21 September 2006

Dogma's Requirements for Writing in Continental Philosophy

Posted at I Cite, via Spurious, Jodi Dean Writes:
Rules for academic papers

Link: Spurious. I don't think I can live up to these rules. Thinking about them makes me feel quite sick and inadequate. That might be the point. But it certainly doesn't help me figure out what to say at a meeting next month. Instead, I'm more aware of my failures, my citations, my affections, my dependencies. What would it be to speak dogmatically of blogging?
The following are a set of rules for the giving of academic papers in philosophy (especially continental philosophy). The rules recall those of the Danish film movement, Dogme 95, or even Oulipo. A primary aim is to break with the veneration of master thinkers not because it isn't worthwhile studying a philosopher in great depth and over a number of years, but that this, by itself, is not philosophy.
Although I don't agree with all of it, this list is gorgeous. Every year me and colleagues from other departments (usually Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology, and English), put together a panel for students on some theme such as "cultural relativism", "universalism", "information", "signs", etc. The papers I've written for these panels have been among the most fulfilling to both write and present. Generally I organize these papers around an illustrative and amusing anecdote (such as a lengthy discussion of how I feel compelled to mow my lawn not because I believe the lawn looks better that way, but because the neighbors might get angry, and vice versa for the neighbor), and I restrict myself to developing concepts and arguments, relegating any references to other thinkers to endnotes. When I give these papers I feel a sense of liberation and freedom that I've never felt at an academic conference or in publication. I feel free to develop my own positions as I'm not strategizing against other academics who might potentially offer me further opportunities for jobs, presentations, and publications in the future. Moreover, since I'm writing for students that attend the college, I feel as if I'm making a genuine contribution that has the potential to be a real intervention, rather than simply speaking to the choir and padding my CV. In this context I perhaps truly have the opportunity to make the students uncomfortable or to cause them to reflect a little, so long as my presentation is amusing, clear, and well argued.

In more cynical moments, I find myself thinking that figures such as Socrates, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Lacan had it right, recognizing clearly that it's impossible to be truly free intellectually so long as one is trapped within the confines of the academy; and increasingly I come to admire and envy freethinking individuals such as PEbird or the bizarre Ralph Dumain, not because I share their positions (though I'm generally sympathetic to PEbird and am enlightened by his observations), but because they are free to pursue whatever line of thought they like without worries of whether it will be accepted by the publishing industry or conference committees. They don't need to worry bout having the proper "code-words" so as to continue their investigations. If I had a genuinely novel idea, would I have the courage or strength to express it directly in publications? For instance, over the last few months I feel that I've truly begun to develop my own ontology, that carries implications for ethics, epistemology, aesthetics, and social and political thought. I've written about 400 pages here since May. Oh sure, it's deeply influenced by other thinkers, but it isn't a simply an exegesis on any of those thinkers. I have no illusions and don't think this some grand creation, but it's still mine and what I think about. Will I have the courage to revise what I've written, elaborate on it, develop it, and send it to press? Is there a place for it? Is my belief that this isn't possible in the domain of continental philosophy my fantasy about what the Other wants or sanctions? The only freedom comparable to the sort of joy I've experienced in writing these essays has been on discussion lists and this blog.

Something is deeply amiss in Continental philosophy departments. We are raising generations of thinkers to be historians, writing commentaries on texts, rather than practicing philosophy by developing problems and concepts. As a result, these texts come to be treated as reality, rather than the world about us. Day in and day out I read academic blogs where various news stories and anecdotes from life are posted forthrightly as opportunities for reflection, thought, and theorization, yet when I read books and articles by these thinkers, these things are used as exemplary examples of the master's thought, rather than occasions of an encounter demanding theorization in their own right. The observations on these blogs regarding the news of the day and anecdotes from life are often brilliant theoretically, but show no particular commitment to any particular theoretical orientation. They're owned by the author. Yet when these same authors publish, they suddenly become disciples and this disappears. Foucault, for instance, becomes the gospel where the geneology of the social sciences are concerned, yet no one seems to notice that the genesis of the social sciences Foucault studies are geographically localized in Europe, and that (as far as I know), no one has yet to write the geneology of the DSM-IV in the United States, or the "Foucaultian" history of education, prisons, and mental institutions in the United States. I wonder if academic presses would even be interested if such projects were proposed. We end up saying to ourselves that all institutions are historical and that we must know the history of these institutions in the Foucaultian sense as the historical is also the singular, and then treat Foucault's historical analyses as if they were general.

Despite the often facile and irrelevant nature of Anglo-American thought, I think Anglo-American thinkers essentially have things right in their focus on problems and questions rather than masters. To be sure, figures such as Quine, Wittgenstein, Davidson, Sellars, Kuhn, and Brandom are "masters" in Anglo-American philosophy (all figures dear to my heart). However, if you go to any major academic bookstore such as the Seminary Co-Op in Chicago, the difference between Anglo-American thought and Continental thought as practiced in the United States is materially palpable. If you look at the section devoted to the work of Quine, you'll find one or two studies of his thought. If you go to the sections devoted to Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, Heidegger, etc., you'll find an entire shelf (and sometimes two or three) devoted to studies of their work. Continentalists write studies and are disciples, whereas Anglo-Americans reference a figure such as Quine to either reference a salient argument that is recognized as sound, to dispute a claim, or to lift a concept and develop it in another direction. When papers are written on these masters, it is seldom to explain what the master meant, but rather to either argue against a particular claim or defend that claim against someone else who has argued against it. (In this connection, I disagree with Spurious' prohibitions against citation, feeling the issue is less one of "citing out", but of how citation is used). It's almost as if there's a prohibition against doing independent work in Continental philosophy, comparable to that of saying the name of God in Judaism (perhaps this isn't a surprise given the similarity in privileging texts).

Of course, there are those happy few who escape this rut in Continental thought and who earn the right to speak in their own name. Massumi began his work with commentaries on Deleuze and Guattari, but his most recent work is increasingly his own, heavily influenced by Deleuze and Guattari to be sure, but nonetheless under his signature. Hardt began in a similar way with his early study of Deleuze. Ed Casey has been writing phenomenological analyses of various domains of experience such as Space and Memory for years. Andrew Cutrofello's first book, The Owl at Dawn, provocatively pitched itself as a sequel to Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit (a scandalous claim to anyone who knows their Hegel), yet has received scant attention. Butler, of course, has done highly original work, even if drawing heavily on Derrida, Foucault, and Lacan. If one is bothered by observations such as these, one could thus smugly say that this is a right that must be earned. However, isn't the more salient question that of whether our graduate institutions, our conferences, our journals, and our presses encourage this sort of work. That is, if institutional structures are not in place to promote this sort of work, then hungry, would-be academics, in markets every bit as competitive as the NFL or Hollywood, hardly have a reason to pursue it. We need to create journals and conferences that encourage this sort of work and break ourselves of these habits, premised on the idolotry of the master. No man or woman is right all of the time, so it's rather bizarre that a problem such as "what is difference?" or "what is the political?" or "what is being?", should get filtered into Deleuze's conception of difference, Ranciere's question of the political, and Badiou's question of the political, rather than treating these various contributions as suggestions to be disputed and advanced within a broader field of how these problems and questions have been approached.

In my more cynical moments I wonder whether all of this hiding behind the shadow of the master isn't symptomatic of a supreme cowardice, where we're unwilling to own our own words. It's intriguing that questions and themes of authenticity and individuality have been so central to the Continental tradition, that they generate such wild enthusiasm among the disciples, insuring that thinkers like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre (though not so much these days), Deleuze, Lacan, Zizek, and now Butler (with her most recent book on Ethics) maintain a central place, whereas a discussion of such issues is almost entirely absent in the Anglo-American tradition. Could this not be symptomatic of a tremendous lack of authenticity and individuality in scholarship surrounding Continental thinkers? The nice thing about writing commentaries and articles on other thinkers-- and mind you, I have a commentary on Deleuze's transcendental empiricism forthcoming, though I'm proud that my first article was an original work --is that you're granted plausible deniability. On the one hand, writing a commentary gives you the opportunity to make the master you're writing about say what you would like to say without you yourself saying it. That is, I'm a nobody, nobody cares about what I have to say as I haven't proven myself, but Heidegger and Badiou really are somebodies! If I can make them say what I would like to say, then their symbolic capital is carried over to me and I'm given the opportunity to speak something I wouldn't otherwise be able to speak (at least, something that wouldn't otherwise be listened to). On the other hand, if someone should disagree with me or think my claim ridiculous (and who hasn't thought that the claims of their beloved masters aren't ridiculous at certain dark and private moments), one can simply say "Oh, it's Deleuze who says that, not me. It is only a text, after all." Joe Anglo-Americanus might truly make a facile proposal when he argues that all ethics ultimately goes back to genetics (the sociobiological thesis increasingly popular among the likes of Dennett, with their explanations of religion and altruism and whatnot), but at least he accepts responsibility for his proposal and presents them as his own [stupidity]. Isn't this practice just the Continentalist version of "just following orders"?


Anonymous John said...

I wrote a paper on Hegel, continental style (referencing many continental figures after him, like Marx and Kierkegaard; I used these guys to respond to Hegel)

However, I wrote it for an anglo-american univ, and I lost a mark because "this isn't comparative literature, this is philosophy"

Ah those analytics...

September 21, 2006 5:09 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

This, of course, is the other end of the spectrum. How can you take a position vis a vis others at all without having an accurate understanding of their claims. And how can your reader evaluate the strength of your arguments without knowing how you situate that to which they're responding? This would be the "charitable" reading of your professors remark. It sounds to me like your professor was instead dismissing these thinkers as "literature".

I sympthatize. I did my undergraduate work at Ohio State University, which is an enclave of Anglo-American philosophy and the history of philosophy, and often encountered this attitude. Fortunately, I was able to find professors sympathetic to Continental philosophy and was thus able to pursue independent study in addition to my regular philosophy courses.

September 21, 2006 5:31 PM  
Anonymous John said...

What I did with the Hegel paper was first, a layout of a section in the Phenomenology. Then I brought up five ways to criticize them. The first two were my opinions, the last three were of Marx, Kierkegaard, and Jean-Luc Nancy. But even then I, myself, responded to those criticisms, defending Hegel from those three.

The next paper I did was on Kierkegaard, and I stuck with the usual analytic style (no referencing other major continentals, everything in clear-cut premise-conclusion form, no literary flair, and I got a higher mark than the paper on Hegel.

Well, those are analytic biases I suppose.

September 21, 2006 9:05 PM  
Blogger sexy said...








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