Jan 042012

Somehow recently, I’ve been reading a lot of blog posts about blogging, like this one. Setting aside the obvious mise-en-abyme meta-ness of reading any, not to say many, blog posts about blogging, I’ve noticed a theme: excitement. Today (while getting a pedicure, what of it?) I was reading the introduction to Antonio Viego’s Dead Subjects: Toward a Politics of Loss in Latino Studies. As happens so frequently to me when I read really good scholarship, I have several aha! moments in rapid succession. These are the ones that came to me today. I hope you enjoy my excitement. I’ve been away from blogging for a while. I want to be back to it. Here we go–

It can be terribly destructive to declare movements “over”

Like a lot of literary-minded folks, I read with interest Stanley Fish’s recent piece in the New York Times about the upcoming (and about to start!) Modern Language Association Annual Convention, or as I will call it by its affectionate (at least to me) hashtag: #MLA12. He was talking about Digital Humanities, mostly, a topic about which I have strong opinions and feelings, an area of scholarly discourse and production with which I strongly ally myself. But in his text was a note that I found troubling at the time, and only in reading Viego did I identify my trouble. Fish writes:

Also absent or sparsely represented are the topics that in previous years dominated the meeting and identified the avant garde — multiculturalism, postmodernism, deconstruction, post-colonialism, neo-colonialism, racism, racialism, feminism, queer theory, theory in general.

It’s an interesting list he generates there. I shudder to think about what “racism” when placed in parallel with something like “deconstruction” might mean as a theoretical lens. (I imagine a more parallel term might have been “critical race theory.”) But that list compiled as it is reminded me, in conjunction with Viego’s passionate invocations of Lacanian psychoanalysis: I’m not done with theory yet. And I frankly don’t think I’m alone. The idea, prevalent throughout Fish’s piece that the various movements of theory have entered, left their marks, and then departed strikes me as profoundly troubling. (The idea that Digital Humanities is the next movement to start down this path strikes more scholars than myself as troubling.) It’s not because I want to cling desperately to an affection for de Man, or Lacan, or Freud, or any particular theorist. Nor is it because of a particular affection for theory itself, but for something I’ve felt deeply ever since I have known of the existence of theory:

Theory Saves Lives

Let’s accept, at least operationally, one of the basic theses of Viego’s book:

Critical race and ethnicity studies scholars have developed no language to talk about ethnic-racialized subjectivity and experience that is not entirely ego-and social psychological and that does not imagine a strong, whole, complete, and transparent ethnic-racialized subject and ego as the desired therapeutic, philosophical, and political outcome in a racist, white supremacist world. (4)

Now, I know that some of you out there are thinking that I’ve violated a lot of the laws of blogging here by including that long and “jargony” blockquote. But that’s one of my points here. This kind of articulation is precisely what fires me as a scholar. This is where my passion lies. And still, I frankly don’t think I’m alone.

Within this one quotation are a few things I find important:

    1. As critical race scholars, as scholars of race and ethnicity, as scholars of gender and sexuality, as scholars of any field of literary or cultural studies that values subjectivity, we must remember that no matter the strength of the hold of ego psychology, it’s not the only psychology out there.
    2. The reliance on the concept of wholeness is not only, as Viego continues, “the notion of subjectivity that [racist discourse] needs in order to function most effectively” but it is also the notion of subjectivity that keeps many of us distracted from issues of social justice, economic opportunity, and even scholarship in our search for it.
    3. The lack of engagement with psychoanalysis of most branches of critical race theory–and Viego gives an excellent list of exceptions (244n10)–is part of what allows a Stanley Fish to declare these things past

The ability to think new ways of thinking, to my mind, is one of the most important things that the humanities offers us. And one of the most important things that humans do. Theory enables us to think our lives, and thus, to live our lives.

I don’t know about you guys, but I need theory

My good friend S. Bear Bergman and I used to have wildly heated debates about theory. Ze would insist that nothing articulated in Judith Butler could not be derived from lived experience, and I would insist that if that point was true then I had never lived. Because it may be that I’m hopelessly cerebral (and surely that is a unique situation in the world of academia!), but I need theory–I need to read it and write it–in order to situate myself in the world at all.

Rarely has a book captured me so thoroughly with its title, and rarely has one delivered as thoroughly as this one on its promise. Thank you for reading.

 Posted by on January 4, 2012 at 7:57 pm