Theory-as-Prosthesis: A Response to Kathryn Carney

By | December 10, 2021

This week, in a series of blog takeovers, we’re looking at Modernism, Theory, and Responsible Reading with posts from the collection’s contributors.

Guest post by Rivky Mondal

Response to Kathryn Carney

Kathryn Carney’s “theory-as-prosthesis” is a critical-phenomenological model constructed on the discontinuities of being in relation with another, whether that be a person, a text, or a field-level debate. Prosthesis is adopted as a metaphor in an obverse sense, not as a well-fitted supplement but rather as a figure of variability that remains “both a part of and distinct from the body, as each aspect—the body and the prosthetic, the actual and the virtual, the spatial and the temporal—interpenetrates the other without altogether integrating” (Carney 82). Cast as a strategy of resistance, prosthetic theory checks criticism that absorbs another’s thinking into one-sided synthesis or subsumed plenitude. As Carney puts so well, “theory-as-prosthesis” is a “reparative and responsive—if not responsible—method predicated on negativity itself” (Carney 79). It is akin to a negative dialectics wherein concepts are “mediated reciprocally in” their objects but safeguarded in their respective differences.[1] Prosthetic theory attends to a special kind of dissonance which arises when one is truly altered by the act of understanding something or someone else.

Carney’s commitment to discontinuity leads her to propose a theoretical model that questions modernist studies’ recourse to totalizing paradigms. Even while the concept of “modernism” grows more diffuse, the field mediates non-white and non-Western artists and artifacts through a North-American and European canon of literature and critical theory. Theory-as-prosthesis strives to “access modernism without cementing, with any finality, the premise of its closure” by keeping the interval open for “emergent relations” that resist reduction to a centered field and its master narratives (Carney 81). However, not all modernists understand their research in reference to a field-totality. Many operate as “a part of and distinct from” modernist studies by virtue of specializing in other fields with equally urgent developments and stakes. Somewhere between personal choice and professional pressure, a “prosthetic” ethos has emerged already for modernists who conceive of their relationship to the field in terms of attachable yet continually mobile difference. From this point of view, the prosthesis offers a productive type of negativity: it formulates an alternative knowledge-structure for the difficulty ofconjoining to a predominant field and the attendant need for constant readjustment. Indeed, the field could itself benefit not only from Carney’s new theory of productive negativity, which is ultimately a theory of relationality, but also her interdisciplinary mindset. Carney’s training in feminist phenomenology, critical disability studies, new materialism, and posthumanism draws attention to the interconnectedness of an embodied experience of negativity with an epistemically transformative encounter with another.

My recapitulation of theory-as-prosthesis is rather abstract, so an illustration is necessary. In Carney’s essay, “hesitation” grounds the dissonance of prosthetic thought in an embodied consciousness that is indeterminate. Like the prosthetic, hesitation both performs and reflects on thought and feeling that are suspended in possibility. Hovering on the threshold between cognition and speech, hesitation defers conclusive answers in favor of still-becoming ideas. According to Alia Al-Saji, who originated a philosophyof prosthesis, “hesitation not only destabilizes objectifying and totalizing habits that would freeze the movement of thought, it also installs within that movement the conditions for continual search and creative differentiation.”[2] What is intriguing about Al-Saji’s and Carney’s intertwined conceptions of hesitation and the prosthesis is the fact that these potentially re-unbalancing phenomena are “generative”: not only can they expand the scope of thought or action and make available temporalities for new ones, but they also “transform…and [are] transformed by what we think.”[3] Hesitation is an especially useful example because it affects any number of academic situations (the seminar, the conference roundtable, the Twitter feed) wherethe exchange of ideas can easily unseat our assumptions and irritate us into self-examination.And yet, I wonder whether hesitation can inhibit such transformative collision in part because it is a function of time. Hesitate for too long and you might provoke suspicion; hesitate too little and risk giving an answer that is exposing in its alacrity. Hesitation can shore up feelings of disidentification just as it can leave more time for rumination. Hesitation also reveals a static, if stultifying, degree of over-thinking that only appears productive. Complications follow from hesitation, prosthetic theory, or any conceptual model that premises itself on negativity: for instance, the exploitation of the differences of another in the interest of a dominant ideology or the production of an oppressive atmosphere of negative affect. The recuperation of hesitation and other affects of disidentification within the context of academic exchange must also prompt a reckoning with the conditions which cause individuals to hesitate, and how the structural racism of English fields and departments forces states of irresolution into acts of evasion and erasure.

Carney suggests that what is “objectifying and totalizing” about modernist studies is its tendency to incorporate marginalized authors into itself only to find what was already there in an idealistically deepened though materially unaltered form (Carney 80). Highlighting a fine distinction between an “assimilationist” model and a “porous” strategy, Carney’s theory-as-prosthesis can be used to tell good negative dialectics apart from the bad: the enduring tendency to absorb such authors while leaving them marginalized is an insidious form of pseudo-incorporation. How might modernist studies desist from this dynamic while striving for porosity? Carney concludes her essay by asking if turning theory-as-prosthesis into a field-level paradigm would contradict its aims to be provisional and variable. The question speaks to not only an interpretative challenge of altering a field of study, which would require another “strong” theory, but also an ethical dilemma of belonging to a discourse that mediates all its relations through a master narrative that is continually reconstituting itself.

In my response, I take Carney’s theories of prosthesis and hesitation as an opportunity to reflect briefly on these states and situations of self-negotiation which occur in the discursive process of engaging with another’s perspective.My conceptual model here is the intellectual dialogue.Remaining in Carney’s domain of epistemological-phenomenological inquiry, I focus on two approaches to the dialogue, one by an author of a well-known humanities PhD manual, the other by a hermeneutical philosopher.Both understand the process of intellectual exchange in terms of reparable discontinuity while paying increased attention to individual responsibility.  

The act of intervening in a field’s discourse is, to an extent, the result of a sublimated process of hesitation. In Graduate Study for the Twenty-First Century, Gregory M. Colón Semenza states that “the largely psychological component underlying traditional scholarly writing in the humanities [is] anxiety about how we fit in[.]”[4]Of course, the “we” always begins with a “me”: in a section on “Finding Your Personal Voice,” Semenza traces the scholar’s anxious self-mediation in a common rhetorical arc of academic papers. The writer begins the argument in the first person—“‘I want to argue,’ ‘I contend,’ ‘I wish to argue,’ ‘I try to expand’”—and concludes in the first-person plural, the author’s “we.”[5] Similar to Carney’s hesitation, anxiety over “fit” is made mutually productive because it ultimately “leads to a self-assertion of presence and worth (of self, of ideas) which, in turn, leads to the enhancement of a conversation traversing space and time.”[6]According to Semenza, mastering the rhetorical and conceptual patterns of a field in turn amplifies the voice of the “I.” However, Carney’s hesitation at the end of her essay reminds us of the price of that process.Assimilation into an existing conversation can be beneficial overall, but to a point it requires the “writing- or speaking-over” of the individual (Carney 80).

While Semenza avers the shared elevation of finding your voice within an existing discourse, Hans-Georg Gadamer adopts the model of a face-to-face dialogue to explore how conversation partners are transformed by understanding their position through each other’s viewpoint. Gadamer represents the phenomenology of understanding as a dialogue based in negativity. In a “hermeneutical” dialogue, genuine mutual understanding requires that both partners try to recognize “the full value of what is alien and opposed to them.”[7] They do so by weighing the arguments of the other not for the sake of debate but to determine how the other person could be right. That does not equal an automatic concession to the “stronger” argument; Gadamer writes that genuine understanding depends on remaining open to the other’s perspective without necessarily sharing their views or diminishing ours. “All that is asked is that we remain open to the meaning of the other person or text,” Gadamer writes. “But this openness always includes our situating the other meaning in relation to the whole of our own meanings or ourselves in relation to it.”[8] It is unlikely that two people will fully understand each other, but they will make each other’s arguments more significant in finding “a common diction and a common dictum.”[9] The result of dialoguing with another entails the expansion of one’s “horizons” as a result of investing in their point of view.

Gadamer thinks about dialogue under a framework of philosophical hermeneutics, which examines how an experience of truth brought on by the artwork transforms the interpreter’s existence. Even in its abstractness, Gadamer’s description of the hermeneutical dialogue reveals ideals that we already strive for in responsible discussion. What I like about Gadamer’s model is that genuine—that is, transformative—understanding is ultimately the responsibility of the individual; the onus is on them to change their mind, rather than allow the other person to change it for them.By bringing to the surface pre-judgments of the other’s position—what Gadamer calls biases or prejudices—hermeneutical understanding through difference resonates with Carney’s theory of relational negativity.[10] Prosthetic theory is poised to make a contribution to modernist studies because it is a loose framework that retains individual experiences, negativity and all.We will see changes in the field once we begin to feel ourselves truly changed by the conversation.

References

Adorno, Theodor W. Aesthetic Theory. London and New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017.

Al-Saji, Alia. “When Thinking Hesitates: Philosophy as Prosthesis and Transformative Vision.”

The Southern Journal of Philosophy 30, no. 2 (June 2012): 351-61.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. London and New York: Bloomsbury Publishing,

2013.

Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.

Semenza, Gregory M. Colón. Graduate Study for the Twenty-First Century: How to Build an

Academic Career in the Humanities. Second edition.New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.


[1] Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (London and New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017), 453.

[2] Alia Al-Saji, “When Thinking Hesitates: Philosophy as Prosthesis and Transformative Vision,” The Southern Journal of Philosophy 30, no. 2 (June 2012): 360.

[3] Ibid, 361.

[4]  Gregory M. Colón Semenza, Graduate Study for the Twenty-First Century: How to Build an Academic Career in the Humanities, second edition(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 113.

[5] Ibid, 112.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (London and New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013), 405.

[8] Ibid, 281.

[9] Ibid, 405.

[10] Gadamer writes that “[t]he important thing is to be aware of one’s own bias, so that the text can present itself in all its otherness and thus assert its own truth against one’s own fore-meanings.”Ibid, 281.

Modernism, Theory and Responsible Reading cover
Rivky Mondal is a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago. Her writing is published or forthcoming in the Henry James Review, the Journal of Modern Literature, Post45, and 3:AM Magazine. Her undergraduate course, “Women of the Avant-Garde,” received a fellowship from the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality in 2020. She has performed editorial work for a range of academic publications, including Reading Sedgwick (2019), edited by Lauren Berlant; 1922: Literature, Culture, Politics (2015) and A Handbook of Modernism Studies (2013), both edited by Jean-Michel Rabaté; and Critical Inquiry. She is completing a dissertation on the micro-social forms that undergird and frustrate the transmission of aesthetic judgments.

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