Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Courtesy of Intellectual Debate

Critics of postmodernism and poststructuralism, such as Alan Sokal, Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt, Frederick Turner, Joseph Carroll, etc. have been criticized themselves for making straw men of their opponents' arguments. I think this criticism is valid to some extent: Turner's pointed critique of the postmodern avant garde in Culture of Hope and Carroll's treatment of "textualism and indeterminacy" in "Theory, Anti-Theory and Empirical Criticism" do tend to reduce much of the past 40 years of literary theory to grouchy caricatures. However, after reading some of the Marxist New Historicists on Shakespeare, such as Stephen Greenblatt, Jean Howard, Stephen Orgel, and Richard Levin, I couldn't help but notice that they also rely heavily on constructs such as the bourgeois straw man, the Western metaphysical straw man, the positivist straw man, the formalist straw man, the capitalist straw man, etc. Orgel and Greenblatt, in particular, see fit to mock and sneer at these as well.

Intellectual debate should be conducted like a martial art. Boxers touch gloves before striking their first blows, and often hug when a match is over. Karate fighters bow, showing mutual respect and proud submission to their tradition. Such games involve serious risk, but are as much an art and a dance as a "fight" per se. All martial arts have rules against hitting below the belt, and specify serious consequences for unsportsmanlike conduct. Once upon a time, scholarship had a similar code of conduct, if not camaraderie, that involved disinterestedness, objectivity, self-effacement, and neutrality. In recent years, this has been criticized (sometimes with good reason) as an ideological mystification "naturalizing" racism, sexism, the covert pursuit of class interests, and political partisanship.* Regardless, I think that, at the very least, scholars of all stripes can and should work harder to be courteous, civilized, and to acknowledge their own biases without resorting to demagoguery.

Politics, schmolitics--we're humans first and ideologues second. If the 20th century taught us anything, it's that even the most apparently humane political ideologies can end up machine-gunning each other into a ditch. If humanities scholars, of all people, can't have a civil conversation, then we might as well all give up and go home to pursue biochemistry degrees or sell carpet cleaner and credit cards over the telephone.


*"Argument," according to a related line of thinking, is symptomatic of patriarchal aggression and ought to be replaced by "discussion," wherein no one, presumably, attempts to advance a logical position with the aim of changing another's mind.

(Image from

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Love, Personified

I suspect love finds its highest expression in the family. Here's mine.

Eva and Jeronym

Just needed a link to your picture, you old goat. Having met you even once, how could anyone ever forget you? Moc mi chybí.

(Eva Kronusov√° 1980-2006)