I think the option they want to give us is a kind of version of the end of philosophy meaning we are only left with history. I should point out that I think the distinction is artificial, but that it has always been the questions of institutional power that bother me. This is why I’ve been known to fly into a rage with Holbo a “analytic” who I have at times seen as threatening my chances for survival as a “continental”. Holbo has a pretty idiosyncratic approach to his work and so he can’t really be called analytic in a meaningful sense. but in terms of a kind of power relation these terms seem to make sense to me. That’s what makes it very difficult. While I do get somewhat nervous about a kind of scholasticism that could choke out the constructive nature of philosophy, I actually share many of the concerns that Holbo, et al do (I just wouldn’t call lump it together as he does under the name Theory), but my worry is that such a criticism coming from that ‘camp’ (vulgar I know) only serves to hurt the other ‘camp’. It makes things very difficult to discuss.
I think you have read more Husserl than both Holbo and myself, would you be able to lend some authority to a little scuffle we had? He makes the claim that Husserl’s phenomenology is an outgrowth of post-Kantian German romanticism (which is why Frege starts analytic philosophy, presumably not being influence post-Kantian German romanticism). I think this patently wrong and isn’t a very faithful reading of Husserl or even a rigorous historical inquiry into Husserl’s main influences (Brentano, Hume, Descartes, and Kant). We kind of decided to let it go, but I’m curious what you think. Anthony Paul Smith said this on February 6th, 2007 at 11:31 pm I think the option they want to give us is a kind of version of the end of philosophy meaning we are only left with history.
I think you’re right on the mark with this, but I wonder if it’s truly a sustainable position. We’ve had about 200 years of sustained discussion of just what it means to write history, and the key point is that this discussion has been an issue of theory. Whether we’re talking about Hegel, Dilthey, Schliermacher, Heidegger, Marx, Foucault, hell even Nietzsche, there have been raging debates as to just how the writing of history is possible and what historically informed consciousness and reading is. I don’t see how these debates can be glibly side-stepped or avoided, and I find myself cynically feeling that the claim that “we are only left with theory” is a theoretical stance that tries to rhetorically trump detractors by proclaiming that this is not theory, just solid history.
I saw the discussion of Husserl and Romanticism over at your blog and am not sure what to make of it. Lamely, the answer to the question would depend on what is meant by “romaniticism”. If the claim is that Husserl shares some lineage to romanticism in terms of a shared critique of the Enlightenment project of giving a rational, materialist account of nature, then there might be some credence to this claim. However, even this strikes me as a strained connection, as Husserl was engaged in a project seeking secure foundations of both science and mathematics. The case might be made that Husserl’s focus on the transcendental subject marks his affinity with the romantic celebration of the individual. But the transcendental subject is not the individual, and here the filiations are closer to Descartes and Kant than romanticism. Moreover, you don’t find any of the celebration of emotion, nature, the sublime, or custom in Husserl that you find among the romantics. It is not until much later that Husserl begins to make room for “sedimentations” of tradition as central to the lifeworld, but even then this late focus strikes me as very different than that of the romantics. I would have to see this connection clearly articulated to see what he’s trying to get at.
The dissertation proposal, by the way, looks extremely exciting if not very ambitious. A whole eco-ontology, eh? You have your work cut out for you! larvalsubjects said this on February 6th, 2007 at 11:58 pm You may find Joe’s> response to these debates of interest. Scott Eric Kaufman said this on February 7th, 2007 at 12:02 am Sorry about the formatting, but I couldn’t see everything in the box. Also, sorry for not replying myself. Way down in that first Valve thread, I discuss one of my motivations for reading “against theory,” if you will; but I see myself doing so more against the totalizing “theory” of de Man’s resistance than any particular theoretical mode. (Which, as you well know, I prefer to object to on individual grounds.) Scott Eric Kaufman said this on February 7th, 2007 at 12:06 am Thanks for the vote of confidence. The most difficult part will of the dissertation will be that bit about giving a more determinate form to the notion of ecosophia. The rest is just reading well, which is hard in its own way of course. I’m just going to say it again – accept the invitation mate! Anthony Paul Smith said this on February 7th, 2007 at 12:33 am In my response (thanks for the link Scott) I tried to make two things clear: first of all, that I’m perfectly willing to be labeled as someone who “does theory,” and second, that I think theory can potentially gain from intelligent outsider analyses, even if the people analyzing it don’t have its best interests at heart.
As I noted in a comment to Holbo’s post, I think the common ground of “Theory” has to do with debts to Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche. I might possibly add a stylistic debt to surrealism, evident in works by Bataille, Blanchot, and others.
I don’t think, on the broadest possible level of generalization, that a good alternative to theory currently exists. I certainly don’t consider “historicism” an alternative to theory, and I am disappointed in attempts by writers like Walter Benn Michaels to produce alternatives. (What they give us is basically an ineffective version of Marxist economics, plus a version of liberalism unchanged from the days of John Stuart Mill.)
The only thing I’ll say in defense of the project of historicizing theory is that all thinkers should embrace their own historicity. Lacanian theory, or Deleuzian theory, is not invented anew in every exchange — in fact, its value lies in our ability to use it to derive common principles from a diverse set of social and psychological phenomena. Joseph Kugelmass said this on February 7th, 2007 at 2:58 am Scott, I’ve always known you to be a gracious interlocutor that tends to respond on the basis of what’s directly being discussed. My concerns as to how “Theory” gets thrown about as a master-signifier stand. I don’t see theory as somethng that’s fixed such that one then goes on to simply apply it to this or that case, but instead see it as an ongoing process that both internally critiques itself– when it’s at its best –and which is constantly forging new concepts in response the material it’s working with. Here something like Adorno’s conception of dialectics as a non-theory that strives to coincide with the material itself would be the ideal, in my view.
I do think some of the concerns with Theory that you’ve raised on occasion and that have been raised elsewhere are valid. In particular, I think a number of these problems revolve around institutional transformations that have taken place in graduate programs, where graduate students and professors seeking tenure are under an unbearable pressure to get published and present, leading to a plethora of sloppy work and a tenuous grasp of the theory being worked with in the process. I know that in my case, my recent spate of opportunities has me rushing about simply to get things done, such that I’m no longer able to spend hours and weeks carefully going through material with a fine toothed comb to unfold its intricacies. I believe my work has suffered as a result. On the other hand, the fragmentation of “vocabularies” found in English departments where everyone is working with a different set of terms, problems, and concepts, strikes me as reflective of a more general cultural trend where disciplines in general have become fragmented and it’s no longer possible to find one overarching unity that would contain them all. This is true not only of the humanities, but of the hard sciences as well. larvalsubjects said this on February 7th, 2007 at 1:11 pm “a more general cultural trend where disciplines in general have become fragmented and it’s no longer possible to find one overarching unity that would contain them all. This is true not only of the humanities, but of the hard sciences as well.”
Isn’t there a need for this, though? Obviously this is the absence that the anti-theory crowd are responding to. I think it would be moving too fast to suggest that a totalizing concept or genus for disciplines which share interests, styles, or presuppositions is not to be desired, or that the tendency for outsiders to do it anyway can simply be resisted. It’s going to be sloppily inflicted from without if not carefully constructed from within, assuming grand general concepts can ever be created in such a reasonable fashion. traxus4420 said this on February 8th, 2007 at 7:12 pmI’m sure there’s a desire for it and I know I have this desire; however, I think the more pertinent question is whether it is possible. The trend in the hard sciences, at least, is to give up the project of giving a unified system of science that would show how all sciences inter-relate with one another and are consistent with one another. On the one hand, such a project is often seen as suspect as it tends to inhibit productive inquiry in the various branches of the sciences. On the other hand, there’s the real question of whether such a unified science is even possible.
It seems to me that there are parallels to this in the humanities and the social sciences. In literature, for instance, it seems to me that a central question revolves around the telos or goal of literary analysis. What is it supposed to acheive? This question is answered in different ways. I suspect that the goals pursued by a critical theorist in reading Kafka are very different than the goals pursued by someone who has a historicist approach to literary analysis. The question, then, is should we have to choose? Personally I don’t think we should have to choose, as there is merit to what the critical theorist discovers in her investigation and merit in what the historicist discovers in her investigations.
Finally, there’s the question of theoretical vocabularies. Used in the humanities and social sciences. The broader issue here is that these different conceptual systems reflect debates as to just how their respective objects should be approached at the level of inquiry. These debates are not resolved. Perhaps someone could make the case that while there are debates as to what the object of investigation is, certainly we can agree on a vocabulary through which to articulate these debates. But is language really innocent in that way? Is style just an external trapping or ornament that contributes nothing to the matter? Being the bad Theory guy I am, I’m with Hegel in holding that expression and content always go hand in hand.
I tend to be a bit more cynical as to what the anti-theory crowd wants… Suspecting that the anti-theory crowd is just anti every other theory besides their own, and rather disingeniously treating themselves as somehow outside theory as a rhetorical trump that only functions to muddy the discourse without directly engaging in arguments with those theoretical paradigms they disagree with. larvalsubjects said this on February 8th, 2007 at 8:32 pm I agree with all the points you make, but I suppose I see the onset of various types of consolidation procedures in the humanities and social sciences as an inevitability. I doubt the sciences need a grand unified theory to continue their form of knowledge production, but it seems doubtful that the ‘human sciences’ can continue without one. There are the economic pressures on the basic structure of the university system, there are the continuing results-based presuppositions of what form knowledge ’should’ take within say philosophy and literary criticism — I’m just a beginner in this business, but from where I’m sitting it doesn’t seem likely that the disciplines will have a leg to stand on if they remain committed to their current identities, and I see little aside from ‘theory’ that can provide enough of a common language to allow (for example) critical theory to work productively with historicism. Perhaps the struggle of the theory debates will get people from different backgrounds talking long enough to work out a better way of making these kinds of connections (theory as a common disagreement). Otherwise, as I’ve said, someone else will do it for us. traxus4420 said this on February 9th, 2007 at 1:44 am I wonder whether these shifts - or perceived pressures on academic production to shift in particular ways - aren’t being conceptualised too linearly? There may be directions of the moment - toward diversification, or toward unification - but I would be hesitant, personally, to extrapolate too strongly. Even economic pressures have, in quite recent history, shifted from pointing toward, then away, and then toward types of consolidation (and consolidation can have qualitatively different forms) - and economic pressures on the university sector in particular are overlaid with more complex cultural and political pressures that are inflecting the interpretation of how economic pressures should be met… I’m not of course suggesting we shouldn’t test the winds - only that we shouldn’t assume they’ll continue to sweep us in the same direction (or that there isn’t some room for tacking within the direction of the moment). Apologies if the point sounds a bit wishy-washy - my sense is just that transitions, when people are in the process of going through them, are often experienced as something unilateral and developmental - as though historical change moves more linearly than, I suspect, we might perceive it to be moving if we take a slightly longer perspective into account. I worry that failing to step back like this might lead to a kind of fatalism that becomes its own self-fulfilling prophecy - which can matter a great deal in the short term, even it if then comes to be undone with the next transition…
That said, I like the concept of unification around a “common disagreement”… (And I’ll put in a plea for a larger comment box or preview function - I have trouble hearing myself think five lines at a time - it makes me wonder how many times I’ve already contradicted myself as my previous text has rolled off the page! ;-P) N Pepperell said this on February 9th, 2007 at 2:53 am Alas, I don’t have the power to change the comment boxes as far as I can tell. On my end, however, it looks rather large and is more than five lines.
Your points sound on mark and I wasn’t suggesting that this is the way things must be for all eternity. I was simply arguing that in the absence of a resolution of reigning debates as to just what the object is in the human sciences or how it is to be investigated, it’s not clear that these issues can be resolved. I feel like being clever, so maybe it could be suggested that the anti-theory crowd is performing a dialectical gesture similar to that which Hegel refers to as “formal” or “tautological” ground. Formal ground fails to explain anything but simply repeats what is to be grounded with another word. Thus, Hegel remarks,
The sciences, especially the physical sciences, are full of tautologies of this kind which constitute as it were a perogative of science. For example, the ground of the movement of the planets round the sun is said to be the attractive force of the earth and the sun on one another. As regards content, this expresses nothing other than what is contained in the phenomenon, namely the relation of these bodies to one another, only in the form of a determination reflected into itself, the form of force. (The Science of Logic, 458)
Although it might seem like formal ground is a bad joke or that its value is nil, it is a crucial step in the dialectic of grounding as it differs the object from itself, thereby locating the site of grounding, where grounding must come to be, even if this site remains an empty place to be subsequently filled. It seems like something like this is at work in the anti-theory crowd. On the one hand, theory is being negated by virtue of being a hodge-podge of competing discourses without rhyme or reason. In negating theory, a place is opened that calls to be filled: a place that would call for a precise articulation of object and method… Or something like that. Of course, the anti-theory crowd has not themselves accomplished the transition from formal ground to real ground and they won’t precisely because they are “anti” and therefore cannot discern the space where theory must come to be. What’s important is the clearing of that space, it’s production, its marking.
One of the things that concerns me in these discussions is the question of who would resolve such disputes and who would make the decisions as to what constitutes legitimate inquiry, method, concepts, etc. Perhaps the single most fundamental thing I’ve come to appreciate in my academic tenure is that top-down heirarchical systems (administration to faculty) generally lead to really bad results. Working with administrations really leads one to appreciate Marx’s desire to bring about the withering away of the “state”. Things seem to work best, I think, when decisions are made by those who are there on the ground. The point I’m somewhat clumsily trying to make is that a push towards theoretical unification, if not emergent of its own accord, invites these sorts of monstrosities. N.P. has a very nice idea with the “subject of an object”, and in the case of theory I don’t think it’s a mistake to note that concepts are forged as tools to specific problems evoked by specific “matters” and objects. The trend in the States has been for the human sciences to move towards quantitative methods as these are somehow supposed to be more scientific. In my view this has been a disaster that’s produced a lot of stupidity (especially in psychology and sociology) and an inability to engage in auto-critique. While it’s certainly unlikely that lit theory would move towards quantitative methods, I think there’s good reason to be extremely cautious about the desire to move towards more unified vocabularies. I also wonder whether these disciplines have ever been as unified as the anti-theory people seem to suppose. Could it be that in the past, people tended only to communicate with people in their own immediate circles and thus had a false sense of homogeneity and agreement, whereas now, due to shifts in communication technology, we’re given an opportunity to more directly see divergence and different universes of discourse? larvalsubjects said this on February 9th, 2007 at 4:08 am I envy your comment box! (I should stop being lazy, and just type something in a text file and then cut and paste it, but that just wouldn’t feel like blogging… ;-P)
I’m actually quite interested in the issue of how the past comes to be seen as unified - and think it’s an important suggestion that we at least adopt an open, questioning attitude toward that issue. A somewhat related issue was discussed recently at Acephalous, in relation to the question of whether the quality of scholarship in a particular area had declined, where someone (Ken Rufo, perhaps? I don’t have the link handy) made a nice argument that our sense of the past comes to be flattened by what survives - by what gets filtered down and sifted out for attention through the action of history. This can both serve to make certain ideas look more distinctive than they would have seemed in their context, and also have the effect of unifying the context…
At the same time, there can be a difference in how disunity is perceived - and whether disunity comes to be experienced as a problem. When disciplines experience themselves as trending in a “good” direction - as not under threat, as expansionist - disunity can be articulated as creative, as something that can easily be tolerated because there’s enough for everyone, as disagreements we have faith will be resolved by future progres - or any of a number of other narratives or articulations of the experience of optimism associated with the perception of a positive trend. Things can get a bit nastier, a bit more zero sum game, if the trend is perceived to be negative. I would expect this to operate somewhat independently of whether there is more fragmentation of positions on the ground…
I don’t say any of this to make a strong argument about what is actually happening (and I’m certainly not disputing anything you’ve said - but just associating and developing from it) - only to suggest that, in addition to your suggestion that there might simply have been fewer opporutnities to be confronted with diversity of opinion, it’s also possible that there might have been a reasonable opportunity for such confrontation - but reasons that the confrontation might not have been interpreted in the same way or assigned the same felt significance. And I think it’s always worth keeping in mind the present status of homogeneity as a contemporary fantasy projected back onto the past (which can’t resist the projection as strongly as the present…).
Your points on quantitative methods are a bit poignant for me at the moment, as I’ll be crossing over to the dark side on this issue this term… ;-P (And, trust me, there are people applying quantitative methods to literary studies - certainly around these parts…) But I absolutely agree that there’s a fetishisation of quantitative methodologies…
I’ve been meaning to take up for some time on my blog the issue of decentralised forms of self-organisation - perhaps I’ll have a chance this term, as I always enjoy torturing my planning students a bit with this issue, as they tilt statist as a rule… ;-P (But this kind of point is probably unncessarily contentious for me to toss out like this, ungrounded and unqualified in a comment - I’ll blame my lack of nuance on the tiny space in which I’m writing - it’s an interesting test of my working memory, writing in this form - a test I think I’ve failed… ;-P). N Pepperell said this on February 9th, 2007 at 4:51 am […] Sinthome’s analysis at Larval Subjects, which asks how these debates might refract themes related to the assertion of […] Roughtheory.org » Don’t Mention the War said this on February 9th, 2007 at 5:34 am …not sure if it even helps, at this juncture, but…wee bit of ancient history here. one grows tired of reduncancy, etc. Matt said this on February 10th, 2007 at 4:13 am sorry, meant to say here of course. Matt said this on February 12th, 2007 at 3:07 am