Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Pleasures of Theory: Kristeva's Powers of Horror

I've been dismayed recently to see the fervour with which some journalists and politicians feel they need to attack what they construct as academic elitism. Stephen Harper, our re-elected prime minister of a still-minority (thank goodness!) Conservative government, aligned himself, for example, with supposed "ordinary Canadians" against the cultural and artistic elite supposedly living large at the public trough (despite considerable evidence to the contrary of the real economics of the Arts).

In the Globe and Mail the weekend before last, John Allemang began a column by claiming that For students of the humanities and social sciences in the modern era, the road to knowledge has invariably involved a detour into the dead end of theory. To be taken seriously as a fashionable thinker at a major university, you had to be willing to redirect any outbreak of original thought back to the impasse of the -isms: deconstructionism, postmodernism, feminism, postcolonialism and that perennial favourite, Marxism.

And in the Vancouver Sun that same weekend, I was dismayed to see Shelley Fralic praising herself for giving up her youthful pretensions of enjoying "heavy literature": At some point, don't quite remember when, I stopped reading earnest fiction, especially the kind of fiction, both old-school and nouveau niche, that is just this side of hard to fathom, that goes on and on, page after self-indulgent page, heftier to hold in your hands than the average fryer chicken, as if weight signals the importance within. Granted, this is her supposedly catchy introduction to what develops into a paean to the short story, but it's still an odd bit of rhetoric for the Books section of the major newspaper in what purports to be a "World Class City."

I was understandably relieved to see Peter McKnight, of the same paper, respond to this anti-elitist, anti-academic trend by pointing out that in their move to level all opinions, such politicians and journalists were actually repeating a move that they decried in postmodernists, a move which establishes all knowledge as relative, all authority as contingent. Conservative politicians sweeping the inconvenient findings of criminologists out of the way as elitist, McKnight points out, ironically deliver us all into a poststructuralist place where reliable knowledge is no longer possible, but they do so from a self-serving, sloppy place of little integrity rather than from a rigorous, analytical exploration of metaphysical questions.

All of this as preamble to say that I am currently reading Julia Kristeva's Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. A group of my colleagues will be working through this challenging and thought-provoking book together over the academic year, meeting monthly to discuss the difficulties and rewards it presents us with. We also have a few lectures planned by visiting scholars and will share work-in-progress by some of our own (last month, one of my colleagues presented his work on the abject in Blake's Book of Urizen). I will admit that this work is dense, even opaque in places, and it's far, far from linear and concrete, but the pleasures of the text are ample. I've already been making connections, seeing the abject, for example, in some of the fascination for the dark or "dirty" notes Chandler Burr describes as being an integral part of perfume.

I am far from pretentious as a reader: I'm on record here as a fan of the well-written mystery novel and I always have a copy of the latest InStyle around. But "theory" has helped me understand my place in the world in a way that was both upsetting (the French word bouleverser comes closer, literally up-setting) and productive beyond language. So while those who find it threatening make fun of it, I'll be over in my armchair or at my desk or 'round the table with a group of fellow explorers struggling through challenging and mind-opening ideas written in poetic, tough, exciting language.

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