Reading texts, the canon, and historical access

Having been away for the weekend I feel like the blog debate that has been going on about Derrida and realism has largely passed me by. That’s fine, in a sense, because it’s not something I’m especially concerned with. (You can get a flavour of it here, here and here.) But there are some wider issues that have been raised that might be worth reflecting on.

One is the practice of reading thinkers, and issues concerning their work. There is the discussion of Minotaurs, here.

What I’m pointing to is what follows from this in terms of institutional practices. The thing we commonly see with advocates of deconstruction and hermeneutics is, whenever faced with any criticism, is to call for a return to the careful reading of the text. But this is a trap. Whether intentional or not, it is a trap designed to insure that we never move out of the history of philosophy, an established canon, and the text…

As a consequence, the work of interpretation becomes endless and infinite, and those trapped within it become like Sisyphus, doomed to endlessly roll their boulder of interpretation, etymology, rhetorical analysis, etc., up the mountain of this history. The paradox is that deconstruction thereby becomes the most conservative of ideologies precisely because we are perpetually trapped in the text and prohibited from making any positive claims…

A while back I coined the term “minotaur” to describe this sort of conceptual personae. The minotaur is that conceptual personae or figure of philosophy whose first reaction is 1) to say “you’ve misinterpreted x”, 2) to always call for a return to the text, and 3) to prohibit any positive philosophical claim or evaluation of another philosopher’s position without first reading the entirety of that philosophers work. Although the analogy to mythology isn’t perfect, the idea is that the minotaur turns any philosophical discussion into an impossible to escape labyrinth that he fiercely guards with the axe of calls for close readings.

 I can appreciate the problem. But equally, it may be too easy to accuse someone of being this kind of problem figure when they are actually trying to call people on some pretty sloppy practices. There was a discussion of Badiou and geography at the Royal Geographical Society a couple of years ago where I was basically accused of this. But I felt that some people were reading Badiou for the bits they liked, without coming to terms with how his work was structured, and turning a blind eye to some pretty substantial parts of his work.

Another is the construction of a canon. If I was to go back to teaching the history of political thought, again, I’d really rather not do it as the Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Mill, Marx line that I did before. This was largely imposed. When I’ve taught this there was a refusal to countenance Machiavelli as a political thinker (“he says nothing about collective actor problems”); a resistance to context, such as the wish to provide some Hegel before Marx; and a sense that you had to learn those thinkers. But how can you make sense of Locke without having read Filmer? Mill without Bentham? and so on. The problem with reading just a few figures in isolation from their context is, as David Wootton says in the introduction to his Divine Right and Democracy, like hearing the case for the defence without having heard the prosecution. And key thinkers that forged a whole vocabulary of thought get neglected: Bodin, for instance. Yes, with Bodin there are serious issues about what text to use, but something like the On Sovereignty excerpts might be worthwhile. What about Leibniz as a political thinker? I remember when I read Foucault’s ‘Society Must Be Defended’ lectures that I thought it would be interesting to work through the kinds of texts he references there – Boulainviller, Sieyes, etc. – as a kind of alternative canon. So I am all for disrupting a comfortable canon of established greats.

Another is the question of access at a historical distance. How can I write about ‘territory’ as a word, concept and practice, in the early modern period, for instance, without the mediation of texts of some sort? They might be works of political theory, they might be treaties or lawbooks, they might be technical manuals of landsurveying or maps, but in some sense they would be textual, and textual strategies would be the way of access. I want to write about something that isn’t itself a text, but the historical approach seems to direct a way of accessing it. I raised similar questions before in relation to Jane Bennett’s book.

All that said, at the moment I am working on Locke and Filmer…

This entry was posted in Alain Badiou, Gottfried Leibniz, Jacques Derrida, Jane Bennett, Jean Bodin, Jean Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, Michel Foucault, Robert Filmer, The Birth of Territory, Thomas Hobbes. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Reading texts, the canon, and historical access

  1. Pingback: My question to Speculative Medievalisms | Progressive Geographies

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