Monday, July 03, 2006

When We Were Not So Young, But Young Enough

Scott Eric Kaufman, otherwise known as the marauding marsupial who needs no plugs, has got me thinking. (Disclosure: Scott was one of my first big time blog endorsers and is a friend) Scott writes (quite movingly) of his first infatuation and eventual falling out of love with Freud's psychoanalytic theories:

I gobbled up those discarded course books like canned-fruit on the eve of nuclear winter. No potentially useful pamphlet, tome or pamphlet-quality tome escaped my clutches. I read them all.

And I did so with a criminally uncritical eye. I took it all at its face as only a 20 year old, budding intellectual can. The best days of my life–stop giggling, I mean it–I spent in cornershop cafés reading and re-reading Freud and Lacan while the Little Womedievalist studied Sanskrit.

My infatuation with Freud resembles honest intellectual work as much as my marriage resembles my first infatuation. I possessed a shallow but empowering knowledge, what Crews calls "instant depth." Psychoanalytic thinkers imagine bland positivism the only alternative to psychoanalysis, but I question their familiarity with those alternatives. For that matter, I question my own. But I don't consider my ignorance convincing proof of that argument. I was duped, plain and simple, and reading Crews reminds me of the pain accompanying that deception.

(Scott's comment to his post goes onto describe in very interesting detail why he feels disillusioned by Freud now, with the poignant hindsight of a an older, wiser man ruefully contemplating the folly of his first love)

I am trying to remember what I new intellectual discoveries I fell in love with at the age of 20 that I no longer feel anything for, except perhaps chagrin. And I admit, the age of 20 was only 5, soon to be 6 years ago. Not too long ago, but long enough to reflect on the age.

When I was 20 years old, I discovered Critical Theory--in particular the theories of Saussure, Althusser, Foucault, and Derrida. That is to say, I discovered structuralism, post-structuralism, semiotics and deconstructionism. It's one of those moments, like when I foolishly discovered Ayn Rand at 14 (don't worry, I got over that and turned in my objectivist society membership card (I'm serious) at 16), or The Beats at 16, where I kept thinking "this book has changed my life." I look back on this love not with chagrin, but with a vague sense of incomprehesion at how I ever fell so hard for something I understood so little. My public, state university was actually ranked No. 1 in critical theory. It was the university where deconstructionism and psychoanalytic treatments of literature reigned supreme. Derrida even taught there, before he died. And so for that brief period between Junior and Senior year, critical theory meant something to me.

I loved learning about the arbitrariness of attaching names to objects, how to "deconstruct" a text to analyze it for it's buried racial and sexist themes (still useful to me, by the way), and what "state racism" meant. I tried re-reading of some of it this year. I can "get" it with a few hours hard work reading and re-reading 3 pages at a time, and a nice guide to the theory is always helpful. But it is with chagrin that I remember that this infatuation almost led me to change my entire life's plans. It made me want to go to English graduate school and concentrate in Critical Theory. This in itself is not bad. No, what is bad is that I'm nowhere near smart enough to have pursued this as a career. I sometimes read literary theory blogs. Most of it now goes over my head. I've never been able to finish Heidegger. So what the heck was I thinking?! While I have done a concentration in Critical Race Theory, a legal theory movement that draws on Critical Theory, post-colonialism and post-modernism , it's--how can I say this delicately--like the baby version of it, kind of secondary and derivative in nature. The most original thinking is in what it offers for the law, not for theory. You don't really need to read Spivak or Foucault to read or write in CRT. It helps if you're theorizing about oppression or racism or racial identity--but if you just want to write race-conscious literature that promotes a project of anti-subordination while interrogating the racist constructs of the law--well, you can do this without Spivak. In fact, your law review article would do better to rely more heavily on the law than on critical theory. So I look back on my infatuation with Critical Theory, and I don't feel chagrin as much as I feel a certain shyness. It's like pining for the boy you hardly knew back in high school and seeing him again, when you are older and wiser and thinking "the heck was I thinking." I feel a certain reticence towards a subject that just does not come easily to me, that I wonder if I ever knew or understood, and a reluctance to try to engage it again, for fear of failure. I read the thoughts of others who actually do know and use theory quite well, and feel abashed. But hey, I was sort of young, and it was an infatuation that has shaped my life and my thinking without being the primary occupation. And that is enough for the older, wiser me. Isn't that all you can ask from a former love?

When I was 20 years old, I discovered Critical Race Theory. More specifically, my political science professor (now a Yale law prof) teaching Comparative Constitutional Law (think: compare to France) had as one of the required texts Words That Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, and The First Amendment. Again, this "changed my life." I had always thought of myself as a First Amendment absolutist. Then I learned that there is no absolute freedom of speech, that the freedom of speech is abridged in many ways---to prohibit incitement to violence against the State, to prohibit torts like defamation, to prohibit things like shouting "fire!" in a crowded theatre, and to prohibit something called "fighting words." (the first fighting word: "You goddamned fascist!")

"Wow," I thought, "If the freedom of speech may be abrogated for the protection of the public safety or to safeguard against violence against the state or against a person, maybe it may be abrogated for other reasons too." What other reasons? Matsuda recommends making racist and sexist verbal assaults (pejorative epithets not rising to the level of actual threats, which would be a separate tort or possible "fighting word" ) should be similarly proscribed under First Amendment law. The inherent power imbalance in the legal system and in racial hegemony means that such racist speech by the racial majority member cannot be countered by "more speech" by the racial minority member, as is the usual recommendation in the case. The whole "I may not like what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it, and counter it with my own free speech in vengeful disagreement" thing. Often, the response to racist speech is stunned and hurt silence. Imagine being called a "nigger,"or a "nip" (as I have been called). What do you say to that? What can you say in the 10 seconds after the remark, after the speaker has walked away? What do you say if you fear an altercation if you do respond? I do not disagree with Matsuda's description of the psychological effects from and physical reaction to racist speech. I just disagree with her normative and prescriptive arguments about it.

But since taking First Amendment law in law school, I can no longer agree with her recommendation to re-write the jurisprudence. It's partially a slippery slope worry, but mostly a pragmatic worry that any limits on speech more often hurt minorities than help them. Also, I worry about intra-minority racism--if the de minimus limiting principle for Matsuda is to only punish racist speech by majority race members against people who are part of a "historically oppressed racial minority," what happens to intra-racial conflict? Does that go unpunished? Is it less harmful to be called a "nigger" by an Asian, or to be called a "chink" by a Latino? I disagree with her limiting principle, do not think that it is broad enough to encompass all discrimination, and think it too broad in the sense that it limits too much speech. I do not want to punish that which is "merely" offensive (of course I recognize and remember that racists speech hurts), and I believe that such speech must arise to the level of threat of violence or actual physical tort in order to be sanctioned (which would make it a hate crime, something I'm very interested in sanctioning).

So after my second year of law school, I grew disillusioned with certain CRT theories that I believed were too overreaching, unlikely to be implemented, and potentially problematic in their effects (both in rhetoric and practice). In fact, I grew to be even more disillusioned by some long-standing, foundational CRT theories and practices, such as story-telling and deconstructionism. I don't question their academic validity, but I know it's not for me right now. It doesn't fit my project, and I just feel exhausted by them. After you deconstruct, what do you build? What is the purpose of telling a story if it does not sufficiently serve the CRT goal of articulating "voices from the bottom"? What is the purpose of narrativity if it splinters your ideas and distracts the reader or commingles the separate voices in a too confusing manner? So what do I have left of this love? I am still a Critical Race Theorist. I am no less proud of that notation on my transcript. I am no less committed to a project of anti-subordination, even if I do less theorizing about race and oppression and more work in non-obvious areas in which racially disparate effects may be produced by the law (e.g. federalism!). I just do a lot of traditional "CRT" anymore. But I, too, am CRT--and so while I disagree with a lot of the book that introduced me to CRT, I am indeed grateful to it.

When I was 20 years old, I was in my junior/senior year of college. I was writing my two senior honors theses, one on the historical context and racial constructs of the stories of Flannery O'Connor; and the other one a jurisprudential analysis of the Rehnquist Court's devolutionary federalism. (This is what happens when a foolish and ambitious young woman at a large public state research university attempts to forge two independent mentoring relationships to attain what she calls a "holistic liberal arts education in two separate disciplines.") The first thesis was pretty good and is almost capable of being cleaned up into a Law and Lit paper, but the second was horrible save for the fact that it's instilled a life-long interest in federalism and jurisprudence (what undergraduate can effectively use H.L.A. Hart or Hans Kelsen to analyze opinions?). When I was 20 years old, I discovered the joys and sorrows of academic writing, the pain in the neck that is citation (and that was when I was doing the way easy MLA style, not the incredibly fussy Bluebook style), and the realization that I could be happy just reading stuff and writing about it for the rest of my life. I just didn't know what subject to do it in yet, English literature (or more precisely, late American modernism) or political science (or more precisely, American political theory). So after I rocked both the GRE and the LSAT, I went to law school because I rocked the LSAT just a little bit more than the insane 270 qusetion-without-break English GRE Subject test. Hey, it made sense at the time. And then I went to law school, and decided that I wanted to become a law school professor so that I could just read stuff and write about it all the time. But I discovered that what I wanted to read and write about was the law (or more precisely, federalism, hate crimes, and employment discrimination with the occasional (future, when I come back to CRT) article on Asian American Jurisprudence and race-conscious pedagogy). At least this love still holds true, the love of academia. The older, wiser-by-five-years Belle couldn't ask for more than that.