One Word Theory

It should have surprised nobody that the “gay gene” doesn’t exist. I’m probably what might be considered a member of the control group, a heterosexual, cis-male individual with no particular fetishes, practicing the mid-century American model of serial monogamy, currently partnered, trauma history unremarkable, libido neither too low nor too high, still in procreative age — and I find sex extremely complicated, with at least four hundred little switches that must be turned on or off, together or in sequence, for the slightest sexual act or even frisson of interest to occur. (And that’s just on my side!) So how could there be one master switch to set somebody’s system on a definite path (one which branches infinitely anyway, like all other life paths)? The simple-mindedness of such assumptions reminds me of the bartending lady in The Blues Brothers, who, asked what kind of music is played in her club, answers, “Oh, we have both kinds — country and western.”

Something analogous happens in the world of humanistic studies, and it’s been annoying me for decades. This is the “one word” pattern of academic renown. Okay, one word or one phrase. People become famous for a three- or four-syllable expression that serves as synecdoche (or replacement) for their body of work. Laura Mulvey? “Male gaze.” Gayatri Spivak? “Subaltern.” (Actually that was Gramsci, but few remember.) Derrida? “Différance.” Tom Gunning? “Cinema of attractions.” Walter Benjamin? “Aura.” Jürgen Habermas? “Communicative rationality.” Edouard Glissant? “Relation.” Jacques Rancière? “Distribution of the sensible.” Alain Badiou? “Event.” Bruno Latour? “Actor-network theory.” Franco Moretti? “Distant reading.” And so on. It’s not that these bumper-sticker-sized labels are wrong — they can, after all, be discovered in the published writings of the authors they attach to — but that the word or phrase as unit of thought is static, unsubtle, makes people think that to utter the magic word is as good as following the path of argument, and that’s never true. Nonetheless, I see that people who are trying to make a reputation for themselves strive to coin a phrase or hit on a word that will do this magic for them. You want to be the man or woman who can be identified with just such a little tag — and so famous for that tag that people are freed of the requirement to read more of your work than the ten or fifteen letters it contains.

It seems to me a big and important ethical task, if we are going to keep the enterprise of complex thought going, to refuse such handy little tags. Trace the activity of the phrase or the word through the person’s corpus, if you must, take it as a tracer molecule, but don’t suppose that it will tell you what you need to know. The habit of expecting every argument to undermine itself at some point (usually the point where it becomes most urgent), the fated resurfacing of ambiguity, is the correct reflex for the critical mind. Basically, I say, if you can fit it on a T-shirt, it’s spinach and to hell with it. You need to pursue a thought beyond the noun phrase, beyond the sentence, through labyrinths of paragraphs and examples that will challenge and baffle you, or you are throwing away all those years of education for a style of speech that consists of brandishing pennants of conformity. All right, Wittgenstein, “what can be said at all can be said clearly,” but you can’t test an expression for truth or falsity unless it is at least a complete sentence, and it takes more than one sentence to get past the zone where merely grammatical tests of wellformedness fade away and leave us to wrestle with the way things are.

I would even say that the failure to come up with a fetish-word is a qualification, not sufficient of course but plausibly necessary, for interestingness. Or at least that is where my unfinished education leaves me today.

One thought on “One Word Theory

  1. My bookshelves, which are laboring under the weight of Atlas, approve of this trend. You could print the names and keywords in a slim volume the size of a chapbook, and toss every other book. My shelves would no longer bow in the middle, and I could tell people that my house was redecorated by Ms. Kondo. Of course, then I couldn’t find any more keywords.

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