When the map seems larger than the territory

On one of the websites for students of rhetorical theory, conversation has recently focused on the status of psychoanalytic criticism and the question of whether its insights are being willfully ignored by the larger field.  Josh Gunn kicked off the discussion, in part, by noting that despite recent interest, “rhetorical theory — at least on the communication [studies] side – is hampered by a certain blind spot caused by the avoidance of psychoanalysis, and more specifically, the inadmissibility of the category of the unconscious.”  Gunn rightly wonders at the absurdity of this given how many revered figures in rhetorical theory have been explicitly influenced by or have reacted against Freud, Lacan, Klein, Jung and others.

In the ensuing back-and-forth a range of perspectives have been expressed:  some writing to agree that psychoanalysis does seem to provoke unique antipathy from students assigned to encounter it, others speculating on the causes (is it because communication was more a journal than a book field?  did the discipline’s work in response to behaviorism inoculate scholars against its insights?  has psychoanalysis been more widely tainted, thus deterring investigation from the outset?), and so on.  Perhaps not surprisingly, some of the explanations veer to the therapeutic – several responses convey anecdotes of a visceral (and by implication anti-intellectual) refusal to take psychoanalytic work seriously:  sneering senior scholars, wink-wink-nudge-nudge sorts of boundary policing behavior, and the (not-so-)subtle steering of graduate students away from the theoretical insights of psychoanalysis.

As I’ve been thinking about all this I don’t find myself in particular disagreement except that I don’t think this phenomenon is unique to psychoanalysis.  Rather, I think what we are seeing are the ongoing consequences of theoretical hyper-specialization, where these are simply several of many local occurrences.  By contrast to those who continue to announce the Death of Theory, it seems to me that we are still working to live with the consequences of having at our disposal So Many Seriously Elaborated Theories, which in turn gives rise to a mostly frustrating situation where the maps seem richer, or at least larger, than the territory.

I do not note this to endorse hostility to the elaboration of theoretical sophistication, but simply to note how glutted we are with it.  I think the symptoms of this, at least in communication studies, are everywhere:  A more ready willingness to abandon the mega-conferences in preference for more intimate niche meetings where one can burrow in and keep up.  The tendency to assign secondary sources even in doctoral seminars, or, when primary works are struggled with, to isolate them from the conversations in which they participated (which results in an alternative tendency to see originary controversies, such as the big arguments between Foucault and Sartre, or Fraser and Habermas, as pretty much settled history to be filed in the same category with “the earth is round”). A growing impatience with efforts to provide arms-length or peer review or other gate-keeping work undertaken in the effort to make comprehensible the incoming ocean of new material, and a more widespread corrosive cynicism about the larger enterprise.  The increasing frequency of major conference presentations, even given by serious senior scholars, that don’t seem to say much of anything new but mostly offer a repetition of the theoretically same.  An inclination to see friendly work as fully appreciating the rich nuance of my own tradition, and hostile work as reducing my tradition to caricature.  A wider tendency to see the dissertation not as evidencing a student’s ability to undertake a serious research project, but as an indication of the project whose trajectory will forever define a career.

Another key marker is the level of defensiveness, sometimes veering into animus, I hear often expressed by the advocates of every perspective who feel their work is under siege:  Marxist theory, argumentation studies, close textual analysis, historical/archival work, postcolonial and queer theory, cultural studies, feminist scholarship, and the list could be considerably lengthened.  All feel under attack and to some extent sustain intellectual solidarity by insisting enemies are at the gate.  And within these traditions fragmentation continues apace – a longstanding theme in a number of the convention conversations I hear is how scholars who for many years have labored to make visible the cultural contributions of gays and lesbians see themselves as today marginalized by queer theory, and in turn how queer theory seems to be marginalizing bisexual and transgendered approaches.  This is a theme not limited to rhetorical studies but is more widely sensed within the broader inquiry of communication scholars:  the television studies people feel like they aren’t taken seriously, and so do the performance theorists, the cinema studies scholars, the interpersonal researchers, the quantoids, the public opinion theorists, those who first encountered communication through forensics or theater, the TV and film production faculty, ethnographers, organizational communication scholars, mass communication empiricists, public relations practitioners, and those who teach students for industry work.

As my career has taken me in the direction of administrative work, I see the same trends more widely as they shape conversations within the humanities and beyond.  When I first had the audacity in a meeting of chairs from the full range of disciplines to say that external resources are harder to find in the humanities – I thought everyone agreed with that – I was surprised that the most assertive push-back came from a colleague in biology, who was there to argue in detail his relative deprivation within the wider university.  His case was not absurd:  it is hard to argue anyone is properly supported in the modern public research university.

I don’t see this defensiveness as a reflection of bad faith or of animus.  For in a sense all of us are right – one does have to exercise eternal vigilance in defending one’s research perspective, because in a universe of so many well-elaborated accounts of human behavior the most likely danger is being forgotten or overshadowed given the broader cacophony.  Thus the paradox that while more journals are now published in the humanities than ever before, the individual researchers I talk with see fewer and fewer outlets available for their sort of work.  Or, to further mix the metaphors, there are not only more intellectual fortresses today, but they are better fortified against attack and protected against the wandering tourist and amateur dabbler than ever before.

It is true, I suppose, that within each theoretical community are some who treat, say, Anti-Oedipus or Lacan’s seminars or the Prison Notebooks or the Rhetoric as holy scripture.  But the issue is less that each theorist has induced a cult than that, in general, scholars who are otherwise persuaded they cannot possibly know every perspective well, tend to stick with the one rich approach into which they were first acculturated.  And so what was and is seen by some as a sort of happy theoretical pluralism, a view still promoted by the wider impulses to boundary-cross and be interdisciplinary and all the rest, has devolved into a more frequently expressed surliness about colleagues who “won’t do the work to stay current,” a wider reliance on secondary sources like the Dummy guides and Cambridge Companions, the more frequent play (in responding to outsider critics) of the “you don’t appreciate the subtlety of my theory when it comes to ___” card, and an even more common resort by the basically friendly to the tactic of heavy-note-taking silence or the helpful “you should really read [insert my theorist],” or, more generally, “have you thought about this?” conference response or query.  One of the most common questions i hear my colleagues ask of one another is one I often ask myself:  “If you could recommend three or four short and accessible overviews to ____ that would help me get up to speed, what would you suggest?”  It’s asking for an academic life preserver.

Less of all this is sparked by ill will or ideological refusal than by the simple unwillingness to confess “I am unable to offer a thoughtful response to your read of Ranciere because I didn’t know he would be discussed today and so I didn’t have the chance to beef up on my Ranciere for Dummies, and because it takes every minute I have available for intellectual work just to keep up on my Burke.”  The eye rolling response is sometimes thus less reflective of substantively well-grounded opposition than the expression of a weirdly humble recognition of the game we think everyone is playing: the gotcha strategem of “there s/he goes again showing off everything s/he knows about Cicero.”  At a time when credible humanistic research is said to be impossible apart from mastery of all social theory, all of the philosophical and aesthetic traditions, and (increasingly) the life sciences (cognitive theory, evolutionary psychology, accounts of chaos and networks and more), and the globalized set of artifacts that underwrite comparative work, the task seems overwhelming.

My point is not to be alarmist or defeatist about the enterprise.  Specialization is not new, and has elicited expressions of concern for generations.  To some extent the theoretical proliferation is self correcting – people participating in a bounded academic conversation do move on and not every carefully enunciated perspective finds a following.  There remain exceptionally skilled intellectuals who seem to know everything and who are apparently able to keep up with all the wider literatures.  And too often the expressed difficulties in “keeping up” exaggerate the challenge in an age when more resources than ever are available to enable one’s informational literacy, and when “I don’t have the time to understand [feminist] [critical race] [queer] theory” is a too-convenient excuse to ignore perspectives that elites brushed off even when Renaissance Giants Walked the Earth and only had to stay current on the sum of human knowledge contained in fifty books.

And because the challenges of surfing the sea of new literature and getting others interested in one’s work are by now so universal, I have little to offer to the range of problematic correctives.  The idea of reinstating a common canon holds little appeal, and for good reason.  Nor is announcing the Death of Theory, or insisting on the Priority of the Local or the Case, especially compelling.  My own preference, given a background in debating, is to “teach the controversies,” but that approach isn’t ideologically innocent either.  If book publishers survive, I think the impetus to anthologies that now characterizes cinema studies is likely to expand more widely within communication scholarship.  But there are dangers in too readily recommending hyper-specialization in doctoral students, paper writing revved up out of fast tours of JSTOR and Project Muse, and too quickly acceding to happy talk about theoretical pluralism.  Better, in our own intellectual labors, to insistently listen to and reach out to other perspectives and work like hell to keep up with the wider world of humanistic scholarship.

And sometimes, if only as a mechanism to preserve one’s sanity, a little eye rolling may also be in order.  Just keep it to yourself please.

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