Friday, 31 August 2007

'The liberals can be just as bad...'

Another quote plucked from the (electronic) lips of Ms. E.A. Black, and just something that's struck me as true lately. Or, in some cases, it might be more apt to say that the conservatives can be just as bad. It all depends upon what quadrant of the political compass the status quo lies really.

First case in point.

Wheen makes a lot of good points about political beaurocracy, purposefully opaque intellectual posturing and pseudo-scientific mysticism. Unfortunately chapter after chapter is crammed with abominable non-sequiturs, offering his Mail-reading fanbase a chance to dismiss anything that is difficult to understand by tarring it with the same bullshit brush waved at much easier targets, such as astrology.

Let's just say there is a lot of intellectual foul-play on Wheen's (and his peers') part at hand. One of the most dishonest critical, intellectual, even scientific practices is to take the exception and hold it up as the rule - or to take the extreme and present it as the commonplace. So critical theory takes a bashing by way of some daft excesses in the field of feminist theory (Luce Irigaray's notorious criticism of E=mc2 as a 'sexed equation' because it values the speed of light over other equally necessary forces is just one example of her barminess) and linguistics (the otherwise groundbreaking Saussure, who equates the 'erectile organ' to the square root of minus one). Writers such as Wheen and Dawkins, and no doubt many more, have followed this with some kind of withering reference to 'trendy French philosophers', usually namechecking Foucault or Deleuze/Guattari. And just like that, in a breath, the whole French tradition has been swept under the rug. Barthes' accessible, emotionally frank and at times moving works, gone. Foucault's extensive histories of sexuality, dismissed.

Second case in point. (Be sure to read the liner notes at the bottom of the page.)

Critical and cultural theory is a much maligned field of academic study, and the embarassing truth is that a lot of it is dismissed simply because it is goddamned hard. Derrida is infamously capricious in his thinking, and certainly not one I would put forward as an ambassador for the the utility of cultural studies, but even this trickster offers a wonderful glimpse into the way we order the world, if persevered with.

A lot of it is also dismissed, however, as part of a trend (sometimes) mistakenly labelled as 'postmodernism', misconstrued as a kind of 'anything goes' philosophy where everything is relative and there is no truth. There are thinkers like this, but again, they are not representative. This is what I meant in the opening paragraph. The liberals can be terrible for all sorts of reasons - I'm applying it to something of specific interest to me here - but mainly because they can be too easily lost in theory. The conservatives are too wary of theory, often describing what is essentially their own worldview, with its peaks and troughs of knowledge about that world, as 'common sense' or 'the real world' (the latter will grate particularly on graduate students!).

Why does cultural theory come in for such a hard time? So much political writing is dross, and yet we count it as an essential part of human intellectual endeavour. English Literature is an outdated institution (especially the way it is currently taught) and yet we cling to it and defend it, even if a degree in English Literature is as relevant - or, I would suggest, less relevant - than a degree in Cultural Studies. There is one reason I would dare to suggest, and it is this: Cultural Studies is new, which means that (a) it is treated with hostility and derision, because it does not carry the historical distinction of better aquainted academic studies, (b) it is simply less understood. There is a lot of crap written under the banner of Cultural Studies, like there is for any of the Humanities. And yet, as I have only very briefly pointed towards, it already carries a rich history of its own, in danger of being ignorantly washed away under the tidal wave of 'anti-postmodernist' rhetoric.

Never has the baby been thrown out for the sake of so little bathwater.


E. Black said...

First of all, I'm madly in love with Irigaray, but you know my love-hate, sometimes even hate-hate relationship with feminist theory. She drives me nuts at times but her analysis of discourse is really, really important for someone who is aspiring to be a female poet. I just finished an essay using Irigaray to go through Emily Dickinson's Master Letters. Maybe someday I'll sting your eyes with it.

Secondly, there is the love-hate thing with theory in general. I understand the importance of it, but I also get really worked up sometimes thinking about how it's essentially preaching to the choir. I could go into a year long rant about what I mean by that, but I think you'll understand. But then, again, with poetry I have no room to talk. Most of the time it feels like a nasty closed little circle that wavers between being an egotistical, self-congratulatory exculsive clique and something that only poets give a shit about anyway.

But does it matter? Not really. I'm going to keep reading feminist theory, theory in general and poetry. Which I guess brings up my biggest argument in the "against" category for theory -- for fuck's sake, just shut the fuck up and do what you're going to do.

M.N. said...

Yeah. This was why I spent a good while planning for my dissertation to be a cultural study of Cultural Studies.

Because (and I guess this is one of my main points) Cultural Studies is an institution unto itself. Matt Hills, a Cardiff Media lecturer, wrote a pretty important book on this, How To Do Things With Cultural Theory, which I will lend you if you ever make it over to the U.K. again.

A lot of it relates to Judith Butler's theory of performativity which, again, I just think is fucking invaluable.

And I guess you've come across Butler what with her stuff on gender. She's a cyborg you know. Mm-hmm.