Saturday, November 26, 2005

Theory rant

I'm a bit of a theoryhead. I like working through theoretical writing, trying to understand the complexities, tease out the logic, see the argument. I love when a theorist writes well, even when I think the theory lacks in some ways. Freud, for example, lacks in some ways, but is a great read, and still helpful in thinking through issues, especially regarding imagery and authorial authority, auctoritee, as Chaucer would put it. I'm especially charmed by theoretical playfulness.

I'm not, however, charmed by colleagues and students who whine about how hard theory is or how it uses specialized language.

Is there any other field in which a faculty member can get away with not knowing technical concepts and language AND bragging about that lack of knowledge? I can't imagine a biologist refusing to learn the difference between "meiosis" and "mitosis," or a physicist whining about the difficulty of understanding quantum mechanics. And yet, some faculty members in English departments who can't bother to learn basic theoretical concepts do just that.

Worse, they teach students that it's okay to dismiss theoretical texts without engaging them, trying to understand them, or working through the difficulty.

I have a graduate student who wants to write a paper about how bad theory is. In her most recent note to me, she said that she thought she could write this paper without really reading much theory, because it's arcane and difficult. Yes, theory is difficult; so are Shakespeare's sonnets and just about any other literature worth reading more than once. But if you're in college or a grad program, your job is to work through difficulty and try to understand what texts say.

You don't have to like all texts, but saying that you think they're useless before you read them with reasonable respect is just... disrespectful and irritating.

We've had this basic conversation a couple times, now, and I've gotten to the place that I publicly told her that if she doesn't want to engage in the kind of work we do in the grad program, then our grad program probably isn't a good place for her. She didn't like hearing that. But it's honest.*

Here are Bardiac's basics for reading theory.

1) Look up the [fill in your favorite expletive] words that you don't know. Look up words you aren't sure of. Make notes. If you try, you WILL learn the words that are important in the argument or theory. And you'll have a better understanding of the nuances in the argument.

2) Work out what each sentence actually says. (Why oh why isn't that obvious?) If you don't understand what a sentence says, don't go on. Figure out the subject and verb, and work from there.

3) Think about the period/culture the text comes from. Recognize that different academic cultures teach different kinds of arguments. In the US academy, we generally teach a structure that involves thesis, support, support, support, conclusion (resulting all too often in horrid five paragraph essays.) If you're reading Marx, be aware that he's likely to use a Hegelian structure of thesis, antithesis, synthesis. The French academy tends to use a more Hegelian structure than we do in the US, so if you're reading Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, Irigiray, educate yourself!

Oddly enough, these are also Bardiac's basics for reading Shakespeare, or any other text.

*I sound dogmatic here. Certainly there's room for someone to enter a field and to try to change the discourse in that field. But in order to change the discourse, you have to engage the old discourse enough to understand it, to understand why it's dominant in the field, and then you have to convince others in the field that a new discursive mode is more useful.

If she wants to argue against a theory or theorist, she needs to understand that theory and take it on, and explain convincingly that it's bad theory, or inapt, useless, whatever.

And, of course, we hae neither world enough nor time to read all possible texts, so we do have to make choices.

Thanks, I feel better now.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous7:08 PM

    Deleuze? For shame, my fellow theory-comrade. Brothers of the French academy ('68 and proud!) ref, yet no D (or Badiou!)?. Chagrined doesn't begin to describe my disappointment with those post (not even close to hyperbole), not even close).

    Go, now, and sit in the corner. Think about what you've just done here. Think think about the Deleuzians who . . . well, if followers of Deleuze, don't really care (but that's beside the point!) . . .

    Where's the solace? The sentence? Time-out, I'm afraid to say. Meditate on the Event, and don't come out until it's happened.