Teaching “theory”: On not being prepared

We have come to that segment of the humanities capstone course that treats of “theory” — that body of dense, allusive work that has dominated the intellectual culture of the academic humanities for the last several decades. This body of work is, famously, “difficult.” It is written in a style that is uncommon in the English-speaking world, and the fact that it is translated can often represent a special obstacle. It also has a tendency to refer to a lot of things that an undergraduate has not yet had a chance to read in any detail.

It seems that there are a couple strategies that students use to try to cope with this body of work, or rather fantasies they have about what would make it easier.

First and most obviously, they can turn to the many potted summaries of the thinkers in question to help guide their reading. This fails, however, because of the irreducible gap between those summaries (almost always the result of years of study and synthetic work on the part of the summarizers) and the raw text itself — one could be driven to despair comparing the cogency of the summary and the unwieldiness of the text.

Second, they often seem to believe that having read some previous thinker would have been the magic key, such that we facilitators have failed them in some important way. As it happens, the thinker in question most recently has tended to be Lacan, and any attempt to read Lacan would quickly dispell the impression that his texts could be “clarifying” — and in any case, Lacan also talks about a lot of people one hasn’t read. We’ve tried to manage this problem by choosing texts that deal primarily with things they have read (Plato and Antigone), but this serves mostly to demonstrate that knowing the figure they’re talking about isn’t a silver bullet.

I indulged in those fantasies as an undergrad and beyond — adding in the even more outlandish fantasy that everything would surely be crystal-clear if I could only read these texts in their original tongue. What I discovered, and what I imagine everyone here ultimately discovered, is that there’s no shortcut. You just have to plow, and you have to start somewhere. When you do that, you realize that sometimes going in the “wrong” order is actually clarifying — I don’t think I’d have come out understanding Lacan any better if I’d chosen to work through his complete works before studying Zizek, for instance. And you learn to cope with the need to provisionally “take their word for it” on thinkers and texts you haven’t read, because you’ll never have read everything.

In essence, what’s needed is a redistribution of arrogance and humility. The natural strategies I recounted above tend to create an arrogant vision of oneself as a reader: if adequately prepared, I would of course immediately understand the text. The approach one ultimately arrives at, however, gives up on the kind of straightforward mastery envisioned there, but arrogantly assumes that one can engage with and understand these texts on some level without preparation.

3 thoughts on “Teaching “theory”: On not being prepared

  1. Which is, in the end, a sane and pragmatic approach that lets you be modular about reading down the trajectory of time you’re on, instead of cursing yourself or someone else for not giving you the right modules in the past.

  2. Amusing observation of an authentic problem. I recently discovered Agamben for myself: His erudition seems overwhelming, and remains an “entertainment value” in itself, even if after the fourth book Iget the impression that part of his authorial shtick is to seem always on the verge of great discovery or revelation or, to use an Agambenian-Heideggerian term, disconcealment that never quite arrives, or that seems to reduce to the kind of paradoxical abstraction that a precocious sophomore would come up with. Then I think of Nietzsche, whose reading in philosophy and many other subjects upon which he held forth would stand by contemporary academic standards as disqualifyingly light. He apparently never read Hegel, for example, and dealt with Marx and Darwin on the basis of secondary sources. Partly it was a result of personal physical impairments – he was nearly blind, among other problems – and partly it was just a fact of 19th century literary-academic life that not every professor had easy access to almost anything he could want to read. This isn’t an endorsement of Nietzsche or his reputation, but a suggestion that the anxiety of influence is a multi-sided problem, that its material conditions are itself criticizeable (e.g., capitalist production of the overly vast library and overly dense text), and that the difficulties bordering on hopelessness of undergraduates relate to the limitations bordering on hopelessness that “theory” encounters on its own.

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