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The Way They Argue Now The Way We Argue Now: A Study in the Cultures of Theory by Amanda Anderson

Summer 2008 - Vol. 50, No. 3
The Way We Argue Now: A Study in theCultures of Theory by Amanda Anderson,(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Press, 2006). 202 pp.

SCOTT F. CRIDER is Associate Professor of Englishand Director of the Writing Program at the Universityof Dallas. He is author of The Office of Assertion:An Art of Rhetoric for the Academic Essay (2005).

It's hard out there for a liberal literarycritic, so, as an old-fashioned liberal whowent to graduate school in the 1990's whenthe approved theories did not allow forliberalism, let alone conservatism, I findAmanda Anderson's The Way We ArgueNow: A Study in the Cultures of Theoryrefreshing since her rhetorical goal is torefine and restore (through theoretical sophistication,not mere reaction) three principlesof liberal thought which literary theoryappeared for a time to vanquish—freedom,universalism, and reason—in order to defendand enact a Habermasian "communicativeethics" for the discourse of the academy. Andshe does refine and restore them, at least forthe "we" of her audience—literary criticswho may have noticed that their contemplativepronouncements are in a pretty seriousquarrel with their active lives—though itshould be noted that plenty of us who encounteredliterary theory did not give up onany of the above principles and said so.

On philosophical grounds, I am inspiredby Anderson's arguments and her example;even so, on literary ones, I am somewhatdispirited. She is the chair of English literatureat Johns Hopkins University, but duringthe whole of her good book she fails toengage imaginative literature itself. This isdue to her focus, to be fair: the theoreticalassumptions of literary theorists. Yet, sadly,one of the ways they argue about literaturenow is that they don't; instead, they argueabout arguing about it. But let me discuss hertheoretical achievement. The book has threesections, one for each of its topics: Part Iconcerns freedom; II, universalism; and III,reason.

Parts I and II are fascinating. In Part I,"Critical Practices," Anderson examines "theHabermas-Foucault debate" within feministliterary criticism, during which the ancientquestion of freedom and fate is addressedthrough the topic of gender, first in a critiqueof Judith Butler's strict constructionism inher discussion of gender, during which Andersonshows that its Foucauldian fatalism cannotbe rationally reconciled with Butler'sown call for performative subversion sincesubversion presumes the very freedom denied,and then in a discussion of the sametopic in Victorian literary studies. Anderson'srefutation is compelling.

In Part II, "Living Universalism," sheexamines the revival of "cosmopolitanism,"which she sees as a corrective both to theimperialistic universalism that is really only aprojected particularism and to themulticultural nativism that is really only aninbred tribalism. According to her, bothuniversalism and nativism fail to do justice tothe human capacity for moderate transcendencein relation to the traditions of one'sown culture in respectful response to those ofother cultures. To develop her case, sheexamines the relationship between epistemologicalrealism and ethical norms.

Though in Parts I and II Anderson mentionsHabermas and the argument of "communicativeethics," it is only in Part III,"Ethos and Argument," the most originaland important part of the study, that shedevelops the case at length, attempting tosave reason from its poststructural detractorsby arguing for ethos, instead of "identity," asa qualifying influence upon Enlightenmentreason. For Anderson, what is missing in bothbureaucratic rationality and identity politicsis virtue. The heart of her case comes in thelast two chapters of Part III, during the firstof which she manages the debate betweenFoucault and Habermas over the former'sapparent conversion from fatalism to freedomwith respect to ethical reasoning, andduring the second of which she uses LionelTrilling's distinction between "sincerity" and"authenticity"—the former operates withinconventions, while the latter critiques andtransgresses them—to defend liberalproceduralism. She employs ethos instead of"character" because, as she puts it, "[T]heterm tends to cover both individual andcollective understandings of practice" (134),and because she opposes the conservativeargument in favor of "character" since it is,according to her, too individualistic. Andersonargues that the late Foucault argued forethos, Habermas apparently for logos alone,but she then shows that Habermas too believesin ethos, the ethos of argument—that is,a habit, in theory and in practice, of rationalargument open to its own limitations as itaspires to a true universalism.

Through its political culture of democraticdebate and its legal one of constitutionallaw, modern liberalism offers the besthope for a multicultural America in a globalizedworld, and its central virtue should bethe ethos of argument. (It should be noted thatshe does take up the most difficult test case,though too briefly—that of the West's responseto Islam—in her discussion of France'spolitical discussion of the hijab.) She concludes,

The process of argument is what enables the veryact of pluralist self-clarification to occur, and thesociety in question must cultivate an ethos ofargument if it is to meet the ongoing challengesof its political (re)constitution. (187)

One would like to know how Andersonwould respond to moments when argumentis impossible—when violence thwartsproceduralism—but should Anderson persuadecontemporary literary theorists to rethinktheir suspicion of reason, she will haveprovided an important service to us all.

Much of her argument is indeed persuasive,yet not completely so to this readerbecause she neglects the study of ethos in theart of rhetoric. Though she is apparently notaware of the fact, ethos in Aristotle's Rhetoricis a rich ethical and political term that canrefer either to the speaker's character or theaudience's. She does draw upon the Aristotelianethical tradition, but she never refers tothe Aristotelian rhetorical tradition, which isa surprising omission since the relationshipbetween virtuous character and true argumentin the service of the good in deliberativerhetoric, the just in judicial, and thenoble in epideictic is perhaps his centralinterest there. Eugene Garver's Aristotle'sRhetoric: An Art of Character could havedeepened her understanding of ethos and ofthe "virtue ethics" tradition itself. Habermas'reliance upon both Kant and Marx keepsAnderson from the more ample understandingof ethos that informs Aristotle's ethical,rhetorical and political understanding. ForAristotle's Rhetoric, ethos is the result of aspeaker's practical wisdom, virtue and goodwill (2.1.5); that is, it is intellectual, moraland social.

As well, the Rhetoric would have given herthe understanding of emotion or pathos shementions as a good, yet does not discuss inany detail. Habermasian liberals might betempted to neglect the rhetorical traditionsince, as Anderson explains, Habermas iscritical of civic republicanism—the child ofhumanism and rhetoric in the early modernperiod. They should resist the temptation inorder to cure liberal proceduralism of potentiallyinhumane tendencies; after all, procedureswithout persons do not necessarily leadto justice. Might one go so far as to recommendto liberal theorists Edmund Burke,whose own important understanding of prudenceas a political virtue is throughout arhetorical understanding? Someday, liberalswill recover Burke as one of their own, asimportant to us as Mill. Be that as it may, theart of rhetoric, properly understood, couldreconcile person and procedure by emphasizingthe judgment of audiences, the counselof rhetors, and the ethical and political associationof their mutual decisions.

Even so, Anderson's paraphrases of thepositions of her contemporaries are alwaysclear and usually measured, including thosewith whom she disagrees; she is usually amodel of ethical intellectual engagement anda fine counter to the rhetoric of reductivismthat characterizes so much of our academicdiscourse, and she deserves to improve itsconversation. And yet, having granted thatAnderson's book, especially its third part, isimportant, I still find myself perplexed by itsown avoidance of imaginative literature,especially since imaginative literature hasquite a lot to say about the difficulties ofbelieving in freedom (think only ofShakespeare's Hamlet), in universalism(Virgil's Aeneid), and in reason (Dante'sParadiso). One brief exception proves therule when she discusses Toni Morrison'sBeloved, and borrows heavily from work innarrative and sympathy by MarthaNussbaum, a philosopher whose literary understandingis thoroughly Aristotelian; thatis, the only time a literary critic may nowdiscuss literature as such is when citing aphilosopher who does so.

Might the rhetorical "character" of literarydiscussion be related to the poetic characterswithin literature itself—until very recentlya taboo topic in literary studies? Someoneneeds to tell the tale of English literatureprofessors who stopped talking about literature—or, to put it more precisely, stoppedtalking about literature in literary terms. I donot have the space to do that here; I only notethat for at least thirty years Anglo-Americanliterary critics under the influence of contemporaryEuropean philosophy, especiallyin its deconstructionist and historicist forms,have stopped teaching students how to read,discuss, and write about imaginative literatureas such. I am all for historical awarenessand philosophical acumen, but literature is adiscipline, and historicists without historyand theorists without philosophy might wantto question their own academic authority. Iam all for interdisciplinary study, butinterdisciplinarity begins with discipline; and,listening to literature professors in my professionalassociations, I have begun to suspectthat some of us do not know what literatureis or how it works, and that some readliterature only to illustrate theoretical pointsless sophisticated than literature itself. One ofthe strange features of our strange critical ageis that those of us invested with the responsibilityof defending poetry in its quarrels withboth philosophy and history have simplyforfeited. The demands to theorize andhistoricize might have very well allowed fora refinement of the discipline; instead, theyoverwhelmed it.

As a rhetorical analysis of contemporaryliterary theory and as a thoughtful defense ofrefined conceptions of freedom, universalism,and reason, The Way We Argue Now isquite good; and one hopes its academicaudience of literary theorists will be persuadednot only by Anderson's arguments,but also by her example. Nevertheless, as aninstance of literary study at a time whenpeople, especially young people, read less andless imaginative literature, the book gives mepause. It is certainly true that my owngraduate school experience was frustratingbecause it so often went without saying orarguing that liberalism was craven and conservatism,evil, but it was more frustratingbecause we so seldom discussed literature assuch. If Anderson persuades literary theoriststo agree that we are free as human beings toreason toward a better understanding ofthings, perhaps the first topic of conversationcould be a literary one.