Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Derridadanalia: the death of theory at the hands of plain prose

Will "Theory" be dying in English Departments (and if so, what will they teach?). There's more and more grumbling about where it has taken us.

Apropos: the attacks launched on ''The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism," 985 pages, $80 (Jesus, these textbook prices!).

Here Christopher Hitchens launches a few handgrenades (has the Hitch given up booze entirely? I see his byline everywhere; he must be scribbling day and night, sleeping on a campbed in his New School office, sexually deprived and alcohol-probitioned). In true form, he wields his scalpel like a Combine Harvester gone amuck on a putting green:

"A professor at the Ecole Normale Superieure is popularly supposed to have said: 'I agree that it works in practice. But how can we be certain that it will work in theory?' In the course of the past few years, sections of the literary academy have had to endure a good deal of ridicule, arising from this simple jest. The proceedings of the Modern Language Association, in particular, have furnished regular gag material (gag in the sense of the guffaw, rather than the less common puke reflex) for solemn papers on 'Genital Mutilation and Early Jane Austen: Privileging the Text in the World of Hampshire Feudalism.' (I paraphrase only slightly.) The study of literature as a tradition, let alone as a 'canon,' has in many places been deposed by an emphasis on deconstruction, postmodernism and the nouveau roman. The concept of authorship itself has come under scornful scrutiny, with the production of 'texts' viewed more as a matter of social construct than as the work of autonomous individuals. Not surprisingly, the related notions of objective truth or value-free inquiry are also sternly disputed; even denied.

"A new language or 'discourse' is often considered necessary for this pursuit, and has been supplied in part by Foucault and Derrida. So arcane and abstruse is the vernacular involved that my colleague James Miller, dean of the graduate faculty at the New School, wrote a celebrated essay inquiring 'Is Bad Writing Necessary?' He took up the claim made by Judith Butler that 'linguistic transparency' is really a deception, fettering critical possibilities and inhibiting those who wish 'to think the world more radically.' Butler agrees with Theodor Adorno, who argued in his 'Minima Moralia' and elsewhere that 'plain words' are the building blocks of consensus and authority, compelling people in effect to employ notions that have been preconceived for and imposed upon them. In the opposite corner is the linguist Noam Chomsky, who tends to agree with George Orwell that honest language is a weapon against obfuscation and propaganda.

"The effusively respectful entry for Judith Butler in 'The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism' reads, in part:
'Drawing widely from Nietzsche, Michel Foucault on discursive formation, J. L. Austin and Jacques Derrida on speech act theory and iterability ... Louis Althusser on interpellation ... Jacques Lacan on subjective foreclosure and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's work on queer performativity, Butler fashions a notion of performative identity that 'must be understood not as a singular or deliberate ''act,'' but, rather, as the reiterative and citational practice by which discourse produces the effects that it names.'

"Thanks to this notion of performativity, Butler has been able to contest a misinterpretation of Nietzsche's work on the difference between 'being' and 'doing.' To quote from a section discussing her book 'Bodies That Matter':

" 'If she were arguing that gender simply was a kind of theatrical performance, "that could mean that I thought that one woke in the morning, perused the closet or some more open space for the gender of choice, donned that gender for the day, and then restored the garment to its place at night." But as Butler makes clear time and time again throughout her work, 'the reduction of performativity to performance ... would be a mistake.'

"So the dancer and the dance are not the same after all. But does one really require a new language or theory to disprove the claim -- made by whom, incidentally? -- that gender is a mere role, or only a costume for that role?

"Wondering how the opposite case might be summarized by the editors, I turned to Orwell and found that he isn't even mentioned in the index. Nor, for that matter, is A. J. Ayer or Ernest Gellner. Perhaps the editors (Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth, who teach English at the University of Western Ontario, and Imre Szeman, who teaches English at McMaster University) assume that everybody has already assimilated 'Politics and the English Language' or 'Language, Truth and Logic' or that great critique of J. L. Austin and Oxford linguistic philosophy, 'Words and Things.' But then, they grant a servile entry to the exploded figure of Raymond Williams, wrongly credited as the pioneer of cultural studies. Or perhaps they imagine that the argument began with Butler? Chomsky does receive an entry of his own as well as some mentions under other headings, and he is sternly reminded, by one Nigel Love, that he 'has nothing to say about genuinely innovative uses of language -- creativity that consists in going beyond what is generated by the rules -- ultimately, perhaps, because radical innovation calls into question the fundamental structuralist tenets of the enterprise.'

"Adorno once remarked (this was also in 'Minima Moralia') that a film of true aesthetic value could be made, and be in full conformity and compliance with all the rules of the Hays Office, as long as there was no Hays Office. That was, if you like, an ironic and paradoxical appreciation of the transgressive. However, Adorno did not mean that there were no rules or that they were made only to be broken, and what is true of celluloid and entertainment may be even more true of the language that we must (if it really is a language and not a jargon) speak in common."

PERHAPS the point is that bad theory cannot pass if it has to express itself in plain prose, let alone good prose. The abstruse dies in the daylight of clarity, like a vampire who couldn't get back into his coffin in time.

(How about that Hitch, hey: he can stand toe to toe with any right-wing asshole or good old leftie, and sling it to the Theory-crats to boot. You've got to hand it to the man. He's made a career out of being attractively and dazzlingly odious.)


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