2.7.13

THE CAVALRY ARRIVES.

Ten years ago, Cold Spring Shops noted that literary "theory" was devoid of testable implications.  I expanded on the criticism eight years ago.
Filtered through an economics lens, it's loosely this. Authors have private information. Readers have private information. Authors of letters to family or friends of long standing have private information that includes the reader's likely response to the author's choice of words. Authors can push readers' buttons, or not, accordingly. Authors of letters to a newspaper, let alone of essays or books, cannot be sure what readers' buttons will be pushed, or in what way. That, alone, makes the construction of any formal system of understanding texts sufficiently rigorous and replicable to be referred to as a theory, let alone as Theory, difficult.
Seven years ago,  I suggested that professors of literature, by making the same mistake many professors of economics make when they bring the latest developments from the graduate program into the principles class, were damaging their discipline, and the enterprise of higher education generally.
Had leftist literary scholars continued to teach close reading and tight writing at the same time that their research considered different ways of interpreting literature, their disciplines might not have faced the problems they currently face. That, however, is not what has happened. I find myself frequently suggesting that the Economics Department time-slip the English Department for all the basic writing instruction we are doing, which has apparently been neglected in freshman composition and in the common schools.
I was not alone at the time, and I'm pleased to note Noam Chomsky's presence to the fight.
What you’re referring to is what’s called “theory.” And when I said I’m not interested in theory, what I meant is, I’m not interested in posturing–using fancy terms like polysyllables and pretending you have a theory when you have no theory whatsoever. So there’s no theory in any of this stuff, not in the sense of theory that anyone is familiar with in the sciences or any other serious field. Try to find in all of the work you mentioned some principles from which you can deduce conclusions, empirically testable propositions where it all goes beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old. See if you can find that when the fancy words are decoded. I can’t. So I’m not interested in that kind of posturing.
He's been in the fight for many years, and this excerpt from a 1995 talk suggests that obscurantist higher education has not done much for upward mobility.
The left intellectuals who 60 years ago would have been teaching in working class schools, writing books like "mathematics for the millions" (which made mathematics intelligible to millions of people), participating in and speaking for popular organizations, etc., are now largely disengaged from such activities, and although quick to tell us that they are far more radical than thou, are not to be found, it seems, when there is such an obvious and growing need and even explicit request for the work they could do out there in the world of people with live problems and concerns. That's not a small problem. This country, right now, is in a very strange and ominous state. People are frightened, angry, disillusioned, skeptical, confused.
At that time, "strange and ominous" referred to President Clinton's philandering, and "inappropriately directed laughter."  Those live problems and concerns have had another two decades to fester.

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