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Monthly Archives: May 2013

Academic Conceit

Man-Leonardo-da-VinciThe Forward

The idea for this “paper” grew out of my video work (here and here) for a seminar I took with Alex Juhasz: specifically, from her questions about the assertions I made regarding theory, violence and the body. What follows is an “academic” humanities paper–of sorts–that attempts to address some of her questions. I’m “forwarding” the form for a few reasons–which will become obvious–but one is the vain hope that my non-academic readers will stick around ’til the end just to see what one of these things looks like. So, come on, hang out for a few minutes. I promise it won’t enrich you, elevate you, or make you a better person. You will not be impressed by my erudition, or my acquaintance with obscure historical personages. You can just sit back and watch the form emerge, like watching someone fold an origami. You don’t have to worry about the content: after all, “the medium is the message.”

The Thesis

An academic humanities paper is a particular genre of writing that traditionally emphasizes the disembodied “one,” over the unscholarly intimacy of “you” and “I.” One comes to the form for professional reasons, as it is rarely read for pleasure; exceptions, of course, exist–someone has to get struck by lightning. It is a genre of writing that footnotes, endnotes, or parenthetically notes copiously, and often inelegantly, to emphasize that the authority for one’s thoughts is not solely one’s own. It, admirably, gives credit where credit is due, often treads politely across other people’s lawns, and puts a very high value on originality–no matter how small. Cliché’s are avoided–no matter what the cost. Generalizations are always bad. Puns are okay as long as they don’t run-on indecorously. But irony is strictly forbidden, because it poisons the apple, since the form relies on the inviolability of episteme over doxa, and we know from experience that there’s only one way to skin a cat. Interestingly, in contrast to the modest claims common to most academic humanities papers, the products themselves tend to be fantastically titled, much the way humdrum apartments bear grand monikers: “Shangri-La is on Hollywood and Vine: An Asymptotic Analysis of Apartment Complexes in the Los Angeles Basin from 1963-1968.”

Of course, many scholars have challenged this “academic” style: bell hooks for one; Paulo Freire is another; Foucault has challenged the idea of an ahistorical epistemological form, disputing the universal yard stick against which error can be measured. And there are many others besides these who have rattled the foundations of knowledge–a list so long that one wonders how academic humanists still offer imprimaturs of authority. Still, though the genre has been contested, it continues on proudly, largely undiscouraged by its increasing marginalization within a culture of broadened literacy but narrowed tastes. Perhaps this is because its central conceit remains unchallenged–indeed, perhaps is unchallengeable. A central conceit that is in play even amongst the aforementioned academic superstars. Namely, that there is some phenomenon operating behind history’s curtain, an assumption upon which most–though, not all–humanities research depends. Something is hidden, concealed–a secret soul, a platonic form–an urge that can be uncovered, interpreted, theorized, summarized and understood within the grammatical confines of an 8 1/2 x 11 inch leaflet, or a 960 pixel wide window, and once grasped, can serve as a cypher for unlocking what is really happening in the world. Take your pick: the unconscious, the archetype, false consciousness, power, capital, patriarchy, absence, reason. The list is very, very long. However, they all work by the abiding fiction that a scholar can survey the breadth of human experience and distill something resembling the truth (episteme) of that experience, something heretofore hidden from sight.

The Argument

All Theory must, one way or another, dispose of Fact–whether by arrangement or dissolution. There can be no theory that encompasses every fact, and therefore every theory, like every subjective position, is open to revision. This is fine in dialogue, or even dialectic, but it undermines the very premise of theory, which is that some ordering of the world exists prior to observation. Theories, no matter how decentralized or drunk on deconstruction, must aspire to objective stability; otherwise they would not be theoretical, but rather some other rhetorical form–poetic, fictional, etc. And the first fact that any humanistic theory must deal with, whether academic or artistic, is the contingency of the human body–the common denominator which simplifies all of us, regardless of our cultural-historical calculations. What do I mean? I mean that theories of the invisible must abjure the body to be theoretical. But, contrary to the Herculean efforts of slavers, Nazis, Stalinists, and L’Oreal, the body cannot be hidden, only buried or burned; it cannot be disguised, only adorned. Turned to dust? Possibly, but even then it dirties the furniture, and ashes the pines. It is horribly, terrifyingly present; even after death it remains. It is only we who disappear–I disappear, you disappear. These tinkering subjects, with all of our symbolism and quick wit, exit stage left, without so much as a bow. No one gets an encore, no matter how commanding the performance. Everything we invent–religion, science–is powerless to eradicate these bodies. Murder, genocide, hate–try as we might, kill what we can, the body abides, while you and I remain nothing–not even a remainder to be disposed of.

And theory only lives in you and I. Although it aspires to the anonymous “one,” no theory survives our death–only the body, cold and anonymous, survives. The body that can be easily replaced–jealousy. The body that can be made impotent–shame. The body that betrays–ticklish. No humanistic theory can account for the body without discounting bodies, either by speaking for the them or replacing them. Indeed, the most indispensable aspect of this paper, the one you’re so generously reading, is our bodies and their self-interested ecology of bio-psychosocial needs. These bodies must be ignored if we are to believe that anything I am saying to you in this paper has anything to do with anyone else.

But even now, calling attention to our particular bodies, I’m disposing of so many others. Even though I repeat “the body” stupidly, like Gertrude Stein reviving the rhetorical rose, I can accomplish nothing but diversion. At best I’m able to gesture at the form’s presumptions with suggestive hyper-links, and ironic asides. What I mean to say is that although human bodies can be captured by symbolic systems–Christianity, America, Buddhism, Humanism, Feminism, Islam, Capitalism, Socialism, et al, ad nauseam–symbolic systems are never able to capture the body, and therefore will always remain a fiction, since they must, by necessity, purport to be the thing that they aren’t.


If I’m right–and if I am, it’s of fairly limited use–what do I suggest humanistic scholarship should look like? Where should it live? In journals–online, print, either/or, both/and? In conferences, volleyed back and forth between equally pedigreed antagonists? In the classroom, where it might possibly seduce a student with its arcana and delicacy? Or perhaps it can disperse to other floors of the tower, where it will, as Stanley Fish argues in a June, 2011 New York Times Opinion piece, “The Triumph of the Humanities,” teach scientists how to read and write, and persuade others of truths increasingly unstable? It’s a serious question, or, at least, I ask it seriously. To whom should “humanistic” scholarship be addressed and to what end, if its theoretical underpinnings carry as much weight as a lead nothing?

If the answer is college professors and interested hobbyists, then there’s no problem. The world is plenty big enough for obscure vocabularies and insular gnostics. But if the answer is, as one suspects from reading any number of essays from scholars in the digital humanities and those rare spotted intellectuals who survive in the public wild, the answer is a broader swath of the population, then the scholarship has to change. It has to recognize its insignificance, its absolute inconsequence. It must wear its diminutive stature proudly so that it can remind an increasingly armored world that we are, first and foremost, bodies; not nations, or creeds, not genetic material or gendered power relations. Just bodies. Bodies that put way too much stock in theories.

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