Professor Nicholas Dames is Chair of the English and Comparative Literature department at Columbia University. His research is primarily focused on the novel and 19th century reading practices.
CJLC: We wanted to talk about the article you wrote for n+1. As you say, there seems to be some kind of idea that critical/poststructuralist theory is an indulgence of youth and it accompanies a whole myriad of youthful experimentations which will be shelved upon entering the real world. You teach those youths, so what do you make of this?
NICHOLAS DAMES: I wouldn’t say inherently that theory is an indulgence of youth, but because of its institutionalization in the American education it’s become an indulgence of youth. It’s situated at a particular moment in an educational scheme where it becomes identified very strongly with adolescence, which is peculiar, given the genesis of so much of what we call theory. It then becomes part of a kind of late 20th century bildungsroman of the humanities. My piece [‘The Theory Generation’, n+1 Summer 2012] was written out of a very strong feeling of ambivalence, not just about theory per se but what theory has done to me and my generation, now that we’re old enough to be looking back at it with some perspective.
CJLC: You haven’t been able to shelve it [theory]?
ND: There’s a way in which I don’t think one does leave it behind. The conclusion I came to is I think everyone takes from it a diagnostic thinking. I think an inherent hermeneutics of suspicion comes with learning a lot of theory. Which often I think can tend to a kind of affectlessness or hopelessness. And that’s a habit that I don’t think has gone away, and it has consequences that I think are politically interesting and ethically interesting, not always in a positive way.This may have something to do with the way in which theory is taught that could tend in that direction, that is it’s appropriated as some mode of irony, and a sort of justification of irony, more than anything else.
CJLC: Do you think that potentially, theory lends itself to a kind of fatalistic ironism, where one diagnoses one’s own world, envisages an alternative mode of existence, but lacks the material to actualize any kind of utopia?
ND: Yes I think it can. In the period I was identifying, which seemed important to me from my own very sharp memories of how I got trained in theory as an undergraduate, – the thing which tends to drop out would be any kind of what we would call vulgar Marxism. But, you know, even the idea of vulgar Marxism’s kind of interesting. The idea of calling something vulgar – fascinating, right? The bodies of theory that I was educated in tended to be more on the kind of deconstructive post-structuralist line with a bit of Frankfurt School theory thrown in to provide a social context. Bodies of theory that had not just a diagnosis but a programmatic plan of action were not at all part of anybody’s training. They’d been fairly discredited by that time. And it’s only really in the last 5 to 10 years at most that you see those creeping back in.
CJLC: Is there anything new or unique about this theory-infatuated character type, or is just another kind of youthful paradigm, our own mal du siecle?
ND: I suppose the place to look would be maybe the role of existentialism and postwar Western culture. I think what interested me, and what seemed distinctive about theory, was the sharp division it ended up producing between students who found themselves compelled by theory and another kind of student that would have ordinarily found their home in humanities. The institution itself does a lot to promote that divorce, so creative writers head in the direction of creative writing programs which are inventions that get wildly popular in the 1990s, and they tend to leave English departments. The old cliché of the English student who wants to be a poet becomes invisible. I think that’s probably one of the things that theory does that maybe prior forms of that mal du siecle didn’t do. There was nothing intrinsic to say, existentialism, to make you think, there’s no point in being a writer – I think maybe even the reverse. But I think that was the feeling for many of us. The default lesson in the humanities – which I don’t think anyone was saying explicitly, was there’s really no point.
I am friends with novelists who are of roughly the same age as I, and they all have this memory of feeling alienated – thinking, I just wanna go make something, and it turns out that I’m actually being actively dissuaded from it. There’s a kind of hopelessness to that, so you leave it. So that hasn’t been a plus, and if anything what I was reading [in the n+1 article] in the careers of some novelists was their having to try to overcome that. And the ways in which they try to overcome that is by many cases sort of parodying theory or turning it into an episode in their lives that can be looked back at with a kind of regret but a little nostalgia. It’s sort of like a kind of situating, as a way of saying, alright, I survived that, luckily.
CJLC: So what are you nostalgic for? What was the biggest mind explosion for you in your…?
ND: What I’m nostalgic for actually myself, is the open contestation between theory and antitheory that I remember from college, which does not exist anymore. I have a vivid memory of being in a classroom that had a mixed population of undergrads and grad students. And the graduate students and professor in this course were at loggerheads throughout the entire semester because the professor was openly hostile to theory and the graduate students were openly in favor of it. And it reached a kind of climax one day where there was an argument going on between the professor and one graduate student in particular and the professor kind of reached a level of frustration and said -alright I want you to tell me honestly, do you think Paul de Man is a better critic than Goethe. And the graduate student said -all right yes, I do think Paul de Man is a better critic than Goethe, and then the professor said If that’s what you think, then you and I have no common ground. The student actually got up and left. But that it what I’m nostalgic for, it does not feel at the moment that there are those kinds of strong internal debates that there were then-it’s a far drearier debate because it’s not about survival.
CJLC: It does sound like a very constructive dialogue to have.
ND: I find it hard to imagine that discussion happening now. We live in a much more pluralist universe where we feel like there’s no consequences to taking either of these choices. Seeing that play out and seeing that people felt so passionately about it got me interested and it said to me that there was something important going on in this discipline and it was reason for me to actually read de Man, try and figure out what I thought. I dont think that exists anymore, and it’s been part of theory’s naturalization – it’s no longer threatening, it no longer just finds you in certain ways, it’s just assumed And that’s finite, you can’t artificially create it, you can’t pretend the stakes were there when they’re not.
CJLC: You say in your article that theory is normalized now. But do you think it’s all on an equal footing with the canon? Can you pick and choose between them?
ND: I think it’s on an equal footing and unfortunately, where we are now, students think of theory as a kind of dressing – it’s the last thing you sprinkle on. A little bit of Derrida will enhance the flavor. But it doesn’t proclaim you as an adherent, and I think that’s what it certainly did 30 years ago. Certainly where I went to college, to have used Derrida in a paper would have marked you as a particular kind of person. There was a whole set of suppositions about the way the world worked that you were claiming you bought in to. And after a period of time it then becomes a kind of style, a style you can play with for a little bit and then abandon, and now it’s just another ingredient I think. There’s an honesty to that – there’s a way in which that’s right, and there’s a kind of honesty to a pluralistic university. These are all tools and we should be free to use the tools that we think are appropriate to the task at hand. But there’s certainly a loss of drama.
CJLC: I was thinking about Bourdieu, and his work on distinction. Can we frame theory in these terms of cultural capital, that knowledge of theory indexes one socioeconomically? How class-specific is theory?
ND: Well, I feel less confident in saying what it does now, but it certainly at one point did. And I think this is one of the places where in some sense the project of theory in the American academy ran a bit aground, in that it became so quickly identified with a section of the elite, and it didn’t address that status in any self-conscious way. Did it lose whatever social momentum it might have had at one point? Not entirely – I will say that there is an aspect of theory very broadly put that did perhaps promote some kind of egalitarianism and that would probably be in the direction of identity studies, I think. If theory ever had a kind of practical success in this country, it would be around gender and sexuality – as far as things like legislation and practices in different institutional environments, that probably did have a real impact.
But outside of that, it’s hard to see where it didn’t just become marker of – and this is just gonna sound cynical – having had enough time away from the pressures of the marketplace. You can indulge in this for a time before you abandon it. It’s the sign of leisure.This is what I would say is the privilege of a certain stratum of American teenagers .That’s where theory would find its home.
I don’t think, at least in my experience, that ever really got fully worked out, except that it does maybe seem to be constitutive of a kind of embarrassment, and maybe the avoidance of certain kinds of Marxist thinking. A tendency toward more almost fatalistic hopelessness is much more appealing than anything that would have pointed to you as being a privileged member of any kind of system. It’s only in the last 10 years that that has alleviated a bit. There’s more of a sense now, I think – even if a false one – that everyone in the liberal arts is in the same socioeconomic boat, and its not a good one.
CJLC: We asked Professor [Bruce] Robbins about the term ‘champagne socialist’- if the academic has to live by their credo. Do you have any thoughts on that?
ND: I don’t know if I have any thoughts on that except that that seems to me only a question that would have arisen in the last decade. That’s a question that no one was asking in the period that I was being trained in this. I think it’s great that that question is on the table. What are the obligations of the academic, what kind of institutional politics do we need to be practising in relation to what is probably the default mode among a lot of humanities majors, something like democratic socialism. What does that entail for us? I’m just fascinated by the fact that that was never asked. And it’s class that seems to me in many ways the kind of empty category of the american version of theory, that it may be that Bourdieu is an exception on this to an extent, and if there’s anything about bourdieu that happens when you read it it’s to make yourself reflexively uncomfortable about where you stand – but [the popularity of Bourdieu] too seems a slightly more recent phenomenon.
CJLC: Theory has its own specific language and is easy to parody. The best example of that rhetoric you reference in your article is ‘I’m finding it hard to introduce myself, actually, because the whole idea of social introductions is so problematized.’ Does this particular register inhibit engagement with it? We were sort of wondering because of our endeavor to get out of this ivory tower, and we’re just in it.
ND: Well I love that example too, and what I love about it is, it’s such a wonderful joke because of course, at one level it’s pure comedy – it’s such a stilted, overeducated way of articulating and expressing oneself. But of course it’s also right. Oh yeah, introductions are problematic. It strikes that exactly right note as being at that age when one can see that for the first time but then not being able to articulate it except in a way that’s stilted.
I think is right, that might be one of the ways in which theory within the American academy ran in to trouble. Now I think one of the reasons that discourse becomes so easily parodied, frankly, is the belatedness and the thinness with which theory gets taught. So you come to these things without any sense of their background. This is something that Cusset makes his point in his book over and over again, that the American student reads Derrida without ever having read anything like Heidegger, let alone Hegel. My example that’s close to my heart is Roland Barthes, who is uniquely a product of the French educational system. If you don’t understand what that system does, you don’t understand what he’s often up to, so when I teach Barthes I actually have students learn about the explication de texte, which is of course a method that doesn’t exist in this country, because you don’t understand how systematic hermeneutics is, – that there’s a method of literary interpretation that is taught to you from age 10 – you don’t know what you’re reacting against. It’s gonna seem kind of weightless, almost a little nuts, but that’s not what’s going on. It’s a very targeted attack at an educational system. This is also true of Bourdieu.
CJLC: As far as the role of citizenship is concerned, what do you think about that? It’s always struck me as fraught, particularly where France is concerned, where a lot of these theorists come from.
ND: One of the real ironies is that you take a body of thought most of which comes into being honestly in France, in a setting where the educational system is so thoroughly controlled by the state and oriented around the state, and then you transfer it to a national setting where the state is much weaker as a cohesive force. All these kinds of analyses of power structures that one gets in Bourdieu or Foucault that are so heavily about the presence of the state, need to be pretty seriously rethought in the context of your average American college student who is not facing the same pressures. If one can live eighteen-, nineteen-, twenty years of one life without ever encountering any serious demands from the state, that makes the program a little bit different. I think it’s impossible to try and critique something you’ve never really been exposed to. And that’s the kind of groundlessness that I think was present in the 80s and 90s–they were being taught a critique of something that in fact didn’t exist for them, so there was kind of a pointlessness to it. It was a wonderful pointlessness, it was intoxicating in a way, but it felt really impersonal.
Richard Rorty said something twenty years ago or more now. He said that there was a certain deal that was struck in roughly the eighties, which allowed the culture wars to continue without there being any real consequence to it, in which higher education gave up any claim on secondary education whatsoever and left that to conservatives entirely. We bought each other off, but we could continue to snipe at each other.
CJLC: They can take them while they’re young, and you can then unteach them?
ND: Yeah, thats right. That becomes the de facto model. And it tended to have the effect, and its very much the case still, of removing intellectuals in the United States from any role in shaping secondary school curriculum whatsoever-we have no impact on that at all. We never even sought to have an impact. This is very far from the case in France. What Bourdieu or Foucault had to say about education matters at the level of the secondary institution. sometimes it is antagonistic to what the state has planned, but nonetheless it matters. We worked out a kind of nonaggression pact. And this happened organically but it seemed to work for everybody.
CJLC: So do you think this is why the academy is often alleged to be so divorced from reality?
ND: Possibly…I think there are a lot of reasons for that. But I do think it has made it incumbent upon us to fight back, to try to have more of an impact on the educational system before people reach the age of eighteen. Before they come to us to have dialogues. This concord, if it worked for a certain amount of time, has sort of outlasted its usefulness. A way of thinking about our responsibilities of citizenship is to think of education as a continuum, and not just four magical years where we get to do what we want and then we release you back into the place from where you came.
CJLC: I was interested in your description of these characters, the readers of theory as ‘disappointed, maladaptive skeptics.’ Is reading theory really paralyzing? At the same time, though, there’s also this idea of theory as a kind of palliative. What kind of person does theory make you?
ND: It probably will change as what counts as theory changes, and I’m not so sure the answer thirty years from now will look anything like how the answer looks now. Here I am really taking my cue primarily from novelists who’ve been thinking about this – it [theory] seems to have a kind of sedative function. The world is a terribly hostile place and theory is the thing that both allows you to see what’s happening to you and also some exemption from feeling the pain of it. It’s a kind of local anesthetic. You can observe the thing that’s being done to you, and maybe because you’re not quite as pained by it, you will be able to observe it all the better. It produces a kind of livability for you but at the cost of something, maybe at the cost of some sense of agency.
CJLC: Do you feel a particular legacy of that generation of theorists? Do you think they’ve influenced your practice in some way
ND: I don’t know if I feel any obligation to theory, but I do definitely think that I’m an academic because of it. And I say that not because I felt any particular strong pull in any one direction – I had my preferences, I was the sort of student who was more compelled by something Adorno said than something Derrida said – but that’s less meaningful than the fact that the energy and the contentiousness around theory activated me as an undergraduate. Thomas Kuhn has the phrase ‘normal science’ for the periods in a discipline where everyone kind of agrees on what the discipline is doing. You just kind of do it for a while and then there’s a huge paradigm shift. And those are the moments where you draw a lot of people in, because it feels like there’s something very exciting going on – no one can agree on what it means to write a literary criticism or think about cultural artefacts. At that point, nobody could agree on it and everyone hated everyone else. And that was a reason to join, because it felt like intellectual excitement was in the air.
Now that I’m in some sense on the inside, I don’t know whether it feels that way anymore or not. I have a slight suspicion that it doesn’t – that it’s possible now that literary studies has fallen into the mode of normal science. And it may not be that we all agree on what the discipline is, but we all have agreed not to fight about it. And I worry that that doesn’t necessarily capture the imaginations of very smart undergraduates in the way that it might have 20 or 30 years ago. It’s paradoxical for me to say in some ways that I’m an academic because of theory because I’m not a theorist, I’ve never been particularly indebted to theory in the work that I’ve produced – but it’s certainly the case that if I were say 20 years older than I am and had gone to college in the late 60s, it might have been that the field would have felt stodgy, or the excitement would have been elsewhere. I’m not sure I would have ended up where I am.
CJLC: That’s what we were thinking, that perhaps today’s a stagnant period.
ND: I wonder, I wonder. Again, I feel like I’m too far inside to say, and I also feel like there are a lot of ripples under the surface. There’s a, what do you want to call it, stagnancy, or fallow period, that we might be in, and you can also say sometimes a decline. None of us want to feel like we’re managing a decline, but in the worst moments it can feel that way, because it doesn’t have that urgency – that contentious urgency – that it once did.