An interview with Amanda Anderson

An interview with Amanda Anderson

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Amanda Anderson is Caroline Donovan Professor of English Literature at Johns Hopkins University. She specializes in Victorian literature and contemporary literary, cultural, and political theory. Her previous books include The Powers of Distance: Cosmopolitanism and the Cultivation of Detachment and Tainted Souls and Painted Faces: The Rhetoric of Fallenness in Victorian Culture. Here, she very kindly answers my questions, mostly pertaining to her latest book The Way We Argue Now: A Study in the Cultures of Theory.

Readers Loft: What was it within Theory’s dominant paradigms (poststructuralism, postmodernism, deconstruction, psychoanalysis, Marxism, feminism, postcolonialism, and queer theory), and the way these paradigms affect our ways of communicating, that first gave you pause?

Amanda Anderson: For a long time, I have been bothered by poststructuralism’s failure to acknowledge and clarify its informing values or norms. What I mean by that is that poststructuralism and postmodernism, as well as those forms of theory that followed in their wake, waged a form of critique that was overwhelmingly negative and “cryptonormative.” In showing, for example, that language or meaning is fundamentally unstable or that power saturates all communication, such theories generally refuse to account for their own persuasiveness, or for their ability to see and describe the conditions they assert.

While I think that these theories have taught us a great deal, their blanket assertions about the nature of “rationality” and “reason” undermine the critical force of their own insights and descriptions. They end up slighting the dynamic processes of achieving understanding and agreement through various forms of human communication, as well as the capacity for achieving some amount of sharpened distance on our own practices—which we can then describe, refine, critique, endorse, or reject.

I should add, by way of clarification, that I would have to give a more specific answer in the case of Marxism and feminism, both of which have a longer history. My remarks would only pertain to those forms of Marxism and feminism that have been influenced by poststructuralism and postmodernism. In their traditional forms, these theories (and political movements) were quite explicit, obviously, about their informing values and commitments. They were characteristically both critical and utopian.

RL: In your introduction you say, this book might well have been called “The Way We Fail to Argue Now.” Do you think Theory has really done more harm than good?

AA: No, I would not say that. I am in no way anti-theory; as I also say in the introduction, The Way We Argue Now is a deeply pro-theory book, by which I mean to say that theory has provided powerful resources for the humanities disciplines, and in general has helped us to reflect on our practices and see many things through new and illuminating frameworks of inquiry.

But two strong tendencies within theory — and they are mutually reinforcing – do cause me concern: identity politics and the critique of rationality. If we give precedence to identity claims and forego a commitment to shared rationality, then I think we cede the possibility of communicating across differences and substitute a politics of grievances for a more capacious and public-minded politics.

RL: Are you saying any more than sytles of argumentation come and go? Or that, say, deconstruction is unstable because it can’t get out of its own hall of mirrors?

AA: I think styles of argumentation do vary over time (and across cultures), but what I am really intrigued by is the way different theories can be said to have a style or project a character. Theories often reveal, even if only implicitly, how they might be practiced or lived, and they often do so through characterological concepts that aren’t fully avowed.

So for example many contemporary pragmatists exhort us to be casual or unbothered about the groundlessness of belief. But what does that mean? And why is it important that we adopt a certain attitude as part of our avowal of theoretical precepts? One of my keenest interests is to focus on the character of various theories so as give them more depth and existential interest for us; at the same time this will help to expand the ways in which we have understood identity.

RL: What are the principal limits of identity politics and poststructuralism?

AA: Identity politics gives too much emphasis to group identity conceived in terms of social and cultural categories, so much so that notions of individuality and character are subordinated, diminished, even sometimes entirely lost to view. But ethical and political life involves a far richer field of practices and dimensions, some of which cannot be captured via the reductive categories of identity politics: moral character, civic virtues, and various forms of collective identity and action related to them do not seem to me to be simply reducible to terms of race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.

In the book I argue not only for the ways in which forms of life are lost to view when identity politics dominates, but also for the negative effects this has on our forms of argument: a too great deference to the sacredness of cultural identity leads easily to the notion that we should just tolerate and accommodate one another rather than engage and challenge one another. Poststructuralism’s limits I think I covered in my first answer.

RL: Does your critique help us address issues about the dead-end of “political correctness” Amanda?

AA: I think it does. Experiencing the pressure of political correctness involves feeling as though one must speak in ways that won’t offend the sensibilities of particular groups of people. My feeling is that we should be dedicated more to the spirit of argument than to the imagined feelings or grievances of specific groups.

This is not to say that we should allow prejudice or tactlessness to run free: basic respect is utterly important to productive argument, of course. But it seems wrong to imagine that certain topics or utterances are off limits because they might offend a specific group. And it seems wrong to imagine an argument as always in danger of sliding into personal injury if it doesn’t police its words and concepts.

RL: You critically utilise the work of Jürgen Habermas, and his theories of communicative action, to help explore your argument. What is it about Habermas you find so useful?

AA: In his theory of communicative action, Habermas makes a distinction of breathtaking clarity: that is the distinction between instrumental and communicative rationality. While reason can be used to dominate nature and other humans, and more generally to achieve instrumental ends, trying to reach understanding through communication is also a fundamental form of rational human activity, and one that cannot be subsumed under a notion of reason as instrumental or dominating (which is how reason is conceived by theorists of the Frankfurt School and by key poststructuralists). Even if we think of these two forms of reason as ideal types, that is, even if we imagine that communicative reason never exists in a pure state, unaffected by power, the very notion of communicative rationality seems to me indispensable to understanding the possibility and value of debate and argumentation, as well as of more concrete forms of democratic practice.

Habermas is important because he gives an account of human life that recognizes power on the one hand, and shared rationality and democratic institution-building on the other.

RL: Do you think it is Habermasian rationalism that is key to moving us beyond what I think you see as the cul-de-sac that Theory has driven us into?

AA: I would argue strenuously for the need to acknowledge the existence and potential of communicative reason, and I also believe deeply in the potential of procedural democracy. To that extent I do think Habermasian rationalism is an important tool for developing a coherent normative critical theory. But my book is also trying to show the usefulness of exploring how different theories imagine themselves as a way of life. This aspect of the book is not driven by any desire to convert people to Habermas. And more generally, I’m something of a pluralist when it comes to the notion of how one might choose to live one’s relation to theoretical or philosophical concepts. So while I would argue for the general concept of communicative reason, I would not necessarily say the form of stoic rationalism I describe—and admire—in Habermas is somehow a more exemplary way to live than that embodied by an insouciant pragmatist who might more casually acknowledge the existence of communicative reason.

RL: In the critical responses to your book, have you learned anything that would make you want to reassess or finesse your arguments? Have you been happy with the responses to your work?

AA: My work has generated argument, so that’s certainly a good thing! One of the more challenging responses I have had is the claim that there is no one “culture of argument,” that any such notion is always relative to its historical and cultural placement. But I guess I would say that ultimately I am endorsing the practice of trying to expand one’s horizon so as to better communicate across differences. To that extent I am making appeal to a universal human practice rather than something that is culture bound. “Culture of argument” may itself sound too historically and culturally specific to convey that more universal idea adequately. And my own debaterly style may imply that I think all argument should proceed in like fashion. I don’t think this. I wish I had spent a little more time emphasizing these issues in the book itself.

RL: Do you see your The Powers of Distance: Cosmopolitanism and the Cultivation of Detachment as a companion piece to The Way We Argue Now?

AA: Yes, The Way We Argue Now grew out of The Powers of Distance, which explored the relation between character and method in nineteenth-century British thought. The earlier book focused on emerging intellectual and aesthetic practices associated with postures of detachment and critical distance (objectivity, omniscient realism, disinterestedness, cosmopolitanism). But it showed that all of these methods were typically keyed to ideals of character: they were seen as cultivated postures that were intimately related to one’s moral life, either positively or negatively. Writing that book made me wonder what had happened to the concept of character since the nineteenth-century, which in turn led me to notice that characterological concepts often take on a kind of shadow existence in contemporary theory – people may not talk about it directly, but it is certainly discernible if you look.

RL: What are you working on now? What is coming next?

AA: I’m working now on exploring and testing exactly what is meant by the term “novel of ideas,” and what in general the relation between philosophy and literature is understood to be by different writers, critics, and theorists.

RL: What is the best book you have read recently? Who is your favourite writer/what is your favourite book?

AA: One book outside of my field that I really enjoyed recently was Linda Greenhouse’s Becoming Justice Blackmun. I thought the book was very tied up with the question of the influence of character on doctrine, and in ways that resonated with the ideas I was working on in The Way We Argue Now.

RL: Has the internet changed the way that you read and write?

AA: I certainly read more things directly on line, but I don’t particularly think it has changed the way I write. I think the burgeoning blogosphere is fascinating, especially given the ways it has extended arenas of publication and debate.

RL: Thanks so much for your time Amanda.

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