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Late Spring To-Do List

  • Read scholarly book #1
  • Read scholarly book #2
  • Catch up on professional journals
  • Administer evaluations
  • Grade seminar research papers
  • Write two final exams
  • Grade final exams
  • Compute final grades
  • Order books for fall
  • Find apartment in New City
  • Attend INRU Commencement!

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Saturday, June 04, 2005


So I didn't write a single page yesterday, but I refuse to feel bad about it. Instead, I spent literally three hours on line, ordering a new computer. Why three hours? Because George Washington Boyfriend's computer, for all its strong points (chief among them the fact that it isn't exploded and lying on the floor with its guts out), is the slowest machine in the western hemisphere. I'd click a link, get up, start making some coffee, come back, click another link, go pour myself a cup and mix in some milk and sugar, come back, click another link, make some toast--five minutes or more to load each page. Which is really a problem when you're trying to figure out which of many different models you want, and with what specs, but it at least confirmed to me that it was a good idea to buy the thing now (helllloo credit card), because much longer with GWB's laptop and I'm going to be running amok in the street.

After those three hours I didn't really feel like working on the computer, so I instead picked up a book of Judith Butler's that I've been meaning to read for my diss work . . . and to my surprise, it was REALLY GOOD. Now, those of you who don't know who Judith Butler is: she's a literary theorist who works largely on issues of gender and sexuality. Lotsa performativity-of-sex-roles, lotsa power, oppression, and exclusion. She's also the perennial whipping boy of those who claim that theory is just unreabable, intentionally obscure, and badly-written.

And for those of you who don't know what I work on: well, let's just say I work on extremely dead, extremely white men, none of them known to have been gay, and most of whom led interesting but not especially sexy lives (there's one major exception, but I don't work on his sexy stuff). Also? I've always disliked theory.

I won't explain why her work is relevant to mine, but although I'd become convinced that I needed to read a couple of Butler's books, I really wasn't looking forward to it. I tend to feel that theorists (or maybe more accurately, the scholars who rely on them) write bad, jargon-heavy, offensively tangled prose, and speak in unhelpful abstractions. Partly this is a prejudice born of temperament: I'm not a top-down thinker, but a bottom-up one: I start from interesting details that I can't quite figure out, gradually find a pattern, and only at the end can generalize about what I've found. And partly it's the result of my education: my undergrad institution, Instant Name Recognition U, really didn't teach theory. If there was a theory survey course, I never heard of it, and while most classes incorporated literary criticism, we weren't taught it as coming from any particular perspective. I'm getting my doctorate from INRU as well, and there was a theory survey class that I sorta felt I should take--but it conflicted with a much more interesting class. And anyway, although some of my colleagues know theory better than I do, I don't get the sense that most know it that well, or use it much; the theory-heads are in Comparative Liturature or (sometimes) American Studies.

So this is all a way of saying that I've always felt anxious about my lack of familiarity with theory, but at the same time I've had a kind of snobbily dismissive attitude: it's all irrelevant abstractions, isn't it? Taking stuff out of its original context and forcing it into different molds? I've read individual articles by important theorists, some of which have been really useful, and I've read an intro text or two on literary theory, so I've never been totally clueless about what's out there--but at the same time I've never really felt that theory had anything to offer me.

Now I'm wondering. The first surprise was that Butler's work was very readable. Yes, I did need to read many sentences twice--but twice I'm willing to do; five times, not so much. She also clearly has a sense of humor, and a real sense of passion about her subject; these issues she's dealing with are intensely personal ones, you can see--undercutting my belief that theory is all cold, dry, abstraction. Even the material that wasn't remotely useful for my own research was interesting and intellectually exciting to read.

I don't know whether it would have been that interesting to me a few years ago, though, and maybe this is a sign that I'm finally ready for theory. It has always seemed to me that for some young scholars theory is like the proverbial hammer: when all you have is that hammer, everything you see looks like a nail. But now that I've mastered a body of literary and historical material on its own terms, and now that I've developed significant intellectual ideas of my own, I think I'm ready to see where and how specific theories amplify and illuminate my own work. I'm not saying that theory shouldn't be taught early on--in fact, I wish I'd had a better introduction sooner--but at the same time I'm happy I wasn't educated in an environment that expected us to take a particular theoretical approach early on. (See the pseudonymous Thomas H. Benton's amusing column on this subject, here.)

link | posted by La Lecturess at 11:17 AM |


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