Sunday, October 16, 2011

Do We Need a Center, or Generalities?

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


By 1980, Richard Rorty had added to his argumentative script the notion that Anglo-American philosophy was splintering into closed specialties that threatened a certain kind of inconversability. Different philosophy departments promoted different paradigms of what good philosophy looked like, based largely on what kind of problems and approaches to take seriously, and this of course produced different kinds of professional training. "The best hope for an American philosopher is Andy Warhol's promise that we shall all be superstars, for approximately fifteen minutes apiece." [fn.1] Rorty's was not, however, a nostalgic lamentation. The further along his career went, and the more acquainted with the situation of other humanities departments he became (particularly English departments), the more the notion that fashionableness was a good marker of disciplinary health rose to the forefront. "Fashion" was a good epithet for Rorty's angle of vision, for by using it as a commendatory term in reference to disciplines, he could at once recognize the utility of curiosity and newness in the intellectual life, while at the same time marking their transitoriness in the face of "the long view"--the view he often took, and the view up in flames from our currently fashionable faith in particularity.

One of reasons I am writing, however, is to wonder: is my sense that this is the case, about our current fashions, even right? More and more I get the feeling that fashions are fast-disappearing ghosts, and not because they are constructed out of our imaginations and flare for only fifteen minutes apiece. Fashionable Foucauldianism aside, culture being a function of the social imaginary makes its products no less real. No, what I have been struck by the idea is that for even the notion of a "fashion" to be applicable, there must be a center to the discipline, a center that judges "what is in fashion." These "centers" and "judgings" will always be wavering, disputed territory--we've learned that much from our theoretical sophistication about the notion of disciplines and communal self-weavings. But the material, disciplinary conditions that made this territory even possible might be disappearing. What made, for example, changes in fashion in Anglo-American philosophy possible was that one could chart those changes. How? By reading what people were writing--but not all of it counts. The notion of "fashion" does include having a periphery (and being "out of fashion"), and as such one judged fashions by looking to the journals that functioned as centers of influence, as gate-keepers to high quality, and thus to fashion. If you wanted to be in the know, philosophers in the middle of the century nearly all read some combination of the Journal of Philosophy, Review of Metaphysics, Mind, and Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society. Rorty once commented that professionalization, when he was coming of age, consisted in being in "the pre-print loop"--seeing what established people were concentrating their energies on, and thus being able to "get in on the conversation" to thus show your own ability to people who could judge it.

This is disappearing, I think, largely because of the rise of specialization. Our awareness of this fact is not new. But I think we may finally be far enough along the process that we can begin to see what its effects may be. Specialization, the population increase within disciplines, and the "publish or perish" method of advancement have created a disciplinary world in which we may not have a center, nor need one. The one fear of this process for a long time, however, has been that nobody will talk to each other anymore. And the further along the track we have gone, the more I think this is panning out as a truth. That's my sense, at least, and I stand in general curiosity as to its truth. But is it bad, even if it's true? Is the conversational model, the lens with which to perceive disciplinary health, outmoded? What do we replace it with?

As more and more scholars born between 1890 and 1940 die, we get more and more reflections by their most immediate students about the death of the long view at the hands of specialization. Edward Said was already lamenting in the 70s the death of scholars on the model of Auerbach, Spitzer, and Curtius: people who seemed to know everything, read everything. But that kind of thing seems impossible today, and for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that there is simply too much to read. [fn.2] So, if scholarly specialization is, as I believe it to be, on the whole a good thing, what happens to our ability to not just talk to each other, but take that long view, to saying something general? Foucault seems to suggest this is a fading intellectual type, and that that might be a good thing, but should we be suspicious of Foucault, as he was, after all, a mighty generalist?

Walter Jackson Bate, that tremendous critic, scholar, and intellectual historian, was reflecting on something like the above problem when he wrote this in 1982:
The truth is that, with the fading of the Renaissance ideal through progressive stages of specialism, leading to intellectual emptiness, we are left with a potentially suicidal movement about "leaders of the profession," while, at the same time, the profession sprawls, without its old center, in helpless disarray.

One quickly cited example is the professional organization, the Modern Language Association.... A glance at its think program for its last meeting shows a massive increase and fragmentation into more than 500 categories! I cite a few examples: "Deconstruction as Poltics," "Lesbian Feminist Poetry in Texas," "The Trickster Figure in Chicano and Black Literature," or (astonishingly) "The Absent Father in Fact, Metaphor, and Metaphysics in the Middle Generation of American Poets." ... Naturally, the progressive trivialization of topics has made these meetings a laughingstock in the national press.
So, now we know Bate is additionally a snobbish prick. But is there nothing of value in the above lamentation? That passage was quoted in the book that happened to prompt me to these reflections, Barbara Johnson's A World of Difference. It was not finding the Bate, but reflecting to myself, "Why did I even buy this? Does anyone even take Johnson seriously anymore?" The trouble is that I don't even know where to turn to get a sense of how I should answer that question. The more time goes on, the more I get the feeling that the answer to such questions is both, and disturbingly, "Yes, you should care; and no, don't worry about it." I don't think the answer used to be that, back when there was a center, and this might be for the good: the sense of letting a thousand flowers bloom. But when you are job hunting, I suspect the answer is still, "Yeah, you don't wanna' take stock in the passé." But there's no center anymore to tell us what's passé and what fashionable.

But more than that question is the fading of the Renaissance view, the fate of the generalist, being able to take the long view. I'd like to think such a thing still desirable. But we can't read everything, and there's no center anymore to tell you what to read to assure yourself of a job, so splintering forces your head further into very local power structures (i.e. of your narrow specialty), and the force of "publish or perish" is such that nobody will get ahead taking the long view. Is that line of reasoning right? Is there anything to be done? Should we be worried?

I might, in the end, not say that I'm worried, but I wonder about the notion of generality being a specialty. I think it always was, but what's coming to the fore is how it might be becoming impossible to have more than one specialty. Whereas, one used to be able to cut their teeth on a specialty while keeping up on other intellectual pastimes, so that on the backside of one's career, aging in tenure, one could take the long view without worrying about professional advancement (and have enough logged reading and research to be able to take that longer, more comprehensive view), now I'm not sure we have the time to both make inroads on a specialty and keep up on anything else. Even if this is a confession of personal limitation, it has to be an increasing reality for more and more. And if it is, that means we will lack a community to be able to judge general assertions. For who will know? That's the Hegelian model of intersubjectivity at work. That is an actual possibility. And that is what strikes me as fearful: it's the inconversability fear again, but I'm wondering if put this way, it's less snobbish than fearing the death of the heroic, Renaissance übermensch. And the fact of the matter, I think, is that right now there is no professional outlet for specializing as a generalist. And that means no one will be able to do it in the future I'm imagining, and imagining as possible.


[1] Consequences of Pragmatism, 216

[2] Another to think about is the capabilities of our education systems. Auerbach, Spitzer, and Curtius knew absurd numbers of languages, and while we know this kind of continued diversity is possible, in Europe for example, I wonder if part of its possibility derives from the compact space that houses these different language groups. And if global homogenization continues apace, which we have no reason to doubt, then this condition will disappear as well. It isn't, in other words, just that Americans are absurdly exceptionalist, thinking everyone should just speak English. It's also a function of having other languages around, impacting your daily life. The only other route is forced entrenchment through public schooling, and not only is their no will for that, I wonder about its desirability (despite it being likely the only solution).


  1. Hi Matt,

    Is it not possible (and worthwhile) to talk of fashion in terms of different fashions / flavours with different attractions from different viewpoints, without bringing in "fashionability" - in terms of being in or our of fashion - with some single central standard of arbitration of the relative merits ?

  2. Doing away with the notion of "fashionability" is what's behind Rorty and Brandom's favored slogan, "let a thousand flowers bloom," but it's easy to forget the purpose behind letting all those flowers bloom: some of them are going to be crap, and turned back over into the earth as compost for the next crop. (The phrase, of course, originates from Mao's China, referring to a campaign that was probably a front to get dissidents to expose themselves.) Speaking of fashions without fashionability is the spectre of exponential specialization again, which whittles away into practical solipsism.

    Think about it this way in the abstract: a fashion is always relative to a community who judges it to be fashionable. The real possibility is that you will not have a community to judge you--that's not desirable. Hegel will say that that's not even real freedom. Without a community judging you, there's no merit at all on the Hegelian model.

    Or think of it as Pirsig would: the notion of a "single central standard of arbitration of the relative merits" is the notion of static latch. Fashions like symbolic logic in Philosophy Departments in the 30s and literary theory in English Departments in 70s had the effect of people in power establishing institutional footholds for these things, like requiring philosophy graduate students to take at least one symbolic logic seminar or there being a theory component in English PhD comprehensive examinations. This "single central standard" is never a dictatorial fiat-maker, for a community doesn't judge that way--a community, being made of individuals, is always in flux.

    (No less, I might add, than that no academic discipline has a "single central standard of arbitration" that is like, say, the central authority of a dictator. There are myriad institutional apparatuses that, while they overlap, also are too complex for anyone to point at a single source of control--which means there isn't, which is good. Think of, on this score, individual departments, national institutions like the APA, book presses, and journals. None of them are so tightly bound as to create what I think you're imagining as a "single central standard.")

  3. Fair enough, it's kinda what I meant anyway. There need to be many possible standards for judgement (by a community of many). Clearly the "popularity" of various such standards will come and go in cycles, but none can ever be seen to be "the single" standard.

    Sorry, just my usual style of attempting to boil down your considered essays into a couple of sentences. Nasty habit ;-)


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