Monday, August 04, 2008

The expert sacrifices the collective interest while scholarship is also about discussion

Countermemory Sunday, August 3, 2008 "Not less, but more theory:" Jameson and pragmatism

Fredric Jameson has an excellent article in the Spring (2008) issue of Critical Inquiry which I just got around to reading, and it makes a lot of points that I have been trying to orient myself towards accepting here on this blog. While the article "How Not to Historicize Theory" responds mainly to Ian Hunter, its concerns actually never leave that of Jameson's continuing task: trying to extend the theses advanced in his work on postmodernism and utopia into the most pressing concerns of theory at this moment. This culminates in an amazing look at Bourdieu and a clear-headed rebuttal of the impetus behind pragmatism (which is anything but pragmatic).

If I have been hard here occasionally on people like Spivak and deconstruction, on the one hand, and, on the other, people like Jerome McGann or Stanley Fish and historicism (and the people don't exactly have a direct relationship to the movements here--as I will explain), it is because they all end up arguing from within theory for less of it, a position that Jameson shows here to be quite wrongheaded. This position is not wrongheaded because it is contradictory or hypocritical, as I have (I now see somewhat mistakenly) put it. It is wrongheaded because it makes theoretical endeavors attempt to do away with the types of conversation that theory valuably has started.

In other words, this position is pragmatic, if not nihilistic. Now, I don't mean that pragmatism is nihilistic--far from it (I think its one of the most idealistic discourses). I mean that pragmatism--which can be summed up crudely as an effort to find and work within limits, to refine discourse by disabusing its pretensions to truth as correctness--too quickly gets confused with a nihilistic bent which is not pragmatic that nevertheless underwrites pragmatism's efforts.

To be a bit clearer: what is desired by people like Spivak or Fish is, at the same time, to set an effective limit for discourse beyond which it is fanciful and has no relation to forceful, meaningful activity (including its own), and to somehow counteract the tendency in theoretical discourse to extend itself out into those fanciful areas. The first effort is pragmatic, the second is nihilistic.

And while it is not necessary at all that the second effort occurs at the same time as the first--Rorty is a good example of someone who rigorously keeps the two separate--it usually, in the area of theory, does. It is no mistake that all these recent conferences on "The Death of Queer Theory" or "The Death of Post-Colonialism," in seeking primarily to limit a discourse healthily cannot do so except by talking about its being over with, its being ineffective--and not in the sense of being simply inaccurate, but somehow not even worth anyone's letting it exist anymore.

Jameson distinguishes between these two well I think by calling this pragmatism conspiracy theory, and this nihilism cynical reason. The two have a methodological commonality, which is a hermeneutics of suspicion: they think that the effort of interpreting actions or documents or whatever boils down to looking for the pretension to truth at work. This pretension is what gets limited by conspiracy theory or taken away to be killed off by cynical reason. The threat that makes these people and these discourses do this, as Jameson makes clear, is historicity, or what he calls historicizing.

This should be rigorously distinguished from historicism, which tends to be in Jameson's eyes (but does not have to be, like deconstruction) one of those pragmatic conspiracy theories. When a discourse becomes capable of having its conversation recede into the past, and has to confront the fact that it has contributed to the larger structures of the institutions and fields that constitute the position from which it speaks--that is, when it begins to have to take into account how it ensures for itself the right to a discourse, it becomes very skeptical as to whether it can still remain pure.

What is problematic for both historicism and deconstruction is that their purity was ensured by their anti-intellectual stance--that is, their critique of the continuous and homogenous narratives and knowledges that dominated their discipline before they arrived.

Historicism's solution to this is to generally fall back upon the disciplinary framework itself--which usually makes it appear less cynical or nihilistic than it is--while deconstruction's solution is to insist more and more on the rigor of its method or the radical nature of its politics--which is the same thing as falling back upon the disciplinary framework.

Now, this isn't as simple as merely claiming that these discourses are getting a taste of their own medicine--which is to say, that they are confronting the fact that they as discourses only have impetus because they are founded on what they oppose. It is showing that faced with a contradiction, both these discourses don't think that expanding their theoretical practice more and more would produce anything worthwhile--namely, a collective discussion.

In short, Jameson's claim is that both these positions have the effect of advocating a sort of resurgence of the individual intellectual, the scholar-hero, the expert. Now, there is nothing wrong with being an expert, except that in the effort to diligently become one, the expert or hero sacrifices the collective interest, the fact that scholarship is also about discussion. That is, what is advocated by these positions is that each of us recede back into our own projects and confront each other when we are done with them, which is, in Jameson's view (and I agree with him wholly here), precisely what is not needed in scholarship that will have to confront the 21st century and its demands. What we need is some sense that we are all speaking, as a discipline, some similar language.

What both of these discourses--and mostly these people at the front of them (we should be sensitive to the fact that at this level there are so many exceptions to anything anyone says that the generalizations are usually always unfair--though I don't think this renders them illegitimate, precisely for the reasons I'm outlining now)--what both of these discourses advocate is stepping back into our own private vocabulary. And this is what is really confusing about them as positions and what makes them more than just instances of hypocrisy or self-hating or getting-a-taste-of-one's-own-medicine. For these discourses started out closer to the pragmatism of conspiracy theory. As such, they usually took the form of identifying large collective interests at work in individual decisions or in the determination of the individual. What this allowed was some sense that there were larger forces at play in all our actions.

Thus, there was a hope at least that one could work at the level of this larger collective interest to make things better. The exposure of a collective interest was made in the spirit of changing collective interest. What happens in the sort of cynical use of pragmatism is that we think that we can critique these collective interests by ourselves. Indeed, these acts of exposure (deconstruction, historicism) were, it is now clear to us, not themselves disinterested. So why not face up to the fact that the best work we can do is going to be on the level of individual interest, dictated by the demands of the profession we have now--alas--shaped in our direction?

This is what Jameson is describing in his conclusion:

Insofar as conspiracy theory celebrates... collective dynamic and seeks to replace the categories of individual agency with collective ones, it marks the first imperfect step in that direction. Cynical reason, meanwhile, while seeming to strip acts and events of their appearance of disinterestedness, might well pave the way for some ultimate awareness of collective self-interest as such. - "How Not to Historicize Theory," Critical Inquiry, Spring 2008, 582.

This is not a happy prospect. It describes a crisis. For we should not have to recede back into our own individual works of scholarship in order to see that, in the end, what we really need is some sense of collectivity. This is why we need more theory, precisely in the time in which theory itself is being historicized. We can discuss, together, the historicization, which would give us a sense of where we are. The idea that theory is confused is probably a myth still perpetuated by cynics: it has an immense vocabulary to deal with all sorts of novel ideas--and

  • if there is confusion, why can't it be discussed?
  • Or at least, why not risk that this is the case?

We have to dispel, perhaps, first and foremost the idea that theory is muddled. That it is not rigorous, that it is not a legitimate way to think about things. It presupposes precisely that we are all speaking languages no one else can understand. Or at least these misunderstandings, this muddledness itself, would not be able to take place collectively and prove to be useful. The time of wondering whether theory is legitimate or rigorous--of finding ways of making it seem so--has been long over with.

To dispel this myth that we're muddled and to rid ourselves of this fear of becoming muddled seems actually more in the spirit of pragmatism, in fact, as well as in the spirit of anti-professionalization--one that does not take up at the same time a crass anti-intellectualism or a discourse against the university itself or indeed the (very) beneficial aspects of professionalization. It would be in fact, as Jameson says, more of a rebellion of professionalization against the commodification of knowledge that the sciences have suffered and yet continued to collude with--that is, the joining of research to R&D departments of businesses--and, which, in the future, will surely pose a threat to all intellectual life at the university whatsoever (who will look justified then?).

Ultimately, what is not needed is the idea that theory is done with and we now need to wait for the next new approach research and writing that will unify us. The unification must be brought about by us--and probably is easier to accomplish than everyone thinks since, actually, most of us are already on the same page. Posted by Mike Johnduff What is written about: , , , , 1 comment

1 comment:

  1. There is now more theory available than in any time in HIS-story. An the entre world is literally groaning under its collective weight. All of those towers of babble/babel.

    And where does theory of any kind stand in the face of a Tsunami that smithereens 300,000 human beings?

    It could even be said that the weight of theory was a causative factor in the Tsunami.