Robert Doran examines how critical theory has always been a form of ethical practice
Robert Doran, The Ethics of Theory: Philosophy, History, Literature (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Robert Doran, The Ethics of Theory: Philosophy, History, Literature (Bloomsbury, 2016)

What led you to write The Ethics of Theory?

The impetus for this project was a feeling that the tectonic shift of Theory–from a hermetic-textualist to a culturally-focused and politically-driven discourse–had not really been examined. This shift (circa 1987) was simply accepted, celebrated, or lamented without any real thinking about how we got from here to there or from there to here. Thus, I wanted to reflect on how this transformation happened and what it means for us now.

What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about critical theory?

That it is definable in terms of some general consensus, that there is some general agreement about what it is and what role it should play, when in fact it embodies many competing and at times mutually exclusive paradigms and assumptions. Nevertheless, I think that what binds everyone (or most everyone) together under the Theory banner is the sense that Nietzsche’s challenge to philosophy (continued and amplified by Heidegger) represented a fundamental break in the intellectual history of the West. On the one side, Nietzsche contested the hegemony of scientific inquiry, which, in the late nineteenth century, had attained great cultural prestige, displacing philosophy’s traditional role as the arbiter of knowledge. On the other side, Nietzsche held that human beings make their own truth–or decide what counts as truth–and that all knowledge is therefore contingent on human projects. The concept of objective, value-neutral knowledge is thereby torn asunder, giving way to the idea that seemingly “objective” knowledge is permeated with social, ethical, and political considerations that can never be completely expunged. The role of Theory or Critical Theory is to keep pointing this out. (more…)

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Primo Levi in his studio, Turin, 1981.
Primo Levi in his studio, Turin, 1981.

In a recent piece for The Times Literary Supplement, Ian Thomson has reviewed Penguin’s new three-volume collection of Primo Levi‘s Complete Works in English. Thomson praises the work of Ann Goldstein, the editor who oversaw the new translations (including one revision) over the course of fifteen years. He also takes time to acknowledge the power of Goldstein’s own translation, which bring “Levi’s formidably concise Italian into a transparent and bracingly spare English”.

Thomson, the author of Primo Levi: A Life, offers a number of fascinating insights into the character and sensibility of the late writer, chemist, and Holocaust survivor (including a note on Levi’s distaste for the term “Holocaust”). Readers of Franz Kafka will be interested to learn that Levi attempted to translate the Prague writer in the early 1980s, and found the experience deeply unsettling:

“In his essay ‘Translating Kafka’, included in Volume Three, Levi relates how his translation of The Trial in 1982 left him more terribly involved than he could have imagined. Originally he had hoped to improve his German, but found only bleakness in Josef K., who is arrested for a crime he probably did not commit. Levi wonders in the essay if he has any ‘affinity’ at all with Kafka. Yet the more he immersed himself in the work of ‘St Franz of Prague’, the more he saw uncomfortable parallels. Kafka lived an unremarkable life as an insurance clerk in Prague, rarely travelling beyond his home or that of his parents; Levi believed he was similarly constricted in his own life as the manager of a paint and varnish factory outside Turin. Moreover, Kafka’s three sisters had all perished in the Nazi gas chambers – victims of a grotesque bureaucratically structured system foreshadowed by their brother two decades earlier in The Trial. Kafka must have had ‘astounding clairvoyance’, Levi comments, to have looked so accurately into the future.”

Adam Weiner discusses how a Russian socialist novel from the nineteenth-century influenced the work of Ayn Rand and subsequent economic deregulation in the United States

What motivated you to write How Bad Writing Destroyed the World?

Adam Weiner, How Bad Writing Destroyed the World: Ayn Rand and the Literary Origins of the Financial Crisis (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Adam Weiner, How Bad Writing Destroyed the World: Ayn Rand and the Literary Origins of the Financial Crisis (Bloomsbury, 2016)

The idea evolved over time. While I was attending university I kept hearing about what an incredible, life-transforming experience it was to read Ayn Rand’s novels. Eventually I became curious enough to read The Fountainhead. The awfulness of the writing dumbfounded me, and I began to wonder what people could possibly be finding in there—it couldn’t be pleasures of an artistic order, so something else. As a graduate student I had to read Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s history-making but horribly written novel What Is to Be Done? and I became immediately aware that its badness was akin to what I had found in Ayn Rand. I mean not merely the clunky prose style and android heroes, but the dictatorial, sermonizing tone, and the sense that questionable ideological values were being hawked practically for free. When I began to teach literature at Wellesley College some of my students kept naming Ayn Rand and Nabokov as their favourite writers, and I was dismayed that the two names were being spoken in the same breath. So I read Atlas Shrugged. Only then did I get it: Ayn Rand, while officially despising socialism, had found her most immediate literary inspiration in Russia’s homegrown socialist, Chernyshevsky. All of the same ideas, devices, images: the same rational egoism; the same utopian scheming, right down to weird details, like perpetual motion machines. Humankind would discover miraculous new metals, motors and professional relations that would allow them to re-shape the world in their own image. Do god’s work. Become the master of your destiny. Etc., etc. I knew that all of this nonsense had been a direct inspiration to Lenin, who had destroyed the Russian Empire under its heady influence. Suddenly I saw that Ayn Rand had done much the same thing in the US by programming Alan Greenspan with objectivism and unleashing him into our economy, where he deregulated everything to the point of disaster and beyond. That’s when the book took shape in my mind. (more…)

Sarah Hammerschlag discusses how the work of Levinas and Derrida can help us to rethink the relationship between religion, literature, and philosophy

What motivated you to write the book?

Sarah Hammerschlag, Broken Tablets: Levines, Derrida, and the Literary Afterlife of Religion (Columbia University Press, 2016)
Sarah Hammerschlag, Broken Tablets: Levinas, Derrida, and the Literary Afterlife of Religion (Columbia University Press, 2016)

This project developed organically out of my first book The Figural Jew, which focuses on the revalorization of the figure of the Jew in post-World War II French literature and philosophy. At the center of that project there was already a nascent argument for introducing literary modes of speech into the political sphere to capitalize on the ways in which irony and plurivocity complicate the politics of identity. The last couple of chapters of that book argue that Blanchot and Derrida develop a literary concept of the Jew and Judaism through a reading of Levinas. But I was still concerned to represent the differences between Derrida and Levinas on the question of how to think about the cultural relevance of Judaism in the post-WWII context and to consider the very important political implications of their respective choices. Broken Tablets  gave me the opportunity to track the implications of those differences and to conceive of them in terms of how each philosopher negotiated his relationship to religion and literature as competing discourses to philosophy. (more…)

How the practice of criticism can offer a way to rethink our assumptions about truth, history, and human nature

What exactly do we mean by the term ‘criticism’?

Catherine Belsey, Criticism (Profile Books, 2016)
Catherine Belsey, Criticism (Profile Books, 2016)

The publishers asked me that and I didn’t give them an answer! It’s a fair question but I’m uneasy about definitions. They’re a bit like written constitutions: they tie you down and exclude new possibilities. Definitions demarcate a legitimate area of activity – and close off other options.

In a general way, criticism is reflection on the stories, plays and poems we read (or see, or listen to). But in detail, it varies. For some people, it’s effectively a source of consumer advice: this film is worth going to; that novel is worth buying. Others might prefer to think about what differentiates genres, or the effects of different media. Does a play tell a story in the same way as a novel? Do novels tend to works as films, say?

Then there’s fiction as a record of the way we think about the world, or our ancestors once thought about it. Criticism offers access to cultural analysis and cultural history.

My own current preoccupation is pleasure. Why is fiction so enjoyable, even when the stories it tells are unhappy ones? Why does tragedy attract audiences? Other people have other concerns: it can all be criticism. (more…)