, and it should not be entirely dismissed because it fails. Failures can be suggestive and useful. That's why it's important to know the history of the field.

Theoretical inquiry that's primarily descriptive is, of course, not a predetermined failure; and it constitutes the bulk of what's published in the field. It's "theoretical" because there are always methodological frameworks within which any claims about literature are made. This is the, again, truistic point that Eagleton makes. Holbo's argument about this in the dialogue strikes me as quodlibetal. When Nabokov insists on precise entomological description in one essay, or sketches what a rail car actually looked like in another, he's making a complicated claim about narrative, mind, and mimesis. Self-reflection upon it is not required, but it's simple ostrichism to argue that people shouldn't inquire about these things because you're agin it and a few Richard Pryors of your tax dollars fund some of them.

I believe that story and narrative are integral to the human mind and that we could no more eliminate interest in how they work than we could sand or roadside diners. MLA ridicule is a direct consequence of how pervasive the desire to consume narrative is. People feel intuitively that anything someone says about novels, plays, or video games should be framed in terms that they can understand, since they understand these things so easily and with so much pleasure. In my experience, people who write academic criticism (and especially "theory") tend to be troubled re-readers, with furrowed brows and ink-scarred books. They reflect on what's happening as they read, and it becomes less familiar. Whether it's less pleasurable is debatable.


I also used to entertain a modish contempt for Hesse, but after re-reading The Glass Bead Game, I think the book is of considerable interest. Am even teaching it this semester, though that's directly because of the game metaphor.

Rich Puchalsky

Jonathan, you're right that this isn't seeming to be that productive. Of course it is impossible for me to prove a negative (this is what you refer to as an argument from personal incredulity). There will always be more citations that you can make, more authors to recommend, more other fields of inquiry for you to "apply concepts" from. John Holbo is much farther down that road than I am, and you are still doing the same thing to him, so I see no reason to imagine that any practible amount of reading that I could do would halt this defense. Of course, it is possible to do this as a truly educative response rather than a deflective tactic, but there's a reason why I don't think you're doing that -- you don't respond to problems that people have with texts that they *have* read. Maybe you really did answer Holbo's concerns via Email, long ago, and maybe you really do have a reason why Eagleton's apparently clear Vulgar Marxism isn't really what it appears to be, which you are waiting to impart to me once I have fulfilled your reading requirements. Maybe the one-liners that you like to interject really aren't designed to disrupt conversation without making any particular disputeable claim. Who knows?

As for your blanket denial of explanatory capacity to all social science, I don't agree with you -- I don't even agree with you about such a denial for literary studies itself. You can't even have "theoretical inquiry that's primarily descriptive" if you can't have any theoretical basis at all. You are embarking on a farrago of bad arguments: minimizing your accomplishments when it suits you to be a mysterian, maximizing them when it suits you to deride ignorance, misrepresenting what other people write (I never implied that people "shouldn't inquire about these things", or that we should "eliminate interest in how they [story and narrative] work".) My personal incredulity can't help but be fueled by this display.


I don't think I'm really doing anything to John Holbo, besides spending more time than I should commenting on his blog. Personally, I'd be more interested in reading literary criticism from him as he thinks it should be done

I know you don't like recommendations, but if you want to see Vulgar Marxism, look at the career of Zhdanov. I know what I mean by "vulgar marxism" (Zhdanov), but I really have no idea what you mean. Maybe anyone concerned with social class and literary production is such for you. But I'm all for allowing a thousand flowers, etc.

So much confusion results here from what's meant by the word "theory." And then there's the internet's inevitable rhetorical mode: Socraticulistry. I fear I have less patience for it than Buck did with Stephen's Thommyaches right now.

But you really never did answer my questions about how astronomy justifies its bias against the gamma quadrant.

Rich Puchalsky

Jonathan: "I don't think I'm really doing anything to John Holbo," [where "doing anything" has the specific meaning of "deriding people for criticizing things they haven't read".]

Jonathan, I can only quote your previous comment to Holbo: "Your comment about her work here is startlingly inane. I wonder when exactly the notion of reading something before passing judgement on it became extinct in the blogosphere."

John Holbo kindly thanked baa and myself for "defending the basic propriety of my talking about Emery's work without reading it", so I know that I didn't imagine this incident.

You add: "Personally, I'd be more interested in reading literary criticism from him as he thinks it should be done." Well, you just spent a lot of effort denouncing (imaginary) people who didn't think that meta-inquiry into the nature of narrative was literary criticism. Surely you can see that by your own standards, JH's dialogue *is* literary criticism. He is doing it as he thinks it should be done.

And Vulgar Marxism is a type of belief, owing little to actual Marxism, that holds that everything can be explained directly by reference to socioeconomic realities and their associated ideologies. I generally think that the V should be capitalized in order to emphasize that it owes little to real Marxism, just as the S in Social Darwinism is capitalized. Eagleton makes a statement at the end of his Introduction (unfortunately, I can't quote it) that I can only interpret in the same way that John Holbo interpreted Eagleton in the following passage:

"For example, in chapter four of Eagleton’s Criticism and Ideology the reader is ushered through a sort of Tussaud-style waxworks of minor ideological horrors: Arnold, Eliot, Dickens, Conrad, James, the other Eliot, Yeats, Joyce, Lawrence, in a row, in almost lifelike poses. Thanks to Eagleton’s brisk, scientific manner, the spectator is brought back to the point where he purchased his ticket in just over sixty pages.
P: Each literary eminence is found to be in possession of an illicit ideology? In each case, their faults prove traceable to material conditions obtaining in English society?
S: However did you guess?"


Well, I read that as him graciously admitting that he was wrong, as he was. I'd already forgotten about it, but I'll check with you before criticizing anyone again.

Actually, John's dialogue is literary theory. But I'm passing over that in silence.

Not even Zhdanov thought that "everything" could be explained that way. That's not even straw.

The quote is glibingly describing glibness glib for glibly unstated reasons.

Rich Puchalsky

Let's see, we have "I forgot what I wrote earlier in the thread", a passive-aggressive passing over something in silence which is not silent and which doesn't address the issue, an assertion that a quick and simple description of a known concept is a strawman, and a refusal to address the substance of a claim because it's "glib". A tour de force!

Since Jonathan has nothing to say, I'm going to go back to Hesse. What really struck me about The Glass Bead Game was the premodernity of its support structure. In the early parts of the book, the methods of recruitment for the Game are described: they take children who are 11 or 12 years old, and give them a while to think about it, then they are let into the elite Game schools if their parents unequivocally agree, and get to stay in they never fail a course, etc. Most of the people who I know who liked Hesse seemed to think of the Game as this wonderful Romantic entity; I read the beginning and immediately started thinking about what happened to the children who decided that they wanted to join at 14, or who had a parent who disagreed with their life choice, or who had a single bad semester. Modernity has its freedoms. Was this accidental, or was it part of what I read as the criticism of the Game as being a restrictive, unchangeable system? The overall effect of everything in the book (including the plodding narrator) reinforcing the irony of the descriptions of Game-as-wonderful-system is one of the main reasons why, as I said previously, think that the book belongs with the utopias, dystopias, satires, and books of ideas rather than as a literal SF depiction of a 25th century world and technology.


"Vulgar marxism" is not a known concept. It varies from Popper to person as a term of art or simple abuse. You know how you can tell? No one refers to himself that way. But I suspect most will see the difference between Zhdanov's crude determinisms and Eagleton's method in an essay such as the "Ideologies of Form."

And, just as a final point on the dialogue which I just re-read and should probably write a post on my blog about, Culler's point is not that common sense is mistaken but that it is a filter. I think John's dialogue suffers a bit from snippery. And he leaves us, however ironically, curled up on Quiller-Couch, perhaps with some cool comics to quote-and-dope into the "New Appreciationism."

It's not that I'm not right there with him. There's no reason why my not-yet written effort on "Revenge of the Mooninites" shouldn't see publication in the most prestigious venues, well except for theory-inertia and entrenched prejudice against cool stuff.


I'm back. I've been busy. So has everyone here...

Hmm... Not to go all Race-Class-Gender on you guys, but some might say that what you're calling the "feuilletonistic" aspect of lit crit / lit theory, this "poetic" re-use of the philosophical to speak to the personal etc... is exactly the point when it comes to reframing issues/concepts/approaches according to a lesbian/black/whatever point of view.

That it is exactly the play of accord/discord that happens when you read Hegel in the drag bar that presents an occasion for new work... (Is that what you mean by "poetic" - when is new work not, in a sense, "poetic"? I'd like to put a little pressure on yr use of the word...)

Whether you're railing against the "feuilletonistic" or condemning us to detention in it - I'd say that you're missing the point, the seriousness, of the move that Butler et al are making. You reduce it to a sort of "personal is political/philosophical" misuse of ratio in the service of autobiography. Or misuse of autobiography in the service of bad ratio. I counter that that's exactly the point - that's what moves thought in new directions - and it's the reason that lit studies evades the aridity of "philosophy" as it's done in my neck of the woods...

Funny that you're picking on women, too... Wonder if you'd have the guts to reduce, say, a hypothetical black lit scholar's reslanting of philosophy through the experience of, say, segregated bathrooms as merely or appropriately "feuilletonistic"?

Seems to me no coincidence that the Philosophy departments of the US are home to a bunch of white males pre-acclimated to the cold dry air of self-working ratio.

William S

An occasion for new work or an advance in theory? Is all new work an advance?

"But I also experienced in that moment a certain implicit theorization of gender"

Why not, "I had an epiphany", in that she realized what MUST be the case. (Could only be...)

What is the context of the necessity here invoked?


In other words, I think that Butler might say that condemning her to the feuilleton is exactly the sort of move that a discipline unsettled by the thought of what's happening in the drag bar has always and will always make. Automatic, symptomatic...

Oh, and Rich: On the "big balls" claim: name a department in the humanities that doesn't borrow from other disciplines? History drafts sociology, literary studies, philosophy, the sciences, economics etc... Sociology draws history, lit, sciences, economics. So does that mean that they're all imperialistic disciplines? I borrow from history in my work, and economics too. I don't, however, think that I'm innately superior to them because I've borrowed. Quite the contrary. I can define what I do, just as they can.

Seems to me, just judging from these comments, that it's not literary studies but philosophy that's constantly playing with other folks' balls, and without their permission...

William S

She is so condemned because of the claim that she had an experience of implicit theorization about what must be the character of her experience. Experience asserts itself as necessity, and cannot engage critically.


No, William, all new work isn't necessarily an advance. But to dismiss it out of hand for arising from the Hegel in a gay bar scenario isn't productive or fair (and, as I said above, may be symptomatic of a deeper problem)...

And we're talking "theory" ("a certain implicit theorization of gender") - not "necessity," right? She seems to be locating the "theorization" (interesting word, no?) in the drag artists, their performance...

By the way: Judy B. actually has major issues with the sort of pathetic fallacy we're engaged in here with the "gay bar" stuff (I know - she wrote the damn essay - but this happens I guess when you get big enough and people start asking you for autobiographical stuff for anthologies and the rest)

I had the opportunity to take a grad seminar with her not too many years back (2001) and, in the course of discussing the weird shift in Foucault's tone from the end of History of Sex I to History of Sex II, I asked her about James Miller's biographical reading (in The Passions of Michel Foucault) of the shift as having something to do with his discovery of and participation in the S/M scene in Berkeley as a visiting prof. in the early 80s. (I kinda knew what I was getting into here in asking about Miller...)

This really pissed her off. Miller pisses her off. That's not what it was about, according to Judy B. Can't stand the reduction of Foucault's line of thought to the biographical. Rare outburst of quasi-anger (thankfully directed not at me) from Butler... Interesting, I think, in the context of the discussion we're having...


William S. and I are way too in sync temporally and cross-posting...

Here's the thing: where do you think Butler's locating the "implicit theorization," in her own mind or the perfomance of the drag artists? I think the latter... I think this makes a lot of difference. Not just the pressure of experience, necessity, but a text, a "theory," that she was reading in the bar along with Hegel...

That's, I think, why she uses the word "theorization" and not "theory."


Oh, and one other thing, William...

So what then is the place of "experience" in the realm of "critical engagement"? One takes two steps away from the world, in your model, before one begins to speak?

I don't think Butler would deny that she writes with the gale force winds of necessity at her back... Actually, she'd take that as a compliment, I think...

William S

I don't think anyone dismissed her because she was reading Hegel in a drag bar. In fact, I dont think she was even reading it in the bar, but in the daytime, spending the nightime in the bar - which means that the two are connected through her experience of her own life, their connection is established in her introspection and reflection, not in any immediate juxtaposition or new context.

As to locating the theorization in the performance, it's difficult to tell, no? Or, what is the difference between theory and theorization? She experienced a theorization and then expressed a theory? Implicit/explicit only? Is it something about the world or something about herself that she has realized? Are they the same? It risks sliding into a sort of solipsism of judgements. My judgements about myself ARE my judgements about the world.

"And so I was confronted by what can only be called the transferability of the attribute. Femininity, which I understood never to have belonged to me anyway, was clearly belonging elsewhere, and I was happier to be the audience to it, have always been happier to be its audience than I ever was or would be being the embodiment of it."

See, she never HAD the attribute, but is only expected to, and is uncomfortable with that expectation, unhappy, but now that she sees where it belongs, all is well. Not even where it beliongs, but what her proper realtionship to it is. This is not transferability of the attribute itself. But so described, it corrodes the base of the expectation to which she was previously subject. And that this situation could ONLY be descibed in this way establishes her pioint if refernece as the absolute point of refernece. You cannot argue with her on this point. You can surely see it differently, but you can argue that it is different.

I think the whole back and forth about who read what and how deeply is relevant here in that it is bascially a question of edcuation. How much is enough to be able to form judgements? Relevant in that argument and its possibility is valued not for its own sake but to protect the integriyt of judgements. So really we are concerned with in what the integrity of judgeents consists and how to develop that. In the glass bead game, there is no question of justification at all. But, it also has pretty much no contact with or relevance for the rest of the world that isn't engaegd in it full-time. It is absolutely isolated except in a political sense. This is the obvious diference with theory (or philosophy), that people go to univeristy and are educated through it and their minds are formed at least in part by it.

William S

Maybe one rocks back on their heels, I don't know.

But it seems obvious, does it not, that "to experience" is not identicial with "engaging critically". She says that she experienced something and that it could only mean what she experienced it as. Perhaps epipheny is wrong in that it is not of the form of a final truth, but it certainly seems to be an ultimate truth in some sense. A constant effort to pull oneself together.

Rich Puchalsky

"Me" writes: "Oh, and Rich: On the 'big balls' claim: name a department in the humanities that doesn't borrow from other disciplines?" [...] "I can define what I do, just as they can."

"Me", I'd be glad to have a definition of what you do. What is it?

There are three associated problems with the claim of literary studies people that they've got big balls.

The first that they notoriously seem to "apply concepts" from other disciplines without knowing what they are doing, c.f. Sokal. This extends to the indiscriminate use of techniques from other disciplines in an ad hoc fashion, where the techniques are chosen in each case in order to support a predetermined conclusion; John Holbo writes about this in his dialogue (do a text search for "daemon").

The second is the Theory-imperialism that treats advances in knowledge in any field as being part of literary studies if those advances bring knowledge about literature. This is often denied by literary studies people when the accusation is made, and just as often asserted by implication when the accuser's metaphorical back is turned.

The third is the deliberate inflation of the object of study of literary studies to be either all texts or all culture. Having recently read a minor bit of text by Eagleton, I can use a specific example of this; he has an introductory chapter devoted to the question "What is literature?" that ends up asserting that even railway schedules may be literature. This is the kind of assertion that is formally undisputeable; is it always possible to imagine someone, somewhere treating a railway schedule as literature, and it is unquestionably a text. At the same time, the assertion is the same kind of realization that teenagers have when they first hear about Marcel Duchamp's famous toilet. "Wow, if all you need to do to make something into art is *say* that it's art, then anything could be art! That's so cool!" When they get a little older, they realize that this was a stunt, and that while people may occasionally admire the design values of a toilet, that doesn't make them works of art, and it doesn't mean that art critics study toilets. Literary studies does the same thing whenever it wants to inflate its subject matter, even though I'd guess that actual studies of railway schedules and the like occupy only the same stunt-space. As a sociological description, the object of study of literary studies people seems to be limited to high-culture literary texts and popular low-culture texts.


I wonder if Hegel is guilty of feuilletonism, in the sense in which John's using the term. Hegel is certainly a magnificient "argufier", and he says things like this (about Universal History):

The workman approaches his task with his own spirit; a spirit distinct from that of the element he is to manipulate. ... Among us each labors to invent a purely individual point of view.

Hegel steals terms from physics and misuses them horribly (e.g. "moment"), and he postulates strange entities like the "World-Spirit". After reading this stuff, Judith Butler goes to a gay bar and has an Idea...


I should also add that Rich has never explained what it is that he does, and he should, especially since Hegel proved logically that some of those so-called planets that astronomers waste our tax money on don't even exist.


See the very tail end of this post for my reflections on how Hegel projects his personality into his philosophy, Susan.


Rich: here's what I do in my own work and in my teaching (rather not, for the moment, speak to the entire discipline):

I examine the ways that literary texts formally register and react to pressures both intrinsically literary ("make it new") and extrinsic (cultural, historical, political). I also examine the way culture's self-consideration takes a literary shape, plagued by all the problems of literary form...

In other words, I read culture's stamp on the aesthetic and the aesthetic unconscious of the cultural, historical, etc...

That's the best that I can do, for now.

I think the problem here is that you keep asking for definitions here - when good definitions aren't simple. Imagine you'll be dissatisfied with the lack of economy above...

Rich Puchalsky

"Me", that sounds like a perfectly good explanation of your work. I agree that it isn't a definition of the entire field, but I don't have any problems with its lack of economy. Can you give a description of how you go about this? For instance, let's say you're examining a particular text. If there does seem to be something really new in it, do you try to judge whether it's a result of extrinsic cultural pressure or of literary invention (the "make it new" pressure) by the author? Do you care about biography at all?

And Jonathan -- I'm sure that everyone got your witticism the first time you posted it. This is now the third or fourth time you've posted the same one. There's really no need to keep on with the one-liners, you're not going to shut down the conversation no matter how often you repeat them. Why don't you take a rest for a while?


That's not a witticism about Hegel, Rich. It's a deadly serious fact. I'm going to try to restrict myself to one-liners, per your request, from here on out, however. Though, because of browser differences, etc., I'm going to interpret it as "one-sentencers."

Rich Puchalsky

I see that you're having reading comprehension problems again, Jonathan. I didn't ask you to restrict yourself to one-liners -- I asked you to contribute something of value, for a change, instead of one-liners. You know, take a risk, say something that isn't a stereotyped, reflexive defense of your field.

But maybe I'll have to humorlessly answer this one before you'll let it go. OK. You've three or four times now asked me to explain why astronomers ignore the gamma quadrant -- or, as you did this latest time, similarly tried to imply that my basic questions about your field are stupid in the same way that badgering an astronomer about the gamma quadrant would be.

Well, Jonathan, there's a reason why your comparison doesn't work. Astronomers face basic and/or stupid questions about their field every day, and they know how to answer them in simple terms. You don't. Astronomers, by the way, also very commonly get the "Isn't your field useless?" objection, and they have their apologetics all lined up. They don't answer it by attempting to snow the questioners under with jargon, and by telling them that they have to educate themselves before they'll say anything -- which, if you'll pardon me, is the maneuver of a dork.


Though I'm quite capable of describing what my field does ("read and write about literary and other narratives and teach others how to read, write about, and teach them") without using any jargon, I refused to do so in your case because I sensed, based on your previous comments, that you were not asking in good faith--rather, I think you were wanting to pounce on something with the internet-Socratic method, which I loosely define as the pedantry born of misdirected aggression and ignorance and which manifests in querulous disingeunousness and continued willful ignorance (and it's entirely possible that I was being unfair in thinking this of you, perhaps conflating your remarks with others here and others half-remembered); but I would want to add, in my defense, that a cursory look at almost any journal in the field, or indeed any of the many introductions to it that've been mentioned here, would be more than enough to give you the answers you seek and that I thus must assume that you don't like those answers, refuse to find them, or want to resolve some trauma involving a literature professor of years past (perhaps snidely dismissing some astronomical fiction you adored--who could know?) and that I've thus, perhaps wrongly, deliberately avoided the role of therapeutic antagonist.

William S

Christ you two, how fucking useless is all of this?

Rich Puchalsky

Well, Jonathan, if you really want to "deliberately [avoid] the role of therapeutic antagonist", then maybe you should you should give up on the amateur psychoanalysis of people over the Internet. And maybe you should stop perpetuating this "fucking useless" conflict, as William S accurately describes it, by resisting the urge to post snotty one liners in response to my comments. I'll be more than willing to agree to ignore yours.


I'd like to take William S's intensifier-laden remark as an opportunity to discuss some ideas I have about internet communication. John has mentioned several times the potential of blogs taking the place of, or at least adding a great deal to, traditional scholarly journals. Communication over the internet, however, tends to follow certain recognizable patterns. The lack of direct contact makes such things as tone and irony often difficult to detect. People tend to escalate and personalize conflicts because of the lack of social cues.

Journals and books, as written media, also lack direct personal contact; but their inherent conservatism serves to curb these unpleasantries. I see no ready solution to this problem. I have seen some of the finest minds on slashdot--astonomers, priests, and poets--lose themselves in the madness of "trolling" and "flaming," as it's called. Please let us not have that happen here.

If Rich and I were talking in person, none of these hurtful words would have been exchanged. What I found insulting in his remarks would have been less so in context, I hope, and vice versa. There would have been an opportunity for mutual growth and learning. But instead we froth violently at the bars and drip white foam on the floors of our iron cages of virtuality.

Rich Puchalsky

Well, I sincerely apologize for the hurtful comments.


As do I and Billy Batts.

William S

Who is Billy Batts?

Most likely none of these hurtful comments would have been exchanged because one or the other or both would be too squeamish to get into it, or one or the other or both would have the sense to walk away. The latter could obviously be done here as well, so I don't see how it is some tendency in the wild world of Blog where there are no social cues and no inherent conservatism any more than that some people in real life tend to be assholes as well.

And I think the exchange was enormously instructive.

Rich Puchalsky

William S, there's no percentage in continuing to rehash this. We have hopefully arrived at an equilibrium where everyone has said what they need to say on the matter, and going into who Billy Batts is, or into the specific techniques of forcing a walk-away (or, as I previously put it, shutting down the conversation), is only going to perpetuate an exchange that has passed its instructive point some number of posts back. If it matters, there are certainly moderation technologies available that could prevent these kinds of disputes in a blog that was actually devoted to being a substitute for a scholarly journal.

William S

Well I'm glad that I at least can provide an opportunity for everyone to calm down and explain proper rules of decorum. To me.


I think we all learned a little something about courage.

No, seriously. Thanks for all the input, everyone. I'm going to give it a rest for a couple days because it's hurting my head trying to think whether my dialogue is good or bad.

William S

I think it was very good, despite my morbid focus on the Wilde/mattress joke. And as to schizophrenia, I perfectly understand what you mean. And, whoever thinks that idiosyncracy is irresponsible is just boring. Oh, wait, you don't think that do you?


Let me use Mr. von Bledet's contribution as an excuse to say that John's whole presentation would be stronger if it lost the Hesse bits. I skipped all those parts.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Email John & Belle

  • he.jpgjholbo-at-mac-dot-com
  • she.jpgbbwaring-at-yahoo-dot-com

Google J&B

J&B Archives

Buy Reason and Persuasion!

S&O @ J&B

  • www.flickr.com
    This is a Flickr badge showing items in a set called Squid and Owl. Make your own badge here.

Reason and Persuasion Illustrations

  • www.flickr.com

J&B Have A Tipjar

  • Search Now:

  • Buy a couple books, we get a couple bucks.
Blog powered by Typepad

J&B Have A Comment Policy

  • This edited version of our comment policy is effective as of May 10, 2006.

    By publishing a comment to this blog you are granting its proprietors, John Holbo and Belle Waring, the right to republish that comment in any way shape or form they see fit.

    Severable from the above, and to the extent permitted by law, you hereby agree to the following as well: by leaving a comment you grant to the proprietors the right to release ALL your comments to this blog under this Creative Commons license (attribution 2.5). This license allows copying, derivative works, and commercial use.

    Severable from the above, and to the extent permitted by law, you are also granting to this blog's proprietors the right to so release any and all comments you may make to any OTHER blog at any time. This is retroactive. By publishing ANY comment to this blog, you thereby grant to the proprietors of this blog the right to release any of your comments (made to any blog, at any time, past, present or future) under the terms of the above CC license.

    Posting a comment constitutes consent to the following choice of law and choice of venue governing any disputes arising under this licensing arrangement: such disputes shall be adjudicated according to Canadian law and in the courts of Singapore.

    If you do NOT agree to these terms, for pete's sake do NOT leave a comment. It's that simple.

  • Confused by our comment policy?

    We're testing a strong CC license as a form of troll repellant. Does that sound strange? Read this thread. (I know, it's long. Keep scrolling. Further. Further. Ah, there.) So basically, we figure trolls will recognize that selling coffee cups and t-shirts is the best revenge, and will keep away. If we're wrong about that, at least someone can still sell the cups and shirts. (Sigh.)