Fishy Requisites

Oh good, another one. Another nice barrel full of docile, torpid fish.

Why is it that every article bashing “theory” comes from someone who doesn’t know what they are talking about?

Hmm. Why is it that the defenders of ‘theory’ (at least on this site at this time) can’t do better? One, does every article ‘bashing’ (that is to say, criticising) ‘theory’ come from someone who knows nothing of the subject? As a matter of fact, no. I’ve read several articles and indeed books by people who know a lot about it, including some by people who were once keen on ‘theory’ themselves. There is William Kerrigan’s essay in Wild Orchids and Trotsky, for example. And two, why is it that the defenders of ‘theory’ who presumably pride themselves on their awareness of how rhetoric works, on the ways people use language to manipulate each other (I don’t really know what else literary ‘theorists’ would pride themselves on) allow themselves to use such blunt instruments? Like making sweeping statements that are obviously not true, and using the word ‘bashing’ for heaven’s sake, which is such an obvious pejorative that it’s one of the first words we put in the Dictionary. Suggestion for would-be defenders of the brilliance of ‘theory’: be cautious about using the word ‘every’.

There are many theorists who are/were excellent writers — think of Blanchot, for example, or Barthes, or Simone Weil. Just because Lacan wasn’t E.B. White doesn’t mean that what Lacan writes is automatically wrong.

Well no kidding. But who said anything else? The title of the In Focus article is Bad Writing, not Theory. I’m not talking about Lacan or Derrida or Foucault, I’m talkng about their inept imitators. And how did Simone Weil get into the picture? Since when is Simone Weil a ‘theorist’? Do ‘theorists’ get to claim everybody whose work they admire as a fellow ‘theorist’ and then brandish their trophies as evidence that theory is great stuff? If so, just exactly what is ‘theory’ anyway and how does it differ from philosophy? And again, the subject of this particular article is bad writing, not error. It’s perfectly true that a bad writer can still be right (and nor am I suggesting E.B. White as a model, in any case), but if the writing is bad, the rightness will be that much less convincing. And if the writing is deliberately bad, bad for the sake of impressing other fans of bad writing rather than good for the sake of making new fans of good writing and thinking, then my claim is that that’s a bad state of affairs.

Objecting to critical theory on stylistic grounds allows people to dismiss it without actually reading it — and this is the very kernel of ignorance.

Does it? Aren’t people allowed to dismiss it without reading it anyway? They don’t need my permission. And why is it ignorance, indeed the very kernel of ignorance, not to have read critical theory? Is it more ignorant to have given critical theory the go-by for the sake of reading, say, history and sociology and philosophy and economics than it would be to have read critical theory but not history, sociology and the rest? If so, why? And then, there are problems with consequentialist arguments anyway. It’s not necessarily a great idea to claim that one shouldn’t criticise X because that allows people to ‘dismiss’ X – at that rate no one could ever criticise anything, and surely the problems with that idea are obvious enough. And it’s not particularly clear why objecting to critical theory on stylistic grounds would allow people to dismiss it, in any case.

What’s interesting to me is that is we substitute “philosophy” for “theory,” suddenly it’s acceptable to be turgid and dense with respect to your prose. On the unfortunate day when similar articles appear attacking the late Donald Davidson’s brilliant but daunting essays on cognition, we will know the playing field is finally level.

And what’s interesting to me is the way people will keep giving themselves away. There we have it yet again – the attempt to associate ‘theory’ with philosophy or physics or science in general. Let’s try a different thought-experiment – let’s substitute ‘philosophy’ for, say, Scientology, or Objectivism, or Jungian psychology. And thus we see that having a turgid, dense style is no guarantee of having well-founded ideas any more than having a lucid one is a guarantee of having either well-founded or ill-founded ones. Or to put it another way, it’s not particularly acceptable for philosophy to be turgid and dense if it can avoid it, just as it’s not in science writing. And just as guilt by association is not considered a good argument, neither is innocence by association. ‘Theory’ has to defend itself on its own ground; just mentioning Donald Davidson isn’t going to do it.

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