. . . Free and direct discourse

. . .

Free and direct discourse: The polarization of academic diction aligns up neat enough against the polarization of mundane diction to plunge us into utter obscurity.

+ + +

In one way, it's true that everything is text. But in another way it's true that everything is a TV game show hosted by Richard Dawson.

. . .

Free and direct discourse: I cherish the memory of telling my college professors who Derrida was, but sometimes I wonder how the guy who introduced Hitler to Nietszche felt.

. . .

Postliteracy in Millennial Chicago:

Please - we no longer allow writing
(courtesy of Bench 6 in Pizzeria Due)

. . .

Chip Morningstar's Postmodern Adventure (via Cardhouse) is the best geeks-look-at-gobbledegook piece I've seen. But the peculiarities of the contemporary American academy have confused his take on the French origins of poststructuralist style: Derrida, for example, is a professional philosopher, not a critic; his work is interesting as philosophy (and, depending on one's taste, as literature), not as lit-crit. And Morningstar doesn't go far enough in his paralleling of the two communities. If I may demonstrate:

Academic Post-Structuralists Computer Programmers
Supposed Goal Improved understanding of artifacts Improved efficiency of tasks
Actual Goal Career in kinship group Career in kinship group
Problem-Solving Approach Jargon-constricted language with unnatural syntax Jargon-constricted language with unnatural syntax
Water-Muddying Foreign Disciplines of Record Philosophy, psychology Engineering, mathematics
Real Water-Muddiers Obsessive-compulsive egocentricity Obsessive-compulsive egocentricity
Destructive Kinship Rite Crossreferencing Long hours
Result of Kinship Rite Smugness / paranoia about obviously unfinished work Smugness / paranoia about obviously unfinished work
Most Hilariously Unfulfilled Promise Social justice Ease of use

. . .

Last year, the Comics Journal split its double-sized hundredth issue between Chris Ware (proprietor of the well-griefed Acme Novelty Library) and Charles Schulz (still the sole artist on Peanuts). Critical wisdom, repeated several times in the course of the magazine, is that this provocative pairing works for only the first half of Schulz's career, and that by the mid-1970s the final sparks of viciousness and bitterness were leached from Peanuts, leaving it a thin collection of very soft gags.

Well, it's true that Schulz doesn't kick Charlie Brown around much any more. But there's still plenty of crummy mood left in the old guy, and for the last couple of decades, it's been channeled through a character left unmentioned by the Comics Journal: Spike, the beagle hermit who looks a little like Dashiell Hammett.

Only a week or two ago, he featured in a downright Warean moment: a single-panel strip of a desert thunderstorm, with Spike, small and centered, braced against a cactus and accompanied only by the thought-balloon "Mom!" (Or, as Ware would've put it, "M-m-mom?")

And my favoritest Peanuts of all time ever was a 1980s Sunday Spike -- I paraphrase from memory so's not to stir up the lawyers:

(Spike looks at cactus) "Did you ever hear how it was that I moved to the desert? When I was very young, almost a puppy, I lived in a house with a family. One day the family had a birthday party in their yard. A guest saw a rabbit and told me to chase it. And then everyone was shouting for me to chase it. I was excited and wanted to do the right thing, and so I chased the rabbit. The rabbit ran into the street and was run over. And so I came here, where I can never hurt anyone again." (Pause) "I've never told anyone that story." (Looks at cactus) "I guess I still haven't."
I think of that punchline a lot... it seems like it's hit something essential about fiction, and criticism, and autobiography -- maybe about all writing for publication.... "I've never told anyone that story. I guess I still haven't."

. . .

UC Berkeley Art History Department Fight Song

In this paper I will argue.
      Won't you argue now with me?
Everybody likes to argue;
      No one likes to disagree.

In this paper I have proven
      What somebody else has shown
Was maintained and demonstrated
      Citing yet another drone.

. . .

Free and direct discourse Krazy's diary

Was writing, considered as external memory storage, truly a revolutionary leap in cognitive evolution?

It was an advance in shopping list technology, sure. But, considered as very long-term external memory storage, writing relies on the kindness of strangers almost as much as that other external memory storage, oral culture, does. Look at how few "immortal masterworks" since the invention of writing have survived to reach us. Whether kept in the noggin or kept on parchment or kept busily transferring from one mechnically-interpreted-medium-of-the-decade to the next, words' persistence and accessibility are almost completely dependent on interested individuals. Parchment just has an edge as far as dumb luck goes.

Similarly, the contractual use of writing as external evidence of intent wasn't a revolutionary leap in social development. Forgeries can be made and denounced; libel is only slightly easier than slander; witness's depositions are just as unreliable as their oral testimony....

But writing's use as external object is another matter, and not one that gets mentioned much in the cognitive science texts.

Person-to-person, we use language to express and to manipulate. To have one's words be understood is an ambition that's hard to even describe without the assumption of distance. It's not the noisy-channel-between-transmitter-and-receiver described by information theory. It's a channel between transmitter and object, followed by a completely different group of channels between object and receivers, channels whose "success" can't be measured by eliminating the middleman and totting up the error rate because the middleman is the point. I'm not standing behind my words to guarantee them; I'm standing there because you're not supposed to see me. I'm no longer the "message source"; I've handed that status over to an inanimate object, and that object can't be queried as to the success of the transmission.

Signed Ignatz
We empty the bottle and stick a note in it. We toss the brick over the wall hoping for a kat. The most novel aspect of writing is its status as artifact, its separability from the inchoate author, our signature no more important than any other indexable aspect.

. . .

Free and direct discourse

Speaking of William Wegman, I heard a great story about a Video Arts class at MIT this year (MIT has lots of arts -- its museum is where I saw "Piss Christ," for example -- it was unbelievably pretty) which showed that fat-frat-boy-or-Dad trick where the camera is focused on his tubby torso and he pulls his belly in and out in time to a soundtrack to make it look like his navel is whistling and humming and so on. So this student starts laughing, right?, and the teacher, like, completely yells at her for desecrating Wegman's wispy sensibilities with her philistine ignorance! I don't remember the exact wording, and it's not like I was there in the first place, but she got some speech about Wegman's concern with The Body and how she's supposed to be there to learn.... I guess if Wegman asked the prof to pull his finger, it would be a meditation on mortality.

. . .

I started reading Derrida immediately after taking a class on Nagarjuna's masterwork, Codependent No More. It's always pleasant to fantasize that autobiographical accident somehow counts as critical insight, and so my rolling bloodshot eyes paused over Curtis White's latest confident assertion:

Anyone who has taken the trouble to understand Derrida will tell you that this putative incoherence was the discovery that the possibility for the Western metaphysics of presence was dependent on its impossibility, an insight that Derrida shared with Nietzsche, Hegel, and the Buddhist philosopher of sunyata, Nagarjuna, who wrote that being was emptiness and that emptiness was empty too.
And I don't care much what club is used to belabor Harold Bloom so long as he gets lumpier.... But White's unadorned Adorno is not much more palatable:
"Aesthetic experience is not genuine experience unless it becomes philosophy."
An ambitious mission if taken seriously, but a terrible guide if taken as Adorno does (i.e., "Art that is not easily explained by my philosophy does not count as art" -- if Adorno was doing philosophy of math, he'd declare that 5 wasn't an integer because it's not divisible by two). Aesthetics is empirical philosophy, and if pursued without attention to particulars, you quickly end up with nonsense like using a single-dimensional scale of "complexity" to ascertain "greatness." (Scientific attempts at researching "complexity" make for amusing reading, given the muddling ambiguity that attentiveness brings in, and the inevitable toppling over of increasing perceived complexity either into perceived organizational structure -- i.e., greater simplicity -- or into perceived noise -- i.e., greater simplicity.)

More pernicious, and indicative of why smart lads like Derrida avoid the whole question of "greatness," is White's contrast of a "simple folk tune" with what "a Bach or Beethoven will then make of this tune," the former being prima facie non-great and the latter being great. Note the indefinite article: we're now so far from particulars that we're not even sure how many Bachs or Beethovens there are.

And note the isolation of the tune, floating in space, divorced from performer or listener: no wonder the poor thing is simple. Why doesn't White contrast "a simple folk singer" with "a Beethoven" instead? How about with "an Aaron Copland"? Or with "a John Williams"? Is Skip James's 1964 studio performance of "Crow Jane" less complex and therefore less great than a slogging performance of an aria from "Fidelio"? How about if the former is given close attention and the latter only cursory? Is study of a printed orchestral score somehow more aesthetically valid a response to music than, say, dancing?

I'm pretty sure how Adorno would answer all those questions, to give the dickens his due. White, I think, would rather avoid them.

I owe 'im, though, for providing the following lovely quote from Viktor Shklovsky, which for some reason makes me think of The Butterfly Murders:

"Automization eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives, and at our fear of war."
(The site also includes this less comic bit of Shklovsky.)

. . .

Curtis White has pointed out (quite correctly) that his Context piece didn't dwell on "greatness" and "complexity" to the extent that I implied. In context, both concepts play fairly minor roles (and are therefore left unargued with) in what's basically a worthy protest against Harold Bloom's vision of art as a narrow lineage of antagonistic wankers and a worthy defense of the notion that art serves a social purpose which is also irreducibly aesthetic.

But just as constellations can be picked out of the teensiest weensiest stars, those minor points sparkled out with some others (the unargued-with citation of Adorno, Bloom's unargued-with dismissal of "the race-class-gender axis," and White's opening hook: the unargued-with "tautology" that "the great works" are (particularly) "great")1 into an arrangement of negative space that I found irresistibly arguable. (The problem with hooks is people get caught on them.... An awful lot of Rushmore viewers never understood that the movie had opened with a dream sequence, and kept wondering why this supergenius kid had such crummy grades.)

Which just goes to show again that even if art isn't often produced by willfully antagonistic wankers, criticism often is.

1. Addendum on those other minor points, bearing in mind that I'm not arguing against White's piece so much as arguing against what it didn't choose to argue with:

Shklovsky's notion of "recognition" helps to explain how the notion of a canon is destructive -- canonized art is automatized art -- and why works from uncanonized points of view deserve to be pushed forward -- unfamiliar expressers are likely to provide unfamiliar expressions.

To put it another way, the problem with the "dead white male" canon is not that the works are all mediocre (although many seem so to me), but that to be trained exclusively in any established canon is to join a club with easily parroted and not very strenuous rules, including rules for "complexity." If the same set of "complex" formulas is repeatedly used, they become through habit not so very complex any more (viz. John Updike). A whirlpool bath is complex but also somnific.

. . .

The Blasted Stumps of Academe

Lawrence L. White simultaneously kicks off our end-of-school special and continues our previous thread in high style:

I spent several days composing a response to your comments re Curtis White, but couldn't make sense in my own head. As Adorno also says, the aesthetic is inarticulate. Though he claims philosophy is necessary, he recognizes that the artwork always withholds its best part. It's a perfect marriage: one party claims the other can't live without them, the other party knows it.

One of the few ideas that have made sense to me in this dreadful canon debate is John Guillory's suggestion that instead of thinking of canons we should think of syllabi. It's an inescapable fact: only so many books can be assigned for the term, or, for those who have survived their educations still reading, only so many books can be read. (Mr. Bloom acts as if he has read everything, which is his claim to greatness, 'cause none of the ideas he's had about these books amount to squat.) You have to make choices, though you don't have to, or may not be able to, explain them.

Just as there is are Great Works syllabi out there, so too are there Race-Class-Gender syllabi. & both can be automatized. Try to get an American Studies PhD w/out reading Uncle Tom's Cabin. & try to read any of this stuff the way someone like Spicer would read. I bet my copy of Aesthetic Theory (w/marginal notes throughout to prove I read the whole thing) someone out there is doing a Race-Class-Gender critique of Updike, & is thorougly kicking old Johnny-boy's ass. Yes, he deserves it, but aren't there better things to do w/your time?

I want to read books that are smarter, truer, more beautiful (&, as Adorno & Stein point out, beautiful can be ugly) than I am. Criticism that's superior to its object is masturbation. & as my pa told me, beating off is a fine hobby but you don't want to make it your life's work. One of my fellow students did a master's thesis on Fern Gully. Kicked its ass up one side & down the other, undoubtedly. (Which reminds me: Derrida can avoid the topic of greatness because it goes w/out question in France. The question on the bac is about Rimbaud, not Asterix.)

The example of Spicer's reading -- wide, idiosyncratic, passionate -- shames me when I think of all the time I have wasted in graduate school.

  Bent over the old volume

. . .

Speak nothing and lack a big stick Bang

After his classmates ratted on an eleven year old boy who'd made some drawings of weapons, he was expelled from Oldsmar Elementary School in handcuffs. (via Obscure Store) The principal explained "We just need to get it through kids' heads that there are certain things you don't say and there are certain things you don't draw."

"... although you should continue to buy them," adds consumer advocate Juliet Clark.

+ + +

In other Obscure educational news, Norwich High School for some reason thought it would be a good idea to maintain a course on "feminist literature" (no elucidating link available) in a community whose standards don't allow explaining the term "phallic" to a 17-year-old. Teacher Richard Bernstein gets a $3000 fine and a formal reprimand, courtesy of the school's principal and the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court. (If he'd been a loyal Kokonino reader, he'd've known that the only correct answer to such queries is "Ask your mama.")

Hate the sinner, love the sin. As much as I dislike obscenity laws, I like the idea that exposure to Lacan can (who can? Lacan can!) be indefinitely postponed -- the guy bugs me, you know? If Lacan's "Phallus" [The proper page from Earl Jackson, Jr., has been purloined; the Google cache momentarily stops the gap] isn't to be construed as a weirdly and unnecessarily exclusionary and hierarchicizing penis, why didn't he just call it "the Object of Desire"? It's like turn-of-the-previous-century intellectuals who talked about "the Eternal Jew," always ready to point out (if, and only if, challenged) that they weren't referring to particular Jews; they were just using "Jew" as a convenient image.... Kids, images that seem to fit into an existing discourse that you don't trust and that require constant policing and clarification to prevent misuse are no convenience in the long run. (Except as branding, of course!)

I guess I should confess, though, that I wouldn't feel compelled to climb so high on my horse if he'd called the center of the symbolic order "Poontang" instead.

. . .

The Blasted Stumps of Academe, cont.

A great mystery of the past two decades is just how a bunch of European philosophers and psychologists ended up in the English Departments of the New World.

A minor mystery of the past two weeks is why the moral Vincent Leitch drew from his own story (to your right) was that "close readings" should be avoided rather than that English majors don't read enough.

Wouldn't it be nice if these mysteries solved each other?

Question from Stephen S. Power, MA, UFlorida:
Considering how completely removed literary theory has become from the criticism of actual literary works -- a consideration the composition of your anthology may harden into a given -- do you think someday theory may be removed from the English department entirely and put either in the philosophy department, the sociology department or a new one of its own, that of cultural philosophy?

Vincent Leitch:
Let me tell a story. I just finished teaching a course to graduating English majors which had 26 students. I asked them after I taught the essay by Achebe on Heart of Darkness how many students had read the novel. Eight of 26 students had read Heart of Darkness....

Well, as we know here in Kokonino Kounty, nice things are pretty much always the things that happen!

The English Department version of "post-structuralist theory" is to the insanely engaged work of the original theorists as the English Department version of "creative writing" is to the insanely engaged work of real novelists and poets. That's what permits the two groups to be departmental rivals at all: they're playing the same game.

It's true that Derrida makes for terrible Cliffs Notes. But the problem with Cliffs Notes isn't that they get in the way of primary sources -- no one cares about primary sources -- but that they make students play a different game than the professors, and thus keep the students from assisting the professors' careers.

. . .

Inspiring transitional paragraph of the day, from Nicole Loraux's The Children of Athens:

There may be a tragic way of making this point.

. . .

It was thought, therefore it was

Trio leaves no room for doubt. Whoever says: "The man has gone to town", must indicate in the form of the verb whether or not he saw the man going to town. If the speaker was not an eyewitness, he also needs to indicate whether he has understood this to be the case or whether he has indirect evidence.
A language that forbids the indefinite passive and the absent expounder has been much desired, and it's to be regretted that competitive pressures ensure its continued absence. [via Simcoe, whose prolonged sporadicness has much enfeebled the fighting spirit of the American people]

. . .

Movie Comments Comment

So many folks boiling over with critical insight and political acumen! And post-movie Q&A sessions provide an irresistable opportunity to lance those boils.

  1. My Brother's Wedding at Pixar, Emeryville, CA

    Lots of great Qs here, including "Does the director know Martin Scorsese? Because [long demonstration that if you've never seen a Cassavetes movie, you'll think that anything with talkative city dwellers is ripping off Scorsese]" and the always popular "How much did it cost?" (Wrong answer, guessed at by the hapless host of the evening: "I'm not sure -- one point five million?" Right answer: $80,000.)

    Best of show:

    "You always hear about how African-Americans have absent fathers and single-parent families. But that didn't seem to be a problem in this film. So I can't help wondering: Just what is the real story here?"
    Which reminded me of someone at DEC who was talking about some political dispute in the news and concluded, "How can black people expect to get anywhere? They can't even agree on a candidate!" Except that guy at least had the excuse of being from New Hampshire and I at least got the relief of answering him. At Pixar, I was the guest of a nonprofit institution hoping to impress potential donors, so decorum was called for. And was maintained by my companion hustling me the fuck out of there.

  2. What Have I Done to Deserve This? at New Directors / New Films, NY, NY

    1985. Pedro Almodóvar's first movie in the States. Disgruntled director on stage, dressed to the nines and stoned to the gills. An extremely wealthy, old, and frail-looking lady in the audience, with a grandmotherly smile:

    "You wouldn't have been able to do this when General Franco was in charge, would you?"
    ... I have nothing to add to that.

  3. Prelinger Archives selections, and other movies, and songs, and books, and TV shows, and paintings, and photographs at PFA, Berkeley, CA, and other places

    A young academic male:

    "Paradoxically, though, I feel that [artifact] actually is subversive in a way, since [earnest explication of some detail of the artifact]..."
    This may be unheimlichly gauche of me to admit, but not all pleasures are, strictly speaking, subversive.

    For example, you know that warm feeling you get from someone agreeing with you? Or when you feel clever for working something out? Well, that's not actually called subversion.

    In fact, as a fellow comfortable guy, I'd say that the only context in which it makes sense for a comfortable guy to apply the word "subversive" to anything is when he's trying to have it banned.

. . .

The Secondary Source Review

Theorizing Backlash, ed. Superson & Cudd

"Theorizing" titles rarely entice. Fin-de-siècle academic mannerisms grow even uglier when synchronized in massed full-dress parade, and their drill sergeants are less convincing than most. Such weird contortions only make sense as a long-winded last-breath defense against otherwise fatally sheering forces.

However, the continuing campaigns against feminism seem complex, real, and fatal enough to require full-out Drunken Mistress technique. And so this particular title hooked me -- but this particular attempt to get a grip on biological research fumbled me back into the water to breed:

"There is either a difference between men and women, or there is not."
Yes, and there is either a difference between a man and another man, or there is not. There is either a difference between a woman and another woman, or there is not. There is either a difference between me at 18 and me at 43, or there is not.

It may be just as well that so many theoryheads spit over their shoulders and cross the street when they see science coming. Jacques's socks! You'd think a postobfuscationist would at least understand the problematic nature of "difference"!

  Compare and contrast

. . .

Just like medicine

I have two friends who, like me, have derived serious pleasure from poststructuralist writings. We three are easily told apart, and in terms of relative accomplishment I'm easily at the bottom. But I think we would all agree, more or less enthusiastically, with any of the following assertions:

  Un altro elleboro nero
Instead, we commonly enounter the assertion: And being all three of us sworn to defend our pleasures to our deaths, up goes the dander, flying goes the fur.

But I've finally come to realize that such a reaction replenishes the venom sacs of the poisoners I find most fearsome: canons and labels.

  Elleboro bianco
A kiss-off to the abstract blob game, then:

The only commonality I can find in my personal poststructuralism reading list is a tendency to complicate thought (if not necessarily writing; Delany and the sorely-missed Jardine write perfectly lucid American prose): to split hairs and splinter branches and seed beams with termites and combine bicker with blather.

My friends and I have little enough in common ourselves. But I think I can say that for all of us, the appeal wasn't a matter of being frozen, or being seduced, or being betrayed, or having our deepest beliefs called into question, or even being particularly influenced.

More a relief at seeing what we'd already sensed receive acknowledgment and elaboration. Self-conscious complexity is the net that's saved us all from drowning. ("Drowning," figuratively. "Dying," not.) In the nineteenth century, we would've been Kantians; in the eighteenth, what, Viconians maybe? Wherever was foggiest, that's where we'd be. In the fog with a lantern, searching for more fog.

None of us would've been Swift. I think you need to assume a certain height and distance before you can speak down like Swift.

When the world is known to be foundationless, it's pleasant to see that foundationlessness mirrored and elaborated, just like when we ache with anger and disappointment, it's pleasant to see a George Romero movie. But for anyone to force that on someone else for personal aggrandizement or gain, or to wave it as a liberating banner or as a pass card to an exclusive club -- yes, that would be monstrous.

That fucking pharmakon again.

. . .

In May 2009, Josh Lukin responded:

Seems to me that there's a big area in which a critic can "prove" something: the game of refuting sweeping generalizations. Girard asserted that "Every novel has all of these features"; Toril Moi "proved" that some don't. Now, I personally would not use that verb, opting instead for "Moi's convincing challenge to Girard . . . " But if I had to edit a submission claiming that she'd proven him wrong, I don't see how I'd argue that it was an infelicitous construction.

Girard: "Well, then, those are not a novel." But yeah, counter-evidence is something criticism can handle very well. Sometimes I think it's all that criticism's good for.

. . .

O Felix Error!

(Written for The Valve)
In whom the dear errata column
Is the best page in all the volume!
Thomas Moore

Establishing the "real meaning" is one goal of the critic's game, but no one achieves a perfect final score, even when they live in the author's time and know the author intimately. (Sociologists estimate that I misunderstand approximately 82% of what I write myself.) Although Blake wasn't referring to the Industrial Revolution, the "dark Satanic mills" we read inevitably reek of coal.

Since it's unavoidable, we might as well celebrate the preservative and generative aspects of literary misinterpretation. Misreading Virgil as a Christian prophet benefitted both Virgil's work and Dante's.

But how about misattribution? What benefits do we gain from that?

Forgery's not nearly as lucrative for English majors as for art students, and so I can only think of one.

Much as Microsoft or Sony won't be content till all content is licensed from Microsoft or Sony, a canon drowns competition through sheer shelf-filling reproduction. Misattribution to a canonical author can carry a work into otherwise inaccessible environments. How likely is it that we'd have good copies of the Song of Solomon or the Revelation of St. John if they hadn't wandered into exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time?

In English, Bardolatry promotes misreadings of the Bard and ignorance of everyone else. But, at the cost of their authors' names, some lucky parasites have hitched onto the Swan's belly. I got my first access to the helpfully anonymous "Tom O'Bedlam's Song" that way.

Appropriately, those Bardolators who worship misattribution itself perform the greatest public service. "After God, the Earl of Oxford has created most" looneys distributed copies of George Gascoigne's collection long before the first widely available scholarly edition. Ronald B. McKerrow pretty much established contemporary editorial scruples with his wonderful Works of Thomas Nashe, but it was last in print in 1958, and, on the web, only the Collected DeVere takes up the slack.


Josh Lukin points out the "felicitous misattribution of the 'St. Anthony Divertimento'":
. . . and could Brahms' "Variations on a Theme by Haydn" have even come into being as "Variations on a Theme by Ignatz Pleyel"?

Thanks, Josh that's an interesting case: a popular melody known only because of Brahms, who knew it only because somebody stuck Haydn's name at the top of the page.

Other recent re-attributions from Haydn involve Haydn's sticking his own name at the top a more ambiguous case than I had in mind. Presumably Haydn saw himself not as a plagiarist but as a guarantor of Genuine Haydn Quality, much as the senior tenured professor subsumes the work of underlings and spouses. In the art world, of course, few successful careers have been single-person operations, much to the confusion of our more naive age.

The literary equivalent has an even more dubious reputation: the factories of "Dumas" or "Nancy Drew" novels, and, on a more intimate scale, the ghostwriters. The late career of "Ellery Queen" is an amiguous case: since the named author is a fictional character, the only thing that makes Sturgeon's, Davidson's, and Vance's volumes more "ghostwritten" is the relative openness of the secret.

And then there's Klaatu....

. . .

Pull in Your Head - We're Coming to a Tunnel

I haven't read Theory's Empire, and I don't intend to at least until after I've read the Harry Potter novels. (I'm glad that Scott Eric Kaufman did, though.)

"Theory" isn't an empire. It has no army or navy. It's a loose and squabbling graph of autocratic-or-anarchistic city-states joined by a common dialect. In a society where more voters want creationism than evolution taught to their children and where publicly funded education has been abandoned after serial arson, "Theory" is a major problem only insofar as it becomes a major distraction.

Laughing at nonsense, mourning dullness, protesting insularity, mocking arrogant sycophants, and resisting a bullying mob all remain worthwhile exercises. But the extent to which such pleasures are initiated by the Franco-American brand as opposed to pseudo-free-market one-party-system-backed economics, religious orthodoxies, identity allegiances which reinforce the injustices that shaped them, the Great Books gated community, pop evolutionary psychology, or tin Stalins, for example seems strictly a local matter. As proven by some publications of our beloved ALSC, "Theory" is not a necessary condition for worthless blather. And, as proven by some "Theorists", humans sometimes find it possible to take ethical action even against group pressure.

For that matter closest at hand, most of the Theory-happy Long Sunday kids provide full as much entertainment value as the Valve or Crooked Timber teams. (I'll forebear pointing out the snoozier exceptions, 'cause you never know how kids might grow up, but I gotta say Lacan is the crappiest thing to hit ethical intellectuals since things happened that were worse.)

For that matter closest to my heart, some of my favorite books of the 1970s and 1980s came from writers later to be classified as canonical Theorists. And if their books' quality declined inversely to number of disciples and citations, well, couldn't as little be said of Goethe? And if the ones who didn't decline simply disappeared (Alice Jardine, where art thou?), hasn't that happened to other dedicated academics?

Although this supposedly imperializing "Theory" seems to me too amorphous to be defined any way but situationally, Holbo seems as a civilian, I'm sure I oversimplify to define it as a self-contradictory mutually-supporting set of incoherent arguments from indefensible premises. Now, dumb arguments come from all over, and Holbo's battle isn't so much against the specific absurdities of Freud, Lacan, or Baudrillard as against "Theory", so let me focus on the eclecticism.

Hopsy Pike puts on a brave face
"And now let us smile, and be as we were."

Argument is essential to human discourse, and argument which follows the rules of logic and evidence has often proven valuable in the long run, if less often profitable in the short term. Anyway, I'm a tight-ass and so that's the kind of argument I prefer.

However, the multiply dimensional world of human experience supports more logically consistent systems than one. The contemporary sciences have not been (and will not be) collapsed into subparticle physics; even contemporary mathematics is not a family of clones. One can skeptically agree there's more in heaven and earth than's covered by a single philosophy while remaining skeptical of professional mediums. The strong-stomached scholar may well find traces of argument-by-pun even in the work of such buttoned-down types as Holbo and myself.

If art could be completely subsumed by any system, it would no longer be recognizable as art. Being experience, art can become evidence or counter-evidence for arguments, but never become exactly equivalent to an argument. Therefore it's entirely to be expected and welcomed that multiple ambitious ornate abstract argumentative structures will be brought to bear on artifacts, and even that some aesthetic structure-bearers might carry more than one. But I agree with Holbo that insofar as these arguments are meant to be useful for anything but careers, it seems fair to insist that each must work on its own provisional terms. After all, a bad novel can't be redeemed by a preface in which the author says he really would have preferred to write a hit song, or Ebony White by Will Eisner's historicist explanation.

Which, by the way, I still find valuable when contemplating Ebony White.

* * *

Actually. You know? Fuck it. That's not all going on, and that's not all why I wouldn't review this.

I've had to think again today about a couple of people who fell for the shuck and suffered for that, and had to think again today about a couple of people who didn't fall for it and suffered for that. The fact of the shuck is that you need family money behind you in this great culture of ours if you're going to devote yourself to Great Culture and survive. That's the main thing teachers should be teaching any unfortunates who still manage, despite the increasing number and height of the obstacles, to make it through to high art. Why the fuck is that not the fucking point of this book? And of the books it attacks?

And before you even say it, every communist I've ever met had family money behind them. Yeah, I know it was different in the Thirties. In the Thirties we had the New Deal, too, and the communists hated it.

And I'm glad, I really honest to god am, that the people I admire who have that family support going for them do have that much. But, as wise singers have sung, it's a thin line between love and fuck. And if y'all really care about the little people, how about just marrying one or something?

In conclusion, I'm sure Theory's Empire is a very good book and I think people who inherit empires will enjoy it.


Ray Davis appends:
Having absented myself, I shouldn't be so shocked that this event is calling forth the best string of entries and links of the Valve's young life. I was skeptical and I was wrong.

Besides proving that no one should listen to me, this may say something about the value of outreach. Now if we can only get that many people to write something about Jack Spicer!

As usual, IMproPRieTies conveys more and pithier than I could.

Jane Dark writes:

"And before you even say it, every communist I've ever met had family money behind them."

Well you should meet me then. Solidly middle-class via the American magic where a tautological 60% qualify, I was raised by a single grad student, and paid my own way through college, as well as every rent check since I was sixteen, etc. Not the displaced or disempowered, by a long shot. But not a penny of family money, and none coming. But the funny thing is, I work with lots of folks, communists, anarchists, half-breeds, who're from poor families. Maybe yr hanging out with a bad crowd?

The trouble is that I never found better ones. But it's certainly possible that I gave up too quickly I can't pretend to have made it a life's goal. I thank you for the correction.

2005-08-02: Afterthoughts

In the least coherent and most controversial paragraph above, I now see that I cut off a critical intervention path with "before you even say it." How was I supposed to be brought past mere lack of personal experience if I refused to hear evidence?

I also confused matters by using the word "survive" when I more meant "survive with reasonable dignity and security."

What set off my tantrum, as I all-too-vaguely indicated, were several reminders of well-heeled "Theorists", "Buddhists", "feminists", "scholars", "artists", or, yes, "socialists" and "Marxists" treating their more skilled and harder working but less financed colleagues like scum, and several reminders of teachers, scholars, and artists still scrambling for bare subsistence after years of service. And please note that I'm not referring to differences in labeling I see no shortage of career opportunities for sexists, bigots, free marketeers, and thumpers of more traditional bibles, and if I did, I wouldn't call that a crisis. If I'd happened instead to be talking to the many, many colleagues and students bullied by well-heeled "libertarians", "free-market enconomists", "Christians", "entrepreneurs", "traditional American valuers", and so on, while simultaneously immersed in those bullies' rhetoric, I would have spewed bile at a completely different set of straw-stuffed targets.

What's that got to do with "Theory"?


Or, as I've been trying to write a bit more temperately in this fiery Valve thread, the "Theory" debates seem unresolvable because the terms in which they're coached ignore what motivates them: abuses of institutional power.

And of those mostly repressed issues, the one most thoroughly repressed (in the academic humanities as in the art worlds) is the economic class one starts from. A student from a wealthy family will have a far softer career in the humanities than a student from the genteel academic middle class, who in turn will have a far softer career than a student from any other class. The only person I've recently seen bring up this aspect of education and research is the ever-fresh Little Professor, and she's stayed out of the "Theory" brawls entirely.

In this very essay I replicated the mistake I deplore by restricting my attempt at rational analysis to non-economic issues, and then dissolving into Donald Duck diction under the fold.

While I wrote the above, Josh Lukin was preparing a deservedly scathing response, mostly to that one goddamn paragraph. Some excerpts:

I didn't find the claim about the personal experience terribly credible --more on that anon. But it set me off because it is such a dishonest way to frame an assertion that it tends to be a tool used by all kinds of bad actors [...] So I was brooding on that, and yes, I thought, even if the personal experience thing is true, why doesn't Ray think of the people he knows of from others, including two of the Buffalo folks above, whom I've described to him, and then I thought, my God, contact via electronic media counts as meeting. Where's the HCDavis family swag, Ray?

The previous paragraph: I don't get "devote yourself" and "make it through to high art." You don't, in the context you're using, seem to mean *produce* "high art" but rather to appreciate and consume it, and make it central to your life. There are, of course, many walks of life in which you can do that. Teaching college is not the best of them; a friend recently said to me, "Trollope had it right: civil service." Producing it, or being credentialed to publicly analyze it in an institutionalized milieu, is another thing.

"And if y'all really care about the little people . . . " Oy, this will, if unchecked, grow into James Morrow's "I consider myself unequivocally a man of the left, but I join Robert Hughes in wondering why the postmodern academy directed its energies toward unmasking gender politics in Little Dorrit while Communism fell in Eastern Europe." You're slamming the political efficacy of college teachers when it was only last year that you discovered there was such a discipline as rhet/comp and have very probably not read enough to determine what its ambitions are? Okay. There are people (mostly in the UC system) who make shamefully exaggerated claims about the political efficacy of what they do as academicians. There are a few people who do what Horowitz accuses everybody of, raising consciousness in the classroom, running courses out of which Libertarians come having decided to be civil rights attorneys or environmental activists or what have you. There are people who feel that their theoretical pursuits are worthwhile and devote some energy to defending themselves against Maoist prudes who think that their work is meaningless unless accompanied by praxis. And there are . . . back in my Youngstown days, I heard a fine English professor say, "I'm very proud of our Professional Writing and Editing program. It teaches skills that will enable our students to work in strata of society that would otherwise be closed to them." This was also where a sensation-seeking journalist asked an African American student if she minded learning African history from an Irish-American scholar--the reporter was disappointed to hear, "I don't need to be taught how to be black: I just want to take advantage of the knowledge [the professor's] expertise lets her teach me." Recalling such remarks as these in my first years as a teaching assistant, I entered the composition classroom determined to respect the wishes of students who come to the composition classroom to learn concrete principles of writing that will enable them to function in areas where such skills are regarded as standards. That's not "care about the little people"?

Plus, every Marxist professor I can think of (and I have some knowledge of the field) is an activist. [...]

We were brought up to understand that activites we took for granted here were political acts in the Soviet Union . . . you see where I'm going with this. Things that it woulda been ridiculous to frame as "acts of resistance" thirty years ago . . .

Your rant there would be an important dose of reality if it were true. Since it's not, its serves as an exorcism. A futilitarian performative. Writing "SURRENDER DOROTHY" across the sky (okay, it's a small sky. But it's a public medium, so I'll stick to my metaphor).

You cut me off in conversation once when I was trying to talk about Michaels' power and the damage he was doing, but I think it's serious, and now that he's making an intervention into jurisprudential discourse, even more disturbing. Holstun advised me once that "It's more important, I think, to figure out how we can help stop the killing and exploitation than to engage in slapping contests with the likes of Berube," but Senator Clinton was influenced by _The Nation_ to oppose Estrada, so it's worth paying attention to what has the potential to give tools to or affect opinions among the powerful (look at how the discourse of the Red Scare years operated). As Michaels demonstrates in his books, one can use the _Against Theory_ sophisms ("If, as you say," I asked Chip, "Theory gives one persmission to be as smart as possible about certain things, what does _Against Theory_ give one permission to do?") to pull the rug out from under claims concerning social justice, and to discredit the developments that Chip praises in his "Velocities of Change" essay. Let me reiterate that what gets taught to college students, as Horowitz understands, has real-world consequences.

(I can't believe I just constructed a defensive argument to justify my being passionate about issues central to my field of endeavor. When I saw "Why the fuck is that not the fucking point . . . " I realized that they'd got you too, O'Brien, but I didn't realize that my time among the reprobate would make *me* so fragile that I'd concede the need to defend what I do --Oh, I know: it's the barrier constructed by "earnestly committed to political strategizing by people without any influence whatsoever" that got to me. Schlessinger? Mary McCarthy? Judge Bazelon? The young Decter, Himmelfarb, and Etzioni, if you wunna count the possibility of rehearsal (It wasn't so long ago that the "without any influence" accusation could have been made of Atrios, or Lenin)? What does "political" mean to you people? Or is it "influence" that I'm misreading?)

I'm probably taking that argument too far. Maybe my sense that the stakes are serious here, and my frustration with much of the _Theory's Empire_-type discussions, just means that I feel it would be very nice to regard certain issues as settled and certain points as self-evident and go on from there (there's a *lot* to be gone on to), ignoring how much gets "forgotten" or ignored [...] Maybe I'm just unsettled by the parallels to what's happening on the political landscape, where to our dismay we discovered a couple of years ago that ancient, conservative Robert Byrd was the only Senator who believed that Congress should have the powers granted it by the Constitution and who disagreed with Gonzales and Yoo on the President's powers. When someone says that Searle decisively k.o.'d Derrida, I hear "Reagan defeated a Communist dictatorship in Nicaragua and brought down the Soviet Union." I think Berube's dismissive remarks on Michaels are probably the most appropriate level of seriousness with which to take Michaels' claims, but, as I say, one can't possibly take Dershowitz's arguments vis-a-vis human rights, history, etc. seriously, yet there they are, getting on tv and influencing people and everything.

I cut off at the '30s because I think a) that was the last time the fantasy of violent class revolt in the USA had any possible grounding (and as I've said before, I'm glad the New Deal averted a revolution: revolutions have a poor track record), and b) Stalin got to be sort of a problem for the legitimacy of Communist Parties all round.

Josh is right to note the incoherence of "high art"'s place. Am I talking about study, production, or both? My resentment comes from both, but its expression is impossibly vague: poisonous smoke protecting the sanctity of a poisonous flame.

In "care about the little people", I wasn't addressing Josh or anyone else ever likely to read the message. It was one of those awful "This poem is for Lyndon Baines Johnson, you bastard" moments.

If it sounds like I'm trying to "bait Reds" or "bash profs", I'm part of the problem, because these received concepts of what battles we're fighting only serve the interests of those who have most of the power, want all of the power, and would love our pelts hung on the wall to keep out the damp. Obviously I agree that otherwise politically inept intellectuals can (sometimes) be (slightly) useful or damaging by providing argumentative tools. But even that can't happen if you've gated yourself into a separatist community. Clinton wouldn't read The Nation if it was a Theoretical-Leninist journal.

Anyway, none of that has anything to do with what I'd set out to express, and botched.

After my attempt at clearer thinking, Josh sent me a link with the (only slightly less scathing) note:

Oh, wait, the authors and targets of Theory's Empire didn't have to write it, it's been done already.

The link goes to Jerry Herron's review of Day Late, Dollar Short: The Next Generation and the New Academy, edited by Peter C. Herman. Herron finishes his review by quoting Michael Bérubé and summarizing:

And that's the trick, isn't it? Thinking of all of us who work here, as somehow being embarked on a common mission, as being citizens of the same work, which is teaching.

That's how everybody else sees us as teachers first, often teachers who seem not very interested in their jobs, or else not particularly well prepared to do them, the jobs that our fellow citizens think they are hiring us to do when they pay our salaries. If we could give ourselves a gift, that would surely be it, "to see oursels as others see us": professors, stars, grad students, part-timers, all of us. Citizens. Teachers. And once we see ourselves that way, then we ought to act as if we believed what we saw. Because it is true. Because it is the only thing, the right thing to do. And that is why this collection in many ways incomplete, short-sighted, and unsatisfactory is nevertheless a valuable book. We all ought to read it. Together. Not because it solves our problems, but because it makes clear both intentionally and not why solutions are so much of the time unthinkable.


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