March 12, 2005

It's not our fault

Eric Gibson doesn't like "Art Since 1900". It's not the art he dislikes, but the book, authored by Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yves-Alain Bois and Benjamin Buchloh, and just published (3/15/2005) by Thames & Hudson. And he really, really, really doesn't like this book, to the point where he offers this "suggestion for parents of high-school students":

Find out whether the college that your child hopes to attend plans to assign "Art Since 1900" in its art-history courses. If so, apply elsewhere.

Since Gibson is The Wall Street Journal's Leisure & Arts features editor, this may be bad news for admissions statistics at Princeton, Columbia and Harvard, where the book's authors teach. Or maybe not, I don't know. My own interest in the matter is not institutional but disciplinary. Gibson blames everything on psychoanalysis, Marxism -- and linguistics:

Since the early 1980s, the authors have been at the forefront of "the new art history," an interpretive school whose fullest expression can be found in October magazine, a quarterly they founded in 1976. (The name is meant to evoke revolutionary associations.) It was in October that Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois and Benjamin H. D. Buchloh led the charge against the traditional, aesthetic appreciation of art, supplanting it with psychoanalysis, political ideologies such as Marxism and various forms of French theory, like those derived from linguistics. According to this school of thought, a painting isn't merely an abstract or representational image on canvas but a social "text" to be interpreted and deconstructed. [emphasis added]

I'm not sure which of the "various forms of French theory" particularly offend him, but his review mentions Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. To the extent that it's possible to determine what these authors mean, I don't find anything important in their "theories" that can be plausibly said to be "derived from linguistics". I'll continue to put off an evaluation of Derrida's language-related ideas -- including the "everything is a text" meme that so clearly offends Gibson -- but let me say for now that his ideas were "derived from linguistics" roughly in the sense that the views of the Marquis de Sade were derived from Catholicism.

As for Foucault, the article about him in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy does mention (the famous linguist) Saussure, but describes nothing that I would call a consequential influence. And along with works on prisons, clinics and sex, Foucault did once write a book called "Les mots et les choses" ("words and things"), in which he (very obscurely) discusses (the early linguist) Rasmus Rask along with David Ricardo and the Comte de Buffon. But on that evidence, you might as well say that Foucault's theories are "derived from economics" or "derived from biology".

So why might Gibson blame Foucault & Co. on linguistics? Perhaps it has something to do with the modern continental-philosophy sense of discourse:

1976 T. EAGLETON Crit. & Ideology ii. 54 A dominant ideological formation is constituted by a relatively coherent set of ‘discourses’ of values, representations and beliefs.

I'm sorry to say that I found that quotation in the OED's 1993 additions to the entry for discourse the noun, as a citation for an additional sense attributed to linguistics:

[3.] e. Linguistics. A connected series of utterances by which meaning is communicated, esp. forming a unit for analysis; spoken or written communication regarded as consisting of such utterances. Also transf. in Semiotics.

But the Eagleton quote is not about that sense of discourse at all. The other citations are mostly appropriate ones for the gloss given:

1951 Z. S. HARRIS Methods in Structural Linguistics iii. 28 For the incidence of formal features of this type only long discourses or conversations can serve as samples of the language.
1957 G. L. TRAGER in Encycl. Brit. XIV. 162H/2 The syntax of any language can be arrived at in analogous ways. The phonologically determined parts of a discourse are found, and their constituent phrases separated out.
1983 BROWN & YULE Discourse Analysis ii. 29 We can see little practical use, in the analysis of discourse, for the notion of logical presupposition.

This sense of discourse is relatively straightforward -- it just means "chunks of speech or text bigger than a sentence", such as stories, conversations, arguments and so on. "Discourse analysis" in this sense is just "the analysis of the form, meaning and use of language in pieces bigger than a sentence".

But what Foucault and his followers mean by a discourse is something completely different. I haven't been able to find a good definition -- the Foucaultian culture is not one in which clarity is prized -- but it seems to mean something like "a set of social norms that define who can talk how about what, to whom and when, including provision of words, phrases and larger linguistic forms, as well as restrictions on accessible ideas and assumptions".

Here is a set of somewhat random selections from the first page or so of what Google returns for {Foucault discourse}:

To Foucault, discourse is just one of the rules of society he examines critically. Language too, he argues, transcends and even obviates individual perception rather than allows our independent existence to flourish.
What interested him were the rules and practices that produced meaningful statements and regulated discourse in different historical periods.
Discourse is "a group of statements which provide a language for talking about ...a particular topic at a particular historical moment".
Discourse, Foucault argues, constructs the topic. It defines and produces the objects of our knowledge. It governs the way that a topic can be meaningfully talked about and reasoned about.
In more general terms for F. it is discourse as a medium for power that produces subjects or, as he puts it, "speaking subjects," which, for him, are the only kind there are.
"[I]n every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organised and redistributed according to a certain number of procedures, whose role is to avert its power and its dangers, to cope with chance events, to evade its ponderous, awesome materiality"
Discourse operates by "rules of exclusion" concerning what is prohibited. Specifically, discourse is controlled in terms of objects (what can be spoken of), ritual (where and how one may speak), and the privileged or exclusive right to speak of certain subjects (who may speak).
This kind of discourse is produced by a "will to knowledge" or "will to power," wherein discourses "discipline" us: "a will to knowledge emerged which . . . sketched out a schema of possible, observable, measurable and classifiable objects; a will to knowledge which imposed upon the knowing subject-in some ways taking precedence over all experience-a certain position, a certain viewpoint, and a certain function . . . " (218). So the will to knowledge or truth or power has a history-"of a range of subjects to be learned, the history of the functions of the knowing subject," etc.
Some of the most important contemporary discourses are "disciplines," by which he particularly means academic disciplines that discipline our thinking. Disciplines are "opposed to . . . the author, because disciplines are defined by groups of objects, methods, . . . the interplay of rules and definitions, of techniques and tools: all these constitute a sort of anonymous system . . . without there being any question of their meaning or their validity being derived from whoever happened to invent them"

You can argue about whether particular pieces of this stuff are meaningful or meaningless, profound or trivial, useful or useless, true or false. You could even argue that this is the kind of thing that linguists ought to have thought about and worked on, in principle, since it purports to establish a general framework for how language can be used in a given place and time. But in sober historical fact, none of this is "derived from linguistics", and linguistics has been less affected by this discourse discourse than any of the other fields in the humanities and social sciences. [Well, except maybe for economics..]

It's ironic, even poignant, to blame the discipline of linguistics for postmodern "theory", since its proponents in the American academy generally appear to despise linguistics. They haven't in general studied linguistics themselves, and they've removed not only requirements but even recommendations for linguistics courses from the curriculum for their undergraduate majors and graduate students alike. Some of the blame for this estrangement belongs to the linguists, no doubt, but regardless of fault, the rise of postmodernism has been a disaster for our field.

So, Mr. Gibson, give us linguists a break. We didn't do it!


Posted by Mark Liberman at March 12, 2005 10:04 AM