Genuflect Genuflect Genuflect

The old ‘how do I look in this attitude’ problem again. The old ‘get me, I’m so transgressive’ problem again. Funny how persistent it is.

What chiefly surprised me about last winter’s list was its lack of any humor, any irony. The self-styled most important journal of theory was going to inform us – so it told us – what an objective method revealed about who the most important theorists were in its pages. How? By counting citations to theorists. Behind the rhetoric about discovering “the identity of our journal” lies an implicit assumption: If you’re cited in Critical Inquiry, you’re the best of the best. Sometimes the folks in Chicago get a little pumped…

If we like you you’re the best of the best. Okay, that’s one way of measuring. Possibly not the most self-effacing or non-risible method though.

The authors of the ranking, Anne H. Stevens, an assistant professor of English at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, and Jay W. Williams, Critical Inquiry’s managing editor, note that “Benjamin’s works are cited nonargumentatively,” which I think is a nice way of saying his ideas are just window dressing, not engaged with. That must be why he ranks high as one of the most perfectly citable authors of all, because you can cite him reverently without having to figure out what he said. With Benjamin a citation is the academic equivalent of the purely ritual move, like a ballplayer’s sign of the cross. But the genuflecting to Benjamin points, perhaps, to something hocus-pocus about this whole counting exercise. The essay that accompanies CI’s list crows that the theories featured in the journal “share a tendency to question received wisdom and accept few absolutes or foundations.” Yet this list seems like a monument to CI’s importance.

That, exactly, is what makes my skin crawl about ‘theory’ at its (all too abundant) worst: that dreadful and endemic habit of citing totemic names ‘nonargumentatively’, of using names as window dressing rather than the ideas of the names as something to be engaged with, of citing people reverently without having to figure out what they said, of genuflecting. It’s a great marker for the presence of empty attitudinizing as opposed to real thought or inquiry. That’s why I sometimes, as a reader pointed out last week, criticize the writing of X about Y on the basis of what X said without necessarily having read Y, because it is what X has said about Y, rather than Y, that I’m talking about. It really is possible, in fact it’s pretty easy, to spot nonargumentative citation window dressing when you bump into it. It’s nothing if not obvious.

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