Saturday, July 03, 2010

The big picture

I'm on record, on this blog, as not being much of a systematizer or theorizer. I've never been a top-down thinker, and neither have I had much of a knack for synthesis.

I've had mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, I know myself to be a good detail person. I'm a patient accumulator of data, a subtle close-reader, a relentless reviser, and someone who's content to fuss with something she thinks might be important--though she can't say why!--until its significance gradually comes into focus. But on the other hand, I'm not a quick study. I don't speak well or persuasively off the cuff, and I have a hard time framing or even understanding the larger significance of my work. Those aren't merely superficial skills (although in some people they are); they speak to intellectual agility and intellectual depth.

So I've spent a lot of time both envying and deriding people who are systematizers. I've been impatient with theorizers for being bad on the details and suspicious of theory itself for being too totalizing.

It comes, therefore, as a bit of a shock that all I seem to want to read right now are some major systematizers. I'm happily splashing around in Freud and Weber and Nietzsche, Lacan and Derrida and Jameson.

I'm not sure what this is about. Maybe it's about filling in some gaps in my education, or taking my studies in a new direction. Maybe it's about searching for a new and better language for my own ideas. But I do think it has to do with my nearly being done with the work I began in grad school, the project that was once my dissertation and is now a very different book. I'm a much better thinker now, and a better synthesizer. Along the way, it's become clearer to me that the point--the utility--of a particular theoretical model doesn't depend on its being right in all its details, applying to every situation, or answering every question.

Also? I'm having MY MIND BLOWN. On, like, a daily basis. And maybe that's its own justification.


Shane in Utah said...

This is interesting. I guess I'm somewhere in the middle: in most of my work, I'm taking someone else's big totalizing theory (or my synthesis of various ideas) and testing it against a particular text or situation. So I'm trying to give the theory grounding, on some level.

Sisyphus said...

Yay for theory head exploding! That was what my undergrad was all about, or at least the second half of it. I keep saying I should dive back in to more theorists, but it seems to be, like intensive fiction-reading, a circuit that I've burned out over grad school. Alas. Maybe I'll work up to it again.

Susan said...

I wonder if finishing the book actually needs seeing the big picture?
I go back and forth -- I often have VERY big picture questions, but I go back to very detail approaches.

Flavia said...


Oh, sure. I don't use theory explicitly in my work, and don't expect to, but I'm interested in the different perspectives it can give. The best users of theory I know use it with an extremely light touch--whoever has influenced them has influenced them in such a way that the ideas are now thoroughly their own, adapted to their own concerns.

I was really turned off by theory for a long time, for a lot of reasons, but especially because of how ham-handedly it seemed to be used, forced down on top of a situation or a group of texts, whether it applied perfectly or not. But I'm realizing that, as with regular old literary criticism, one can be influenced or inspired by a theory without accepting its argument in full or in all its particulars.

Also, I think I'm better with abstract thought now than I used to be.


Yes, there's a bit of a chicken-egg problem, isn't there? At least for me, whenever I go back to the details of a given chapter/author/text, I realize that the book's big argument needs some revision, and then revising THAT has implications on the local level, requiring more revisions to the chapters. . . it seems potentially endless.