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The Way We Argue Now: A Study in the Cultures of Theory

The Way We Argue Now: A Study in the Cultures of Theory

by Amanda Anderson

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How do the ways we argue represent a practical philosophy or a way of life? Are concepts of character and ethos pertinent to our understanding of academic debate? In this book, Amanda Anderson analyzes arguments in literary, cultural, and political theory, with special attention to the ways in which theorists understand ideals of critical distance, forms of


How do the ways we argue represent a practical philosophy or a way of life? Are concepts of character and ethos pertinent to our understanding of academic debate? In this book, Amanda Anderson analyzes arguments in literary, cultural, and political theory, with special attention to the ways in which theorists understand ideals of critical distance, forms of subjective experience, and the determinants of belief and practice. Drawing on the resources of the liberal and rationalist tradition, Anderson interrogates the limits of identity politics and poststructuralism while holding to the importance of theory as a form of life.

Considering high-profile trends as well as less noted patterns of argument, The Way We Argue Now addresses work in feminism, new historicism, queer theory, postcolonialism, cosmopolitanism, pragmatism, and proceduralism. The essays brought together here--lucid, precise, rigorously argued--combine pointed critique with an appreciative assessment of the productive internal contests and creative developments across these influential bodies of thought.

Ultimately, The Way We Argue Now promotes a revitalized culture of argument through a richer understanding of the ways critical reason is practiced at the individual, collective, and institutional levels. Bringing to the fore the complexities of academic debate while shifting the terms by which we assess the continued influence of theory, it will appeal to readers interested in political theory, literary studies, cultural studies, gender studies, and the place of academic culture in society and politics.

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The Way We Argue Now

A Study in the Cultures of Theory


THE WAY WE ARGUE NOW is at once diagnostic and revisionist, polemical and utopian. Through close analyses of contemporary academic debates, this collection of essays examines the governing assumptions and styles of argumentation that characterize what is broadly known as "theory" across several humanities and social science disciplines. The turn to theory dates back to the 1960s and is associated with several interrelated schools of thought, among them poststructuralism, postmodernism, deconstruction, psychoanalysis, Marxism, feminism, postcolonialism, and queer theory. These schools have profoundly influenced disciplinary methodologies and self-conceptions, and in this book I will pay especial attention to the form such influence has taken in literary studies, cultural studies, and political theory. In exploring scholarly formations and controversies associated with these approaches, this book assesses debates internal to academic culture and hopes to advance a better understanding of theory as a contested and not a unified field, one that moreover is developing in ways that recent assessments of the field, most strikingly those that have announced theory's demise, have failed to capture.

Atthe same time, however, the book engages in an internal critique of certain tendencies within the field of theory. These essays repeatedly draw attention to the underdeveloped and often incoherent evaluative stance of contemporary theory, its inability to clearly avow the norms and values underlying its own critical programs. In particular, I contest the prevalent skepticism about the possibility or desirability of achieving reflective distance on one's social or cultural positioning. As a result of poststructuralism's insistence on the forms of finitude-linguistic, psychological, and cultural-that limit individual agency, and multiculturalism's insistence on the primacy of ascribed group identity and its accompanying perspectives, the concept of critical distance has been seriously discredited, even as it necessarily informs many of the very accounts that announce its bankruptcy. The alliance between the poststructuralist critique of reason and the form of sociological reductionism that governs the politics of identity threatens to undermine the vitality of both academic and political debate insofar as it becomes impossible to explore shared forms of rationality. Given these conditions, in fact, this book might well have been called "The Way We Fail to Argue Now."

To counter the tendencies of both poststructuralism and identity politics, I advance a renewed assessment of the work of philosopher Jürgen Habermas, whose interrelated theories of communicative action, discourse ethics, and democratic proceduralism have provoked continued and often dismissive critique from theorists in the fields of literary studies, cultural studies, and political theory. The book is in no way an uncritical embrace of Habermas's theory, however. Rather, it offers a renewed assessment of the notions of critical distance and procedural democracy in light of the arguments that have been waged against them. In part I do this by giving airtime to those debates in which Habermas and like-minded critics have engaged poststructuralism. But I also try to give Habermas a new hearing by showing the ways in which his theories promote an understanding of reflective distance as an achieved and lived practice, one with an intimate bearing on questions of ethos and character. Typically dismissed as impersonal, abstract, and arid, rational discourse of the kind associated with the neo-Kantianism of Habermas and his followers is often employed as a contrast to valorized ideals of embodied identities, feelings and passions, ethics and politics-in short, all the values that are seen to imbue theoretical practice with existential meaningfulness and moral force. This very opposition, which has effectively structured many influential academic debates, involves a serious misreading and reduction of the rationalist tradition, which at its most compelling seeks precisely to understand communicative reason and the aspiration to critical distance as an embedded practice, as an ongoing achievement rather than a fantasmatic imposition. This aspiration, moreover, also characterizes collective forms of liberal politics, including the practices and procedures that constitute the democratic tradition and are so vital to its ongoing health and stability.

More generally, and throughout the book, I draw out the practical imagination of theories in order to contest the assumption that theory is overly abstract, irrelevant, or elitist and to draw attention to an all but ubiquitous pull, even in theories from very different and even antagonistic traditions, toward questions of embodiment and enactment-questions of practice, that is. With varying degrees of explicitness and self-awareness, I argue, contemporary theories present themselves as ways of living, as practical philosophies with both individualist and collective aspirations. Indeed, many recent theoretical projects join in a desire to correct for, or answer to, the overly abstract elements of earlier forms of theory. This movement manifests itself in various and not entirely commensurate ways; within literary studies, to take a central example, it appears in a keen attention to the social position of writers, readers, and characters, an increasing focus on the sensibility or location of the critic or theorist, and a concern with the ethics of reading and criticism more broadly. It is my contention that these developments reflect a persistent existential movement toward thicker characterological conceptions of theoretical postures and stances, though it is rarely put in these terms. Indeed, the interest in characterological enactment often operates below the radar, or with only half-lit awareness. One symptom of the underdeveloped yet nonetheless insistent nature of this aspect of contemporary theory is the fact that the term "ethos," which reflects a general interest in the ethical texture of theory's project, appears regularly across recent work in literature and political theory.

I am interested in exploring this turn toward the existential dimensions of theory, claiming it as a kind of dialectical advance, and using it to reconsider our understanding of those forms of political theory-rationalism and proceduralism-that have been framed as most ethos-deficient. But the story is somewhat more complicated and internally contested than this brief summary might lead one to expect. These complexities have largely to do with a point I raised at the outset: namely, that highly constrained sociological forms have governed the analysis of subjectivity and personal experience in literary and cultural studies after poststructuralism. In the late 1980s, an interest in first-person perspectives and in the lived experiences of diverse social groups emerged among critics who felt that the high altitudes at which theory operated failed to capture the density and meaningfulness of individual and collective life. There were a series of famous "confessional writings" by critics, which often opposed themselves to theoretical approaches. Within theory itself, there was also an increasing attention to subjective effects and enactment, and a subsequent tendency to focus the lens on the middle distance and the close up, to relinquish the panoramas and the aerial views. Thus, not only did a new subjectivism emerge in opposition to theory, it also began to affect theory itself as an internal pressure. The most telling example here would be the dramatic late turn in the work of Michel Foucault, which set aside the far-reaching examinination of modern power and modern institutions to explore the "care of the self" within antiquity and, to a lesser degree, within modernity, as well. While Foucault's previous work had been interested in the forms of subjectivity engendered by modern disciplinary power, the later Foucault was interested in the manner in which individuals understood, conducted, and therefore in some sense owned, their moral, social, and physical lives.

What should be noted about much of this work on the individual subject, however, is that it gave preeminence to sociological or group identity-varionsly defined by the categories of class, race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, and sexuality. One of the recurrent themes of this book is that a narrow understanding of selfhood and practice results from an overemphasis on sociological, ascribed, or group identity. Intellectual practices over the past several decades have been profoundly enriched and advanced through analysis of the ways that identity categories shape bodies of knowledge, cultural life, and relations of power. But it is also the case that contemporary forms of sociological and cultural reductionism limit how critics and theorists imagine the relation between intellectual and ethicopolitical life. The conviction that identity is fundamentally status-based, pregiven in some fundamental way by the groups or categories that make up the sociological map, constrains the resources of practical and ethical discourses in key ways. This discursive poverty is evidenced by the two ethicopolitical options that often seem to be on offer: on the one hand, there is a strong theoretical tradition, deriving from poststructuralism and queer theory, that advocates the subversion of identity by any means possible-the denaturalization of what are nonetheless inescapably imposed identities by means of parody, irony, or resignification. On the other hand, by those more interested in the virtues of mosaic diversity and more convinced of the importance of socialized belonging, there is a quasi-communitarian commitment to the notion that forms of cultural affiliation must be acknowledged, defended, or cushioned, particularly from what is seen as the evacuating force of liberal or rational agendas.

The "politics of identity" (to suggest something less reified and discredited than "identity politics") is a theoretically and practically significant dimension of contemporary historical and sociological life. It is not my aim or desire to somehow argue it out of existence (as though that were possible). But limitations ensue when the politics of identity is imagined to cover all available intellectual and ethicopolitical space. The privileging of only those forms of critique that are associated with the postmodern modes of irony and negative freedom, moreover, results in a widespread and deleterious rejection of the resources of the Kantian and liberal traditions. I question the assumptions fueling this recurrent bias and advance a defense of critical reason, discourse ethics, and those political forms and institutions that seek reflectively to realize liberal and democratic principles.

From a somewhat different but equally important angle, I explore how contemporary theory is already pursuing a less constrained understanding of first-person experience (singular and plural), one which finds expression in ways that consistently exceed the sociological grid. This is evident in what many have hailed as a general turn to ethics, but it is also evident in recent forms of theory for which, as I have already suggested, a kind of cultivated ethos or characterological stance seems central, if not fully theorized. Among these, and of central interest in the essays collected here, I would count the later Foucault, cosmopolitanism, and, most provocatively, proceduralist ethics and politics (with its emphasis on sincerity and civility). A less reflective but symptomatically interesting version of this attentiveness to ethos appears in contemporary pragmatism, which I take up in order to underscore the constrained ways in which nonsociological understandings of identity make their presence felt in practical philosophies of the present. The book concludes by resituating the concepts of ethos and character within an analysis of proceduralist theory and liberal institutions, both as a way of answering to some of the most pointed critiques of reason and liberalism's purported impersonality, and as a way of introducing the notion of a "culture of argument," by which I mean the discursive practices and habits that underpin the unfinished project of modernity and the evolving institutions of liberal democracies.

I should perhaps clarify what I mean by "nonsociological." In advocating a fuller incorporation of understandings of character and ethos into our theories and practices, I mean to suggest that individuals and collectivities can and do cultivate habits, dispositions, and attitudes that can in no simple way be attributed to any easily identifiable and limiting sociological determination. Of course it is always the case that conceptions of virtue and character bear the marks of their historical and cultural locations, and that individuals and collectivities are necessarily faced with discrete fields of action. But that does not mean that character and ethos are always class or culture-bound in some limiting way, nor does it mean that forms of character always bespeak a determination by forces of power, or alternately, an ideological denial of such determination. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu's theories have promoted the view that manners, habits, and characterological identifications are not only social in origin, but also work to establish forms of distinction that articulate hierarchies of power. Bourdieu, like Foucault, has provided immensely valuable tools for the understanding of power within everyday life. But it is by no means clear to me that the characterological dimensions of normative ethical and political theories (be they personal, political, or institutional virtues), or of course those theories themselves, are so susceptible to sociological reduction.

The essays collected here were written over several years-both during and after the completion of an earlier book, The Powers of Distance: Cosmopolitanism and the Cultivation of Detachment. It may be useful to situate this project in relation to that book, which in many ways provides historical context for the present study. Focusing on intellectual and aesthetic practices in nineteenth-century Britain, The Powers of Distance argues that nineteenth-century writers gave ethical depth and justification to modern intellectual postures precisely by insisting that they profoundly affected character. In demonstrable ways, the postures of distancing that characterized scientific objectivity, omniscient realism, and aesthetic disinterestedness were construed by nineteenth-century thinkers as integrally linked to the moral fate of the practitioner. For example, scientific writers sought to project an ideal of "moralized objectivity," to borrow the term used by historian of science Lorraine Daston, while writers such as Matthew Arnold and John Stuart Mill fundamentally integrated ideals of exemplary character into their conceptions, respectively, of disinterestedness and epistemological advance. There were also instances of character-damaging theoretical postures that contrasted sharply with character-enhancing practices: for example, Charles Dickens was haunted by the idea that the cultivation of a systems-view of the social world-one that analyzed relations of hierarchy and power-was both necessary to the project of realism and potentially highly harmful to individuals, whose critical practices might reify into habits of suspicion that would thwart the bonds of affection that underwrite ideals of family and community.

Uniting these disparate nineteenth-century views is a commitment to the notion that intellectual and aesthetic postures are always also lived practices. As such they allow and even invite the same kinds of ethical assessments that individuals routinely bring to their personal, social, and political lives. Recent scholarly trends have tended to treat ideals of critical detachment as illusory, elitist, and dangerous, invested in unattainable perspectives and disregarding of embodied existence and the experience of differently situated, and differently enfranchised, social groups. Such assumptions fail to capture the keenly reflective and vexed relation that many thinkers, both historical and contemporary, have had toward the personal side of what have been precipitously judged to be impersonal (objective, disinterested, scientific, detached) practices. They also fail to recognize not only that intellectual and political forms of detachment-such as liberalism, aestheticism, cosmopolitanism, and proceduralism-emerge historically but also that they can become embedded and habitual in ways that might seem unlikely at the time of their emergence.


Excerpted from The Way We Argue Now by Amanda Anderson Copyright © 2005 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This

Rita Felski
An intellectual achievement of the first rank and the work of a powerful and independent mind. We are invited to rethink the premises of contemporary theory in a manner that is invigorating and eye-opening. Anderson's own incisive contribution to the culture of argument will surely change the way many people think.
Rita Felski, University of Virginia, author of "Literature after Feminism"
Bonnie Honig
How do we argue now? Vigorously and with vim, if Amanda Anderson's new book is any indication. Anderson worries that the poststructuralist critique of reason, together with identity politics' sociological reductionism, threatens to undermine our capacity to argue, but she puts the lie to her own concern in this well-argued book. And she gives her readers much to argue with. We should all rise to her challenge and respond to this book in ways that participate in, extend, and (dare I say it?) trouble the culture of argument that Anderson here seeks to promote and surely exemplifies.
Bonnie Honig, Professor of Political Science, Northwestern University and senior research fellow, American Bar Foundation
John Guillory
This book addresses a broad range of controverted subjects with great tact, generosity, and persuasive force. Its readers, whatever their theoretical allegiance, will have to acknowledge this accomplishment. It is rare to read so intelligent and thought-provoking a book as this.
John Guillory, New York University, author of "Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation"
Nancy Fraser
A shrewd and witty dissection of contemporary academic theory's discontents. Anderson's anti-anti-Enlightenment argument serves as a refreshing antidote to the symptomatic prejudices of our age.
Nancy Fraser, Henry A.and Louise Loeb Professor, Graduate Faculty, New School

Meet the Author

Amanda Anderson is the Caroline Donovan Professor of English Literature and Department Chair at Johns Hopkins University. Her books include "The Powers of Distance: Cosmopolitanism and the Cultivation of Detachment" (Princeton) and "Tainted Souls and Painted Faces: The Rhetoric of Fallenness in Victorian Culture".

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