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Hard to copy edit when you’re loaded…

with 11 comments

Christopher_hitchens_1
…but the Hitch seems to have pulled it off. Review today of The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism in the NY Times. Sounds like he’s been hanging around The Valve lately – right down to the title of the piece, slathered in Holbirony.

Anyway, a selection of Hitch’s penetrating, substantive critiques of the guide and those who have a spot in it:

Words continue to lose their anchorage in meaning as one turns the
pages. ” ‘The question of gender is a question of language.’ This
statement is Barbara Johnson’s . . . and her succinct formulation of
the relationship between gender and language does much to characterize
the approach of a group of feminists who draw upon the discourses of
poststructuralism.” What, apart from its brevity, is ”succinct”
about an assertion — not at all a formulation — that asserts both too
much and too little and that proves nothing? If it is indeed true that
such a remark characterizes a school of thought, then so much the worse.

Ouch – really got her there. And then there’s this bit on Spivak:

Sometimes an unconscious humor infects the leaden pages: ”The
sometimes formidable challenge of Spivak’s work as a whole derives
partly from the effortless and eclectic way that she draws on
discourses as diverse as. . . .” Hold it right there. Does the
mercurial Prof. Gayatri Spivak really want to be depicted as
”sometimes” formidable? And isn’t ”effortless” a bit backhanded?
The three words ”as a whole” are a sheer waste of text. ”Eclectic,”
however, seems more or less right.

Hitchens seems to like sniffing out "unconscious humor," as he ends with a trademark zinger of this sort:

In another unconsciously funny entry, on the Kenyan Marxist Ngugi Wa
Thiong’o, Nicholas Brown appears to praise his subject for a
postcolonial essay entitled ”On the Abolition of the English
Department.” Like the other contributors to this shabby volume, Brown
ought to be more careful of what he endorses. The prospect of such an
abolition, at least in the United States, becomes more appetizing by
the minute.

This is a lot like the attacks on "theory" that you find on Crooked Timber, the Valve, and in certain musty corners of American academia in general. Theory is written badly, the bad writing serves no purpose, it’s elitist but inelegant, self-promotional, etc… We learn that by "1980, Althusser had been exposed as the utter fraud he later confessed himself to be," and that Raymond Williams is an "exploded figure… wrongly credited as the pioneer of cultural studies." News to me, on both counts.

But the one thing we don’t find is an actual approach to the contents, arguments, assertions of the works themselves. Hitchens botches his closest attempt, when he misunderstands the place of Bodies that Matter in the course of Judith Butler’s work:

So the dancer and the dance are not the same after all. But does one
really require a new language or theory to disprove the claim — made
by whom, incidentally? — that gender is a mere role, or only a costume
for that role?

Well, the answer is Butler herself – Bodies that Matter is a refinement or clarification of her previous work… Gender Trouble, which asks the question "What… foundation categories of identity – the binary of sex, gender, and the body – can be shown as productions that create the effect of the natural, the original, and the inevitable." The refinement is to ensure that we hear both the "create" and the "effect" in that sentence.

Anyway, whatever. Too late for Hitchens now. But do wonder how he felt when his own boundaries were so devastingly transgressed by Galloway’s less than unconscious humor:

Before the hearing
began, the Respect MP for Bethnal Green and Bow even had some scorn
left over to bestow generously upon the pro-war writer Christopher
Hitchens. "You’re a drink-soaked former Trotskyist popinjay," Mr
Galloway in formed him. "Your hands are shaking. You badly need another
drink," he added later, ignoring Mr Hitchens’s questions and staring
intently ahead. "And you’re a drink-soaked …" Eventually Mr Hitchens
gave up. "You’re a real thug, aren’t you?" he hissed, stalking away.

Boo hoo, Mr. Contrarian.

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May 23, 2005 at 12:08 am

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11 Responses

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  1. “too late for Hitchens now”
    ..trying on a little English understatement, are we? Sadly, the Hitchy symptoms are pervasive, not so easily spotted, and his name just occupies a convenient target space.

    Matt

    May 23, 2005 at 12:51 pm

  2. I’m with Matt, CR. Hitchens is an easy target and you go after him in a Hitchlike way. Granted, he doesn’t parse the Butler very carefully. But doesn’t that allow a Butlerian off the hook pretty easily? The reason the refinements of Bodies That Matter were necessary was that Gender Trouble did encourage the ostensible misreading it disavows. A microsoft like patch, in my view: first a theory with obvious problems, and then a complication to explain away the problems.

    Sean McCann

    May 25, 2005 at 12:15 pm

  3. Bodies that Matter is far more than a patch. I’d call it the full-bodied (!) accomplishment of GT’s first draft. But don’t have time to get into that here. (From my experience, narrow though it may be, BTM is the one assigned in grad seminars now – skipping GT altogether… It’s certainly the one that I would assign…)
    The difference between my post and Hitchens review is that I am after the substance, or substanceless-ness of Hitchens’s piece, while he is trying to take down theory on points. He copy-edits, I attack copy-editing as an insufficient mode of argument.

    CR

    May 25, 2005 at 12:38 pm

  4. Is that really a distinction with a difference, CR? Hitchens thinks theory is substanceless and so is worthy only of mockery. You think the same of him, no?

    Sean McCann

    May 25, 2005 at 12:51 pm

  5. If I were to write a review of one of his books in the NYT BR, I’d have more to say than what he has said here. So perhaps some of his own medicine, yes. But I’m not going to run out and purchase the books to write my blog post, no.
    I’m calling it an empty review – and it’s emptiness falls into a pattern that Matt points out above…

    CR

    May 25, 2005 at 1:20 pm

  6. I doubt you’d have either the space or editorial leeway in that forum to do much of anything, not that these constraints excuse Hitchens.

    Jonathan

    May 25, 2005 at 4:29 pm

  7. I’ve written reviews for decent publications, newspapers – and at least one bad review – but I head for the substance… Didn’t take the book down for grammatical infelicities…

    CR

    May 25, 2005 at 5:05 pm

  8. CR,
    No doubt like everyone else you’ve got a lot on your plate. But wouldn’t this be a good opportunity for you to explain why Butler or Bhaba deserves our respect? I begin skeptical. I’ve read Gender Trouble, Excitable Speech, the Contingency, Universality collection and parts of other things, and I thought it was thin stuff. But I don’t believe that has anything to do with politics of any sort. (With a possible exception–I think of Butler as a closet liberal). Obviously, I’m not alone. But I’m not Hitchens either. It’s not a set up job. I want to know why people think Butler’s profound. You’re a blogger. You can explain. It’s certainly been done for equally impenetrable writers (Kant, Hegel, Malcolm Bowie on Lacan). So can it be done for Butler, or Bhaba?

    Sean McCann

    May 26, 2005 at 7:18 am

  9. Sean… I’ll see what I can do. It won’t be today, and one problem is that I’m not a Butler expert. So it would be a bit out on the limb. But I’ll try to give it a start… Give me a day or two…

    CR

    May 26, 2005 at 9:16 am

  10. One could, if one had the cojones, have taken this issue to a more insightful level by reading the Lit. Biz and “theory” in light of some basic concepts from Analytical Philosophy 101. Hitchens could have brought this to a boil and asked whether there are ANY literary truths, or for that matter, necessarily true aesthetic concepts or maxims. If lit. consists of so much unwarranted inference and merely anecdotal illustration, however eloquent or moving, should it have a place in the academy next to say history (not to say mathematics or biology)?
    Bertrand Russell (to mention another analytical figure who now merely induces laughter among the leftist hyena aesthetes) expressed some misgivings about the literary business in a few essays; one suspects that he realized that the most sublime images put forth by his one-time student TS Eliot failed to reach any of Russell’s own criteria of epistemological truth: the Wasteland, whatever it may be (though chock full of erudition, it’s rather ugly and meandering) is not a necessarily true statement, whether inductive or analytic-logical, and its message (or meaning or referential domain etc.) is quite incapable of being confirmed in any objective manner. Like Russell, a Quine would have also gladly shut down most of the lit. aesthetes. (Mr. Hitchens himself could do well with some logic and language lessons ala Quine)

    Benedict

    May 26, 2005 at 10:03 am

  11. Six Shining Glasses, Consumed Rapidly, Stuffed with Irregular Hungarian Verbs

    This past Monday, Cultural Revolution wrote about Christopher Hitchen’s pounding of The John Hopkins Gude to Literary Theory and Criticism.

    Acephalous

    May 27, 2005 at 8:27 pm


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