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This is Luke Slattery’s column from the Fin Review last Friday, it appears to be subscription only but the whole thing was reproduced on the skeptics discussion group.

“So much for that theory” by Luke Slattery

Australian Financial Review, Review section
Fri 27 Jan 2006

Luke Slattery is the AFR’s education editor and the author of Dating Aphrodite: Modern Adventures in the Ancient World (ABC Books).

Luke Slattery discovers a powerful weapon against the dark arts of postmodernism
For the better part of two decades now university humanities departments have been dominated – not merely influenced, but truly brought to heel – by a particular intellectual dispensation. It sometimes goes by the name postmodernism, and at others poststructuralism, and beneath its rubric sit the schools of cultural studies, feminism, postcolonialism, queer studies and deconstruction. Academics, for the most part, seem to prefer the catch-all “Theory”.

Intellectual life has, of course, been under-girded by theories, plural, since the time of the pre-Socratics. And in the sciences, where theories, or accounts of the way things are in the world, have guided the generation of knowledge for centuries, things stand pretty much as they always have. Not so in the humanities. Having adopted for itself this grand and portentous singular noun, Theory has mostly abandoned the conventional pursuit of knowledge for its own empty arabesques. In fact, little else can be expected from this critical enterprise under one of its chief operating tenets: that there is no meaning outside of specific cultural and linguistic frameworks, or ideologies; no possibility of objective knowledge. Indeed, in the words of the late Jacques Derrida, there is “nothing outside the text”.

The editors of Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent,* define their subject, from the point of view of its practitioners, as nothing less than “an overarching practice of our time”. But their collection is neither a salvo in the culture wars nor a jeremiad from the right. Its tone is sober, and it offers much subtle and lively writing in the cause of the prosecution. The book should be required reading for anyone aggrieved, confused or simply bemused by the theoretical cliches that have enjoyed doctrinal status within the humanities. Sad to say, parents and high school students will also gain from the book, as the school English curriculum has of late been ceded to Theory’s empire.

The book’s weakness, on the other hand, lies in its failure to offer a rich account of the history of Theory’s reception and metamorphosis within the academy. By assembling a synoptic range of critical essays from the mid-1980s to the present day, it provides a penetrating overview of the field without enabling the reader to trace its historical evolution. There is no adequate treatment, for example, of Terry Eagleton’s recent critique of the theoretical project he did so much to champion with his catechism of the 1980s titled Literary Theory: An Introduction. Theory’s political excesses have been reined in at most humanities departments and its follies tempered by time. Intellectual pluralism of a sort has been restored. In death Derrida remains a deity, but it is no longer necessary to pay automatic obeisance. Theory’s Empire could not, arguably, have been published a decade ago because there were not enough dissenting voices to make up a voluble chorus. The book does not do enough to acknowledge this shift.

Nevertheless, it performs a vital role by inviting speculation about what remains one of the great mysteries of Western intellectual life in the latter decades of the 20th century: how did a minor tradition within continental philosophy come to dominate, to the point where it would brook no dissent, in both teaching and research in the English-speaking humanities? How did a class of people selected for their capacity for independent thought – the PhD thesis is supposed to mark an original contribution to the field – submit to such a stifling orthodoxy?

The book offers both a solution to this riddle and an antidote to the intellectual cul-de-sac of postmodernism. The point, however, is conveyed less by argument than by performance. Theory’s Empire shows the philosophically skilled at work dismantling, contesting or sometimes merely questioning, the vanities of high Theory. It is all done with patient and lucid argument, and the occasional dash of wit. This is refreshing for anyone acquainted with the huffing and puffing of the culture wars. There is less heat and more cerebral art to this collection, which includes the work of thinkers as various as Tzvetan Todorov, Rene Welleck, Raymond Tallis, John R Searle, Frederick Crews, Elaine Marks, Russell Jacoby, Thomas Nagel, Noam Chomsky, Frank Kermode, David Bromwich and the Australians Richard Freadman and Seumas Miller.

The Achilles heel of high Theory is, and always has been, philosophical method. Mainstream philosophy has proved the antidote to the dream of un-reason that was the moment of Theory, and a small dose should be mandatory at the undergraduate level. Grounding students in this tradition, or at least in the skills of logic and reasoning, should equip the humanities with the armature needed to resist the allure of dogma.

The point is implicit in the analysis by Mark Bauerlein, director of research at the US National Endowment for the Arts, of the notion of “social constructedness” and its place in the theoretical world view. As preached in the humanities, he argues, it is not a position taken up philosophically. “When someone holds a belief philosophically, he or she exposes it to arguments and evidence against it, and tries to mount arguments and evidence for it in return. But in academic contexts, constructionist ideas are not open for debate. They stand as community wisdom, articles of faith.” The criticism is made across a broader front by New York University professor of English Denis Donohue: “There is a good deal of evidence that Theory as an institution in our profession is being advanced as if it amounted to a belief, and with the insistence that normally accompanies the expression of a belief.”

Theory’s adherents have presided over their vast domain by maintaining a corrosively critical posture towards their objects of study – literary and other texts – and a strategic myopia towards their own assumptions and methods. Theory resembles, in many respects, a creed with its own sacred texts and cult practices. Once institutionalised, moreover, it maintains a coercive hold over its subjects, stifling dissent and discouraging scepticism. In Theory’s Empire weight is given to this view by many academics who have witnessed academic life at close quarters. Just as the accountants are brought in to sweep through a corporation in receivership, one wishes that philosophical method had been introduced across the new humanities to prevent their lurch in the 1990s towards intellectual bankruptcy.

Things could have been different 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. By the late 1980s it had become the orthodoxy within the humanities – the desiderata of all grant applications and PhD theses.

All that was needed to arrest the slide from fresh and funky intellectual method into article of faith was a tincture of philosophical rigour – just enough to dissipate Theory’s wildest vapours and legitimise dissent. As things stand, however, notions such as the belief that there is no such thing as objective truth, or knowledge independent of ideology, have attained the status of folk wisdom. They may be in retreat in the academy, but they are advancing through society. The fact that realism, in both the ordinary and philosophical use of the term, is returning to favour is largely due to the fact that popular philosophy is finding an audience through the bookstores rather than the tutorial rooms. The popular works of philosophers such as Simon Blackburn, Julian Baggini and John Searle provide accessible counters to the more relativistic assumptions about language and meaning.

While this pedagogical lesson is not actually advanced by Theory’s Empire, it is implied by contributions such as Berkeley philosopher Searle’s masterful dissection of Derrida’s rather fey burblings on the status of speech acts. Despite a certain captious, almost feline quality to his treatment of Derrida, Searle manages to show that the French guru embraced by America’s brightest was not only ignorant of some of the established principles of his field – “he appears to know next to nothing of the history of the philosophy of language over the past 100 years” – he was a confused and often mischievous expositor of his own theories. Searle’s conclusion is worth quoting at length: “In deconstructionist writing in general and Derrida in particular, the intellectual limitations of the background knowledge do not prevent a certain straining of the prose, an urge to achieve a rhetorical effect that might be described as the move from the exciting to the banal and back again. Derrida advances some astounding thesis, for example, writing came before speaking, nothing exists outside of texts, meanings are undecidable. When challenged, he says, ‘You have misunderstood me, I only meant such and such,’ where such and such is some well-known platitude. Then, when the platitude is acknowledged, he assumes that its acknowledgement constitutes an acceptance of the original exciting thesis.”

Searle unpacks three examples to prove his point, the specifics of which are not as important in this context as the broad thrust of his performance. Theory’s scissor managed to scythe through the English departments of the mid-1980s, but against a robust philosopher of Searle’s calibre it meets a more obdurate opponent.

The lesson from this period now seems pretty clear. Some element of philosophical training should be a precondition for the full professionalism of teachers and academics. This is not to say that arguments for Derrida and his ilk should not be advanced, but that they should be advanced and tested philosophically rather than accepted on faith. Nor should Searle’s “metaphysical realism” – the view that there is a real world independent of language and that knowledge of it is possible – be seen as some automatic protection against the dark arts of extreme relativism. Where Theory is given shelter – increasingly, this includes schools and teaching colleges – its most intellectually respectable opponents should be invited too. Wherever Derrida, then Searle.

* Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent. Edited by Daphne Patai and Will H Corral. Columbia University Press. 725pp. $62.


Written by Admin

January 30, 2006 at 11:13 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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