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Monday, May 10, 2010

A Conversation

The internet was out on campus the other day, almost the entire day. No email, not web surfing. Many routine tasks could not be accomplished. It was the next to the last week of a long semester. In the lunch room the colleagues were in a feisty mood. Four of us got to talking, a group of two of us with PhDs in the late 80s and two in the early 2000s, two peninsularists and two Latin Americanists. One complained about the overuse of theory among certain "big names" in our field. We were supposed to be past a certain style of use of theory, but someone this use of theory persists in certain institutional forms. I pointed out that we were in a bind: we could encourage our graduate students to use theory more lightly or more subtly, but they would still see flashy but overtheorized work featured prominently in books published by Duke University Press. Real briliance, in our opinion, was bringing to light something that should be obvious but that nobody had ever articulated before, not mastering a flashy metalanguage. One colleague's opinion was that theory could be a way of avoiding the hard work of cultural studies, of actually doing the research in the field, the archives. We talked about our graduate students, how some in the past had eagerly taken to Deleuze and Guattari, to the rhizome. But did we really want our students to be "creative" if they were not disciplined? I said that you should understand at least 80% of a theory before you used it. By that criterion, I myself lack the intellectual capital to use, say, Walter Benjamin. Sure, I've read him and read about him, and am very interested in him, but do I really have the philosophical background to say I know what he's saying with 80% certainty? Someone responded by saying that the more mature a critic was, the more this kind of modesty comes into play. I am not a modest person by any means, but I think I know enough to know what I don't know.

The internet should go out more often, because it was truly a stimulating conversation.

9 comments:

matt said...

This conversation reminded me of the exchanges between the various professors in DeLillo's _White Noise_

But I totally agree. As a graduate student, the professionalization committee at my university is constantly encouraging us, pushing us to talk with each other about our projects and ideas.

Maybe the internet will go out for us too...

Thomas said...

I think I agree with the 80% rule. But I want to stress that "Walter Benjamin" is not a theory, he's an author. Deleuze and Foucault aren't theories either. Schizoanalysis is arguably a method; Foucault arguably had a theory of discourse (which guides an "archaeology"). The real problem is not the use of theory but the idolotry of authors.

Theory should summarize your peers' expectations of your object. In literary studies, for example, an understanding psychoanalysis (not Freud) could once help you predict what your peers would say about Hamlet, i.e., "something that should be obvious" about the play "but that nobody had ever articulated before" because the poor prince has been so completely "Oedipalized" (Deleuze and Guattari 1972).

There's a body of theory there (liteary psychoanalysis) and you'd have to be well-versed in it to use it, but it would involve reading some Freud, Ernest Jones, Norman O. Brown, Lacan, Deleuze and Guatarri. And then some less famous figures more specifically related to Elizabethan theatre, and Hamlet in particular. It's 80% of that formation you'd want to master. Not 80% of Deleuze.

Jonathan said...

True, but certain authors tend to be used as authors rather than originators of a doctrine. There's not a named theory identified with Benjamin in the way that psychoanalysis is with Freud.

Thomas said...

I'm not sure. Couldn't we say there's a theory of the flâneur, which Benjamin founded (as a theory)?

Jonathan said...

Yes, but that is not all of Benjamin, is it? There is the theory of art and mechanical reproduction, the theory of the story teller, the theory of the task of the translator. This isn't all reducible to one kind of theorizing--yet there is a central intellectual project that you would want to understand before applying any of this to some other text.

Thomas said...

I don't agree with that. Yes, Benjamin is a key figure in several theoretical formations. But you don't have to understand (80% of) all his contributions in order to use one of them. In management studies, for example, you might find a paper (or whole dissertation) on "the management consultant as flâneur"; it might neither demonstrate nor depend on any knowledge of the "aura" of the art work.

Jonathan said...

I see what your'e saying, but I get frustrated with decontextualized uses of theory like the example you give. I would feel uncomfortable, myself, breaking off a usable piece of something I didn't understand as a whole.

Thomas said...

You seemed quite comfortable breaking "the author function" off Foucault's corpus (if you will) on page 7 of Apocryphal Lorca. I mean ... maybe you do happen to know 80% of Foucault but ... surely you wouldn't have to know all that to make the point you make there.

Again, here I'd say there is a sort of Borges-Barthes-Foucault-Eco tradition about "the death of the author", which counts as (at least part of) a theory of authorship (and goes back to the New Criticism, etc.). And we can quite comfortably learn that theory, without getting to know the various authors.

Jonathan said...

Good point. I think I do understand at least 80% of what Foucault is about. Could I have made the same point without doing so? Possibly so, but I have seen Foucault's ideas misused too by people who maybe didn't have that level of understanding. Certainly I understand 90% of the Borges / Barthes / Foucault / New Criticism / Structuralism debate about authorship.