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Weekend reflections

December 11th, 2004

A bit late but weekend reflections is back.

It’s your chance to make comments on any topic of your choosing, to be written and read at the leisurely pace of the weekend. I welcome pieces a little longer than the usual comments, but not full-length essays. If you want to draw attention to something longer, try an extract or summary with a link. As usual, civilised discussion and no coarse language. After some nasty recent experiences, I will be more vigorous than ever in policing this rule.

As is usual when I cover certain topics, a couple of posts have produced flame wars, and I have closed comments (meanwhile, the R-word thread has veered off into the 11-th dimension, and I’ve let it run). Anyway, if you have substantial comments you wanted to make on topics where comments are closed, here’s your chance.

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  1. Nabakov
    December 11th, 2004 at 10:08 | #1

    I have nothing to say and now I’ve said it.

  2. December 11th, 2004 at 11:41 | #2

    Aussies hit the deconstructionists out of the ground

    The high priests of modern literary theory have enjoyed a charmed life. Literary scholars are intimidated by the mixture of literature and philosophy so they give them the benefit of the doubt without actually understanding them, while they like to think that the theory of literature
    has reached unprecedented heights of phistication.

    Two Australian scholars with complementary skills teamed up to write arguably the best rejoinder that is available. Not a new book but a really
    good one. Richard Freadman and Seumas Miller, “Re-Thinking Theory: A critique of contemporary literary theory and an alternative account”. Cambridge University Press, 1992. Both Freadman and Miller have individual websites that are well worth a look. Miller wrote a particulary good essay on the decline of the universities which I will put on line when the webmistress has cleared a backlog of other work.

    Incidentally the webmistress has a site of her own at http://www.kilmenyniland.com

    This book is a brilliant and thorough critique of some of the unhelpful and potentially disastrous theories that have assumed dominance in literary studies and are becoming influential in wider circles including the history and philosophy of science.

    These theories, collectively known as deconstructionism or postmodernism, are vehicles for a set of doctrines that the authors have termed “constructivist anti-humanism”. These are:

    1. The denial of truth in reference.
    2. The repudiation of the individual subject.
    3. The dissolution of substantive moral and aesthetic evaluation.

    It needs to be understood that civilised life would be impossible on the planet if these ideas become as common in the general community as they are among avant garde students of literature, assuming that they are sincere and are not just promulgating outlandish ideas for kicks or for professional advancement.

    The new theory sets itself against the ‘old humanism’ which is said to lack rigor, self-awareness and methodological sophistication. Further, for reasons that are never explained, humanists are supposed to be committed to a conception of the self as atomistic and unconditioned, and to a conservative ideology that props up the status quo (capitalism).

    It is clear that the authors have impeccably progressive tendencies and their objections to constructivist anti-humanism are entirely conscientious and are not a concession to the forces of repression and reaction.

    The claims of the new theorists survive for the most part unchallenged in their own domain because it seems that students of literature and cognate cultural studies no longer read traditional literary texts or literary criticism to learn anything from them, but rather to subject them to dissection along the lines of the new theories.

    Not enough people are at home in both literature and philosophy to seriously challenge the new theorists and this book is the happy result of collaboration between authors located respectively in English and Philosophy. Freadman and Miller work their way through the major bodies of new theory; Althusserian Marxism; Derridean poststructuralism; Foucauldian Discourse Power Theory, using a nice combination of textual analysis and philosophical acumen. The result is devastating for the new theorists although the authors explain that they are not opposed to theory, just theories that are unhelpful and do not stand up to criticism.

    They conclude the book with an exposition and a defence of theory and criticism along lines that are at once humanistic, illuminating and rigorous. They pursue a number of commitments that run counter to the ‘theory’ paradigm: “One, that theory properly understood is not particular
    to constructivist anti-humanist thought; two, that substantive conceptions of the individual subject are indispensable, both in respect of literature and of politics; three, that language both literary and other, can give us access to significant features of a reality that is not itself a linguistic construct; four, that discourses of value, both aesthetic and moral, are indispensable; and, five, that the category ‘literature’ remains solid and valuable”.

  3. December 11th, 2004 at 11:56 | #3

    I have something to say. I just said it.

  4. John Quiggin
    December 11th, 2004 at 13:33 | #4

    Rafe, I think this is mostly of historical interest now: postmodernism is well and truly in decline, though of course no idea dies before its last adherent.

    Myself, I’d give most credit to Old Leftists like Allan Sokal for this welcome outcome.

  5. Mark Bahnisch
    December 11th, 2004 at 13:55 | #5

    John, I’d agree that postmodernism is in decline, which I think is a welcome development.

    But Rafe, before we get too steamed up about “deconstructionism” here’s a quote from the big D:

    I have never ‘put such concepts as truth, reference and the stability of interpretive contexts radically into question’ if ‘putting radically into question’ means contesting that there are and that there should be truth, reference and stable contexts of interpretation.

    I’ve recently written about Derrida. I will have something more to say in due course, but I’d firstly comment that the degree to which people actually read his work before dismissing him is abysmal. Derrida was incensed by what he described as a “wilful refusal to read” on the part of his critics, even ones of the stature of Habermas (although it’s worth noting that in 2002 he and Habermas issued a joint statement on s11) and the failure of opponents to follow the usual canons of academic argument – for instance, citing and engaging your opponents rather than caricaturing them. He called for an “ethics of reading”. It’s all there in the last section of ‘Limited Inc’ from which I was quoting.

    Since anti po/mo critiques are usually accompanied by a defence of scholarly values, it would be nice if their authors actually embodied same – for instance in understanding the distinction between postmodernism (ie Lyotard, Baudrillard) and post-structuralism (ie Derrida, Foucault). Having said that, I haven’t read the book that Rafe refers to, and it is a positive sign that it actually seems to have some productive proposals, rather than just the usual knife jobs and bewailing about the “end of western civ” etc…

  6. December 11th, 2004 at 15:07 | #6

    John, point taken, although Sokal and Bricmont had a focus that did not extend to include Derrida, for example. Also they put their foot into touch when they endorsed David Stove’s critique of Popper as one of the trailblazers for the new irrationalism. I reviewed their book “Fashionable Nonsense” on the Amazon US site
    http://www.amazon.com/gp/cdp/member-reviews/ACL845LEHNC7/104-4971405-5731141

    On Freadman and Miller, I have a long summary of the arguments in the book which will go on line in due course, people can email me for a copy in the meantime.

    Two of my excursions into literary theory can be found in the Rathouse.
    On the nature of the literary text – based on Karl Buhler’s theory of language.
    http://www.the-rathouse.com/popunchanged.html

    A philosophical rejoinder to the deconstructionists.
    http://www.the-rathouse.com/bartdeconstruct.html

  7. Bill O’Slatter
    December 11th, 2004 at 16:32 | #7

    This is from http://www.abc.net.au/rn/science/mind/stories/s1254556.htm
    “Firstly there is the reversal of a binary opposition so Derrida contends that various texts and ways of thinking are structured by certain oppositions. It might be man/woman, it might be good/evil, speech/writing, many different oppositions of that kind. So the first deconstructive move is to reverse the opposition and emphasise the previously secondary term. So if man is emphasised over woman, deconstruction would reverse that and strategically emphasise woman over man. That would be the first move. The second move would be then to try and destabilise that whole distinction, if you like, in this case between man and woman. It might be difficult for us to think about this but Derrida would attempt to destabilise those kind of distinctions, that’s the second move to corrupt the opposition—or contaminate, as he sometimes said.” This seems to me to be fairly reasonable if are using a particular model of communication.In fact steps one and two could be collapsed , and there is nothing new or unusual about this : just a more subtle Freudian slip : a set of meanings all of which jostle for power. We generally know the intended meaning but. I think that you could formalise this by a logic (on a finite space)on allowable strings: anyone know how to do this ? A value would be associated with each string giving its power.

  8. Mark Bahnisch
    December 11th, 2004 at 16:48 | #8

    Bill, that’s a neat summary. It’s been an age since I’ve done formal logic, but some readers might find the following book interesting:

    Samuel C. Wheeler’s Deconstruction as Analytical Philosophy.

    Wheeler argues that Derrida’s work is closer to analytical philosophy (particularly the work of Davidson, Quine and Wittgenstein) than many might think, and that there could be a valuable debate between the two paradigms.

  9. Mark Bahnisch
    December 11th, 2004 at 16:53 | #9

    The Wikpedia article on Derrida isn’t bad and there’s a good obit in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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