Re: to read or not to read...

Cynthia Haynes (
Wed, 26 Mar 1997 01:09:09 -0600

On Tue, 25 Mar 1997, Carl Glover wrote:

> (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.

Rev. Carl...I do remember that your post tickled me, as your posts usually
do :) I recall in one of my subsequent posts using the word cringe,
though I was responding to someone else who used that word, not you...just
to clarify.


> 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."

Excellent...thanks for sending me back to Aristotle's topoi. After
re-reading A's On Rhetoric and his Topics now I'm really stinifulent (it's
from a secret club I created in the hotel business called The Ministry of
Stinifulence...none of us ever knew what it meant...but when the ministry
would convene at the King's Arms Tavern in Williamsburg, downing mead and
peanuts, it seemed to fit our ethos :)...anyway...I'm really intrigued and
somewhat beguiled by the notion of this word "problematize" as a
'commonplace'...but before I respond, let me read on...

> 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
> content.
> --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.

OK, I'm with you. The frequent use of "to situate" and "to position" is a
practice that accompanied a rise in politics within our field's
theorizing. Notice I didn't say "political correctness," that would open a
whole 'nother can-o-worms. I've been subjected to criticism before because
I did not "position" or "situate" my politics within some specific camp,
i.e. I did not (according to the critique) specify my politics of
location. I was being asked "to situate" myself vis-a-vis feminism in
that particular instance. So, I can relate. However, I'm wondering if the
call "to situate" or position oneself is more like a call to
specify...rather than a line of argument? What does this make of "to
problematize? Well, here's a stab at specifying what it has become (since
I agree with you that whether or not we all agree about its use, the fact
is that it has a certain critical capital in our discourse).

As I was re-reading A's Topics, I came across a useful passage that
discusses the distinction between propositions and problems. Bear with
me...Aristotle writes:

For it is not every proposition nor yet every problem that is to be set
down as dialectical [A. is defining dialectical propositions and
dialectical problems]: for no one in his senses would make a proposition
of what no one holds, nor yet make a problem of what is obvious to
everybody or to most people: for the latter admits of no doubt, while
to the former no one would assent.(Topics, Bk1:Ch8)

OK, as I read this "to make a problem of" sounds a great deal to me like
"to problematize"...but the interesting thing in our late 20th century
discussion of this is that the part "what is obvious to everybody or to
most people" has become (for lack of a better word) problematic. Call it
politics, postmodernism(s), whatever...when I hear the word problematize
as you described it leveled at you, it sounds 'as if' someone does not
share 'the obvious' (the content?) with you. SO, one person's obvious is
not the other person's obvious. Follow? That often results in one
person's NEED to problematize (or "to make a problem of") something they
don't consider AS obvious as the other person does. Your thoughts?

Thanks, Carl, for your response. One thing though...Aristotle says a few
paragraphs later (in a definition of Induction): "it is more readily
learnt by the use of the senses, and is applicable generally to the mass
of men, though Reasoning is more forcible and effective against
contradictious people" (Bk.1,Ch 12). Does this mean that we have to go
through all of this over the term "contradictious," too? :) Hmmm...since
I'm not in the category of "the mass of men".......

Oh, Aristotle,'s late and I'm gettin' contradictious.


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