Saturday, 11 April 2009

Theory's Empire

Returning to the subject of my favourite critical essays, the choice is made more difficult in terms of what is readily available on the Internet. I don't want to start sounding like a broken record, so I will change up again soon the topics I'll be blogging on, but I couldn't resist putting up for consideration here Peter A. Jackson's treatise on method. It is more nuanced and compelling than the stark opposition between empiricism and Continental philosophy, which I referenced in my post commenting on Fisher's critiques of Terry Eagleton. I think it can also, read in tandem with Janet Wolff's piece [as featured in my previous post], offer the beginnings of an explanation for some of the things that have gone wrong, both in the academy and now in the blogosphere (or rather that segment of it I prefer to refer to as the "noosphere" dominated by the application of Continental philosophy in cultural analysis).

It is important to note particularly the corrosive effects of the formalism of such work. Jackson moves between epistemological and institutional issues with commensurate skill, in a manner that could characterise him as a social epistemologist. Remember, I've cited Steve Fuller's remarks elsewhere on this blog to the effect that social epistemology can legitimately "sometimes be deconstructive". So I wonder then if those academics and bloggers alike who utilize the formalist approach Jackson critiques in his piece, have ever followed up on a text cited by Jackson? i.e. Theory's Empire: An Anthology of Dissent (2005). Somehow I doubt it because formalism prevents reflexivity about one's chosen methods (it's easier to substitute Zizek quotations for arguments, right?). Here is one of the more telling quotes cited by Jackson:

Things could have been different [in the reception of critical theory in the American academy] if the English professors who were the first to welcome poststructuralism into the undergraduate curriculum had had some grasp of elementary philosophy, or some feeling for the philosophical tradition. They were, quite simply, poorly trained. The problem was not so much the works of Derrida, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan — each deserves a place in the undergraduate curriculum — but the way their various approaches soon emulsified, in less able hands, into the bossy credo we now call Theory.

Fascinating enough, to be sure, but the real killer blow is delivered by Gasche, and also cited by Jackson:

"Yet what does theory mean in this context [the humanities in the western academy; to which I would add now the noosphere] except the all too often naive and sometimes even, given its uncontrolled and unwanted side effects, ridiculous application of the results of philosophical debates to the literary field?"

Thanks in part to the Internet though, this method has now spread across the entire field of cultural criticism. So thank you Rodolphe, you've made my day.

No comments: