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the stare

Post #535 • May 10, 2005, 8:10 AM • 21 Comments

Writing for the April 29 Chronicle of Higher Education, the pseudonymous Thomas H. Benton (!) documents another instance of The Stare. (Article available online only to subscribers; not even Bug Me Not worked on this one. I have a printed copy.)

Theory became a kind of confidence trick, a means of reducing the impossible workload to a few catchphrases: "Puleese, the author's intentions are irrelevant here." "Everything is political." "There is nothing but the text." They were like the applause lines used by politicians. And they always seemed to work in seminars.

All that was required, ultimately, was conformity with a set of political beliefs. No one would ask why the author's intentions were irrelevant. ...

Besides, perfectly reasonable questions were often met with the "poor dear, you need mental help" stare from people who had no explanations other than dogma. I learned to just bob my head sagely and hum in affirmation to things I only half understood. For all its avaowed radicalism, Theory seemed to stifle the possibility of dialogue at the time in my life when I most needed it.

I have encountered The Stare once before in literature describing the Theory environment. Julia of Winston's Diary, quoting a friend:

And I know now for a fact what I suspected before: Critical inquiry is dead in the English department, and the enforcement of ideology is total. In the one short week since I made my decision, I've been bold enough to ask questions in my seminars that mildly challenge anti-western articles of faith. I've been rewarded with gravely concerned looks from the faculty and insults from adult students, complete with rolling eyeballs and a neener-neener tone of voice.

Here's a story from just three days ago: One of the characters in a book by a Vietnamese-American author was indicted by the class for her phallocentric American "desire to know" (I guess vaginocentric non-Americans just want to loll around in loose shoes and ignorance--exactly how is this bullshit supposed to promote tolerance and human happiness?). The character discovers that her mother's life in Vietnam had been brutal rather than idyllic, and that the Vietcong were as lousy as the feudal overlords, if not worse. I pointed out that it wasn't the character's "American need to know" that uncovered the truth, but her mother's unprompted confessional letter. Was that evidence, then, of a "Vietnamese need to tell"? One woman sitting next to me nodded enthusiastically (she hasn't been fully indoctrinated yet) and said, "That's great" but everyone else glared at her until she looked at her shoes, suddenly knowing she'd made a gaffe. The woman across from me said (rolling her eyes, neener-neener voice), "Yeah, well, I'm really uncomfortable with her mother's 'story' [makes scare quote hands] about the Vietcong. Doesn't that just reproduce American ideology about the supposedly savage, evil North Vietnamese?" The professor nodded and agreed it was "uncomfortable," and several other heads nodded, but I wouldn't give up (fuck it; I'm out of here anyway). I said I didn't understand why it was good for Americans to de-mythologize their golden past, but bad for Vietnamese to do it. Isn't it the same thing? Isn't it better to know the truth than to gild the turd? And if the "need to know" is American, then what explains all that American mythologizing about the Frontier? Isn't that the same kind of turd-gilding?

The professor looked extremely concerned--it was one of those furrowed-brow looks that says, "Do you need your medication?" She made a few remarks about how those were, um, interesting points, but that maybe we should move on to the issue of the author's portrayal of Vietnam as a raped female body (for which, of course, there was only the flimsiest textual "evidence"). That led to more pointed questions from me, but I'll stop the story here.

I found this via Timothy Comeau's PhD slapdown, at a time when I was considering entering a PhD program in Art History. I read the conclusion to the above quote, and thought, there but for the grace of God go I:

I just can't do this for seven more years. I'll start yelling. I'll start insulting people. I'll get kicked out, so I'm leaving before they bounce me.

Coming back to Mr. Benton:

Professors, in general, have the luxury of appearing moderate and open to competing ideas, but insecure students often research the opinions of faculty members to ensure that they will be on the correct side of any apparently open dialogue. The powerless seize on small expressions of political opinion from the powerful and embrace these views even more radically in order to prive their loyalty and worthiness.

Of course, most of us probably didn't recognize that we were latecomers to the grad-school pyramid scheme. Theory with a capital T grew up with the expansion of graduate programs and the adjunctification of higer education during the last 30 years. It was a ticket to success for a charmed circle of insiders: a few people at elite institutions with the connections and advance knowledge to get in and out of the game before the general rush. The language of theory - carefully deployed in the world of academic hiring and publication - still functions in ways that suggest the sub rosa communications of Ivy League clubmen in the world of investment banking.


And now it seems like everyone is rushing to get out with what's left of their devalued stock. Famous scholars such as Henry Louis Gates, Homi Bhabha, and Terry Eagleton have announced that "theory is dead." Of course, at this late date, it's as if our leaders have emerged from months of concentrated thought to announce that Jefferson Starship is no longer on the cutting edge of popular music.

I've said before that no idea has so much merit that no one can apply it badly, and for the sake of sportsmanship I'll assert the converse, up to a point. But I think the time has come to admit that whatever value Theory has brought to art, the culture of Theory, epitomized by The Stare and the chorus of bobbing heads, has outweighed it. It's purveyors seem not to realize that its very existence and perpetration depend on the same mechanisms of elitism, coercion, greed, and fear that they claim to oppose. Since they favor interpretation over appreciation, they create a barrier against feeling that not only prevents a mature love of art, it renders them unable to play nicely with others. It opposes what Jews call menschlekeit and could hardly do otherwise, given that it reduces the tradition of artistic goodness to an artificial construct. This attitude does little for the art of creating a decent person.




May 10, 2005, 3:55 PM

One of the ironies of what is described above is that the imposition of rigid, constrictive groupthink is called "liberal" and normal, common-sense thinking for oneself has become "conservative".

I am sure this blog is regarded as "conservative" simply for deploring and criticising ideological paralysis and encouraging open discussion.



May 10, 2005, 4:38 PM


You mean inside academia, right? Because in the real world it's the right that does the best job of dogma-enforcing head-bobbing. It exists on the left too, but mostly trying to get liberals to agree is like herding cats.

In the latest Modern Painters Matthew Collings joins the fight about super-academics - "They'd have all the problems of people who know about this stuff: blindness, fear of the asthetic, obsessive attraction to literal staging in an art ontext of things known to be respectable in an academic context."



May 10, 2005, 4:57 PM

That is an accurate qualification. What we are talking about is a human attitude. It takes different forms and is given different names according to where it is found.

People get taken by the labels. There are academics everywhere who endorse and practice ideological repression in their own milieu while deploring it when practiced by other groups. The inability or unwillingness to recognize it where it happens is one of the reasons it thrives


May 10, 2005, 6:09 PM

very good post. i have endured similar experiences in an mfa program in canada. not only do you see it in universities but also in institutions like art funding agencies and artist run centres. do you think it is an off-shoot of political correctness?



May 10, 2005, 6:48 PM

Turd gilding. Yes, indeed. The question is, why would anybody, let alone so many, fall for such transparent BS for so long? Is there that much stupidity out there, or is it just ignorance and insecurity? I mean, it's just art, not even religion or politics (though art can be perverted into either or both those things), so what's so hard or so risky about just calling it the way it is and letting the chips fall where they may? I'm not talking about inside players with a vested interest in covering their asses; I'm talking about those who have little or nothing to lose by refusing to put up with BS. If THOSE people balked, none of this crap could ever get very far. So what the hell is wrong with these people? Am I really THAT atypical?



May 10, 2005, 7:45 PM

Theoretical discussions take place on street corners, in elevators, cafes, cars and busses, bedrooms, in front of tv sets - they happen everywhere all day, on the subject of all things. It strikes me your difficulty is not with theory (since participants theorize quite a bit) but with academia as an institution. Sometimes the person most likely to become convinced of an opposing viewpoint is the one on the way far side of the table giving out "neener neener" looks. So what you have is a question of committment - do you hold your position? Or do you bail before the game even gets started?



May 10, 2005, 9:00 PM

J, I'm making a distinction above between theory and the culture of capital-T Theory. Obviously you have to form some kind of angle on what you're thinking about, but no merit lies in expressing ill-formed concepts condescendingly to a cowed audience, nor in the social deprecation described above.



May 11, 2005, 12:20 AM

You are absolutely right. I would also distinguish rude behaviour from theory. Decorum is a necessary part of persuasive argument and dissent has to be understood as a kind of honour. Doesn't it?



May 11, 2005, 12:58 AM

sure, the industry of the the academy is just as dogmatic and as full of shit as anything else in the world. but it doesn't mean all theory is bullshit. the problem for the artworld is when artists take theory and use it as a kind of how-to manual for their art practice in the hopes of becoming critically acclaimed.

i met this aspiring novelist once, who, fresh from grad school, had the whole novel planned out before he'd even touched a typewriter. he kept refering to his hip hop/deconstructionist/ rhizome project, which, i have to admit, may well have satisfied all of the references to theory his old profs may have been looking for, but bored the hell out of me.

"mature love of art" eh? what does that mean? it sounds like "love of freedom". for me, interpretation and appreciation are almost the same thing. i tend to appreciate art more, the more layers of meaning there are to interpret. the more interesting something is to think about, the more interesting it becomes visually, and vice versa.



May 11, 2005, 2:30 AM

I agree with you on this one. Theory applauds its own dogmas, gilds its own turds, and supports its own synthesis and antithesis in order to sustain its self-contained system. It is completely dependant upon support from the academic status quo in order to live and evolve, even if its evolution is limited to the petri dish of tenure track academics and their head bobbing disciples..

Designer Theories, like deconstructionism or structuralism - as examples of sociopolitical theories with large scopes and firm holds on western culture- need the academia to survive. I don't think it's a slow reaction on the part of critical minds to suddenly be responding to Theory and proclaiming it dead. (even if it turns out that we've signed the death certificate a bit prematurely) It takes time to assimilate this stuff, to allow it to penetrate the collective (un)consciousness and take seed..
It takes time to properly form a contradictory opinion...Decades! How many times have you read and reread Derrida, Foucault, Barthes or Boudrillard ??? It's not exactly easy reading for the masses. These writers/thinkers exemplify Theory's biggest flaws: Its exclusivity; the seemingly impenetrable codifications that intimidate average readers into acceptance and submission (the head-bobbers which take said theories and regurgitate them like dogmatic parrots,). But, worse than creating a zombie race of head bobbers, Theory with a capital T has never attempted to be egalitarian in its approach to examining the complex relationships between our cultural and political endeavours.. "Normal" people are completely alienated from and despondent to the notions and labyrinths of Theory.

Theory is solipsistic and impractical. Lives goes on with or without it, and its "thinking about thinking about thinking" circuits are ultimately the play-thing of academia- a critical lesson I learned in Art School during the mid nineties. I remember being awed by those French thinkers, and I admit to still having a peek at Foucaults and Derrida's convolutions, but as far as what I give preference of thought to, and what informs my (art)work and how I think that Thought (with a capital T) will be best advanced, I prefer poetry. I prefer thinking that is not dogmatic, that has an inherent system of self questioning and doubt. I prefer questions instead of answers. Too much emphasis is placed on logical understanding and didactic reasoning. I really think that confusion is the matrix of creativity. I want our systems of knowledge to applaud questions and be suspicious of answers. (without being pedantic, of course.....)

Maybe Theory as we've been discussing it is simply a conspiracy by the academic elite in order to maintain the status quo; a self congratulatory way of keeping their ideas relevant...Or, perhaps a more sinister alternative is at play: Maybe Barthes was right that language has a life of its own. And maybe, if he was right , then language, that system of thinking and communicating that drives the very text you are reading like blood in an artery, is having a laugh at our expense...Putting us to the test, taking the piss, co-conspiring with unseen forces ( it is that comes after the death of Theory), ridiculing us to a brink where we are forced to finally accept that our Ideas and Theories will always belong to the infinite regression and, like a mirror facing another mirror, might always boil down to "thinking about thinking about" (and talking about talking and art about art and writing about writing about writing, and ad infinitum). Like Sisyphus pushing his boulder up the hill only to have it roll back down again, over and over and over...

I hope not.



May 11, 2005, 3:24 AM

I can't unpack Portugese. Is that an ad?

Lordy, we've been getting the weirdest shit on this blog lately.



May 11, 2005, 3:27 AM

Oh. It's an ad. I'll take it down in a second.

Goulart: nenhumas propagandas!



May 11, 2005, 3:38 AM


... It takes time to assimilate this stuff...

It takes time to get old and die, the two preferred methods for leaving one's tenure-track position. I suspect that tenure causes these fashions to hang in there for so long. Tenure makes the withering environments and their associated outlooks, as described above, possible.



May 11, 2005, 3:57 AM

There's nothing inherently wrong with tenure. Guaranteed health insurance, relatively good money, job security 'til death do part...But academia should learn from other professions: Doctors, pilots and other professionals all have to requalify themselves every so often in order to see if their skills are still up to snuff. Maybe academic should have to undergo a similar process in order to determine if what they think is still relevant...I guess the danger in this is that ideas come and go like fashion statements, and maybe it could lead to flimsy thinking and incomplete learning/teaching...



May 11, 2005, 4:37 AM

Tenure, inherently, promotes academic staleness and incivility among a certain class of people prone to that sort of thing. It also provides a near-perfect environment for academics with talent to flourish. All systems have flaws.

One can easily tell whether the pilot can fly the plane, but not so easily tell whether the prof can fly the seminar. Art has no yardstick, as Robert Henri put it. I tend to think that the free market, the courts, and a unionized faculty would do a better job protecting academics than tenure, and would not countenance people treating each other cruelly like they will if they can't lose their jobs for it. But one of the more interesting figures of the 20C., Scott Nearing, got fired from the University of Pennsylvania for speaking out against child labor. Tenure would have saved his job. All systems have flaws.



May 11, 2005, 4:40 AM

More on Nearing.



May 11, 2005, 4:54 AM

Art has no yardstick.

That's true.
But, there are questions we can ask which can serve as measuring sticks:

Are the students and teachers simply regurgitating what they read or are they synthesizing it into something new? Is their work simply illustrating the theory du jour or is it questioning its viability within the system? Is the prof. sitting pretty cashing check and banking on a long life expectancy , or are they pushing the envelope?

The best place to subvert the academic system is from within. ( to defeat the enemy , you must understand the enemy)

I understand that this is probably a highly idealized opinion and that it's a high expectation, but students should demand more from their professors, tenure or not.
Academia does not have to suffer from staleness and incivility (another highly idealized opinion , probably)..I know that this is the reality of the academic condition for the most part. Unversities are terribly cut-throat and protective of their own. The horror!
But, we should demand more. . The point of learning is to advance the questions instead of dead-ending creativity with ultimatums and dogmas, isms, stagnance.



May 11, 2005, 5:31 AM

Who makes those evaluations, though? If you agree that the students should have more say, then the free market option becomes viable - let them patronize the classes that provide them with a good learning experience. Typically, however, the academics evaluate each other, with often willfully blind results.

With as much protection as tenure provides, humanities faculties have little incentive to change or nurture independent thinking in their charges. On the contrary - they need a captive audience. To wit:

"With regard first to growth, graduate education appears now to be a kind of pyramid scheme. The prospect of its collapse has revealed something extraordinary, that the growth of literary study consists largely in the growth of graduate programs and in the transformation of graduate students into a public for literary criticism. Professors of literature now write and teach for graduate students; graduate students have become their constituency and collectively now exert a considerable pressure on the profession, moving it in certain directions, along the cutting edge of criticism. Hence the most symptomatic professional desire one can harbor today is expressed in the desire to teach graduate students in preference to undergraduates. It is this desire that in part drove the expansion of graduate programs in the 1970s and 1980s. Newly minted professors look forward to teaching in departments with graduate programs, reproducing the same professional desire that emanated from their teachers. One can see, then, how the pyramid scheme works, if to be fully professionalized means to teach graduate students. The number of graduate students would have to increase geometrically for this desire to be gratified for all of us. But this is to say that the desire itself is phantasmic." - John Guillory, Preprofessionalism: What Graduate Students Want



May 11, 2005, 6:14 AM

Who makes the judgement? I don't know...

I guess that anyone who wants to enter a graduate program (or undergrad) will actively look for a program with teachers that are not only actively making work ( a must), but one that provides an environment with higher standards than your run-of-the-mill thesis-syhthesis-antithesis model , which is so common in the university system..
This pyramid scheme is pretty alarming. A perfect example of Keynesian (sp) economics= Create a demand and then bombard the market with supply...
John Guillory's quote seems to support what I said earlier , my suspicion about how we( or academia in this case) are all doomed to the infinite regression. We are Our own worst parasite.
Maybe the Captive Audience needs a mental enema much earlier than when they enter the university system. Blame the parents, the highschool teachers the students themselves. Students should demand more from their teachers (and teachers from their students, to be fair). Yes, schooling is a a free market , economically and philosophically. And students have a right to choose what they want to learn and how they want to learn it. But, universities should strive for and demand from their students and teachers aternatives to generic, spoon-fed educations .



May 11, 2005, 6:31 AM

..."Puleese, the author's intentions are irrelevant here." "Everything is political." "There is nothing but the text."

Oh yes, fashioning another literary varient of the emperor's new clothes. It must be November, welcome to "post theory" or maybe it's "post critical", whatever. It's time to put humpty dumpty back together again.



May 11, 2005, 6:39 AM

There's enough gas here to refloat the Hindenburg...

Sorry I can' t participate because of monster hassles at school.





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