As often as not, an English major’s first encounter with critical theory is acutely confounding. Words like Nachträglichkeit and bricoleur bounce across the room, ricocheting off the conference table into the far, untrodden corners of the mind. For the newcomer on the scene, being thrown into a discussion about différance or gender performativity can seem more like being forced to participate in a game of intellectual jai alai than a meaningful exercise in dialogue.
But we here at the Blotter want to ease your worried mind. Because, as the immortal Sam Cooke once said, there’s only one thing we can do. Baby, if you let us take you by the hand we’re going to teach Adorno to you. We’ve asked several graduate students and faculty members from the NYU English department to contribute one word from critical theory that has been particularly important to their work. And what we found was that the terms that came up in our discussions were precisely related to this issue of pedagogy, of making both literature and theory relevant and accessible to students.
Second year PhD student John Linstrom, for instance, has found the term “mediation” useful for his work on the relationship between literature and agriculture. This past summer, John worked on a farming collective, an experience which gave him the practical and firsthand knowledge of the material he had only previously known through the “mediation” of the authors he had been studying. Thus, for him, the word “mediation” opens up the possibility for investigating things not traditionally thought of as texts. In this way, working at the farming collective prompted John to meditate on how the transformation of agricultural technologies mediating the relationship between humans and land may effect a corresponding change in the textual mediations of the poem, novel, or movie.
Similarly, fifth year PhD student Cameron Williams’s work on poetry and sound has often incorporated the concept “standpoint epistemology.” According to Williams, “standpoint epistemology” accounts for the possibilities and limitations for producing knowledge that are the conditions of a structural position in society. While studying botany as an undergraduate, Williams first encountered the idea through reading Donna Haraway’s Primate Visions. In her book, Haraway expresses a desire for a feminist science, using the term “standpoint epistemology” to acknowledge the social construction of knowledge and at the same time maintain the possibility of its objectivity. After reading Marx and Lukacs, Williams learned that “standpoint epistemology” originated as a materialist theory of consciousness, particularly as an account of the formation of proletarian consciousness. For Williams, the idea that our material life affects our imaginative life—and may even limit it—is one that can be uncomfortable but is ultimately necessary to confront.
On this note, relating the complexities of the theory to students from different backgrounds has prompted various faculty members to emphasize certain terms as instruments of pedagogy, as ways of bridging potential gaps of mediation or alternate societal positions. So, for John Guillory, the word “media” has become useful for situating the verbal artifact as one medium among many in the age of the computer screen. The fact that many students enter more easily into screen media than page and print is a challenge to any teacher of literature. Yet Guillory takes it as an opportunity for making historical change interesting and meaningful, for showing how the word as a mode of transmission comes with its own unique pleasures.
On a similar note, Maureen McLane values the word “poesis” not just for its complex etymology and resonance, but for its affiliation to what Percy Shelley described as “poetry in the general sense.” “Poesis” has its root in the Greek verb “poieo,” which means “to make.” For McLane, “poesis” signifies any type of imaginative or creative act, thus enabling one to speak of poetry not just in the restricted sense of verse but as skeleton key that cuts across historical, linguistic, and generic boundaries.
And, as a scholar of Jacques Derrida and the school of deconstruction, Juliet Fleming says her entire academic career has been devoted to thinking about the word “writing” or l’ecriture . In her Derrida class, Fleming urges her students to take nothing for granted, to be aware of the way in which even the most self-evident things, such as the immediate presence of a voice, may paradoxically turn out to be the effect of an absence, an unconsciously swift pen stroke producing the dreamy apparition of subjectivity.
Although her class attracts many ambitious and intelligent students, what Fleming likes about it is that it is a great leveler, one that is in many ways empowering. After her students initially stumble over the dizzying complexity of Derrida’s thought, they are asked to take forty lines of a passage from one of his works and merely describe the steps to the argument. In doing this exercise, Fleming says, her students are hereafter able to think and write more precisely.
In this way, students and faculty in the NYU Department of English have been putting paid to the myth of critical theory’s inaccessibility, showing how even a vocabulary regarded with suspicion or trepidation can give rise to a diverse and imaginative poetry of its own.