From the archives: Literary theory

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Derrida for Dummies: a hinge for the rest of us

Friday, 14 November 2008 — 12:26pm | Literary theory, Literature

About a fortnight ago, Joseph Kugelmass wrote a post at The Valve entitled “Derrida’s Obituary, or, Is Literary Theory Too Abstruse?” (to which my answer is “yes”). It subsequently spiralled into a debate about the validity of layman’s introductions or simplifications—Derrida for Dummies, if you will. I’ve said my piece before: I don’t think literary theory does itself any favours as an intellectually respectable discipline so long as it clings to the tangled prose of philosophers instead of extracting the ideas within. Obviously I recognize the necessity of bushwhacking through original texts in serious study, but it’s also high time to admit that many philosophers were terrible writers, and that their ideas can be described in simpler terms without losing too much in the compression. (Derrida is actually quite tame compared to many of his protégés and forebears; once you figure out what he’s trying to do, the Derrida negation test will give you no trouble at all.)

I jumped into the comment-box fray myself, but—in an ample demonstration of exactly what I was saying—others in the discussion phrased the same ideas in more succinct and elegant terms.

Rich Puchalsky:

But basically I agree that if knowledge is to be knowledge, it has to get past its original writer. If you can only understand the concepts in Derrida by reading Derrida, then you’re not reading him for knowledge, you’re reading him as a literary text.

Luther Blissett:

At their best, [good summaries and guides] provide us with the foundation to read better when we turn to the original text. Even when the roadmap is over-simplified or not quite right, I find that students can question the map more effectively having used it than they could if they only had a first reading to go on.

Ironically, that always seemed to me to be the point of Derrida’s work: to provide a reading—not a reduction but a distillation—of a certain aspect of a philosophical text, so that when we return to the foundational texts—Plato, Rousseau, Hegel, Heidegger, Descartes—we do so with fresh eyes, standing on the shoulder of a giant, so to speak.

It’s odd that Joseph is defending the host/parasite binary in a defense of Derrida.

I also recommend Andrew Seal’s excellent response at Blographia Literaria. Seal makes a crucial distinction that I have been advancing for ages: that a call for more transparent philosophical writing is not populist pandering, but an urgently needed reform for the sake of maintaining a healthy intellectual culture. An excerpt:

Derrida, then, becomes nothing more than a genial literary critic of his own corpus, writing to and for Derrida enthusiasts. This kind of flight into the personal is precisely the move conservative critics take as a sign of the weakness of post-structural thought. Whether or not this is fair, it is highly important to question the value of such a move if it ends up inevitably sticking us with charges of “meaninglessness,” “relativism,” and “charlatanry.” This is the bedrock problem of the mischaracterization of post-structuralism, gender/queer theory, critical race theory, post-colonialism, etc.—the reactionaries listen to us denounce repeatedly the notion of an integrated, coherent, autonomous subject, and then we say something like “well, Derrida didn’t mean for everyone to understand his work—his books are intimate and personal writings for people who take the time to really get to know him.” I’d throw my hands up too, if I weren’t typing.

When some defender of theory does make one of these appeals to the “personal,” what they’re really doing is making an appeal to the hieratic: if you’re not an initiate, you shouldn’t be paying attention. If you haven’t taken the time to make Derrida “personal,” you don’t have standing in this field.

Let me be clear: I’m not attacking this move on populist grounds. I’m attacking it on elitist grounds: this is an incoherent and unstable elitism, one more dangerous to the elites than to the masses.

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Dustbins of history, landfills of theory

Tuesday, 30 September 2008 — 11:54pm | Literary theory, Literature

Scholars of the theoretical humanities (by which I mean the philosophical and literary species) would be wise to heed the post at Gene Expression bearing the belligerent and self-explanatory title, “Graphs on the death of Marxism, postmodernism, and other stupid academic fads.” The short version: an empirical scan of the JSTOR database reveals that many of the great buzzwords of theory, from “psychoanalysis” to “deconstruction”, are plummeting in prevalence in scholarly articles and citations. The author clarifies the methodology in a follow-up post, and then goes on to produce a set of graphs on “scientific approaches to humanity”, which I take to mean “investigations of material determinism and how far it extends.”

Naturally, this won’t amount to a hill of beans to the apologists who deny the existence of an empirical reality outside discourse and have no use for the positivist prejudices of the hegemons who have the nerve, the nerve to quantify things. Well, it’s their loss.

As someone who studied both the hard sciences and literary theory in considerable measure, I am compelled to make a few quick remarks of my own. If theory in its present incarnation is indeed collapsing, I lay the blame on what I like to call the Two O’s (ooh!): overextension and obscurantism.

Continued »

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Wednesday Book Club: Le Ton beau de Marot

Wednesday, 24 September 2008 — 10:01pm | Book Club, Computing, Literary theory, Literature, Science

This week’s selection: Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language (1997) by Douglas R. Hofstadter.

In brief: What begins as a comprehensive study of poetic translation evolves into a treatment of human empathy and intercultural understanding, a refutation of John Searle’s Chinese Room argument against artificial intelligence, and a solemn remembrance of the author’s deceased wife. With its exclusive focus on language, Le Ton beau is a substantially less technical and more streamlined tome beau than Gödel, Escher, Bach; the mathematically averse may find it a more accessible point of entry to Hofstadter’s thought, as there is no talk of recursion or formal incompleteness in sight. Those who prefer their poetry devoid of metre and rhyme will take issue with Hofstadter’s conservative aesthetics; those who prize pattern, structure, and wordplay will rejoice.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Le Ton beau de Marot, keep reading below.)

Continued »

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It suffixes to say

Tuesday, 16 January 2007 — 4:18am | Literary theory, Literature

In coining the word différance (and establishing the vocabulary of deconstruction in its immediate, nonpresent orbit), Jacques Derrida presumes that it is phonetically indistinguishable from différence. It’s the keystone of… whatever it was he thought he was saying. As I am no expert on French morphology or phonology: does anyone know if this is actually universally true? Does there exist a French accent somewhere that demarcates a clear distinction between the pronunciations of the suffixes –ence and –ance? Or is it like the English –ible and –able, which are (to my knowledge) functionally equivalent in speech wherever you go, and solely a matter of orthography?

It’s fascinating to me, as someone with more than a passing interest in random, gratuitous acts of paronomasia, that it is entirely possible to construct puns that work in some dialects and accents, but not others. This may seem like a rather simple observation, but I think it has a certain latent power. It could also be disabling. For instance, if your philosophical rhetoric is founded on punning as a substitute for logic (not saying I mind), the puns had better work. Otherwise, you might be caught, and I’ll either see you in court (in Britain) or ignore you and lie on my cot (in America).

Speaking of which: I’ll see you in hell, Pachelbel.

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