David M. Brown's Blog

March 15, 2010

The strange professor: my vague memory of Dominick LaCapra

Filed under: History,Literature,Philosophy,Society and culture — davidmbrowndotcom @ 10:32 am

A seminar application asks me which course or professor in college was the most influential and why. No one professor stands out in my memory as especially influential; it was books and non-professors who affected my thinking and ambitions most. But I remember one who was particular vexing and interesting, Dominick LaCapra, a historian of ideas who was trying to get a handle on all the contours of the dialectic. I took his course on modern intellectual history (merely auditing the second semester). I often felt that he was more abstruse and indirect (hard to pin down) than he should have been and less judgmental than he should have been. He could be very funny. I remember a line of Stendahl about the impact on a character of meeting a girl because of the way LaCapra delivered it: “All his ideas changed.” I admired his ability to master and articulate the diverse literature that was the subject of his study, though I think his views to the extent I could discern them were postmodernist/left.

LaCapra’s final lecture was a parody of his own teaching style and characteristic formulations, so effectively funny that it almost seemed that everything hitherto in the course had been just a setup for this extended punch line. That he could and would skewer himself like that was nothing I had ever seen before. But how could he be this self-aware and not realize that there was something amiss in his pedagogy? A student once asked him for a definition of “carnival” as he was using it, and LaCapra ducked the question, saying something to the effect that features of the phenomenon would emerge as he continued his exposition. A definition was either a) possible or b) not possible; in either case, the answer he gave was bad. He would also give his understanding of some work or historical phenomenon, and then say what was wrong with or inadequate about the interpretation he had just given (when any necessary quailifications could easiliy have been supplied in the original explication). I think he was doing some kind of dialectical “successive approximation.” Or something like that. I didn’t save any notes from the course, which I took about a quarter century ago. Dredging all this now makes me want to look at his book on modern European intellectual history, which I see from Amazon was published in 1982, not long before I took his course.


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