[In 2023 I’m going to try some public book reviews on the Bookfish, alongside the usual mix of post-conference recaps and theater reviews. I was pretty slow on the blog in ’22. But I like having these early-draft-y ideas collected together, and I am happy to share them.]
Maybe a strange choice for Valentine’s Day reading, but I really enojyed Elizabeth Anker’s new book from Duke UP Of Paradox. She’s in the law and English departments at Cornell, and in a to-me revealing aside late in the book she describes having been driven away “from law and into the arms of the humanities” (264). Her target in this book is capital-T Theory, and in particular the reliance on figures of paradox and contradiction at the center of so many staples of the Theory syllabus. She opens with an engaging reading of Oscar Wilde. We are “all heirs of Wilde,” she suggests, and “an embrace of paradox specifically as a style has united theorists of all inclinations” (2-3, her emphasis).
The core of the book documents how paradox-dependent theoretical writers have been from the late twentieth century into the present. The analysis may not be quite exhaustive, which wouldn’t be possible given the surge of theoretical texts over the past half-century, but it’s certainly exhausting. Part of Anker’s point is to expose what comes to resemble both a widespread stylistic habit and, as the readings accumulate, something like an intellectual event-horizon, a place beyond which no thought travels. Ideas of modernity, the nature of legal rights, aesthetic theory, exclusionary politics, feminism, pedagogy, post-Marxist and psychoanalytic theory, authors from Judith Butler to Gloria Anzaldua to Bhaba, Derrida, Foucault, Jameson, Latour, Said…her bibliography assembles a massive murderer’s row of theoretical luminaries. The case she makes that nearly all of them rely on paradox as style and usually also as method appears, at least to me, overwhelming.
She also notes, in her introduction, that paradox has old roots, some of which she traces in Sir Philip Sidney’s “Defense of Poetry” and Rosalie Colie’s analysis of the “Renaissance tradition of paradox,” as well as examples from literary figures from Wilde to Virginia Woolf. But the assembled evidence that paradoxical thinking provides a through-line for a dominant intellectual tradition of the past half-century seems unawerable.
Thinking about my own writing and my current academic reading, Anker’s book has helped me notice how often I have recourse to paradox as an automatic gesture. Maybe paradoxical thinking is a (the?) dominant microgenre in academic thinking? Anker makes me worry about that automaticity, and think about what other things might be possible.
She takes up the possibility of thinking beyond paradox in a final chapter on “integrative criticism.” Interestingly, her positive models here are in part literary rather than theoretical, Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, with its desire for books that “hold together” (266), and Rankine’s Citizen, which Anker celebrates for its representations of fortitude and “wholeness” (302) even as those sensations contrast with the lived reality of racist microagressions in contemporary America. She also presents a clarifying contrast between the disability theory work of Jasbir Puar, whose The Right to Maim falls into the paradoxical pattern, as opposed to Lennard Davis’s Enabling Acts, which presents a political history of the Americans with Disabilities Act (273-83). These are cogent and clear contrasts, though it’s also interesting that the books she celebrates might not exactly represent the theory genre: A Room of One’s Own might be termed literary nonfiction, Citizen is an experimental poem, partly in prose, and Enabling Acts seems mostly to be a narrative history. Is the point that to escape paradox we need to stray outside of Theory itself?
I’m not sure that’s quite right, since of course Anker’s own book is very much within the theory-mode while also pushing against its paradoxical habits – and surely on some level little seems more typical of Theory than internalized auto-critique. But Anker’s examples, and their cumulative persuasive force, have me thinking about a few perhaps emerging modes of academic and para-academic writing that might, at least indirectly, lead us beyond the cul-du-sac of contradiction.
First, she writes quite a bit about the relationship between law and literary studies. Most of the academic work I’ve done in this topic has come from thinking about The Merchant of Venice or other trial scenes in Renaissance literature. But I’ve lived with lawyers all my life, and there’s something that might be explored about how legal discourse puts a different kind of pressure on the hermeneutic puzzles of language. When faced with an undefinable term – what is “reasonable” “appropriate” “ordinary” – the law responds not with ineffability but with debate and decision. Juries and judges must apply abstract ideas to particular facts, rather than try to solve the interpretive puzzle at scale. I’m not sure that always gets around the problem that there is no fixed meaning of “reasonable” – but certainly it makes interpretive and persuasive discourse work differently in the world.
Second, I was struck by Anker’s celebration of what she calls “modes of experiential immersion, attunement, and harmonization” (271) as alternatives to remaining trapped in the realm of paradox. She doesn’t mean “immersion” in the very literal way that I like to write about it (ie, swimming as ecotheoretical meditation), but I’m also struck that my favorite flavor of 21c Theory, ecotheory, isn’t as well represented in her survey as other modes. Latour is there, but no Haraway, and no Anthropocene either. (Chakrabarty appears, but the postcolonial rather than the environmental work.) I don’t think ecotheory gets a free pass – plenty of paradox-mongering in many of my favs, from Morton to Barad and others – but I wonder if a focus on the nonhuman and the pressure of immersive experience might be in the process of making some kind of response to the highly intellectual loops and dances that have dominated Theory since Derrida’s hey-day.
Last, the focus on Citizen, which is both a great poem and also a text that cites and participates in the discourse of Theory, suggests an interest in creative work as Theory. There’s something of a “creative-critical” boomlet in academic culture in recent years, not just because plenty of academics write both theoretical and creative books but also because of explicit efforts to work across the creative-critical divide. I’m a believer in this kind of work, and in my modest way a practitioner. I wonder what a robust theorization of the creative-critical might look like? I wonder if it could avoid falling in with the familiar patterns of paradox?
In any case – Of Paradox a great book, and everyone should read it! I can’t quite imagine assigning it, even to grad students – it presumes an intimidatingly wide range of reading from the start – but I will certainly be thinking about these ideas moving forward.