when is european social theory garbage?
I confuse people. Sometimes, I come off as the humorless American social science empiricist. “Show me a z-score or get out of my office!” Other times, it sounds like I drank the cool aid at the latest MLA meetings. What’s the deal? How can a “just the facts, ma’am” guy be the same person who says that we’ve missed the point of late Foucault?
It’s simple. I treat the jargon and wordiness of
Eurotrash European theory as a distracting mist. To be a charitable reader, I ask myself what lies beneath the mist. Therefore, I judge European social theory not by its rhetoric but what remains when I translate all the fluffery into plain English. In my experience, it’s worth the exercise. Sometimes you find nothing, something you find gold.
So here is how I judge “fancy pants theory.” First, I take what a text says and make it as boring as possible in simple words and ask, “Is there actually a point to all of this?” Second, I ask if it is actually true, or at least interesting to think about. Thus, you can create a handy 2×2 chart that helps you sort out the good from bad in the next Duke University Press catalog:
|Is it true?|
|Does it Have a Point?||Yes||No|
What I’ve discovered is that some “theory” doesn’t really have a point that would satisfy most of us. For example, Zizek *may* have a point, but maybe he doesn’t. It’s honestly hard to tell when you read him, except for his newspaper columns, which are a more straight forward structure. When I have read Zizek, it often seems to be a string of words or statements meant to shock, rather than press us to understand some important feature of social theory. At times, I even wonder if individual sentences are really meant to communicate an idea or just bludgeon the reader. When an author urges you go beyond the real and into the Really, Really, Really Ridiculously Real, you have to wonder. So, about Zizek: Has a point? No. True? Probably not.
Then we get to writings that have a point, but the point is probably wrong. Derrida is my favorite example. The whole premise of classic deconstruction is that one can read (handle?) a text by looking for semantic dichotomies and showing contradictions, gaps, and omissions that stem from the reliance on the dichotomy. I think it’s a really stunning statement and a cool way to read texts, but I don’t believe that his theory of meaning in texts is true.
What I enjoy most are texts that reward you quite a bit when you clear away the smoke. Bourdieu is the great case. Classic Euro-wordiness, but when you take the time to get through it, there are a lot of ideas that are worth digging into: symbolic capital, habitus, doxa. He’s probably the social theorist who best melded a theory of social psychology with theories of inequalities and you can actually have a serious discussion about the truth or interestingness of the work. That is worth seeking out and tolerating the puffery.