Polemic: Critical or Uncritical

Polemic: Critical or Uncritical

Polemic: Critical or Uncritical

Polemic: Critical or Uncritical


These new essays by leading scholars examine some famous and less well-known instances of polemical encounters: Michael Warner on Kant's views of critical reading, Louis Menand on the Andrew Sarris-Pauline Kael slugfest over popular movies, as well as other essays on Foucault, Habermas and Boswell with Dr. Johnson.


Jane Gallop

The first paper at the 2002 English Institute (September 20-22) was Amanda Anderson's “Argument and Ethos.” According to Anderson, in contemporary literary and cultural studies, “ethos has suffered a kind of exile from theoretical work.” the particular “kind of exile” ethos suffers is not really an absence from theoretical argument, but rather a peculiar sort of presence: “no matter how disavowed … it tends to come back in shadow forms, haunting the debate.” Anderson calls for “a fuller acknowledgment of the insistent presence” of ethos in our arguments.

While I find Anderson's argument about ethos lucid and persuasive, I want at the same time to acknowledge that, along with its astute argument, “Argument and Ethos” brought something else into the English Institute. What the title of that paper terms “ethos” also appears under another name. in order to better capture the shadowy presence that haunts our arguments, Anderson refers to it not only as “ethos” but also as “character.” and although it is not exactly what Anderson means by “character, ” still the word seems to portend the odd fact that “Argument and Ethos” ended up bringing into the English Institute not only its cogent argument but also two characters who tended to come back in shadow forms through the next three days, haunting our reception of the diverse papers presented.

One of these characters is named Habermas. Loosely based on the actual German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, in Anderson's essay he appears most memorably not in her attentive, sympathetic version of him but in the role he's given in the oft-told tale of his “famous” debate with Foucault. While Anderson does not subscribe to this portrayal of Habermas-indeed she critiques it as caricature and misrepresentation-in order to represent the debate and the place of ethos in it, she gives us a vivid sense of Habermas's unfortunate role in that scenario: “As it did in the earliest days of the 'debate, ' the name 'Habermas' often

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