John Mcreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Sat, 9 Apr 1994 10:56:13 JST
I have been lurking, reading the debate that began with Carrier's
remarks about Fabian and has now drifted offer to recent heated
exchanges about Derrida's readability (or lack thereof) and Stephanie
Nelson (reinforced by Doug Christian)'s attack on Danny Yee's reading
habits. It is time to take a position.
(1) On the whole I favor the clarifiers. To Yee I would say that your
latest post is a model of clarity and restraint.. Our reading habits
are similar, and I, too, find life too short to labor through writing
that makes me work to hard to reach what seems a simplistic
conclusion, if, indeed, there is a conclusion.
(2) I recognize the problems of spurious clarity; how true it is that
clarity does not make up for banality and that even the clearest
language can mask (by diverting attention from complexities) a
failure to think deeply.
(3) I also know that I myself enjoy rich and elaborate language; I
read authors like Geertz, Jameson, and, yes, Bourdieu, with pleasure,
enjoying the way they frolic with words. I also know that this is a
somewhat peculiar taste, akin to my fondness for elaborate, gloppy
desserts and sauces.
(4) Having started reading philosophy in the days when the likes of
Quine, Ayer and Tarski were de rigeur, gone on to Austin and
Wittgenstein, and come lately post-modern critics who have pointed
me back to the 19th century German idealists, hermeneutics, etc., I
know I've got a lot to learn.
(4) Mea culpa, I have not read Derrida; my impression of those who
invoke his name is that the usual conclusion they're driving at is
along the lines of (a) any text admits of an infinite number of
readings; (b) all are equally valuable; but (c) some are compromised
by political assumptions that some readers (the good, intelligent
ones--that's US!) find offensive.
(5) I am willing to have it demonstrated that Derrida has useful
things to say. I am not willing to regard pointers to other authors
("See so-and-so's XXX) as evidence. I am waiting for someone who
will show me that there is some specific cultural phenomenon his
(6) Here is an example. Bourdieu's concept "habitus". It says
something important; most people getting on with their lives are not
intellectuals sitting at their desks developing theories to explain
something. Theories that assume the people whose lives we study
make decisions in an intellectualist mode are likely to be making a
serious mistake. To me this concept highlights something very
important about my job; when making ads (that's what I do), I and my
colleagues think and argue in terms of rough-and-ready rules of
thumb. We don't have the time to elaborate theories or analyze the
always meagre and fragmentary data with which we work with
anything like scientific rigor. It then becomes a very interesting
problem indeed to try to work out what it is that we're actually
doing. Thinking about this problem leads me back to Austin, whose
theory of performative acts suggests that what we ought to be
looking at is felicity rather than truth conditions....Mmmmh.
I'll stop here. For those in search of clear writing that says
important things, let me add to your list Paul Stoller's _The Taste of
Ethnographic Things_ and Grant McCracken's _Culture and
Consumerism_. Heavier but really worth the effort is Terry Eagleton
_The Ideology of the Aesthetic_.
"Making Symbols is My Business"--John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM).
P.S. Stephanie, when you write "If I were sitting across the table at a
job interview..." that sounds like a threat to me. If I were teaching and
a student came to me with the thesis proposal you describe, I wouldn't
dismiss it. I would ask a lot of very careful questions to make sure (1)
that he or she knew where they were going with the project and (2) that
there would be a large enough market for what they were writing to ensure
that the years of work they'd put in wouldn't go down the tube when
intellectual fashions change. To be honest, given the job market that
John O'Brien describes, this thesis sounds like a sure road to a job as a
cab driver. For McDonald's the student would wind up overqualified. How
do you handle the ethics of this situation.
P.P.S. To Pound. Once you have demonstrated to your satisfaction that
everything thought or done up until now is rubbish--where do we go from
here? Was it C.Wright Mills who noted that with no shared vocabulary of
motives, the only argument left is guns?