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Constructive Criticism: The Human Sciences in the Age of Theory (review)

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 20, Number 1, April 1996
pp. 268-270 | 10.1353/phl.1996.0017

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Philosophy and Literature 20.1 (1996) 268-270

Book Review

Constructive Criticism: The Human Sciences in the Age of Theory

Constructive Criticism: The Human Sciences in the Age of Theory, by Martin Kreiswirth and Thomas Carmichael; 223 pp. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995, $45.00 cloth, $17.95 paper.

This book contains twelve essays based on papers presented at "The Human Sciences in the Age of Theory" conference sponsored by the Center for the Study of Theory and Criticism at the University of Western Ontario and held at the University in 1993. Versions of six of the essays are published elsewhere.

In After Virtue Alasdair MacIntyre offers the choice of Nietzsche or Aristotle. Authors in these essays offer a far greater variety. For Christopher Norris it's Nietzsche or (late) Foucault, for Tilottama Rajan its Nietzsche and Lacan or Hegel, for Martin Kreiswirth and Gary Wihl (in separate essays) its Nietzsche or narrative, and for L. M. Findlay its Nietzsche or Ricoeur and narrative. This range of options reveals the extent to which these authors are attempting to escape the cul-de-sac created by the skeptical and nihilistic dimensions of Nietzsche which appear in deconstruction and postmodernism. "Constructive criticism" is an apt title for these essays. As a group they struggle to offer a way of understanding the complexities involved in resisting dominating discourses, while not giving in to despair or skepticism or nihilism.

Diane Elam observes that "the age of theory begins when theories fail, when no single theoretical discourse is possible any longer." The variety of alternatives to Nietzsche listed above is one manifestation of the truth of Elam's claim. A second is the fact that none of these authors proposes wholesale adoption of the thinker who is being contrasted with Nietzsche. Each is selecting certain specific dimensions of the thinker's position to be used to maintain contact with the complexity which they sense in the world around them.

A third and more profound recognition is that these authors are not proposing their choices in the same spirit as MacIntyre proposed his. The meaning of "either/or" is shifting. MacIntyre's opposition between Nietzsche and Aristotle opposes two systems the latter of which represents a way to keep safe from the danger of moral chaos contained in the former. MacIntyre's either/or contains this sense of opposition which is also a sense of salvation, of protection from having to grapple with things that are confusing, messy, dangerous. In the age of theory when theoretical discourse becomes impossible we can no longer be protected. "Either/or" shifts polarity. It no longer means my position will trump yours: it now means "either closed theoretical discourse or complexity and multiplicity." The authors in Constructive Criticism choose complexity and multiplicity because to choose closed theoretical discourse is to choose insensitivity to all sorts of injustice.

Heterogeneity is the watchword of all the authors in this volume and many of them see narrative as the mode of access to multiplicity. Kreiswirth argues that the meaningfulness of narrative depends on overdetermination and "complex accumulations and conjunctions of desire." Little narratives, not master ones, are best able to show complexity. Findlay urges the use of metaphor to keep us in a place between the center and the margin. Wihl uses Rorty, Kundera and Nussbaum to underline "the moral significance of detailed, richly descriptive vocabularies" in contrast to the ascetic language of philosophy which does not permit the irony required for "perspicuity in the areas of ethical conflict and competing social agendas." However, Victor Li is not at all happy about Rorty (or Habermas) both of whom, in criticizing others, appeal to "modernity's own totalizing view of itself" instead of possessing, as they should, a sense of "the complex cultural logic of the in-between, of cultural hybridity and exchange."

However, there are two authors who -- happily, I must say -- make it clear that they do not want to throw theory out with the bath water. They are willing, it seems, to take the risk of both preserving what they do (theory) and maintaining a sense of the complexity of competing social agendas, overdetermination and cultural "hybridity." John Fekete advocates...


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