In academia these days the pressures are great to rely heavily on derivative works. Imperatives to publish are stronger than ever, the fates of individuals or even departments (depending on where you work) rest on outputs. Concepts and philosophers fall in and out of fashion. The pressure to be “current” is strong – critical theorists of all stripes live and write under the tyranny of the new. In this context (whether you are working through Fanon or Spivak, Leibniz or Peirce, Heidegger or Spinoza, Butler or Marx), temptations to engage a range of derivatives but “sign” a paper with the “source” are perhaps more pressing than ever. Engagement with philosophical texts is not only fun, and thought provoking, it becomes a way to “sign” ones work, to exert authority in the field, to demonstrate gravitas. Scholars also struggle against the methodological legacy of their disciplines. Where philosophy has methodologically been intent on concept-creation, geography, on the other hand, or perhaps one strand of it, has historically been engaged in the naming and bounding of regions. In contemporary work this legacy often translates into a kind of herding together of concepts that are similar, that resonate with one another, but that are not identical objects. Critical theorists who work within the register of anthropology, sociology, or political science (to name a few others) will undoubtedly wrestle with other legacies.
But concepts matter. They matter in their distinctions. They make a difference, in the most literal sense that, in the act of philosophizing, in the invention, creation of a new concept, one is attempting to change sensibilities, provoke new perceptions and understandings, to make difference. This is why we must proceed with caution in attempts to make new or difficult concepts legible to a wider audience; we must be a careful not simply to appeal to a common sense understanding, lest we risk losing the very specificity of the concept in question. It is in this sense, I argue, that we cannot simply substitute a more commonly understood term for its less familiar concept. We cannot for example exchange “affect” for “emotion” (unless we want to launch a fully developed argument as to why they are equivalent) any more than we might substitute “price difference” for “surplus value”. To paraphrase Deleuze, when a philosopher employs a distinctive term or concept, it is in principle because he or she has a reason to (Deleuze 1978).
Continue reading Sue Ruddick’s commentary here.