Graham has a fantastic post up responding to some friendly criticisms of his recent article on literary criticism in New Literary History. The whole post is worth a read, but I wanted to set aside the discussion of literary criticism and focus on a point he makes with regard to the nature of theory that I think is tremendously important and all too often overlooked. Harman writes:
Green’s point here is that only a fool would think that literary works could be cut off from all criticism. The New Critics were very intelligent, not fools; of course they knew that the literary work wasn’t cut off from all context, they simply chose to “emphasize” the relative autonomy of literary texts.
I disagree with this rejoinder, for the following reasons. Yes, the world is a complicated place, and theoreticians qua human beings are rarely going to embrace extremist doctrines about anything. If you try to pin down a Derridean on “there is nothing outside the text,” then of course they’re going to concede that the world isn’t just a text, and they may even act annoyed that you would attribute such a belief to them.
But the point isn’t whether private individuals called the New Critics really believed that a work could be entirely cut off form its social/biographical context. The point is whether they sufficiently accounted for the context in their theory. This is why reductio ad absurdum proofs are possible, after all. If I say that mathematism and scientism give us no good explanation of why perfect knowledge of a tree would not itself be a tree, it is insufficent to say “but of course they know that knowledge and trees are different.” The point isn’t what they know qua humans, but what their theories lead to as logical consequences.
This point is absolutely crucial to understand what it means to do theory and really gets to the crux of a number of debates we’ve had online over the years. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve encountered someone who says “but of course theorist x doesn’t really think there are no things in the world or that material things don’t matter, they’re just doing this.” Right before I left for Europe a couple weeks ago a well-known Deleuzian anarchist friend of mine who is now reading The Democracy of Objects made precisely these sorts of arguments against my critique of correlationism in a friendly email exchange. As this person had it, I was attacking a “straw man” and claimed that certainly no one holds to the sort of discursivism or social constructivism I outline in the first chapter of TDO. This person evoked Judith Butler in response to my claims, remarking that she’s a materialist and that while she focuses on the performative, utterances, and citational discourse, she certainly doesn’t reject the sorts of nonhuman actants I’ve been trying to draw attention to.
But as Harman points out here, the point isn’t whether Butler personally believes in the existence of mind- and culture- independent nonhuman actants contributing to the configurations our social world takes; the question is whether or not she adequately theorizes the role of these actants in social assemblages. Is there a tendency to treat them as mere screens for cultural inscriptions, or are they full-blown actants? I would argue that if the latter, she would have to significantly revise her claims and theoretical framework. And here I hasten to add that this wouldn’t involve abandoning all her claims– I think there’s much in her work that is right on –but would involve significantly restructuring that theory. Hegel makes a point similar to Harman’s towards the beginning of his lectures on aesthetics. Referring to Chrysippus’s (I think, memory is foggy) refutation of Zeno’s philosophical demonstration that motion is impossible, Chrysippus gets up and silently walks across the room. According to Hegel this entirely misses the point that the aim is to think motion in the concept, in theory, and not simply enact it. The point is to develop a theory of motion. Simply walking across the room or saying “of course x believes in motion” does not do that.
Here I think it’s important to remember that every philosophical text is at least double. Grooving on a bit of Paul De Man, we can say that every text comes equipped with a theory of how it is to be read and what it is saying, a sort of “fore-text”, where the text self-reflexively reflects on itself and tries to represent itself from within, and embodies what the text actually does, an enacted text. Put differently, there is what the text says it wants to do and what the text does. It is important to keep these two senses of theoretical texts distinct from one another because often what a text says it is doing is quite distinct from what the text actually does. This is why it’s important not to take a theoretician at his word when he says something like “I’m a materialist”. Well yes, that might be how you understand yourself and might be what you’re aiming for, but the criteria by which your text is adequate to how you represent your text will be determined by what your text actually does theoretically, and not whether it says it wants to do this. Failing to recognize this both derails a number of debates that would otherwise be productive (“but thinker x says he’s a materialist!”), and also divests you of your own creative opportunities to create something new by working through the lacuna in theory in the way Althusser recommends in Reading Capital.