theory and stuff

January 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

In an interview with Paul Taylor, after all the Zizek-fawning (I’m being unfair – there are good things said about Zizek, although I’m decidedly ambivalent about Zizek these days), Mark Thwaite asks him a couple of questions on writing and reading theory, and I found Taylor’s answers quite unexpectedly nice:

MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer of theory!?

PT: I find writing theory both an immensely rewarding and exasperating experience. At the risk of sounding bonkers and/or an early candidate for Private Eye’s Pseud Corner’scomment of the year, I’d describe it as both nothing and everything. What I mean by this is that in the greater scheme of things this sort of writing seems to be something of a fluffy luxury, on the other hand, I’ve had enthusiastic emails from readers as far apart in geography and culture as Peru and India. You never know how and where your ideas will make an impact and you can add to that the sheer absorption of being “in the flow” whilst writing – although as the same character who I’ve just quoted from Salamander says, “The Mohammedans say that an hour of reading is one stolen from Paradise. To that perfect thought I can only add that an hour of writing gives one a foretaste of the other place”.

More positively, although theoretical texts will never appear on advertisement hoardings, on the other hand, they avoid the fate of best-seller writing that goes in one eye and straight out the other. By contrast, I have been contacted by ex-students who have described how they have had their whole world-view changed by a theoretician that has successfully burrowed deep inside their heads. So, this time not wishing to sound like Gandalf, my tip to aspiring writers is to value theory’s understated power. Since writing theory has its own unique rewards, they should try not to be too downhearted at its marginalized social status. It may well prove to be bad for your peace of mind and perhaps even your professional life (in the narrowest greasy-pole-climbing sense) but it produces an ineffable buzz that money just can’t buy.

MT: Anything else you would like to say?

PT: A character in Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 describes how “the word ‘intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be”. I would suggest that the current furore over student fees shouldn’t distract us from the real origins of the wider, underlying problem. These were already evident in much earlier signs of gangrenous cultural attitudes. Think back to when, as Education Secretary, Charles Clarke openly questioned the innate value of medieval history degrees and, largely unchallenged, universities were subsequently shunted from their self-explanatory location in the Department of Education to their newly non-titular status within the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). This acronym reveals, more succinctly than I could ever hope to express, the brutish reductionism of people educated to know better. It also vividly demonstrates the stubborn value of implacably critical theory. So I would finish by saying… turn off your gizmo, go to a solitary place, pick up a book, and learn, learn, and learn!

I like that Taylor still seems to be madly in love with reading and writing theory. I’m not in grad school, and it’s often a daily question for me if I made the right decision not to go, and a daily question if I should go, considering my sort of absurd love of academia. But I also note that most people in academic invoke theory with extreme hatred or resentment, and I don’t ever want to become the kind of person who hates theory because she was forced to read theory or because someone else used theory to make her feel stupid for years on end. And that sounds like grad school in a nutshell, if all the twittering grad students are to be believed. I mean, all the mansplaining that went on in undergrad philosophy classes? I’m guessing theory in grad school is mansplaining-central. Except with women, too.

However.

“I have been contacted by ex-students who have described how they have had their whole world-view changed by a theoretician that has successfully burrowed deep inside their heads. So, this time not wishing to sound like Gandalf, my tip to aspiring writers is to value theory’s understated power. Since writing theory has its own unique rewards, they should try not to be too downhearted at its marginalized social status. It may well prove to be bad for your peace of mind and perhaps even your professional life (in the narrowest greasy-pole-climbing sense) but it produces an ineffable buzz that money just can’t buy.”

Yes.

Also:

So I would finish by saying… turn off your gizmo, go to a solitary place, pick up a book, and learn, learn, and learn!

Yes. I sense an ambivalent relationship with “gizmos”, and I feel that. Also, this “learn, learn, and learn!” thing is something I really feel. Grad school or not.

Read the entire interview here.

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