Grue-ish Puffer Fish

A brief follow-up on matters of Literary Theory, and eloquence, and the Naming of Departments, and slavering mutual admiration among Theorists, and whither Theory, and which would you rather have as your one and only book on a desert island where you had to live for fifteen years and three weeks with only a rusty knife and a red cusion with ‘1962 World’s Fair’ embroidered on it in cerulean silk thread to keep you company and help you survive – one book by William Empson or several hundred (different) books by Judith Butler.

Allen Esterson alerted us in comments to this gorgeous page at Columbia – full of people trying to outdo each other in saying slobberingly sycophantic things about Gayatri Spivak. Why do they do that? Why do they do that ‘she/he is the most brilliant insightful original surprising stunning amazing profound clever wise thinker who ever breathed with the one possible exception of this other colleague of mine’ thing? Why? What’s the deal? Do they think Spivak is a member of some secret gang or cabal – like SMERSH or one of those – that controls all academic appointments everywhere in the universe? Do they hope she’ll invite them over for Ovaltine? Do they want to borrow her car? What? What makes them come over all – all – embarrassing, when they talk about each other? Oh well, I guess I just answered the question. It’s the fact that they’re talking about each other. Theorists talking about other Theorists. I guess they just think there’s no such thing as piling it on too thick. They’re wrong about that.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s Death of a Discipline does not tell us that Comparative Literature is at an end. On the contrary, it charts a demanding and urgent future for the field, laying out the importance of the encounter with area studies and offering a radically ethical framework for the approach to subaltern writing. Spivak deftly opposes the ‘migrant intellectual’approach to the study of alterity. In its place, she insists upon a practice of cultural translation that resists the appropriation by dominant power and engages in the specificity of writing within subaltern sites in the idiomatic and vexed relation to the effacements of cultural erasure and cultural appropriation. She asks those who dwell within the dominant episteme to imagine how we are imagined by those for whom literacy remains the primary demand. And she maps a new way of reading not only the future of literary studies but its past as well. This text is disorienting and reconstellating, dynamic, lucid, and brilliant in its scope and vision. Rarely has ‘death’offered such inspiration.

Maybe it is – maybe it is lucid and brilliant. But somehow, reading Butler, one can hardly help thinking it’s not, it can’t be – that if the person who wrote that mess likes it, it has to be another mess.

Take a look at that page; it’s worth it.

John Holbo has a post at The Valve
that talks about a new book I’m slavering to read, called Theory’s Empire. Holbo links to the Table of Contents – also at Columbia Press, amusingly enough. That table of contents has a lot of friends and contributors and future and potential contributors to B&W in it. Frederick Crews, Meera Nanda, Susan Haack, David Bromwich, Russell Jacoby, Mark Bauerlein, Erin O’Connor. So it’s bound to be good, and quite likely not to write in Butlerese. Almost certain not to, in fact.

Holbo makes an amusing comment:

If ‘theory’ means “speculation on language, interpretation itself, society, gender, culture, and so on” then it is obvious nonsense to say it is something that only got comfortable after 1980. (One of the big achievements of theory is supposed to be laying the gentleman amateur belletristic pontificator in his grave, but then you can’t define ‘theory’ in a way that patently raises him up as an Ur-theorist. What gentleman was ever incapable of ‘speculating about culture’, after all?) Obviously what is being ‘packaged’ as ‘theory’ is narrower than the implied vastness of the definition. Theory is a cluster of figures and styles – a more or less culturally cohesive post-60’s intellectual and literary sensibility – found mostly in English departments. If you want to ‘package’ that, fine; don’t include the old stuff. Dante didn’t ‘do theory’. Maimonides didn’t ‘do theory’. Just include the essential roots. Go back to Kant, fine. (He didn’t ‘do theory’, but he’s essential scenery.) The Enlightenment vs. Romanticism and how that played out to get us where we are, plus a few grace notes from the ancients – Plato, because Derrida. Cramming in other old stuff while squeezing out more contemporary competition looks (ahem) imperialistic. ‘Theory and criticism’ turns out to be a grue-ish cross-cut. Like having a volume entitled ‘analytic philosophy and metaphysics’. Then leaving out Heidegger because … he doesn’t do analytic philosophy. In short, the Norton looks overweight because it is one big Puffer Fish. When attacked, pretend to be larger than you are.

Very grue-ish. Neither fish nor fowl nor good red lentils.

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