A Masthead for Vagabonds, Drunkards and Saints

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.

8 Responses to Academic Conceit

  1. One of my favorite Christopher Hitchens’s quotes is, “I don’t have a body; I am a body.” I bring Hitchens up, not because I’m a huge fan as you know, but only because I immediately thought of that quote; however, now that I think deeper about it, he’s a fine example of a writer who rejected that “academic” style and didn’t fall into pedantry, always able to address a larger audience outside of academia. In a way, when I think of Hitchens, I think of a body, his body, literally, as he was someone who didn’t try to escape the body, but embraced it, whether in his large size alone, or in the way he fed it booze and cigarettes, or particularly in the final hours in which his own body attacked him and he was able to write deeply about the experience.

    I know that may not be where you’re going with this, it is a tangent, but I’m trying to connect more clearly the two things you’re addressing: the body, and the future of humanistic scholarship. Ironically, of course, I want to say academia needs a soul. But, in fact, it needs a body doesn’t it? Funny how we use soul to mean body. And maybe that’s the point.

    • C. Travis Webb says:

      Hitchens is a great example of someone who brought his body along for the ride; indeed, a sensitivity to the body informed, I believe, much of his vehement opposition to religion and its various fundamentalisms. He certainly suggests it in his introduction to Norton’s 2010 reissue of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents. In it he remarks that just about all “home-grown” suicide-murderers “complained about the impossibility of finding a woman, or sometimes a woman of sufficient piety. Meanwhile their public propaganda was hot with disgust and indignation at the phenomenon of female inchastity. The connection between repression and orgasmically violent action appeared woefully evident” (13). Is there any doubt that if these young men were fucking more they’d be blowing up less? I certainly don’t mean to suggest that sex cures violence, especially when there are so many despicable instances of sexual violence, but there is a particular kind of desolation that clings to lonely men, add some good old fashioned otherworldliness to that, and you have a pretty good recipe for a human bomb. And while it could be just as easily suggested that economic opportunities or education could sustain young men as well as psycho-sexual intimacy, I am reminded that there are more suicides around Christmas and New Year, and guarantee it’s not because of 401K yields, or delayed book releases. No, we need other bodies to care about this body. Hitchens knew that, I have no doubt.

      Of course, I can’t very well mention Freud, even ventriloquizing Hitchens, without qualifying what I meant by theory, since psychoanalytic theory is a theory’s theory–in a “man’s man” sort of way. In full disclosure, I am very sympathetic to Freud’s arguments, but I side with Frederick Crews criticisms of Freud; although, unlike Crews, I would bring these criticisms to Freud’s defense. Crews, I think rightfully, cites the scattershot approach of Freud’s methodology, and believes that Freudian psychoanalysis was the result of improvisations and intuitions rather than the elaboration of a grand theory. For Crews, an early Freudian critic, this lead to his ultimate abandonment of Freud in order to embrace what he called the “empirical attitude.” But for me it’s a recommendation to read Freud: who is an engaging essayist, a brilliant thinker, and a terrible theorist, and that’s just fine by me.

      On a completely different and briefer note, your connection of body and soul at the end of your comment was a great one, and seems spot on to me. Usually, when we say someone “has soul” we actually mean she (or he) holds her body in a way that reminds us we have a body, which, as you mentioned, has absolutely nothing to do with the soul and everything to do with the flesh.

      Thanks for commenting.

  2. Seph says:

    I’m just not sure I agree with a premise that seems to undergird your argument. I understand and agree with the idea that theory ignores bodies, but I think that what lies under that conclusion is the idea that bodies are so different, so varied, so individual that they can’t all be sccoped up in the same rhetorical sieve of a theory.

    I think your argument is that theory to be what it purports to be must ignore bodies, but I wonder whether, putting theoretical ambitions to the side for a moment, theory might be used to make sense of what bodies need or the strategies employed by bodies to get what they need. Here, it seems to me the universalizing gesture of theory might well be warranted: because many, though not all, bodies want very similar things. They also, extrapolating from this core observation, employ similar strategies to get what they want or need. Perhaps it is that the humanities really boil down to two core disciplines that do theorize bodies in potentially useful ways: sociology which looks to explain human action, oftentimes based on what humans are observed to do, and philosophy which looks at the most profound bases for our thinking and wool gathering and cogitation. Perhaps the rest of the humanities are more invested in a kind of benign denial of the corporeal, and yes deserves to be treated as a safe, though indulgent hobby.

    And there’s a second thought: (Here, I’m assuming that you are not just referring to academic writing, but essentially to academic discourse) It’s good for sharpening our tools. We would be softer in the head were it not for these disciplinary and theoretical games that set us rooting through history and writings, polemics and sermons for some kind of underlying truth. It may just develop our truth-locating muscles.

    Also, as one friend once said to me years ago, we are on the planet for a good sixty to eighty years with a little luck. What would we do in that time if we choose not to be tyrants or drunkards, fools, or thieves, courtesans or wanderers. We could be scholars and the ideas we find or think we find sometimes do help keep us warm on a cold winter’s night.

    • C. Travis Webb says:

      Hmm, where to start? Well, for one, I think you’re basically right: “Many, though not all, bodies want very similar things, [and] [t]hey also, extrapolating from this core observation, employ similar strategies to get what they want or need.” Where I would push back a bit, however, is how we’re using the word “theory.” My use of the term lacked rigor, so I’d like to introduce a semantic clarification. When you’re using “theory” above, it seems to me that you are actually referring to “thinking,” and when I am using “theory” in my paper, I am being unclear. So, let me be clearer, and see if that persuades you.

      As I mentioned in the commentary to my Palimpsests video essay, “Theory writes over everyone–usually women, the poor, the slight, the untouchables–even when it seeks to redeem them, because theorizing, which is always the practice of writing, is violent. By necessity it truncates the facts of bodies–facts from the Latin facere, “to do.” Indeed, the doing of bodies, which is their living, can never survive the brutalities of writing, of theorizing.” Writing is violent, because writing began as violence, and it is sustained by violence. The earliest examples of writing were used to count cattle and slaves, and mark territory; laws, poems and narratives came later–much later. And writing is sustained by violence because its proliferation must follow the lines of empire: Romance Languages in Europe, Sanskritization, the rise of Mandarin, English and Spanish in the Americas. Writing is violent because the leisure classes that have the time for it are sustained by those who do not. By this rational, of course, many things are violent which are not commonly thought to be. I’m okay with that conclusion, however, because I believe Progress is made out of bodies.

      The doing of those bodies, their fact, is in tension with the spectating of theory–theory from the Greek the?ros “spectator.” Who spectates but the master? It’s the master that has time to speculate and theorize. The slaves don’t have the indulgence of theory, but they do have the necessity of thinking. Here I’m reminded of Frederick Douglass’s idea of “double consciousness,” the consciousness that blacks develop in order to navigate a white world. A self-consciousness that allows them to see themselves through white eyes, and see themselves through their own. A double-consciousness that racialized theories of genetic predisposition and cranial capacities can never capture, because there are facts those theories cannot accept. This brings me, in a round-about way, back to the point I made in the paper; that there are always facts a theory cannot admit, or must discard. This is not, however, true of thinking. Thinking runs alongside the body and is, I believe, what theory must suppress.

      I would suggest that thinking is what you are championing in your comment, and not theorizing–at least, as I’ve described it. Perhaps, however, I’m wrong. I’m certainly open to it, which is easy to be sense I have no theoretical position to defend. There’s just thinking to be done.

  3. Seph says:

    Yes, I suppose that we are more in agreement than not, though I would say that I am defending “theorizing”. I think that grand “Theory” is the thing against which you argue, the sort that is most associated with Continental philosophers. This is to say that I am interested in the thinking, (and here the gerund is completely appropriate connoting something ongoing) in the good faith effort at investigating, evaluating, understanding human action and thought.

    Theory tends to be–to make some sweeping generalizations that nevertheless tend to be borne out on examination–be too taken with itself. Theory tends to swamp the object of inquiry, or as you point out ignores it or subsumes it. Here I am thinking of theorists such as Baudrillard, Harroway, Kristeva, Bourdieu, etc. Theory as I have read it in them seems ossified, a snapshot that freezes the moment and thus denies that the very next “frame” would give us a different meaning entirely.

    I suspect that at the core of the effort to erect a Theory is the urge to systematize the world, and thus to have some control over it. Theorizing perhaps yields less to pride and just (more humbly) seeks to understand.

  4. Alexj says:

    The writing behind the writing is always more fun, right? I must agree with Seph: must all Theory be Big theory? Could theory not entirely know? Or know only as one’s position? Need it be total, final, basic? Must theory be a priori? Can’t it be of and in the world it can never entirely know, a thing itself to theorize?

    In your piece, I see a slide: the body is theory, theory is a priori, the body is fiction, theory is lost. If my body remains as ash, and is thereby of this world, what of these pixels, I wonder?

    I really enjoyed the links, and back to the top, your sharing this with your readers and then continuing the conversation. This is what Kathleen Fitzpatrick (once sometime Cultural Studies Prof at CGU) thinks about in her writing about Digital Writing, to be sure.

  5. Ryan Francis says:

    The humanities essay—and especially the kind of essay written about literature by literary scholars—gets a bad rap. More and more, I find that an academic essay informed by some unique interpretive notion is not written to reveal, as you say, “a secret soul, a platonic form [that…] once grasped, can serve as a cypher for unlocking what is really happening in the world.” This was the kind of essay written sixty years ago. The kind of academic essay written about, say, Henry James, today does not profess to get it right where everyone else has—for decades—gotten it wrong. This kind of essay—even where it does not employ the “I” so popular today—moves to suggest a new and interesting avenue into a text. This avenue need not be better than others; it need only be interesting. This is how literary texts remain canonical—not because such texts have uncovered something like universal truth, some ever-enduring “truth,” but because people can still say new and interesting things about them.

    The contemporary traditional academic essay is a lot less traditional than those who rarely practice it suggest.

    • C. Travis Webb says:

      First of all, thanks for replying. It’s always nice to have these kind of conversations, even when accord is unlikely. In reading your response, a couple of things occurred to me. One is that you’ve set the bar for the academic essay fairly low: using your criteria of “interesting,” the academic essay differs not at all from any of the various hobbyist mags that litter the shelves of grocery stores: it just has more footnotes. It’s a fairly bloodless kingdom you’ve mapped out, and one that I agree exists, primarily amongst graduate students who have not yet participated in that violent ritual called tenure, in which the consummation of economics and egos transforms our older brothers and sisters into pugilists or punks, depending on their particular taste for the rumble. And lest you think my analogy hyper-masculine, or dated, or just plain addled, I’d urge you to ask some seasoned academics who have won–or lost–tenure. It’s not tea and crumpets.

      Now, you might argue that my raising the issue of economics has nothing to do with your point that “canonical” texts remain so because they are sticky with curiosities, or that the essay I describe expired more than 50 years ago, and so let me address both objections. I would encourage you to look at the publication history of any major university press in the last 30 years and see how many literary readers are organized around Marxism, Post-colonialism, Deconstruction, Panoptical Power, Lacanian Psychobabble, or are, essentially, modern day hagiographies of people like Henry James, whose genius must be plumed, scrubbed, qualified or magnified. These people don’t stay canonical because they’re “interesting.” They’re revered (often for good reason, sometimes not), and therefore canonical. Worship is the canon. To divorce interest from canon is to make a distinction without a difference. No matter how many qualifications you make, whether you’re focused on the impersonal forces shaping history, or the alchemical genius of a few great men (and too few women) who hold our “interest,” you’re hard charging for that great tabernacle in the sky, the one that makes sense of it all.

      But let’s say you’re not charging for meaning, not playing footsies with that Delphic Oracle called interpretation and insight. Let’s say you’re right, and it’s all just 21st century gentility, then I would return to my earlier exaggerations about tenure (please, oh gods of tenure, don’t punish me for my transgressions!). No, it’s not “bloody” really, not “violent” actually–well, maybe a little–but the stakes are high. They’re real. Why suffer that for something that is merely “interesting?” Why spend $50,000, or more, per year, fight the indignity of adjunct work, and the most likely less than stellar pay if you should get tenure somewhere, to read Henry James? That seems a little crazy, don’t you think? And if that’s really the reason, here’s my library card. Have at ’em. I, for one, read this stuff because I think it matters. I called the academic essay irrelevant out of love. Because it shouldn’t be. It shouldn’t just be “interesting” to those of us who have spent way too much money to learn how to fight Chicago style, or been lucky enough to Hunger Games some money from those who have it. It should be vital, not merely “interesting,” to everyone. Fuck “interesting.” (That’s not directed at you, by the way, at all, just the sentiment, which again, I think you have accurately described). I take this shit seriously. Otherwise, I would have become a lawyer and bought a subscription to the MLA.

      I love academics. And I love academic writing. Especially the stuff that matters–and a lot of it does. I’m training to be a pugilist. If that sometimes keeps me out in the cold, so be it. I’ll buy a coat. If I am at times indecorous in my rhetoric, I apologize. It’s like arguing with family over Thanksgiving dinner. We’re on the same team, right? Let’s be honest about what we’re doing. If I’m occasionally too unruly to invite back, that’s okay. On those occasions, like today, my own adolescent idealism will keep me warm.

      Thanks, again, for responding.

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