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Experiencing a conference on theory.

I shall say that there are--this is our experience and I shall speak of this experience and its rights in a moment--there are and we experience the fact that there are several philosophical idioms and that this experience alone cannot not be lived by a philosopher, by a self-styled philosopher, as both a scandal and as the very chance of philosophy.

Jacques Derrida(1)

FOR THE DURATION of one exciting weekend, young scholars assembled in Goteborg to exchange ideas about the importance and the influence of theory on their work. Inspired and often challenged by each other's attitudes, discussions were heated at times and revealed the strong convictions and particular blindnesses pertaining to each individual position. We were surprised by the irrational responses all of us displayed when we had argued ourselves into a corner. This tendency to defend and to cling to one's initial position was conspicuous on another level as well: after recess, we all returned to our original seats without even reflecting on this. When somebody said, quite out of context, that for "young scholars"(2) we behaved in an astonishingly traditional manner, from the choice of seats to our unwillingness to listen to other points of view, the ice was broken; we began our exploration of experiencing theory and theorizing that experience.

The symposium "The Experience of Theory"(3) was itself born out of an experience: the experience of a workshop seminar on theory at the Department of English, Goteborg University, on June 4, 1992. Its focus was on establishing a forum for theoretical discussions as part of the graduate program, based on the concept of active participation. For this particular workshop,(4) participants were asked to prepare themselves by reading Stanley Fish's "Anti-Foundationalism, Theory Hope, and the Teaching of Composition,"(5) by writing a paper in response, and by sharing their papers with other participants prior to the actual workshop.

Ensuing discussions revealed the participants' different attitudes to theory and, although most of us rejected Fish's privileging of experience over theory, we reached no consensus but were left with Fish's opening question, "What is theory?" (DW 432). Thus the workshop seminar resulted in a destabilization of the concept of theory for all involved who had hitherto regarded theory, somewhat naively, as either a means to transcend systems or a straitjacket of unquestioned and unquestionable dogmas. Moreover, we realized that at a point in time when we had hardly caught up with the general interest in theory in academia, the next wave had hit us unawares: the growing interest in experience.

From this space of undecidability created by the experience of radical questioning, the idea for a conference emerged. The initial question--"What is theory?"--was conceived in a wider context, involving a rethinking of premises and an investigation of binarisms per se. One point of departure was an inquiry into the concepts of theory and experience where, instinctively, the former seemed to involve the intellect, a cerebral procedure, whereas the latter seemed to be associated with the corporeal, characterized by immediacy rather than reflection. Or, put differently, where theory is signified by the possibility (or at least appearance) of objectivity, experience is understood to "designate the process by which, for all social beings, subjectivity is constructed."(6)

Theorizing these distinctions between theory and experience, Teresa de Lauretis delineates theory as a "generic term for any theoretical discourse seeking to account for a particular object of knowledge, and in effect constructing that object in a field of meaning as its proper domain of knowledge"(19). Experience is defined as "a complex of meaning effects, habits, dispositions, associations, and perceptions resulting from the semiotic interaction of self and outer world"(18). Whereas de Lauretis's definitions denote a move away from simple binarisms by pointing to the constructedness of both theory and experience, emphasizing similarities in order to problematize easy distinctions, they retain an element of the established order,(7) privileging theory over experience. Her definition of experience recognizes that subjectivity is constructed through the processes of experiencing the world and ourselves in relation to, as well as differentiated from, the world, emphasizing the double move involved. However, her definition of theory still allows for the existence of a "proper domain of knowledge" (19; emphasis added), thus revealing a predisposition toward an authoritative stance.

This difficulty in going beyond the conceptual hegemony of Cartesian dualism seems to suggest the perverse persistence of the centrality of immaterial rationality in Western consciousness. This centrality of immaterial reason has resulted in the marginalization of the body as something that "has frequently been relegated to a secondary or oppositional role, while an incorporeal reason is valorized."(8) One of the corollary assumptions is that everything associated with the body shares this "secondary or oppositional role." Thus experience, as grounded in the body, seems to be fated to share this secondary status. Two theoreticians, from their different perspectives, view theory and experience as mirror images restaging the mind and body dichotomy. We have Fish, on the one hand, privileging experience over theory, and de Lauretis on the other, privileging theory over experience: each reversing the other's position and in doing so they remain within the traditional hierarchy of thought, maintaining the dichotomy between opposite concepts.

This leaves us with the question what would happen if we acknowledged the double move involved in the construction of both theory and experience, privileging neither but instead perceiving them as on a par and therefore being able to speak of experiencing one's intellect. What would an experience of theory be like?

These early investigations into the intricacies of theoretical manifestations, applications, and justifications of the traditional either/or approach resulted in the conviction that we needed to question the paradigm we inhabited to discover how it influenced our particular stance. Our point of departure involved the questioning of the specificity of Scandinavia, situated in the margins of Europe, with its small countries, few universities, and even fewer leading names in theory. The comparatively limited interest in the theoretical debate would seem to position Scandinavia--and its scholars--in the margins of academia as well. But was our situation really as specific as we thought it was, and if so, what were its implications?(9)

These questions, together with our emphasis on an interdisciplinary approach and the desire to explore the experience of theory, elicited replies from several disciplines and countries,(10) and we hoped that our privileging of heterogeneity over homogeneity might correct tendencies toward the production of yet another master-narrative--we were not looking for answers so much as for new openings.

In retrospect, it becomes clear that, even though Fish's name was not mentioned, we engaged in an indirect debate with him throughout workshop proceedings.(11) Several papers focused explicitly on the question of positioning as perceived from feminist, gay, and peripheral and central perspectives, but implicitly all papers engaged with this issue. Ensuing discussions turned on the a,uestion of the importance of critical awareness of our position and, by extension, whether it is possible to have any knowledge that is independent from the situation we are in. Like Fish, some stressed the situational aspect, claiming that we are conditioned, to a great extent, by the social and--historical circumstances we live in. In other words, we perceive and interpret the world through our particular cultural grid, which may blind us to other cultural positions. One of the problems inherent in--this view seems to be that it leaves little space for change. According to Fish, all interpretation is determined by interpretive communities, that is, all knowledge is situational and as such "already known or dwelt in; it cannot be handed over in the forms of rules or maxims and theories" (DW 353).

Quite contrary to Fish's assertion that "the inescapability of situatedness," which makes it impossible for anybody to "identify in nonevaluative ways their own beliefs of which they could not be aware" (DW 350; emphasis added), we agreed on the possibility of such an awareness of our situatedness as a means to go beyond the restrictions imposed by the situatedness; we believed that even partial awareness of a--situation might provide an opening, a provisional site from where change might emerge. Fish's model does not provide that opening, since, in Fish's terms, not even awareness of our position, could it be attained, would charge anything since he claims-we would still be "epistemologically speaking, in the same position [we] were always in" (DW 348). Perceiving theory and practice as separate entities, practice being neither enabled nor justified by theory, Fish draws the conclusion that "as situated beings our practice can make perfect, and that we already know more than we think" (DW 355).

Workshop discussions revealed that the awareness of our position, the experience of our situatedness, has to be understood in terms of its performative aspect. We do not experience the world in isolation but in an ongoing interaction and confrontation with others and their experience of that world. It is this recognition of the coexistence of these states that allows us to perceive ourselves, our self, as both identity and otherness, as a site of exchange, where we ceaselessly reinvent ourselves through encounters with others.

Throughout our exchange we fell back on theory time and again in order to articulate and elaborate the print we were making. Thus I experienced the double move performed by theory: that while theory is always also a reflection of how we perceive the world and our position in it, theory, at the same time, supplies us with the tools to examine and question that perspective. Or, to rephrase and invert Fish's claim, I would like to state that "we already think more than we know," to indicate my recognition that an intellectual procedure is always already implicated in experience. This is the case even if we acknowledge that full awareness is a fiction since it impossible to theorize more than part of our experience. Thus we think ourselves into knowing more and realize that we do not merely theorize our experiences but--that we create new experiences through thinking. In other words, our personal lived experience is constantly theorized and thus constructive of new experiences which allow us to cross boundaries and reach new positions.

Which brings me back to the experience of theory where the two concepts can no longer be understood as absolute entities or, worse, opposites, but where the one concept transforms the other, creating a third space characterized by the performative aspect of the two concepts. This third space is not simply the space between theory and experience but signifies the site of change made accessible by the dynamics of exchange, resulting in the crystallization of new positions which are perceived as transitional and subject to change. Workshop discussions will serve as an illustration of what I mean by the third space: our inquiry had started out with theory, bringing it into contact with experience, and the process of experiencing theory destabilized both terms, resulting in the construction of a new narrative reflecting the change involved. In consequence, this experience necessitated changed positions and a desire to theorize the experience that provided this change.

In a way this paper can be seen as a manifestation of the new narrative created through the experience of the double move involved in any encounter with other narratives, especially if we remember that tints is not merely an account or transcript of the conference proceedings but instead a theorization of the experience of that event, where the event itself served as a catalyst. Since the urgency of this debate is inspired by my encounter with Fish, let me return to him for a moment. In what ways is my transitory conclusion at odds with Fish? He distinguishes between foundational and antifoundational theory, where the former insists on grounding inquiry in a stable foundation (God, the material world, logic, and so forth) which functions as an objective point of reference. The latter argues that there are no stable grounds since they are subject to change like anything else and that their value lies in the consequences, not in the fact of their existence. At first glance Fish's position seems to have much in common with mine. I too reject the validity of stable foundations as a fiction grounded in an epistemological error, namely the notion of the possibility of objective observation. But on closer inspection antifoundationalism does not entail a negation of the concept of foundations per se since antifounadtionalism still recognizes the existence of positive foundations but with the stipulation that these foundations are subject to change and cam only be discussed from within the situational context. In his introduction "Going Down the Anti-formalist Road," Fish acknowledges this by stating that the anti-foundationalist claim "is not that there are no foundations, but that whatever foundations there are (and there are always some) have been established by persuasion" (DW 29). The main difference from foundationalism, then, is not the rejection of foundations as such (since the only question under debate is the static or dynamic quality of foundations), but the insistence that "foundations are local and temporal phenomena" (DW 30). Here it would seem that Fish and I agree in principle if not in terminology. Some of the misunderstanding is based on Fish's choice of the term "Anti-Foundationalism,"(12) which privileges the local and temporal aspect of foundations over absolutes.

According to Fish, one of these foundations is constituted by "interpretive communities" which delimit an individual's freedom of interpretation, since "the thoughts an individual can think and the mental operations he can perform have their source in some or other interpretive community, he is as much a product of that community (acting as an extension of it) as the meanings it enables him to produce."(13) One problem with this would seem to be that Fish's much-questioned concept of "interpretive communities" is elusive and impossible to define. In Is There a Text in This Class?Fish argues that "it is interpretive communities, rather than either the text or the reader, that produce meanings and are responsible for the emergence of formal features" (14). Later, in Doing what Comes Naturally, he defines an "interpretive community" as "not so much a group of individuals who shared a point of view, but a point of view or way of organizing experience that shared individuals" where these community members "were therefore no longer individuals, but, insofar as they were embedded in the community's enterprise, community property" (DW 141). A few pages down Fish describes the "nature of an interpretive community" as "at once homogeneous with respect to some general sense of purpose and purview, and heterogeneous with respect to the variety of practices it can accommodate" (DW 149). This leaves a number of questions unanswered. What exactly constitutes an interpretive community? How do we determine to which community we belong? Is it possible to do that in the first place if we remember Fish's assertion that we "could not possibly identify in nonevaluative ways [our] own beliefs . . . of which [we] could not be aware" (DW 350)? Robert Scholes argues that we cannot settle this question since, in Fish's terms, the individual "is simply a product of 'some or other' interpretive community, and no one can belong to more than one of these communities at a time."(14) Scholes points out that "[i]f the community makes all selves and governs all interpretations, then any difference in behavior must be due to differences in community" (-155). He draws the conclusion that this would seem to result in any number of different interpretive communities which would differ greatly from both the Kuhnian paradigm and Foucauldian episteme. Irrespectively of whether we are convinced by Scholes's reading of Fish or not, his argument exposes the difficulty of pinpointing the exact nature of interpretive communities.

I would like to suggest that, partly due to this elusiveness in delimiting interpretive communities, antifoundationalism falls short when confronted with the issue of change. Aware that his model of interpretation has been charged with the accusation that it "leaves us without an adequate account of change" (DW 142), Fish felt obliged to write an entire chapter discussing the question of change. Here he argues that critical dissatisfaction with his interpretive model rests on the false assumption that "an interpretive community is monolithic and . . . therefore a kind of object in relation to which the problem of interpretation is not resolved but merely reinscribed" (DW 142). But this conception of interpretive communities, Fish maintains, is expressive of the old epistemology--foundationalism--which constructs a world of independent entities consisting of texts, readers, and a mediating methodology. Yet interpretive communities are, according to Fish, "not monolithic and self-confirming" (DW 151) and should be understood as "no more than sets of institutional practices; and while those practices are continually being transformed by the very work that they do, the transformed practice identifies itself and tells its story in relation to general purposes and goals that have survived and form the basis of a continuity" (DW 153). So instead of being discrete objects, both interpretive communities and its members "are moving projects--engines of change--whose work is at the same time assimilative and self-transforming" (DW 152). Change occurs through persuasion and through "mechanisms that are themselves internal" (DW 149). In other words, even if we perceive the stimulus for change to have come from outside the community, the very act of perception signifies that the community has already internalized what was hitherto seen as strange or beside the point. The distinction between inside and outside is depicted as open to negotiation and not as an absolute. Seductive as this shifting of boundaries may sound, we must not forget Fish's claim that the boundaries have been "redrawn from the inside" (DW 148). Boundaries have indeed been redrawn but without questioning the concept of boundaries per se, still perceiving the boundary as a hermetically sealed demarcation line, where any penetration is seen as a figure of interpretation; a figure of interpretation accessible only from the inside. Thus we are still caught in a kind of solipsism, but a solipsism where Fish has transferred agency from the individual to the interpretive community. In the process, the phenomenon of change is at once demystified and understood as beyond human agency.

It is at this point Fish's model of interpretation with its perception of change diverges from mine. Where Fish attempts a demystification of change and an obliteration of human agency, I would like to point to the double move pertaining to the process of change. First, if we perceive boundaries as porous and not simply as shifting demarcation lines, we recognize that influences can move freely in either direction. Change is no longer something that happens naturally inside an interpretive community when we are ready for it, but instead a manifestation of the unexpected and new.

Second, even if we concede that Fish is right, to some extent, when he claims that we are conditioned by the situational context, that our knowledge incorporates a proliferation of subconscious and internalized pre-texts, I still think that it is possible--and indeed necessary--to break from the confines imposed by that context, whether we choose to call it "interpretive community" or something else. Fish's position, while stressing the temporal aspect of foundations, disregards temporality in another respect, namely the importance of memory as an agency for change. Fish's theory imagines us caught in an eternal present moment which of course precludes any potential for self-awareness. This is evident on the very first page of his preface where he explicates the title of the book, Doing What Comes Naturally, as referring to "the unreflective actions that follow from being embedded in a context of practice" (DW ix; emphasis added). But this stance ignores the possibility of at least partial self-awareness through the agency of memory.

For a few intensive days, workshop participants had met and debated to bring their various positions into contact. For me, it had been a rewarding but also bizarre experience. `'The Experience of Theory," I realized, had been both a physical and intellectual experience and theory had emerged as something both abstract and tangible; it could be experienced with the same urgency as corporeal hunger. This corporeal experience escapes rational explanation as it takes place, but that does not signify that it cannot be theorized later. It is through remembering--and reflecting on--this experience of my position in comparison to that of others that I perceive the change that has occurred. Whereas the conference provided the contact area, it was the performative aspect of our encounters and the dynamics of memory that created the third space which designates the site of change. Thus it is not merely the experience of theory but also the memory of that experience, theorizing that experience, theorizing our positions, which provides US with a potential for change.

To round off this indirect debate with Fish, hoping it might elicit a response to the discoveries and the questions inherent in my argument, I would like to return to the notion of self in relation to interpretive communities and the questions this raises. If we, like Fish, perceive the individual to be wholly defined by this or that interpretive community, to construct only the meanings this community makes available, then the self is caught forever in the claustrophobia of the present tense, unable to question her or his assumptions. I, too, reject notions of absolute personal autonomy as fictions, favoring the view of-the self as "both constant and fluid, ever in exchange, ever redescribing itself through its encounters with others."(15) But I am worried that Fish's perspective precludes the possibilities of "reinscribing [the] self through encounters with others" since meaning is not produced primarily through encounters but rather determined by the self's membership in an interpretive community. Change occurs within interpretive communities--engines of change--independently of the individual's agency, or, to use Fish's words, "change just creeps up on a community" (DW 24). So instead of emphasizing the plurality of interpretation by acknowledging memory as a possible agency of change, Fish is constructing yet another master-narrative (interpretive community) in yet another attempt to provide an assertive and comprehensive model of interpretation.

This is, from where I stand, a serious flaw in Fish's argument but also a possible point of departure for further debate. Our conference pursued some of the avenues opened up by it but far from reaching consensus we arrived at various, temporary subject positions. But, as the theme of the conference suggests, this is a step in the right direction since the production of a master-narrative would indicate the failure of that conference. With its focus on the experience of theory, it follows that participants would produce their own narratives, colored by their initial positions and by the change that occurred through encountering the unexpected and through reflection. We are left with the realization that diversity characterizes not only other discourses but is to be found within our own; the "`other' is never outside or beyond us; it emerges forcefully, within cultural discourse, when we think we speak most intimately and indigenously `between ourselves.'"(16) Needless to say, this recognition presupposes an awareness--a reflective awareness--of our position, both in relation to, and differentiated from, the position of others.

In conclusion, trying to conclude what cannot be concluded but what must remain open-ended, let me return to the epigraph. Borrowing Derrida's words, substituting theory for philosophy, we might say that it is our experience, our lived experience, "that there are several theoretical idioms and that this experience alone cannot not be lived . . . as bath a scandal and as the very chance of theory."


(1) Jacques Derrida, "Onto-Theology of National-Humanism (Prolegomena to a Hypothesis)," The Oxford literary Review, 14, no. 1 (1992), 3.

(2) This term elicited some humorous response ("Am I young enough to apply?"; "Would you consider the participation of a geriatric scholar?"), but which was meant to embrace both doctoral and postdoctoral research. Our intention was to assemble scholars who were still in the process of establishing a position for themselves, open to new approaches (literally the "avant-garde" of academia), and not weighed down by a history of publications fixing that position.

(3) "The Experience of Theory" was a literary symposium organized by and for young scholars at the Department of English, Goteborg University, 24-26 September 1993. The group of organizers consisted of David Dickson, Claudia Egerer, and Hans Werner.

(4) The series of workshops on theoretical issues was instigated by Professor Lennart Bjork, University of Goteborg, and Dr. Danuta Fjellestad of Uppsala University.

(5) Stanley Fish, "Anti-Foundationalism, Theory Hope, and the Teaching of Composition," in his Doing What Comes Naturally (Durham, N.C., 1989), pp. 342-55; hereafter cited in text as DW.

(6) Teresa de Lauretis, Technologies of Gender (Bloomington, Ind., 1987), p. 18; hereafter cited in text.

(7) The term "established order" refers to the dominant tradition based on the Cartesian perception of a split between body and mind and the ensuing reduction of the corporeal, ethical self of classical philosophy to a unified consciousness detached from the world (and the body).

(8) Drew Leder, The Absent Body (Chicago, 1990), p. 3.

(9) One of our concerns was what impact the crossing of geographical borders had on our investigation into the crossing of intellectual boundaries, which urged us to posit our inquiry into the experience of theory to an international forum.

(10) The participants came from Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Great Britain, and the United States; their papers focused on paradigm construction in film and literature, intercultural studies, rhetoric, and philosophy. Our concept was to create diversity within each workshop by mixing papers from the various disciplines.

(11) In keeping with the subject of this paper as well as a desire to privilege multiple perspectives, this is a reflection on discussions in the workshop I attended, and very much my own experience of its proceedings.

(12) On another level, it could be argued that "New Foundationalism" is also more in keeping with the American tradition which has brought forth theories like New Criticism and New Historicism.

(13) Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? 'Fine Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge, Mass., 1980), p. 14; hereafter cited in text.

(14) Robert Scholes, Textual Power (New Haven, 1985), p. 155; hereafter cited in text.

(15) Patricia Waugh, Practising Postmodernism, Reading Modernism (London, 1992), p. 134.

(16) Homi K. Bhabha, Introduction to Nation anti Narration, ed. Homi K Bhabha (London, 1990), p. 4.
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Author:Egerer, Claudia
Publication:New Literary History
Date:Jun 22, 1995
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