Tuesday, July 27, 2010

On the ahistoricity of contemporary theoretical training

Allow me to apologize, first of all, for the inadequacy, crudeness and potential arrogance of the critique that follows. I'm aware of the shortcomings of such arm-chair analyses, but I nevertheless think this one has at least some import. Here goes.

So, I've noticed something about the way that what's called "theory" is taught and reproduced in the humanities in universities: it seems utterly bereft of historical awareness.

This ahistoricity, if you'll grant me such an awkward locution, manifests itself at many different levels. The first is at the level of the (graduate) student and the theoretical positions she confronts in learning "the canon" (whatever that may be). That is to say, the student of contemporary "theory" confronts a set of theoretical texts that are historically unstuck and apparently timeless. Importantly, I don't have "conservative" texts in mind at all: I'm thinking in particular (though not exclusively) about the way that contemporary French thought is taught, thought about, and presented to students in the United States.

It is now commonplace for students of what is called "theory" or "critical theory" or "continental philosophy" or "critical thought" or whatever to imagine that there is a set of texts, written by "great thinkers", whom one must have read in order to be competent. (I note that I don't place words like "theory" or "continental philosophy" in scarequotes because I oppose them as such; on the contrary, I am interested in many of the things often subsumed under such labels. I place them scarequotes because the words themselves are used in a such a loose way these days that it's difficult to know what they're supposed to mean).

Say that someone is interested in Foucault. For many students in their 20s, he isn't really subversive at all; he is part of a group of timeless figureheads of a contemporary "canon". So, according to this ahistorical posture of reverence, a thinker like Foucault, whose work can hardly be said to be a coherent system, is no longer an ex-Marxist student of Althusser who made many different interventions into a variety of intellectual/political conversations. Instead he's a merely a brick in the wall of this contemporary "canon". Althusser is also an interesting case; few students of "theory" read him any more, but people are familiar with him insofar as he is a "precursor" to, say, Foucault in particular. And if such students are aware of Marx at all, it only through the distorted lens of this reified Althusser. The same could be said of Derrida and the way in which students find themselves drawn to Heidegger qua predecessor to Derrida. Accordingly, the "Heidegger" they encounter is an ossified "Great Man" whose work has no meaningful connection to the history of German thought, or God forbid, real material history (complete with such "vulgar" components as economic changes, social struggle, politics, etc).

Fredric Jameson was right on target when he claimed that he feels "a real sense of exasperation with the terms in which our relationship to theorists (mostly continental) is generally staged." He continued as follows.
What bothers me... is the transformation of various thinkers...into brand names for autonomous political systems. In this...[thought] has been infected by the logic of commodity culture in general: where the organization of consumption around brand names determines a quasi-religious conversion, first to the great modern artists -you convert to Proust, or D.H. Lawrence, or to Faulkner, etc. -all purportedly incompatible, but every so often one switches religions; and then in a later stage to the theorists, so that one now converts to Heidegger, or Ricoeur, or Derrida, or Wayne Booth, or Gadamer, or de Man.
The problem with this phenomenon, as Jameson put it, can most easily be put in Marxist terms:
For Marxism there is no purely autonomous "history of ideas" or "history of philosophy". Conceptual works are also, implicitly, responses to concrete situations and conjunctures, of which the national situation remains, even in our multinational age, a very significant framework. Understanding Althusser, for example, therefore means first and foremost understanding the sense and function of his conceptual moves in the France of the 1960s; but when one does that, then the transferability of those former thoughts, now situational responses, to other national situations such as our own, in the U.S., becomes a problematical undertaking. (see Jameson's 1982 interview in Diacritics for more)
This basically says everything I'd want to say about the matter. Knowing the historical conjuncture in which a theoretical intervention is made, its practical intent, and so forth are crucial.

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