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August 06, 2005


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This hits the nail on the head in so many ways. You are right to link the Theory's Empire controversy both to the economic instabilities of academia, and to the way the thrill of being "transgressive" now entirely fuels the repressive re-affirmation of the dominant culture. The only thing puzzling about it to me is why now? -- since the whole debate was something we already went through in the early 1990s.

I'd only add that, in English and other humanities departments at least, a big part of the anti-theory movement is a sort of (pardon my French) rappel a l'ordre: an attempt to enforce the idea that the only legitimate work of such departments is to offer more close readings of canonical texts. I am inclined to think -- heretically, I know, for someone in an English department -- that, while it is undoubtably a good thing to teach students to read and comprehend Shakespeare and Jane Austen, there is nothing the world needs less than the publication of more close readings of Shakespeare and Austen, done in a solipsistic way that ignores everything external to the text.


thanks so much for your comment! (I laughed out loud with the pardon my french!)

The why now--good question. I'm inclined to think that it is the changed political climate since 9/11 or perhaps the war in Iraq. The right has taken the battle over culture to the universities--again (David Horowitz and all that crap). It could be that we won the first round in the 90s--that is, we won the battle over multiculturalism, changing curricula etc. But, the war wasn't over. So, new right wing battle creates environment for old debates. Precisely those folks who rail against the failure of theory to say anything new bring up old arguments in a new setting to sound fresh, to seem alternative. in the 90s, they really sounded like racists, homophobes, mysognynists. In the new climate, prepared by and through the culture wars, they sound (at least to themselves) as refreshing, conservative in a new-improved way.

And, I fully agree re Austen and Shakespeare. I also agree re readings of film, television, and Hegel. What tends to interest me the most is what a reading connect with, why it's important, or, to use the cliche, how it answers the so-what question.

Scott Eric Kaufman

The Theory's Empire debate on the Valve hasn't been reductive at all; at least, it hasn't struck me as reductive...and the majority of the contributors have taken pains to avoid that reduction. Matt's post links, for example, links to Amardeep's excellent reevaluation of postcolonial criticism; note, that's "reevaluation" not "dismissal." My own contribution, which I've linked around the block a few times too many already, discusses the difference between what passes for theoretical "debate" now and what appeared in one of my field's flagship journals, Critical Inquiry, in the '70s. In other words, you've reduced the TE event to an anti-theoretical polemic as reductive as the reduction of which you complain. For example, there's been precious little of this:

The Right promises a transgressive thrill of racism, sexism, nationalism: enjoy excluding! enjoy 'returning' to the true values, the true text, before it was corrupted by all these women and ethnically identified or figured people, when it was really English and American literature.

The easy equation of those who would critique theoretical positions with the "thrill of racism, sexism, nationalism" is cheap rhetoric, but a staple of the anti-anti-theory crowd. The idea that certain textual practices necessarily entail a particular politics has been refuted on numerous occasions by the likes of Walter Benn Michaels and some fellow named Derrida.

The charges of intellectual inferiority and laziness are equally baseless, to wit: I don't find Hardt and Negri convincing not because I'm too dense and too lazy to read a difficult work like Empire; I don't find them convincing because I read Empire and I don't find them convincing. I apologize for the tone of my response, because I don't want it to shut down the debate, so I'll wrap this up.

Your contention that job-market anxieties drives anti-theory sentiments doesn't work for me because job scarcity tends to create a situation in which novelty becomes the standard, and novelty, as you mention later, isn't a "conservative" value. (I need to think more about this, however.) Second, endemic to conversations of this sort are the questions never asked: Why Zizek? Why should I invest a substantial amount of time and energy with him in particular? What is it about not studying Zizek in particular that makes me anti-intellectual? And why is the burden of proof always on the person who hasn't read Zizek? Why shouldn't the person who has shoulder the burden of presenting why Zizek should be read?

Alright, I'm going to apologize again for the irritated (and no doubt irritating) tone. I do think this is a conversation worth having...which is why I currently seem to be having it, with everyone, everywhere, all the time.

Scott Eric Kaufman

Also, let me reiterate: sorry about the tone, but on Mark's site I'm being hounded by Some Guy for, well, I don't know what for, since I'm guilty of exactly none of the charges he's brought against me.


Why "Zizek"?

Isn't it the case that a proper name reaches a threshold that is un/just easier to read some interviews --and Zizek's are more interesting than some-- than to hold out ?

I don't know. Mind you, I'm not offering a defense of Zizek. I'm testing the sense of proper names.

(Oh: But, I've gotta mention that I found it friggin' hilarious that in Z's recent interview collection he is asked about what book he would choose to be stranded on a desert island with. --Isn't this the question of the im/proper name par excellence!-- and ol' Z's response is a classic of its kind: Ayn Rand's -Fountainhead-

"Without question!"



For whatever it's worth, I liked this paragraph from Amardeep's post especially:

"Many prominent literary theorists – Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller, and Jonathan Culler chief among them – scarcely fit the stereotype of politically correct, canon-leveling philistine that is often associated [as in, in this anthology] with the ‘Theory’ of the early 1990s.

But full contextual documentation is probably too much to ask from an anthology [well, maybe not full, but perhaps *some* should be in order], especially one that has a polemical program alongside its historical, recuperative one. Like other polemical ‘theory’ anthologies, including The Empire Writes Back and Fear of a Queer Planet, Theory’s Empire will be remembered more for its title and for its editors’ introduction than for their specific choices or the arrangement of essays.

Big anthologies like the ones mentioned mark events in the academic life-cycle. But what is the event here? No one is advocating going back to a pre-political or pre-linguistic New Criticism; no, the effects of French theory have been dispersed too widely for that to be feasible, even if it might be desirable for some. Some are talking about depoliticization, and some are arguing for less ‘culture’, more literature. All are legitimate demands, though it might be that what is really wanted is something other than what is asked for – not less politics, but a more balanced and thoughtful kind of politics; not less culture, but a different kind of culture."

Which all sounds a bit over-the-top optimistic to me, given the reception to individual essays in the blogosphere. Still such a balanced and forthright appraisal of this project stands almost diametrically opposed to the larger stated ambitions of others, it seems to me. But unfortunately, as Amardeep points out, it's the stereotypes and polemics that rule the day with this sort of affair.

Finally, if this has nothing at all to do with Zizek, or Derrida, but only with bad applications of bad applications of these thinkers, why is it necessary to keep mentioning their names like so?


sorry, "reception of"
I have in mind Berube and Kotsko in particular (both of whom, it should be said, admirably sidestep this whole inflamatory question of agendas to a large degree, and instead deal with specific essays directly.) But this profitable "tension" between polemic and mixed bag of essays is still worth noting, as Berube does, as an aspect of the anthology itself.

Scott Eric Kaufman

Matt, I chose Zizek because she said Jodi had a stack of 15 books by him sat on her table taunting her. And I like Amardeep's optimism, even if I too wonder whether it's sustainable.

Scott Eric Kaufman

Wow, the first sentence of my comment got totally mangled. Not sure how that happened, but it should read: "Matt, I chose Zizek because she said she had a stack of 15 books by him taunting her frmo the table." That's what it said in my head when I wrote it. (Too much time on the dissertation today's created some kind of disconnect between brain and fingers, I guess.)


Thanks Scott, I don't mean to nit-pick, really, but in that paragraph of yours mentioning Zizek you certainly seemed to imply that something or other was "endemic to conversations of this sort" and I'm wondering if you could expand on that at all, including the bit about the "burden of proof", when you happen to get the chance.


Excellent post, and far more gracious than I would have been if I had time to read the related posts, I'm sure. I just have no patience for graduate students, and especially professors, who profess their desire, or anti-desire, for ignorance. Why get into the profession, why claim to profess, if one doesn't want to challenge one's thought, one's way of being? Whynot just do the authentic thing, and become a bureaucrat?

That's what's so horrifying to me about becoming an `academic', with all the administration, and - let's not mince words - ass-kissing it entails. Especially these days, in that long and arduous hope for tenure, when one can't say anything remotely political, or even theoretical, without fear of expulsion, abjection of oneself, into the nether-world of one-year contracts. I'm wondering if there could be anything more obscene than that, claiming to profess while keeping silent. To the extent this becomes unbearable, of course, one molds oneself into the silent animal demanded of you.

One becomes functionary. D(r)ead. Undead.


Thanks for your comments. My remarks are trying to get at the 'eventness' of the collection. Lots of collections are published every year. Only some collections become events. (I've edited 3--none of which were events!) What is it that makes an event--of a collection or monograph--has more to do with its setting than its content. So, I was thinking about the setting of current anti-theory talk. As Steven Shaviro says in his comment: why now? The arguments are not new; many have been raised for years.

You are probably right that the articles in the book and the debate on the Valve have been rich and interesting. Again, though, what seems important to me is the way debates move and travel and signify/link to other concerns and anxieties.

Sure textual practices don't automatically link to a politics. I agree here. Nevertheless, in Britain and the US, a politics has been associated with certain politics; it has been built up around it and championed by its practioners (I've also critically examined this seemingly automatic link myself, in one of the aforementioned non-eventful collections).

From my experience, novely and innovation is not prized in the job market, particularly at the level of assistant professors. What is prized is good schools, great recommendations, and publications. Publications for graduate students and assistant professors are only rarely new and novel. The good ones tend to make clear arguments and occupy a well-established terrain.

On anti-intellectualism: part of my comments were meant to draw attention to the ways that only certain theorists are held out as problematic, as generative of lousy scholarship, when surely this practice is much more widespread.

On Zizek--as with any thinker, I don't think there is a 'should' to engagement. Much depends on one's training, program, and research interests. I was trained in a certain Western history of political thought--from ancient Greeks, through Rome, through Christianized Europe, up through contemporary Europe and the US (the West traveling west). What impacted me was critical theory and Marxism; I was less thrilled with Foucault but had to read it all because of debates at the time. Etc, etc--my point is that these things are matters of taste and contingency: I like reading Zizek more than Derrida. That easy. And, I think that the critical tradition says more about our contemporary condition than liberal thought. So, these are my answers to why Zizek.

What my post was trying to get at is 'why an anti-theory move now'? With what larger issues and concerns does this resonate/coincide?


Actually, I am now concerned that there is something disingenous in my response, something about politics, but I can't quite put my finger on it. I'll use an example and then see what happens: I don't read much Deleuze and I certainly don't read him systematically. Most of my knowledge of Deleuze comes from secondary sources (Badiou, Zizek, some American political theorists heavily influenced by Deleuze). Yet, I am against Deleuze and Deleuzian approaches in a nearly visceral way. They make me crazy--and I think my reaction is nonsense, nevertheless I fully accept and embrace it. I hate the reductive ontology; I hate the failure to acknowledge antagonism; I hate the rejection of the unconscious; and I really, really hate the way the theory operates as an apologia for global capital.

So, for me, this is much more than taste and contingency. And, perhaps what I was trying to get at in the original post are what I see as the underlying political/economic politics of ressentiment that make anti-theory into some kind of drive.

Paul Passavant

I have to apologize in advance for an ignorance regarding the latest round of the anti-theory polemics and much of the conversation in blog world regarding this. But having been exposed to Jodi's post... well, let's just say I could be wrong, but here goes....

It seems to me that Jodi is onto something--that we have to look at this move in context. I think a couple things that Jodi alludes to could be elaborated on further: 1. the crisis in English Dept's, 2. a problem in Political Science, and 3. the relation between the two in the academy. I also think the 'theory question' comes across differently depending on the disciplinary context.

1. The crisis in English. A colleague of mine sat on a search cmte for a hire in an English dept and bemoaned the job talks. What I took from this was a pervasive, but not necessarily rigorous, influence of 'theory' to produce presentations that seemed to be analogous to Flaubert: stylistically, the presentation sounded 'cool' and 'smart' (even beautiful?) but ultimately left one wondering what exactly the pay off was. Was there an argument? I think English departments are going through an identity crisis. I think this crisis could be interesting and productive (many of my first year students are not fluent in English but they have no other language -- a problem captured brilliantly by the novel Feed), but unfortunately the way it seems to be playing out is that , as Jodi hinted at, the anti-theory position is generative of a return to English qua project of nationalism. That is, a return to the discipline's unfortunate roots rather than a more interesting exploration of a crisis/ identity question.

2. English isn't all to blame for their crisis. Political Science, in its increased attempts since the 1950s and 1960s to be ever more 'scientific' (the behavioralism turn; formal modelling) has sacrificed the study of politics. Thus, others (Cultural Studies, English) have sought to enter the vacuum thus created. Unfortunately, this has meant some have sought to pick up themes (citizenship, theories of justice, etc) that have had discussion and elaboration for over a millenia after having just read a book or two on the subject. Needless to say, some of this just comes off as dabbling to those who have had rigorous, disciplinary training on the subjects in question. In other words, there has been an over 2000 year old conversation on some of these subjects and then you get someone from English who says something without having followed the conversation (and I hate it when I've had a long conversation with someone at a party and then some interloper shows up at the end and seeks to say something that had been covered by us 20 minutes earlier). There is a huge and growing gap between 'theory' in Political Science and the discipline's other subfields. And theory in Poli Sci has come under fire for being 'too political' or for challenging the assumptions necessary for allowing the other subfields of Poli Sci to get on mindlessly with their work. And this is also why the boring and banal liberal-communitarian debate was one of the few theoretical inquiries that could gain a good housekeeping stamp of approval from the discipline -- it wasn't all that challenging, politically speaking.

3. With the sacrifice of things political within the discpline of Political Science, this has been taken up by those not necessarily well trained to take these matters up. And it has given rise to questions -- like is this political or is it English? And I believe that this is a vector for some of the anti-theory debate -- a debate that has different resonances depending on whether we are talking about English Depts or Political Science, but I believe that a crisis in Political Science has fueled, in turn, a crisis in English and that is being refracted today, in part, as the crisis over 'theory' in English Depts.


The answer to the 'why now?' is that I saw there was a new anthology coming out - it looked good - so I decided to pick it. It could very easily have been "The Literary Wittgenstein" first. Instead it went second. (Had it been the other way, would you then have been asking: why now, when scholars have noticed Wittgenstein's literary qualities as early as the 1960's?)

You grant, in responding to Scott, that the debate has been "rich and interesting". Doesn't that sort of deflate the 'why now?' balloon.

As to 'didn't all this get settled in the early 90's?' The short answer is: your post sort of refutes this. At any rate, my personal thesis is that the main problem with discussions to date has been that polemical shooting from the hip in a 'what's so scary about theory?' sort of way has caused the debate never seriously to get started. It has been a debate between 'those who resist Theory are afraid of it' and the Roger Kimball school of 'Theory is obviously so dumb that anyone interested in it must be dumb and can be dismissed.' It seems to me that both positions are not just wrong but seriously anti-intellectual (although maybe they deserve each other, so long as I don't have to watch.) Meanwhile, a whole anthology worth of pretty good stuff sort of dribbled out, but the general perception remained that the discussion was locked into 'scared of Theory' vs. 'Theory's stupid'. So the good discussion never got enough press. It was never clear that the bad versions of the debate had been gotten past. (As recently as a couple years ago, the anthology "Just Being Difficult?" proceeded on the obviously false assumption that those it critiqued were hostile to difficulty. Not a very interesting anthology, as a result.)

I realize this is a snarky thing for me to say in response. But consider the form of your post. You admit that you haven't read the anthology or examined our discussion of it. You chatted with a few friends and came to the conclusion that we have psychological problems - we're scared: our fight or flight reflex ticked over to fight and we staged an event. (Or something.) How could you know this without gathering more evidence?

I realize it's just a blog post and you are allowed to opinionate, especially with a disclaimer about how you haven't actually looked and all. But, well, it's frustrating. I just noticed that Adam K left a comment at the Valve: "I have read basically all the posts before Anthony’s of 10:14 AM (except for ones that started, “I don’t know anything about Derrida, but I have these really strong opinions and disagreements with him"). I am impatient with your post for the same reasons that Adam is impatient with certain commenters. Doesn't this seem rather natural? Is it really necessary always to explain that I am not particularly scared of Theory? I just have concerns about, and critical interests in, a cluster of intellectual formations that generally travel under this name. Shouldn't it be your default assumption about a fellow intellectual that if I am doing something that could well be very interesting that you shouldn't bury it under an avalanche of hermeneutic suspiciousness without even looking at it?

As to the oflessness of Theory. The 'of x' appendix became strangely vestigial and fell off without intervention from me. This usage has been common since at least 1980. It's not my fault.

One final analogy: you complain about liberal political theory. Suppose I made a post in which I announced that you dislike Rawls and company because you find the intellectual rigor scary? Wouldn't you be irked at my patronizing tone? (I'm sure if you go and look in the archives you can find me being this patronizing about some Theory thing I dislike, yes. But I was being bad in doing that!)

Again, just a post, not a big deal. Off-the-cuff blog post in which assertions exceed evidence is strictly blog bites man, I know. This comment is maybe already longer than your post, and growing by the keystroke, yes. In fact, I'll stop.

It's not about the Fear Factor. Theory is an actual intellectual topic with questions and maybe answers and everything.

Mark Kaplan


'I just have concerns about, and critical interests in, a cluster of intellectual formations that generally travel under this name.'

Doesn't this imply that Theory is little more than an empty name under which certain 'formations' are grouped for convenience? And if so, isn't this rather different from saying that Theory is the name for a 'wrong philosophical turn'?

Your first comment suggests that the link between the 'formations' and name isn’t really a strong/ necessary one, in which case how can this 'convenient name' be a worthy object of critique?

Scott Eric Kaufman


All I meant is that the importance of the work's often assumed and thus not open to debate. People seem to forget that other people don't attach the same importance to a work that they do and then assume that anyone who doesn't see its self-evident value are anti-intellectuals, people "who profess their desire, or anti-desire, for ignorance." Why thank you, RIPope, for being the very sort of ass of whom I speak! Tell me, Mr. RIPope, when Jodi professes her anti-desire to learn nothing from Deleuze, does she also fall under your opprobrium? Should she also apply to Bureaucrat School?

Matt, Mark, John and Jodi, I know you're on the edge of your seats, but you'll have to wait a little longer for my reply, as I need to think through it more carefully than I have time to right now. (Translated: Meeting with the diss. director tomorrow. Must work on diss.)


Mark, I replied to you over at your site, but I'll just ask ...

You write:

"Your first comment suggests that the link between the 'formations' and name isn’t really a strong/ necessary one"

And you take this to be a problem with critiquing Theory.

I don't understand. The link between the formations and the name is as strong/weak as any name relation. Namely, the choice of the name is arbitrary. (It wasn't my choice. I think Theory is a terrible name, but it's been in use since the early 1980's for a thing that's existed since the 1960's.) We could call the formation 'Fred', and then the book would be Fred's Empire. The issue obviously isn't one about names. Obviously you can't be thinking otherwise. You've just misspoken somehow. What is it you were trying to say?



The why now was not about the debate on the valve per se but about discussions of Theory's Empire that are taking place out of the blogosphere as well. When I say a few friends, I mean professors in English departments who have been traveling lately and talking with other people and getting a sense of discussion. The collection clearly links up with discussions such as Critical Inquiry's recent "What's left of theory?" as well as other academic debates. That's what makes it an event--not the discussion on the Valve.

Rich and interesting doesn't deflate 'why now'--first, my granting wasn't because I have read the Valve discussion, as I said. Second, as I've said, what is important is the context--there are many things that are interesting that are not events, that few people are concerned with, etc.

I don't buy polemical shooting at the hip as an explanation for the debates. For example, feminists have been arguing about Butler's work; there is controversy in postcolonial studies; everyone has trashed cultural studies since it's inception. The weird thing in the current situation is how the discussion really condenses a number of different issues and anxieties and displaces them onto an exceedingly vague signifier 'theory' and proceeds as if this were independent of political/economic/institutional contexts and somehow strictly a matter of object or method.

I'm not sure what you mean about good discussions and getting press. Since I work within academic political theory, it hasn't seem that the issues at hand were matters of or for the press.

'theory of'--never would have occurred to me that you would bear any responsibility for this. Odd that you would think so. Rather, this is something one hears in institutional settings quite frequently and, again, this is why academics are talking about the book: it confirms a variety of suspicions, anxieties and political convictions, many of which actually conflict with one another, and conveniently displaces them onto one single tag (just like earlier attacks on Marxism, feminism, postmodernism, psychoanalysis....) And, like the similar attacks, none of these things are specific objects in themselves; they suggest fields of interest, areas of criticism and engagement that are contested and volatile, that in fact may be more contested from those claiming to speak in their names than by those who claim to speak against them (obviously, Marxists have killed as well as critiqued other marxists and feminists are a hot and unruly bunch).

Re Rawls--you could say that but it wouldn't bother me because I've read a lot of Rawls, have taught Rawls, know those discussions, etc. I'm quite confident in my critical stance there. (It was pretty hard to go through graduate school in the US in the late 80s in political theory and not get a heavy, heavy dose of Rawls. And, since I did my dissertation with Habermas during the beginning of the formation of the consensus around deliberative democracy, right before the Political Years and just as Between Facts and Norms was being translated, knowing the issues, debates, terms, etc was de rigour. It would have been nice, it would still be nice, if poststructuralist theory got as good a reception in academic political theory in the US. The only graduate programs I know of that do anything close to adequate in this area are Johns Hopkins, University of Hawaii, and, to some extent, Northwestern.

More worrisome to me is my stance vis a vis Deleuze. Many of my closest friends are Deleuzians. My effort on Deleuze has been minimal so I think that attacks on my ignorance here could be right. At best I'm left with Zizek's and Badiou's readings of Deleuze which I can parrot. Parroting, though, isn't a particularly respectable practice. I feel pretty confident in my critiques of political theorists who draw on Deleuze, critiques that focus on their specific works rather than on Deleuze, but it is possible that there is some version of accounts of potentiality and virtuality that I have missed, some element of the critique of Hegel that, if I really worked through it, I might find right. And this I haven't done.


Pope--part of the hard part is when the price for the opportunity to challenge oneself is the day-to-day administrative stuff like committee work etc. And, then, fortunately or unfortunately, the committee stuff starts to become important or at least seem important: battles over curriculum are political and theoretical (where I teach we've had endless discussions over the notion of interdisciplinarity; and, then you have problems like students with poor reading and writing skills and you end up advocating really basic types of courses and requirements); hires, even for one year positions, are a big deal, especially if you, on the hiring committee, know that the person is barely hanging onto an academic career, that they are very smart and interesting, and that sooner or later a decent job will turn up. So, my experience has been that it isn't as clear cut as I would have liked it--there are intellectual and political issues intertwining with committee work; actually, committee work is another term for self-goverance. And, as in good old socialism, those who are willing to stay till the meeting is over make the decisions.


Sorry, Jodi, I should have made clear that the worst feature of just inventing discreditable reasons why you don't like Rawls, with no evidence, would not be hurting your feelings. If you have thick skin, fine. Good thing to have. My point, however, was that the problem with just making things up about someone's psychology, with no evidence, and using this as an excuse to say that what they do is bad, is that it's intellectually weak. I feel that Theory is an interesting topic - not just individual bits of it, but the whole cloud. I find it wearisome to have to hack through so many bad ad hominem arguments just to get to the starting line of a critical discussion of an interesting topic.

As to to 'oflessness' of Theory. Well, I'm glad you don't blame me. But in your post you write: "Both [Matt and Mark] rightly take issue with the reductions (the elimination of an object, say--theory of what??--and the application of the term to particular thinkers thinking since 1965) necessarily part of the operation of the anti-theory polemic."

This is wrong on two counts. First, since the oflessness is not of our making - again, it was like this when I found it - there is no particular reason to think our treatment of the object will be reductive. (Unless you've got a reason up your sleeve for why this must be.) Second, enough with presupposing we are engaged in polemic, already. We aren't interested in anti-Theory polemic. We like Theory's Empire because the pieces it contains aren't polemics, mostly. Yes, sometimes excesses occur. But what's the point of focusing on the least intellectually impressive elements of the anti-Theory side. (If I were to judge Theory by its very most polemically excessive practitioners, I guarantee I could make it look really awful. But what would be the point?)

You write: "I don't buy polemical shooting at the hip as an explanation for the debates."

I wasn't offering it as an explanation of resistance to resistance to Theory. I was describing actual argumentative procedure. Also, why would you assume we are going to ignore the institutional factors that go with Theory? (This is your next point.) You seem to be attempting to dismiss a whole intellectual question by assuming - for no discernable reason - that certain obvious and horrible mistakes will be made in its handling. But why should they HAVE to be? (Shouldn't you wait for people to actually make these mistakes before accusing them?)

Mark Kaplan

Of course ‘all names are arbitrary’ in some banal sense. But some are more arbitrary than others, and some are actively misleading*. Some names designate phenomena with a strong unity, others designate phenomena with a weak, accesory or ‘imposed’ unity. Let’s group all the people not doing Theory inside English departments together. Let’s invent a collective noun for them, Para-costives. ‘Oh, that’s an arbitrary, meaningless name.’ ‘Well, obviously all names are arbitrary and meaningless, so what on earth are you talking about? You can’t possibly mean what you say. What did you in fact mean to say? I shall continue calling them the para-costives.’ Now, for example, one of your colleagues at the Valve suggests that Theory is basically synonymous with post-modernism, in which case it would be more helpful and accurate to start talking about post-modern theory and arguing about post-modern epistemology or whatever. Scott Kaufman has another definition which is discussed in the comments box at Charlotte Street. I think his definition is interesting and intelligible, but I think what he’s talking about is more profitably discussed in terms of the logic of contemporary academia, and it seems unhelpful to call this Theory.

Anyway, I will reply to you’re the comments you left over at C-S over there.

*I’m just making a general point about names here, needless to say.


John--I didn't presume you at the Valve were going to ignore institutional features. I wasn't thinking about you at the Valve. As I've been saying over and over again, my post was aimed at the context of current discussion of the book and the way that this context produces the event of the book. This context is the institutional, economic, political setting of academic work and production today. This setting enables multiple lines of discontent to displace their discontent onto a single cause which is referred to as theory.

Providing a contextual analysis of an event is not the same thing as dismissing it. It's approaching the terrain in a different manner/fashion.


Jodi, sorry to make it sound like it's all about me. I was complaining about what seems to me an implausibly reductive attempt, on your part, to sniff out motives behind the book itself - the event, in some larger sense. I think, first, that your displaced discontent theory is implausible. Why should people need to be confused in this elementary way to be interested in Theory? Isn't it good enough that an interesting topic has been handled badly in the past, so it's sort of satisfactory to do a better job. (Or so you hope.) If there is no need to posit this odd anxiety displacement behind our intellectual activity, because there is nothing bizarre about the activity itself (beyond the usual academic poking into things), why posit displacement? I mean: I can invent ways in which people disagreeing with what I say about Theory are all displacements of anxiety about the superiority of analytic philosophy etc. etc. These Theorists KNOW that if ever an analytic philosophy shows up, they're all doomed. So they are hiding behind an unwillingness to listen. (I don't actually believe that, by the by.) It's easy to tell stories that sort of make sense and are generally flattering to our self-conceptions as intellectuals. But why should they, in addition to being satisfying, be true? Hard to verify, and not much attempt on view here. So it's just another form of polemical shooting from the hip, looks to me. (That's a description, not an explanation. I have no idea WHY you are shooting from the hip. Honestly.)

I want to get beyond all this polemical back and forth (or so I keep saying.)

OK, I'll shut up now and just go try to write something of my own.


I'll keep repeating myself. I am considering what makes the book an event--why academics are talking about it. Lots of interesting material appears that is important and that does not constitute an event. For example, Hardt and Negri's book was an event. Why? Lots of lefty academics were sick of micropolitics and genealogies and wanted grand theory again; lots of people hate grand theory and wanted to trash it; Hardt and Negri's book well affiliated with anti-globalization politics--had it appeared at a time when parties were strong, it would not have made sense; there was a readily available discussion of globalization already going on; the book fit with larger trends criticizing big government, saying that it was over. All of these divergent factors nicely converged around one book. And, then 9/11 happens and Hardt and Negri become poster kids for so-called defenses of terrorism (not a difficult move given Negri's past) and the debate continued. Now, their book Labor of Dionysis is much more interesting; Negri's account of the socialized worker in Insurgencies is much clearer and better thought through. These books, however, were not events. So, it makes sense to consider why.


On analytic philosophy. I don't really know anyone who is worried about analytic philosophy. Zizek draws from Kripke (rigid designator) and Davidson (principle of charity) in really interesting ways. This suggests to me that boundaries between differing ways of thinking are not very strong and that there is much that is useful in combining methods. As you probably know, J.L. Austin is also popular among some theorists who draw from Butler and Derrida.

Rich Puchalsky

This is a reply to a comment by Jodi about this thread that took place on Matt's blog. I'm going to quote it in full here because this blog doesn't allow HTML comments, so there's no way to link to it:

"To criticize 'theory' as such appears to me to be reductive because I don't find the term by itself useful. For example, political theory has relatively clear disciplinary boundaries and practices; these are often contested and there are different types of political theory, but it's usually only criticized as such by folks in political science interested in formal methods. So, I find it reductive to critique theory as such because I think the term theory is too broad to be useful.

Now, on the other hand, I have a sense that what folks are attacking is something that used to be called poststructuralism and/or cultural studies. And, the reception and use of poststructuralism and cultural studies in English departments in the US has been controversial, with long, long debates. So, why now? because it responds to a diverse set of needs and issues. This does not mean that every person who shares the critique has the same issues. Rather, it means that the critique takes off, becomes an event, resonates, insofar as it crystalizes a variety of different motives and matters.

On the racism question, yes, there is a contradiction in the way I said that. I need to think about it because I actually might think both things. That is, I think the Bush administration and the Republican party are not racist (although I think that they rely on racial logics in their foreign policy). And, I also think that nationalism, patriotism, and concern with so-called security enable and perhaps inspire a kind of racism explicitly disavowed by conservatives.

Either way, this isn't the same thing or as saying--or even close to saying-- that Sean is motivated by racism.

(I don't think all Heideggerians are anti-semites; I don't think advocates of Nietzsche are proto-fascists...)"

Rich Puchalsky

Jodi's comment is in quotes above, if that wasn't clear.

Jodi, my core complaint is that you "have a sense that what folks are attacking", but you don't *know* what they are actually attacking, because you haven't read their actual attacks. This hasn't stopped you from developing a description of the context of these attacks which may have nothing to do with their actual content.

To start at the top: who are the reductive criticizers? Anyone who uses the term "theory"? This must then include Michael Bérubé and his Theory Tuesdays. Most people in this debate tacitly accept the term "theory" as being a particular term of art, which is written Theory in order to distinguish it from the ordinary use of the word theory. However, this is not accepted without examination; neither in _Theory's Empire_ nor in The Valve is the term used unselfconciously, without examination of what it really means, if it means anything.

So, to "not all Heideggerians are racists". Don't you think that, if you were a Heideggerian, you might get tired of people who talk about the context of Heideggerianism and its racist connections, but then turn to you brightly and say "But that doesn't mean that you're a racist! Not necessarily." Then imagine how annoyed you might be if you weren't even a Heideggerian, but rather a Rawlsian, and you confronted someone who argued that all philosophers wrote in a context of support of racism because of Heidegger. That's a lot closer to what you're doing.

There has so be some way that a leftist professor can make an intelligent and considered critique of theory without being convicted sight unseen of first reductionism for using the term, and then a "context" around the unread remarks that is taken directly from Culture War stereotypes.


Rich, do you mean to say "[T]heory?" Or do you find that distinction at all not useful?

Rich Puchalsky

Matt, the "[T]heory" symbol is non-standard, and I'm not sure that anyone (including me) knows any better what it means than either theory or Theory. All varients of this term are contested in one way or another, even if you agree that the term does have some meaning as a term of art.


Rich, given that I don't know what the problem is with theory in general (although I have seen some very specific discussions of very specific chapters from the book Theory's Empire on the Valve), I can't say that there should be a way for leftist professors to criticize it. I can say that there are ways to criticize sloppy scholarship and reliance on jargon. I can say that graduate students in, say, English departments should have courses not simply in criticism, literary theory, feminist theory, psychoanalysis and poststructuralism but should have courses in literature. I can say that when I teach political theory, I teach canonical texts, not simply contemporary political theory (my area of scholarship).

What isn't yet clear to me is why culture war stereotypes don't fit. My guess is that they don't fit because the context is different: now 'theory' seems to many to be hegemonic in English departments, having replaced the study of literature. Anti-theory contests that hegemony. In the 80s-90s, perhaps, 'theory' was trying to gain power, change curricula etc, so then it was outside. For me, this frame only works if I insert the term 'cultural studies' into theory.

Rich Puchalsky

Jodi: "Rich, given that I don't know what the problem is with theory in general (although I have seen some very specific discussions of very specific chapters from the book Theory's Empire on the Valve), I can't say that there should be a way for leftist professors to criticize it."

All right, I'll try a different phrasing. Let's imagine that we somehow know that there is no problem with theory in general, either because the word "theory" really doesn't mean anything coherent, or because it does mean something but there is no actual problem with it. An anthology of various essays by intellectuals nevertheless is released attacking "theory". Do you really think that an apropriate response to this is to launch on a contextual analysis -- you know, the part of your post above that starts with reductive thinking and ends with the transgressive thrill of racism -- or to just say, they must be wrong, but I don't yet know why? Wouldn't it be annoying to you if someone else dismissed your work unread because of a very insulting depiction of your context?

Perhaps if the release of this anthology really was a political event, this might be justified -- no one can read everything, and politics can demand a response. But is it? Is this anthology really going to figure in the culture wars, 80-90's or current version, at all? Does the cover picture convict the contents of bad intent?


I think a contextual analysis can benefit understanding almost anything. I don't think it ever fully explains anything (as I've said, this is in part because context is non-all, necessarily incomplete). I didn't think anything you mentioned regarding the context of the appearance of Aliens in America was even close to insulting or reductive. I'll try again: lots of books appear from English professors, lots of interdisciplinary collections also appear. It is relatively rare that English professors start chatting with me about a specific book and the buzz around it. So, it starts to seem as if the book is part of a moment, crystalizing different moods, thoughts, frustrations, rethinkings. So, absolutely, I think context matters. Is it the whole story or the only story worth telling? Of course not.

Rich Puchalsky

"It is relatively rare that English professors start chatting with me about a specific book and the buzz around it. So, it starts to seem as if the book is part of a moment, crystalizing different moods, thoughts, frustrations, rethinkings."

As I've written before, this is historicization to the point of elimination of content. I know that you say that you're not trying to do this, but in effect, I think that you are. How do you know that there isn't buzz around this book because of some characteristic of the book itself, rather than of its historical moment? You don't, because you've never seen the book; you're just making a sort of statistical guess based on the fact that most anthologies do not create buzz.

You don't even have enough information to eliminate a model in which The Valve caused the buzz in the first place. Perhaps the English professors you chatted with read blogs, as you do, and heard about The Valve's blog event around Theory's Empire, which was noticed on many of the popular blogs concerning literary studies. In that case, the buzz would concern The Valve's treatment of Theory's Empire rather than Theory's Empire itself. Needless to say, that would make your context completely wrong; The Valve doesn't promise the whole swoop that you hypothesize from reductive thinking to the transgressive thrill of racism. If you had to create a contextual reason for the buzz which owed nothing to the actual content of The Valve, it would be something about the desire to appear up-to-date by talking about blog controversies (with all of the connotations of technophilia that that involves), the desire to engage in academic (as opposed to culture war) squabbles, and in general an interest in the new (since "blog events" around books are a new phenomenon).


The colleagues who brought up the book don't blog and have never heard of the Valve. So, I was a bit surprised by the convergence, given what I said previously re they don't bring up new collections in conversation all that much. It sorta reminded me of when Empire came out and people were talking about it way before the reviews started appearing.

Rich Puchalsky

Well, that shoots down the blog-buzz idea.

At any rate, I still don't agree, but I think that I've communicated about as well as I'm going to communicate. Thanks for the replies.


Yes, thank you. It's been interesting, no doubt because of the disagreement!

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