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Marginal Utility
By Rob Horning
A blog about consumerism, capitalism and ideology.
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Theory cults

An earlier version of this essay appeared at Generation BubbleMost of the 1990s I spent in graduate school studying literature. I mostly remember this period now as UFO abductees remember their abduction: in fraught fragments, anxious dreams. I still occasionally wake up worrying about missed lectures and forgotten papers come due. I know I have 10 double-spaced pages to write, but I don’t even remember the assignment!

Those graduate-school years form a hole in my personal history; I struggle to reconstruct the logic that led me to the choices I made. Sometimes it seems as if I had fallen in with a cult whose indoctrination tactics involved forcing impoverished recruits like me to drink gallons of coffee between contentious three-hour self-criticism sessions, from which I’ve struggled over the past decade to deprogram myself.

In the seminars I took, there was a groveling intensity with regard to recondite questions of theoretical doctrine, itself an eclectic amalgam of often contradictory tidbits from Lacan disciples, scientific Marxists, Russian formalists, speculative linguists, etc., as well as the innumerable literary scholars who mash them up. That the rest of the world, even the rest of the university community, seemed to treat my corner of grad school with benign neglect seemed proof of the tragedy of the outsiders’ blinkered existence. It made perfecting our own study of doctrine — honing it to a level of impenetrable hermeticism that would nonetheless somehow make it irresistible to the world — seem that much more urgent.

A few years ago, Benladen linked to this 1994 essay by Richard Webster about the “cult of Lacan,” which assesses skeptically and utterly without sympathy the life and work of the rogue psychoanalyst, compiling anecdotes that make Lacan seem ludicrous while chronicling “his inclination to make anti-establishment gestures from the safety of an authoritarian movement.” Webster discusses in particular the peculiar rhetoric of Lacan’s mirror stage essay, one of his central works, which incidentally had been assigned reading for me multiple times in graduate school:

The seeming confidence and omniscience of Lacan’s formulations is likely to lead those who read them for the first time to assume that he is referring to a coherent body of knowledge with which they should be familiar, or that keys which unlock his formulations will be found elsewhere in his writings. In an effort to find such keys they may well find themselves plunging into a deep study of Lacan’s writings.

I never made the plunge into the more obscure corners of Écrits, but I can relate to the impulse to do so and to the thrill that’s implicit in substituting a blind faith in nominalism for argumentative logic. Durign graduate school, I made the exciting discovery that jargon can be talismanic. Wielding words like cathexis and interpellation in a seminar room gave me a distinct feeling of power. It wasn’t just about using them correctly, but being the sort of person who had occasion to use them, and people who would nod at their deployment. Webster argues that in Lacan’s work, “concepts which have been introduced in one place are rarely if ever clarified by references to them elsewhere in his writing. But they are continually modified and overlaid with yet more layers of complexity and ostensible significance.” At its most intense, that’s  what my graduate-school conversations were like, conducted in language that was ever more compressed and coded, no longer capable of being unpacked yet bearing the affect of so much high-pressure intellectual labor.

At the same time I read the Lacan article, I also read Lawrence Wright’s New Yorker article on Scientology. It was impossible not to discern parallels between Lacan and that other radical critic of psychoanalysis, L. Ron Hubbard, whose foundational text Dianetics is notoriously rife with similar dead-end allusiveness and interminable elaboration. (Even director Paul Haggis, who had reached the higher levels of Scientology’s hierarchy, proclaims that he found the book “impenetrable.”)

Maria Bustillos described Dianetics in an essay at the Awl as “the ravings of a grandiose middle-schooler, very name-droppy (Hegel, Einstein, Aristotle, Schopenhauer — the names of such guys, but never their ideas, are sprinkled liberally around); it is peppered with footnotes, mostly for words the author supposes the reader might not know, such as sulfacravensadism and Parcheesi.” In other words, Dianetics reads like pulp Lacan, before the fact. Webster quotes one of Lacan’s translators, Alan Sheridan, who admitted that “Lacan doesn’t intend to be understood…. He designs his seminars so that you can’t, in fact, grasp them.”

To adopt such an approach intentionally seems somewhat nihilistic, but it may also possibly betoken a rhetorical strategy gone amok. In an early review of Dianetics, S.I. Hayakawa argues that Hubbard’s book repurposes science-fiction writers’ discursive tricks to create the same illusion of certainty Webster saw in Lacan’s writing:

The art [of science fiction] consists in concealing from the reader, for novelistic purposes, the distinctions between established scientific facts, almost-established scientific hypotheses, scientific conjectures, and imaginative extrapolations far beyond what has even been conjectured. The danger of this technique lies in the fact that, if the writer of science-fiction writes too much of it too fast and too glibly and is not endowed from the beginning with a high degree of semantic self-insight (consciousness of abstracting), he may eventually succeed in concealing the distinction between his facts and his imaginings from himself.

As an example, Hayakawa quotes the infamous first sentence of Dianetics‘ original edition: “The creation of dianetics is a milestone for Man comparable to his discovery of fire and superior to his inventions of the wheel and arch.”

Hubbard, of course, was sufficiently enamored of his writings to found a religion from them, and their obscurity, judging from Wright’s account of Scientology, is instrumental in drawing believers in deeper. That Lacan of all people would lack “semantic self-insight,” however, is difficult to believe — which may be why it’s generally easier to regard him as a charlatan rather than a cult leader. Seeming to smirk at his own obfuscations, appearing to letting you in on the joke, Lacan winds into theoretical elaborations with the intention in mind to undermine, not to complete, the whole idea of theoretical knowledge.

Lacan’s hostility toward intelligibility can also seemed designed to give adherents the pleasure of being lost in a maze of esoterica, of tripping out on spirals within spirals. Webster cautions against underestimating Lacan:

It might be wrong to impugn Lacan’s sincerity or to suggest that he is engaging in a consciously calculated strategy. But his remarks are characteristic of the messianic prophet; the faithful are rebuked for deserting the ways of God and falling into the ways of men. The messiah is he who has come to restore them to righteousness. It is he who will reveal again the true Freud whom others have concealed.

Lacan’s tactics, in Webster’s telling, mimic the cult-leading strategies laid out in Carey Burtt’s classic short “Mind Control Made Easy.“ Burtt’s film fairly captures my experience of graduate school (an elaborate cult or conspiracy to secure freshman composition teachers on the cheap, as cynical university administrators might view it). Some of the statements in the film — “Join our elite mission to save the world.” “All you need is two hours’ sleep.” “A: I felt an infinite emptiness. It was terrifying. B: No, that’s good. Do it more.” “A: I don’t know who I am anymore. B: Good, now you are free. In fact, there was no you there to begin with.” — seem like refractions of what I heard in seminars about subjectivity and psychoanalytical theory and poststructuralism from fellow students and from professors who were trying to be encouraging in their own peculiar way.

At the time I felt I was learning a lot, but the knowledge I was amassing was increasingly disordered in my mind, provoking questions that required more and more esoteric jargon to even articulate. I was learning what sorts of books I should be reading, but actually reading all these works that people seemed to treat as prerequisites would have added years and years to my preparatory study phase. It seemed that there was an endless ladder to climb, and the further I went up it, the less I could bring myself to face the thought of ever getting off or reaching the top.

But the fact that graduate school seemed to me a cult probably says more about me and my inability to view education as anything other than “self-actualization” and personal growth. I wasn’t always discouraged from this view, but neither did I have it forced upon me. I never abstracted myself from the schooling process and would not accept it as simply a program of professionalization and preferential networking. I chose to cling instead to an impression of the university as a place obscurely designed to aggrandize my ego. I was thus made uncomfortable when any larger mission would come into view.

Webster’s description of Lacan’s personality, based on what he deduces from Lacan’s obscure texts — “an alienated intellectual who hugely overvalues his own intellect and cognitive skills, and has become almost completely cut off from the world of ordinary human relationships” — serves as a pretty good description of what I remember of myself in graduate school. His judgment of Lacan’s theory, that it is “a fiction created by an intellectual in order to alleviate his own emotional predicament,” reminds me of my perpetually deferred dissertation. I could only experience higher education as a cult, because I approached it as an earnest devotee of the most irresistible cult of personality out there, the narcissistic cult of myself.

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17 Responses to “Theory cults”

  1. Good to see that you escaped the cult of yourself and are now writing pieces like this one.

  2. meatbath says:

    Word. It’s definitely no good when theory becomes the site for the battle for your soul.

    I think academia gets all caught up in talking about power relations that it sometimes it forgets the pressure it itself exerts.

    Reading this was lovely, so thanks! But, no mention of Zizek? Isn’t he, like, the king of not making any sense?

  3. Jacob says:

    So true. There’s a witless amateurism encouraged by Theory. It makes students learn the catechism of antiquated ideas on sociology, psychology, philosophy etc by people long dead (like Lacan), instead of engaging with modern ideas.

    The shrieks of horror you get in reaction to statements like this only ensures Theory’s self-imposed irrelevancy.

    And though there are plenty of narcissists in every discipline, at least most students of quantum chromodynamics or neuropharmacology or cognitive linguistics can explain to you the bare basics of what they do, and what it adds to our understanding. And even if they’re such a poor communicator that they can’t, someone else can.

    If anyone, anywhere, ever, has been able to explain the bare basics of what non-trivial, original, well substantiated ideas Irigaray or Derrida or Lacan bring to the table, I’m not aware of them.

    But then, this stuff is not ‘supposed’ to be understood …

  4. me says:

    Two words: Gary Leonard.

  5. Trevor says:

    Theory is so overwhelmingly popular and majoritarian today that I’m glad you wrote this piece. The US is so pro-intellectual, its good you fighting the good fight and are saying enough with fancy book learning. There should be less ‘theory’, and more ‘common sense’! More quantifying analysis of markets, ‘Freakonomics’, Malcolm Gladwell and physics explain reality best. You’re on the winning team now!

  6. Glen says:

    Some fair points about ‘theory’. Re this:

    “that’s what my graduate-school conversations were like, conducted in language that was ever more compressed and coded, no longer capable of being unpacked yet bearing the affect of so much high-pressure intellectual labor.”

    Is the irony here intentional? Yeah? Complaining about ‘Lacan’ (or those that are ‘Lacanians’) in the context of meaningless or disorganised (albeit charismatic) way of thinking, largely due to the character of the terminology used, when one of Lacan’s core points was regarding language/signifier’s role in structuring the psyche… So… You are performing an analysis of the kind of language used in grad school and how this lead to a certain way of charismatic ‘cult’ like way of thinking. Is this not a kind of pop-Lacanian analysis?

    But, you know, I only read enough Lacan to understand what Guattari was talking about, so maybe I am wrong on this point.

  7. Jacob says:

    Enough words to make my point: If you’re trying to persuade people, using a cute phrase and giving a name shared by dozens of people is not going to work very often.

  8. Benladen says:

    my video is still hella funny tho

  9. Anonymous says:

    I get your point, but Theory is in no way “pro-intellectual” when it more closely resembles religion rather than science.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I also shouldnt have to point out that market analysis, Freakonomics, and Malcolm Gladwell are all things people learn about almost exclusively from, as you put it, “book learning”

    Books are only a medium, just like film and television. And to be honest, theyre also by far the one with the worst track record when you you look at the Shit/Propaganda to Quality Product ratio.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Zizek is famous solely for being the first fat, unkempt internet blogger to write Matrix fanfiction AND have sex with an attractive woman.

  12. Anonymous says:

    I think academia gets all caught up in talking about power relations that it sometimes it forgets the pressure it itself exerts.

  13. Anonymous says:

    So… You are performing an analysis of the kind of language used in
    grad school and how this lead to a certain way of charismatic ‘cult’
    like way of thinking. Is this not a kind of pop-Lacanian analysis? or

  14. Jamie says:

    I agree to you comment.

  15. Michael Rectenwald says:

    I don’t know whether I have much of an opinion of this piece, other than that I’m sick of people whining about academia. Give me a fucking break. And a Ph.D. program in theory is not indoctrination into a cult. It is far more precarious than that. At least cults take care of you. Rather, grad school in theory is an agonistic field. It’s a game and a set of hurdles. Those who won’t or can’t jump will be eliminated. Those that can and do get to go forward. It’s definitely an indoctrination process, as is any higher education, but the indoctrination is into a field, not a cult. Those who think they are
    entering a cult, or that, in retrospect, think that they did enter a cult, simply took one or a few theorists, or the whole lot, far too seriously. The wizened observer and player simply regards every text as a context for successfully passing, in the sense of passing usually reserved for “passing” as straight, or white, only this time it’s passing for someone who grasps the predicament of otherness. That is, one tries to secure advantage by proving something about oneself, that one is not going to be eliminated by particular texts or contexts, but rather will prove savvy
    enough to impress his or her professors, then his or her dissertation readers, then his or her job search committee(s), then his or her renewal committee, then his or her tenure committee. But what did this
    guy expect, purity? The essay betrays a naivety regarding institutions in general, let alone academia in particular.

  16. Johnny Fiveaces says:

    More wizened whining from the Walrus of Wall Street I see…

  17. Walden9 says:

    What? I

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