Friday, March 11, 2011

Felt Theory: David Bartholomae and Foucault

In David Bartholomae's seminal essay, "Inventing the University," he places an epigraph from Michel Foucault's "Discourse on Language." Foucault is never mentioned within the essay. However, in a recent interview where Bartholomae reflects on his essay, he says:

"I think of “Inventing” as an exercise in “felt theory.”   I was not writing about Foucault or translating Foucault for an audience unprepared or unwilling to read him on its own.   I wanted to do something in his spirit, to extend his project to a set of materials (initially those 500 essays) that mattered to me."

Foucault 'colors' Bartholomae's writing--Bartholomae performs Foucault rather than writes about Foucault. He deploys Foucault as a kind of "instrument" in his composition--Foucault has a particular "timbre" as well as meaning. French Theory has a particular timbre/color just as German theory. How does one musically compare Kant to Derrida? How does Derrida arrange his instruments, his voices? 

Bartholomae chooses a quote from "Discourse on Language" that, one could argue, was not a representative sample of what Foucault does in the essay. The Discourse on Language is not just about Discourse but is itself a discourse. Foucault has a kind of internal dialogue with himself (he does this at the beginning of Archaeology of Knowledge as well). 

Bartholomae writes that this is the method he takes from Foucault: 

"Foucault went to the archive looking to document systematic, institutional networks of power, but always with an eye for the odd detail, for evidence of human resistance or performance beyond, despite, or in excess of the normal, something outside the rules or beyond what could be said or understood.   That was the duty of the scholar, he said, to pay this kind of attention.   And from this vantage point, working from these details, he showed how you could think your way back to the discursive context, the energies it channeled and the energies it resisted"

We may ask: Does he only take these ideas of details, discourse, and power or does he perform in the same way Foucault performs in the "Discourse"? ? ?

Bartholomae says, "It has been odd for me to hear myself described as someone who was advocating imitation or submission or indoctrination as desirable goals or as ends in themselves.   I was trying to speak from within a Foucauldian interpretive project, as I understood its key terms and goals." 

Why did people assume that he advocated imitation/submission? Why didn't people realize that it was part of the "Foucaultian interpretive project"? 

What if it is because there is no Foucaultian interpretive project. Indeed, the spirit of Foucault is against interpretation and depth--against hermeneutics. Foucault not only shows this in the "content" of his work, but in the performance of his work--just as Derrida. Before Bartholomae speaks about the Foucaultian interpretive project, Bartholomae comments on what he gets from French Theory:

"I was reading him, as I read all the French theorists, in translation, but I was taken by the prose and what it was able to do, its gestures against the normal or inevitable shape of the sentence or the paragraph, the essay or chapter."

What Bartholomae is describing here is the performative dimension of french theory. Indeed, one may argue that much of french theory, when reduced to the constative, comes off as banal, naive, or overly general. Witness the brilliant undergraduate essays in literature citing Derrida (out of context) in order to ostensibly erase material reality: "there is nothing outside the text."

Bartholomae and Petrosky in their collection Ways of Reading are attentive to this performative dimension of the essays they have chosen. The power of many of these essays is that they perform what they argue. The sentence structures, the organization (arrangement) of elements are just as important as the "content" of the writer's argument. Bartholomae and Petrovsky both in their "questions for review" explicitly address stylistic and writing issues rather than the "point" or "theme" or "thesis" of the essay. 

And so, perhaps Bartholomae's "Inventing the University" is misunderstood because it lacks a certain Foucaultian "spirit" even as it "applies" his analyses of discourse and power. Perhaps it is because, despite the presence of student writing, the essay comes off as a monological analysis rather than a dialogue with students. Perhaps it is because, despite his best efforts, Bartholomae still conceives of Foucault's work as a useful hermeneutic framework rather than a solicitation (in the Derridian sense) of hermeneutic core assumptions. To me, this seems to be Gayatri Spivak's problem when she sets Foucault against Derrida, arguing that Derrida's philosophy is ultimately more productive because Foucault attempts to speak for the other (cf. "Can the subaltern Speak"). While I am not in the mood to re-reading Spivak's essay and arguing for this in detail, I think I wouldn't disagree with her major point. However, I would say that this doesn't take into account the lengths Foucault goes to disrupt his own discourse. In particular, I think this is why "Discourse on Language" as well as Archaeology of Knowledge are almost more crucial to composition

1 comment:

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