Theory Module 4

Looking Back

During the last week of “TheoryCamp,” we revisited one of the “posts” we left behind last week—postcolonialism—and moved on to “Differences” before wrapping up with “Life” itself (no topic, it seems, is too encompassing for our fearless authors of The Theory Toolbox).  Let’s begin with “Difference.”

The key question of this first chapter is simply put at the start: “what difference does difference make?” our authors ask. “Do the categories of racial, sexual, economic and ethnic different make a difference in our reading and writing of the world?” (171).  I asked you all how you think those following a more intrinsic (or strictly formalist) approach would answer that question. Being well-versed in the ways of theory, you responded dutifully that they would say, emphatically: no. But many critics that we have read about do indeed privilege these contexts that mark our difference, and their work has contributed to an increasingly inclusive canon reflecting a true diversity of experience and identity: differences that matter.

This chapter is all about negotiating those differences that comprise our various “subject positions”—where we, as individuals, stand at the intersection of many overlapping and intersecting multicultures.

We began by discussing how this idea of differences has factored into your other classes in English and other disciplines. Discussion of differences had played a central role in many of your classes. But we do need to be careful not to essentialize difference. For Nealon and Giroux, it’s all about what certain signs mean in certain contexts–not absolutely—and that meaning is slippery, like language itself (recall the unstable relationship between the signifier and the signified). But why do differences matter? “Attention to differences,” our authors write, “is an attempt to highlight the complexities that the social world puts before us as we work to understand and respond to events, practices, beliefs, institutions, and various cultural artifacts” (177). Differences, then, are social, even when they are rooted in our biological makeup. Just think: it’s not a matter of chromosomes and pigment that defines our conceptions of sex and race, but the values we attach to individuals manifesting those traits.  As Nealon and Giroux aptly put it: “differences themselves don’t contain meaning” (182).  This is exciting in many ways, particularly because it opens up dynamic histories of gender, of sexuality, of ethnicity, of race. These are shifting categories that change over time, not scientific ones embedded in our DNA.

Our authors explored many specific differences in this chapter—gender, sex, race—noting the often reductive categories that we use to structure our understanding of these things: one is male or female, black or white, gay or straight.  They encourage us to think about such differences not as strictly binary, but as potentially infinite. It is the way we perform our differences, they argue, that really matters. Differences do not simply define or constitute us in some essential way.  It’s all about, as our authors put it, statements of act rather than statements of fact

The worst thing we can do in the face of these multiplying differences is to ignore them. We discussed the idea of colorblindness, for example, as a response to racism in order to grasp what exactly is at stake when we ignore such differences. Though it seems a hopeful and progressive thing to think of things beyond race, such a stance ignores the persistent and structural inequalities that are still all too common in our society. It doesn’t help anyone to simply pretend that there is not a problem.  To profess a certain colorblindness is like taking a purely formal or intrinsic approach to literature: you ignore context—history, politics, ideology—in order to enter some universal realm where these things don’t matter. Sounds a bit naïve, doesn’t it?  We moved on to differences of social class next. We talked about the rags-to-riches myth along with the idea of cultural capital and even brainstormed other differences that our authors don’t cover: disability, nationality, age, and national origin, for example.  Each provides a certain angle, a certain way of approaching the various literary and cultural contexts that surround us each day of our lives.

Which brings us to the chapter on “Life.” The language of life saturates our daily discourse: lifestyle, pro-life, everyday life; I want a better life, I’m looking for extra-terrestrial life; get a life, the game of life; what have you done with your life?  It’s a charged term to say the least. And it seems, like many of the concepts our authors discuss, to be somehow essential. It’s part of the air we breathe. Why interrogate it?

But even life is not essential or universal: the way people define life over time has changed. As with so many of the concepts grounding these chapters in our Theory Toolbox, it is the meaning we give “life” in specific contexts that matters.  The word biology, for example, didn’t exist as a word until 1802. Before then, life was mostly categorized: zoe, bios, etc.  But things change.  Nineteenth-century scientists were into the vitality of life—some grounding life force. Today, we decode DNA. Life is something we can now manipulate and even build through genetic engineering.

Perhaps the most important concept that Nealon and Giroux discuss in this chapter is biopower. In the nineteenth century and before, disciplinary power reigned.  Disciplinary power controls what you do or what you shouldn’t do.  Punishments are usually more physical: time-out, jail time, capital punishment, and so on.  Biopower, however, is less about what you do than who you are.  One doesn’t’ merely get punished for certain actions; rather, on is defined or typed as a delinquent, a monster, a sociopath, a queer. Whatever, in a given culture, exceeds “biopolitical normativity,” Nealon and girous write, is coded as abnormal, and therefore suspect (216). It is, one quickly sees, a more dangerous form of “power” because it threatens not only to control us, but to define us.

Our methodology readings, which we tackled as a group on the last official day of TheoryCamp, introduced us to postcolonialism.  We discussed colonialism to gain more historical perspective, and neocolonialism to grasp how globalization has become, in certain cases, a new form of cultural and economic colonialism. We discussed the effects of colonization, which are both physical and cultural: the colonizers not only raid resources, but damage and alter the cultural foundations of the peoples they encounter. As Dobie writes,  “Postcolonialist theories offer topics of interest… because the formal termination of colonial rule does not wipe out its legacy, and the culture that is left is a mixture of the colonized on and the colonizer, often marked by contrasts and antagonisms, resentment and blended practice” (205-6).  These are the kinds of political and cultural tensions one look for when reading from a “postcolonial” perspective. How, we might ask from this perspective, are the indigenous populations “othered”—either exoticized or demonized? What happens—psychologically, culturally—when one culture is dominated by another?

Thursday was—drum roll please—our final day of TheoryCamp. In honor of this final day, I asked a hopelessly broad question: what has this book been about? I was very happy that you had many good responses to this question. This book is really just about how, as our authors put it, the “unreflective insistence about the inevitability and inviolability of ‘the way things are’ often dogs efforts to open up spaces for thinking otherwise, for imagining or theorizing alternative possibilities” (230). That’s the general idea we’ve been turning over and over for the past three weeks.  How does the second-to-last chapter on “Nature” join that broader mission?

What nature means is so various: we talk about human nature, about mother nature, about how we corn syrup is natural, about nature as birthright, as threat, as consolation, as a punishment, as a reward. If we are fluent in English, we kind of get all those differences in context.  But we still need to look beneath the surface of those various meanings to discover, as our authors put it, “the various ideological uses to which the invocation of nature is put to legitimate or justify an existing, and quite often unequal, status quo.  Nature,” they continue, “serves a very powerful normative function” (223).  And I think that’s the key point: nature is often deployed to mark out what is normal and what is abnormal.

Nealon and Giroux then move beyond what we might call the rhetoric of nature to nature in a more physical sense. This sense of nature has more to do with the way humanity manipulates its environment, and what the effects—often and increasingly disastrous—of that manipulation have been: think nuclear war, greenhouse gasses, depleted resources, desertification, deforestation, water crises, global warming. The real irony here, according to Nealon and Giroux, is that the more we exploit nature to protect ourselves from it (gas/oil = heat = protection from the elements) the more we’re also bringing that world dangerously close to the brink of disaster and depletion. “Ecologically speaking,” they write, “the world is more insecure and vulnerable than ever, and it is now nature that needs protection from human contact, given ongoing decimation of the planet’s resources” (238).

Whether nature needs to be tamed and controlled (our inner nature for Freud, our physically brutish social nature for Hobbes) or whether we need to return to nature to discover a model for our true selves (think Rousseau), the point is the same. Humans, Nealon and Giroux write, have consistently “read into the natural world characteristic amenable to his own perception of human tendency and political possibility” (236).  In this way, nature reveals a lot more about the observer than about nature itself.

Perhaps the most devastating realization that this chapter presents has to do with exploitation not stopping at nature: the exploitation of the natural world and the domination and exploitation of humans, our authors remind us, often goes hand in hand. They share the some logic.  Nowhere is the more clear than in situations like slavery, where the human and animal are treated as one, or in the rhetoric and act of exploration, where imperial powers ships off to “virgin lands” and “penetrate” the wilderness.  “Oh my America!” exclaims the famous metaphysical poet John Donne as he seduces his mistress.

Nealon and Giroux offer a brilliant sub-chapter on animals, but as so many posts on the LIT-CRIT blog took up this issue in such engaging ways, I’ll just point you in that direction. Our final methodological reading on ecocriticism aptly echoed these concerns with nature and animals. We began by briefly discussing the kinds of questions an ecocritic might ask, but we focused our attention on a poem by Juliana Spahr, which confronts us with crumbling icebergs and endangered species–and very little we can do about it.

This brings us at last—could it be?—to our final chapter in The Theory Toolbox: “Agency.” I love this concept; I find it empowering. All along, we’ve been trying to recue something like agency from the ashes of our selfhood.  We’ve talked about how we work against the constraints of time and space, how our status as subjects also opens us up to a dynamic social world where we are one with others.  Nealon and Giroux have mostly save this more positive, empowering account for the end, but when they finally get there I think they nail it: “We cannot ignore,” they write, “that people create history by doing things; history is made rather than found.  Subject have agency—the ability to respond to their historical contexts and, with any luck at all, change them in the process” (254).  But how, they ask,  “do we square this capacity for individual action with our earlier discussions of subjectivity? Doesn’t such action presuppose the return of a free and independent self?” (256).   No, they remind us, we are subject to historical contexts rather than master of them. “None of us,” they write, “is in control of the subject positions that we occupy.” But we do have something they call subjective agency, which to me is kind of a middle ground between selfhood and utter, inflexible, locked-down subjectivity.

What do they mean when they say that “Our agency is both constrained and enabled by the contexts in which we find ourselves” (257)?  The comparison with language is useful again.  Language constrains what we say—some concepts are clearer in some languages—but it also enables what we say. Without language, we would have nothing to say.  Similarly, without these contexts that precede our special inner selves, we would have no context in which to imagine that such a self might exist.

I still think the promise of a self, mystical as it might be, is a key motivating factor–a kind of necessary fiction. Such a promise helps us imagine some rip in the fabric of our social construction, some way to imagine an unconstrained existence. Indeed, it might be these durable ideas of selfhood that motivate our agency, our ability to act within and against power and constraints.

Agency emerges not when the policeman hails us—“hey you”—and brings us before the law; agency emerges most powerfully and profoundly when a stranger says hello and extends their hand.  When that happens, it’s all about, to borrow Nealon and Giroux’s phrase, “the creativity of the response” (266).  Our authors conclude: “The care and contextual creativity that we bring to the critical reading of a text decides the extent to which we’ve performed a successful or compelling critical reading or contextual response” (266).  The same goes, I would argue, with the care and creativity we bring to the critical living of our lives in culture.


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