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May 09, 2006

Comments

Jonathan

You know that Stevie Nicks song on Tusk that goes something like "sister of the mooon!" Sometimes people describe that as hyper-romantic.

I think we need a different term. "Kitsch" isn't it.

jholbo

Shawltastic!

jholbo

You will be interested to know that my iPod indicates that I have listened to the previously unreleased version of "Sisters of the Moon" 6 times, since I purchased the CD version [see sidebar] that has a lot of extra tracks. All the Lindsey Buckingham tracks are just tremendous. A sort of toy piano version of "That's All For Everything". It's my new favorite album. There are three new versions of "I know I'm not wrong", which I have listened to - together with the original - a total of 44 times since I purchased the disk. There's a version of "Honey Hi" with a beautiful Shuggie Otis keyboard thing.

jholbo

Of course this thread already contains, like, 304 versions of "I Know I'm not Wrong", so yeah, I should have seen that one coming.

Matt

The term rather neutrally - albeit vaguely - picks out a subject, and then people disagree about it. We got a lot of resistance to the very use of 'theory' during the event, but that's like neocons telling people that there are no neocons. It's just a way to prevent criticism.

Hm...

Wow, John. Honestly, one just has to suspect you know this isn't true, if you are to be given any credit.

One could pull up the appropriate links, I suppose. After all, having myself often qualified, rather explicitly, the "resistance" in question to be directed against your manner of deployment of this popular word, i.e., your supporting arguments, and the limits or inaccuracies of your framing, etc. But maybe Rich will oblige. (Or I suppose one could just google "Theory's Empire.")

It's too bad the Spinoza question was lost, as this might have been an interesting discussion yet.

(As an aside, how a term ever "neutrally" picks out a subject in anything but the most limited, idealized fashion, before it accrues meaning through repetition, use and context (some of which, needless to say, rather preceeds the fact), one hesitates to ask.)

In any case, this strikes me as a rather transparent straw-manning of your occasional blog critics. Perhaps the neocon and Horowitz analogies are likewise meant to insult them, or bait people into "being rude," and so further sink these threads into distraction.

The analogies don't work for a simple reason. Nobody has ever denied the existence of the colophon "Theory."

Your position, however, insists on making it into more than a colophon.

So it's unfortunate you haven't taken the opportunity, offered above by Doctor Slack, to admit any change of heart in this regard.

Yes, one could justify this "neutral" use in various ways, of course. One could say, for instance, that "Theory" is also that which is championed by "Theorists" themselves, whole-heartedly, and without a whiff of irony, qualification or polemic directed toward those who have, increasingly during the last two decades, deployed it as lazy, anti-intellectual pejorative. (One would still be mostly wrong, but one certainly could.)

Once again, the poor reputation within academia may indeed be earned - since the beginning of this debate I've often called most of Theory "atrocious" - but that doesn't make the pejorative, invoked by itself, any less a pejorative. One can criticize an academic taste culture by itself, of course (and there are perhaps more productive ways of doing so), but unless one is engaging with the ideas themselves, this critique will remain limited, polemical and popular.

One might look at it this way: the taste culture is philistine, so also your critique of it, as long as it refrains from more substantial and patient engagement with ideas, or demonstrating a deeper knoweldge of the tradition, will likely be so.

Now, both you and Scott have engaged also with ideas, at times. The things you eventually say are sometimes debated without these polemical stakes over Theory muddling matters. More often they are not. People tend to point out where your reading of various thinkers is flawed. But because rather than discussing (continental) philosophy, the stakes are always brought back to Theory, one cannot help suspect this is mostly a waste of your critics' time.)

I suppose it has to do with your intended audience, John, which I take to be someone like Brian Leiter, i.e., an academic already sympathetic to your aims. Or a broader public, composed of people looking for yet another reason not to read Derrida. Not being a continental philosopher yourself, and judging from everything you have eventually said in the way of supporting argument, yours will be a very popular (and quite dismissive) "history of Theory." I take this to be a fairly obvious point. (After all, you begin with some relatively obscure and outdated piece of Terry Eagleton from twenty years ago.)

I guess it really comes down to: what are you LOOKING for?

Indeed, so it would seem.

Mike

Naw. This is simply prolonged "avoidance behavior" in regards to Chalmers' arguments in favor of immaterialism:

ghost or not ghost

T v F


(f)

next?

Doctor Slack

Okay. Back from the long weekend for one last go at this thread.

Since I've opened multiple cans of worms at once, my answer is necessarily going to be long. Again. In fact, believe it or not, this here is the short version.

(I see Matt has anticipated a bit of this, but never mind...)

1. To be more clear about what I'm still confused about re: "Theory" -- well, the "analogy" that confused you was an attempt to reproduce certain points you've previously used to characterize "Theory," transposed into a discussion of "Philosophy." So, I'm confused as to why you took that to be an occasion to talk about the "T-to-t fallacy," first off. But leaving that aside:

Do you not understand what the scope of my subject matter is supposed to be?

I understand the scope of your subject matter to be a "Theory" which you contend begins, proper, in the 1960s. If in fact you believe "Theory" as a distinct field to have started around that time, I don't understand why; do Russian Formalism and the New Criticism not qualify as theory, for instance? If not, why not?

I understand you to have contended, and presumably still to contend, that the term "Theory" picks out a style as well as a period, and that style is meant as both an aesthetic and intellectual term. I'm puzzled by what this means, particularly since what seems to me the defining characteristic of theory since the 1960s is very much the lack of a common style, critical vocabulary or intellectual approach, an environment in which people often seem to have extreme difficulty simply reading or speaking to each other.

I understand you to contend that the bulk of theory descends from counter-Enlightenment and related Romantic traditions, which is a curious and tantalizing claim that I have no way of assessing at present. (I tend to wonder how true it is that theorists (they are out there) who claim to be tilting against "the Enlightenment" are really doing so.)

As for the "Patai & Corral" type of complaint about theory, forget about it. Unless I'm told otherwise, I will understand you not to be saying any such thing.

Does that help?

2. "Definition": my general puzzlement about John's proclaimed hostility to definition ties into a broader issue than my own confusions about the usages of "Theory" or "Higher Eclecticism." This digression actually isn't very interesting, but I feel compelled to try to clarify.

John says: I guess I feel that my writing on the subject has contained enough examples that I sort of figured you were looking, instead, for a definition that would not only be clear but capable of a significant level of self-defense.

"Self-defense" is not really the role of definition, as I think you know; its role is more as a starting point for discussion and (hopefully) as a time-saving mechanism, a way of ruling out some of the more common misconceptions about how a term is used, or at least spelling out some of the possible ambiguities that parties to the debate might be working with.

Since definition helps to frame or provide a starting point for debate, I don't see how refusing to engage in it because it might lead to error is useful, given that error is just as easy to come by in working without it. This is particularly true in an environment like the debate over theory or over specific theorists, where past critics of "Theory" have often rather queered the pitch for you with disproportionate amounts of incurious and intellectually lazy engagement.

I was adducing the Spivak thread Rich quoted as an example of the kind of misreading that definition might help to ameloriate (and not by way of making excuses for psychoanalytic gamesmanship); basically, in the absence of a defined starting point, what happened there was people trying loosely to figure out what your "tone poem" criticism was driving at -- and it seemed a mixed bag, with rather superficial criticisms like "dramatic miscalculation" alongside much more interesting critiques of Spivak's argumentative integrity. Someone who was led, by the "aesthetic" framing of the criticism, to overweight the former could easily have mistaken it for a version of the "Bad Writing" critique. I suspect that just such a mistake prompted the casting about for "what's really going on" in the post Rich linked to.

Now, people are always going to make mistakes and misread you from time to time. But could the frustrations you experienced in that and other contexts have been ameliorated if your approach had been to briefly and contingently define "the Higher Eclecticism" instead of directing readers to this or that thread because you're sick of talking about it? I think maybe so. That's all I'm saying.

jholbo

Slack writes: "To be more clear about what I'm still confused about re: "Theory" -- well, the "analogy" that confused you was an attempt to reproduce certain points you've previously used to characterize "Theory," transposed into a discussion of "Philosophy." So, I'm confused as to why you took that to be an occasion to talk about the "T-to-t fallacy," first off."

I was puzzled by the analogy because I myself made the same analogy in my T-t discussion, and so I was unclear how you thought it cut AGAINST my point. (I'm still not seeing it, but perhaps it isn't important.)

Slack continues:

'I understand the scope of your subject matter to be a "Theory" which you contend begins, proper, in the 1960s. If in fact you believe "Theory" as a distinct field to have started around that time, I don't understand why; do Russian Formalism and the New Criticism not qualify as theory, for instance? If not, why not?"'

For the same reason that Descartes isn't an 'analytic' philosopher even though he plausibly analyzed a few things in his time. 'Analytic' is name for a school/movement/style. Likewise, 'Theory' is a name for a school/movement/style - one which was largely in opposition to the New Criticism. The fact that many New Critics were highly theory-minded (Wimsatt and Beardsley) is irrelevant. This is the importance of the T-to-t point. If you don't get very clear about it, it can seem odd that the New Critics don't 'do Theory'. Russian Formalism is funny because it is such an influence on Theory. I usually say that Theory is an Anglophone repetition of a French repetition of German Romanticism. But that's oversimple in a lot of ways (because I'm often writing in comment boxes.) Russian formalism is one of the main roots of Theory. In attacking Theory, I suppose it might seem that I am trying to denigrate Russian formalism by association, which I don't really mean to do. (It's that refuting continental philosophy on the cheap concern rearing its head again.) What I want to do is understand the lineage - a piece of intellectual history. And I want to critique as well, of course.

As to the definition point, Slack writes: "Since definition helps to frame or provide a starting point for debate, I don't see how refusing to engage in it because it might lead to error is useful, given that error is just as easy to come by in working without it."

I think I've answered this one already. The reason I never defined Higher Eclecticism was that it wasn't a starting point for me. It was an afterthought - a comment box sort of shorthand for 'what Holbo said'. It was for use by people who already knew what Holbo said, roughly, so it didn't seem needful to define it. I didn't invent the term. Scott K. did. I took it up, and others took it up, because it seemed rather apt. I'm not opposed to defining it, although I suspect the definitions will mainly function as fodder for straw man attacks (I'm not looking at you, Slack.) In asking you what you wanted, I was trying to be a little more forward looking. I've just explain why definitions weren't offered initially. Various semi-satisfactory definitions have in fact been offered by now, although they weren't initially.

As to why in the Spivak debate I decided just to link to some old posts and threads rather than discussing 'Higher Eclecticism' again. Reason: those old posts and threads seem to me pretty clear. So I felt I had said my piece. On the other hand, I had been justly criticized for not doing enough close reading of Theorists. So I chose to do some close reading of Spivak, which I think ended up being a pretty ok illustration of the Higher Eclecticism in action.

Also, I had a plane to catch. (Yes, I could have asked them to reschedule the event for some time when I wouldn't be flying, but there were so many people involved ...)

One quick response to Matt, who complains about me saying that 'Theory' is a 'neutral' term, rather than an inherently pejorative label: "how a term ever "neutrally" picks out a subject in anything but the most limited, idealized fashion, before it accrues meaning through repetition, use and context (some of which, needless to say, rather preceeds the fact), one hesitates to ask.)"

If it seemed I was suggesting that the the term 'Theory' functions in some fundamentally unique semantic fashion - that it has floated to Platonic freedom, shattering the surly bonds of context and use - I apologize for confuse caused. I have indeed heard tell of these things you call 'context' and 'use', and would be properly shocked at the very thought that they and 'Theory' were twain.

In short, when someone is obvously idealizing in a very limited fashion (like myself), complaining that their iealization will only function in a limited fashion seems doubtfully helpful, as a critique.

Steve

Instead of Theory or aesthetic ideology, or continental philosophy, truth claims. That is what analytical philosophy is about, mainly. Chalmers offers a truth claim. Is it true or false? Are the arguments convincing? Is there sufficient data for the claim? A sort of "truth claim" criteria would eliminate not just entire journals of hyper-conceptualized, unverifiable "Theory", but the endless literary speculations and "politics via aesthetics". A decent analytically-inspired truth criteria applied at state level would do wonders in terms of eliminating bureaucratic pseudo-research and speculation (indicate on line 19C: are you making a synthetic or analytical claim? If A posteriori, move to next line; if a priori, STOP. your idea/claim/hypothesis is wrong). Such a criteria would also save the state millions of dollars (no more public funding of state university literature, arts, or theology departments)

jholbo

Plus I would presumably finally be able to keep the troll from commenting. (Think of the money that I would lose in coffee mug sales.)

Doctor Slack

John says: 'Theory' is a name for a school/movement/style - one which was largely in opposition to the New Criticism. The fact that many New Critics were highly theory-minded (Wimsatt and Beardsley) is irrelevant.

Well, that's just it. The New Critics were not just "theory-minded;" they comprised the era when theory as such actually was -- with the notable exception of Northrop Frye -- incontestably dominated by a single school, movement and style. (I also think the New Critics became an example of why that would in fact be a bad thing, but that's an argument for another day.) It seems very weird to me to rule them out of Theory when most introductory treatments of the subject start with them as the inception of "modern" systematized thinking about literature.

Beyond that, I suspect a pretty reasonable case could be made that aspects of the New Criticism have continued to be influential despite the end of their dominance of the field. Ruling Wimsatt and Beardsley irrelevant -- when they contributed a major component to the operating principles of contemporary theory -- strikes me as rather begging the question.

As for theory post-Sixties: well, I can see the case, in a specific time period, for a loose shared sense of "movement" (long since dissipated, as some have lamented, by a much looser sense of shared professionalism). But I fail to see the sense in which Fredric Jameson, Stephen Greenblatt, Paul de Man, Tzvetan Todorov, Paul Gilroy and Judith Butler could be usefully called members of anything close to the same "school" or "style." Each of those six figures represents a fairly major influence on literary theory (or some sector thereof), and their intellectual and stylistic approaches are so different from one another that adherents frequently have difficulty communicating.

I'm one of these "can't we all just get along, or at least understand each other" types, so the calling Theory a school, movement or style doesn't just seem inaccurate to me. It seems to actually tend in the opposite direction from addressing the real problems in the field.

Doctor Slack

I'm one of these "can't we all just get along, or at least understand each other" types

Ahem. Well, at least when it comes to theory...

jholbo

I'm happy to get along doctor. I suggest that the way to do it is to accept all the things you write, above, and sort of think of them as the very reasons for why I'm interested in studying 'Theory'. You are certainly right in your broad sociological generalizations. Do you see how I can see them all as supporting what I do?

John Emerson

Regarding the comments policy, do the laws of Singapore prescribe caning for trolls?

Doctor Slack

John says: Do you see how I can see them all as supporting what I do?

To a certain extent, sure. I think the "Theory as a school" thing is the biggest sticking point for me... but even there I'm not saying I think it's absolutely impossible to make the case, just that I have a hard time seeing it.

Cheers.

Svatyvam Svettrehadryad

wait..hardguy: .here's more obscene graffiti: 300+ posts and nary an argument to be found. Ask for proof? You obscene troll!

John Holblow: jus' another postmaud. fraud. I wager Chalmers would agree.

Timothy

While it doesn't seem that strange that a massive argument was fought above about whether JH is a continental philosopher I have diffculty imagining an argument with X claiming that he is an analytic philosopher and a group of analytic philosophers saying that he is not. Why is this so?

FanteeSarrode

I’d prefer reading in my native language, because my knowledge of your languange is no so well. But it was interesting!

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