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Tuesday, February 17, 2015


Take this. Please, take it. (Hat tip to TB.) The idea is that something called "postmodernism" taught us once and for all that it is impossible to have a theory about anything. Such as theory would be "totalizing," essentialist, and a residue of enlightenment thinking." Any "generalizable theory of how something works is misguided in that such narratives inevitably deprivilege the local, even though it is precisely the local where useful 'knowledge' is generated" (8). Of course, theories end up being sexist, racist, elitist, or whatever. They are probably complicit in the intersectionality of privilege, or some such bullshit.

Talk about totalizing! This is a bastardization of postmodern theory. Usually, to critique a theory you need to critique it, actually, not just call it out for being a theory or narrative in the first place, or "generalizable account of how things work."

Only the local can produce useful "knowledge." (Olson's scare quotes.) "Inevitably." That is, you don't have to distinguish between the times when generalizable accounts might be good, and when local accounts are better. You just know the local is always better because you are so fucking postmodern.

By the way, the Enlightenment was (is) bad-ass. You can't just dismiss it with a flick of your postmodern wrist. Well, you could, but then you would show that you're an idiot. People who think we're so much smarter than Descartes and Voltaire, that we know better now, have probably never read them.

That being said, the process theory that Gary Olson critiques is also bullshit, though not for the reasons he says. Any method that teaches someone how to write works, by definition, whether it is backed up by a neatly "generalizable" theory, or not. You could have a theory that was good, or improve and existing one, or whatever. What you can't do is just decide in advance that you can't have a theory.

This is what happens when a field like this takes sophisticated literary and philosophical theory and simplifies it. They think they are being theoretical but they haven't a clue. Really simplistic feminist applications in musicology are similar.


Olson's main attack on "assertion" is bewildering. Once again, assertion is called out as being not postmodern enough. We are supposed to do other things that aren't that. But, actually, assertion is fine. Olson does it in his own article, as Basbøll points out. Birds do it, bees do it. Let's do it. Let's not worry about it. If you want to do something else, then do it, just don't be a blithering idiot.


Anonymous said...

I have started to really hate "composition studies." Not rhetoric or writing instruction, but this faux field of composition studies that now exists. My colleague says it exists because writing teachers were second class citizens. But it seems even more BS-y than SLA.

Thomas said...

@Profacero: this was exactly what I was worried about in my earlier post. If you make theory a requirement for academic citizenship you force people who really don't have a basis for theorising to do it anyway. The results are predictable.

Jonathan said...

I had a rhetoric grad student in my Spanish composition course when I taught at Ohio State. Of course she thought I did everything wrong. I liked her though and was on her PhD exam committee. I remember her putting scare quotes around "literature." That's always a bad sign. The way Olson does around "knowledge."