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July 15, 2005

Two Months Before the Mast of Post-Modernism

Over at The Valve, they are talking about the book Theory's Empire--and thus about the damage done by "Critical Theory" and its spawn on the American humanities over the past generation. But most of it is all too... theoretical.1 What work can you do with statements like:

?

There is a certain bloodlessness here: the dry bones hop about and clatter, but there is no flesh on them: much too little is said about how High Critical Theory changed--for good and for ill--how "we" "read" "our" "texts".2

So let me get down and dirty: in the boiler room, at the contact point, before the mast. Let me recount the two months--November and December 1981--that I spent enthralled by the High Critical Theory of Michel Foucault.

By day I would rise late, eat a strange late breakfast of scrambled eggs mixed with cottage cheese (a kind of breakfast which I ate only from November 1981 through January 1982, never before, and never since), and then walk across the Charles River footbridge to the Kress Collection of the History of Economic Thought in Baker Library. I would read. I would hasten out into the lobby where I was allowed pens and take notes. I would go back in and read some more. I would hasten out into the lobby. After dinner I would sit in my room, either staring at the wall wondering what my thesis was going to be about or reading secondary works on the history of economic thought, hoping to spot a hole that I could fill with something sorta original.

It was Associate Professor of Social Studies Michael Donnelly's fault. He knew I was trying to write an undergradute thesis about the British Classical Economists and how they understood the economy of their time. He gave me a book by Keith Tribe, Land, Labour, and Economic Discourse. And Tribe had read and been hypnotized by Foucault--specifically The Order of Things and _The Archaeology of Knowledge. I began to read Keith Tribe. He said very strange things. He said that the Wealth of Nations that economists read was not the Wealth of Nations that Adam Smith wrote. The Wealth of Nations that economists read was made up of two books: Book I on markets and Book II on capital. The Wealth of Nations that Adam Smith wrote was made up of five books: Book I on the "system of natural liberty," Book II on accumulation and the profits of stock, Book III on the economic history of Europe and why the empirical history of its economic development had diverged from its natural history, Book IV on the mercantile and physiocratic systems of political economy, and Book V on the proper management of the affairs of the public household by the statesman.

The Wealth of Nations, Tribe said, could not be a book of economics because a book of economics had to be about the economy. And there was no such thing as the economy in 1776 for a book of economics to be about. What was there? There was the undifferentiated stuff of the mixed social-cultural-political-trading system that governed production and distribution: material life. There was the study of the management of public finances. This was conceived in a manner analogous to the domestic-economic management of household finances. Just as--to Robert Filmer and others--the King was the father of the people, so the King's household--which became the state--had to be properly and prudently managed.

In the words of James Steuart, who wrote his Principles of Political Oeconomy nine years before the Wealth of Nations, in 1767: "Oeconomy, in general, is the art of providing for all the wants of a family, with prudence and frugality. What oeconomy is in a family, political oeconomy is in a state." It is managing affairs to make the people prosperous and the tax collections ample by governing "in such a manner as naturally to create the reciprocal relations and dependencies between [inhabitants], so as to make their several interests lead them to supply one another with their reciprocal wants."

There wasn't, Tribe argued, an economy that an economist could write a book of economics about until the 1820s or so.

Strip Tribe's (and Foucault's) arguments of their rhetoric of apparent contradiction and you can understand that within the mystical shell there is a rational kernel. It is--or, at least, I read them as--an injunction to analyze a school of thought in more-or-less the following way:

  1. Read not just one or two important books, but a whole bunch of books that talk to our past each other and use the same or similar vocabulary in order to identify the school you will look at.
  2. Strip your mind of what they must be talking about, and look with fresh eyes on what they are talking about.
  3. Examine what rhetorical, conceptual, and intellectual moves are common within the examples you have of this "discursive formation."
  4. Think hard about what rhetorical, conceptual, and intellectual moves you would think you would find in these books--but don't.
  5. Think hard about what rhetorical, conceptual, and intellectual moves you do not expect to find prominently in these books--but that you nevertheless do find.
  6. Present to the world, in as clear and straightforward a way as you can, what this particular form of discourse was--what it thought the world was like, what it saw as important, what its particular blindnesses were, what its particular sharp points of insight were.
  7. Do not, ever, grade a discursive formation of the past by how much it falls away from the ideas of the bien-pensant of today. The past is another country.

And I became convinced that Tribe and Foucault were write. It was, indeed, only with Ricardo that the operation of what we now say is the economy--the production, exchange, and distribution of goods and services all mediated through market exchange--was seen as something that was important enough, or separate enough, or coherent enough to be something that it made sense to write books about, and, indeed, something that it made sense to be an expert in. David Ricardo was a political economist. Adam Smith was a moral philosopher. To try--as somebody like Joseph Schumpeter was--to grade Adam Smith as if he were engaged in the same intellectual project as Schumpeter was somewhat absurd.

Tribe applied this methodology to Adam Smith, his predecessors, contemporaries, and successors. What they were doing, before Ricardo, was Political Oeconomy--writing manuals of tactics and policy as advice to statesmen, although manuals restricted to what Adam Smith would have called (did call) a subclass of police: how to keep public order and create public prosperity. Hence for Adam Smith Book V of Wealth of Nations is the payoff: it tells British statesmen what they ought to do in order to make the nation prosperous, their tax coffers full, and thus the state well-funded. Book IV is a necessary prequel to Book V: it tells the statesmen in the audience why the advice that they are being given by others in other books of Political Oeconomy--by Mercantilists and Physiocrats. Book III is another necessary prequel: it teaches statesmen about the economic history of Europe and how political oeconomy of various kinds has been practiced in the past.

But Tribe's (and Foucault's) methodology collapses when we work back to Books II and I of the Wealth of Nations. For Adam Smith is not the prisoner of the discursive formation of Political Oeconomy. He is not the simple bearer of currents of thought and ideas that he recombines as other authors do in more-or-less standard and repeated ways. Adam Smith is a genius. He is the prophet and the master of a new discipline. He is the founder of economics.

Adam Smith is the founder of economics because he has a great and extraordinary insight: that the competitive market system is a remarkably powerful social calculating and organizing mechanism, and that the sophisticated division of labor to which a competitive market system backed up by secure and honest enforcement of property rights give rise is the key to the wealth of nations. Some others before had had this insight in part: Richard Cantillon writing of how once you have specified demands the market does by itself all the heavy lifting that a central planner would need to do; Bernard de Mandeville that dextrous management by a statesman can use the power of private greed to produce the benefit of public utility. But it is Smith who sees what the power of the "system of natural liberty" that is the market could be--and who follows the argument through to the conclusion that it forever upsets and overturns the previous intellectual moves made in and conclusions reached by the discursive formation of Political Oeconomy.

And once I had worked my way through to this conclusion, I could start to write my own thesis. I had broken the thralldom. Foucault's ideas of "discourse" and "archaeology" were not my masters, but my tools. And as I wrote it became very clear to me that between David Ricardo and even the later John Stuart Mill the discursive formation that was Classical Economics did not produce anybody like Adam Smith. There was nobody who made the intellectual leap--produced the epistemological break--that Smith had done that shattered Political Oeconomy and enabled the birth of Classical Economics. I could write my thesis about how the British Classical Economists never understood the Industrial Revolution that they were living through.

--J. Bradford DeLong, B.A. in Social Studies summa cum laude, June 1982.


1Let me interject that the best contribution I have found so far is from Tim Burke--I think I like it the most because it is the meatiest and the bloodiest. But, as always, YMMV:

Tim Burke: Book Notes: Theory's Empire: In 1989, I was well into graduate school... had a lot of exposure to "critical theory" as an undergraduate... a class with Judith Butler on Foucault while she was at Wesleyan. I liked theory, even when I felt I didn't have the faintest idea what was going on, because if nothing else you could sense the energy behind it.... Theory made you feel almost like you were in the dream of the Enlightenment... disciplines and specializations set aside....

I warm to the talk that [Theory] was an empire, but I'm equally aware that my sense of it as such is a direct personal consequence of my individual experience of academic careerism.... I get both the insider and outsider version[s].... I tend to bristle on one hand at know-nothing denunciations of theory, like E.O. Wilson's in Consilience, but also at circle-the-wagons defenses of it.... The main point, and it is one made again and again throughout the anthology, is that theory was above all a... way of feeling and being academic... native to a past time and place.... You can't just separate out some of the chief manifestations of the era of theory, like the star system, as unrelated epiphenomena, or insist that we just talk about the actual texts. (Though at the same time, the volume could really use an ethnographic retelling of a conference or conversation from the late 1980s or early 1990s. Anthony Appiah comes closest in his short essay, and maybe there's nothing that really fits the bill besides a David Lodge novel.)....

[W]hatever "theory" began as, it quickly metastasized into... a way of being and acting that was often a new and virulent practice of academic warfare which left a lot of casualties and fortifications in its wake....

Saussure, Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, and even many of the various American academic superstars who dominated the era of theory like Fish, Jameson, or Spivak had important, substantive arguments to make that can't just be waved away or ignored.... Still, I agree with many of Theory's Empire's authors: the geist and historical moment of theory is an equally important part of the subject....

This is not to underrate the particular forms of self-interest that theory serviced in very particular ways.... [T]heory was the ultimate careerist maneuver, because its normal operations conferred upon the theorist a position of epistemologically unimpeachable, self-confirming authority (in part by claiming to abjure authority) while also freeing the theorist from having to know anything but theory in order to exert such authority.... [S]uch gestures of intellectual hypocrisy, some of them more subtle, some less so, are a particular target of mockery and anger from the authors in Theory's Empire.... [O]ther points that emerge along the way... strike me as important. One is the amnesia of theory.... So when John Ellis observes of Stanley Fish's work that it ignored the past, that in Fish's work, "philosophy of science begins with Thomas Kuhn, serious questions about the idea of truth and the positivist theory of language begin with Derrida, jurisprudence begins with the radical Critical Legal Studies movement", I think he's exactly right, and not just about Fish.... The same affliction affected us all across a wide swath of disciplines: we reinvented wheels, fire, alphabets and chortled in satisfaction at our own cleverness. Theory dropped into our midst like commodities drop into a cargo cult, and our reaction was roughly the same, right up to eagerly scanning the skies for the next French thinker to drop down....

[T]he ordinary work of postcolonial scholarship takes the already deeply problematic arguments and style of the dominant superstars like Spivak, Prakash and Bhabha and operationalizes it as yeoman-level banality.... [A] missing generation of monographs [is] a result, an absence of substantive, minutely authoritative, carefully researched and highly specialized knowledge....

It is a straightforwardly good thing that historians now write about a whole range of topics that were relatively unstudied in 1965; a straightforwardly good thing that literary critics read and think about a much wider range of texts than they once did.... I suppose if I had one hope from this volume, it's that people who read it and take it seriously won't be the kind of lazy Sokollites that Michael Berube justifiably complains about, because nowhere in the volume does anyone claim that doing literary analysis or humanistic scholarship is easy or straightforward. If this is a roadmap to the future, it does not go from point A to point B, much to its credit...

2A second interjection: Sean McCann does attempt to put some sinews on what he is talking about: he lists six (he thinks four, but they are six) intellectual power-moves of High Critical Theory http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/theorys_empire_wrestling_the_fog_bank/#2277:

  1. Language is a complex and imperfect instrument of profound importance to our sense of what it means to be a self-conscious human being. Because communication makes use of conventional codes, it’s always possible for a listener to misinterpret the intentions of a speaker or for a sentence to be given more or different meanings than a speaker intends (a matter which explicitly or not may become a reflexive resource and thematic concern of literary texts).
  2. The various possibilities for imperfect communication are comparable to, or perhaps consistent with or related to, the other senses in which individuals are less than fully autonomous, rational, self-directed beings.
  3. Many commonplace beliefs, practices, and institutions owe far more to persistent habit, superstition, and ideology (in a word, culture) than to reason or evidence. These include once prevalent beliefs about the properties and boundaries of literature.
  4. They also include more fundamental matters—-e.g., the social reproduction of race, gender, sexuality, and, to a degree, of class—-whose role in shaping our individual and social lives may be of greater importance than explicit legal or governmental structures. Literature plays a role in establishing and legitimizing, as well as in revealing and challenging those tacit beliefs, practices, and institutions and in this way is connected to more extensive social problems.
  5. The existence of those social conventions, and our understanding of them, is shaped by systematic social inequities. We have good reason, therefore, to be highly attuned to the way interest as well as culture affects belief.
  6. Taking full cognizance of these matters could have emancipatory consequences.

Posted by DeLong at July 15, 2005 05:35 PM