Thursday, July 28, 2011

Text and Method: A discussion of Reed Way Dasenbrock’s Truth and Consequences

Reed Dasenbrock’s Truth and Consequences has given me much to think about. It is a relief to read a text so devoted to argument and evidence rather than unsupported claims. Admittedly, my own work and others seems to sometimes do this. In this text, Dasenbrock connects early analytic philosophy with some contemporary literary theory under the rubric of ‘conventionalism’, critiques this tradition, but then offers an alternative to conventionalism: an interpretive method based primarily on Donald Davidson.

Dasenbrock presents an array of philosophers, but rather than gloss his opponents with ready-made summaries, he attends to their texts with care and respect. These positions are not only put forward and critiqued with care, but are evaluated in terms of what Dasenbrock conceives as their pragmatic value. Unlike much contemporary “theory,” Dasenbrock retains the use of evaluation, including evaluating current theoretical positions currently taken as self-evident; theories needing no further argumentation than a citation of a theoretical authority (i.e. “As Foucault says, knowledge is a product of the will to power). Dasenbrock’s supports his interpretation--even of his opponents-- with evidence and arguments. I would argue that he is often more true to the philosopher/critic’s text than many disciples.

Take Dasenbrock’s Derrida for instance. Dasenbrock derives Derrida’s position (“anti-intentionalism) from Limited Inc. and then contrasts this position with Derrida’s practice in his defense of Paul de Man. Dasenbrock argues that Derrida refutes his  anti-intentionalism when he consider’s de Man’s intentions in writing for a Nazi supported journal. According to Dasenbrock, Derrida treats de Man and himself as individual authors, but people he disagrees with as “texts” to deconstruct.   Dasenbrock argues quite convincingly that we must treat other people as people and not merely as texts: “We can treat texts deconstructively as long as we can consider them as texts, but if they are works for us, products of a person we recognize as a person, we read in a rather different manner” (104). Moving from his defense of De Man back to Limited Inc, Dasenbrock argues that we can see Derrida critiquing Searle’s argument for intentions of an author, but Derrida himself retains his sense of authorship in practice. In other words, Dasenbrock shows that deconstruction’s anti-intentionalism cannot always be put into practice consistently.

I found Dasenbrock’s critique of Derrida convincing—not because I want to abandon my reading of Derrida, but rather because it forced me to go back to Derrida and ask WWDD (What would Derrida do?). In an interview in Positions, Derrida says

No more than I have dealt with Sausurre’s text, or Freud’s, or any other as homogenous volumes [. . .] I do not find the texts of Marx, Engels, or Lenin homogenous critiques (63-64).

This raises an interesting question: Must we derive a homogenous position from Derrida’s text that we can assign as authoritative? If Derrida does not read texts as homogenous, feeling the need to work through them, then can we really critique Derrida for his inconsistency in his work? Text here seems to replace the idea that we have to argue a position—this may frustrate the hell out of Dasenbrock and I think that it should on ethical grounds. Dasenbrock’s attentiveness to the different rhetoric of Derrida in the de Man piece, the Searle piece, and then Derrida’s own defense of his own text shows that Derrida thinks he can consider some others as texts and some (people he knows and himself) as people. Perhaps this reveals an inconsistency in Derrida’s methods, but Derrida himself has critiqued the idea that ‘deconstruction’ is really a method at all. Indeed, Derrida’s relationship to a text seems an encounter between a powerful reader and powerful writers. Also, as Dasenbrock does admit, Derrida’s later work contains a kind of ethical turn inspired by Levinas, where he is a bit more attentive to the personal dimension (but not necessarily reviving the humanist subject).

Furthermore, I still maintain that it is difficult to present Derrida’s work in terms of a definitive position. In The Future of Invention John Muckelbauer argues that discussions of foundationalism vs. anti-foundationalism is ultimately useless because both positions do the same thing—repeat. Although Muckelbauer seems concerned with methodology, his methodology is nomadic and cannot really be “represented.” Clearly, Muckelbauer would argue against Dasenbrock’s reading of Derrida’s work as a “position.” Indeed, one of the admirable things about Muckelbauer’s own text is he struggles against the tendency to cite the theorists that inspire his own readings, because it would defeat his own argument for fighting appropriative repetition: “this appropriative repetition necessarily follows once deconstruction becomes subject to a logic of identity, once it becomes a signifying content” (Muckelabauer 32).

Rather than orient toward intentions (as Dasenbrock does), Muckelbauer tries to attend to the “singular rhythms” (a rather obscure Deleuzian inspired neologism) of the text, asking what the text “can do.” However, we are never really quite sure what “singular rhythms” ‘are’ because they cannot be represented. This is not to say that Muckelbauer does not attempt to represent them,

"I am not so much interested, for example, in getting Plato right (in discovering his intentions). I am more interested in orienting toward the singular rhythms that circulate through his writing (what it does and what it can do), though, and this is just as important, I am also concerned with doing so in a fashion that can’t simply be dismissed as wrong (singular experimentation is not the same thing as subjective play"

Muckelbauer attends to his texts (or at least as I perceive it) just as carefully as Dasenbrock and indeed, seems to come to pedagogical conclusions that Dasenbrock would probably agree with. For instance, Muckelbauer wants readings of texts that seem to transform ourselves in light of that engagement. The difference is that Muckelbauer thinks the methodology we use to get there is besides the point. Many methodologies—with the right ‘orientation’—can achieve these same goals:

"The practices of a generalized methodology can be neither necessary nor privileged [. . .] Instead we must inhabit them differently in order to actualize the singular and inventive responsiveness by provoking permeability"

What does it mean to “inhabit a text differently?” Well, Muckelbauer cannot really tell us—just show us through his readings. In direct contrast to Dasenbrock (and his main source for his argument, Davidson), Muckelbauer does not put the focus on “understanding” but on style. Muckelbauer’s work has less to do with “simply accepting or rejecting the content of any particular proposition and more to do with altering the style through which we engage in everyday practices of reading, writing, and responding” (Muckelbauer xi). We have to understand what ‘style’ can be opposed to.

Dasenbrock makes a clear distinction between style and method, claiming New Historicism is a style: “a styles shows others what can be done; a method suggests how things ought to be done” (Dasenbrock 192). Muckelbauer may agree witht his distinction, but whereas he wants to find those styles, Dasenbrock wants to find a method. This idea of “what can be done” with something is attractive, but ultimately may lead into useless juxtapositions of ideas. The Deleuzian logic of rhizomatic linkage has its issues.

But what are the consequences if we lack a consistent method? Are they ethical or philosophical? Dasenbrock thinks so and I agree wholeheartedly with Dasenbrock’s critique of conventionalism and believe, along with him, that ‘truth’ as a regulative idea (or, as he puts it, “limit-concept”) is necessary, particularly if we believe that we need evidence for our claims and arguments. Indeed, as Dasenbrock points out several times in the book, that I am even writing this blog and evaluating Dasenbrock’s argument adds force to the point. Ultimately, Dasenbrock thinks that it is this loss of ‘truth-talk’ (as Rorty would put it) has resulted in a lack of funding and support of what we do. Truth should not be considered a being but a limit-concept and ideal—something to shoot for. Indeed, I think I have made a similar argument: Was it was this pursuit for truth that pushed philosopher’s to do their work? True, the great system philosophies have been challenged, but is it not their rigorous search that we admire, respect, and that keeps us reading and re-reading them?

The institutional and disciplinary effect is one pragmatic consequences of our conventionalist paradigm and our lack of method. As literary critics, rhetoric and composition scholars, philosophers, and teachers, we want our work to have consequences. Frequently, I have described my own profession as self-indulgent masturbating with our pen(is)s (forgive the masculine emphasis). We use buzz words like praxis and action, but these seem to be empty words.  We can also take a theory and apply it to something, confirming that the theory has value because we can see it in texts or in culture. Or, alternately, we can come up with new metaphors or tropes for understanding culture, the classroom, etc.

This is all well and good but I have a hunger.  I want my texts to hold sway over me and I want to be able to evaluate them based on criteria that can make these texts are worthwhile—and to argue why they are or are not. I want the text to talk back to theory as well as the theory talking to the text. Furthermore, along with Dasenbrock, I do not believe that we can abandon aesthetic and ethical criteria in the formation of a new canon because we still have to decide what individuals in any given social group we should include or write about. In an earlier post, I complained that writing about Twilight preserves it as a text to write about.

But this brings me to the textual status of Theory. A lot of theories seem less to make “arguments” in the traditional sense of the word. Rather, they engage more in a Rortyian change of vocabulary (or ‘re-description’)  in order to look at something from a given perspective. In this sense, a lot of theory seems to differ in style rather than propositional content or any sort of ‘position’ we derive from it. The use of these theoretical texts may be in what Muckelbauer calls the “style of engagement” just as we can look at formal and stylistic properties of texts and ask what they do for our understanding.  For example, to reduce Baudrillard’s text to the claim about hypperreality (and to endlessly cite this point over and over again) is to deny its other dimensions. Baudrillard’s “argument,” which really shouldn’t be called an ‘argument’ but a ‘claim’, is used as support in literary theory or critical works—it is part of a theoretical authority that we as academics all understand as legitimate descriptions of the world (whereas, many people who are not academics steeped in high theory may disagree). Baudrillard’s style polemically makes claims such as ‘ we are now in an age of the ecstatic—the  “more ___ than ____.” While this may be useful to fill pages of academic work (a recent work of my own included) is this ever argued for? And if not, should we be able to use this as “evidence” in our own arguments that engage in a different discussion? The question, then, is the status of theorists like Baudrillard’s texts. Baudrillard’s Fatal Strategies for instance, re-describes rather than argues the world, but can we merely take these as ‘evidence’ and ‘fact’? Is not Baudrillard’s (and others) closer to a “work of art” because of its style? Can we accept citations of theoretical texts as accurate descriptions of the human world? If so, should we not evaluate the consequences of where that leaves us? (as Dasenbrock does so brilliantly?)

In an analysis of a poem or novel, I make a claim and then cite the poem for evidence for that claim. What we call “reading” connects this argument and evidence in order to make the reader of an academic article see the critics interpretation of the text. Along with the text, I may refer to the context of its production or the author’s life or perhaps another text by the same author. I am basically seeking what the text implicitly ‘argues’ about human life. By analogy, in critics interpretations and use of “theory”, the theoretical text takes not the place of a claim (this thinker has already made that claim and, presumably, ‘argued’ for it) or argument, but in the position of “evidence” that supports my claim. But is this taken in the same way that “evidence” is taken in a reading of a poem or a novel?

Do poems, novels, and theoretical texts (particularly of the French variety) re-describe the world in the same ways? Are they implicit arguments about how the world should be (and therefore are primarily prescriptive)? Are theories like narratives and narratives like theories? Can we evaluate a given theory like we can evaluate a work of art (or should be evaluating works of art?) Are there ‘good’ theories and bad theories? Are there ‘right’ theories, or theories that are “closer to the truth”? So there are really two questions here:

1.)  Can we evaluate theories based on their arguments, descriptions and whether or not this corresponds to our experience?

2.) Should we not have to evaluate these theories (in some way) before we can then use them in our own arguments? Do these texts have a responsibility to be consistent or us to be able to use them in our methodology?  

These are all questions I cannot, for the moment, answer or even begin to address in full. However, this blog’s purpose to elaborate questions for further debate and discussion not to answer them.

If Dasenbrock is right that the aesthetic and ethical elements of art still need to explained and considered when forming a canon, or even when engaging in criticism, do such matters concern Theory’s ‘descriptions’ too? Dasenbrock clearly shows the consequences of some contemporary theoretical positions (as well as points to their inconsistencies), but is there still value in reading these texts? If so, how should we read them? Are they worth reading? Do they stand the test of time (and will they?) because people are still interested in them and constantly re-reading them?

On a personal level, we seem to evaluate theory (if we are to be honest) based on premises of works of art rather than the ‘truth’ of their argument. I tend to like Baudrillard, Derrida, Heidegger, Gadamer, Nietzsche, and Sartre. Sometimes I get frustrated with the later Heidegger because it sounds almost mystical, but at the same time there is an aesthetic attraction there. I like Baudrillard, but less his main points about the hypperreal and more his rhetoric and writing (which is, by the way, why I do not like his earlier ‘System of Objects’ as much). To rip a quote from Baudrillard and present it as evidence is problematic, since he tends to (at least to me) exaggerate his claims; or, if not that far, he tends to make claims without arguing for them. If Baudrillard does not argue for his positions and I use him as evidence, then the credibility of my argument is based on the authority of Baudrillard’s reputation rather than the usefulness of the statement.

As I write that last sentence, though, I come to another possibility. Perhaps Baudrillard himself does not argue for his aphorisms—that is the job of others. If I take a claim from Baudrillard and say—hey look—this idea that Baudrillard has works in this text and this text with Baudrillard gets us these consequences, then we may find it useful. Perhaps we just have to make sure that we draw out the consequences through argument and evidence.

But if we take a claim from Baudrillard (or any other theorist) apply it to the text (rather than use it to develop our methodology. In this case, we would have to agree with Dasenbrock that the methodology should be consistent) then we are not prepared to not have control over the text—to let it transform us. For Dasenbrock, the encounter with literature (and the classroom) is a scene of learning. Drawing on Donald Davidson, Dasenbrock argues that we assume an interpretive charity (that x is like us) until it is proven otherwise and then we have to create a “passing theory” to connect the two. Starting from a theorist and pointing to where in the text that exists (thus validating the theory) does not get us very far in understanding the claim the text makes on us. This may be where the force of the aesthetic comes in. Why do I feel personally like Cormac McCarthy’s texts make a larger claim on me than Harry Potter? Why do I feel like I learn more from such literature? Why do I feel like forcing students to encounter an essay of Swift or Montaigne is more useful (if they choose to engage it) than showing them a youtube video?

And yet, as I work through the purpose of my own teaching, particularly in technical communication, I find that I have framed my own impact like so. If I can just get my students to look at the everyday objects, texts, and websites that communicate to them a little bit different—to show them different ways that they can engage with everyday life that make it more fun and challenging—than I will have done my job. In the case of technical communication, my purpose is to make everyday objects and documents into things that resist our understanding; rather than seeing a tax form as something I do, I see it as something I read, a document that has a purpose, which has consequences and assumptions that I rarely critique. Rather than thinking that I have leveling great works of art down to any other text, I prefer to think that I am elevating everyday texts to aesthetic (literary?) and rhetorical analysis.

But the fact remains that these texts do not tend to jar our understandings (although, the W-4 form might). I truly believe that it is my working through heavy philosophical and literary texts that allows me to look at these objects in a certain way; perhaps more importantly, I believe that it is this training that has allowed me to enjoy looking that these texts in this way and learn something from doing so.

Perhaps we still read high theory that redescribes rather than argues because it challenges us to make sense of non-sense—or, to make sense of something that is not necessarily trying to make sense. Perhaps the challenging encounter of these texts has allowed us to work usefully on other texts. This is why I find it so important to read “primary” texts rather than summaries of someone’s “argument.” This is why I feel like theoretical soundbites do not get us very far. Trying to make sense out of nonsense is fun and challenging. What we may call nonsense makes us stop and think: at its best it spurs dialogue and debate. It also pushes the boundaries of language, which is what some of the best literary fiction and poetry has always done. 

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