Remarks on Theory

People have been commenting here and there on Mark Bauerlein’s “Theory’s Empire”, no doubt because of the links on Arts and Letters Daily and (cringe) National Review Online’s The Corner. There’s this colleague of Mark’s for example:

If the original impulse of theory was to shatter orthodoxies and challenge hierarchies (it wasn’t all that, but that’s the mythology), the current incarnation is tediously hegemonic…I’m sure deconstruction was really exciting back in the day, but, well, I don’t live back in the day, and I don’t care…the theory evolved into elaboration for its own sake, turning a corner of literature departments into Philosophy-Lite (“Just as much deep meaning, but a third less logical rigor”). You can see how theory for its own sake could take over…But in the end theory has alienated people from literature rather than drawing them in with all the cool new tools of analysis. Why? Because theory, as it is currently constituted, is no longer about finding things out but rather about obscuring them…Theory is dying a long, slow death because it has become boring and opaque. When it comes to praxis, it’s predictably pseudo-radical. When it comes to literature, it’s predictable. Theory won’t die out entirely because there is a quorum of young scholars who have staked their careers on it (I know someone who says “I am the person who does Lacanian analysis of female saints’ lives; That’s my niche” — and a tiny niche it is…).

Snicker, snerk. Lacanian analysis of female saints’ lives – I wish I’d known about that while we were doing the Dictionary. There’s nothing in there about Lacanian analysis of female saints’ lives, although Lacan is definitely there.

There’s another medievalist, this time one who doesn’t think much of B&W:

Sure, the article is a shameless plug, and it is found on the frequently disappointing Butterflies and Wheels site, but he still acknowledges the institutional nature of theory study.

Now see here – B&W may well be frequently disappointing (all depends what you were looking forward to, dunnit), but the article is not a plug, shameless or otherwise – I asked Mark to write it and he kindly consented; plug doesn’t come into it. Plug, indeed – given the kind of site B&W is, it features a lot of talk about books, doesn’t it! That doesn’t make it plugs. [mutter mutter]

Like a lot of cutting-edge work, theory has always had a strongly smug narcissistic quality about it, and to suggest that in the 90s “the institutional effects of Theory displaced its intellectual nature” ignores that theory has always been strongly institutional — else it would never have gained the slightest foothold in the Academy. The very nature of universities prevents them from ever studying (or observing) anything that is not institutionally oriented. French theorists gained prominence not because they were saying particularly smart or interesting things (though of course some were), but because academe happened to be institutionally headed by francophiles, in the same way that 19th-century German philologists ruled before two world wars made German politically suspect.

Eh? Academe happened to be institutionally headed by francophiles? That’s a bit question-begging, isn’t it? Why did it? Why wasn’t it institutionally headed by slavophiles or magyarophiles?

But no matter. I’m just quibbling (I need a break from plugging). Then there’s this site called, catchily, C8H10N4HO2O2.

Without literature, I’d put myself firmly in the camp of those (Ms. Benson, maybe? I don’t want to put words in her mouth) who mostly think that post-modern ideas about the significance of context to observations might be useful things to keep around, but anyone taking this so far as to suggest this implies there is either (a) no tractably knowable objective reality or (b) actually no objective reality is probably either (1) incredibly silly, (2) sadly deluded, (3) grinding an axe for a pseudoscience, or (4) all of the above…Beyond these goobs, of course, there’s the out and out apologists for unreason, hiding behind postmodernism’s flag. You can’t live long as an atheist without encountering at least one slackjawed evangelical preacher who insists his firm belief in an invisible sky fairy is somehow ‘post-modern’… or justified because post-modernism sez there’s no reality anyway, so he can believe whatever he durn well wants, thank you very much… Or somesuch rot. True story: one of these I met, attempting to answer my ridicule of his rhetoric, responded to me with the line: “You’re such an Enlightenment thinker”… as though, apparently, I was gonna take this as an insult or something.

Yup, I’ve encountered some of them too.

And there’s Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast who finds B&W helpful for dissertation writing.

I do, however, have a new weapon in my battle against such propensities for skillfully written perpetuation of nonsense: It’s my newest favorite blogrolled site, Butterflies and Wheels…The site’s entire mission appears to be an innoculation against poor academic writing, faulty scholarly thinking and reasoning, and ideological monarchs clothed in scientific clothes. It’s a good companion, in my mind, to the book Fashionable Nonsense by Sokal and Bricmont. One gradstudent-relevant point to take from these resources is the importance of not copying the mistakes of our elders in order to be accepted into the academic fold. It is possible to think clearly. It is possible to write well. It is possible to communicate complex scholarly ideas with clarity, honesty, and flair.

Yes – that is indeed our entire mission. And a dang good mission it is, too. (And not as small as it may sound – look how full it’s made these pages in the last almost three years.)

The sun is setting in its usual decorative fashion, and I must scamper off to admire its descent over the silvery waters of Puget Sound. Good night.

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