The Fallacy of “Fallacy”

The Fallacy of “Fallacy” and Its Implications for Contemporary Literary Theory

by Charles Altieri

The essay begins:

Despite my initial bewilderment, I have come to love the timeliness of devoting an issue of Representations to the issue of how thinking about fallacies might be apt and even necessary, given the recent US presidential election. What can be the role of logic in public life when the president cannot even pay sufficient attention to produce narrative consistency? Alas, I have no coherent response to this question. But I am reminded of other challenges to rationality closer to my professional life for which similar (although far less pressing) questions prevail. What can be the role of logical analysis in relation to imaginative texts that flaunt their quite different modes of pursuing relational structures?

Clearly, no discursive practice can dispense with logic. But perhaps most discursive practices, including philosophy, can cease fetishizing the language of logic so they can explore complexities in issues where it is difficult to establish just what logic or what kind of logic can apply. For example, the idea of an intentional fallacy requires sharp and clear oppositions between kinds of meaning if we are to bring logical distinctions to bear. Similarly, claims about a pathetic fallacy require judgments that feelings are either subjective or objective, just as intentions have to be either manifestly present or not present forces that determine how we are to read discrete sentences and expressions. But a strong case can be made that feelings involve complex interactions between subjects and objects. And an even stronger case can be made that discourse about intention has to cover a complex variety of cases ranging from the kind of action intending is to the kinds of meaningfulness that intentions can establish. The demand for clarity might be dangerous because it leads to focusing on establishing the meaning of particular discrete sentences rather than the muddy domain of complex relational structures that may be more interested in displaying possible meanings (or meaningfulness) than in securing what is being unequivocally asserted.

So while claims specifically about fallacy rarely occur now in the humanities, the desire to wield the claims to lucidity asserted by the sciences still shapes significant arguments about the status of literary theory tout court. For those scholars seeking clear oppositional conceptual structures, literary theory becomes a bastard usurper always in danger of having to yield authority to the heir designated by Enlightenment progenitors. But if all serious questions concerning meaning cannot be resolved by models based on how sentences structure communication, then there are substantial roles to be played by a distinctive discipline of literary theory. Minimally, theory becomes a domain where we work out how texts can claim meaningfulness even as they resist models of meaning based on or limited to communication and suspicion about communication. More ambitiously, theory can also become the domain where philosophical and historical reflection comes to bear in clarifying how aesthetic objects take on meaningfulness and in establishing why that meaningfulness might matter for social life. Theory becomes not a matter of proving anything, but rather of displaying a range of analytic and historical concerns as general backdrops for the specific kinds of labor literary works can perform.

My ultimate test here will be briefly exploring how Walter Benn Michaels’s arguments about intention in 1982 reveal a penchant for clear oppositions that in his most recent work sustains an elaborate, almost mythical structure of contrasts explicating relations between contemporary art and contemporary politics. I suspect that Michaels is so subtle and lucid a writer that the only way to escape his mode of thinking is to locate it historically in a culture that demands a clarity willing to risk reductionist moves in order to secure first principles. Then I will close by examining how those first principles tend to oversimplify the issues he manipulates so brilliantly. Continue reading …

This essay concentrates on the limitations of logical binaries in constructing arguments for literary theory. My test case is claims about intention. Theorists argue either that intentions can and must be determined or that intention is a psychological entity that cannot be determined simply from textual evidence, even when buttressed by biographical contexts. But such debates center on intentions to mean. The essay argues that literary texts are makings and not statements, so they display a relation to the world rather than assert it. It follows that when dealing with makings we usually have to look not for a specific psychological intention to mean but a way of clarifying how the display works. Therefore it may be best to equate intention with the taking of responsibility that the author assumes when deciding to publish or present materials. What is a plausible account of a series of decisions that led the author to want to make something public?

CHARLES ALTIERI teaches in the English department at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent books are Wallace Stevens and the Demands of Modernity (Cornell, 2013) and Reckoning with Imagination: Wittgenstein and the Aesthetics of Literary Experience (Cornell, 2015)He is now working a book on interpreting constructivist features of modernist poetry in conjunction with Hegel’s concept of inner sensuousness.

Tangled Up in Hitchcock

The Hitchcockian Nudge; or, An Aesthetics of Deception

by Rey Chow and Markos Hadjioannou

The essay begins:

Alfred Hitchcock’s work is, in our view, antithetical to the idea of fallacy, if we understand by fallacy an error committed against a logical mode of validity, an error that needs to be corrected. How this antithesis plays itself out is consistently fascinating. Indeed, it is deception, the state of mind most readily associated with fallacy, that Hitchcock’s cinema loves to portray. In film after film, the condition of being taken in, of mis-taking a situation for what it actually is, constitutes the mise-en-scène not only in the classical, theatrical sense of a setting for the story but also, more critically, in the metaphysical sense of a dynamic play of terrifying forces, the resolution of which (if there is one) often strikes us as conventional, perfunctory, and inadequate. How Hitchcock constructs and furbishes such mise-en-scènes is the focus of the present essay. Specifically, we will examine how he dramatizes deception as a trajectory of the fallacious—that is, as a scenario with its own logics that are played out within the setting of modern Western society.

To begin with, Hitchcock’s films are full of references to institutions that specialize in the verification of evidence. Populated by police officers, private detectives, lawyers, judges, and medical doctors (in particular psychiatrists), his work demonstrates time and again the investments in law and order as imposed by what Michel Foucault calls disciplinary society, in which private citizens’ behavior—mental and psychological as well as physical—is regulated by an enforcement machinery dedicated to finding them guilty. If law and order rely for their functioning on an implicit notion of human error, so to speak, with crime being the most typical manifestation of such error in a secularized context, it could be argued that fallacy does, in a cynical way, play a big role in Hitchcock. In so far as the professionals specializing in rectifying such error are constantly made fun of, their incompetence a woeful match for the intricate ramifications of the error involved, an institutional attempt to handle fallacy (by way of law, policing, or medicine), Hitchcock suggests, can only lead to the perpetuation of the status quo—what we now call normativization—rather than to the truth. Think of the psychiatrist who proudly offers a scientific explanation for Norman Bates’s personality at the end of Psycho (1960); the judges who absolve Gavin Elster, the mastermind of the crime of his wife’s murder, and the doctor who prescribes Mozart for Scottie in his traumatized state in Vertigo (1958); the police, legal officers, and gynecologist whose findings collectively block the truth of Rebecca’s death from surfacing in Rebecca (1940); or the capitalist Mark Rutland’s self-righteous, pop-psych analysis of his wife Marnie’s kleptomania, frigidity, and strained relationship with her mother in Marnie (1964). Such systemic misses, or disjunctures, abound in Hitchcock’s stories, as if to call attention to the consistent failure of precisely those functionaries who serve as the guardians of modern Western society’s self-validating logic, who stand in, as it were, for its punitive superego.

The heart of Hitchcock’s work, then, lies rather in the gap between modern Western society’s ordinary actors—their habits, desires, beliefs, secrets, and fantasies—on the one hand, and the collective procedures, in various forms of the superego, that are devised to catch and trap them, on the other. That human behavior, especially its errors, is always in excess of these procedures of capture, that there is always a slippage between their actions as such and the so-called objective (or superegoistic) rendering of such actions: this shadowy, messy core of Hitchcock’s cinema is what Pascal Bonitzer means by “Hitchcockian suspense,” which, according to Bonitzer, differs from the more mechanical varieties of suspense commonly found in thrillers. “Hitchcock would appear to have ‘hollowed out’ [the classic thrill of] the cinematic chase that he had inherited from Griffith, much as Mallarmé claimed to have ‘hollowed out’ Baudelaire’s verse,” writes Bonitzer. Instead, the classic “chase” is now staged in the form of a steadily expanding contamination or stain:

Hitchcockian narrative obeys the law that the more a situation is somewhat a priori, familiar or conventional, the more it is liable to become disturbing or uncanny, once one of its constituent elements begins to “turn against the wind.” Scenario and staging consist merely in constructing a natural landscape with its perverse element, and in then charting the outcome. Suspense, by contrast with the accelerated editing of races and chases, depends upon the emphasis which the staging places upon the progressive contamination, the progressive or sudden perversion of the original landscape. . . . The film’s movement invariably proceeds from landscape to stain.

Importantly, Bonitzer points to the distinctive nature of Hitchcock’s configuration of suspense. Suspense in Hitchcock’s universe, that is, does not follow from a narrative of linear acceleration that moves rapidly toward an end to the drama. Instead, Hitchcockian suspense arises from a contamination that progresses steadily in its perverse relationship to the world from within which it grows and to which it belongs. Hitchcock’s films do not so much raise the formulaic question of “whodunit” as confront us with large philosophical questions—of why one commits crimes, of the actual motive and purpose behind a particular crime, and, in particular, of the paradoxical forces of binding that bring into focus unexpected or inexplicable alliances, partnerships, love affairs, symmetries, and couplings (for instance, Uncle Charlie and little Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt [1943], Brandon and Philip in Rope [1948], and Melanie Daniels and the various birds in The Birds [1964]). This is a suspense that suspends normality by letting the latter’s perverse underpinnings unravel alongside it, the way a stain seeps through its surrounding material. As it spreads out, the stain brings to the fore erroneous elements that cannot be simply corrected and irrational elements that cannot be easily explained—in short, fallacies that contaminate concurrently with the very act of logical deduction or construction. Continue reading …

This article considers Alfred Hitchcock’s work in relation to the connotations of “fallacy” within conventional settings of modern Western society. Focusing on two films, Strangers on a Train (1951) and Rear Window (1954), we point to the phenomenon of the incidental push that leads toward an inextricable entanglement of characters, events, and psychic forces in what appear to be logical courses of action. We name this push “the Hitchcockian nudge.”

REY CHOW is Anne Firor Scott Professor of Literature at Duke University. The author of numerous influential monographs, she is also the coeditor, with James A. Steintrager, of the anthology Sound Objects, forthcoming from Duke University Press.

MARKOS HADJIOANNOU is Assistant Professor of Literature and of the Arts of the Moving Image at Duke University. He is the author of From Light to Byte: Toward an Ethics of Digital Cinema (2012) and of a number of essays on cinema technologies and aesthetics.

The Case of the House of Usher

Materialist Vitalism or Pathetic Fallacy: The Case of the House of Usher

by Branka Arsić

The essay begins:

Notoriously weird things occur in Edgar Allan Poe’s world, things in fact so bizarre that some readers dismiss them as mere exaggerations, whereas for others they amount to philosophical dilettantism. The list of the weird occurrences in Poe is long, but perhaps most famously: human wills are rendered so powerful that they transport the dead back to life; matter is able to transcend decay, whereas dead bodies, even when dismembered, pulsate with vitality; spirited forces—from minds to presumed supernatural agencies—are endowed with power to generate physical phenomena, such as inarticulate sounds and styled whispers, or to affect the physical by animating or stalling its motion, altering its figuration through various mergings and disseminations of particles of matter. Additionally, the natural and material is afforded immanent life, enabling it to become otherwise without any intervention by divine powers or by anything immaterial at all. Thus, stones and rocks sometimes feel and experience, plants are said to enjoy or suffer, and even planets and elements, as the end of Poe’s prose poem Eureka postulates, are found to be happy and joyous.

How, then, are we to understand such instances? A long tradition of critical reading has explained away Poe’s allegedly weird preoccupations by classifying them as gothic devices mobilized to fuse the strange with the pleasing and to appease the morbid by styling it into the fantastic, while simultaneously spellbinding the reader by means of the cultivated terror Poe depicts. But as I will be arguing, that approach—which reads Poe as a romance-goth—is weak, because it reduces to the aesthetic phenomena that are in fact often scientific, summoned by Poe from domains as different as biology, geology, astronomy, or medicine. For instance, when the claim that death is a radically slowed-down life is taken not as scientific but as a narratological device allowing the dead to revisit the living, and thus generate horror, the aesthetic is made to function as a normalizing shield protecting a dualistic ontology (which posits the divide between spiritual and material, takes matter to be inert, and establishes clear taxonomical topographies that separate beings into their proper existential niches). In that way we are assured that Poe’s anomalous worlds are not really anomalous but merely abstractly or aesthetically so. By ideating and thus anesthetizing Poe’s propositions, the “aesthetic” approach—where aestheticization refers to the content of his narratives, not to their form—weakens the challenge those propositions pose to Western ontology, making us overlook just how seriously Poe was invested in critiquing it, dedicated, as Joan Dayan has argued, to “debunk[ing] the cant of idealism.” That tradition of criticism turns into “romance” his deadly serious ontology, which, Dayan claims, is monistic (enabling the “convertibility” of spiritual into material), committed to “a radically physical world,” and so “attach[ed] to materiality” that even if there are “phantoms and rarified presences” in his stories “they are always seen through or next to the collateral flesh and blood remnants.” As I will argue here, this commitment to the physical, which Poe’s ontology understands as inherently vital, manifests as a ceaseless experiment with processes of becoming and transformation, which undoes the existential status quo of beings and persons. His propositions thus resist being aestheticized as romance, for as Dayan also argued, “‘romance’ . . . always serves the status quo” by “mythologiz[ing] an inwardness,” whereas Poe shatters the coherence of any inwardness, reducing it to the material supposedly external to it. Finally, and most straightforwardly, the anesthetization of Poe’s narratives, their domestication as aestheticized gothic allegories, must be resisted also because a lot of what he wrote enacts strange ontologies without ever rendering them gothic. (What, for instance, is specifically gothic about paranoid obsessions, perverse desires, or even feeling plants?) Continue reading …

This essay revises the inherited understanding of Ruskin’s theory of pathetic fallacy by positing that his ideas are close to theories that oppose any strict division of phenomena into persons and things. To elaborate this point, the essay investigates Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” where inanimate things are rendered animate, claiming that such instances are far from being pathetically fallacious and, also, that Poe’s ontology is in accord with that formulated by Ruskin.

Branka Arsić is Charles and Lynn Zhang Professor of American Literature at Columbia University. She is the author of Bird Relics, Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau (Harvard University Press, 2016), On Leaving: A Reading in Emerson (Harvard University Press, 2010), and a book on Melville entitled Passive Constitutions or 7½ Times Bartleby (Stanford University Press, 2007), as well as coeditor (with Kim Evans) of a collection of essays on Melville entitled Melville’s Philosophies (Bloomsbury, 2017).

A “Field Theory” of Poetry

Compositionism: Plants, Poetics, Possibilities; or, Two Cheers for Fallacies, Especially Pathetic Ones!

by Maureen N. McLane

The essay begins:

I adopt “compositionism” from the philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour, namely, from his “Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto’” (2010). For poets and composers, “compositionism” might evoke thoughts of composing, making, arranging, wordsmithing, tune smithing—of poiesis itself. For botanists, compositionism might conjure the plant family Compositae (also known as Asteraceae, a vast group including daisies, asters, sunflowers). Latour, for his part, proposes “compositionism” as an “alternative to critique”: “It is time to compose—in all the meanings of the word, including to compose with, that is to compromise, to care, to move slowly, with caution and precaution.” I am agnostic about whether critique has “run out of steam”—though it may be increasingly beside the political and ethical point in precisely the ways Latour limns; but for the duration of this essay I would like to entertain compositionism along critical, as well as poetic and botanical, axes.

Among his many sallies, Latour observes in a footnote to his manifesto, “The redistribution of agencies is the right purview of literature studies” (489n25). Compositionism, then, might be one name for this mode of literature studies; it might also designate what literature—or rather poetry—has long undertaken. Latour’s compositionism notably aligns with some recent reflections on poetics—as when Marjorie Levinson draws on William Connolly, “defining agency as distributive across a very wide spectrum of life forms, including the inanimate ensembles woven into our everyday routines.” Or when Susan Manning (in her posthumous The Poetics of Character) proposed an analytic of “correspondence”—in her lexicon, a conceptual category allowing for the mapping of anachronic networks of rhetorical and ethical relations—and called for an “affective poetics based on principles of analogy.” Among other things, “compositionism” offers routes to take seriously challenges to anthropocentrism (including that unslayable dragon “pathetic fallacy”) without throwing out the anthropomorphizing baby with the anthropocentric bathwater.

Latour has long excavated and critiqued the division between human and nonhuman subjects he sees as central to “the Modernist Constitution,” from 1600 to yesterday, and he polemically endorses a kind of neo-animism the regime of modern science has long scorned. Here and elsewhere his work chimes with posthumanist, ecocritical, anthropocenically minded critics—from Timothy Morton on “the mesh” to Jane Bennett on “vibrant matter” to Anahid Nersessian on “the calamity form” to Levinson’s recent reactivation of Spinoza alongside new morphogenetic modeling. Rather than plunging into new or old materialisms, ecocriticisms, folds, spheres, meshes, or hyperobjects (inter alia), I would like to explore compositionism more locally in a poetico-botanical key, taking plants as one crucial node for thinking about new horizons for poiesis—both the making of poems and the theorizing of them. For as certainly as literature has long redistributed agencies, often violently, along planty lines—from Ovid’s metamorphoses to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “old root” that “was once Rousseau” in his “Triumph of Life”—plants have long been significant players in the fatally vivifying game of anthropomorphism and trope: not for nothing does John Ruskin begin his reflections “Of the Pathetic Fallacy” with the matter of a blue gentian.

Yet now that we seem to have arrived at a postnatural, posthuman/ist, posthistorical moment, it is worth wondering: are we postplant? I would say that in many ways I am preplant.

But, you may well say, your entire lifeworld depends upon your interactions, overt and covert, with plants: you eat them, wear them, breathe them, touch them, arrange them, pluck them, smell them, ingest them! You are indeed a plant codependent!

Pressed thus, one might want to consider the plant unconscious—a phenomenon not so complex perhaps as what Fredric Jameson called years ago the political unconscious but not unrelated. (Might plants have a politics? Might minerals? Or consider the recent granting of legal personality to the Whanganui River in New Zealand.) Plants have always been good to think with and good to think through; I would further suggest that plants have been thinking poetry for a long while—and continue to. And so I want to consider poetry as a mode of what the philosopher Michael Marder has called “plant-thinking”:

“Plant-thinking” refers, in the same breath, to (1) the non-cognitive, non-ideational, and non-imagistic mode of thinking proper to plants (hence, what I call “thinking without the head”); (2) our thinking about plants; (3) how human thinking is, to some extent, de-humanized and rendered plant-like, altered by its encounter with the vegetal world; and finally, (4) the ongoing symbiotic relation between this transfigured thinking and the existence of plants.

I will suspend the question of whether plants “think” and attend rather to Marder’s options 2 and 4, pursuing “our thinking about plants” and the “transfigured thinking” that might emerge, compositionally, symbiotically, when we think with poetry’s plants. Marder draws inspiration in part from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, who in A Thousand Plateaus commanded us: “Follow the plants”! And one hears echoes of Deleuze and Guattari’s call for a “rhizomatic” thinking over and against “arborescent” thought—excessively rooted and hierarchized. And perhaps rhizomes offer one compositionist model for the composing and receiving of poems. Alive to the roots of and in language, one might stumble upon new linkages and new futurities: rhizomes in the tree, the composite in the apparently singular specimen, a plant within and without the self, the plant in the poem, the poet in the plant. Continue reading …

Invoking Bruno Latour’s notion of “compositionism,” this essay proposes a “field theory” of poetry, exploring the use and abuse of plants as one crucial node for thinking about poiesis. Core cases include the traditionary ballads “The Three Ravens” and “Barbara Allen,” with nods to romantic and contemporary lyrics. The essay also considers en route the pathetic fallacy in light of ongoing debates about anthropomorphism and personification, and concludes with a meditation on “nighing” as a mode of composition.

MAUREEN N. McLANE, Professor of English at NYU, is the author of two monographs on British romantic poetics, both published by Cambridge University Press, as well as My Poets (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), an experimental hybrid of memoir and criticism.  Her most recent book of poems is Some Say (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017).

The Photo’s Imagination

The Destruction of Hood’s Ordnance Train: A Love Story

by Alexander Nemerov

The essay begins:

The huge explosions could be heard more than twenty miles away. A Union major named James Connolly lay asleep on the ground, exhausted after the day’s fighting, when he and his men “were aroused by sound of distant explosions away off to the North.” General William Tecumseh Sherman, encamped nearby and leading the Union army, uneasily heard the sound of shells exploding in the direction of Atlanta just after midnight. He and his aides debated what the blasts meant and woke a nearby farmer, who said that the battles around Atlanta sounded like that. Still, no one was sure. The sounds died down but then renewed at 4:00 a.m., this time louder and longer than before, “with the thump and crump and muttering finality of a massive coup de grâce.”

The next day the truth was revealed. Confederate General John Bell Hood, leading the Confederate forces defending Atlanta, had found his main supply line cut off and had ordered that his own munitions train be blown up so that it would not fall into Union hands. In a massive self-destruction that helped cover their retreat, the Confederates torched five locomotives and eighty-one railroad cars full of their own ammunition. This was the sound that Sherman and his men heard. It was the night of September 1, 1864.

Within days, Sherman’s official campaign photographer George Barnard was at the scene of the explosions. Accompanying Sherman and his men on their destructive march from Nashville to Charleston, Barnard would ultimately assemble sixty-one of his large wet-collodion plates into a deluxe publication, Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, published in New York in 1866. Destruction of Hood’s Ordnance Train is plate 44 (fig. 1).

Fig. 1. G. Barnard, Destruction of Hood’s Ordnance Train, 1864

At the center of the photograph stands a lone man (fig. 2). We cannot tell who he is—the title does not identify him. Likely he is a civilian, a figure exempted from military ritual and allowed a place of solitude. Back to us, clad in dark clothes, he is a man of shaken contour, either slightly aquiver in the breeze or impatient with having to stand still during the exposure, or both. His feet make a wispy fishtail pattern. One imagines him as an associate of the photographer who has walked from Barnard’s position, down the trash-strewn hilly foreground at lower left, further down the gulley at the foot of the hill, and up onto the rail bed, where he could respond to the photographer’s commands about where to stand and for how long. He is within hailing distance.

The man stands within a circle of soot. Although the circle may not have been the epicenter of the explosions, the missing track suggests that the nature of the fire here was different than the one further in the distance. So do the sideways-flung rail carriage wheels to the left of the soot. Further back, the wheels still sit on the rails, implying that there the blaze consumed the wooden cars in steady flame. But nearer to our vantage, in the circle of ash where the lone man stands, a huge detonation likely blew things sideways and burned extra hot. Barnard’s photograph shows a flat volcano. The man is at the crater, at ground zero.

Fig. 2. Barnard. Destruction … (detail)

Standing there, the man seems to verify what happened. Like a journalist, he is on the spot, the embers barely cooled. Following the uncertainty of those cataclysmic sounds—the booms that awakened and disturbed Sherman and his men—the lone man confirms the truth of Hood’s defeat. Standing on the ash imprints the reportorial truth of the scene as much as the light hitting the photographic plate. The weightiness of the shadowed man, even if he flutters unsteadily, surpasses the conjecture of an artist’s drawing of a few weeks later that shows the exploding ammunition train. Unlike the fabulist with his pencil, the photographer and his associate occupy the actual scene, letting it be stamped on them, a predicate of there-ness and truthfulness.

The verification was timely. A few days earlier, George B. McClellan had accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, running on the party platform that the North should sue for peace with the South and end the war, slavery intact. A cartoon by Thomas Nast, appearing in Harper’s Weekly on September 3, 1864, shows the disastrous implications of such a peace: a defeated Union soldier, his sacrifice a waste, slumps to shake hands with a triumphant Jefferson Davis. “One party seems to want peace,” wrote Major Connolly to his wife, ending the same letter in which he had described hearing the explosions. “That suits us here. We want peace too, honorable peace, won in the full light of day, at the cannon’s mouth and the bayonet’s point, with our grand old flag flying over us as we negotiate it, instead of cowardly peace purchased at the price of national dishonor.”

Barnard’s photograph, taken in those same days, says that Atlanta is taken, that Sherman is victorious, and that the war needs to be fought to its conclusion. The proof is in the photographic glass, in the stone and rail and wood, and in the man at the center of the ash. Neither black nor white (it is impossible to tell his race), he solemnly acknowledges the massive destruction of the southern war machine and makes the case implicitly for more of the same violence as the only way to bring peace. In Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, true enough, there will be many scenes of obliteration still to come after the Destruction of Hood’s Ordnance Train. Relentlessly, the rebellion will be flattened to the ground. When it is not flattened, picturesque windows will be left in its broken walls only so that the viewer can examine how little of the defeated place still exists. On September 12, Sherman wrote to the mayor of Atlanta, who had implored him to stop bombarding the city: “You might as well appeal against the thunder storm as against these terrible hardships of war.”

But the solitary man goes beyond the news cycle. Four prominent chimneys repeat his upright form, multiplying his solitude and extending it to the heavens. He stands before these chimneys like a shepherd before the columns of a ruined Roman temple in the romantic paintings that Barnard admired. The Old South, the photograph says, is a fallen empire, a ruined civilization. But the chimneys also lift the man into the skies, as if he were part of the black smoke that once emanated from this building, an iron mill destroyed in the explosions. Organizing his photograph not just so that the lone man would be at the center, but so that the chimneys would rise into the clouds, Barnard aligns the man’s contemplation not just with the events of the day but with an eternal churn of time. That Barnard “combination printed” the clouds from another negative—his photograph would otherwise show the sky only as a blank gray—creates the image’s mysteriously otherworldly sky and the lone contemplator’s relation to it. The windswept and light-stained clouds come not only from another negative but seemingly from another world, as if a passing planet had allowed Barnard to borrow its atmosphere. They rhyme with the flutter of the man’s black coat and trousers, the shifting of his knees. The sky’s main echo on the ground is the soot on which he stands, a flattened cloud of cinders that resembles the heavens’ light gray. The lone man courses with a rhythm of sun and cloud, the full flow of romantic history—empires rising and falling but also some otherworldly time, some timeless time—that the historian internalizes within his own small body.

Standing there, the man aligns with not just flow but frozenness. The diagonal of the tracks implies far-off movement, but no trains will run on them for some time. Where the blast was, where he is, time has stopped. The historian pauses at the location where the momentum of events ceases. There the motionless wheel-carriages suggest the arrested force of his own observations. The massive mill wheel between the chimneys has likewise run into the ground. Aligned to these signs, the historian likewise freezes the action of the day—like the photographer, he keeps the world from rolling. Their mutual hope is that in stillness the significance of an event will become cryptically clear. The earth itself still turns, the clouds still scud across the sky, but the historian feels no contradiction. In Barnard’s romantic view, the historian feels the fixation of a moment in time and the relation of that moment to eternity. The lone man’s shadow looks like an oil stain on the soot, but it also charts the path of the sun.

It is proper that all this destruction leaves a lasting mark on the historian. He does not glide by the scene of violence, even if his presence there is of short duration. Rather, like the photographer’s plate, he allows the scene to imprint itself on him. To his dying day he will retain the record of what he saw. Even if he forgets his place, losing the memory of having stood on the tracks, the place will not forget him. It will be in his consciousness like a possession buried in the earth, like the belongings that the citizens of Atlanta interred for safekeeping as they departed the city. Even if he forgets that it was him in the photograph, remembering only that he actually stood beneath a pastel-blue sky on that spot or, conversely, if his presence in the photograph is all that he recalls, the pastel-blue sky having been forgotten, the confusion of experiences will not dissipate his sense of having been there. Transfer the man to a heady scene of Broadway in New York, bright on a summer’s day, with everyone else happy and prancing beneath parasols and top hats, and he would still walk in the cloud of his shaken contours.

Damage, to judge by the photograph, is the historian’s proper element. Barnard’s contemporary J. T. Trowbridge wrote of looking out a railway car window in Atlanta on a rainy morning just after the war, seeing the “windrows of bent railroad iron by the track; piles of brick; a small mountain of old bones from the battle-fields, foul and wet with the drizzle; a heavy coffin-box, marked ‘glass,’ on the platform, with mud and litter all around.” Trowbridge let the sights impress him, then wrote liquid descriptions that impress the reader. In the same way, Barnard’s sole observer becomes a photographic plate, allowing the grit of the sand and clay and pebbly wasteland to imprint itself on him until he, too, sensitively registers the scene. The pathological stillness of his contemplation registers the aftershocks of violence as only a slight fluctuation in his trembling clothes. Alone, he keeps the landscape from breaking apart.

It is a depressing scene, even if it shows the demise of the Confederacy. The photograph has all the hallmarks of a victory parade except the people and the motion and the joy. What, if anything, redeems the emptiness?

My own answer is imagination. Adrift in the wasted world, either the historian traces the wreckage, speaking in a voice of dejection and outrage, or the historian can invent from those same woebegone feelings. In the latter case, something new emerges from the destruction and violence. That something new is not an asinine version of progress—of forward-looking and backward-forgetting. It is always committed to the recollection that allows it to come into being. Instead of flying away, the historian’s invention owes allegiance to the particular topography in which it finds itself. Down every gulley, across each desolate rock pile and sandpit, the imagination must trace its way, divagating the broken tracks, stumbling down the shallow hillsides, taking an exact impression at each point of what is not itself. The imagination works like lava, flowing across the terrain, making a mold of what it streams over. The imagination clamps to memory like Barnard’s sky to the earth. The imagination depicts unbelievable things—it is imported from other scenes, “combination printed” into a first picture in which it does not belong. Yet somehow it does belong. And it makes us look again, and look longer, at a photograph we might barely have noticed otherwise.

What does the imagination trace in Destruction of Hood’s Ordnance Train? The answer will be different for each viewer. I can give only my own account. Improbably, I imagine the photograph as a story of love. I say this because General John Bell Hood, the commander who ordered that the ordnance train be blown up, was deeply in love at the time. Continue reading …

How is something that is not there still present in a photograph? What is the importance of seeing a photograph in this way? Looking at George Barnard’s Civil War photograph Destruction of Hood’s Ordnance Train, this essay meditates on the operations of imagination in historical images.

ALEXANDER NEMEROV gave the sixty-sixth annual Andrew W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts at the National Gallery of Art this past spring. His most recent book, Soulmaker: The Times of Lewis Hine, published in 2016, was short-listed for the 2017 Marfield Prize/National Award for Arts Writing.

Disciplinary Life: A Defense

The Interdisciplinary Fantasy

by Jonathan Kramnick

The essay begins:

The desire to overcome boundaries between disciplines of knowledge and to integrate fields of study is nothing new. Specialization has always had its discontents, and programs for interdisciplinary cooperation or the creation of new disciplines out of the synthesis of old ones are a perennial feature of academic life. In recent years, however, the idea of bringing together fields of study has made a turn to an argument against the very existence of disciplines and departments in the first place. Faced with the task of reforming academic institutions and the work that goes on inside them, many advocates for interdisciplinary approaches have come to maintain that a carved-up institution gets in the way of understanding and fails to serve students. I will argue in this essay that this strong version of interdisciplinarity rests on a mistake: namely, that the separate disciplines have a common object to which they can be reduced or oriented. I will further argue that this mistake extends even to the weaker forms of interdisciplinarity with which we have been long familiar and which have independently compelling virtues. Clarifying this mistake would begin with the recognition that a pluralistic array of disciplines matches up with a pluralistic vision of the world: endocrine cells for the biologists, tectonic plates for the geologists, librettos for the musicologists, and so on. Fixing it would begin with the recognition that the best way to be interdisciplinary is to inhabit one’s discipline fully.

The present-day quarrel with disciplines has several varieties: from ostensibly scientific reductionism, to the management theory popular in some corporations, to a historicism that overlaps with both. In what follows, I’ll describe these movements one at a time, point to their overlapping premises, and provide some account of what I believe to be their origins and goals. What I have to say would apply, in principle, to the full range of study from art history to zoology. And yet no accounting for such things occurs in the abstract. There is a reason literary scholars so often feel that calls for them to be interdisciplinary are attacks on what they do. Arguments that undercut the rationale for separate disciplines of study apply unevenly to those with depleted capital. Departments of English are far more often called to explain the reason for their existence and far more often encouraged to coordinate their work with what’s going on elsewhere in the academy or the world than departments of electrical engineering. That this is so is hardly surprising, but is worth some thought.

Let me begin with some propositions.

  1. A discipline is an academic unit. It is neither a natural kind nor an arbitrary relic of the history of higher learning. Rather, any given discipline is a body of skills, methods, and norms able to sustain internal discussions and perform explanations in a way subject to its own consensus acts of judgment.
  2. The world does not have a single order that is reducible to biology or physics. Some things are known only at their own level of explanation. These things are equally real. I will call this a principle of ontological pluralism.
  3. Following from the first and second propositions, disciplines explain the part of the world to which they are directed and with respect to which they are organized. I will call this a principle of explanatory pluralism.
  4. Following from the third proposition, no one discipline should be reducible to another because such reduction would eliminate the method and norms adequate to any particular level of explanation.

These propositions add up to an apology for the disciplines and to a way of modeling relations among them. Such modeling would be interactive not reductive, even when relations go very deep. It would take as its premise that each discipline has something to contribute to matters of shared concern in virtue of its own methods and objects. For reasons that will become clear, we might consider this model to propose a horizontal relation among the disciplines. For now it is perhaps enough to say that the interdisciplinary fallacy tells us not only about intellectual history and the political economy of the university but also about the nature and organization of what we do. Continue reading …

This essay examines various arguments against the existence of disciplines, from scientific reductionism to the new corporate university to historicism, and proposes in their place a defense of disciplinary life as an epistemic and ethical ideal.

JONATHAN KRAMNICK is Maynard Mack Professor of English at Yale University. His new book, Paper Minds: Literature and the Ecology of Consciousness, will be published this year by the University of Chicago Press .

Circular Thinking

How to Think a Figure; or, Hegel’s Circles

by Andrew Cole 

The essay begins:

No philosopher better epitomizes circular reasoning, nor more fittingly embodies the logical fallacy of circulus in probando, than G. W. F. Hegel, because he loves talking about circles and his points often go in circles. This essay isn’t about Hegel’s endearing oral delivery, about which plenty has been said since the man himself was alive. Rather, this is an attempt to think philosophically about circles and rethink so-called Hegelian circularity.

Why we would even bother thinking about circles is on account of their “eternal” symbolism within philosophy and theory—the fact that the circle always stands for something, ever the symbol of this or that thing you don’t really like. Invariably, that something is Hegel, on the grounds that he typifies the circularity of thought. For example, Ludwig Feuerbach writes: “The circle is the symbol and the coat of arms of speculative philosophy, of the thought that rests on itself. Hegel’s philosophy, too, as is well known, is a circle of circles.” This is indeed one of those long-standing clichés about Hegel. So it’s no surprise that Louis Althusser—whose anti-Hegelianism can be forgiven in the knowledge that he’s really not a deep reader of Hegel—draws a circle around himself in order to step out of it, striding from ideology to science:

The whole history of the “theory of knowledge” in Western philosophy from the famous “Cartesian circle” to the circle of the Hegelian or Husserlian teleology of Reason, shows us that this “problem of knowledge” is a closed space, i.e., a vicious circle (the vicious circle of the mirror relation of ideological recognition). 

That’s a lot of circles, a lot of symbols. What do they mean? What do they really “show”?

These symbolic circles mean too much and not enough: call something a circle and the point about it is somehow immediately clear, but wait, how is something that’s not actually a circle like a circle or identical to a circle? Such symbolic circles mean what you want them to mean, which is exactly why all symbols are hopelessly bound up with the proverbial problem of meaning—tokens of the human need to line things up, to know where things go, ever since we first took soil for filth and polluted it accordingly. All the more reason, then, to think dialectically about our problem in an essay that both defends and extends Hegel’s thinking on this question of circularity and figures.

Our problem is this: Hegel rates figures below concepts but he needn’t always do so. In his mind, figures are just a bunch of numbers and lines annoyingly uncommitted to either Thought or Being. He also dislikes figures because they aren’t language, or are a lesser language. Hegel has his reasons for these positions. But those reasons may not be good enough, judging by the way he seems to equivocate about figures. Sometimes figures are so perfect as to figurate the very significance of his philosophy (and that’s no small feat!). And sometimes they are pretenders to proper conceptuality, conceptual thinking by other means. Hegel is all over the place on this question, as we’ll soon see. But if one applies even a modicum of mathematical wit to the figures Hegel does offer us—and most of them are circles, with triangles as a close runner-up—then we discover some rather interesting spaces in which dialectics might wander.

Here I propose that figuration (in my renewed Hegelian sense) is what Walter Benjamin tried to describe a century later as “dialectical images”—only Hegel’s figures are already in motion, are already an action, and already an “image of thought” that’s not static but dynamic. Figures are figures of thought because they move, just as thinking and the dialectic itself must move, according to Hegel. Figures both initiate and image the movement of thought. Figures are for thinking, whereas symbols are for reading and interpretation. Figures are dialectical. As such, they supply a way of practicing Hegel’s abiding ambition, as laid out in the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, “to bring fixed thoughts into a fluid state [festen Gedanken in Flüssigkeit zubringen],” so that we can apprehend “dialectical form [dialektische Form],” which is the representation of philosophical, critical thinking: in other words, Darstellung. Just what this thought process involves, the circle may help us grasp … and think. Continue reading …

In this essay Andrew Cole suggests that Hegel’s philosophy of the concept is also a philosophy of the figure, a demonstration of conceptuality by other means. Neither images nor symbols, Hegel’s figures—primarily, circles—initiate and image the movement of thought.

ANDREW COLE is Director of the Gauss Seminars in Criticism and Professor of English at Princeton University. Forthcoming works include Foundations of the Dialectic and Unmodernism.

Aesthetic Feelings

Reading for Mood

by Jonathan Flatley

The essay begins:

We all know that we have feelings when we encounter works of art. We laugh, we cry. We feel pity and fear. We like and we dislike. We shudder and shiver and tingle. We are amused, delighted, thrilled, teary, bored, relaxed, turned on, horrified, enraged, surprised, depressed, embarrassed, shocked, and fascinated. We know that these “aesthetic” feelings constitute one of the primary values of art as such, and that the problem of how to analyze and evaluate these feelings is one of the basic problems of aesthetic theory, at least since Plato worried about the way poets affected their audiences in The Republic. Many of our fundamental aesthetic categories—tragedy and comedy, the beautiful and the sublime—have become fundamental because they offer ways to think about how art affects its audiences.

Yet it is not always clear how to translate the insights from this theoretical tradition into the reading of specific works of art or literature. It can be hard to shake the sense that the discussion of “how art makes us feel” is necessarily subjective or anecdotal. Doesn’t the affective response produced by a given text depend on the reader and the reader’s particular situation? Don’t observations about aesthetic experience say more about the reader or viewer than the work? This, of course, is the concern voiced in W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley’s essay on the “Affective Fallacy,” where they warn that evaluating a poem in terms of the feelings it produces “is a confusion between the poem and its results (what it is and what it does).” Such a project, they write, “begins by trying to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological effects of the poem and ends in impressionism and relativism.” As a result, “the poem itself, as an object of specifically critical judgment, tends to disappear.” Even if critics are no longer as compelled as they once were by the New Critical devotion to the poem as an autonomous “verbal icon,” doubts remain about how critics can or should account for the particular affective or emotional impact of a given text on the readers who encounter it. The suspicion of “impressionism and relativism” lingers. At best, mustn’t such a claim be a specific  sociological account of a particular audience and a particular situated encounter? Don’t we risk universalizing our own subjective responses when we try to talk about the aesthetic experience of a particular work? Continue reading …

Beginning with a consideration of the distinct places of affect in aesthetic theory and in critical reading practices, this essay makes a case for mood as a critical concept that helps us to read for the historicity and potentially political effects of aesthetic practices.

Walter Benn Michaels has responded to the essay in his January 1, 2018, post at Grimstad on Experience, Flatley on Affect.

JONATHAN FLATLEY is Professor in the English Department at Wayne State University, where he was the editor of Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts from 2007 to 2012.  He is the author of Affective Mapping: Melancholia and the Politics of Modernism (Harvard, 2008) and Like Andy Warhol (University of Chicago, Fall 2017).

Beginning with Aristotle

Fallacy: Close Reading and The Beginning of Philosophy

by D. Vance Smith

The essay begins:

The formal study of fallacies began, as have so many other intellectual disciplines, with Aristotle. In a short treatise called Peri Sophistion Elenchon (On Sophistical Refutations, referred to in the Latin Middle Ages as De Sophisticis Elenchis), he classified thirteen types of fallacious argument—six that depend on slippages of language and seven that do not. As with much of Aristotle’s work, this emphatic division belied a dense cluster of problems that later expositors would tease out, and which this article will explore in a moment, beginning at the primal level of what, precisely, “fallacies” are. The change in terminology from “sophistical refutation” to “fallacies” belies an immense epistemic shift—nothing less, really, than the emergence of medieval philosophy out of classical thought. The Latin Middle Ages assimilated Aristotle’s treatise into the logical curriculum simply as “On Fallacies” (De Fallaciis), from fallare, “to deceive,” or “to trick.” In William of Sherwood’s influential twelfth-century Introduction to Logic, which expounds five of Aristotle’s logical texts, De Fallaciis is the sixth and final chapter. On the face of it, the word fallacia in medieval logic retains the implication of deliberate misleading, the problem that motivates Aristotle’s treatise, which is essentially a manual on how to spot the tricks an opponent might use to derail one’s argument. But deception is used one way in medieval philosophy, another in Aristotle’s.

Aristotle’s definition of sophistical refutations itself is deceptively complex, beginning with what seems to be the plainest declaration of what they are. The very first sentence of his treatise defines them as what they are not: they “appear to be refutations but are really fallacies.” From the start, sophistical refutations involve a dialectic of appearance: they are what they do not seem to be, and are not what they seem to be. Medieval discussions swerve around this problem by arguing that fallacies have both “semblance” or “appearance” (apparentia) and, seemingly paradoxically, nonexistence (non-existentia). What they mean by nonexistence needs to be qualified: a fallacy exists, of course, in the domain of language, and to that degree has the same ontological status as a valid syllogism. As William of Sherwood says in his foundational Introduction to Logic, fallacy and valid syllogism appear to be the same because they share a verbal identity: the resemblance comes “ex identitate sermonis.” But what leaves the fallacy in the realm of pure appearance only is that it doesn’t mean anything real: it diverges from valid syllogism “ex identitate rei.” But William (and subsequent commentaries) doesn’t say that what a fallacy refers to doesn’t exist; it is the fallacy itself that doesn’t have existence. To put this definition more precisely: a fallacy must meet the condition of appearing to be a syllogism and of “its nonexistence” (“non-existentiam eiusdem”). It exists only in apparentia, and its existence only there means that it does not actually exist.

For Aristotle, the phainomenon of fallacies is elusive, but so is the language we use to speak of them. They are “really” fallacies, paralogismoi, statements that lie outside of reason or of rational discourse (para-, outside, beyond + logizomai, to think, to calculate, to consider; the word is from logos, the Greek word that means anything from word to reason to order). That is, not only can we recognize sophistical refutations only by what they are not; we also cannot use the term itself to describe them, since they occupy a position outside of discourse. Sophistical refutations are actually not refutations at all (ouk elenchon legomen). Strictly speaking, a treatise on sophistical refutation is a logical impossibility, the first deception in a treatise full of them. Continue reading …

This essay by D. Vance Smith locates the beginning of philosophy in Aristotelian syllogistic logic, where fallacy is the precondition of rationality. Smith then turns to medieval commentaries, which treat fallacy as a nonreferential discourse and develop what is essentially a theorization of fictionality and its practices.


D. VANCE SMITH is Professor of English at Princeton University. His current work includes the completed Arts of Dying, a study of logic and death in medieval literature, and a book on medieval Africa, Blood Flowers.


“Boy, if life were only like this!”

“You Mean My Whole Fallacy Is Wrong”: On Technological Determinism

by John Durham Peters

The essay begins:

In Woody Allen’s romantic comedy Annie Hall (1977), the world’s most famous technological determinist had a brief cameo that in some circles is as well-known as the movie itself. Woody Allen, waiting with Diane Keaton in a slow-moving movie ticket line, pulls Marshall McLuhan from the woodwork to rebuke the blowhard in front of them, who is pontificating to his female companion about McLuhan’s ideas. McLuhan, as it happened, was not an easy actor to work with: even when playing a parody of himself, a role he had been practicing full-time for years, he couldn’t remember his lines, and when he could remember them, he couldn’t deliver them. In the final take (after more than fifteen tries), McLuhan tells the mansplainer, “I heard what you were saying. You, you know nothing of my work. You mean my whole fallacy is wrong. How you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing.” In the film, the ability to call down ex cathedra authorities at will to silence annoying know-it-alls is treated as the ultimate in wish fulfillment as Allen says to the camera, “Boy, if life were only like this!” Rather than a knockout punch, however, McLuhan tells the man off with something that sounds like a Zen koan, an obscure private joke, or a Groucho Marx non sequitur. There is more going on here than a simple triumph over someone else’s intellectual error. Isn’t a fallacy always self-evidently wrong?

That a fallacy might not necessarily be wrong is the question I take up in this essay. Whatever technological determinism is, it is one of a family of pejoratives by which academics reprove their fellows for single-minded devotion (or monomaniacal fanaticism) to their pet cause. At least since “sophist” was launched as a slur in ancient Greece, it has been a regular sport to contrive doctrines that nobody believes and attribute them to one’s enemies. Terms ending with –ism serve this purpose particularly well. As Robert Proctor notes in an amusing and amply documented survey of academic nomenclature, “‘Bias’ and ‘distortion’ are perennial terms of derision from the center, and the authors of such slants are often accused of having fallen into the grip of some blinding ‘-ism.’” Often these -isms, he continues, “are things no one will openly claim to support: terrorism, dogmatism, nihilism, and so on.” (Racism and sexism are even better examples.) Terms ending with –ism, such as economism, fetishism, formalism, physicalism, positivism, and scientism, often stand for “zealotry or imprudence in the realm of method,” with reductionism standing for the whole lot. Corresponding nouns ending with –ist designate those people accused of harboring such doctrines—reductionist, fetishist, formalist—though –ist is a tricky particle. Artist, economist, psychologist, and above all, scientist have positive valences; artistic is a term of praise, but scientistic suggests being in the grip of an ideology. (It might be bad to be a positivist, but Trotskyist is strongly preferred to Trotskyite; it would be a big job to fully describe the whimsical behavior of the –ism clan, tasked as it is with policing ultrafine differences.) Pathologies such as logocentrism, phallogocentrism, and heteronormativity are often diagnosed in people who do not realize they are carriers.

Technological determinism belongs to this family of conceptual maladies thought unknown to their hosts but discernible by a savvy observer. It is one of a long line and large lexicon of academic insults and prohibitions. As old as academic inquiry is the conviction of the blindness of one’s fellow inquirers. From listening to the ways scholars talk about each other, you would not think they were a collection of unusually brainy people but rather a tribe uniquely susceptible to folly and stupidity. The cataloging of fallacies has been motivated by a desire to regulate (or mock) the thinking of the learned as much as of the crowd. The academy has been fertile soil for satirists from the ancient comic playwrights to Erasmus and Rabelais, from Swift and the Encyclopédie to Nietzsche to the postwar campus novel. Whatever else Renaissance humanism was, it was a critique of scholarly vices, and Erasmus’s Praise of Folly is, among other things, a compendium of still relevant witticisms about erudite errors. There are as many fallacies as chess openings, and the names of both index exotic, often long-forgotten historical situations. We shouldn’t miss the element of satire and parody in such cartoonish names as the red herring, bandwagon, card-stacking, and cherry-picking fallacies. “The Texas sharpshooter fallacy” is drawing the target after you have taken the shots. The “Barnum effect” describes the mistake of taking a trivially general statement as uniquely significant (as in fortune cookies or astrology readings). The study of fallacies gives you a comic, sometimes absurdist glance at the varieties of cognitive tomfoolery.

One reason why academic life is the native soil for the detection of fallacies is the great profit that can be wrung from strategic blindness. Looking at the world’s complexity through a single variable—air, fire, water, God, ideas, money, sex, genes, media—can be immensely illuminating. (Granting agencies smile on new “paradigms.”) A key move in the repertoire of academic truth games is noise-reduction. John Stuart Mill once noted of “one-eyed men” that “almost all rich veins of original and striking speculation have been opened by systematic half-thinkers.” A less single-minded Marx or Freud would not have been Marx or Freud. Intellectuals can be richly rewarded for their cultivated contortions.

But one man’s insight is another man’s blindness. The one-eyed gambit invites the counterattack of showing what has gone unseen, especially as prophetic vision hardens into priestly formula. Nothing quite whets the academic appetite like the opportunity to prove what dullards one’s fellows are, and, for good and ill, there never seems to be any shortage of material. (We all know people who think they can score points during Q&A sessions by asking why their favorite topic was not “mentioned.” Someone should invent a fallacy to name that practice.) At some point every scholar has felt the itch to clear the ground of previous conceptions and ill-founded methods; this is partly what “literature review” sections are supposed to do. (The history of the study of logic is littered with the remains of other people’s attempted cleanup jobs.) Scholars love to upbraid each other for being trapped by the spell of some nefarious influence. How great the pleasure in showing the folly of someone’s –istic ways! The annals of academic lore are full of tales of definitive takedowns and legendary mic drops, and social media platforms such as Facebook provide only the most recent germ culture for the viral spread of delicious exposés of the ignorant (as often political as academic). This is one reason McLuhan’s Annie Hall cameo continues to have such resonance: it is the archetype of a decisive unmasking of another scholar’s fraudulence or ignorance.

But it is also a classic fallacy: the appeal to authority. Who says McLuhan is the best explicator of his own ideas? As he liked to quip: “My work is very difficult: I don’t pretend to understand it myself.” You actually get a better sense of what McLuhan wrote from the blowhard, however charmlessly presented, than from McLuhan. The disagreeable truth is that what the man is doing isn’t really that awful or that unusual: it is standard academic behavior in the classroom at least, if not the movie line. Laughing at someone teaching a course on “TV, media, and culture” is, for many of us, not to recognize ourselves in the mirror. The fact that so many academics love the Annie Hall put-down is one more piece of evidence showing our vulnerability to fallacious modes of persuasion. Why should we delight in the silencing of a scholar by the gnomic utterances of a made-for-TV magus? Since when is silencing an academic value? And by someone who doesn’t really make any sense?

Silencing is one thing that the charge of technological determinism, like many other so-called fallacies, does. Fallacies need to be understood within economies and ecologies of academic exchange. They are not simply logical missteps. To accuse another of a fallacy is a speech act, a communicative transaction. The real danger of technological determinism may be its labeling as a fallacy. The accusation, writes Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, “frequently contains a whiff of moral indignation. To label someone a technodeterminist is a bit like saying that he enjoys strangling cute puppies; the depraved wickedness of the action renders further discussion unnecessary.” The threat of technological determinism, according to Wolf Kittler, “goes around like a curse frightening students.” The charge can conjure up a kind of instant consensus about what right-minded people would obviously avoid. The charge of technological determinism partakes of a kind of “filter bubble” logic of unexamined agreement that it’s either machines or people. Jill Lepore recently put it with some ferocity: “It’s a pernicious fallacy. To believe that change is driven by technology, when technology is driven by humans, renders force and power invisible.”

There are undeniably many vices and exaggerations around the concept of technology. But my overarching concern here is not to block the road of inquiry. (No-go zones often have the richest soil.) In a moment when the meaning of technics is indisputably one of the most essential questions facing our species, do we really want to make it an intellectual misdemeanor to ask big questions about “technology” and its historical role, however ill-defined the category is? What kinds of inquiry snap shut if we let the specter of technological determinism intimidate us? The abuse does not ruin the use. The question is particularly pointed for my home field of media studies, whose task is to show that form, delivery, and control, as well as storage, transmission, and processing, all matter profoundly. If explanations attentive to the shaping role of technological mediation are ruled out, the raison d’être of the field is jeopardized. It is so easy to sit at our Intel-powered computers and type our latest critique of technological determinism into Microsoft Word files while Googling facts and checking quotes online. We are so busy batting away the gnats of scholarly scruples to notice that we have swallowed a camel. Continue reading free of charge  …

This essay, a contribution to the special issue “Fallacies,” offers both a genealogy of the concept of technological determinism and a metacritique of the ways academic accusations of fallaciousness risk stopping difficult but essential kinds of inquiry. To call someone a technological determinist is to claim all the moral force on your side without answering the question of what we are to do with these devices that infest our lives.

JOHN DURHAM PETERS  is María Rosa Menocal Professor of English and Film and Media Studies at Yale and author of The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (2015).