Scott Eric Kaufman has been teasing us for a while now, in various settings, with the fact that he has been working on a piece on the history of theory in the ’70s and ’80s. He has now posted a draft of the piece at Acephalous – shorn, apparently, of its conclusion – and is inviting comments: head on over, if you haven’t already had a look, as the piece is both interesting in its own terms, and also provides the potential for a much more grounded discussion of some of the substantive issues that shoot through the cross-blog “theory wars”.
As always seems to happen with me, my own reaction to this piece is somewhat side on and arguably not terribly relevant to what Scott is trying to do. I liked Scott’s draft: it’s well written and structured, offers a cogent critique of the limitations and distorting effects of a certain form of socialisation into theoretical work, and builds toward recommendations for the creation of new institutional spaces for interdisciplinary exchange oriented toward the testing of theoretical concepts – recommendations that I think are sound and that I would wholehearedly endorse. So on the level of direct and immediate response to the piece, I have very little substantive to add.
Instead, I found myself thinking back on a series of comments Scott made at Long Sunday, in the most recent edition of the “theory wars” debate. In that discussion, Scott gestured toward what I would call his “standpoint of critique” – outlining some normative standards for making judgments about theoretical approaches, and gesturing toward an explanation for how he would “ground” those standards – how he would self-reflexively account for and justify such normative standards, not by relativising them as individual idiosyncracies, but as collectively available forms of critical thought. While reading his draft, I found myself thinking about how it might manifest the positions he outlined in the Long Sunday discussion – and, especially, wondering whether thinking through some of the implications of that standpoint might cast some of the claims he makes in his draft in a slightly different light.
What I’d like to do here is think around a few of these issues very briefly – not with critical intention, but in an exploratory, open-ended way. I should also note that I fully recognise the dangers of trying to pull someone’s theoretical position out of a rapid-fire online debate, so my goal here is not to hold Scott to the positions he outlined in the Long Sunday discussion – I don’t make any assumptions that he regards these gestural comments as the best articulations of his views, or even that I have understood his statements as he intended them. My goal is more to use Scott’s intervention into this recent debate as a convenient touchstone for thinking through some of the issues that arise when we engage in normative judgments of competing theoretical approaches.
Note that, in trying to reconstruct Scott’s position for purposes of this post, I’ll pull some of Scott’s statements out of the order in which they unfolded in the discussion – Long Sunday doesn’t seem to let me link to individual comments, so apologies if this structure of presentation is a bit confusing for anyone trying to track back to the original context. Apologies, as well, that lack of time on my end doesn’t allow a more adequate discussion of these issues, which are both interesting and important, and deserve a more thorough and adequate treatment than I’ll currently be able to provide.
I want to start by drawing attention to Scott’s delightful response to a critic who complained about Scott’s use of a “historicist gambit” to reach for an outside normative perspective from which to pass judgment on specific kinds of theory. With characteristic cleverness, Scott picked up on the term and wielded it to explain the theoretical strategy underlying his approach:
“Historicist gambit” is a good way to characterize it, only in the chess instead of colloquial sense: I play the Historicist gambit knowing that it’ll require certain sacrifices be made; increase the likelihood of certain positions over others; &c. I play this game because I think it’s what’ll best allow me to “win,” i.e. accurately describe the object before me, be it a poem, novel, intellectual trend, &c. I aware of the price I pay and have accepted to play within the limits I’ve imposed upon myself; in short, I know it’s a gambit and what that entails.
The alternative, in my experience, has been to fetishize immanence and make arguments about the relation of one body of thought to another as if they existed outside institutions, as if theoretical work transpired in a Platonic realm of Ivory Towers (to borrow from Jeff Williams). It doesn’t, and never has. Institutional forces have always existed, always deformed thought, and a proper institutional history accounts for both the interplay of ideas and the context in which that interplay took place. To do the latter, you’re forced to play the Historicist Gambit.
Against another critic who objected that Scott’s version of historicisation was a form of critical “relegation”, Scott demurs:
Not really. It acknowledges the fate of all things to become, you know, historical. Ignoring the longue durée in favor of a radical presentism warps any examination, regardless of the object. Now, the durée here may not actually be all that longue, so to speak, but the principle remains the same.
And, in another exchange, Scott argues that his approach offers a critical standpoint outside of, but relevant to, the theoretical approaches that are the objects of his critique:
You decline to answer your own hypothetical question, mourning a foreclosure without considering the claims you made earlier — namely, that certain groups are constituted by their internal debates…
In other words, this post seems like little more than an attempt by the trees to declare where the forest ends. Which is fine. Always happens. However, the trees need a little humility, need to recognize that those outside the forest may have some insight into where it ends — may, in fact, have a perspective the trees can’t even imagine.
Not fun thoughts, I know, but there’s no escaping them. History will happen to us all, one day.
Wonderful, condensed statements – let’s see if we can unpack at least a few of their implications. I take the last statement to indicate that Scott is, in fact, looking for a standpoint – a position from which a phenomenon can be judged. He seems somewhat uncomfortable with the notion that his standpoint might be a normative one – repeatedly attempting to sidestep this issue by appealing to concepts like the adequacy of his analysis to its object, or some notion of either pragmatic grasp or sober factual accuracy. Personally, I don’t think this sidestep is necessary – trying to locate a standpoint that enables you to see what an object “is”, or to judge a theoretical approach based on whether it grasps a dimension of experience adequately, is simply making a normative judgment with reference to a tacit ideal of truth. The desire to make such judgments is, in my opinion, nothing to be ashamed of – and trying to downplay the intrinsically judgmental aspect of this approach can in my opinion have only negative consequences – both in terms of undermining our own ability consciously to reflect on, and refine, our ideals, and in terms of causing the negative reactions of others – who feel criticised, and rightly – to appear to be unmotivated and unreasonable, when in fact these reactions make perfect sense as responses to the sting of the critique. If, as Scott suggests, this is a game – a strategy – then surely it is a critical one – and we therefore owe it to ourselves and to those we criticise to articulate our own normative standards as explicitly as possible – and to defend those standards by providing a plausible account for why anyone else should embrace them.
It is at this point, though, that Scott’s “game” metaphor – with its tacit Weberian imagery that suggests that other standpoints may be as readily chosen and defended as analytical means, if we have pledged fealty to a different set of substantive ends – begins to appear in tension with the sorts of judgments he seems to want to make. Those judgments seem to involve some notion that things change over time – and that an “adequate” analysis must somehow be able to capture this historical dimension of its object. They involve some notion of self-reflexivity: “history will happen to us all” – a statement that presumably captures the theorist/historian, as well as the object of their analysis, and suggests the need for a self-reflexive application of normative standards and analytical techniques to the person undertaking a critical analysis of theoretical approaches.
Those judgments also seem to involve a notion that there is some context to which a theorist/historian can achieve access that transcends the concrete social relationships embodied in institutions – I say this realising that the claim may sound slightly ironic, as Scott makes strong argumentative claims about the need to locate knowledge within institutions, but I regard this as a position required by Scott’s strong assertion of self-reflexivity: if we’re all caught up in history, and if we reject the notion that thought might bounce off against other thought in some kind of ungrounded Platonic space, then we cannot think or behave – at least if we value consistency – as though our own thought escapes this frame. If we find that we can “see through” or gain some “outside” perspective on the limitations or distortions caused by particular institutions, then this perspective must also somehow be “inside” our historical context in some broader sense – suggesting that there is some position that is both historically embedded, and yet transcendent of particular institutional contexts.
If Scott were asserting incommensurability – if he weren’t expecting for his critique to persuade, to appeal to normative standards others could in principle understand – this self-reflexive standard could be met by some notion of duelling institutional contexts: Scott caught up in his, the objects of his criticism caught up theirs, and Scott’s critical analysis a sort of performance or enactment of his institutional space, rather than something aimed at meaningful and mutual engagement with his interlocutors. I take it, however, that Scott does intend to engage in some form of mutual interaction – and that he does posit, if only very tacitly, the existence of some level of historical context that makes such an engagement plausible.
This tacit view is reflected, I would suggest, in some of the metaphors Scott uses in the Long Sunday debate – where, for example, he criticises those caught up in the trees, from the standpoint of someone standing outside the forest – suggesting that he somehow feels he stands “outside” what he analyses critically – or recognises tacitly that his position might require some notion of a standpoint not caught up in the institutional space that is the object of its critique, to make sense of the form of argument he puts forward. If we combine this notion that there is some standpoint that transcends particular institutions – thus rendering them permeable to our critical gaze – with the notion that all things are historical, and that the theorist/historian are themselves caught up in the same sorts of historical processes they also want to analysis, then we end up with a tacit notion that our critique is unfolding within a somewhat complex historical context: a context that, on the one hand, gives us the ability to perceive certain distorting effects of institutional spaces while, on the other, provides us with access to some standpoint that is not fully encompassed by those same institutional spaces, and from which those institutions could therefore be judged, in ways where the validly of the judgment has at least some potential to be understood by those “inside”. This approach doesn’t mean, however, that the theorist/historian stands outside of history, or of context – history will happen to all of us – but rather that they are applying a perspective offered by one dimension of an overarching historical context, to perceive, make sense of, and judge some of the tendencies visible in a different dimension of that same historical context.
So we find ourselves in the position where critics – and this was manifest in a number of the responses Scott received in the Long Sunday discussion – demand: Historicist! Embed thyself! – and then take the failure to do this as a sign of the invalidity or bad faith of the original critique. My position is that this is a fair call – not in the sense that I take Scott’s critique to be invalid or in bad faith, but in the sense that the historically-embedded, self-reflexive nature of normative ideals invoked by this approach does, in fact, make it incumbent on us to “close the loop” and apply to ourselves the same sorts of analytical strategies we apply to others – and to do this in such a way that we can account for the normative standards to which we appeal. When we fail to close the loop, we appear to be removing ourselves from the frame – asserting a privileged position that others, quite understandably, wonder why they can’t just claim for themselves. If we don’t want this to happen, I suspect we need to eliminate the position – not just by asserting as a stance that such a position doesn’t exist, but by unfolding a more consistent self-reflexive critique that provides us with a more consistent means of grounding our normative judgments.
So… These were the thoughts I carried with me into reading Scott’s draft. I won’t summarise the draft in detail – it is really worth reading in its own right, and I can’t stress strongly enough how metatheoretical issues of the sort I’m raising here really don’t connect in any direct way with this piece, which is an intervention – and an important one – driving toward the creation of cross-disciplinary spaces for theoretical debate. For present purposes, I intend only to isolate out a few specific moments of the draft, in order to pose some questions about what it might look like, what impact it might have, to think this piece in relation to the sorts of normative standards I’ve sketched above.
On one level, Scott presents us with a tragedy of unintended consequences: new publication technologies, which on one level were liberatory for their ability to open up spaces for the discussion of marginalised areas of research, also facilitated the rise of isolated and balkanised intellectual micro-communities that incubated mutually-reinforcing in-group discourses and promoted hyper-specialisation and the growth of sub-sub-disciplines – fragmenting intellectual discourse and undermining the ability to recognise commonalities or to benefit from external critique. This process was further augmented by a canonisation of significant theoretical texts into a series of anthologies that were intended to raise the theoretical sophistication of the field by propagating important critical theoretic concepts. Unfortunately, the impact of such anthologies on pedagogical practice undermined this intended effect, resulting in a form of socialisation into theory as an eclectic and dehistoricised toolkit from which students were encouraged to mix and match ill-fitting conceptual tools. A somewhat more tacit narrative suggests that these technological and pedagogical shifts were spun in these particular directions – with these specific unintended consequences – in partial response to the broader context of the transformation of the academic job market in the 1970s and 1980s.
The consequence, Scott suggests, was a kind of institutionalisation of practically – if not necessarily intellectually – incommensurable micro-communities, alongside a general decline in the institutional and personal capacity to engage in serious and sustained critical debates across theoretical divides. This institutionalisation has progressed to the point where it is difficult to see where such engagements would take place, in the absence of the creation of fundamentally new kinds of institutional environments – a position Scott underscores with a poignant concluding quotation from Vijay Prashad, issuing a clarion call for overcoming the balkanised intellectual micro-communities that have developed in ethnic studies, but relegated to publishing this demand in the specialist Journal of Asian American Studies.
So Scott offers a clear, critical vision, articulated in the form of an historical account of how his object of critique has come to be. He advocates for the creation of new institutional spaces for interdisciplinary exchange – with a tacit nod to the internet as a potential technological enabler. He also puts forward some interesting critical standards – particularly in the form of a concept of “dialectical pluralism”, a strategy in which communities that share very few substantive assumptions might nevertheless benefit from the refinement that comes through the confrontation with fundamentally divergent theoretical and empirical traditions. While Scott uses the vocabulary of “incommensurability” in discussing such communities, he also appeals to a sort of meta-context of communicative ideals – those expressed in the notion that discussion amongst communities ought to take place based on “an aggressive commitment to strong beliefs, weakly held” – that point to a background network of shared norms that are conceptualised, at least potentially, to be comprehensible by, and defensible to, communities that might make claims that are incommensurable on other levels of abstraction.
I’m sympathetic to such ideals. And yet I found myself wondering how Scott might “close the loop” – how he might explain – in terms of the sorts of analytical strategies and concepts in which he unfolds his critique of theoretical eclecticism – the historical ground for the alternative he advocates. He evidently doesn’t believe his position has yet achieved institutional form – this is precisely why he would write a piece such as this, which is clearly conceptualised as an intervention into a still-open field of historical potentials, in which such interventions might be hoped to have an impact on the subsequent course of history. Moreover, his normative standards retain the qualitative distinction between local, concrete contexts – particular intellectual communities – and some kind of overarching set of normative ideals that transcend those local incommensurabilities and ground the potential for some kind of productive cross-communal discussion. Such positions suggest that we understand our historical context to be comprised of more than already-realised institutions, more than concrete and self-constituting communities. What is this “more”, though – and can we conceptualise such a thing while still meeting the standards of thinking that “history will happen to all of us”, and that the theorist/historian therefore cannot be conceptualised as somehow residing outside the frame?
It is here that I began to worry a bit about what might be a small slippage in the draft – a small tension between the unfolding of the critique, and the sorts of normative standards that Scott suggests he might be trying to uphold in the Long Sunday discussion. By failing to analyse his own historical position – to embed himself, as he tries to embed the objects of his critique – Scott risks being, I think, misunderstood in ways that might then undermine receptiveness to his quite important normative goals. Tacitly, this piece suggests an opposition between how it analyses the past – the “fogbank” that resulted from the unfortunate and unintended consequences of technological and pedagogical shifts – and Scott’s own position that, because it is never historicised in the same way, is presented in the text as though it emerges from… clear thinking… As though Scott has somehow reasoned himself out of the dilemmas of an earlier, and now visibly problematic, approach to theory. I found myself wondering whether this argumentative option remains available, once we begin to say things like “history will happen to all of us”. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to talk about the sort of historical shifts that help make Scott’s own critical perspective more plausible, more historically intuitive, at our current moment – so that we can understand our own critique as itself something historically achieved? And wouldn’t this react back, at least a bit, on the critique itself – orienting our enquiry toward reasons that an earlier articulation of theory might have been, in fact, adequate in some specific ways to its own moment – even if, for determinate reasons, it might no longer be adequate to ours.
Scott invokes the phrase “Hegelian seriousness” at key strategic moments throughout his piece. I suppose thoughts of Hegel for me always involve thoughts of determinate negation – and I became curious what form Scott’s critique might take, if it were to take the form of such a negation. Perhaps it would involve an investigation of the way in which theoretical eclecticism might make more intuitive sense during periods of rapid and dramatic transformation – might appeal in ways that make it easier for people to overlook the downsides Scott identifies so well, and might even be justifiable in some senses Scott might not explicitly canvas. Perhaps the fact that we can no longer find it in ourselves to overlook the downsides of such theoretical approaches also tells us something – perhaps it should send us casting about for reasons that we have become so sensitive to a different constellation of problems and of potentials, a constellation that drives us to advocate for a new period of institutional reform. It may be that a dose of “Hegelian seriousness” might react back, at least a bit, on the way in which historicisation is tacitly equated with the study of institutionalisation in some of Scott’s statements, sensitising us to investigate the sorts of irritants that drive dissatisfaction with existing institutions, and motivate the responsiveness to proposals for institutional transformation…
None of which is to suggest that I think all of these issues should be covered in Scott’s article – even if Scott were to agree with this line of questioning, a single article will never juggle all of these issues, and articles written as interventions need to strive for a particular clarity in their advocacy, and can’t be bogged down in the sorts of epistemological and ontological minutiae I’ve been raising here. So I suppose what I’m offering is more on the level of associations around Scott’s piece, wondering what approach might allow such an argument to be made self-reflexively, in a form adequate to the insight that “history will happen to us all”…
Updated: Just wanted to note that Scott has now posted on this subject at The Valve and Acephalous, in case folks should want to follow the discussion around and about those parts. For my part, I have to get back to my day (and night, and all hours in between) job before orange. draws attention once more to my persistent contradictory, procrastinatory nature… ;-P
Updated 19 Feb: Just a quick update to point to Eileen Joy’s thoughtful response to Scott’s piece, posted at the group blog In the Middle (and also at Acephalous). The response is complex, and should be read in its own right. Briefly, Joy contests key aspects of Scott’s analysis of the technological drivers of “balkanisation”, suggests that he may overstate the impact of anthologisation on pedagogical practice, at least at the postgraduate level, and worries that Scott’s normative standpoint tacitly points to a totalising, “disciplinary” and “masculinist”/agonistic ideal of theoretical engagement. Joy suggests that eclecticism could equally – and less problematically – be overcome through deep, specialist immersion in a small number of texts from a chosen theoretical tradition.
And (a bit later in the day) to point to Scott Eric Kaufman’s round-the-web review of responses to his piece.
Updated 21 Feb: And the discussion continues to flow, picked up by Jodi Dean at Long Sunday (cross-posted from I Cite). Jodi picks up on Eileen Joy’s post (which itself continues to provoke an excellent discussion over at In the Middle), and draws attention to the ramifications of this kind of theoretical debate when we expand our frame of reference outside the academy, and consider the real-world political stakes of what could otherwise be confused for a debate over academic turf. Jodi also queries some points Rich Puchalsky has raised in the discussion here about a commitment to incommensurability – arguing that, while Rich’s framing of the issue implies some kind of willed argumentative stance, the core issue is more one of competing ontological claims. Jodi concludes (but folks really should read her post in its entirety):
For me, incommensurability isn’t something one is committed to or not. It’s a description of the world (I prefer the term collapse of symbolic efficiency) that one can try to refute, resolve, deny, or accommodate. Generosity toward incommensurable views or positions is one mode of accommodation. In the political world, this is rarely possible (modus vivendi is one fragile possibility). In the academic world, it is often decided/determined budgetarily, but remains as a site of conflict and contestation–actually, not unlike in the political world. Perhaps, though, conflict over the details, the working through of momentary compromises is not trivial. Perhaps it is a kind of inching forward toward a necessarily impossible and unattainable resolution.