terrible neglect, and the tyranny of theory

work and essays have conspired against blogging, and terrible neglect has ensued. But I hope you’ll forgive me, especially when I give you a small taste of what I have been forcefed in the past week:

But surely the discursive proliferation from the refiguration of history — or, as Peter de Bolla puts it, the ‘disfiguration’ of what is given us as history — that this perspective demands cannot but have discrepant politics.


For just as historiography’s shifting constructions (in spite of essentialisms) of India reveal historical writings as a differentiated political discourse, the disavowal of foundational histories also cannot but function as variant political practices.

Why are cultural theorists so often seized by a conviction that they must dress their insights up in such bombast? could it be a desperate bid for profundity? a concern that without linguistic frippery, the insight in question is, after all, not so very much of an insight? Please correct me if I’m wrong, but is this paragraph not broadly saying that Indian history can be written in many ways, and that demanding alternative histories has its political implications, too?

I often complain about this to anyone who will listen: that so often I am forced to read books that are atrociously written, but which nonetheless contain important information that I need (say, a book or thesis containing rare primary research) or arguments that I must engage with (say, theories of nationalism). Why can’t people just write clearly? Don’t people want their work to be read, their thoughts to be understood, without frustration, rage or quiet despair? Is it not a worthy dictum to live and be an academic by: that one should not merely write to be understood, but write so that one cannot be misunderstood?

While the Subaltern Studies scholars see themselves targeting and disrupting the colonialist and nationalist wills directly and recovering the subaltern consciousness, the postcolonial perspective of the emerging historiography seeks to disclose the archaeology of knowledge and analyze the sedimentation of academic disciplines and institutions in power. Although both ultimately aim critical reflections upon discursive formations, the emphasis is clearly different.



3 responses to “terrible neglect, and the tyranny of theory

  • Tim

    I assume it’s intentional, but the irony of your three selections is that they all try to shake up a naive certainty in history, but all cast their conclusions in the language of necessity: “clearly,” “surely,” “cannot but” (x2!).

    Part of the problem of academic “style” is that it functions as fashion, or as a uniform. The bulk of the phrases in the last selection don’t really say much other than “Foucault Foucault Foucault Foucault.” In Foucault’s writings themselves, they actually do some real work. But it’s more about allegiances than clarity. (You see the same thing with phrases taken from Bourdieu, Derrida, Butler, Lacan, etc.)

    For my part, I don’t think the issue is theory itself, but as your title indicates, the tyranny of theory over parts of writing. I don’t know whether it is possible to write so that “we cannot be misunderstood.” But I think we can write so that we are slightly less our terms of art and slightly more ourselves and our engagement with the world.

  • jim Lebeau

    Piet Hein said
    “If no thought your mind does visit, make your speech not too explicit”

    Perhaps some people are taking Piet Hein too seriously.

  • eccentric parabola

    I think Aristotle said it best: “The greatest virtue of diction is to be clear without being commonplace” … or, one might add, convaluted.

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