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Archive for October 5th, 2009

notes on militant method

with 22 comments

Gabe just left a provocative comment about Zero Books under the “militant preciousness” post:

Maybe it’s my fault for having overly high expectations, but there is a common stylistic let down in the blogs that is accentuated by the way the books promise more than they deliver, which is a perceptive or witty analysis of some cultural phenomenon, and then a final mini-paragraph which says, ‘and perhaps x shows that another way of living is possible’ which has not been earned in any way by the preceding analysis. I’m not convinced this (very enjoyable) polemic and analysis needs this ‘militant’ wrapping at all. And the clear pleasure in the ’self-marketing’ and being ‘on message’ with the unified branding and catchphrases is pretty striking to an outsider.

I feel that I should answer this the long way around, to make clear just what’s driving my rather palpable frustration with certain things. It’s sort of a long story, but basically the background to many of my positions / much of my current and future work, so hopefully you’ll bear with me.

I don’t have a problem with the “marketing” of the books per se. I have a problem when marketing steps in front of, outruns thought and argument. That is to say, I lived (as a Very Young Man) through the final years of the dominance of capital-T Theory in English departments, and cringe a bit when I think back on the ways that a sort of hipness or slickness was taken by publishers and even readers as a fully convertable currency in place of thought, practicality, and rigorous argumentation. The whole scene was, to put it bluntly, fucking useless.

Far too often, the form that “political” work in the humanities took was as follows: reassemble theoretical machine in your apartment. Force literary (or other) texts through machine. Scrape up what comes out the other end – generally a fairly bleak picture of our world and our prospects. Strain and mould into monograph. Just before baking, add a few vague, handwaving gestures about practice – gestures generally way out of sync in either their modestness or their hubristic magical thinking with the bleakness of the portrait you’ve just painted. Finally, bake in the glow of your self-admiration – for now you are a servant of revolution, you have changed the world with your book on, say, racial politics in the 19th century novel.

Then all of a sudden, capital-T theory failed. And then one day I was reading an essay about Conrad and imperialism, and noticed something. What the author was discussing was moderately valuable, interesting even. But the rotely grandiloquent claims at the front of the paper seemed to imply that she was in fact, in writing and publishing this paper, doing something about imperialism, racism, and gender imbalance. She gave a sense (and it’s not really her fault – this is just what one did or does in papers like these – it’s a sort of boilerplate that you insert at the front and the back) that a few more papers like this, and, well, we could expect a major improvement in the state of affairs whose backstory she was tracing.

All of a sudden, this seemed criminally untenable to me. It did because it is. And my head was set a-spinning. For this was just the sort of paper that I wrote too – I put the boilerplate in just the same way. Depressing! And so I started thinking about what might be done.

And I’m still thinking. But a few things have become relatively clear to me:

1. We must think steadily, honestly, and realistically about what it is that our works might reasonably do.

2. The fact that they probably won’t spur the immediate resolution of age-old antimonies and contradictions doesn’t mean that they are totally useless.

3. But getting #1 wrong will likely lead them to be useless, yes. Getting #1 right will likely lead to marginal usefulness, and marginal usefulness is better than no usefulness at all.

4. The cultural sphere still is the place where decisions collective and individual are made about who we are, where we’re headed, and what we should do. The base and superstructure are codeterminant. Intervention in culture is still very valuable.

5. You just have to think about which levers you can pull from where you’re standing. And make sure they are the right levers.

So… Writing anything that jumps a bit too quickly and way too far from object of analysis / findings to the pragmatics earned by the former sticks in my craw. Obviously, none of this is easy to sort out, there’s always a leap of some sort, and it’s very difficult to know in advance. But Owen’s work, for instance, seems to me to get the calibration just about right. (As does IT’s, for that matter). Making an argument – even if it largely at this point takes the form of pointing at things and saying that was good, there are obvious reasons to want more of that – that’s counter-intuitive or runs in the face of conventional wisdom and that is actually distributable (and distributed at this point, due to Owen’s voluminous journalism!) to those who are making real-world decisions about real-world things seems to me an object-lesson in one way we might start to do the work of what we call or used to call “theory” but to get it a bit more right this time around.

On the other hand – and here is where my comments over the last few months about “militant dysphoria” are coming from – some of the stuff being said by people (may of whom are writing books for Zero) seems to me to draw us all the way back and then some to the bad old days. The problem gives itself away, to my mind, when they’ve started fantasizing about the landscapes of the Terminator movies, or post-apocalyptic survival scenarios, or when we think vaguely Nazi Death Metal is somehow dialectically recuperable…. though they can’t say quite how, keep drawing up just short of where the connective tissue is supposed to be. This is why I keep asking for an explanation of the mechanics, and I think this is why people get a bit upset when I do.

And this is where the distortive effect of the marketing cart dragging the theoretical horse comes into play. It’s of course very sexy to lead with Absolute Destruction and Fucking Rubble!!!, Radical Moodiness and really Dark Music! But absent the steps that I’ve described above, I can’t help but feel that what we’re getting is something like the chronic perversity of marketing rather than the necessary rigor and clarity of thought that would be effective.

More to say, but it’s time to go to work!

Written by adswithoutproducts

October 5, 2009 at 12:30 pm

Posted in theory