Posts Tagged ‘Cultural Theory’

First, a quick excerpt from one of the blogs in the sidebar, Larval Subjects:

However, having witnessed twenty years of critiques of ideology I’m led to wonder what critiques of ideology have ever done to really change anything. The conception of politics as ideology critique seems to largely result among bookish academics that believe it is books and discourses are the primary real and who are therefore persuaded that change takes place through books and discourses. Like the obsessional– who might this obsessional be? –who talks endlessly precisely to avoid saying what really should be said, this conception of the political endlessly dissects various narratives and cultural formations to create the illusion of acting without ever hitting the real. Indeed, there’s a very real sense in which those literary studies types so delighted by Zizek seem to be more motivated to find a justification for writing about their favorite movies and television shows rather than changing social organization in any significant way. [full post here]

I remember being told by one of my undergrad mentors that critical theory evolved out of the frustration of people who saw the energy of the ’68 era, taught it to their students with fervor, and then discovered they’d produced a generation of smug middle-managers.  Something was wrong; agency and social innovation wasn’t happening; the revolution had been pre-empted [and this was before the tech boom!].  Something new had to be sorted out, or at least, the reasons why “NEW” was so difficult needed to be sorted out. Okay, fine.

In graduate school, critical theory morphed into cultural studies, and it can be a fun game to play, but I sympathized more with the rusty Marxists who were doing actual archeology over in the remnants of the steel mills, sifting through records and interviewing whoever was left who remembered the mills in their prime.  I wanted a closer relationship between the talking about and the making of things.  Let’s talk about the steel, the RotoVap, the wings on a fruit fly.

Much more recently, I was on a search committee, and could hear colleagues speaking the critical/cultural theory language again, and it was like looking through a haze, or into a Turner painting.  I kept thinking: there might be a ship in that painting somewhere, or the echo of a ship, or an cluster of ideas that people have agreed in the past to fit the concept “ship”…..if there was a ship, there would be people working on it, setting sails, adjusting the rigging to best make use of the wind. And all the theorizing about ship-ness would’t matter one jot to the people just trying to get their work done and get home.

Second, go see an expert at work: Angry lets the light dawn upon a student: if you haven’t bothered with a class, don’t expect its prof to help you graduate!


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This afternoon, I had a stark reminder of the choice I made 20+ years ago — to apply for a Rhetoric Ph.D., rather than one in Literary and Cultural Theory.  (The programs were at the same school, and I had the course background for either area.) The text I was reading discussed the work of Federman [not, not, NOT to be confused with Federer or Feynman], who coined the term “incest-tuality” to describe the activity of:pondfrog06

…leaping from quotation to quotation (known as The Leap-Frog Technique — see Take It or Leave It, by Raymond Federman) and often even by quoting itself (known as inter-textuality, but which I prefer to call incest-tuality), that the Postmodern text progressed without really going anywhere, thus delaying or even at times cancelling its own end — its own eventual death. [Before Postmodernism and After]

So Federman cites himself and considers this a radical act, or a promiscuous one, or something, anything, other than ‘repeating yourself’.  I understand the uses of ‘amplification’ in rhetoric, but this just strikes me as protesting a little too much. I can be intertextual, too… oooh. Invoke the Bard and then skitter away. [The music for this section could be anything from Sondheim or Lloyd-Webber, for reasons which should be obvious…]

Anyhow, back to my afternoon reading, wherein Federman is credited with describing The Postmodern as being filled with anxiety and doubt about the possibility of progress. That was what triggered the memory: there I am, back in Boyer Hall. It’s 1985, and Janice is discussing how the latest critical turn still fails to provide intellectual space for the New, for the Different.


do you first see the gate...

It's a perspective test: do you first see the gate...

Just between you, me, and the Internet….I think there a few new things under the sun since then.  We could argue that the iPhone is really a nexus of hegemonic activity, since it enables/requires people to carry more and more buzzing obligations around with them [calendars, to do lists, work projects], or that GPS devices are a natural extention of the Panopticon, with the diabolitcal twist that people _outside_ the jurisdiction of prison-systems voluntarily permit their motions and destinations to be tracked…. But the fact remains that iPhones are genuine new things that use real ideas and structures of meaning that didn’t exist in 1985.

Genuine new things exist.  People make them. People invent, speculate, try.  It seemed to me [in early 1986, when I was selecting my graduate school path] that I could either stand on the sidelines with the literary theorists who were grumbling about whether new things were possible, weaving elaborate theories to explain how we are caught by multiple webs of established meanings….

Or I could get on the damn field, learn how the game was being played right now, and start trying to score some points.

...or do you see the opportunity?

...or do you see the opportunity?

Rhetoric, to me, was all about saying something, anything, and seeing how that could affect the world. Identify opportunity. See a problem.  Question something, sure, but then thought needs to change into intent, into action, reaction, people actually doing something that might change some part of the world.

So.  Rhetoric it was.  It seemed more hopeful, although I recognize that Acting and Understanding the Forces That Complicate All Action are sides on the same die.

As for the document that got me thinking about all this, I don’t think its saving throw was successful.

Coincidentally, the last word of Federman’s essay is, in fact, “Rhetoric.”  But I think I could have just stuck with Kenneth Burke’s statement that “Rhetoric is concerned with Babel after the Fall.” [Note: much of Burke is impenetrable on first reading. Second readings can be assisted with bourbon.]

Literary/cultural theory has its usefulness.  But it does remind me on occasion, about how the concept of “wrong” manages to evade many theorists in the humanities.  Scientists have to deal with being wrong on a regular basis, and I think that builds character in a way that cultural critique cannot.  Making a fundamental error about the way light is used in a Faulkner novel or rigorously problematizing a persistent trope does not have the same consequences as missing a decimal place and trashing a major experiment, or, worse, giving waaaaaaay too much heparin to a baby.

I’ll grant that because the humanities have the luxury of playing with ideas much longer, sometimes genuinely splendid things result.  Maybe Freud hadn’t a clue about how the brain really worked, but look at how much film, drama, art was built using those ideas. On the dark side, how many people struggled with being told that the abuse or trauma they experienced was part of some fantasy ‘everybody’ is supposed to have had at some stage in their lives?  Or how many people can honestly say that state control of industries is the best way to ensure happiness for all [other than Henry Poulson, I mean…]?

Ah well.  Dinner appears to be ready.  Hurray!

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Some beads end up in trees behind Jackson SquareThe National Weather Service insisted that last week’s temperatures for the lovely city of New Orleans would be in the upper 60s/lower 70s, with thunderstorms or scattered showers likely on most days. So you can imagine my surprise when I got out of the airport and discovered it was 84 degrees.

Ah well. As I said to our friendly innkeeper, “I just figured the federal government lies about everything to do with New Orleans weather….” [Yes, that got a laugh.]No, he did not try to sell us car insurance

Officially, the reason for being in New Orleans was a conference for teachers of technical writing. Shop talk for the techno-rhets. In some ways, disheartening, because when you take ten years off from a field and then have to participate fully again, the first sense is how much catching up there probably is to do.

On the other hand, hearing someone say:

Let me set up bell hooks versus Foucault…

instantly reminded me of graduate seminars wherein theorists became adjectives used to describe a particular critical approach, and I would wonder whether “Foucauldian” would ever really have the staying power of “Shakespearean”.

A moment later my brain had skittered off to what the claymation Celebrity Death Match would be like if it really was bell hooks versus Foucault. Who would be disciplined? Who would get punished? How? [Honestly, the paper in question didn’t really belong at the conference; it belonged at CCCC. I’d say MLA, but I think the presenter would have been rigorously problematized into the next dimension, and she didn’t deserve that.]At the French Market Cafe

When you have two major writing conferences going on in one place, conversations about language start leaking in to the local culture — one of the taxi drivers wanted to know more about the origins of English. Why was it so hard to learn? Considering that his first language was probably Bengali or Hindi, I wasn’t sure where to begin. Still, it seemed a reasonable question to try to answer, since he seemed painfully aware that his adopted city had overnight been infested with thousands of English professors. “It’s a cross between German and Latin, and it steals words from every other language that comes along.”

This seemed an acceptable answer.

Two iconic forms of New Orleans metalworkIt was a much easier conversation than the one on the way back to the airport, during which the driver described how he was going to kill the next person who pulled a gun on him, how the welfare state was ruining the work ethic, and how he loved the live-and-let-live attitude of New Orleans. Somehow, when he expressed his disappointment that marijuana was not likely to be legalized in his lifetime, I wasn’t surprised.

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