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August 08, 2005


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"the Zizek of Lenin at the Gates is likely much closer to Alphonse than she will acknowledge"

Okay, I certainly don't mean to drive you crazy!

I will acknowledge that in fact about 60% of Zizek's textual product appeals to me very much. And I see why he seduces youth whose impulses are toward the rejection of the reigning ideology. But I am firmly persuaded there is only a single individual producing that and the 40% that appalls me. About 70% of the text of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion - the stuff reproduced from Joly - also appeals to me. A considerable part of the Gospels appeals to me. And on the whole, the smarter class of fascist ideologues in Italy, Germany and Spain landed more than now and then a legitimate hit against bourgeois liberal ideology. This stuff appeals so widely because a lot of it is appealing.

We must be careful I think not to caricature our enemies as just idiots. They're not. What makes them our enemies is the purpose to which they use their intelligence, the canniness of the text that is 80% acute observation and 20% lethally mendacious conclusion.

The stuff that appalls me in Zizek infects the value of the whole, it seems to me. In most cases. This is personal: I respect you for your choice to lop it off and nourish it. The existence of your practise seems to be generally good for the state of intellectual inquiry, although I obviously prefer my own; you don't think the existence of my practise is helpful and would like it ot just stop. I would say this stems really from the simple fact of the difference of the way we make a living and not from any more profound beliefs regarding the value of debate in the blogsphere.


Which practice do you mean? I assume you mean the practice of trashing/criticizing Zizek? (That's what seems to me to follow from our discussion...and, it wouldn't make sense to think that I would be critical of how you make a living...) But, yes, it is true: I don't have any particular affection for the way you talk about Zizek. And, yes, this is in part because the way I make my living values particular sorts of critiques and styles of engagement (it's not a legitimate move, in my world, to reduce a thinker to teevee, for example). But, it isn't clear to me how this relates to you earn a living--yes, you have some criticisms that come from some political experience, particularly around privization and the war in the Balkans. And, this for you, as far as I can tell, becomes the whole. For me, given that there are so many, many volumes of other work, this is not the whole. (Perhaps a comparison with Heidegger here....?)


Zizek didn't invent the notion of ideological symptoms:

. . . whenever men can form no idea of distant and unknown things, they judge them by what is familiar and at hand. This axiom points to the inexhaustible source of all the errors about the principles of humanity that have been adopted by entire nations and by all the scholars.

- Vico, The New Science, 1725


"I don't have any particular affection for the way you talk about Zizek"

All I can say is it is the easiest thing in the world to ignore. You have to come looking for it if you want to be offended.

"it's not a legitimate move, in my world, to reduce a thinker to teevee, for example"

Well of course. And in tv, it is not a legitimate move to suggest television broadcasters are producing and disseminating philosophy. But this is something you, who don't work in tv, assert with neither blush nor apology.

However, for most people outside these professions, the relations between television and other media and ideological product, the dominance of television over other media and ideological product, are often agonizingly obvious.

Novelists don't often care to admit the greatest influence on their product is television. But a frank look at American novels since 1965 or so leaves the intensity of the influence little in doubt.

"And, this for you, as far as I can tell, becomes the whole. For me, given that there are so many, many volumes of other work, this is not the whole"

Well it would be useful to make a distinction between books of philosophy and political activity. But here is a thinker who is a privatizer and retainer of a neoliberal political party in action and a critic of capitalism on paper. Since I am persuaded by a certain Theory, I cannot accept the notion that the ideological product of a privatizer is sealed off from the material product. So with this assumption, I read Zizek in light of his class position and his individual position, and it becomes clear that the main thrust of his work is a sort of tournicate around the ideological hemhorraging being inflicted on bourgeois idealism by what is loosely regarded as the anarchism(s) at the center of the altermondialiste movement.

But I am very open to defenses of Zizek as a leftist, and in fact have proposed to 'Bat' who is now posting at the Tomb, a stanch defender of Zizek as a marxist, that he engage in a dialogue about this on LS, and very much hope you will join.


'Open to' of course does not imply I have heard one that persuades me, nor that I don't have strong opinions regarding the political implications of his work, which I think I can argue in support of - though they have not persuaded you - and which I am sometimes seized with an inclination to voice, because it appears to me the fashion for Zizek reveals a great deal about a certain issue which concerns me, that is, the ideological work necessary to the global transition to a new variant of fascism.


Oh, last thing. Anonymity. Something to which you and Scott object, a rare agreement. I suggest this also has to do with your isolation from a certain kind of activity which goes on outside academia. In certain endeavours, one is greatly helped - for example in work to alleviate the situation of sans papiers here in France, a project which involves cooperation with lots of just run of the mill liberals and democratic socialists in and out of government - by not being able to be characterized and dismissed as ultra left. One day perhaps you will try to help another being in distress. And this may involve testifying in a court or before a bunch of government bureaucrats. And the outcome, which may ahve positive or catastrophic consequences for desperate people, may turn on whether you appear to these people in power as a reasonable and reliable good citizen with no agenda other than basic human decency, or the kind of person those people in power find scary and dismiss as a 'nutcase.'

You have not faced this situation, I gather. And this is why you are unable to understand why someone might wish to air their political views, often in person; and yet not wish to be able to be connected to themby name in a five second google search.

Scott Eric Kaufman

Since this conversation's bouncing all over the place now, I decided to repost this comment from Charlotte Street over here, as I think I was answering your reply as much as Matt and Mark's. Also, for the record, my contribution to the Theory's Empire event was, in essence, an apotheosis of a period in Critical Inquiry's history in which debates still ruled the day (as opposed to the agree-to-disagree sentiment so wide-spread today). That strikes me as an anti-anti-Theory position. Anyhow, I'll reply in more detail later, for, the repost:

The Critical Theory Insistute and Critical Theory Emphasis aren't Frankfurt at all. If you look at the CTI homepage (last updated 2002, which is why Derrida's still listed), you'll see that the roster is decidedly of the, um, Theory persuasion. A quick glance at the annual Wellek Lectures the CTI sponsors will back that up: Bhabha, Spivak, Baudrillard, Butler, Balibar, Iser, Hartman, Jameson, Cixous, Said, Lyotard, Derrida, &c. So I would say that these institutions make material what it is John wants to call Theory. To be honest, I'm not sure where I fall in this argument: I don't think the work that falls under the aegis of Theory constitutes a single body of (somewhat) intellectually consistent thought the way, say, Marxism once did. So in that sense, there's no programmatic thing called Theory to attack. At the same time, there is a thing called Theory--as witnessed by the fact that people claim to "do Theory," a locution I hear almost daily--and people seem to know what they mean when they say it. This may be a case of where both sides would be better served by some more specificity, but I do want to point out that the anti-Theory crowd aren't the only people who think that Theory is some thing. I think I'm with Matt on this one: before this conversation can continue, we need to figure out what Theory is, i.e. what set of discursive practices it represents (if it does at all).

What this tells me is that while it's seemingly uncontroversial for some people to refer to Theory as a coherent body of knowledge, as something they "do," whereas for others it's a polemically charged, politically motivated move to categorize a disparate body of work under the same opprobrious title. Problem is, I also think both these things are true: people do consider themselves "Theorists" in a way that they believe is meaningful, and "Theory" is in fact a collection of what, when considered as a whole, are philosophically incompatible theories. (For example, in a telling offhand remark during an otherwise incomprehensible lecture, Bhabha compared Theory to scrambled eggs: you can't tell where anything's come from but you know it's good for you.) Also, I think we should all recognize this disconnect and avoid dancing around it.


Interesting that you have 3 responses. Reminds of the fact that our discussion on long sunday ended with your 3 points.

Anyway, that's not particularly relevant. On Vico--neat quote. Not same thing as ideological symptom (or symptom in Freud, Marx, Lacan, or Zizek) but still nice point. Might be how you think of/define ideological symptom.

teevee: I don't think I've ever said that teevee disseminates philosophy. And, I agree that teevee is influential. In Z's words: ideology isn't hidden; it's obvious. No doubt part of the issue is the way teevee influences--viewing practices, habits of thoughts, particular contents, shutting down, turning on, etc.

Z's political activity as a liberal in Slovenia was in a very specific context. He ran for office at a time when everything was shifting, up for grabs, etc. That open situation changed very rapidly and with it political meanings also shifted. His book For They Know Not What They Do is very interesting on this point.

On fascism: yeah, this is complicated, especially when one takes seriously the shift in, say, Sorel. It's a real issue--probably one Z is aware of given his nazism v. stalinism meme. That he's aware doesn't mean the problem is solved--it isn't. And, I actually wonder if it can be, that is, if it possible to try to build a party or a unified movement without this sort of risk. I read his book on lenin as an effort to do this. This is why I think it is one of his most interesting. Differently put, Z's willingness to acknowledge this fundamental problem, the problem of what it would actually mean to take power and the impossible risks this opens up, is what separates him from, say, Badiou and Ranciere, and, I think, Agamben.


Scott, I think your setting out of an actual institution is really helpful and appropriate. And, it makes me see that insofar there is this institute established with this name that it has some goals and a project that may in some way unite or encompass a variety of methods. So, I can see criticizing this institute. I guess I can't see this as the same as theory (and here I probably disagree with you and Matt). Perhaps more helpful would be setting out the attributes of Theory that are so objectionable. See, I can't quite defend it in general terms because I don't see an it there. I can describe the it of political theory and defend that. I can't do the same with literary theory because I simply don't know the field.

On doing--I like Mark Kaplan's post on this. In my context of political science, to say that one does theory is to designate the subfield one is in (as opposed to American, IR, comparative). I don't know what it means in other contexts.


Alphonse, your number 4 came in as I was writing. How odd and rude that you would say things like 'one day perhaps you will help another being in distress' and it is likely I have not faced this situation. I have never criticized you for anonymity. So I find your comment really inappropriate.


Scott, I just checked out the link to CTI that you posed at Charlotte Street. It looks really interesting--the current project on security refers to Hobbes and Foucault and includes a variety of approaches to thinking modernity and social order. I've interacted in various ways with some of the folks on the faculty list--one, Bill Mahr, is in a collection I co-edited. He wrote a great critique of Hardt and Negri's Empire informed by terrific research on Islamic banking practices. What also seems valuable is the way CTI is organized around multiyear projects. So, what is the problem?


" On Vico--neat quote. Not same thing as ideological symptom (or symptom in Freud, Marx, Lacan, or Zizek) but still nice point. Might be how you think of/define ideological symptom."

Fairly obvious I think that this tradition beginning with Vico is that which I invoked. Vico is related to Marx, but not to psychoanalysis.

"I don't think I've ever said that teevee disseminates philosophy. And, I agree that teevee is influential. In Z's words: ideology isn't hidden; it's obvious. No doubt part of the issue is the way teevee influences--viewing practices, habits of thoughts, particular contents, shutting down, turning on, etc."

How does Z then achieve his immunity? And why is this acknowlegdement of tv's influence on other thinkers - you, me, everyone - legitimate if in general it is not legitimate?

What's 'a thinker'? Does this include everyone who thinks? I am making an observation about Z not so different from those Z himself occasionally makes about other beings that think.

"Z's political activity as a liberal in Slovenia was in a very specific context."

As opposed to the unspecific or less specific context in which other people's activity takes place? Does the specificity of the context absolve ALL the neoliberal politicians, ideologues and their patrons of the privatization of Slovenia, or only Z?

"He ran for office at a time when everything was shifting, up for grabs, etc."

Nonsense, sorry. Everything shifting? What could this mean? Up for grabs? How did everything come to shift, an earthequake? Who threw everything up for grabs - a deity? Everything (property relations) was made to shift, everything (public wealth) was wrenched up for grabs, by a clique to which Zizek belonged then and belongs now. Nobody could put the public equity up for sale - for grabs - except the recognized government. Zizek voluntarily assisted, for calculable rewards.

And he doesn't regret it. His justification is that seizing power - personally - even if only to do precisely what the person from whom you seized the power would have done, even if it is only to perform the exact function of power as pre-existed your seizure, is somehow laudable and a benefit to the commonweal. And in any case to actively oppose and seek to thwart the privatizaton of the Slovenian public kitty can only be knee-jerk 'anti Americanism.'


I did not intend Jodi to suggest you have never helped another person; but that you have obviously not done so in situations where a reputation of a certain sort - a reputation the knowlegde of your blog would com^promise - would be beneficial if not essential.


For example; you could not now successfully run for public office in the US, and at an asylum hearing in Britain or France, or in connection with a Green card application in the US, anything you said or wrote on behalf of an applicant would be considered suspect due to your well known political views. But you know this. So I am assuming this kind of stuff is not something you engage in.


How does Z then achieve his immunity? And why is this acknowlegdement of tv's influence on other thinkers - you, me, everyone - legitimate if in general it is not legitimate?

weird point--I was suggesting that 'influence' be specified more concretely; immunity wasn't at issue

What's 'a thinker'? Does this include everyone who thinks? I am making an observation about Z not so different from those Z himself occasionally makes about other beings that think.

again--what's your deal? I find this move particularly bizarre insofar as I offered possible points for what I would find more interesting discussion, namely, problems of power and fascism.

shifting and up for grabs meant collapse of one regime and emergence of multiple parties before selling off occurred. Z lost. up for grabs--product of rapid changes after 89. Z wasn't in the govt. You claim that his justification is that seizing power is for the common weal doesn't make any sense.


It is interesting to me that 'obscene enjoyment' doesn't figure in your analysis of Zizek's work for the neoliberal ruling party in Slovenia. It would seem to be an anecdote begging to be written in that style.


And, as I said, I've never attacked you for anonymity. Why, then, are you defending yourself? Why are you going on about 'reputation' and making all sorts of bizarre assumptions about my potential running for public office or work with people with Green cards?


"weird point--I was suggesting that 'influence' be specified more concretely; immunity wasn't at issue"

I specified the influence of television on zizek's product in considerable detail. It is your two word paraphrase of my remarks that is not specific. I'm sure you don't want me to repeat myself.

"I find this move particularly bizarre insofar as I offered possible points for what I would find more interesting discussion, namely, problems of power and fascism."

Jodi. Look again at your original post here. You hailed me. And at least then what apparently interested you was not fascism but the irritation you experience from visiting my blog.

"shifting and up for grabs meant collapse of one regime and emergence of multiple parties before selling off occurred. Z lost. up for grabs--product of rapid changes after 89. Z wasn't in the govt. You claim that his justification is that seizing power is for the common weal doesn't make any sense."

You seem to be under the impression that the extent of Z's connection to the ruling party was his run for office. This is not correct.

My claim regarding his justification is factual. Read it yourself. This was his justification when asked by a reporter how he justified his services to the ruling neoliberal clique in Slovenia. And no, it makes no sense whatsoever. But I'm not responsible for that.

"collapse of one regime and emergence of multiple parties before selling off occurred"

The passive voice hides a lot here. Perhaps you don't know what happened; perhaps you prefer to make it deliberately unclear. But this is not an intelligible account of the seperation of Slovenia from the FRY.


Just so you know, Alphonse, some day I plan to be President.


"And, as I said, I've never attacked you for anonymity. Why, then, are you defending yourself?"

Of course I am not anonymous to you so I can't be the object personally of your remarks on anonymity, recently and in the past. It follows then that my reply is not a self-defence, but a reply to your remarks on the subject.


I'll vote for you.


yep--the irritation is right. But that doesn't negate the fact that I offered another point of conversation. And, your points on anonymity were introduced not in the discussion of anonymity but in a diffent context, in which you had not been hailed.

On Z and the history--I read the books you suggested months ago, specifcally on the break up of the former Yugoslavia. And I have read Z's interviews, etc and don't share your interpretation. (Just like I disagreed, completely, with your reading of his statements on Jews and capital.)

Scott Eric Kaufman


I have no problem with the CTI--in fact, were I not currently dissertating, I'd probably take the last mini-seminar required for the full emphasis--I only pointed it out to counter your claim that Theorists don't self-identify with the monstrous label that is Theory. Many do; not only do many do, but they do so in a specific institutional context that belies the claim made by Robert (and possibly seconded by Mark) that criticisms of Theory necessarily entail a conservative political agenda. In other words--and reading over your comment at the Valve (where I may repost a variation of these comments) I now feel I can safely spring this argument without offense--I think that John's right to say that there is a collection of unrelated thought that goes by the name of Theory, and that it may go by that name to avoid the sort of honest scrutiny John and I wish to apply to it so that it might not have to deal with the sort of dishonest scrutiny brought by the Quine-o-phile who comments as The Troll of Sorrow. In other words, it's convenient and entirely reasonable (given the sorrowful trolls) to have defensively taken a position in which group identity can be asserted (in light of praise) and denied (in light of criticism). My job, then, is to convince you that I'm no sorrowful troll, and that my criticisms are honest...and the burden of proof is, in this case, on me.

I could say that, as an admittedly weak New Historicist, I owe debts to Foucault, and that those debts are part and parcel of my dismissal of psychoanalytic subjectivity and works which presuppose the existence of subjects as the product of psychoanalytic processes...but those are the assumptions behind my work, not my work itself. This, of course, is my way of saying that one of the key differences between literary studies and Theory proper is that our commitments are less theoretical than a set of enabling constraints (and are often chosen because of other commitments we already have). These are cursory comments, however, and I'll need to refine them as the day progresses; but let me state that so far I've found this exchange--here, there, over there, and at those other places as well--on the subject far more enlightening than any I've had in quite some time, and I hope that it continues to be so, for all parties. (In other words, if I unintentionally spout something truly offensive, I hope you'll take the time to correct instead of dismiss me.)


"On Z and the history--I read the books you suggested months ago, specifcally on the break up of the former Yugoslavia."

And from them you surely did not derived the perception that the FRY 'collapsed' without the help of the Slovenian nationalists and their international sponsors.

"yep--the irritation is right. But that doesn't negate the fact that I offered another point of conversation"

True. And here i am replying to your comments more or less line by line. But the thing about a conversation is, you can only control one side of it. You say what you have to say, I say what I have to say. In this context, anyhow.

I notice your replies are often sort of comments on the appropriateness of my choice of utterance and subject matter. Rather rarely do you reply directly to the content of what I have said. You treat my conribution more often as puzzling gestures than propositions or questions. Often it is 'what sort of maneuver are you making?' Almost like a certain sort of shrink.

This suggests to me an uneasiness with how much my side of the conversation is out of your control. So yes, you suggested to me what parts of your comments I should discuss rather than those I preferred to. And in this case I declined to take up your suggestion. If this is irritating it is probably better for you not to intiate conversations with me, as it is unlikely that my side of a dialogue will be any more manageable in future.


re comments box discussion:

'From a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached'.


"on Jews and capital"

I haven't remarked on statements from Zizek about Jews. What I remarked on were statements about the 'the Jews' which appears in Zizeks work from time to time, a personification of a variant of the Lacanian description of Talmudic Judaism, to which entity Zizek attributes the actions of capitalists in Israel/Palestine.


B--I am completely intrigued. What is that point? How does one know when one reaches it?

Alphonse--sometimes I reply directly, sometimes I ask questions. Sometimes I am inclined to address your points. Sometimes I am not. As you say, conversations are not within the control of one person.


Scott, glad to hear from you. I expect that this conversation will take place elsewhere but will go ahead and reply, to a bit of your latter paragraph first. I recall a nifty collection I think edited by Greenblatt from a few years ago--terrific stuff. I enjoyed the essays I read. My closest friends are Foucauldians, primarily because they share your skepticism regarding the 'subject' of psychoanalysis. Now, I think Z provides an interesting alternative (the subject is the lack in the structure), but this is really outside the terrain of this discussion. Maybe at another point, after some of the air is cleared around the 'theory' discussion, it would be a good idea to consider theories of the subject, critiques of these theories, critiques of the notion of subject, etc.

On the substance of your point: there is a collection of thinkers and works that goes by the name of theory; this collection is the referent of the term; hence, a critique of theory is a plausible enterprise. I hope this is a fair reduction. I don't mean it to be narrow or trivial, I'm just trying to be clear. My basic questions here are twofold: is the term theory standing in for poststructuralism? if so, should the discussion be about poststructuralism? if not, does liberal theory fit in the category? if liberal theory doesn't, is it because of the practice/position of those within theory (like, posties exclude liberals?)? or is there a difference in thinking, method, modes of inquiry that is significant here and needs to be brought out, explored?

Timothy Burke

"No matter what one intends, one's position can be allied and is generally allied in ways beyond one's choosing."

Let's leave aside the deep waters about intentionality and agency that this statement swims in, because it's certainly a true statement on multiple levels. Let's just go with it.

Let's ask first, "doesn't this statement perform precisely the levelling that Scott performs on theory and anti-theory, from another angle of attack? Why are those who pronounce anti-theory complicit in much of what they do not choose or intend, and yet theory itself is safely in association with that which it chooses as its associates"? This has always been one of the things that historicist flavors of high theory have exempted themselves from: an explanation of their ability to inhabit contradiction in such a way that they achieve a high-ground view of the landscape around them which is afforded no one else.

The deeper problem here is something Scott has been pretty merciless about at his own blog and The Valve: a meaningful reading of alliances made and alliances broken requires fidelity to those tools of analytic social science and historicism that theory (poststructuralist and otherwise) mostly abjures or uses in a mood of romantic bemusement. To say, "You have done that which you did not intend; your speech is allied with that which you did not seek", requires a kind of account of the political world (even the abstract world of intellectual politics) which systematically rejects the what Scott has called the "platformness" of theoretical declarations (poststructuralist or otherwise) which refuse to come donw into the world and become incarnate flesh.

Scott Eric Kaufman

Jodi, I've got the two essays on Zizek, and I'll read them and get back to you (though not until tomorrow, as rested brains make for better thinking). As for whether theory, in an institutional sense, stands in for poststructuralism, while I'm not necessarily the best person to ask, that'd seem to invoke egress to and from frying pans and fires. Deleuze and Lacan have about as little in common as too thinkers can, but both are considered theorists and poststructuralists, no?

I'm thinking out-loud here, but here's what I think is the heart of my objection to many of the theoretical works I read:

Derrida's rigorous beyond the telling of it and occasionally playful. Hillis is a little less rigorous, but much more playful. The people I sat next to in Derrida and Hillis' seminar weren't at all rigorous, but plenty playful, i.e. facile, unconstrained and pretentious. (It's no coincidence my contribution to the Theory's Empire event turned into a paean for Hillis.) What I value in scholarship is rigor, and the random eclecticism I often encounter in works self-identifying as theory aren't rigorous and often repeating tired anti-Enlightenment cliches. One of the few scholars I know who's really invested in Zizek and Lacan, Julia Lupton, consistently balked in seminars when students would theorize wildly; in her work, however, she's careful to discuss the debts of the thinkers in question, the way in which their thought has been appropriated, &c. But when I read journal articles which consist of strings of undigested theoretical "facts," I balk. I suppose I'm expanding my idea of theory being an institutional beast to incorporate my earlier claim, on Matt's site, that it's also a particular mind-set, an approach to scholarly discourse and production whose playfulness strikes me as an inadequate substitute for the rigor not of some early, pre-theoretical Golden Age of Solid and Stolid Thought, but of the work on which they base their playfulness. Derrida was playful, but rigorously so. (Admission: when Zizek came to Irvine to lecture on Kieslowski's Blue, White and Red, I found his playfulness not to my liking either. But if you insist there's worth to it, I'll give it another chance.) Anyhow, this response is probably incoherent and over-long; I promise something more, more, uh, more better tomorrow.

(Side note: if you wanted to psychologize my reaction to theory, you could easily do so. You could say that I reject the still un- or underdetermined it because it authorized the sloppiest thought of my life. Granted, I continued to study theory for my first three years of graduate school, but that's neither here nor there. Anyhow, this may amuse you:


And yes, that's an angry, unfair and spiteful caricature, but it's of me. What I've come to recognize in the past months was that just because theory can--and in my experience at Irvine, often does, although Irvine's a bit different--authorize such incoherent nonsense doesn't mean it necessarily has to.)

Timothy Burke

Sorry, just noticed I missed out on the neologism: it's "platformLESSness" that's the issue.


TB--thanks for the comments. I'll start with your first para and then come back (gotta drive kids to art camp). I have 2 points about context:

1--no one is outside it or immune to it, so so-called theory positions are just as situated as so-called anti-theory; in the US, a left-right politics has built up around this; this does not reduce either side to these politics, it's simply part of their institutional contexts--I can even imagine in playing out differently on different campuses; one can describe these contexts, but the descriptions and the describing remain embedded, which leads me to

2--contexts are not whole: they can't be completely described from outside (no bird's eye view, no neutral description); to describe them is to describe them from within, and from a position; also, the very describing is part of constitution--this is perhaps the major reason I don't think that my account of the context of anti-theory is reductive.

I'll close with a little example: debates on the left around cultural studies; all sorts of economic marxist and Nation/ Dissent types hate cultural studies. They aren't right wing at all. For the most part, they are not situated on college campuses, either, so they have a different angle into/on debates around culture and multiculturalism. Furthermore, at the level of national institutional politics, the Right has been much more effective in culture war than the left. They work to change terms, images, symbols, in a kind of remarkable 'best practice' of Gramscian theory.

At any rate, I hope this helps clarify why thinking about the context of current debates/polemics does not reduce these debates or the positions within them to their contexts. It's simply another mode of approach, another variable or factor to enter the mix.


"Alphonse--sometimes I reply directly, sometimes I ask questions. Sometimes I am inclined to address your points. Sometimes I am not. As you say, conversations are not within the control of one person."

Precisely. I don't think I have ever presumed to give you advice on how to express yourself or on what, chosen the role of referee of the dialogue and cried 'foul' instead engaging the content of your remarks, 'psychologized' you, in the vein lampooned in Kaplan's notes on rhetoric ,until this comment for parodic effect, distorted your remarks in paraphrase or misquotation, nor attributed your remarks to someone else for convenience to a contention. This is not true for you. The thing is, you are hammering away at this wishing I would stop talking about Zizek, as if he were your uncle from the old country who deserves sympathy on account of his mad cow disease. I don't wish I could control what you say on your blog, why are you so determined to try to influence the content mine?


TB--on your second para. This one is harder for me to address, probably because I am in political science department. That is, I don't disagree that a proper discussion of context needs an account of the political world and that there are different tools that social scientists use to provide this. My sense is that mainstream political science, however, doesn't put much stock in Foucauldian methods (genealogy, archaeology) which can be useful here or in discourse analysis (ala Laclau and Mouffee) which are also helpful. But maybe I am missing your point?


Scott, thanks for the link to your past. Your abstract was pretty funny and the elaboration even better--a window back to the frenzied days of cyborg mania. In the movie version, hair and clothes would also mark the period. It may well be that little good comes from emulating the language/jargon of Haraway, Butler, and Irigaray. It may also be the case (and this is what I think) that their contributions to thinking about how concepts work (like the binaries you list, say, or the performative production of identity, which, actually seems to me to be an updating of ideas well explored by Aristotle's account of becoming habituated to virtue in the Nicomachean Ethics) have been helpful. The problem (which you parody so well) is when folks just parrot their moves, their gestures.

I wonder whether there is something particular about postie jargon that leads to sloppiness or whether multiple styles of thinking can be copied with little originality and rigor. For example, I have some early graduate school papers where I write like analytic political theorists, specifically Robert Nozick. I have nifty hypotheticals--but none so good as his discussion of justifiable killing in terms of innocent people being dropped on top of someone trapped in the bottom of a well with a ray-gun. And, I can't recall what I argued, something about free rider problems I think.

I appreciate your reading the Zizek articles--especially given that you are dissertating right now and they are likely outside your areas of interest and concern.

I agree that saying theory=poststructuralism is likely to open a can of worms. But, this seems to me to be because the term is so sloppily applied. I do like, however, your attention to institutional practices--this seems to me at present anyway the clearest way to talk about things. As you say, Deleuze and Lacan are pretty different. Some would argue that Lacan remains a kind of modernist insofar as he remains committed to notions of universality and the subject. Others would say that Deleuze continues a trajectory of thought part of modernity, Spinoza, but not reducible to conventional accounts of it. Either way, categorizing them and using the categories as reasons to accept or reject doesn't strike me as particularly fruitful. More fruitful might be asking whether one finds Deleuze's notions of molar and molecular identities (I may have this wrong) analytically helpful or whether Lacan's objet petit a is silly matheme for nothing (which, subtracting silly, is actually what it is, like a zero).

Maybe on a different front: I try to keep the following in mind--just because one can express an idea in Lacanese doesn't mean one should.

Finally, playfulness. Back in the early 90s I went on a tirade against irony and playfulness. I was sick of 'gestures' for their own sake. Later, in a different context, I appreciated very much the clear arguments of Benn Michaels (is the book Our America?). And, then, I started to reflect on the way debate coaches train kids with specific tools--what to use to counter deontological claims, how to critique utilitarianism, the limits and practices of rights, the categorical imperative, etc. And, this has added up to a sense of what I call 'monkey tricks"--namely, arguments thrown out for the heck of it, rhetorical strategies employed because one knows how to do it. And I think that various methods and disciplines have their own tricks and that thinking requires using these tricks, knowing them, and ultimately, trying as best one can to leave them behind and think past and beyond them.

Timothy Burke

What I'm referring back to is Scott's remarks about the mobility of a cultural studies/theory sense of the politics: its "left" is not any kind of socially incarnated left (save the social habitus of the constituencies drawn to the writing and consumption of theory, which is semi-effaced in the writing of such work). Its sense of left-ness is derived from a mutable, shifting search of representational space for transgression, liminality, culture-war, contestation, whereupon sides are taken, tents are pitched, and a left posture affirmed.

I'm not so much taking the posture here of the pragmatists or Nation/Dissent sorts, because I enjoy, teach and practice cultural studies. But I recognize that a lot of what sustains it as an intellectual practice is its ludic character on one hand and on the other a fairly sober empiricist justification: that what is human is worth studying. Plus, if done in an unvarnished, cleanly-communicative style, it actually has the potential to usefully address the ham-fistedness of American intellectuals within the public sphere that offers so many avenues of entry for the populist right.

To me the incessant drive to proclaim the left-ness of cultural studies is unreflective and performative: it's one-part emulationism of the British academy, one-part a sheepish answer to the hangover ghost of high-culture literary studies (that we should study popular culture because it embodies a politics which is of grave importance to a left strategy). This is also what sabotages the potential of cultural studies for forging connections between consuming audiences, popular culture, the public sphere and academic writing: the incessant drive to align popular culture with the left (or the equal and opposite impulse, to ferret out culture-industry strategies of hegemony-building) produces accounts of popular culture that are unrecognizable and distorted. Which is one of the things that then brings the Thomas Frank brigade down upon the head of cultural studies and theory.

(BTW, I recognize that this may look like an oblique critique of Aliens in America and I don't want to give that impression too stridently. While AIA does have some of the issues that I've described here, I also very much like the book and have found its general argument on conspiracy theory useful in a variety of ways.)


TB--I don't disagree with anything that you've said. I share your criticism and practice of cultural studies--and tried to express some of this in the intro to Cultural Studies and Political Theory (which I updated with discussions of Stuart Hall and British cultural studies for the Oxford Handbook of Political Theory). The contributors to that collection deal specifically with the lack of actual politics in American cultural studies.

Thanks for your nice words on Aliens. I didn't think your were criticizing it specifically in your remarks. I've been told that I overstate the political significance of UFO belief in the book. I actually think that I qualify it pretty carefully. But, it was part of a moment when folks were making everything but, say, the economy and the decline of political parties, into politics so the criticism may be generally apt.

Timothy Burke

Ok, but the upshot of this is that casual talk about the alignments or alliances of this-or-that intellectual position, chosen or unchosen, is part of the problem, the anxiety with fixing the location of intellectual discourse on a known political grid. If theory is on the left, that has as much to do with the everyday sociological habitus of humanistic academics as anything "in" theory itself, and the anti-theorists of the Valve or Theory's Empire aren't really sociologically particularly different from the humanistic academics who practice theory. So in this case there's nothing in the on-the-paper content of "anti-theory" that marks it off as anti-leftist and nothing in the anti-theorists themselves that does so either. Making a move that suggests that "larger political currents" ally the critique of theory against its own choice or choosing with some other politics is exactly the kind of platformlessness that Scott is concerned about, a pounding of round pegs into preordained square holes. The reality of a lot of the discussion strikes me as being more about the nature of academic professionalism, scholarly culture and practice, the evolving institution of the university, the place of intellectuals in public discourse--not issues that are without political relevance, but issues which do not map well or directly onto the grand theater of "left" vs. "right". Many of the defenders of theory resist this relative banalization of the "debate" because the stakes are suddenly more modest. I do think high theory of the 1980-1990s variety suffers more in that shift because its self-representations were so inclined to enormous inflation of its own importance (here I clearly agree with some of the contributors to Theory's Empire). The conflation of theory with "the left" is a part of that strategy, which I really do think has its first and last explanation within the academy itself, as a part of guild careerism in a tight labor market. If the theory/anti-theory debate is just a more modest set of questions about a certain kind of work of professional interpretation or analysis, the professional prospects of theory suffer more than most anti-theory, and so theory is more anxious to make a move to claim anti-theory has political associations and ambitions beyond whatever modest horizons it marks off for its own.

This is essentially my feeling about cultural studies as well (and maybe, to a small degree, some of the gestures and strategies of AIA): that there's a disproportionality as well as a platformlessness, sometimes gravely so, in the way that the political is attached to or claimed for intellectual work itself and for the subjects of intellectual work. That texts and social practices alike can be interesting, important, worth talking about and studying, without being all that and a bag of chips, without lying at the central axis of or foundation of a social order or a political struggle. Everything has politics in it, but maybe many things are not defined by their enmeshment in the political. To some extent this is what I read both some of the Valve writers and some of the Theory's Empire authors as saying about literary texts: that maybe the job of criticism is not to map their political coordinates but to deal with the meanings, pleasures and circulations of literature as literature, to worry less about (and be less bombastically certain of) what "politics" or effects a text has in the world. Certainly that's the way I think about much popular culture, and what I'd like to see cultural studies do as well: to not hang its head down when accused of somehow selling out the British cultural studies model, but shrug indifferently at the accusation and move right along.



From my first little post on this subject, my concern has been with the 'event' of the Theory's Empire book, not with the book. And, by the event, I had in mind blog discussion and, more importantly, discussions I've been having with English professors, with their perceptions. And, the issue for me has been, given that critique of poststructualist theory and cultural studies has been coexistent with and in some instance even constitutive of its practice, why were people talking about this book, what was making it into an event. My thesis has been that external factors/contexts made the book an event (this was my post on what's so scary about theory).

Evolving nature of the university and practice of scholarship are, particularly now, part of large scale political struggles. The Right has been actively organizing and recruiting students, passing legislation to guarantee that conservatives will be hired, that those teaching in Middle Eastern studies will be 'fair,' etc. This is part of the culture war of the last 20 years, but also taken to new levels. I have noticed a difference in my classrooms since 9/11, one that is hard to pin down, but one that asserts faith over reason more often than before.

Also, Paul emphasizes in his comment to the scary theory thread the problem of the identity of English departments and how this overlaps with indequacies in political science. Political science becomes apolitical, doing all sorts of numbers. English comes in filling this gap, but then not doing either politics or English particularly well.

Thinking about your last para: the way I put it in the cultural studies and political theory intro is something like, nothing is automatically political but anything can be politicized, something like that; so, the idea is that the political is not an ontological category, that political isn't an essence or attribute inhering in an object but that politicization is an act or practice that changes spaces, claims, identities, issues into something else, in Laclau's terms, that universalizes the particular. If I were to write Aliens today, which, actually, I wouldn't, I'd have a different way of analyzing the practices of the UFO community, the relation of these practices to the production of alien-related commodities, entertainment, consumption experiences, and the political self-understanding of those within the community (particularly those using the FOI to get 'evidence' and those who explicitly describe their experiences in political terms--I do this some already). I think that the historical chapters, particularly the one on the space program and the one drawing from the congressional record and the Betty and Barney Hill material, remain pretty strong.

Timothy Burke

"My thesis has been that external factors/contexts made the book an event."

I think this statement exemplifies what concerns me in the whole discussion, and about the comment that positions can be made allied beyond one's choosing, beyond one's intent. Because here I think we see a kind of "will to interpretation", an ability to read a discrete event, conversation, text or statement for anything the reader needs it to be. There's a middle ground between saying the political is ontological, "really there", and saying it is whatever it is that you see it as or need it to be. There's a lot of fitting of corpuses to procrustean beds going on.

Think of all the causal possibilities, most of them easily investigated without epistemological fretting, about how a book becomes an event within academic blogs. Jared Diamond's book became an "event" at almost the same time. Some of this is just experiments in form: academic bloggers have been experimenting with organized "symposia" on particular books or articles for about a year now. I think one thing people have learned is that you achieve a critical mass of conversation only when you invest a lot of coordinating labor going in, get some cross-blog conversation going on: many book "events" have died quietly, or been confined to conversation between a few participants. If you class the TE discussion in the context of an evolving genre, suddenly the "event" looks less exceptional, less gravely inscribed into some kind of politics of contagion, and more merely an event where the coordinator (Holbo) invested more effort in drawing in participants. The humdrum details of how an event happens simply drop out as uninteresting here because they cannot be made meaningful in some grand way.

But perhaps Holbo also picked a book sagely to speak to a kind of discourse that has been steadily sustained by many academic bloggers about the discontents of academic life in the humanities. But here too you reach far outside the actualities of the discourse, which I would say probably had its clearest genesis at the Invisible Adjunct's site. From there, you got a lot of different vectors pointing outward, but there's an internal dynamic to the "event"'s rooting in the genre of its expression whose connections to the grand theaters of culture war in the public sphere exist but are tenuous and particular rather than generalized and hazy.

The specificity of blogging, the expressed content of the blogs, is kind of treated in your view as epiphenomenal to some larger, unmoored thing: the dial is at zero or sixty, with the closest thing in between being the overarcing sociology of particular academic disciplines. I think this is what concerns me so much about this and similar conversations: not only that they lack any interest in exegetical work, but that the kinds of "readings in" of the political take place always in terms of things "hard to pin down". That there are such things, that the geist is a slippery customer to talk about but a very real thing, I quite agree: we sense changes in our intellectual, institutional, and cultural environments the way a frog slowly boiling to death might become aware of another degree of heat. We're not quite sure what is different but something it is. But wanting to talk about that shouldn't free us from more modest, more situated, more ordinarily attentive descriptions and explanations of the sights and sounds which catch our attention.


As I said, for me, the event was not limited to a blog discussion. As you do, so do I recognize current efforts in creating events and that they can fail (but it;'s not an event if nobody comes). Contexts aren't closed so to describe them is to take a position on them.

Those who enjoy more modest exegetical discussions should go for at--as they clearly do and are. It's not all or nothing, as you say. For my part, as I said back at the Valve, I think Scott and Luther had some terrific points for specifying the 'theory' discussion. My view has been that the term is too broad to be useful, so I turned to a contextual analysis to consider its appeal. Those who find it analytically useful, I expect, are out there analytically using it.


"But wanting to talk about that shouldn't free us from more modest, more situated, more ordinarily attentive descriptions and explanations of the sights and sounds which catch our attention."

Right. Except that there was absolutely nothing either modest or stupendously original about the lines being pushed (or is that ruts being deepened) by the likes of Holbo, McCann, Morris, or D. Patai.

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