Monday, February 4, 2013

"Getting it"

This post asks a deceptively simple question: "What does it mean to 'get it'?"

Recently, my friend Scott told me that with theory you either "get it" or "you don't get it" and there's no way to teach this "getting it." Its true that those people who don't get it now might get it down the line. They might read more texts or maybe they'll have an experience in their lives, something will connect and the theory makes sense.

But I want to reserve the term "make sense" for something else. Because, relatively at the same time, my friend Tim posted a text that made me grateful that there are writers that do not always have to "make sense" because they are not beholden to academic standards of clarity or the exigency of the "hot topics" in academic discourse. I wrote,
From those of us who are doomed to make a little bit of sense for the sake of a career (rather than to be sensible), its a refreshing reminder.
Tim responded to me and initally reversed my qualification: That is, all we can do is make "a little bit of sense" the career forces us instead to "be sensible." This is different from "be sensitive" (even if the difference also always puts it in relation). To "be sensible" is a call to pragmatism; Here I am specifically referring to the pragmatic imperatives of the academic discipline rather than to the philosophical position of pragmatism.

These are not mutually exclusive calls; as Tim writes,
By “being sensitive” — attentive, curious, creative– one can surmount the rather rough sensibilities of academia (I think, I hope). It’s all a matter of how to learn to play the difference– with the sense: to somehow establish a rigor sensitive to multiple demands, often contradictory. Obscure contradictions are less observable, but more important than the blatant ones. Always.
Now how does this relate to "getting it"? It's that "getting it" is "experience making sense" (to use Tim's phrase and to incorporate all of the meaning of "experience" recently gleaned from Gregory Ulmer's Avatar Emergency). "Getting it" is what we say alternately to saying "that makes sense." Both of these refer to a flash of understanding or intuition in which we grasp something, even if we are unable to articulate it, to turn it into knowledge.

It is possible to turn it into knowledge by transforming it through an expression of our insight -- this might be called the more "aesthetic" response. In academia, in contrast, the challenge is sometimes to articulate that insight by a "reading" of the text. This involves an immense amount of energy and time because part of a "reading," arguably, traces the moves of the argument. Even if it the argument is not strictly "linear," a "reading" is a tracing of the texts twists and turns, morphing into an assessment of these turns on its own terms or otherwise.

But that's not quite right either. For as academics, we just have to "get it" enough to use it in our own writing. Indeed, the move seems to be to "get it," use it, and move on -- critical reading has become unfruitful.  However, this puts young academics in a difficult spot: We shouldn't operate critically and yet we cannot break too many conventions in our own writing to be truly inventive because we are still trying to enter the discourse.

And we should never forget that there is no final "getting it," but a series of insights that unfold and are invented over time through our engagement with various "whats" (to use Stiegler's terminology). It is whether we feel (and it truly is sometimes a feeling) we can come to new insights and new knowledge with texts that we devote the time to trace their turns, to uncover a method or instructions for our own project.


  1. If I did say that, I absolutely retract it!

  2. If I did say that, allow me to clarify my off-hand remark. I did not intend to mean that I believe in some kind of common genius, that one is congenitally endowed with the ability to do theory or not (we've already heard this absurd argument concerning "writers" far too often). I am, however, gesturing to a resistance to theory, accelerated now by an ongoing culture war (wherein certain people think those who are trying to make a living doing theory lazily masturbate all day--and whether they think this literally, figuratively, or both, I am not sure). Indeed, this resistance is most readily marked by the false binary of "theory v. practice"--as though one does not, or cannot, "practice theory." Paul de Man definitely addresses this in his book properly titled, "Resistance to Theory." If my memory serves correct, he has a great moment in there where he uses the concept of the "suspended Fall" as a means by which to demonstrate that all practice is the carrying out of theory, in one way or another. To be sure, engaging in the very conversation of "theory v. practice" is a theoretical discussion. An articulated resistance to theory is, in itself, a theoretical undertaking. So the "not getting it" becomes something of an irony: we are always getting it, to some degree, as we have no other choice, even if we are resisting it.

    You mentioned Ulmer's recent work, and I second my enjoyment in that regard. We all practice theory everyday in the endless stream of choices we make; notions of ethics, ontology, morality, etc. inform these choices and guide our being forward. The "not getting it," again, is the ironic refusal to acknowledge such a primacy of theory while tacitly engaging theory--constantly and recursively so. When I said this, it was probably out of frustration in this sense. Those who are trying to do theory as their work, as their chore, are only trying to "consult" (as Ulmer notes) the collective (or whatever you want to call it, however you wish to frame it, mark it off) and improve these everyday choices. Rarely does a day go by that either Nietzsche's bad conscience/slave morality, Spinoza's Ethics, or Deleuze and Guattari's concept of the machinic does not cross my mind. But it does not have to be that explicit, and one does not need "to get" these thinkers are carry them with them epistemologically in order for them nonetheless act in accordance with the virtues that these thinkers have laid out.

    "Not getting it" has nothing to do with capacity; it has everything to do with choice and refusal.