Thursday, November 13, 2008

Abstruse Theory, or the Privacy of Small Audiences

This post on The Valve is an excellent discussion of the place and value of theory in a democracy. Taking as its point of entry the brouhaha surrounding Derrida's obituary in the NYT from 2004, Joseph Kugelmass springboards from the infamous title of that obit ("Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Theorist, Dies at 74") into "a question that never seems far from the surface in discussions of literary theory and criticism: what are we to make of the last fifty years in criticism? Can it be summed up? Can it be comprehended fully? Must we refrain from 'calling out' Derrida on the thicket of his prose?"

The questions grow well beyond Derrida, however. Kugelmass reprints a number of comments made to an earlier post he wrote. The key exchange here is Kugelmass's comment:
The problem here is language about language (e.g. literature). If somebody dumbs down Heisenberg and quantum mechanics enough for me, sure, I can see that the observer cannot be separated from the observed, and I can worry over the death of Schrodinger’s cat. But what I can’t do is important work in the field of quantum mechanics. Whereas that seems to be exactly the desire with synopses of literary criticism and theory: to reduce things down to inarguable truisms or clichés, and then to believe that’s actually preparation for reading in depth.
and tomemos's rejoinder:
[a primer on literary studies] would amplify our cultural misunderstanding of what the humanities are supposed to produce: when are we going to roll up our sleeves and get something done? Bill talks about a book that would “present the results of academic literary criticism,” but obviously literary criticism does not have “results” in the scientific sense, and so a book that pretended that it does would not just be dumbing down the ideas of the field; it would be a complete distortion of the field itself.
This question—whether laicization of literary theory doesn't transform the original thought into something false and distorted—is clearly one that concerns all who write about theory or practice it. Comparing work that summarizes scientific theories and laws with works that would attempt to summarize literary theory, Kugelmass makes an important distinction: "scientific summaries are indexical—they point at a functioning system not significantly altered by the summary itself—whereas philosophical or literary summaries are performative, and do alter what they describe because they are forced to re-create it in a certain way."

Kugelmass proceeds to make four very good points:
  • "When you summarize these texts, you completely destroy their power as works of provocation, and they turn into echoes of what people already believe or reject."
  • "One of the secret engines of the desire to 'get' postmodernism in one sentence is the deep unpopularity of Marxist thought, which was the very air that 20th Century theorists breathed: in reducing them, we try to pry them free of their origins in conversations about Marx."
  • "the response to a very accessible writer like Zizek has been, at least in America, so identical [to truly obscure stylists like Lacan] that it becomes necessary to ask whether anyone is even trying to determine who is abstruse and who is not."
  • "it behooves us to remember the sad case of Albert Camus, who wrote utterly transparent prose, and whose reward was that everyone thinks they understand him, though few actually do"
However, the last point Kugelmass makes is a sort of retreat:
Finally, the overlapping universes of literature, philosophy, and literary theory meet in a garden of forking paths. This is particularly true of literary criticism, as opposed to literary theory, since literary readings are mainly interesting to people who enjoy the works or period in question. The greatest failure of that unkind obituary for Derrida was that it failed to see how intimate and personal his writings were, how their supposed opacity was often a result of Derrida’s insistence on writing for those people whose preoccupations were similar to his own, turning his back on that enforced universality which, so often, represents an attempt to make ideas work like money: good for all debts, accepted everywhere, transmutable into anything the occasion demands. We make our own way into the conversation about the world, and into the vast literary and philosophical library to which we are heir, and none of it is ours until we cease timidly surveying it, and choose, rashly, somewhere to begin.
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 to, 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. It relies on an illusion: what I'd like to call the privacy of small audiences. I know this illusion very well; I often employ it when thinking about what or whether to post on this blog.

Blographia Literaria has a very small audience, and this is more or less intentional. I've done next to no pr work on its behalf—though I hasten to add that I'm not calling this a virtue, and that I may very well be trying to raise its profile in the coming months. This isn't about being "underground" or anti-establishment; it's largely about not being sure even a modestly well-read blog wouldn't alter or de-prioritize the goals I had for this project: cleaning up my clunky writing style (mixed success there), practicing writing about a number of different genres and media (again, mixed success), and maintaining a record of my reading and my most immediate reactions to it. Even still, those goals have been de-prioritized on a number of occasions (including this one) when I have been compelled to write about internet articles or blog posts or news rather than books.

At any rate, the illusion I have often operated under is that because my audience is small and relatively intimate (mostly if not entirely friends), I have very few obligations to it and I could, if I wished, treat Blographia Literaria as a private enterprise. Private, in this case, does not mean confessional. Privacy, in the way I'm considering it, is not about the content of the information, but about the belief that its dissemination is controlled or controllable—that it is in some real way hermetic. And as I said, the notion that a small audience grants you this belief, grants you this privacy—this notion is illusory.

To start with, an examination of referring URLs to this blog shows that the vast majority of Blographia Literaria's traffic comes from image searches—e.g. people who Google Image Search "mad men" and come to this page. These visitors are not my "readers"—they're not here for my thoughts on Mad Men, much less on literature. They're here for the picture. But this fact does not warrant a belief that they are not part of the blog's audience, that Blographia Literaria isn't speaking to them. (I could remove all pictures from the blog, but let's forget that for a second.)

Why is this important? It isn't really—until someone who came to my blog via an image search responds to me or uses my words. Now, I don't claim to be developing a methodology or even a coherent world-view through this blog, so being cited out of context is kind of an absurdity or an impossibility. Being misunderstood isn't, though. And here's where things get a little trickier: when we make an appeal on Derrida's behalf to the personal(/hieratic), what we're saying is effectively the same as if I were to consider Google Image Search an invalid mode of access to my blog, rendering any misunderstandings that accrue from this mode of access also invalid. It's as if I'm saying that because I believe the information on this blog to be under my control (because of the privacy of a small audience), any misunderstanding (which is obviously out of my control) must be the result of a breach of privacy.

The students who hear Derrida's name in class—from their teachers, from other students—the people who read about him in non-specialist articles—these are the Google Image Searchers. Their misunderstandings and misapplications aren't breaches of privacy, and we can't keep treating them like they are.

Now let's go back to Kugelmass's post as an example of why this move has proved to be persistent within the academy.
  • It's not because everyone who makes it thinks complexity is a virtue and simplicity is threatening. Kugelmass may think this about some things (as do I), but he also recognizes that it's not a universalizable set of values.
  • It's not because everyone who makes this move to the personal thinks it's the best argument. I don't really think he believes the retreat to the personal is the best defense of Derrida's "abstruseness" or of abstruseness in general. I think he knows that the stronger points are those I enumerated above; the retreat to the personal was simply the best, most poetic way to end the post.
  • It's not because everyone who uses this move is a sort of intellectual determinist—that there are some people who can get Derrida and a lot of others who can't. Kugelmass implicitly addresses this in his paragraph about the Jeffersonian ideal.
The crux of this issue isn't about knowledge or intellectual capacity or complexity. It's about privacy and intimacy—the desire for it, the need for it, and the pleasures of it. One of the pleasures of reading automatic writing or high modernism or theory is the sense of privacy that adheres to your unreproducible process of making sense of it.

Unreproducibility is key here—when you return to a passage of Derrida (as when you return to a passage of Stein), the texture of your comprehension will be different from the first time you approached it, and a feeling of loss—of the precise dynamics of your first experience, your first comprehension—is ineradicable, but also pleasant. Pleasant because it insures a privacy—the privacy of the smallest audience possible—yourself. And that, too, is illusory.
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Joseph Kugelmass said...


A thoughtful reading is the best compliment a writer can receive. This is a remarkable post, and I acknowledge your criticisms as fair enough. It is true that I prefer to end my posts lyrically, and that this sometimes makes the endings slightly askew to the rest of the piece, or even, unfortunately, dulls the edge of the argument.

I should clarify what I meant about Derrida writing for those people who share his preoccupations. I do not mean simply Derrida scholars, or Derrida "enthusiasts" in the broad sense of the various academics who put his texts in their "toolbox," or the theory headz. I really mean Derrida's equals: not the people he is "instructing," but rather the people with whom he wanted to converse. I remember taking a class with Richard Rorty where the first assignments were the Meno and the Euthypro. Rorty commented that Plato was it, was philosophy, and that if you enjoyed his dialogues, you would probably enjoy the philosophical canon.

Rorty wasn't talking about agreeing with Plato. He meant that either answering a question like "What is truth?" holds some inherent fascination for you, or it doesn't. If the latter, then many of Derrida's stylistic choices and intellectual concerns will seem strange or downright misguided.

What you see as a concern with privacy, I see as a concern with the individual and the process of individuation. A reading of Stein that is mine doesn't remain mine: I give it to the world, hoping it will be comprehensible and illuminating. But Stein differs from global warming in that I can't have an individual response to global warming at all. All I can do is repeat an impersonal scientific facts, and take the same steps as everyone else to reduce my CO2 footprint.

Intimacy is key here, as you suggest. What kind of individuation can exist without intimacy -- that is, without the other through whom I define myself? One of the great drawbacks of "Derrida in 90 minutes" is that it trivializes disagreement with him. It becomes immaterial whether or not you agree, because the only important thing is getting him right.

In your post, you talk about the violate privacy of your blog. People can find you through Google Image search, drop in for an out-of-context browse, and then misquote you, and it's not fair for you to accuse them of foul play, as though you had the right to (paradoxically) lock up your public speech. That's all true, but on the other hand you may have already experienced how destructive the awareness of that inchoate public can be. It has turned many good academic bloggers with great knowledge of and passion for a little corner of our world into political bloggers writing "VOTE FOR OBAMA. PLEASE" or into cat bloggers pumping air into their stats.

We treat universality as something that must be immediately forthcoming, that the humanities must produce on demand, rather than as the implied asymptote of little victories of achieved understanding. If you don't expect everyone on earth to accede to your demands, creating an audience by making certain demands is part of the essence of good writing.

Perhaps the best question is as follows: Why are the schisms and idiosyncrasies of intimate readings so threatening to people who want to legislate the content of university educations? I think the answer has a great deal to do with our consumer model of knowledge and our related desire to treat every idea as an ethically neutral tool. On an even more basic level, the desire is deeply totalitarian: by controlling style, to enforce certain representations of the world. Heidegger addresses this when, in "The Question Concerning Technology," he describes the frightening dominance of the idea of "standing-reserves."

Of course there are absences and aporia within our readings, just as there are in real relationships. Otherwise, Milan Kundera would have nothing to write about. But we are not strangers to ourselves in the same way as we are to the people behind us in line for the bus, nor is Nietzsche as much of a blank to me as is the Qu'ran.

Andrew Seal said...


I like very much the answer to the question you pose: "Why are the schisms and idiosyncrasies of intimate readings so threatening to people who want to legislate the content of university educations? I think the answer has a great deal to do with our consumer model of knowledge and our related desire to treat every idea as an ethically neutral tool. On an even more basic level, the desire is deeply totalitarian: by controlling style, to enforce certain representations of the world."

I think the consumer model of knowledge links back to the demand for an "immediately forthcoming" universality: this demand could be seen as a desire for a simple economy of scale.

But what I'm trying to get at with the issue of privacy/intimacy is that the move to the personal is also about control, that when we think of a discourse as being personal or abstruse (not that those are synonyms, but that they are both delimiting), we are immediately treating it as a controlled or controllable discourse. In the case of theory, the move to the personal may be a reaction to the totalitarian impulse you speak of and to the consumerist model of knowledge (if those aren't the same thing). But it's still about control, about policing what is and what isn't an invasion of the privacy we claim to create by moving to the personal or the abstruse.