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“against the grain”: on critical perversity

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At the place where I teach, we still have the students do two courses (one at the beginning of their time with us, and one at the end) in “practical criticism.” We don’t call it that (we just call it “criticism”) but that’s what it is. If we were an American institution, we’d think of it descending out of what is termed “The New Criticism,” but because we are where we are, it’s seen as an import from Cambridge. As the folks to the north-north east describe it on their department website:

Practical criticism is, like the formal study of English literature itself, a relatively young discipline. It began in the 1920s with a series of experiments by the Cambridge critic I.A. Richards. He gave poems to students without any information about who wrote them or when they were written. In Practical Criticism of 1929 he reported on and analysed the results of his experiments. The objective of his work was to encourage students to concentrate on ‘the words on the page’, rather than relying on preconceived or received beliefs about a text. For Richards this form of close analysis of anonymous poems was ultimately intended to have psychological benefits for the students: by responding to all the currents of emotion and meaning in the poems and passages of prose which they read the students were to achieve what Richards called an ‘organised response’. This meant that they would clarify the various currents of thought in the poem and achieve a corresponding clarification of their own emotions.

If you’ve been a reader of this site for awhile, or are familiar with my work in “the real world,” you might think that’d I’d buck against this model of instruction. Any good materialist critic of course should. It approaches the literary work in isolation of its context – the work as an ahistorical entity that emerged autonomously and without the frictional influence of the writer who wrote it or the world that the writer wrote it in.

But on the other hand – and this is why I not only do not buck against it but actively enjoy teaching on this course, perhaps more than any other – it is an extremely valuable method for enabling students to develop “against the grain” critical insights about texts. In the absence of astute attention of the “practical criticism” variety, it’s very difficult for students (or, really, anyone) to develop convincingly novel interpretations of texts. The close attention to the words on the page, and the dynamics of their interaction, not only sets the stage for an appreciation of the “value added” that comes of distilling whatever contextual and personal issues inform the piece once the history is added back in, but, due to the multiplicity and idiosyncrasy  of possible interpretations, provides an opening for critical newness – for the saying of something provocatively different about the work.

So how do I teach “practical criticism”? In the seminar groups that I lead, I model and encourage the following “flow chart” of thought: Anticipate what other intelligent readers of this piece might say about it. Try to imagine the “conventional wisdom” about it that would emerge as if automatically in the minds of the relatively well-informed and intelligent. And then, but only then, figure out a perverse turn that you can make within the context of but against this conventional wisdom. “Of course that seems right, but on the other hand it fails to account for…” “On first glace, it would be easy and to a degree justifiable to conclude that…. But what if we reconsider this conclusion in the light of….”

Students tend to demonstrate resistance, early on, to this practice. For one thing, especially in the first year, they don’t really (and couldn’t possibly) have a fully developed sense of what the “conventional wisdom” is that their supposed to be augmenting, contradicting, perverting. At this early stage, the process requires them to make an uncomfortable Pascalian wager with themselves – to pretend as though they are confident in their apprehensions until the confidence itself arrives. But even if there’s a certain awkwardness in play, it does seem to exercise the right parts of the students’ critical and analytical faculties so that they (to continue the metaphor) develop a sort of “muscle memory” of the “right” way to do criticism. From what I can tell, encouraging them to develop an instinct of this sort early measurably improves their writing as they move through their degree.

But still (and here, finally, I’m getting to the point of this post) there’s a big problem with all of this. I warn the students of this very early on – generally the first time I run one of their criticism seminars. There’s a big unanswered question lurking behind this entire process. Why must we be perverse? What is the value of aiming always for provocative difference, novelty, rather than any other goal?  Of course, there’s a pragmatic answer: Because it will cause your writing to be better received. Because you will earn better marks by doing it this way rather than the other. Because you will develop a skill – one that can be shifted to other fields of endeavour – that will be recognised as what the world generally calls “intelligence.” But – in particular because none of this should simply be about the pragmatics of getting up the various ladders and depth charts of life – this simply isn’t a sufficient response, or at least is one that begs as many questions as it answers. What are, after all the politics of “novelty”? What are we to make of the structural similarity between what it takes to impress one’s markers and what it takes to make it “on the market,” whether as a human or inhuman commodity? What if – in the end – the answers to question that need (ethically, politically) answering are simple rather than complex, the obvious rather than the surprising?

In my own work, I’m starting to take this issue up. And I try to keep it – when it’s appropriate – at the centre of my teaching, even if that can be difficult. (And there’s the further matter that to advocate “simple” rather than “complex” answers to things is itself an “against the grain” argument, is itself incredibly perverse, at least within an academic setting. There’s a fruitful performative contradiction at play that, in short, makes my advocacy of non-perversity attractively perverse!)

I’ll talk more about what I’m arguing in this new work some other time, but for now, I’m after something else – something isomorphic with but only complexly related to the issues with “practical criticism” and the issues that it raises. It has to do with politics – in particular the politics of those of a “theoretical” or in particular “radically theoretical” mindset, and the arguments that they make and why they make them.

Take this article that appeared yesterday on The Guardian‘s “Comment is free” website. The title of the piece (which of course was probably not chosen by the author, but is sanctioned I think by where the piece ends up) is “What might a world without work look like?” and the tag under the title continues, “As ideas of employment become more obscure and desperate, 2013 is the perfect time to ask what it means to live without it.” While the first two-thirds of the article is simply a description of the poor state of the labour market, it is the end that gets to the “provocative” argument at play.

But against this backdrop – rising inflation, increasing job insecurity, geographically asymmetrical unemployment, attacks on the working and non-working populations, and cuts to benefits – a debate about what work is and what it means has been taking place. Some discussions at Occupy focused on what an anti-work (or post-work) politics might mean, and campaigns not only for a living wage but for a guaranteed, non-means-tested “citizen’s income” are gathering pace.

The chances of a scratchcard winning you a life without work are of course miniscule, but as what it means to work becomes both more obscure and increasingly desperate, 2013 might be the perfect time to ask what work is, what it means, and what it might mean to live without it. As Marx put it in his 1880 proposal for a workers’ inquiry: “We hope to meet … with the support of all workers in town and country who understand that they alone can describe with full knowledge the misfortunes from which they suffer and that only they, and not saviours sent by providence, can energetically apply the healing remedies for the social ills that they are prey to.”

In other words, the best place to start would be with those who have a relation to work as such – which is to say nearly everyone, employed or otherwise.

It may be a somewhat bad faith line to allege that “interesting perversity” rather than some well-founded and straightforward belief is at work behind an argument of this sort, but in the absence of any substantive suggestions of what the answers to these questions might be, or in fact why these are the right questions to ask at the moment, what else are we to assume? It is provocatively perverse to suggest, at a time of stagnant employment rate and when people are suffering due to the fact that they are out of work or locked in cycles or precarity, that we might do away with work altogether. It isn’t the standard line – but it’s a line that allows the author to avoid repeating the conventional wisdom about what a left response to such a crisis might be. This in turn affords an avenue to publication, as well as a place in the temporary mental canons of those who read it.

Unfortunately, of course, the Tories (and their ideological near-cousins in all of the other mainline parties) are also asking the same sort of questions about a world (or at least a nation) without work. How might one keep the tables turned toward what benefits employers? How might one keep wages (and relatedly, inflation) low but still spur “growth”? How might one manage this system of precarious non-work, at once depressing wages but keeping the employable populace alive and not building barricades. In short, the question of “What a world without work might look like” is a question that is just as pressing to the powers that we oppose as to people like the writer of this article.

We’ve seen other episodes of the same. During the student protests over tuition increases (among other things) I myself criticised (and had a bit of a comment box scrap over) the Really Free School and those who were busily advocating the destruction of the university system…. just as the government was doing its best to destroy the university system. That many of those making such “radical” arguments about university education were themselves beneficiaries of just such an education only made matters more contradictory, hypocritical, and frustrating.

In short, in countering some perceived conventional wisdom, in begging questions that seem to derive from a radical rather than a “reformist” perspective, the author (and others of her ilk) ends up embracing an argument that is not only unhelpfully utopian, but actually deeply compatible with the very situation that seems to provoke the advocacy of such a solution. I can’t help but sense that the same instinct towards perversity that makes for a good English paper – and, perhaps even more pressingly, a good work of  reputation-building “theory” – is what drives a writer to take a line like this one at a time like this. One might counter that I’m being a bit of a philistine – that I’m closing off avenues of speculative thought and analysis. I’m not. I’m just wondering what the point of writing all this up in a questi0n-begging article in a popular publication is, an article that does little more than raise unanswerable questions and then ends with what might as well be the banging of a Zen gong.

 

Written by adswithoutproducts

January 4, 2013 at 2:11 pm

…in the (coming of) age (movie) of its technological reproducibility

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Haven’t seen the film yet, but strange, this from the New York Times review of Tiny Furniture:

One of the knots that Ms. Dunham requires you to untie while you’re watching “Tiny Furniture” is the extent to which she is playing with ideas about fiction and the real, originals and copies. Is the character Aura actually Ms. Dunham (the unique woman who lived in that loft) or is the director playing a copy of herself? Ms. Dunham doesn’t overtly say. One hint, though, might be the character’s unusual first name, which suggests that Ms. Dunham, at the age of 24 and herself a recent graduate, has read the social theorist Walter Benjamin’s 1930s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” one of the most influential (and commonly classroom-assigned) inquiries into aesthetic production and the mass reproduction of art.

Benjamin argued that an original work of art (say, a Rodin sculpture), has an aura, which creates a distance between it and the beholder. But aura decays as art is mechanically reproduced (say, for postcards). This decay is evident in cinema, where instead of individuals contemplating authentic works of art, as in a museum, a collective consumes images in a state of distraction. While there were dangers inherent in this shift, and while cinema could uphold what he called “the phony spell of a commodity,” its shocks might also lead to a “heightened presence of mind.” (“The conventional is uncritically enjoyed, while the truly new is criticized with aversion.”) Cinema, in other words, might spark critical thinking.

Strange move, if that’s what’s going on. Seems perfectly evocative of the way that certain “canonical” theoretical texts turn, via the way they are presented in undergraduate classrooms at liberal arts colleges and the like, into a generalized soup of “life philosophy” and gnomic multi-use utterances. Someone texts their girlfriend / or boyfriend: Please stop texting me to check what I’m doing when I’m drinking with my friends – it’s like I’m living in the panopticon! Or, on a bros night out, Dude, she’s like your pharmakon – the medicine that you need but also the poison that’ll kill you.

Loss of the aura indeed. Suppose it’s bound to happen. “Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction…” and so forth.

Written by adswithoutproducts

April 2, 2012 at 9:35 am

Posted in benjamin, movies, theory

what before what: theory or literature

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I’m working on presumably the final revision of the book and I’ve done something a bit strange, something that feels to me both a) just what I want to do and b) bound to cause problems. Basically, if nearly every literary monograph with any interest in theory or theoretical questions starts with the definition of key terms via philosophy and then turns to the literature, I’m running things in reverse. I’ll develop working definitions of the key terms via little tour of literary history (broadstroke longview, more narrowing with the period in question) and then turn to the philosophical heritage in order to compare and contrast. At any rate, I just put in the following footnote. What do you think – too much?

If we have grown well accustomed to analyses that apply theory to literary texts – in order to understand or critique them, in order to shed light on their inner workings or the world that they represent – in my choice of trajectory here I propose to do something different. This work attempts to expose the theorizations of time implicit in the literary works themselves and explore these theorizations in (generally contrasting) comparison with what we might slightly reductively call the philosophical “conventional wisdom” on the subject. While any attempt to “forget theory” in writing about literature would either be naïve or haunted by invisible philosophical or ideological presuppositions, it on the other hand seems to be a disciplinary bad habit reflexively to consult philosophy in order to define our terms and only then to turn these terms to literary application.

In general, I simply don’t accept the reflexive necessity of consulting philosophy first. I don’t think of theory as a little machine that one builds in grad school, like a woodchipper or a blender, that one takes texts and runs them through, or at least that’s not how I think one should think of theory. I think that literature has as much to tell us – if differently – about so-called “philosophical” issues as philosophy itself. And I further believe that tons of theory is grounded in strange if not bad readings of literature… or even, more importantly, a kind of unconscious or unacknowledged “literariness” that haunts the answers developed.

Written by adswithoutproducts

August 23, 2011 at 8:15 pm

Posted in literature, theory

zizek and linksfaschismus

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I’m not sure there’s a clearer index of the basic intellectual dysfunction of the anglo-american theoretical left than the persistent popularity of Zizek and his work. The dysfunction is this: rather than conceive of themselves as participants in an on-going conversation, a-a theorists see themselves as the passive recipients of truths formulated elsewhere, generally on the continent. These passive recipients then apply these truths as they will – questioning them, revising them, arguing with them, developing one’s one alternative or oppositional versions and takes is not really part of the bargain. Theory is something, in the end, that happens elsewhere – not here.

Unthinking acceptance of the arguments of those deemed to be the master theorists has to be behind their continuing popularity. How else could one square the fact that individuals otherwise engaged in democratic activism, say, line up for hours to hear Zizek give one of his whistlestop talks at Birkbeck? Or those out on the streets in defense of state-funded education return to their rooms to work on translations of Badiou?

At any rate, there’s an incredibly sensible piece by Alan Johnson on Zizek and his fascist tendencies up at Jacobin. Here’s a bit from the beginning:

Mark Lilla in his book The Reckless Mind predicted that the “extraordinary displays of intellectual philotyranny” that disfigured the twentieth century left would not simply disappear just because the wall had fallen. So it has proved. Since 2000, Žižek has established his “New Communism” on two foundations. First, a system of concepts – Egalitarian Terror, the Absolute Act, Absolute Negativity, Divine Violence, the Messianic Moment, the Revolutionary Truth-Event, the Future Anterieur, and so on. Second, a human type and an associated sensibility – that ideologized and cruel fanatic, contemptuous of morality and trained to enormity that Žižek calls the “freedom fighter with an inhuman face.” In his passive-aggressive way, Zikek has even admitted what this so-called New Communism amounts to: “[Peter] Sloterdijk even mentions the “re-emerging Left-Fascist whispering at the borders of academia,’ where, I guess, I belong.”

Žižek’s philosophy is, to be blunt, is a species of linksfaschismus. This is true of its murderous hostility to democracy, its utter disdain for the ‘stupid’ pleasures of bourgeois life, its valorization of will, ruthlessness, terror and dictatorship, and its belief in the salvific nature of self-sacrificial death.

(Hat tip to Sofie Buckland for the link via FB…)

Written by adswithoutproducts

July 16, 2011 at 6:13 pm

Posted in theory, zizek

post-theoretical axiom no. 1: “ideology”

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The word “ideology” is banned, as it does not exist, not really. It exists only in the way that things like “art in general” exist. Henceforth, we will discuss only “public relations,” the actual tactics and material instantiations of the engineering of consent, the traceable paths of cause and effect involved with it.

We are not named by the policeman on the street who calls to us. We are named by our parents. Of course it is important to remember that we enter into language and then we never leave language. The problem is that the abstraction involved in the deployment of a term like ideology permits, no nearly mandates, that we stop just about there. The cop, the street, and then us, newly and irrevocably named – nowhere to go from there.

There is a malicious, ill-formed fiction at the heart of most theoretical errors – that is to say, I am starting to think, most theory.

Abstraction is a net that allows us to neglect the hold, to fall without worrying about reaching the next rung.

Written by adswithoutproducts

June 21, 2010 at 12:05 am

Posted in theory

third, but generally tautological, culture

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Via the Valve, an article in the NYT about what the paper is calling (correct me if I’m wrong – the paper’s been calling) “the next big thing” in literary studies – basically the application of evolutionary psychology and/or cognitive science to literature.

I try not to be cranky about this sort of thing – both the NYT’s reportage and this new mode of study itself. And it’s not that I don’t think there are insights potentially to be gleaned from such an approach. Rather, my problem with it is that much of the output that I’ve seen steers heavily in the direction of the massive-research-grant-funded restatement of the obvious and deep tautology. Let me show you a few examples from the article in question. (Obviously, this isn’t entirely fair, as I’m looking at newspaper re-descriptions of research rather than the research itself… But certain patterns familiar from the work in this line that I’ve actually looked at manifest themselves quite clearly in what follows, so I’ll go on…) Here’s a example:

At the other end of the country Blakey Vermeule, an associate professor of English at Stanford, is examining theory of mind from a different perspective. She starts from the assumption that evolution had a hand in our love of fiction, and then goes on to examine the narrative technique known as “free indirect style,” which mingles the character’s voice with the narrator’s. Indirect style enables readers to inhabit two or even three mind-sets at a time.

This style, which became the hallmark of the novel beginning in the 19th century with Jane Austen, evolved because it satisfies our “intense interest in other people’s secret thoughts and motivations,” Ms. Vermeule said.

Now, I am going to look into Vermeule’s work when I’m next in the office and have a minute as “free indirect style” has basically been the issue at the center of my own teaching and research for the past decade or so (that is to say, since I started work on my dissertation, or really since I started seriously reading Flaubert and Joyce as an undergraduate…), but can you see the problem here? Here are the claims in order:

1. “evolution had a hand in our love of fiction”

2. free indirect style “enables readers to inhabit two or even three mind-sets at a time”

3. free indirect style evolved because it “satisfies our ‘intense interest in other people’s secret thoughts and motivations'”

Well and good. But to my mind, even though its nothing new, only claim 2 holds any interest. How free indirect style manages the delicate play of multiple “mind-sets” is an interesting and ever-renewable issue, as it allows us to negotiate with some of the basic dynamics of fiction and their modern (considered broadly) manifestations. Point 1, on the other hand, is uninteresting because the basic assumption behind this approach (and, sure, an assumption that I share) is that evolution had a hand in everything that we have done, has a hand in everything that we do. Is there a human activity X, in other words, to which the statement evolution had a hand in our love for X? A statement like this simply doesn’t bear any, um, value-added. (More on this in a minute). Point 3 likewise merely dresses in evo-psych garb something that all of us have always already known about both free indirect style and, well, fiction in general. Was it ever a great mystery that a large part of the appeal of fiction is that it ostensibly allows us access to the elusive interiorities of other people? I suppose there’s something more to say about why this is the case, but not all that much more – it doesn’t seem all that confusing that whether one is looking for a mate or competing with the next hairy homo sapiens over a hunting ground, that thinking into the thoughts of others serves as a valuable skill in the work of gene preservation / distribution.

So just to sum up – I can see running room in the specifically literary claim that Vermeule’s making, but the “scientific” add-ons seem just that – add-ons, supplements from the realm of blinding common sense draped in the discourse of trendy science. (Please note and don’t get me wrong: theoretically inflected work very often performs and performed the same sort of dance…) But an argument that goes Behavior X seems irrational until we realize that it grants an adaptive advantage. We know that it grants an adaptive advantage because all actual behavior does… simply doesn’t seem to shed light on much of anything at all.

So critical and theoretical trends come and go. I’m a youngish academic, but I even I map my progress according to the rise and fall of Dominant Theoretical Paradigms (I entered the PhD at the peak of the Post-Colonial Bubble, got my first job as Deconstruction self-deconstructed but near the top of the Textual Materialist bubble, my second in the Age of Transatlanticism, and now, according to the paper of record, am doing my persistently untimely work in the Age of EvoPsych…) But I think there’s something special – specially symptomatic – about this trend that merits some attention. Here’s another snippet:

Ms. Zunshine is part of a research team composed of literary scholars and cognitive psychologists who are using snapshots of the brain at work to explore the mechanics of reading. The project, funded by the Teagle Foundation and hosted by the Haskins Laboratory in New Haven, is aimed at improving college-level reading skills.

“We begin by assuming that there is a difference between the kind of reading that people do when they read Marcel Proust or Henry James and a newspaper, that there is a value added cognitively when we read complex literary texts,” said Michael Holquist, professor emeritus of comparative literature at Yale, who is leading the project.

The team spent nearly a year figuring how one might test for complexity. What they came up with was mind reading — or how well an individual is able to track multiple sources. The pilot study, which he hopes will start later this spring, will involve 12 subjects. “Each will be put into the magnet” — an M.R.I. machine — “and given a set of texts of graduated complexity depending on the difficulty of source monitoring and we’ll watch what happens in the brain,” Mr. Holquist explained.

Ah, that sounds like the stuff of the properly-science oriented research grant. My department has been complaining very justly lately that the university-distributed research grants available for us to apply for – actually, which we’re reprimanded on a termly basis  for not applying often enough for – are arranged in such a way that makes them literally pointless for us to aspire to. Why? For one thing, the arrangement chez nous is that these grants can only be used to pay for research expense but in no case can be used to buy us out of teaching, that is to say buy us the time out of the classroom that we need to do our research projects. I’d write more if I had time, but I can’t think of a single research-related expense that I need money for, beyond I suppose a couple of books and the like. (This is the back story, by the way, behind the ubiquitous grant-funded fancy-ass home laptop that grantees in the humanities buy “for research purposes.” It seems cagey to do, but there’s literally nothing else to spend the money on, so you head to the Apple Store…)

But I have a sense that part of the appeal of this new “scientifically” organized work is the fact that it is compatible with the science-oriented funding that we humanities types are increasingly expected to attract, but which rarely for most of us fits the bill in any way that makes writing the grant application worthwhile. In a way, the quote above from Michael Holquist discretely says all that needs to be said about what’s driving this sort of work: “We begin by assuming that there is a difference between the kind of reading that people do when they read Marcel Proust or Henry James and a newspaper, that there is a value added cognitively when we read complex literary texts. Again, is the fact that people read Proust a bit differently from the New York Post a finding that requires ample funded-research? You need an MRI-machine to determine that? And since when is a commercial term like value-added appropriate for use in describing the sort of work that we do? (Oh, well, yes during the age of impact and its American equivalents…)

I’m definitely not against scientific and especially quantitative approaches to literature – see Franco Moretti’s relatively recent work for a fascinating example of what can happen when you run words through a machine. But I’m still waiting to see an example of EvoPsych / Cognitive Science-based literary work that doesn’t dress ordinary or even banal arguments about literature in trendily mystifying language that ultimately turns out to be 200 proof conventional wisdom. But the funny thing to remember, though, is that theory itself – which seems to be in the crosshairs of many who’ve taken up evo or cognitive approaches – itself emerged in large part in attempt to assert disciplinary rationality in an increasingly science-minded age. Structuralism, narratology, semiology and the like were all attempts to make what we do into a science rather than a endemically-skeptical art…

Written by adswithoutproducts

April 4, 2010 at 12:51 am

Posted in academia, criticism, theory

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

militant preciousness

with 56 comments

Reading some of the “militant dysphoria” papers that have been posted, the same problems that I’ve been on about a bit re-appear. Adolescent insanity just about sums it up, but to be slightly more specific, let’s start with absolute vagueness when it comes to the payoff. Here’s the problem. If the point is simply to recognise the dysphoria and then work to get rid of it, that’s fine, but it’s certainly not news. This is what has always been said, and generally said with a lot less theatricality and more substance than here. So rather the point (from a marketing perspective, I guess) is to angle towards the recognition and embrace of the dysphoria. Which of course leads to a fairly simple problem: why the fuck would anyone get onboard with a politics that promises only to make the problems, the things that make us unhappy, worse?

Yeah I know. What a sellout to neoliberalism I am for saying it. Here, have some splintering bone ashes:

To systematise briefly: a world protects its consistency by rendering itself a black box, invincible and invisible, taken for granted. The human world is one determined by vitalistic principles, and it is these which are undone in dysphoria, hence undoing the world which they construct. If capital has subsumed the world of life, has exploited and manipulated its processes to such an extent that it becomes synonymous with life, and indeed a form of life itself, then perhaps the way of death, of non-life, of the freezing over of the vital offers a way out of its particular strictures. It is certainly true to say that capitalism as it stands now requires a degree of acquiescence with the “big other”- to at least pay lip service to the affirmationist common sense. This means that at the level of microeconomics, we must “enjoy” or at least pretend to do so, and at the level of macroeconomics that the dogma of growth of gross domestic product as strictly equivalent to the common good and the elevation of the general standard of living of humanity must be maintained. So in identifying with the state of dysphoria itself and hence to subtract from this world, the militant dysphoric effectively abandons a world already made cold by capital’s alien life, and then perhaps, undoes it. Perhaps.

The final “perhaps” is precious, isn’t it? Some of us, however, hold out for the chance that it might, just might, be possible to enjoy stuff outside of the framework of capitalism – or, Christ, even within it if that’s the lot we’ve drawn for now. A refugee enjoys her or his refuge, a starving man his food. Sometimes its nice to read a book or talk to a friend. Some of us even like sex sometimes (though maybe not these guys) that’s neither paid for nor framed within some subsuming logic of capital.

Oh and just to be clear: making strange never meant just being confusing and vague, or saying things that didn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. And also: Baudrillard did all this in Symbolic Exchange and Death, better, though no more convincingly. Here, have a bit more, from Nick Srnicek:

-To some degree, we can see this in Dominic’s discussion of the killing of Finke – the bystander who was killed by the RAF when they broke Baader out of custody. In the militant’s frame, this innocent bystander never enters into the calculations involved in their path. It’s rather bourgeois morality which would force this calculation onto the agencies involved, but it’s excluded here by the assemblage that has framed the militant. Whereas bourgeois morality would have paralyzed action by trying to calculate every possible consequence in advance, the militant has their frame contracted to a much more myopic vision.
-It is this aspect which makes the militant – potentially – a progressive and transformative agent, rather than a reactionary and conservative impediment. A sort of willful blindness, a contraction of the frame beyond everyday concerns, and the focusing of energies on a singular path.

Boy, well, that takes care of the tricky business of collateral damage, doesn’t it? Just to be clear, one could replace the word militant with US military at any single point in the above, and it would work out just as cleanly. Ever seen The Battle of Algiers? Notice the way that it stares the soon-to-be-dead right in the face? Have to say, the thought of toussled-haired hipsters, laptopped and bespectacled, writing such things leaves me just a little bit raw. Know what I mean?

In general: all seems like a lot of grad seminar smokebreak nonsense, the sort of things that the kids get up to when the instructor is out of the room. Or, worse, the sort of thing that irresponsible, comfortable people say when they’re bored. Which is maybe how all the very worst sorts of politics get started. The reveries of frustrated junior stock-brokers. It’s a simple test, easily dismissed as “guardianistical” by the initiates, but if your politics wouldn’t make sense to some poor fucker in a camp in Africa, or migrant worker caught just outside the tunnel, or a prostitute working the outer bits of the outer boroughs, you should stop and shut the fuck up think very carefully about what you’re up to. Only the rich want to die, only the rich privilege their own unhappiness. If you read this blog, you know that I am unhappy about 99 percent of the time – but I’d never, ever mistake that for a politics. Afraid we can’t really spare the bandwidth.

Perhaps I’ll say a bit more when I’m in a better mood. For now, I’ll just say I’m not regretting missing the event for drinks with undergraduates.

Written by adswithoutproducts

October 4, 2009 at 12:57 am

Posted in theory

the politics of time

with 7 comments

I didn’t realize that Peter Osborne’s The Politics of Time is available on-line and in full. Shows how the world’s changed in only a few years. I heard about this book just as I was finishing my PhD not too many years ago, and checked it out of my university’s library. It was astoundingly good and helpful… The stuff on Heidegger and Benjamin, in particular, left a real mark on me and has influence my work significantly. But the problem was, back then as I was finishing up, that there was only one copy in our library and as soon as I would get my hands on it, it would get recalled. I hemmed and hawed because it was out of print, and the only copies on Amazon were selling for more than $100. Eventually, that’s just what I paid for it – and probably had it back in my hands too late to use it the way I needed to.

At my previous job, I insisted that my graduate seminar of 20+ students read it… Even if it was unlikely that all or any of them would be able to get their hands on copies. (I reproduced the last chapter for them…) Anyway, all of this would have been moot if it had been on-line as it is now. So, you know, obviously – go read! It’s free!

Written by adswithoutproducts

July 9, 2009 at 2:28 pm

Posted in temporality, theory

agamben again

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I’ve been a bad amateur theorist for the past several years. * Attribute it to all-too-close-contact with a whole coterie of noxious lacanians, lording it over peasants like me with late-night phonecalls and backchatter and tenure threats. Whatever. But somehow I missed the fact that Agamben has gotten back to the interesting question (rather than the boring one, the s/o/e and all that schmittian jive). See No Useless Leniency for more information. I just ordered the book.

Agamben argues that he is not condemning pornography per se, but rather the neutralisation of the possibility of allowing erotic behaviours to idle, their profanation. What is reprehensible is to be captured by power, not the behaviour in the first place. This kind of idling can be found in the the indifferent gaze of Chloe des Lysses – a lack of complicity with the spectator, and a refusal of the brazen.

But this kind of profanation appears only temporarily, as the “solitary and desperate consumption of the pornographic image” (!) (“In Praise” 91) blocks this kind of possibility of profanation. The disgrace, according to Agamben, lies not in pornography itself, but in the apparatus of the fashion show or the pornographic shoot, that turns the sphere of pure means into a separated site of pure consumption.

“The unprofanable of pornography – everything that is unprofanable – is founded on the arrest and diversion of an authentically profanatory intention. For this reason, we must always wrest from the apparatuses – from all apparatuses – the possibility of use that they have captured. The profanation of the unprofanable is the political task of the coming generation.” (“In Praise” 92)

Ah, that’s just the sort of thing that gave this blog its Agamben-inspired name! Maybe I’ll rename the site profanatory intention.

* Really, I can’t even fake the pose. Those who know me know that I am Just-Another-Sweater-Bedecked English Professor Lecturer, far too gnomic and literary even to simulate it. Still, I am a JASBEL (interesting!) who appreciates a properly dialectical question when a properly dialectical question is raised….

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December 2, 2008 at 1:10 am

Posted in agamben, porn, theory

necrofootie

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From the sport section of today’s Observer:

Achille Mbembe, a professor writing in Cape Town’s Sunday Independent newspaper, gave a withering assessment of the problems to be overcome. ‘The biggest threat to 2010 is the anaemic state of the national football team,’ he wrote. ‘Hiring and firing coaches almost on a yearly basis won’t do. The weakness is structural and historical. Contrary to the major African football powerhouses (Cameroon, Nigeria, Ivory Coast), South Africa does not have a single player of international calibre plying his trade for one of the major European clubs.’

I love finding things like that! You know, Achille Mbembe, the author of things like that paper on necropolitics that everyone was reading a few years ago… Makes me feel a wee bit better about my long-standing and probably unbreakable habit of reading the sports section first!

Written by adswithoutproducts

October 12, 2008 at 9:57 am

Posted in sports, theory

if we were to restart theory….

with 16 comments

…we might start by working the following out:

So much of the quasi-materialist theory of the past, oh, sixty years has staked itself on the promotion of the random wander through city streets as opposed to the technoratic, overly-rational, heartlessly-designed urban plan, and in particular, the plan’s incorporation of tracts of uniform, utilitarian housing developments / projects / estates. The dérive, the tactical – these topographical / metaphorical practices form the underpinnings of Lefebvre’s, Debord’s, SI’s, de Certeau’s theoretical resistance to centralized bureaucratic power.

Today, however, well after Reagan and Thatcher and their descendents have “starved the beast” of government and brought to an end, in the Anglo-American world and, by influence and force, beyond, the actually-existing and potentially-constructed category of the welfare state that was known as social housing, we now know, unlike those who have come before us, the true value of what was once and now is no more provisioned. We read these earlier theorists who had, no doubt, noble intentions, as cringe inwardly, knowing that we smell in their works an ideology better suited to bourgeois gentrification and tower demolition than, you know, the provision of rooves and running water, walls and doors, simple, unglamourous things that just every single one of us are very happy to have. We understand, in short, the inadvertent complicity of previous theories that are dependent upon libertarian visions of urban space, and we cannot help but think that they were written during a period when it was easier to take for granted the fact that these things would continue to be built, and that the people that live in them would never be left to fend for themselves on the open, and irrationally exuberant!, market.

To put it another way, today, given the choice (which is, perhaps, the only choice that we have, and only if we’re lucky and persistent) between the Ideological State Apparatus and the Abolition of the State, we know that we’d take the ISA and work through the problem of the I in it, rather than the latter, which is the path the world has taken since, and we know damn well where that has gotten us and will continue to get us.

We will have to rewrite the whole thing, cognisant of and vigilant about the ennui and disciplinarity, corruption and neglect, that comes of a strong state sector, but even more careful that we know what our true priorities are, in an age where there seems to be only one single priority.

So the question is, I guess, if we were to restart theory, would we have to sell our old, well-marked copies of Debord and de Certeau on Amazon, donate them to the charity shop, in order to get the room we need to work practically, efficaciously? Would we have to banish them to the category of the merely historical document in order to get done what needs to be done?

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July 10, 2008 at 12:40 am

the decline of english

with 18 comments

(xposted to long sunday)

There’s a whole lot that’s right in William Deresiewicz’s review / jeremiad in The Nation focused on the ill health of the discipline of English circa now in the US. But don’t get me wrong – there’s a lot that’s way off in the piece too. Let’s start with the way off. Speaking of the MLA job list, he takes us on a tour of the silly stuff they’re listing nowadays, finally landing in the seemingly safe space of American lit, which is, “well, literature” at least.

When we [get to the literature positions] we find that the largest share of what’s left, nearly a third, is in American literature. Even more significant is the number of positions, again about a third, that call for particular expertise in literature of one or another identity group. “Subfields might include transnational, hemispheric, ethnic and queer literatures.” “Postcolonial emphasis” is “required.” “Additional expertise in African-American and/or ethnic American literature highly desirable.” This is an old story, but let’s stop for a moment to consider what the many ads like the last one, for a tenure-track position in twentieth-/twenty-first-century American fiction, actually mean. They mean that you can be a brilliant young scholar, from a top program, but if you’re an expert in Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald, or Malamud, Bellow and Roth, or Gaddis, Pynchon and DeLillo, or all of them plus Dreiser, Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis, Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, Mailer, Salinger, Capote, Kerouac, Burroughs, Updike, Chandler, Cheever, Heller, Gore Vidal, Cormac McCarthy and God’s own novelist himself, Vladimir Nabokov, plus Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Cynthia Ozick, Flannery O’Connor and Joyce Carol Oates, but not in African-American or ethnic American fiction, then there are a lot of jobs you just aren’t going to get. And there weren’t that many jobs in American fiction to begin with. Graduate students aren’t stupid, not even in practical terms, not anymore. So nearly everyone is studying at least some minority literature, and everything else–not the totality of what’s valuable in twentieth-century American fiction but certainly the preponderance of it–is getting studied a lot less.

The overall focus on the piece is on the decline of English enrollment and the corresponding efforts to adapt to the crisis on the part of the faculties themselves. Later in the piece, we get the big payoff line “the profession’s intellectual agenda is being set by teenagers.” But I’m pretty damn sure that increased emphasis on formerly-marginal groups / literatures has anything at all to do with declining enrollments – probably the opposite is closer to the truth. Given the choice between Morrison and Chaucer, or say Flannery O’Connor over Cormac McCarthy, I’m not sure the students wouldn’t pick the former in either case.

This move on Deresiewicz’s part feels like consummate culture wars base-touching, like he’s filling out the form that a venue like The Nation require those who would write on the literary humanities to complete before proceeding to other issues and arguments. (Why The Nation, ostensibly a left magazine, would implicitly condone or even require this sort of move is a long, long story, and one that is bound up with both micro-histories of the long standing academy vs. grub street turf war that has been going on in NYC for a long time as well as macro-histories of the anti-intellectualism of the American journalistic left… More on this another day…)

To be fair, the list reflects not so much the overall composition of English departments as the ways they’re trying to up-armor themselves to cover perceived gaps. More revealing in this connection than the familiar identity-groups laundry list, which at least has intellectual coherence, is the whatever-works grab bag: “Asian American literature, cultural theory, or visual/performance studies”; “literature of the immigrant experience, environmental writing/ecocriticism, literature and technology, and material culture”; “visual culture; cultural studies and theory; writing and writing across the curriculum; ethnicity, gender and sexuality studies.” The items on these lists are not just different things–apples and oranges–they’re different kinds of things, incommensurate categories flailing about in unrelated directions–apples, machine parts, sadness, the square root of two. There have always been trends in literary criticism, but the major trend now is trendiness itself, trendism, the desperate search for anything sexy. Contemporary lit, global lit, ethnic American lit; creative writing, film, ecocriticism–whatever. There are postings here for positions in science fiction, in fantasy literature, in children’s literature, even in something called “digital humanities.”

It is a bit difficult not to wonder how Deresiewicz’s own current project avoids the trap of trendiness that he’s describing…

My current project is Friendship: A Cultural History from Jane Austen to Jennifer Aniston. The book draws on fiction, film, television, poetry, and other arts, as well as on insights from the social sciences, to trace the impact of modernity on the ways that friendship has been imagined and practiced in Great Britain and the United States over the past two centuries.

Look, more power to him, but the title sounds exactly like the sort of course listing that people run to boost student numbers, especially at elite places where numbers really can matter on a course by course basis. Theme X: From Canonical Text Y to the Simpsons. Or was it Buffy? Depends. (Funny to think that he couldn’t really call it from Jane Austen to Friends, so Dame Jennifer gets the main billing…) We used to joke that adding the Simpsons to a course description would boost enrollment 1000%. And we joked this way because it was absolutely true. A class on satire that would draw 30 turned into a giant lecture with a squad of TAs if you showed cartoons on the first day of class.

The rest of the piece largely avoids this sort of thing, thankfully, and successfully delineates some of the real issues facing English today. This, for instance, is for the most part right:

What’s going on? Three things, to judge from their absence from Graff’s history, that have never happened before. First, the number of students studying English literature appears to be in a steep, prolonged and apparently irreversible decline. In the past ten years, my department has gone from about 120 majors a year to about ninety a year. Fewer students mean fewer professors; during the same time, we’ve gone from about fifty-five full-time faculty positions to about forty-five. Student priorities are shifting to more “practical” majors like economics; university priorities are shifting to the sciences, which bring in a lot more money. In our new consumer-oriented model of higher education, schools compete for students, but so do departments within schools. The bleaker it looks for English departments, the more desperate they become to attract attention.

In other words, the profession’s intellectual agenda is being set by teenagers. This is also unprecedented. However bitter the ideological battles Graff described, they were driven by the profession’s internal dynamics, not by what our students wanted, or what they thought they wanted, or what we thought they thought they wanted. If grade schools behaved like this, every subject would be recess, and lunch would consist of chocolate cake.

Graff’s critical movements were proud, militant insurgencies, out to transform the world. This year’s Job List confirms the picture of a profession suffering from an epochal loss of confidence. It’s not just the fear you can smell in the postings. It’s the fact that no major theoretical school has emerged in the eighteen years since Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble revolutionized gender studies. As Harvard professor Louis Menand said three years ago, our graduate students are writing the same dissertations, with the same tools, as they were in 1990. Nor has any major new star–a Butler, an Edward Said, a Harold Bloom–emerged since then to provide intellectual leadership, or even a sense of intellectual adventure. The job market’s long-term depression has deepened the mood. Most professors I know discourage even their best students from going to graduate school; one actually refuses to talk to them about it. This is a profession that is losing its will to live.

Twenty years after Professing Literature, the “conflicts” still exist, but given the larger context in which they’re taking place, they scarcely matter anymore. The real story of academic literary criticism today is that the profession is, however slowly, dying.

Now first of all, and while I only have the evidence garnered from my time in a few different English departments over the last ten years as well as the ambient stuff that goes around, he’s absolutely right about the declining enrollments. The department (big research 1 state institution) where I worked until recently is in full-on panic, as they’ve lost half. As far as I know, the place where I did my graduate work (a peer institution to Deresiewicz’s current place) is having the same sort of trouble that he describes. And there is absolutely no doubt that the worsening economic conditions – and in particular, the increasing anxiety that college-aged students feel when it comes to the job market that they anticipate entering – has a lot to do with this pattern.

But I can’t help but feel that there’s something else going on with the declining enrollments as well. After all, just as it’s never the wrong time for the Bush administration to push tax cuts (economy goes up, and the government has too much of “your” money; it goes down and its time for some cleansing stimulus), I’m not sure it’s ever been the right time to sign on for an English major. I don’t have the figures at hand, but it seems to me that there were good reasons in the 90s… and the 80s… and the 70s… and the 60s… to look for a more efficiently marketable degree.

In other words, to my mind, there are other issues here that inform the change beyond what I think Deresiewicz is trying to establish to be a self-reinforcing cycle of faculty desperation and the watering down of the course offerings. I wish I had time to go fully into all of them, and maybe I will in a future post. Just quickly for now: there’s the way that however valuable historicism is a scholarly stance, it tends to fall relatively flat in the classroom. I say this as a historicist, a part historicist, myself: given equivalent teaching quality, the students will be hooked by the magic tricks you can perform on The Waste Land via vulgar decon and/or new critical torque far faster than they will by the status of the industrial society in Victorian Britain and the way that it informs Hard Times. There’s much more to be said about this, of course, and I will soon… Beyond this, intellectual fadism and the mal-distribution of teaching emphasis probably doesn’t help either. There are other factors, some of which Deresiewicz touches on – the farming out of intro classes to part time workers, the soft condescension of letting everyone do creative writing, and so on…

But there’s one important issue that I do want to focus on here – and it is one that, for reasons hinted at above, obviously wouldn’t make it into Deresiewicz’s piece. Take a look again at the timing of the decline as described in the piece:

In the past ten years, my department has gone from about 120 majors a year to about ninety a year.(snip)

It’s the fact that no major theoretical school has emerged in the eighteen years since Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble
revolutionized gender studies. As Harvard professor Louis Menand said three years ago, our graduate students are writing the same dissertations, with the same tools, as they were in 1990.

Deresiewicz has all the pieces of the puzzle on the board, they just need to be put together. The decline of the English major has corresponded with the decline of two complexly, but distinctly, related things. They are: the reign of theory and what we might call the politicized classroom. These two factors are complexly related, in my mind, because I’m mostly sure that the politics of theory, as practiced by English departments, wasn’t much of a politics at all, and certainly wasn’t a politics with any (easy) applicability in the real world. Further, the de-politicization of the classroom is something that I’d mostly attribute not simply to the failure of theory, but mostly to the changing atmosphere after 9/11, when conservative attacks on “liberal bias” were front and center in the news.

I went to grad school during the last days of theory. We started out in our first years with Derrida seminars and ended scrambling to become textual materialists. It became gauche (!), by the end, to go on about Lacan or Althusser, Foucault or Deleuze. But I also got my first tenure track job in the years of the “war on terror.” True to form, true to my academic generation, I am a leftist who apologizes for mentioning Iraq in passing during my classes on Conrad, and who probably advances better critiques of Marx than appreciations of him. Such was the ideological weather on the day I was born to the professoriate – and it’s grown to feel like the way the weather is supposed to be, has always been. There are times when I can tell that the students don’t want me to pull my punches, but I inevitably do.

I am beginning to feel that students have felt the change in the atmosphere of the English department and have responded by finding other subjects in which to major. The politics may have been largely imaginary back before the fall of theory, but the ethos of radicalism was perhaps hugely more attractive than, say, learning about the fruits of some very solid and largely uncontroversial archival work that your teacher is involved in. Perhaps we as a discipline were just holding off the inevitable by becoming, for so many years, the defacto home of left politics in the academy. But it is worth noting, now that the politics have receded and with them the student numbers, that something we were doing was working. And it is further worth noting just how hard it is for us to admit what it was that was different just before the numbers dropped.

We are, in sum, left in a tough, but not impossible situation…. More to come, I promise…

Written by adswithoutproducts

March 18, 2008 at 2:42 am

Posted in academia, theory

hallward

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Interesting summary of a Peter Hallward seminar entitled entitled ‘Dialectical Volunterism’ up at An und für sich. Here’s a slice:

He began by re-stating his conviction, present in his Deleuze book, that the choice for philosophers is still to contemplate or change the world. It is clear that this is not a hard duality, as contemplating the world is the very beginning of any attempt to change it. The urge to change the world comes about when we examine the world, how we think it will make sense and find that it does not make sense. In this way, Hallward said, the world is a scandal for philosophy. He related this to liberation theology, which he has been reading as of late, where the liberationists were presented with ‘poverty and the sinful structures surronding it’. At this point there must be a decision of the collective will to change the world. This became a point of contention for Neil Turnbull, a radical sociologist in the audience, as one could read this as a reactionary motif and not at all a revolutionary one. However Peter Hallward wants us to leave behind Adorno and Marcuse as our model for revolutionary leftist change and embrace Lenin, Mao, Aristide, Chavez, etc. In actuality Hallward betrays himself on this point for he did not discuss Lenin or Mao and his discussion of Haiti, while generally pro-Aristide, focused on the work of Paul Farmer and the reclimation of unused land in the industrial belt for youth football by another private citizen. Despite his seeming pro-State logic in ‘The Politics of Prescription’ it is obvious from this talk that his own position is closer to Hardt and Negri than he may want to admit.

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Written by adswithoutproducts

March 8, 2007 at 10:51 am

Posted in theory

badiou: reactionary modernist

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(xposted to Long Sunday….)

Cover142

We don’t do enough Radical Philosophy around here, I suppose because there’s not enough on-line for us to link to. But it really is – along with NLR and n+1 – one of the few things I’m genuinely excited to see drop through the slot in the front door.

In the new one, a particularly lucid piece by Peter Osborne on Badiou. Here are the first paragraphs, all that’s publicly available on-line:

Neo-classic Alain Badiou’s Being and Event

Peter Osborne

If anyone was in doubt about the continuing grip of French philosophy on the theoretical imagination of the anglophone humanities, the reception of the writings of Alain Badiou must surely have put paid to such reservations. The translation of his magnum opus, Being and Event, in spring 2006, brought to eleven the number of his books published in English in eight years – a period following swiftly on, not entirely contingently, from the deaths of Deleuze, Levinas and Lyotard (1995–1998), and coinciding with that of Derrida (2004).* However, it is not simply the number of translations that is remarkable (‘remarkable, but not surprising’, as Wittgenstein would say), but the fact that a philosophy such as this – for all its idiosyncratic philosophical charms – could so readily have assumed the role of ‘French philosophy of the day’ within the transnational market for theory.

Badiou’s philosophy takes a forbiddingly systematic form; it is anti-historical, technically mathematical and broadly Maoist in political persuasion. It has no interest in (in fact, denies the philosophical relevance of) ‘meaning’, and appears impervious to feminism. It takes a roguish self-satisfaction in its heterosexism.

Stylized individuality is a condition of branding, and ‘difficulty’ is a prerequisite of entry into this particular field, but there are more than market factors at work in Badiou’s successful transition to international theorist. It is a gauge of a number of things: the desire still invested in the English-language reception of French philosophy; the theoretical heresies that a new generation of the so-called ‘old’ Left will overlook in exchange for political solidarity (Žižek, master of this field, is Badiou’s mentor here); the strategic brilliance of two interventions – against Deleuze (The Clamour of Being, 1997; trans. 2000) and against the ‘delirium’ of ethics (Ethics, 1994; trans. 2001);1 the inherent brilliance of Being and Event, for all its ultimate philosophical madness; and last, but by no means least, the rhetorical power of ‘the (re)turn of philosophy itself’ – title of an essay of Badiou’s from 1992.2 It is in the profoundly contradictory character of the return of philosophy in Badiou – at once avant-garde and breathtakingly traditional – that the historical meaning of his thought is to be found.3 To anticipate my conclusion: Being and Event is a work – perhaps the great work – of philosophical neo-classicism. As such, at the level of philosophical form, it surpasses its ambivalent predecessor, Heidegger’s Being and Time, in the rigour of its reactionary modernism. The modernity of Badiou’s mathematics does not mitigate, but rather reinforces, the authoritarianism of his philosophical axiomatics and the mysticism of his conception of the event.

It really is a shame that we can’t read this together on here. There’s even a convincing bit on our perennial favorite, the history of big T little t theory, that I’m sure would produce a lovely comment thread. (The wonderful thing is, Osborne is able to 1) treat the subject “theory” while 2) never losing sight of the particulars, especially, the historical particulars of its rise and fall…)

If every one of you out there would just subscribe, we could talk a bit more about the piece. What are you waiting for?

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Written by adswithoutproducts

March 1, 2007 at 12:09 am

Posted in theory