Re: to read or not to read...

Carl Glover (
Tue, 25 Mar 1997 16:58:03 -0600

(D)ear (Cyn)thia,
Last week I wrote a post that said how pleased I was to hear the
term "problematize" only a couple of times during the CCCC at Phoenix. I
did not use the word "cringe" in connection with "problematize," but I
think it is a fair inference to draw from my flippant one-liner. When I
wrote that post, I did not anticipate the vehemence or the intensity of
the response it would evoke. To me, it was just another lame "Ask Carl"
remark, not unlike the others which are usually ignored by the Brothers
and Sisters subscribing to this list.
Later that day, Anne Mullin (forgive me if I am wrong) indicated a
similar reaction to the word "hegemony." This was followed by a response
from Brother Pete Gray from Fairfield University, whose acquaintance I
have not had the pleasure of making. Presumably Brother Pete is a
colleague of Beth Boquet's, which means, of course, that he is very well
paid. I was ill prepared for the next event: the re-emergence of Ed Lotto
as a major player on Wcenter. Bro. Lotto used to be our most articulate
champion of Post Modernism, often in the face of bitter opposition.
Despite the fact that he labelled me the "Lord High Fool" of Wcenter on
this list (a title he conferred in the spirit of charity and good will; a
title I so richly deserve), I have missed his insightful commentary and
welcome his return.
Cynthia, I have followed with interest your thoughtful and
provocative posts and your deconstruction of those posts sent to you in
response. I look forward to reading your response to this post, but I
fear that whatever I may offer in reply will be no match for your
Having said all that, I want to express my view of the term
"problematize." I have something to say about hegemony, but I will save
that for another post, one of the "Ask Carl" variety. It involves Robert
E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and the Chickahominy Creek in Virginia. More
on that later.
I think the verb "to problematize" is an important term in
post-modern critical theory. I'm not sure of its precise definition, but
the ones you offered ("to make problematic, particularly ideas that are
usually accepted as given") make sense to me. It is integral to the
post-modern approach to the world. To problematize offers us a chance to
see the world anew, to re-make the world, to find new ways to act in it.
I support both the use of the term and the possibilities that the term
engenders. Here's the rub.
"To problematize" has been used so extensively, especially in
conference papers, that it has reached the level of jargon. So have verbs
like "to situate" and "to position." But I would argue that they are more
than jargon. They have risen to the highest level of all. They have
become modern-day "topoi." Please indulge my descent into the world of
classical rhetoric, but I really do think that the ancient Greek and Roman
notions of the common and special topics apply here. The topoi or
"commonplaces" were places to go for arguments, or approaches to
argumentation that rhetoricians were trained to use when the situation
dictated. Quintilian called topoi "the secret places where arguments
reside, and from which they must be drawn forth."
Two points to remember about topoi:
--they are not the arguments themselves but are merely the
forms or the lines of argumentation. In other words, they are devoid of
--they are inextricably linked to an ideology.
No real surpirse there, I am sure.
The reason I complain about the use of the term "to problematize"
in many conference papers is that the presenters offer me the topos alone
without the content of the argument that should be plugged into it. I
think it is perfectly valid move to use the modern topos of problematizing
to make an argument, to analyze a social problem, to recommend a course of
action, so long as the argument accompanies the topos. I don't think it
is useful to say (as I have sometimes heard), "Well, clearly your idea is
not viable because you have failed to problematize it."
The other problem is that not everyone shares the same ideological
presumptions that undermine the topos of problematizing.
That's enough for now. If you have read this far, I salute you.
Warm regards,

Carl W. Glover



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