a woman's face (gustaf molander, 1938)
losing it at the movies: nashville (robert altman, 1975)


[I wrote this in 2005, and then left it in Blog Limbo, never posting it for who knows what reason. I was searching for a specific post today and realized there are a lot of these abandoned drafts, and I thought to post this. I've trimmed it a bit, but left most of it unchanged, because if nothing else it reflects where my brain was in 2005. Interesting that vaccines were on my mind ... it may be the most 2019-ish thing in this post.]

When I started graduate school, we were required to take a course that purported to be an introduction to ... well, everything. Here's a description taken from the most recent catalog:

"Problems in the Study of Literature. Course description: Approaches to literary study, including textual analysis, scholarly methodology and bibliography, critical theory and practice."

My memory, having taken this class with the fine Jim Breslin in 1988, is that we spent about four minutes on "scholarly methodology and bibliography" and the entire rest of the semester running "textual analysis" through the prism of "critical theory and practice." (I just looked up "prism" in the dictionary and got this: "A medium that misrepresents whatever is seen through it.") Each week we read a piece by some representative of a particular school of theory ... not sure I can remember them all, there was reader-response theory, and death-of-the-author stuff, and again I can't recall any longer but I'm positive there were a lot of French deconstructionists and the like. I admit to being pretty overwhelmed by it all. The odd thing was, it seemed like this introductory course was intended to serve the purpose of allowing us to identify our theory, as if we were at a wine-tasting party. A swig of this, a swig of that, and voila! You were able to announce yourself as a Marxist, or a deconstructionist, or whatever. In retrospect, I suppose this was also intended to get you on a proper career track ... once you associated yourself with a theory, you could find the right mentor, focus your attentions in your chosen sub-field, and after a suitable number of years, you'd have a dissertation, a bunch of connections, an identifiable school of thought, and, hopefully, a job.

I don't want you to think I was a standout graduate student, because I wasn't. Outside of my circle of friends, I was barely known at all. But within the confines of that introductory class, I had an identity, as we all did once we'd been through the wringer. I was told that my school of thought was called "Rubiology," and that the central theme of Rubiology was that I had a good bullshit detector. In other words, while I didn't embrace any particular theory (although I confess to having a little crush on reader-response), I was always willing and able to point out the flaws in any theory that passed in front of me.

I took this as evidence of my long-lasting solipsism and left it at that. But I think it's pretty clear, a couple of decades on, that Rubiology wasn't the best way to go if I was thinking tenure track. My heroine was Pauline Kael, who not only wasn't an academic, but who was chastised, even within the field of film criticism, for not having an overriding theory, for relying too much on just spouting off on what she liked and didn't like.

This should not be read as if I were complaining ... I've got a pretty easy life. But it's also a relatively lonely life, when you aren't a member of any particular theoretical school. I know I get frustrated by the fact that many of the thinkers I admire seem to be libertarian or conservative in their politics ... I sure wish there were more left-wing rationalists out there.

This is all a long-winded way of noting that I came to academia at a time when theory was taking over the humanities, and that left me on the outside with my bullshit detector, looking in the window at all the people who found theory more congenial than did I. I didn't realize at first that I was an outsider to theory, because many of the notions that formed the foundation of my own thinking were echoed in the work of many theorists (most obviously, that understanding power relationships is crucial, and that institutions tended to bring out the worst in good people while imposing a status-quo mentality that squashed independent thinking). But let's be honest here ... the stuff I do is out of touch with the present times, and that makes me sad, because I like to pretend I'm all contemporary and cool. I've got a doctorate in English, but I rarely read novels, don't go near poetry unless it's a Little Richard lyric, have never read Milton and would rather watch a teevee show than figure out Shakespeare's comedies. I consider myself a leftist, but my skeptical tendencies often put me on the opposite side of issues like the current vaccine scare. I get away with a lot because I'm a good writer, but in the end, I'm as inconsequential in a professional sense as is this blog.

And no, I'm not depressed ... I'm just grading papers :-).


scott woods

Really interesting thoughts, Steven. The closest I got to 'theory' in college was a couple years of Marxist sociology, which I lapped up at the time but mainly just because it appealed to my then-bleeding heart (in truth, I totally struggled with the terminology--a paradigm was what I put in the parking meter last night, etc.). It eventually turned me off completely (so many obvious hypocrisies among the tenured staff; such distrust of fun--or of art, really--and yeah, such "posturing"). Oddly, as this was right around the time I was first discovering Kael myself, I mentioned her when the subject of movie critics came up (after a class viewing of *The Stuntman*), and the prof duly dismissed her by calling her (I'm pretty sure he used these exact words) "a somewhat reactionary critic." I really was clueless back then, not to mention completely gullible, but I'm glad I had enough sense at least to see beyond that nonsense.

On the one hand, I wish I could've grasped the theory stuff better (for some weird reason, I can totally get into McLuhan and Meltzer, who are difficult to read and often quite obscure--maybe because they're also funny?), on the other hand, I got more (though definitely not enough--and that's a different issue entirely) out of pop music, movies, Kael, Bangs, Marcus, etc.

Anyway, I babble--always keep a clean bullshit detector and carry a lightbulb.

Charlie Bertsch

I think your bullshit detector is fine. It's just that I want to have the opportunity to use mine on yours from time to time. There are all sorts of critiques of Judith Butler worth making. I just felt that you were being unfair. Personally, though I read lots of Theory and take it more seriously than most, I also have never committed to one overarching approach. I'm a leftist. I like many things about good Marxist critiques. I see merit in anarchist critiques of them. I read Wittgenstein to mellow out. "Nietzsche" dribbles out of my mouth all too often, as my daughter will tell you. And I like some of that deconstructionst/post-structuralist work that is forever being mocked by those outside of its ambit. If I have a role model, though, it's you.

Steven Rubio

Thanks to you both for the comments. Scott, sometimes I think my academic life has been guided by my status as an autodidact before I got to the university. I started college for real when I was in my 30s. By then, I'd spent ten years working in a factory, where I read whatever interested me. What interested me was Pauline Kael and Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs, but also Leslie Fiedler. And always Camus. There was no organization behind my "studies," so when I got to college, I had trained myself to construct my own methods. Then, as an undergraduate at Cal, I wrote my own major, which kinda continued the theme. Once I hit grad school ... well, they pretty much require you to work on your own, to prove you can do it. So I've had very little structure to my education, even though I have a doctorate.

Charlie, you flatter me! I can't do what people like you can do ... when it comes to writing, you're "bilingual" where I'm stuck with whatever this thing is I do. (I know we all have anxiety over our dissertations, but my anxiety was very specific: when will they figure out that I'm not an academic? I barely had any footnotes!)

The other thing is that almost every work of art that has inspired me is popular junky stuff. Not all of it, but most of it. I mean, I love The Great Gatsby and "Bartleby the Scrivener," but in the end, I'm not an academic who also enjoys the popular, I'm a smart guy with a talented pen who loves pop culture. It was rare, in my 8 1/2 years as an English graduate student, where I read literature that just knocked me on my ass. But Bonnie and Clyde? Astral Weeks? The Godfather movies? That stuff was what drove me, and still drives me. I'm going to be teaching literature in both the fall and spring of the upcoming school year, and I feel like I have to teach myself all over again how to do it. It's like at the beginning of this summer, when one student said she was so happy to be taking my class, because she loved fiction and never got a chance to read enough of it. I had to break the news that all I was assigning was non-fiction.


What I hear in all this is a resistance to dogmatism, which always should be a guiding principle in all areas of existence (especially in the world in which we are now living).

From my perch over here in media studies, I think in some ways we've had it easier, theory-wise, than folks coming out of a lit background. This is because media studies is and always has been a polyglot discipline--we steal jargon and methodologies from everyone (lit theory, anthropology, psychology, sociology, historiography, etc.), which means that for many practitioners "theory" has always been a mix 'n' match phenomenon. The perceived need to align yourself with a specific school of thought and then person the barricades for the rest of your career is relatively less intense, I think. While there are some dogmatic theoreticians in the field, many people I know have changed their methodolgical allegiances over the years. I know this as a relative old fart, and from experience--I initially fixated on genre theory, and while I still use it (in, for instance, classes on science fiction and documentary), I've also incorporated other stuff into my writing, largely "deconstructionist" ideas--is that vague enough for you? I've always taught theory survey classes with a certain skeptical edge, but I continue to teach them. The first month of my "new media" theory class is a crash course in semiotics and pomo, as certain "canonical" concepts from these areas especially are often taken for granted these days, and I find that my students understand the "new" stuff better when I explain to them how and why much of it is rooted in the "old".

When I was younger, I felt an obligation to read "everything," but I've gotten increasingly weary of hardcore theoryspeak, with a few exceptions, i.e., when I find the ideas down there in amongst the weeds to be genuinely compelling (e.g., some Deleuze). There's just so much academic writing that is just syntactically bad bad bad, genuinely unpleasant to read (because the prose is ugly, unnnecessarily convoluted, or both) and I've found that avoiding examples of this, even when the author might be talking about something I'm interested in, doesn't affect my life or work much at all.

All in all, I've come to the conclusion that, if an academic feels compelled to have an allegiance to theory at all, s/he needs to think like a shark: keep moving or die.

Steven Rubio

This is amazing and quite illuminating. I had no idea this seems to have been posted after all, with a few very astute comments. Apparently the post was not in limbo after all. In case anyone reads this in 2019,note that the comments that come before this one were from 2005. TypePad has some pretty good software to not only save those comments but know 14 years later they belonged to this old post.

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