Monday, November 19, 2007

Reading and work

I just spent three weeks essentially wasting my time, reading a huge, difficult and incredibly dense book that in the end doesn't seem to go anywhere. I get the academic project of theorizing for the sake of challenging assumptions. That is the only way that we stand any chance of making our thinking more effective. But some ways of "doing theory" involve little more than mixing and matching the theoretical (and hence, unproven/unprovable) observations of other theorists, and rapidly moving further and further away from the real world. I'm here to talk about music and what people do with it, for goodness sake, and not what is left if all history is memory, and all memory is (theoretically) unethical.
I guess I'm just frustrated with my coursework, at the moment, which feels like a hinderance to my learning process, rather than the support I think it should be. It will get better, though, if for no other reason than that next semester I get to be more specific about my project, and spend my time doing a whole lot of reading that I've selected for myself. I guess I'm just beginning to judge my reading time as more precious the more other things I have to do, and so I'm resentful of things that don't make productive use of this time.
Alright. Rant over. I'm going to listen to a talk by a scholar who did her research in South Africa, this evening, and then I'm going to go home and read Jeannette Winterson, just because I want to. And then on Wednesday, the Thanksgiving holiday starts! I can't wait.


Billtron said...

Your brain is sore. You must have used some new muscles.

choirgirl said...

Hey Billtron. Thanks for commenting. Yes, I'm sure you're right. I'm beginning to feel better already.

T said...

Or maybe your poor brain muscles are crying out, "Use me! Use me! We're atrophying with all this aimless theory!"

I hope your response to Bill was meant to be read in a sarcastic tone ;-)

Yay for Jeanette Winterson! THAT'S good for the mind *and* the soul.

choirgirl said...

Hi T. Thanks for commenting. I don't think I was quite being sarcastic, but perhaps a little incredulous. Jeanette and a chocolate cooking made it all right, though.

annA said...

A friend at Cambridge has likewise complained about coursework and (as I put it) "horrible theory-headed boys with their nefarious nincompoopery." I, on the other hand, am also complaining about coursework...but mostly because I'm in an environment where the "objectivity is not possible and it all depends on your interpretation" trope is both worn-out and under-interrogated. I've encountered a distinct smothering of anything that could be labelled theory...and, sadly, that usually means 'critique.' Still, though, I know exactly what you mean about the stringing together of disembodied theory. There is a sense, I think, in which both extremes, shall we say, take the piss out of protest and impede real political change. I particularly love Monique Wittig's complaint to the French post-structuralists: "this discourse is our material reality."

(Personally, I rather like the masochistic excerise of the muscles in my brain - it's about as useful and rooted in reality as pumping iron in a gym...)

But you're right, Jeannette Winterson and chocolate (ooo, and mulled wine, too!) make everything better.

choirgirl said...

Hi annA,
Great to hear from you. Thank you for your comment.
I really think you hit on it with the "horrible theory-headed boys" bit. As T and others well know, the boys' club that tends to form around this, the setup in which a group of male egos stroke eachother to the tune of "ooh, it's so hard" (yes, all the puns are intended) just gets annoying. I will never be able to break into that circle for all sorts of reasons, and I don't especially want to, and so I resent wasting time on it. I'm currently on the look-out for Catherine Lutz's article "The Gender of Theory" in Women Writing Culture, on T's recommendation. She suggests that this article may push a little too far in the other direction, the direction you seem to be struggling against, but that in general, it makes some interesting points about the nature of the theory-headed boy's club.
Of course, the other direction is problematic, too. Fighting theory on principle misses the opportunity to learn from and make use of what can be very productive thinking. Heck, what else are we doing in the academy, if not theorizing? And of course, the great benefit of the sometimes less than accessible style of discourse that dogs the academy is the possibility of both fitting a huge amount of thought into relatively little space, simply by using words that carry a trace, and relying on our readers' knowledge of the literature. Perhaps an even greater benefit is our ability to signal, through discourse, the complexity of the situations in which we work without resorting to the worn-out relativism that becomes an excuse for not doing anything. We get to be critical. We get to be thoughtful. But we also get resources that make it possible to be active in real people's lives, both within and beyond the academy. Hey, society invests a lot of money the the project of knowledge production and circulation that is ours, the least we can do in return is make an effort to keep it real!
I think this all deserves a post on its own, but I think I'll write it after I've read that chapter I mentioned above.