Friday, December 31, 2010

Academic Cliche Watch, Vol. 3: "Intervention"

"Woman itself is a term in process, a becoming, a constructing that cannot rightfully be said to originate or to end.As an ongoing discursive practice, it is open to intervention and resignification." - Judith Butler, Gender Trouble

"Intervention" was in common usage in academia before it became an MTV-sanctioned watchword for the dramatized fight against addiction, but even without that post-facto reappropriation (there's a word for another day), this is one of the most annoying terms in the critical theory lexicon. Why? In a nutshell, it implies a vision of the critical theorist as an activist which, I think, simultaneously inflates and undercuts the stakes of the project.

"I actually did that."
To intervene implies to stop something in progress - to leap to the defense of a battered spouse, or to shove a child out of the way of an oncoming bus.  Of course, in theoretical usage, the "intervention" is usually against a linguistic convention, a social practice, or a pattern of thought that the critic thinks is harmful - but the word is intended nonetheless to convey that sense of immediacy, urgency, and engagement.  I'm willing to bet that Judith Butler was the single greatest force in spreading the term around, and as in most such cases, she remains one of a very few whose use of it can be defended.  Her work actually did end up being this sort of abrupt interruption, becoming a touchstone for a politicized feminism that then went out and did some very direct things with it.

Those who have come since have generally hoped for a similarly spectacular, direct impact - but the inconvenient truth is that claiming to be making an "intervention" is more a quantitative than a qualitative claim. That is, it implies that one believes one's own work should - perhaps even that it will - have the kind of deep, short-term social impact that Butler's did.  Inevitably, most of these "interventions" have come up short, turning the word into self-important ash in its users' mouths.

But is the picture of critical theory's impact implied by the term "intervention" even the one we should be committed to?

Perhaps there is something to be said for the legacy - many of the pioneers of this sort of work, such as Foucault and the Birmingham School, were concerned with very immediate matters, and frequently wrote with the aim of intervening.  But there are two things worth remembering: First, that the immediate writings such as Policing the Crisis, no less than Judith Butler's work, were premised on rich immersion in broader traditions.  And second, that both Butler and Hall - to say nothing of sweet Michel - also produced much less interventionist, much more fundamental work (I particularly love Hall's lucid but deep attempts to reconcile Lacanian and Foucauldian theories of the subject).  What has come to be called critical theory could just as easily be referred to as engaged philosophy, and I think that the obsession with "making interventions" could - maybe even already has - led to the neglect of one side of that equation.

As I write this, I'm realizing that perhaps 'intervention' could be a useful tag for distinguishing these two types of writing - the more immediate and activist from the more philosophical or theoretical.  But the most important - that is, the most objectionable - thing about "intervention" is that it is an evaluative term, one that makes claims about the impact of a piece of writing, before that writing has even properly entered the world.  To describe yourself as making an "intervention" is essentially no different from saying "my work is of great social importance and will change the world."  As you write, ask yourself - are you really comfortable making that claim?  And more importantly, are you comfortable with your colleagues thinking you're a self-important jerkoff?
Creed, too, were certain they were changing the world.


darknessatnoon said...

I am "troubled" by all these interventions.

David Z. Morris said...

Thanks, you just wrote the next one of these for me!

darknessatnoon said...

As an undergrad I took a feminist philosophy class in the Philosophy department. The professor was outraged when I used the word "troubled" in an excursis. The class was huge. I couldn't believe it when the professor caught me outside of class and told me that she would have no "French" or "post-structuralist" theory in her class, and pointed directly at my use of "troubled." I felt duly chastised for invoking Judith Butler in front of a real philosopher.

David Z. Morris said...

Hah, that's a great story. I hope it's clear from this post that I'm very much on the fence. I'm a huge fan of Lacan, and I think that he makes the continental 'style' work (and I accept that it is, mostly, a 'style' rather than something substantive, but I think that's the point). On the other hand, there's so much crap out there, and the broader possibility that postructuralism has cleared ground for anti-intellectualism regarding climate change and evolution is, naturally, extremely disturbing.

darknessatnoon said...

I don't mean to romanticize "real" philosophy. What is the critique that critical theorists usually deploy against it? Something along the lines of that the american analytic tradition (and more broadly logical positivism) achieve merely an *impression* of rigor... underneath which surface lies an uncritical or unfounded acceptance of positive reality as unmediated, etc.? Frankly, even the impression of rigor is better than Judith Butler's leading rhetorical questions.

And not just Judith Butler. Critical theory is filled with these "calls for" (as Sedgwick pointed out in Tendencies) and interventions (as you say) or attempts to "trouble." I can't even read a writing sample from a Berkeley graduate student without curdling inside.

It's this attachment to the topics of Continental Theory detached from the what have been characterized as the apolitical tools of analytic philosophy. To my mind, it's possible to engage in sustained logical reasoning about continental philosophy without critical theory's rhetorical pretenses, or gestures, of radicality. Hell, even Martha Nussbaum of all people just wrote an article dealing with ressentiment.

We fell in love with style. We fell in love with performative moments such as Hortense Spiller's "Black woman at the microphone" and Gayatri Spivak's "Can the Subaltern Speak?" But with the exception of Spivak, and maybe someone like Lauren Berlant (both of whom have their own tics and phrases, but who at least try to keep them doing work), you see very few people continuing to put the work of thinking anew. There's my rant. I suppose that's why you're doing the academic cliche watch - to keep the rote out of the thinking. I can't even write something remotely theoretical without it coming off as a parody since I find the cliches so hilarious, and I have no fucking idea what all this speculative realism is all about. Apparently, it's all the rage. It reminds me of the "visceral realism" that Bolano skewered in The Savage Detectives.

Perhaps another academic cliche watch is front-loading the theory as if it's a part of the abstract and represents a summary of the entire article, rather than integrating a theoretical perspective into the argument itself. I'm not really sure how to phrase that.

darknessatnoon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
darknessatnoon said...

Sorry for the repeat comment. Google is fucking up.

David Z. Morris said...

I'm just revisiting this exchange and regret having somehow overlooked your final comment about frontloading theory. It's funny, we were talking about continental philosophical style, but the worst offender that I've encountered here is actually within the social sciences, specifically the branch of my field known as interpersonal communication. Every paper written within the field is conventionally required the identify its 'theory' up front, usually along with the proponents who have schematically laid out this 'theory' in a book, or even something as short as a paper. The process of paper writing in this field becomes, at least in aim, little more than the rote application of a predefined transformation sequence. If I'm feeling particularly masochistic and/or career suicidal sometime, I'll dredge up an example.