Wednesday, September 13, 2006

the bespectacled celebrity

As a (dilettante) student of literary theory, I often find myself most enchanted by the moments in which critical luminaries grant us glimpses of their individual, bad-mannered personae--the lapses in objectivity where petty grievances, self-conscious rejoinders, and biases are hung out to dry, textually.

One frequent perpetrator is Derrida; in light of his own writings on the impossibility of genuine self-referentiality, J.D's willingness to infuse his own written responses (and defenses) with self-aware humor and sardonicism is noteworthy--and, of course, probably deliberate.
"Here, once again, if one relies on this ignorant and aberrant reading of 'Deconstruction' or of my 'practice,' I have no way out. Whenever such a reader cannot deny my attention to context, to history, to biography, and so on, then s/he reproaches me for not being faithful to what s/he believes to be my 'practice' or my 'theory'...Faced with those who do not want or do not know how to read, I confess I am powerless."
-Derrida, Biodegradables (1989)

What a dick, right?

Aside from the obviously negative ramifications of over-glamorizing an academic figure, Herman Rapaport points out another deleterious effect of the phenomenon in The Theory Mess (2001), an interesting book I recently read in preparation for my senior essay. The Theory Mess is subtitled "Deconstruction in Eclipse;" Rapaport provides a short history of the criticism (and misreading) of deconstruction, beginning with Jameson's misreading of the system as a "prison house of language" (an erroneous summation that, like most criticisms, ignore Derrida's writings on contextuality).

Rapaport breaks down--notice I didn't say deconstruct; I'm constantly annoyed by the misuse of that verb--the political rationale for this "eclipsing," pointing to the ascent of the academic celebrity.

A useful analogy, I think, would be the attainment of hip hop celebrity. There are three types of hip hop feuds:

1. Collaborators Who Split: MF Doom and GM Grimm, 50 Cent and the Game
2. All Stars vs. Ea. Other: Jay Z and Nas, Lil Kim and Foxy Brown
3. Up and Comer Takes on Celebrity: Yukmouth vs. G-Unit

Case 3 exemplifies the fallout of celebrity that Rapaport problematizes. There are gold digging ho's--a subculture that it's safe to say will never flourish in academia--and glory digging backstabbers (like Yukmouth). While Meyer Abrams and Gerald Graff didn't craft battle rhymes or tape insulting videos about J.D., it's clear that celebrity is more easily achieved via overt dissent than subtle argument, even in the academic world. Rapaport's general criticism (and one of the blames he places on Abrams and Graff) is that the desire for stardom yields heated polemics rather than close readings and careful research.

Sadly, I still crave the moments in my readings when the grouchy, verbose authors set aside their close readings and careful research and bitch slap each other.
On a tangential note to the subject of celebrity, I ran into Ned Lamont on Wall Street today. Dude is tan.

1 comment:

Kate said...


good food for thought. academic celebrity since days of ye olde Plato seems borne out of the two opposite and complementary tactics of renunciation and embellishment. the best -- so maybe the worst? -- way to make a name for yourself is to reject just enough of the original theory to be dialectical (Hegel-style), and then add your own, if you will, academic "flair." neither is in itself valuable, doye, but they sell books better than subtlety!

I think the hip hop/literary criticism metaphor should be taken further. who are the Roots of the academic world? Snoop Dogg? although I'm loathe to invoke her name in connection with hip hop, FERGIE? please compare her to Judith Butler.