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Lecture 13: Theory of
… what?
PATRICK MOONEY, M.A.
ENGLISH 10, SUMMER SESSION A
13 JULY 2105
What is theory the theory of?
“Theory has enormously enriched and invigorated the study of
literary works, but […] theory ...
The (Saussurean) linguistic sign
● Language (and other systems of
meaning) consist of signs:
elements of meaning consistin...
The arbitrary nature of the sign
English: tree
Finnish: puu
French: arbre
German: Baum
Italian: albero
Latin: lignum
Russi...
Meaning is based on difference
“bat” “cat” “Matt”
“This project of recovering lost voices, of doing
history from below […] analysed mass culture (as
opposed to ‘popular cul...
“On the one hand, the point of studying popular
culture is to get in touch with what is important for
the lives of ordinar...
“The suspension of the demand for immediate
intelligibility, the willingness to work at the boundaries
of meaning, opening...
“A good theory …”
“ … would be practically useful. Understanding the asshole
we are stuck with might help us think constru...
In interpersonal or cooperative relations, the asshole:
(1) allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does
so systema...
“three things we should
want from a good theory” (8)
“The first is straightforward: we are looking for a
stable trait of c...
Immunity and morality
“[The asshole] is ‘immunized’ against anyone who speaks up,
being quite confident that he has little...
“And as long as we each take special advantages
for reasons of the right kinds—there really is a
grave emergency—no one wi...
Learning to be an asshole
“The asshole feels entitled to allow himself special
advantages as he pleases systematically, ac...
“What makes someone an asshole is a special
way of being wrong about what one’s
entitlements are.” (18)
“Parents often wor...
Taking advantage
“In general, the goods the asshole allows himself to
enjoy flow from social practices that are generally
...
“If being a person with basic moral status means
anything, it at the very least means that one is owed
respect and conside...
Recognition
“The asshole not only takes special privileges but
refuses to listen when people complain. […] the
asshole mak...
Let’s take a close look at pp. 154–
55 in ch. 6 of James.
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Lecture 13: Theory of … What?

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Slideshow for the thirteenth lecture in my summer course, English 10, "Introduction to Literary Studies: Deception, Dishonesty, Bullshit."

http://patrickbrianmooney.nfshost.com/~patrick/ta/m15/

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Lecture 13: Theory of … What?

  1. 1. Lecture 13: Theory of … what? PATRICK MOONEY, M.A. ENGLISH 10, SUMMER SESSION A 13 JULY 2105
  2. 2. What is theory the theory of? “Theory has enormously enriched and invigorated the study of literary works, but […] theory is not the theory of literature. If you had to say what ‘theory’ is the theory of, the answer would be something like ‘signifying practices’, the production and representation of experience, and the constitution of human subjects—in short, something like culture in the broadest sense.” (Culler 43) “ […] brief ‘readings’ of a range of cultural activities, from professional wrestling and the advertising of cars and detergents to such mythical cultural objects as French wine and Einstein’s brain.” (44)
  3. 3. The (Saussurean) linguistic sign ● Language (and other systems of meaning) consist of signs: elements of meaning consisting of symbols that point toward something “in the real world.” ● Signifier: the thing that does the pointing (a word, for instance) ● Signified: the thing that is pointed to (the thing in the real world)
  4. 4. The arbitrary nature of the sign English: tree Finnish: puu French: arbre German: Baum Italian: albero Latin: lignum Russian: дерево Spanish: árbol Etc ...
  5. 5. Meaning is based on difference “bat” “cat” “Matt”
  6. 6. “This project of recovering lost voices, of doing history from below […] analysed mass culture (as opposed to ‘popular culture’) as an oppressive ideological formation, as meanings functioning to position readers or viewers as consumers and to justify the workings of state power. The interaction between these two analyses of culture—culture as an expression of the people and culture as an imposition on the people— has been crucial to the development of cultural studies, first in Britain and then elsewhere.” (Culler 45)
  7. 7. “On the one hand, the point of studying popular culture is to get in touch with what is important for the lives of ordinary people—their culture—as opposed to that of aesthetes and professors. On the other, there is a strong impetus to show how people are shaped or manipulated by cultural forces. How far are people constructed as subjects by cultural forms and practices, which ‘interpellate’ or address them as people with particular desires and values?” (46) “[…] culture as a set of codes and practices that alienates people from their interests and creates the desires that they come to have […]” (46)
  8. 8. “The suspension of the demand for immediate intelligibility, the willingness to work at the boundaries of meaning, opening oneself to unexpected, productive effects of language and imagination, and the interest in how meaning and pleasure are produced—these dispositions are particularly valuable, not just for reading literature but also for considering other cultural phenomena, though it is literary study that makes these reading practices visible.” (52) “cultural studies does not believe that its intellectual work will make a difference. That would be overweening, not to say naïve. It believes that its work ‘is supposed to’ make a difference.” (52)
  9. 9. “A good theory …” “ … would be practically useful. Understanding the asshole we are stuck with might help us think constructively about how best to handle him. We might get a getter sense of when the asshole is best resisted and when he is best ignored—a better sense of what is, what what is not, worth fighting for.” (James 3) “Our definition, in other words, is a constructive proposal. It tries to articulate what we ordinarily mean when we speak of ‘assholes’ but ultimately stands or falls on whether it captures the importance assholes have for us —where the “us” is, in the first instance, you and me.” (7)
  10. 10. In interpersonal or cooperative relations, the asshole: (1) allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically; (2)does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and (3)is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people. (5) “What distinguishes the asshole is the way he acts, the reasons that motivate him to act in an abusive and arrogant way. The asshole acts out of a firm sense that he is special, that the normal rules of conduct do not apply to him.” (5–6)
  11. 11. “three things we should want from a good theory” (8) “The first is straightforward: we are looking for a stable trait of character, or a type of person—a vice rather than a particular act, mere lapse in conduct, or brief phase of life” (8) “The second thing to explain is that most assholes are not morally beyond the pale, unlike, say, a murderer, rapist, or tyrant. Most assholes are not that bad.” (10) “the third thing we need to explain […] [is that] assholes are still repugnant people.” (11)
  12. 12. Immunity and morality “[The asshole] is ‘immunized’ against anyone who speaks up, being quite confident that he has little need to respond to questions about whether the advantages he allows himself are acceptable and fair. Indeed, he will often himself feel indignant when questions about his conduct are raised. That, from his point of view, may show that he is not getting the respect he deserves.” (6) “However misguided, the asshole is morally motivated. He is fundamentally different from the psychopath, who either lacks or fails to engage moral concepts […]. The asshole takes himself to be justified in enjoying special advantages from cooperative relations.” (13)
  13. 13. “And as long as we each take special advantages for reasons of the right kinds—there really is a grave emergency—no one will be terribly bothered about how the exact distribution of benefits and burdens falls out. We say, ‘it will all work out in the end,’ not as a prediction about the future (when is ‘the end’?) but as a vote of confidence: if we really are working together in good faith, accommodating one another for what we can each regard as good reasons of the right sorts, that would in and of itself realize a kind of relationship we could really value, quite aside form the outcomes that fate and circumstance actually bring.” (15)
  14. 14. Learning to be an asshole “The asshole feels entitled to allow himself special advantages as he pleases systematically, across a wide range of social interactions.” (15) “The asshole sees no need to defend his special place in the social world, or he easily produces convincing rationalizations and moves on. He may even compliment himself on his resiliency and formidable argumentative powers. If reflection is for most people an important source of moral learning, the asshole puts reflection mainly in the service of assuring himself.” (20)
  15. 15. “What makes someone an asshole is a special way of being wrong about what one’s entitlements are.” (18) “Parents often worry most about helping their kids make it in the system as it is, rather than raising them for a society that ought to be but that might not materialize in the child’s lifetime.” (166) “The current trend of catering to a child’s self- esteem by sharply limiting the experience of criticism or setback may encourage narcissism and only worsen net asshole production.” (167)
  16. 16. Taking advantage “In general, the goods the asshole allows himself to enjoy flow from social practices that are generally beneficial.” (21) “The asshole […] sees little need for the work of mutual restraint aimed at benefit for all involved. According to his generalized sense of entitlement, it is only right and natural that the various advantages of social life should flow his way.” (22)
  17. 17. “If being a person with basic moral status means anything, it at the very least means that one is owed respect and consideration as a being endowed with capacity to see reason. In particular, people are endowed with powers that enable them to consider and evaluate how someone has acted. A mountain, whale, or tree, though deserving of consideration and appreciation in its own right, lacks the range of abilities needed to question the justifiability of what others have done. The community of persons is, in this way, special. I, as an ordinary human person, have special powers of self-consciousness, reasoning, and judgment. I can observe someone acting, as a mere event in the order of things, but also ask (if only to myself) certain questions of justification.” (25–26)
  18. 18. Recognition “The asshole not only takes special privileges but refuses to listen when people complain. […] the asshole makes no attempt to hear the person out and perhaps delivers a rude retort. […] He is unwilling to recognize anyone who does express a complaint, never considering that the complaint might be legitimate.” (22)
  19. 19. Let’s take a close look at pp. 154– 55 in ch. 6 of James.

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