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Holbo on The Valve:

The problem with Theory, as a normal feature disciplinary life, is it the nature of Theory never to be normal – always to be excessive and paradigm-shattering. You cannot oblige people to be this, on a regular basis, and expect them to maintain their intellectual honesty, not to mention dignity and equilibrium. Not that I want to restrain geniuses. (I’m sure if they really are, they will break any restraints I tried to install anyway.) I don’t want to oblige ordinary scholars, who might do something modest and solid, to pretend to be geniuses and do something fantastic and shoddy.

As Jodi Dean says in the comments:

what you support is a way of thinking that strives to be normal and paradigm reinforcing (as opposed to excessive and paradigm shattering), a method or way of thinking characterized by honesty, dignity, and equilibrium that produces modest, solid scholarship?
Presumably this way of thinking would trust ‘classical’ forms – conventional logic, standard argument. It would not insist on originality or in overcoming anything at all. It should avoid eclectism in favor of significance.
So, making the familiar strange is not advisable, but making the familiar reassuring and comfortable is? Shock is not a goal of a work, but serious contemplation or perhaps recognition of the rationality of the world?
Are there examples of works that do this that you admire? Presumably Mill.
And, if you reject the putting all the eggs in the theory basket in the passage that you quoted and I had quoted from someone else, would you say that the plain thinking (I’m trying something else instead of ant-theory) approach that you advocate resists the bureaucratic cooptation and assessment going on now in higher education?

Yeah – sounds like the Department of Merit Badge Earning, not literature…

Written by adswithoutproducts

August 13, 2005 at 1:10 am

Posted in academia

15 Responses

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  1. It’s worth noting that John responded to Jodi’s comment here (, at substantial length. Perhaps that might be the more logical place to start from.


    August 14, 2005 at 3:11 pm

  2. (I like your book list, by the way, particularly that Ballard–great read)
    anyway, gotta say, it’s quite remarkable/shocking how that thread completely disintegrated. Since I’m battling ants in my kitchen, I starting thinking of most of the comments as ants swarming, like to protect the queen, keep anyone from getting at the nest, core, center. In part it was a troll factor, but only in part. It’s almost like part of the atmosphere or culture of that blog, to val(v)ue a sort of dismissive quip or nastiness (I’m also thinking of some of the exchanges on the long thread at Matt’s).


    August 14, 2005 at 4:34 pm

  3. I don’t think that’s fair or accurate, Jodi. Describing a group blog consisting of very different people with correspondingly different beliefs about the issues at question as a hive itself strikes me as dismissive argumentative shorthand.
    Though I disagree with John about the particulars of his claims about theory as an intellectual institution, I think he’s responded to your criticisms with care. Other than the noise introduced by the “vladicus” cretin, I don’t see any nastiness.


    August 14, 2005 at 4:48 pm

  4. Jonathan, I wasn’t referring to John’s response to my criticisms. What I have in mind has more to do with style. And, this extended beyond ‘vladicus.” But, since I’m describing a style, it should be expected that people will have varying levels of comfort and familiarity with it.


    August 14, 2005 at 5:23 pm

  5. Ok, but whose style? Where? It’s not John, and it’s not vladicus. If we’ve particularized it this much already to an as-yet-undetermined referent, shouldn’t we agree that it shouldn’t reasonably be taken to characterize the Valve as a whole?


    August 14, 2005 at 6:18 pm

  6. Jonathan, I looked back at the thread to get a better sense of it. I now agree that the ants remark doesn’t say anything about the Valve (though it does say something about my kitchen). I think that I was blurring together comments by a couple of people that I think of as part of the Valve (but only one of whom I on listed as a contributor) on Matt’s site, the trolls (at least one besides vladicus), and someone I’ve been arguing with at acephalous. So, you’re right for the most part the discussion at the Valve was a real discussion.
    On the style front, John Holbo has a style that I don’t like–too quick to be dismissive, to use statements like ‘it’s elementary,’ to be condenscending (as he was to K Rufo). But, others like this style and find it invigorating. And, folks find things irritating about my style. Nevertheless, this small matter doesn’t warrant characterizing the Valve, or even that discussion, in terms of ants.
    One last thing: I think I’ve also been frustrated by the circling around the Theory/theory business. There is a lot of bombast, but the discussion hasn’t gone very far. Still, that’s not the same as ants.


    August 14, 2005 at 8:08 pm

  7. I’ve got gigantic ants AND spiders in my place – a new house…
    I’ve been doing a little bit of thinking about the Valve and these discussions we’ve been having – and in particular the bitter taste they leave in my mouth…
    For one think, following along from Jodi’s ant swarm metaphor, I do feel as though I’ve had to fend off quite a bit of psychologization of my position lately. And not just from Vlad the Regaler.
    I may be responsible for raising some questions about political motivation from the start of this site – the ALSC stuff – but psychologization is a different level altogether I think…
    This is especially frustrating when I feel as if the points that I raise that are on topic – really the ones that I care about – like my question about Cunningham – are largely ignored and/or dismissed…
    Which only adds to the “protect the Queen” feel of the place…
    But you know what? I’m pretty tired of whining about this. I’m just going to stay away from the Valve for a long, long time…
    This stuff isn’t reducible to sound bites, haloscan comments… Becomes self-parody when you try to make it fit that form…


    August 14, 2005 at 11:38 pm

  8. I agree that the stuff isn’t reducible to sound bites, but you can write as much you wish in a comment box there or wherever. At the risk of sounding sententious, the conversation doesn’t have to degenerate into sarcasm and contempt if you have patience and charity.
    Jodi did, I should point out, say that the ant metaphor wasn’t the best.


    August 15, 2005 at 12:23 am

  9. CR–right; it may be that the ‘ick/ant’ feeling comes about when important points–like yours on Cunningham–aren’t addressed and when instead there seems to be deflection or focus on trivial points for tactical reasons. I’ve wondered about the difference in tone or feeling between the Valve and Long Sunday. And I’ve wondered if it has to do with being with folks among whom there is more agreement (but there is still plenty of disagreement among us) or if there is something more to the difference. Anyway, you’re right. Not productive to fret over it.
    On the joint discussion theme: I think this is a very good idea. Because I blog under my own name, though, I’m not sure at this point about how I might participate. My sense is that one generally criticizes other work in the context of making one’s own argument, of adding to thinking about a particular theme etc. And, my worry is that my contributions could be seen as either supporting or trashing particular academics, potentially junior folks and I wouldn’t want to do this (shoot, I am an outside reader on a tenure case in an English department out west and review for lots of, yes, theory journals; there are ways that the blog discussion could travel that would not be good….)


    August 15, 2005 at 9:31 am

  10. Jonathan, comments like the one from Seth E directed at me on the Valve add to the appeal of the ant metaphor and, even if this is just one voice, make the Valve seem a rather nasty place.


    August 15, 2005 at 4:36 pm

  11. Poor Kenneth Rufo; I feel like I set him up for that kind of treatment. Anyway, glad to see he’s more than capable of defending himself.


    August 15, 2005 at 5:18 pm

  12. Can we be held responsible for what Seth Edenbaum writes? This is like characterizing this blog as nasty because of a comment “vladicus” left here. Any blog that receives a certain amount of traffic is going to have unattractive comments.


    August 16, 2005 at 11:01 am

  13. You can be held responsible for what the editor writes, to some degree, surely. I think one of the commenters is right to point out the glaring lack of apology to Kenneth Rufo, though hardly surprising. Arrogance pretty much seems the norm (with a few notable exceptions).


    August 16, 2005 at 12:52 pm

  14. On responsibility–I think this is a complicated question. In some ways, sites are responsible for the tone they establish, for what they allow and what they forbid, what they censor, criticize, encourage, disavow, apologize for, etc. These are all hard decisions, difficult matters, certainly not matters to be taken lightly or even addressed when they are rare. But, still, I think there is a responsibility.


    August 16, 2005 at 7:52 pm

  15. Not to dredge this all up again, but I did in fact respond substantively to CR’s questions about the Cunningham quotation.
    I don’t think he particularly liked my answer, but that doesn’t mean it went unanswered. Also, as Jonathan’s pointed out, there’s no monolithic “Valve” opinion on any of these issues…for that matter, I’m not even sure what my opinion is on a number of these issues (although I circle them more closely after these conversations than I did before).

    Scott Eric Kaufman

    August 17, 2005 at 3:33 pm

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