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 :-).