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How To Be A Feisty Theorist

In an effort to catch up on professional development, I've spent the past month immersed in the work of philosophers/theorists that are deemed important.  Maybe it's because I was partially trained in "analytic philosophy" that I am somewhat allergic to the ways in which "continental philosophy" is articulated, but damn I'm yet again annoyed by the fact that I'm reading thinkers who seem to be intentionally resisting interpretation, and who generate followers because of this resistance.  I was trained to care about arguments, clarity, and at least a vague recognition of logical structure… Which is why I tend to be confused when "philosophers" who resist clarity, who can't be bothered to conceptualize their positions according to argument, tend to be celebrated.  Of course this celebration tends to happen outside of the discipline of philosophy, which usually resists these chic theorists, in theory programs, literary studies, or what-have-you.

What's going on?  An academic hoodwinking, probably, but in some ways all of academia might function as a hood-wink.  It is somewhat amusing that thinkers who resist interpretation, and whose careers are based on this resistance, are taken up as profound by people who are searching for a language of profundity to justify their existence as academics.  More amusing still that such theorists discover followers outside of philosophy, in a variety of related disciplines, by people who lack the disciplinary training to be part of the field that generates their thinkers.

Once you really look at those thinkers who tend to trend in the Humanities, who become the mix-and-match theoretical toolboxes for multiple disciplines, then some commonalities become apparent. I'm not saying that all of these theorists are "frauds" (hell, I like some of them sometimes despite my annoyance), but there does seem to be a formula, if unintentional, that is being used.  So why not, for the sake of shits and giggles, call the formula for what it is?  Let's be honest, so many of us academics like to delve into these texts and figure them out so that we can really feel like we deserve our degrees, but at the same time we don't want to admit that there's something of a hoodwink taking place––that all of us often doubt whether we're understanding a lot of this stuff correctly (hence all the internal debates about interpretation amongst scholars devoted to x thinker)––because then we look like we don't really belong.  Hence, in an effort to thwart academic Stockholm Syndrome (and for the laughs) let's just outline a formula for becoming a feisty theorist…



1. Form over Content

Forget saying anything substantially significant––screw substance and content!  Spend all of your time making up a formal system, complete with its own rarified lingo, rather than bothering with content.  The content will invent itself once you have the formal system!  Fuck the real world, it's better to invent a structured jargon that stands in for the real world and masquerades as the true order of the real.  Maybe you should even capitalize Real to show what you mean, even if you can't explain how this is more real than reality itself, and construct a complex argot to defend your cache on this Real.  Talk about "immanence" a fuck of a lot, and how you understand it better than Spinoza.  Invent a weird formal system that you call "radical immanence," maybe, and then mock anyone who would dare challenge your formal ontology.

The point, here, is to create a conceptual toolbox that you have stamped with your own particular jargon, that demonstrates you have broken with all other systems.  Sometimes you can say you are opposing systems (especially those "totalizing" systems of Hegel and Marx), but with your own formal structure, and thus slip a speculative system in through the back door.  You're not designing this system because, like the development of particular sciences, it will be an apparatus to demystify the world; you are not developing concepts, though you are welcome to say you are, that will result in technological artifacts, new vaccines, mathematical development, etc.  It is not even important that you contribute to a social science with a theoretical terrain that actually has to do with concrete explanations of concrete phenomena––again, form over content.  You're designing the system for the sake of the system, even if there's no necessity for it, because philosophy has no history and quite often it is possible to keep saying the same substantial things, but in different ways, over and over again without looking like you're saying the same things because of your formalization.  It is best if you can have a few key jargon-concepts that will be used by the eclectic mix-and-match scholars outside of philosophy so that you will always be referenced, even if your ideas are part of a confused and ill-advised recipe, and thus your jargon-concepts will stand-in for the real even if you've done no social investigation whatsoever.  Over-formalization is a quick path to looking like your ideas are universalizable (even if, it is worth noting, you reject the concept of universality), since they're just repeated as factually Real by thousands of graduate students: biopower, state of exception, rhizomatic, the multitude, and etc.


2.  The Three Os – obfuscation, opacity, obscurantism

Resist clarity whenever possible, do your best to render your texts opaque so that people have to struggle through them just because.  While it is true that difficult problematics are such that a certain level of training and concentration is necessary to engage with them, you should make them even more difficult with every single sentence.  And while it is true that the "clarity" proposed by that snitch Orwell's notorious essay on language and politics––which is pretty much an anti-communist essay designed to tell people to write like bourgeoisified technocrats––is also bullshit, there is a point where you can whole-heartedly embrace obscurantism.

This rule works really well if you have followed Rule 1 since you will be working with your own formal language––this will help you render anything opaque.  For example, instead of saying that "the problem of materialist philosophy is that it often relies on the idealist categories developed by the history of philosophy, and an imprecise grammar about what matter is" [which is a difficult statement to explain, and requires further elucidation, but still possesses clarity], you can get real fancy, truncate all of the arguments you would have to outline in a clear manner, and write: "the Real is neither being nor thought, at the most it is a negative possibility for the concreteness of the object and the rigor of thought, for the object that ceases to be empirical or the thought which ceases to be separately philosophical or scientific."  In this way people will think you're smarter than you actually are.

But why do we think that an intentional lack of clarity is intrinsically profound?  Recently, there was a study that linked pseudo-profound sayings to low intelligence: people who were impressed by wise sounding but otherwise meaningless statements tended to be the same people impressed by conspiracy theories, horoscopes, and were generally less reflective.  A program that generated random statements that looked smart but, aside from following the rules of grammar, were semantically meaningless, was developed; the sayings of people like Deepak Chopra were used as controls.  Low and behold, the same people impressed by Chopra were the same people who rated the meaningless statements as "profound." [It's available online: New-Age Bullshit Generator.]  The problem with this study is that it possessed certain assumptions about the meaning of "intelligence" (an elitist assumption, obviously) because we academics, who possess degrees that are supposed to assure our intelligence, are taken in by the same scams.  We really do gravitate to the most opaque works of theory because we assume that this opacity is synonymous with brilliance.  Someone should program a "feisty theorist" sentence generator.

Of course, there will be a few people who question whether your obscurantisms possess any merit. There are two proven ways to dismiss these critics, as obfuscatory as your theory that generated their ire.  First of all, you can challenge their intellectual prowess and claim that they are incapable of understanding your genius: this is what Derrida famously did to Searle who dared to question his bullshit (leading Foucault to confide in Searle that Derrida practiced "obscurantisme terroriste"), and this is is what some commenters on this blog have done when I have questioned the quality of their beloved theorists.  You don't need to provide an argument [see Rule 4 below], just rhetorically question the IQ of your critic and hope that those followers impressed by your obscurantist profundity will leap to your defense.  Secondly, you can argue that you write in a difficult manner to "challenge the oppressive hegemonic norms of academic writing" (similar to how Adorno justified Negative Dialectics)… Never mind the fact that European men such as Hegel and Heidegger have been a particular norm of academic writing for a long time, and never mind the fact that the majority of oppressed people in the world will never encounter your writing, let alone discover that it is challenging the hegemonic norms of their oppression––it sounds pretty cool.

To be fair, it might be the case that the obscurantists of the past were also terrible writers, lacking the skill to communicate their ideas.  I often think this might be the case when I teach Hegel, spending hours demystifying his opaque system, and realize that so much of what he wrote could have been written in clearer manner.  (When you read Feuerbach, for example, who is a good writer capable of rendering complex conceptions clear, and engages with Hegel in a way that demystifies Hegel, you get the sense that Hegel was more obscure than he needed to be.)  But maybe I only think that this was a stylistic accident because Hegel is, well, Hegel.  Maybe he was playing the same feisty theorist game!  So let's embrace this way of explaining reality because, well, it worked for Hegel, just as it would work for Heidegger (and all those Heideggerians gibbering mystical nonsense), so it can work for you as well!


3.  Trash Everyone Else

Although it is the case that it is always necessary to demarcate yourself from other thinkers, to use some of these thinkers as foils, and to definitely designate those thinkers who are antithetical to your politics, if you want to become a popular, feisty theorist you have to ramp this up to the nth degree.  In order to declare the singular uniqueness of your thought, you should designate every thinker as a nincompoop, incomparable to your genius.  If you have succeeded in Rule 1 this should be pretty easy since you have already claimed a theoretical terrain that is your own, that others have no business polluting, and you are in a good position to designate yourself the accomplishment of thought in general.

You have to be careful with this rule, though, so as to not antagonize potential converts to your theology.  Make sure that you don't use ableist language such as "idiots" or "morons" when referring to other theorists, even if this is what you are implying.  Eugen Duhring, for example, went overboard in this tactic and paid the price when Engels pointed out that all of his name-calling lacked substance.  Since you don't want to do the hard work of substantially explaining why prior thinkers are wrong [see Point 4 below], and want to simply relegate them to the dustbin of history just because, you have to find snide ways to remove them from the competition, foreclosing on their thought, without appearing to be an asshole.  In this sense, it is better to pose as an accomplishment of their thought when you have to mention them, using a variety of underhanded compliments, and then make sure they are not mentioned with anymore frequency.  Bring them up to show that you have read them and that you think they are wrong and then move on.  When necessary, straw-person them in such a forceful manner, with the right amount of hand-wringing, and you will convince potential followers to never read them in the first place.


4.  Embrace rhetoric rather than argument

The feisty theorist aiming at chic status should try to act as a demagogue.  Arguments with premises and conclusions (especially sound ones) waste time; it is better to just declare your position as fact, make this position sound exciting, and avoid justifying it according to the basic rules of logic.  (Hell, you can always dismiss "logic" as oppressive if necessary!)  The more profound your statements sound (see Rule 2), the more rhetorical force they possess.

In this sense it is possible to write an entire chapter of claims about reality-as-such without any arguments as to why these claims should be accepted as fact––especially if you are following the first two rules.  All you have to do is repeat yourself with confidence, make statements about reality without arguments that rely on your formal system and opaque claims.

This rule is perhaps the simplest and most important rule of them all.  You cannot waste time with actual arguments because this will produce clarity and challenge your formal system: it will prevent you from speaking with authority and, in order to be a feisty theorist, you must construct yourself as an authority. The best way to do this is with rhetoric… And you can buttress this rhetoric with jokes, snide insults, and a whole host of ploys that are designed to celebrate your status as the greatest thinker ever.


5.  Demonstrate that you are a person of culture

If at all possible, make a big deal about particular poets and artists––find a way to place them at the heart of your formal system.  By doing this you will make your theory amenable to academics working in literary studies and art theory, the kind of people who will, with their eclecticism, help to make your legacy.

It might be a good idea to start with the Symbolists––French thinkers seem to spend a helluva lot of time placing Mallarm√© at the heart of their feisty theory––but there's no reason to limit yourself to Western European culture, especially if you want your theory to seem like it's fucking shit up.  Why not make Darwish, Borges, Marquez, Achebe, or Ngugi the literary heart of your theory?  Better still, you can give the finger to high culture and embrace genre fiction.

Just as long as you reconcile these cultural excursions with Rule 1, thus making them work for your overall system, you're in the clear.  All you need to do is make sure that you're not referencing them simply as analogies but as representations, that you have done the work to properly appropriate, of your theory.  Make it look like their artistic output is proof positive that you are correct, that they are precursors to the event of your genius.  You can thus use this "proof" to write essays or small books about art and literary theory, setting yourself up as an authority of multiple fields.

*

Following these five rules will ensure your status as a theory super-star but only if and when you have succeeded in being published by a press that matters. Although it is tempting to make a sixth rule (get published by a press that matters) we should recognize that this rule is beyond the control of the would-be feisty theorist; it is implicit, it requires all of the privileged connections that the feisty theorist might be uncomfortable to admit.  Even still, the people who are published and promoted as Theorists-with-a-capital-T tend to be those who have followed the above rules with the right connections.  So maybe it is the case that the characteristics of the feisty theorist manifest amongst those who possess these connections in the first place.

Comments

  1. I admit that I am guilty of using "revisionism" as a sort of shibboleth around this sort of person when they start acting leftish.

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  2. Why don't you tell your readers this is an attack on Jasbir Puar?

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    For JMP to accuse me of writing a “meandering attack” on one of his posts is a bit hysterical, considering how long-winded and full of shit his three posts have been so far. JMP's hatchet-job of Jasbir Puar is so wandering and aimless than even the most ardent boosters of Puar could find something to agree with in JMP's 'critique'. JMP's first point to the reader says all most people will care about:


    My first impression of Puar's Terrorist Assemblages is that it is going to be a frustrating read. Although it seems to excavate important territory (i.e. the way that queerness has been, one the one hand, appropriated by the imperialist camp for the war on terror and, on the other hand, displaced to terrorist bodies), and promises important theoretical concepts, so far it seems to be entrenched in the kind of smorgasbord approach to theory I've complained about before. That is, instead of providing a rigorous interrogation of the concrete and material factors of a social phenomenon upon which to build a theoretical development (which is, at least to my mind, the very strength of the historical materialist approach), it instead becomes waylaid in academic eclecticism.


    JMP makes it clear to his readers: Puar is difficult reading. Expect academic language similar to the likes of Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, or Louis Althusser. Expect to read something that looks like the output of The Postmodern Essay Generator. JMP doesn't have to himself imply all of this is nonsense, akin to the critiques aimed at postmodernists by the likes of Noam Chomsky and Jean Bricmont (not just a theoretical physicist critic of postmodernism, but a staunch anti-imperialist as well), as this conclusion will come naturally to certain readers of his. Perhaps even the whole book is just an academic fraud of sorts, like the infamous Sokal Affair. Better trust JMP's judgment, as he is trained to read this sort of academic mumbo-jumbo lingo. JMP got a PhD in Philosophy somewhere, after all.

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    Replies
    1. Actually sorry, it's not. It's actually about my frustrations with Laruelle. In fact, I think Puar, despite my problems, is actually worth the read whereas Laruelle is now, in my opinion, a charlatan. I don't at all think Puar is a fraud. Need to finish that review, though, and if you'd actually bothered to read those posts you would see that I do not at any point argue that she's a fraud.

      As for Puar, I do understand her better than you based on the evidence of your claims and reading. Your anti-intellectualism notwithstanding, yeah I am trained for that kind of thing. So far all of your comments on this blog have been devoid of any arguments; they've mostly been rhetoric. Your problematic use of the term "hysterical" is kind of funny, here, since you're just ranting about an attack on a theorist you are incapable of appreciating that was never made.

      From now on, since you are singularly incapable of engaging with anything

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    2. … and have made the bizarre claim that my previous posts were "hatchet jobs" (based on what? just your thoughts, no arguments, and you haven't presented anything else) when none of them were ever an attack on Puar's work, just a distinction I make between my own position and hers, and in fact appreciates said work. All in all, this demonstrates you don't know how to read carefully, like 70% of internet marxists, either a blog post or a piece of difficult theory.

      Any comments from you will now be deleted since, from the get go, you have contributed nothing interesting, you probably do no organizing work anywhere, and it is better that you continue LARPing marxism on your own time, in the comfort of your basement and internet chat group.

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    3. And in fact, if you want more evidence that this post is about my complaints with Laruelle, just look at the main examples (i.e. the quote, the references to radical immanence and "the Real"), but this would require you to read.

      Delete

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