Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The Plebeianization of Theory

'No doubt the molecular labour of theory is less visible than it was previously. It has no master-thinkers comparable in renown to the old ones. It is also wanting in dialogue with a political project capable of assembling and combining energies. But it is probably deeper, more collective, freer, and more secular. And hence richer in future promise.'
Daniel Bensaid, A Marx for Our Times (p.xvi)

Fredric Jameson often remarks that postmodernity, as cultural condition of 'late' capitalism, requires a 'decline' from high modernist masters and avant-gardes, but that this might open a 'plebeianization' of culture, a democratic opening of the 'postmodern' he associates with Brecht. Linking this to Bensaid's argument could we, or perhaps only I, imagine a plebeianization of theory? No masters, but rather collective working, not in a false collapse of community (where some seem to do the work for others), but a 'community' that might take seriously this possibility to develop such a means of working with theory.
Of course we live still with a constant fetishisation of prospective masters or movements, a seemingly relentless demand for authority coupled with an iconoclasm that 'dates' a thinker, or returns them, by whim, while providing plenty of material for 'epigone critiques' for anyone foolish enough to take a thinker seriously.
In this 'project' of plebeianization I think there are a place for scholarly virtues (as I still find them): citation of revelant research, including so-called 'secondary' research; argument rather than vatic pronouncement; engagement with sincerity rather than false and malign 'debate'; an ability to try and grasp history, including very recent history, w/o a 'historicism' that would block change; simple accuracy; submission to referees (when done properly); publication of good work rather than work by X 'famous' person; and so on.


In this 'theory', lower case 'T', submits to discipline, and not the discipline of the market, the discipline of wealth or cultural capital (which so often run together - a dearth of proletarian masters...), but the discipline of thought and expression in proper research and rigour. I'm certainly not claiming I live up to this, however I do try, and I think some real articulation here might be necessary.

12 comments:

Giovanni Tiso said...

Are you thinking of the ways in which critical terms like salvagepunk or capitalist realism or hauntology are being disseminated and simul-researched on the Web?

Benjamin said...

Well, sort of, more that there are opportunities here for plebian theory, but also I think some need for collective 'virtues'/ discipline within that, otherwise hype can take over (as in certain other cases), or circularity, or false novelty. I'm not wanting to turn the para-academic into the academic, but on the other had easy dismissals of the academic seem to me to often reinstate 'hidden' forms of cultural power - notably class/cultural capital.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Since you mention citation amongst the scholarly virtues, it seems to me that it has developed as a strong component of Web writing - very often you'll find not just the source cited (ie linked to) but also a tip of the hat to the source of the source, which makes visible connections that often in academic publications are elided.

But of course one of the issues with citing actual academic research is how much of it is still not freely available to those without a university login or plenty of cash. Paywalls remain a major obstacle to the plebeianization of theory, and making the academic space more permeable.

I wonder if you could expand on "submission to referees - when done properly". I take peer review to occur on the Web when you click 'publish'.

Benjamin said...

well outside of academic space refereeing takes place for me via 'critical friends', so that functions in that way. I was more speaking about the true usefulness of refereeing to point out errors/correct.

On citation, it's true the web allows some great ways of doing this, and you're totally correct on the restriction of research. I'm not blaming people for work they can't get hold of. Rather, I don't like certain forms of novelty claim that ignore vast swathes of material, or some forms of writing that (perhaps inadvertently) repeat existing arguments.

Really the web is not the worst for this, it's actually more practices in academia, especially theory writing, when citing appears to be considered a sign of weakness, and scholarship downplayed.

Sorry a confused set of reflections, this cold refuses to depart

Giovanni Tiso said...

Sorry, I'm really interested in this - not trying to provoke you into a long discussion or harassing a man with a cold! To be responded to when and if time and inclination and health allow it.

well outside of academic space refereeing takes place for me via 'critical friends', so that functions in that way.

Ah, but you wouldn't want to be critiqued just by your friends, would you? Even inside of academia it seems to me that it's what you get too often - critical friends.

Rather, I don't like certain forms of novelty claim that ignore vast swathes of material, or some forms of writing that (perhaps inadvertently) repeat existing arguments.

Aaron Bady wrote about this quite well (doesn't he always?) in the About page of his blog:

Scholarly writing aspires towards abstraction and finalized truth, it presumes comprehension of massive data pools, and it brandishes lit reviews and bibliographies as a way of putting forward the polite fiction that we’ve all read every important book on the subject at hand. We haven’t, of course, and though I’m not convinced that it’s a bad ideal to aspire towards in practice (however impossible in theory), this blog makes no such pretense towards acquired expertise or thorough mastery of the subject.

There are thoughts about brandishing your ignorance like a crucifix at vampires that are worth reading after that as well. But I think we should reflect on what acquiring the mastery entails so that you can never 'inadvertently' ignore important material, and the kind of knowledges that it forecloses. By far the most valuable aspect I have found since relocating my writing from academia to the Web (and I know you're not making an academia vs. Web argument, but) is that it opens it to critique that is sometimes unfriendly and - more importantly - that often comes from astonishingly well read and extremely intelligent non-academics.

Really the web is not the worst for this, it's actually more practices in academia, especially theory writing, when citing appears to be considered a sign of weakness, and scholarship downplayed.

I feel now some years on that the single most important contribution of my supervisor to my PhD was counselling against a formal literature review of the kind that locks you into responding to what people in your field are saying. I was (and am) deeply dissatisfied with cultural memory studies as a discipline, but I didn't want to write a polemic - I just wanted to try something else. I cited, and cited widely, of course, and I like to think that my bibliography if nothing else might be of use to other scholars, by my natural inclination - borne out of insecurity - would have been to spend half the dissertation justifying that departure from the principal texts in my field. I'm glad I was mentored out of that.

Joshua said...

I have so far found greater value in the reviews and online commentary that result from someone releasing proprietary work rather than the countless comments responding to work released in blog form (this is a hazy distinction at times, though). The commitment to a line of thought implicated by someone locking up a work behind IP laws or secreting it away until it is prepared as a full article or book brings with it a risk and rigor that web publishing does not merely lack as part of some immature phase, but actively eschews.

The slow blogging that Giovanni has written on perhaps responds to this desire.

Ashley ffrench said...

Interesting. What form would a collective plebian approach to theory take?

Benjamin said...

friends are people willing to tell you are wrong... but I realise what you mean.

I think there can be style of academic demand aiming at exhaustion of resources, but, on the other hand, so-called 'freedom' from citation (which seems to be regarded in theory often as a sign of status) can simply lead to lack of crediting, and often a lack of crediting lesser-known academics/writers. The cycle of 'authority' referencing ensures that citation as sign of quality always returns to those with cultural capital. Wouldn't just courtesy and an equalitarian approach, ie if work is revelant/good cite, not be a bad thing?

Also work can be made available, and should be once published but cetrainly I, and perhaps others, might also benefit from some scale of 'protection'/time to work on ideas.

I realise most of these comments could be contradictory, or in tension, but I'm interested in possibilities of a collective ethics to reinforce rigour, debate, etc. (we can often do it better than so-called 'stars', academic or otherwise), while undermining certain forms of cultural/financial capital that certainly accrue and are made invisible in the 'market'/'open' model.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"friends are people willing to tell you are wrong... but I realise what you mean."

If I recall your critical role in the accelerationism event correctly, yes, that's very valuable - but hardly the norm when it comes to peer review or thesis examination (for reasons that are partly understandable).

"The cycle of 'authority' referencing ensures that citation as sign of quality always returns to those with cultural capital. Wouldn't just courtesy and an equalitarian approach, ie if work is revelant/good cite, not be a bad thing?"

I am all for citing, myself. When in doubt, cite. In fact I think the role of theorists who have access to non-open academic resources ought to include making them available to the rest of us via accessible critical reviews or reading notes - and to their credit, lots of academic bloggers do this.

Benjamin said...

well the massive irony of the accelerationism event was that was my concept I coined as a critical concept... hence the oddity of presenting when people had taken it in a positive fashion.

Certainly part of the collective working is making stuff available. I tend to prefer responding to requests, partly because I'm not vain enough to put everything up, and partly because I'm not online at home and don't really have easy access to 'sharing' facilities.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Ironically, I just came pretty close from hijacking "decelerationism" from you too - thank God for Google!

Benjamin said...

well, it was an obvious antonym, Gopal Balakrishnan's piece in the NLR on the stationary state is good on the decelerative nature of capitalism; perhaps I should think more about deceleration as a political strategy (Timothy Brennan's book Secular Devotion has a little bit on socialism qua new decelerated tempo of life that's quite interesting.