shannon_mattern + ums + theory   8

No Theoryheads Allowed: My 2000s & Wayne Koestenbaum | The Hairpin
Humanities grad school is replete with so-called theoryheads—students, mostly dudes, who love to speak as unintelligently as possible and lord their affection for dead and living white guys who’ve done the same over them. And they are, almost to the person, the fucking worst.

To be fair, I hadn’t been educationally reared in the theory tradition. My background was all formalism and historicism, which is another way of saying that my undergrad professors had taught me to “close read” a film and figure out the historical things that made it what it was, but steered clear of theory. This meant that in my first weeks of grad school, I was making serious frenemies of Althusser, Lacan, and Derrida, whose French punning scarred me so badly that I shamefully still can’t return to it. Non-theoryhead-cheatsheet: these were guys who wrote about a.) how society works and/ or b.) how our own psychology/ subjectivity works.

I hated it. Not because it was hard, per se (I’d loved Calculus 3, and that was hard), but because it all seemed so knotted, esoteric, masculine. It felt like every guy who’d ever mansplained me, only he was French and using words that no one—not even SAT tests—ever used.

...it’s no coincidence that the professors who made theory make sense were a mix of women and queer men—academics with no vested interest in upholding the dominance of inaccessible, super masculine, theoryhead men in the academy. In short order, I fell for Barthes, rethought my position on Althusser, and found myself enthralled by Julia Kristeva, the sole female voice amongst the French Dude Club, with her bewitching theories of abjection, e.g. the things we label, as a society, as gross and undesirable.
theory  UMS  media_theory  chauvinism 
september 2013 by shannon_mattern
Further Materials Toward a Theory of the Man-Child – The New Inquiry
Tiqqun can insist, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that the Young-Girl is “obviously not a gendered concept” because it knows that we know that it knows this. Tiqqun uses works of Continental philosophy in the same way that schoolyard bullies use in-jokes: as passwords that grant access to a protected inner circle. Tiqqun assumes that readers will assume that writers so well versed in texts that have spoken truth to ­power could not really hate women. The prestige of the theoretical vocabulary that Tiqqun’s members have mastered bolsters their credibility...

Because Tiqqun’s collage does not attribute sources, we can read any given passage in disavowing quotation marks, as a lightning bolt of original insight, or as both. Publishing anonymously is only a backup measure for evading responsibility...

In each case, a speaker insists that he is not saying what he says. If we accept a standard definition of verbal irony as saying one thing while meaning another, the comedians and Tiqqun both appeal to their identities to control the contexts in which they are understood. Claiming that its mastery of the misogynist philosophical tradition entitles it to do this, Tiqqun steps into what looks a lot like an old-­fashioned patriarchal role.

Even when adopted by radical theory, this knowing posture is conservative. Knowingness is the attitude that allows sexism to persist in progressive institutions that you would expect to know better, precisely because you would. When casual sexism pervades leftist theory, one assumes it is ironic; when progressive institutions ignore gender politics, one assumes this is because struggles for equality have already been won, or must be deferred so we can attend to more pressing political needs. Intellectuals tend to show class allegiance, bracketing or ignoring casual sexism in their own circles. They project misogyny outward, onto Middle America megachurches and racialized others, or onto the powerful men that pander to those masses...

Tiqqun resembles the mainstream Man-Child to the extent that everything that it does is a delaying tactic, a way of putting off the future. The rhetorical strategy of Theory of the Young-Girl is to remain undecidable: Its self-ironizing speaker refuses to settle the question of whether the book is in fact ­sexist or just impersonating someone sexist in order to make its point. The trait that everyone has recognized as endemic among men, and many young women, of our generation is i­ndecision.

Both postures spring from a fearful refusal to take a position, to make a choice among alternatives that feel compromised. The bourgeois Man-Child who refuses to “grow up,” refuses to mate, and refuses domestic labor resembles the radical who wants to bide his time until capitalism collapses from within.
theory  media_theory  UMS  feminism  sexism 
july 2013 by shannon_mattern
Theory cults – The New Inquiry
Those graduate-school years form a hole in my personal history; I struggle to reconstruct the logic that led me to the choices I made. Sometimes it seems as if I had fallen in with a cult whose indoctrination tactics involved forcing impoverished recruits like me to drink gallons of coffee between contentious three-hour self-criticism sessions, from which I’ve struggled over the past decade to deprogram myself.

In the seminars I took, there was a groveling intensity with regard to recondite questions of theoretical doctrine, itself an eclectic amalgam of often contradictory tidbits from Lacan disciples, scientific Marxists, Russian formalists, speculative linguists, etc., as well as the innumerable literary scholars who mash them up. That the rest of the world, even the rest of the university community, seemed to treat my corner of grad school with benign neglect seemed proof of the tragedy of the outsiders’ blinkered existence. It made perfecting our own study of doctrine — honing it to a level of impenetrable hermeticism that would nonetheless somehow make it irresistible to the world — seem that much more urgent...

Durign graduate school, I made the exciting discovery that jargon can be talismanic. Wielding words like cathexis and interpellation in a seminar room gave me a distinct feeling of power. It wasn’t just about using them correctly, but being the sort of person who had occasion to use them, and people who would nod at their deployment. Webster argues that in Lacan’s work, “concepts which have been introduced in one place are rarely if ever clarified by references to them elsewhere in his writing. But they are continually modified and overlaid with yet more layers of complexity and ostensible significance.” At its most intense, that’s what my graduate-school conversations were like, conducted in language that was ever more compressed and coded, no longer capable of being unpacked yet bearing the affect of so much high-pressure intellectual labor.

At the same time I read the Lacan article, I also read Lawrence Wright’s New Yorker article on Scientology. It was impossible not to discern parallels between Lacan and that other radical critic of psychoanalysis, L. Ron Hubbard, whose foundational text Dianetics is notoriously rife with similar dead-end allusiveness and interminable elaboration...

Hayakawa: "The art [of science fiction] consists in concealing from the reader, for novelistic purposes, the distinctions between established scientific facts, almost-established scientific hypotheses, scientific conjectures, and imaginative extrapolations far beyond what has even been conjectured. The danger of this technique lies in the fact that, if the writer of science-fiction writes too much of it too fast and too glibly and is not endowed from the beginning with a high degree of semantic self-insight (consciousness of abstracting), he may eventually succeed in concealing the distinction between his facts and his imaginings from himself."...

But the fact that graduate school seemed to me a cult probably says more about me and my inability to view education as anything other than “self-actualization” and personal growth. I wasn’t always discouraged from this view, but neither did I have it forced upon me. I never abstracted myself from the schooling process and would not accept it as simply a program of professionalization and preferential networking. I chose to cling instead to an impression of the university as a place obscurely designed to aggrandize my ego.
theory  academia  UMS  reading_theory 
january 2013 by shannon_mattern
The Practical and the Theoretical - NYTimes.com
Our society is divided into castes based upon a supposed division between theoretical knowledge and practical skill. The college professor holds forth on television, as the plumber fumes about detached ivory tower intellectuals. The felt distinction between the college professor and the plumber is reflected in how we think about our own minds... When we reflect, we are guided by our knowledge of truths about the world. By contrast, when we act, we are guided by our knowledge of how to perform various actions... According to the model suggested by this supposed dichotomy, exercises of theoretical knowledge involve active reflection, engagement with the propositions or rules of the theory in question that guides the subsequent exercise of the knowledge. Think of the chess player following an instruction she has learned for an opening move in chess. In contrast, practical knowledge is exercised automatically and without reflection. The skilled tennis player does not reflect on instructions before returning a volley — she exercises her knowledge of how to return a volley automatically.

...There are barriers in our society erected by a false dichotomy between practical work and theoretical reflection. If someone develops early on a skill at repairing cars, she may falsely assume that she will not be adept at literary analysis or theorem proving. This robs not only her of opportunities but also society of a potentially important contributor to literary analysis or mathematics. The reward structure of society also assumes it, reflected in both the pay and the cost of pursuing what are thought of as the theoretical pursuits. The supposed distinction also operates on an everyday level... The distinction between the practical and the theoretical is used to warehouse society into groups. It alienates and divides. It is fortunate, then, that it is nothing more than a fiction.
theory_practice  praxis  epistemology  learning  UMS  theory 
may 2012 by shannon_mattern
Is Theory Dead? | Republics of Letters: A Journal for the Study of Knowledge, Politics, and the Arts
Only a handful of born-again Theorists will refuse to acknowledge that the fundamental problem with Theory did not lie so much with the original works themselves (which is not to say they do not have their own problems), but with the ways in which they were used. Derrida can be annoying and mystifying, yet is usually a far more stimulating read than most Derrideans. In other words, the fundamental problem with Theory is that it stopped being theory. Derrida, or Lacan, or Deleuze, were not invoked to question, but to answer. The result was that the research always ended up validating the Theory, in an eternal, feedback-loop return. Theory always won...

If Theory is to survive, it must fall off its pedestal, and loose the capital. Foucault, Deleuze, and others will always remain a source of intellectual thrills, and should not be packed off to some new Enfer. But they, like every other theorist, should be read against the grain; only in this manner can they sharpen, rather than blunt, the mind. At the same time, the doors of theory must be opened wider: it is a curious parallel that at the very moment humanities professors were exploding the literary canon, they were cementing a most exclusive canon of Theory.
theory  academia  professional_practice  UMS 
may 2012 by shannon_mattern
Life After the Death of Theory - Advice - The Chronicle of Higher Education
...like many others, I learned how to fake it.

Theory became a kind of confidence trick: a means of reducing the impossible workload to a few catchphrases: "Puhleese, the author's intentions are irrelevant here." "Everything is political." "There is nothing but the text." They were like the applause lines used by politicians. And they always seemed to work in seminars. All that was required, ultimately, was conformity with a set of political beliefs...

For all its avowed radicalism, Theory seemed to stifle the possibility of dialogue at the time in my life when I most needed it. When anyone can take offense at anything, the safest thing to be is silent or incomprehensible.

What graduate student has not felt the chill of failing to grasp someone's theoretical allusion in a seminar? Of a growing awareness that you are, by process of elimination, being coerced into offering some comment of support on a complex concept about which you know almost nothing? But you must say something...

Theory with a capital T grew up with the expansion of graduate programs and the adjunctification of higher education during the last 30 years. It was a ticket to success for a charmed circle of insiders: a few people at elite institutions with the connections and advance knowledge to get in and out of the game before the general rush...

And now it seems like everyone is rushing to get out with what's left of their devalued stock. Famous scholars such as Henry Louis Gates, Homi Bhabha, and Terry Eagleton have announced that "theory is dead."...

I believe that literary and cultural theory can be subtle, learned, passionate, and aesthetically pleasing. And, of course, on a basic level, it is impossible to be a critic without some kind of theory. To claim to have no theory is like pretending to have perfect objectivity. We're all theorists now, and, ultimately, my grievance with theory has more to do with the credulousness of some secondhand practitioners than with the judicious application of various theories themselves.

I want my students to see theory as a means of shedding partial light on texts -- not a set of self-righteous dogmas that make literature irrelevant except as grist for the political mill. I want them to question the fundamental assumptions of everything, including theory itself. I want my students to know how to talk the talk, so that they will not have to be intimidated by the cynical use of jargon. I want them to avoid the tendency of Theory -- as it is too often practiced -- to define in painstaking detail the mote in thy brother's eye while ignoring the beam in thine own.

And, in the process, I am trying to teach myself not to care about the "Next Big Thing."
UMS  theory  academic_discourse  professional_practice  awesome 
may 2012 by shannon_mattern
ARCADE: Literature, the Humanities, and the World
"Despite the wane of theory, we are still told that literary study must be made "rigorous" through the "application" of various kinds of theory. Unfortunately, each theory or theoretical tradition is taught to us only in partial or fragmentary form, either in "Introduction to Theory" courses or as secondary reading in traditionally (historically, formally) denominated courses. E.g., Let's read a helping of queer theory with our early modern drama! This gives birth to a theoretical "mash-up" culture, in which radically incompatible theories populate our arguments. E.g., I'm a Lacanian postMarxist deeply concerned with a Spinozan debates surrounding postcolonial ethics, especially in relation to the Victorian novel!"
writing  research  ums  professional_practice  academia  theory 
may 2010 by shannon_mattern

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