U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Putative Left: Immanent Critique and The Intellectual History of Theory

We continue, here, with the task of thinking about the rise of Theory in the United States––a phenomenon roughly contemporaneous with the displacement of the New Deal order by neoliberalism, beginning with the economic shocks and crises of the early 1970s. What we are asking is whether the new passions for methodologically sophisticated critique within the humanities and social sciences since the 1970s might productively be categorized as evidence of an emergent Epistemic Left.

Over the past weeks, we have been grateful to receive some helpful criticism. This criticism has assisted in the clarification of several fundamental premises. First, we want to make sure that we are not arguing that all speculative experimentation––from Thales to Post-Humanism––is, in some way, “Left.” That would be a very difficult claim to prove. No part of our current task requires such a universalizing appraisal. Furthermore, at an intuitive level, it simply does not seem to be true.

Second, we do not want to be mistaken for arguing that all Left thinking is speculatively experimental. This brings us back to the original motivation for thinking about “Epistemic Leftism,” inspired as it was by Peter Novick’s observation that so much Left historiography has hewed closely to nineteenth century protocols (what history people refer to by the shorthand of “Rankean”), apparently allergic to the conceptual innovations of the modernist and postmodernist moments. Thus, for us, “Epistemic Left” is to be understood as a minor idiom within a methodologically traditionalist field—what might be called an “Epistemological Left,” a Left for which conventional epistemology is not a problem.

Finally, we wish to make sure that “Epistemic Left” does not translate as: “a descriptive container for things that I like.” I am a person of the Left, it’s true, and I am interested in Theory, and thus some overlap of this sort is unavoidable. But we would never contest the fact that intellectuals outside the penumbra of the Left thought and wrote some interesting and clever things in the period 1973-2016, and that intellectuals within that penumbra thought and wrote some boring and stupid things.

Today, we wish to think further about the criticism that is, by far, the most convincing of all—that (setting everything else aside) Theory is and always has been a mandarin endeavor with political pretensions. To take seriously the Left-ness of the “Epistemic Left” is merely to flatter the vain self-celebration of the Theorists themselves; in the words of Edward W. Said: “the often ridiculous and always self-flattering notion that their discussions and debates have a supremely important bearing upon crucial interests affecting humankind.”

The “Epistemic Left,” to this way of thinking, is, in fact, a “Putative Left,” as Said suggests in “Reflections on Recent American ‘Left’ Literary Criticism” (1979).  Seeking no political purpose outside of the seminar room, “the putative Left… is very far from playing a left-wing role.”

I would like to briefly review the main points that Said establishes in this essay, and conclude by thinking a bit about where Said’s critique leaves us. Does it destabilize, entirely, the project of historicizing Theory as a product of an Epistemic Left? Or does it leave us––as I think it does––with a more sober-minded and dialectical understanding of the changes in Literary Studies (following the displacement of New Criticism in the aftermath of the 1960s) as still plausibly attributable to an emergent scholarly radicalism?

“Reflections on Recent American ‘Left’ Literary Criticism”

Surveying the field at the precipice of the Reagan Era, Said observes that most of the popular new strains of literary criticism––“among others, semiotics, hermeneutics, Marxism, and deconstruction”––tend to adopt “a position and a rhetoric of opposition to what is considered to be established or conservative academic scholarship” and to take on “the function of the left-wing in politics.”  Said insists that the “oppositional” posture of Theory fails to correspond to any genuine social or political function of resistance. “In this setting,” Said suggests, “even Marxism has often been accommodated to the exigencies of rhetoric (fierce ones) while surrendering its true radical prerogatives.”

Said is troubled not merely by the political pretensions of the “New New Criticism,” but also by the ways in which such pretending may serve reactionary ends: above all, the strengthening of the social structure and political order undergirding the culture of the American university. The most glaring example of this dynamic, for Said, is to be found in Derridean Deconstruction: practiced “as if Western culture was being dismantled” while paying very little attention to the world outside of Europe and the United States.

Particularly galling, from Said’s point of view, is the systematic avoidance of any discussion of the state and the problem of authority. Nowhere in any of the literature of the Putative Left “will one encounter a serious study of what authority is, either with reference to the way authority is carried historically and circumstantially from the State down into a society saturated with authority of one sort or another, or with reference to the actual workings of culture, the role of intellectuals, institutions, and establishments.” Under such circumstances, Said opines: “I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that oppositional Left criticism contributes absolutely nothing to intellectual debate in the culture at large today.”

In a manner somewhat similar to Russell Jacoby (then working the same intellectual-historical terrain), Said contrasts the engagement of left-wing public intellectuals (Randolph Bourne and Joseph Freeman) with the isolation of the Putative Left. The latter, drawing much of its inspiration from France, seems to reject any affiliation with earlier strains of domestic intellectual radicalism. The Putative Left embraces a de novo Marxism, a Marxism born fully fledged in the 1960s and apparently able to skip over most of the history between the death of Marx and 1956. For Said, the weakness of the Putative Left is to be found in two related absences: the absence of a “continuous Marxist theoretical tradition or culture to back it up and the absence of any relation to “concrete political struggle.”

Interestingly, Said sees possibilities for correction against the most pernicious of these tendencies in the epistemologically modest field of left-wing “revisionist” US political history––along the lines pursued by William Appleman Williams and Gabriel Kolko. Overcoming the flamboyance and vainglory of Theory––its drift toward the pursuit of refinement as against the demands of radical knowledge-production––requires a return to archival research, the careful measurement of hypotheses against the evidence: “for there to be effective interpretation in what is, after all is said and done, a historical discipline, there must also be effective history, effective archival work, effective management in the actual material of history.”

Out of such historically informed inquiry, Said proposes, literary theorists might begin to grapple with the two related Gramscian themes that ought to be central to future left critique: “elaboration” and “affiliation.”

“Elaboration,” Said explains, denotes the critical tasks of refinement, working-through, conceptual reconstruction of world-pictures, and the imperative to take seriously the proposition that “culture itself, or thought, or art is a highly complex and quasi-autonomous extension of political reality” that “has a density, a complexity, and a historical-semantic value that is so strong as to make politics possible.” To prioritize “elaboration” is to inquire into the role played by language and thought in the legitimation of political regimes, to accept the fact that “thought, art and culture make up a large part of that upon which State authority depends, of that which the State governs.”

“Affiliation,” for Said, denotes that work of reverse-engineering that searches for the conditions of possibility of this or that statement in this or that place and time––the study of the processes through which “texts are made permissible.” This work may then be put to use in service of the goal of “understanding, analyzing, contending with the distribution, deployment and management of power and authority within the culture.”


This summary has no doubt left out a number of important details from Said’s essay, but I think we have gone over the essentials.

Where does this leave us?

What provisional judgments can we generate regarding the salience of this essay––treated here as a primary source to our larger project of mapping the history of the Epistemic Left?

I will offer a few.

First, I think that Said’s text is valuable precisely because it highlights the problematic character of Epistemic Leftism at the moment of its emergence while not denying that the new literary critics (and, complicatedly, their peers across the humanities) were of the Left.

They were doing leftism wrong, to be sure; probably, for Said, they were doing leftism stupidly. But they were not “post-political” (as some Theory types surely would become––some more interestingly than others).

This leads me to wonder: how is this internecine battle about who is doing leftism correctly not, in fact, in keeping with the broad tradition of US leftism? The “fracture,” here, constitutes a historical repetition (down to many of the keywords). The lack of historical memory and continuity connecting the 1970s academic Left to earlier moments is, too, entirely consistent, with the US Left tradition. V.F. Calverton and Michael Gold could not recall their many forbears when they began to reimagine a left wing intellectual tradition in the 1920s. In the early years of the New Left, C. Wright Mills and Tom Hayden often wrote as if their task was to begin everything from scratch. It has largely fallen to exiles––Joseph Schumpeter, C.L.R. James, T.W. Adorno, even Gunnar Myrdal––to connect the meaningful dots.

The other thing that stands out––I wonder if you will agree?––is how lucidly Said illuminated the limitations of Theory, circa 1970, and also how prophetically he laid out the course that Theory was to follow in the ensuing three decades. We could not say, today––whether we love Theory or hate it––that issues of power and the state have been ignored within the literature of Theory over the past decades. For a variety of reasons, including, importantly, the publication of Said’s Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism and their wide diffusion––Theory now informs an enormous range of studies guided by the imperative to challenge the ethnocentrism of language and literature departments. The question we are left with, then, is as follows: can we attribute these changes in the world of Theory­­––this bending towards the priorities laid out by Said––as reflecting a certain kind of politics? And if this is so (as I believe it is) what would such a politics be other than some kind of Epistemic Leftism?

Works Cited

Edward W. Said, “Reflections on Recent American ‘Left’ Literary Criticism.” boundary 2

Vol. 8, No. 1, The Problems of Reading in Contemporary American Criticism: A Symposium (Autumn, 1979), pp. 11-30.

25 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Bruce Robbins is one person who has argued something like what you describe above, specifically with respect to Said. His _Secular Vocations_ (1993) tries to “understand how oppositional work is conceivable within a professional framework” (x). Intriguingly, he has also written a literary history of the Anglo-American welfare state. He might be a good conversation partner for developing your concept of the Epistemological Left that attends to both authority and the state.

    • Thanks a million for this. I love the Robbins stuff I have read, and will make it a priority to look at Secular Vocations.

      • Yeah, I like to think of Robbins as trying to convince Said that his claims about the left _could_ be pursued within the academy. Lots of his 1990s essays seem to be engaged in the act of explaining (to himself, to others) why _both_ Derrida and Said can be right (a position that becomes incarnated in the person of Robbins’ eventual Columbia collegue, Gayatri Spivak.)

      • Yeah, I like to think of Robbins as trying to convince Said that his claims about the left _could_ be pursued within the academy. Lots of his 1990s essays seem to be engaged in the act of explaining (to himself, to others) why _both_ Derrida and Said can be right (a position that becomes incarnated in the person of Robbins’ eventual Columbia colleague, Gayatri Spivak.)

  2. Around ’69 or ’70 E.P. Thompson and the British New Left (including a bunch of historians) came up with the notion of a pragmatic alliance between academic critique and political work — I think Thompson coined the key phrase “Reformist politics within a revolutionary perspective.” It annoyed the Trotskyite fringe, who wanted to force the contradictions and battle the ’embourgeoisification’ of the labor movement, but it had a certain influence upon the Labour left over subsequent decades. I often have the impression that this kind of (obvious?) bridging the gap is too tame for the left in the academy here in the U.S., where the performance of non-compromise is important.

    • This is a fascinating chapter of the story that I am so grateful to you for bringing to my attention here! That formulation would indeed have chafed against domestic left sensibilities (especially given the prominence of Trotskyism within the intellectual arm of the US New Left and the comparative absence of a Fabian tradition here), but there are certain intriguing exceptions. Fredric Jameson, for example, was often working towards something like a revolutionary perspective/reformist politics synthesis (particularly evident in his advocacy of coalition politics as against straight Party or trade unionist strategies). Tim Barker has helpfully pointed out in recent conversations how central Jameson was in organizing Social Text in the late 1970s. Social Text pioneered a US-based academic Leftism quite close to that of 70s-era British socialist scholars/History Workshop/Birmingham CS. What might be very interesting to track are the affinities and differences uniting and dividing Social Text from contemporaneous projects like Marxist Perspectives and the magazine that would become In These Times, as well as the zines produced by Semiotext(e), the pamphlets produced by Midnight Notes, and the art criticism that would coalesce in the journal October.

      Thanks again, so much, for this comment. H

  3. I’d like to throw out the point — not that this will be news to anyone, but I’m wondering how or whether it fits into the concern of these posts — that ‘Theory’ (and its basically sympathetic critics, such as Said) was not the only kind of academic leftism in the U.S. or Anglophone academy in the ’70s and ’80s.

    There was, e.g.: leftish historical sociology (the most famous example perhaps being Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions, 1979); leftish political theory, whether of the more communitarian or left-liberal or democratic-socialist varieties (hard for me to come up with a really emblematic title or two here, but Joseph M. Schwartz’s The Permanence of the Political, published sometime in the ’80s, might be one, albeit perhaps not that widely known, example; Sheldon Wolin’s work of this period a somewhat different kind of example); and then there was ‘analytical Marxism’ (the leading names in which are well known). Btw, the journal Marxist Perspectives was, if I recall correctly on the basis of having glanced at an issue or two, historically oriented and empirically grounded (John Womack, the historian of Latin America, was one of the main forces behind it) and not much aligned with ‘Theory’ at all, or that would have been my impression at any rate — but I could be wrong there.

    As a side note, Kurt himself has written previously on this blog about ‘political Marxism’ — unfortunately I don’t remember most of the details of those discussions, and I’m not going back to refresh my memory now. Not sure how/whether that relates to the narrative in these posts.

  4. Kurt,
    I’ve been following and really enjoying this series on the “epistemic Left.” Awesome stuff. I think of Said–impressionistically–as, in some ways, Theory’s conscience in the U.S. After the publication of Orientalism, I think you can see a trajectory in his work away from some of Foucault’s more totalizing claims about the power of (state/colonial) discourse and toward his famed embrace of “contrapuntal reading” that he outlines in Culture and Imperialism. The essay you discuss and the almost exactly concurrent “Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims”–published in the very first issue of Social Text, by the way–might mark an early waypoint along this path.

    • Sam: thanks so much for this comment and your pointing me towards the inaugural issue of Social Text. Said’s essay there is, indeed, a a barn-burner (and what an issue–Jameson’s Reification essay and Sylvia Wynter too!). The Front Matter of Issue 1 of Social Text certainly seems to point to the fact that ST’s editorial board wished to build on the methodological innovations of boundary 2, diacritics, etc., while pushing for a return to Marx and a redoubled commitment to praxis. Further evidence that Sokalian critique has obscured a great deal about the politics of 70s-80s Theory.

      Thanks again!

  5. Louis––your comment is so helpful. Thanks a million.

    Regarding your main point––”Theory’ (and its basically sympathetic critics, such as Said) was not the only kind of academic leftism in the U.S. or Anglophone academy in the ’70s and ’80s”––this is a very valuable corrective.

    One could try to reframe early American Political Development as parallel to Theory (it also sought justification in a variety of European master-texts, developed its own jargon, etc), but just as easily one could position it as anti-Theory–certainly self-consciously at war with a version of Marxism that it found unworkable and reductionistic––and thus we are left with the best option, which is to treat it as its own thing.

    I would like to know more about the middle tendency you describe–could you help an outsider to the field get a better handle on it? I am especially curious about this, because I feel like the sooner I get started with a variety of non-Marxist developments in political theory––I am thinking of the work of Charles Tilly, Michael Mann, James Scott, among others––the better.

    S. Wolin is a fascinating example–he was deeply engaged with many of the same thinkers and questions as were the Theory people, but his approach was very different.Need to think more about Wolin. A surface reading of his work, earlier, made me wonder about similarities between his approach and that of certain Theory-dense writers–in particular, Samuel Weber.

    Analytical Marxism is such a peculiar case–it actually overlapped, in many places with more Theory-inflected forms of Marxist inquiry, and I believe there were a number of friendships across the subfields. AM committed itself, however, to micro-foundations–and that resulted in a complete inability to think collective politics (a major concern, for better or worse, depending on one’s perspective, of the Epistemic Left). Ellen Meiksins Wood was always very critical of the way in which AM accepted the epistemological framework of conventional economics.

    Wallerstein and World Systems Theory surely plays a key role in this story. At this point, I am only certain of two things regarding Wallerstein–he was an important influence on the Midnight Notes collective, who forged one of the most interesting syntheses of Theory and Marxist practice, and his project found an institutional home––among other places–-at SUNY Binghamton, which is surely one of the key sites in any story of the Epistemic Left in the years after 1979.

    • Kurt,
      Thanks; I will try to put up a substantive (though not long) reply later today or tomorrow.

    • Kurt, do you have a source on Wallerstein as an influence on Midnight Notes? I’ve never heard that connection drawn before and it’s an interesting one. I’ve always thought of Midnight Notes as mostly intellectually influenced by a mix of the CLR James lineage of post-trotskyism and the early Italian ‘autonomist’ marxist or ‘operaismo’. It strikes me as I type this that may be conflating Midnight Notes with Zerowork, the earlier project several of the same people worked on.

      • This is a great question, and I need to dig up the Midnight Notes issues to properly answer it–but perhaps the most important institutional connection is that Wallerstein joined the board of Caffentzis and Federici’s Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Committee_for_Academic_Freedom_in_Africa).

        As you point out, there are many sources of world-systems type analysis from the Black radical tradition (CLR James and Oliver Cromwell Cox as well as Walter Rodney), and I am never sure if Wallerstein’s influence has been overstated in the early heterodox Marxist analyses of neoliberal globalization. Will try to work through this topic in coming weeks!

  6. 1) On Tilly, Mann & Scott: Tilly is the only one of the three whose work I’ve read in any significant amount. His short Big Structures, Large Processes, Huge Comparisons might be one good entry point, though there are a lot of other possibilities. My impression is that he wrote more in the last decade of his life than many scholars write in their entire careers. Again speaking impressionistically, I think some of Mann’s and Scott’s work probably has more of an explicitly political edge, in terms of contemporary application, than Tilly’s. Mann’s multi-volume The Sources of Social Power seems off-puttingly long, though it’s probably quite readable; Scott’s work, from glances, also seems readable, though his approach and focus are different. I realize that ‘readability’ is not necessarily a desideratum for someone who is steeped in Theory, but it tends to be for me.

    2) I’m not sure I’d heard of the Midnight Notes collective, but was aware of the Binghamton center and its journal, w/ the generic-sounding title Review. Btw, Bruce Robbins (mentioned earlier in this thread) co-edited a book that tries, I’m not sure how successfully, to draw connections between world-systems theory and literary/cultural studies: Immanuel Wallerstein and the Problem of the World: System, Scale, Culture.

    3) On Wolin: I remember getting the first few issues of his short-lived Democracy journal in the ’80s (I think it’s now online), but there are better people than me to discuss Wolin with (Corey Robin, who as an undergraduate took Wolin’s courses, might be one).

    These somewhat scattered notes are probably the best I can do right now by way of reply.

    • Want to add — really to my first comment in the thread, but I’ll put it here — a mention of Bowles & Gintis, Democracy and Capitalism (1986; pb, 1987), which I read around the time it was published and recently have had occasion to look at again.

      • Yes–thanks so much for reminding me of this. I have learned so much from Bowles and Gintis, and there is so much to be written about their place in the maturation of radical political economy (including the founding of the Union of Radical Political Economists and the development of the UMASS Amherst economics department).

  7. Kurt, this is interesting stuff. I worry I may be at a bit of a tangent here. Sorry if so, but here goes. I wonder what the object is/who the people are that you’re really talking about? What I mean is, who did Theory/who was the Epistemic Left, and how is it defined? I ask mostly because I’m interested in figures on the left that I think have some qualities of the people you’re talking about – CLR James for instance, who you mentioned in one of the earlier posts in this series, the Frankfurt School affiliated writers during their time in the US, for another – but who don’t seem to fit with the chronology in the opening of your post. Those figures seem to be largely on the outs/at the margins of official academia and the left in the U.S., does that mean they’re a different phenomenon than what you’re tracing? If so, that would, I think, imply that part of the story your tracing is the legitimacy of a certain kind inquiry within academic left circles that are also somewhat respectable institutionally. Have I understood you right? (Sorry if not.)

    Oh, and two more additions along the lines of Louis’s comment re: additional ways to be a left academic other than being a theorist — Studies on the Left, and Radical America. I also have a hunch that tracing the US reception of New Left Review might be of use for the project you’re laying out in these posts.

    Best wishes,

    • Nate: apologies for taking so long to respond to your kind and thoughtful comment.

      “I wonder what the object is/who the people are that you’re really talking about?”

      So–one thing your comment helps me to clarify is that the Epistemic Left names for me a moment––gathering steam in the early 1970s and continuing, although in variously mutated and attenuated ways––to the present moment. Thus, some of the characters in my story will have been active in earlier phases of Left intellectual life; many drifted away towards other things after periods of engagement. This leads me to make a note to think further about the critical function of my thematization of the Epistemic Left–I want to think about how our attachment to biography leads us away from properly considering moments and events.

      The need for this kind of re-theorization is particularly evident with regard to figures like CLR James. We need more studies, I think, of James in various moments–the Johnson Forest moment, for example, or James in London as the anticolonial and New Left projects accelerated–and fewer longitudinal studies, which are inevitably limited by the demands of narrative.

      I would argue that something important happened to CLR James’s legacy as The Epistemic Left of the early 1970s began to consolidate–new contexts for understanding his readings of Hegel and cricket, new venues for contemplating his reading of Melville and Krazy Kat. Also–new publishing houses and series, and new seminars in which those texts could be assigned.

      With the exception of Marcuse, the same logic applies to the Frankfurt School. Their legacy was submerged by the fact of many members publishing only in German, the hostility of some FS thinkers to the New Left and student revolts, and the unfortunate fact that so much of Adorno’s writing available to Anglophone readers consisted of criticisms of jazz. It was precisely the work of thinkers like Fredric Jameson, Martin Jay, Susan Buck-Morss, and others–all Epistemic Leftists, to my mind––that led to the reification, if I can be forgiven that turn of phrase, or even hypostatization of the “Frankfurt School” that we today speak about.

      Absolutely–Studies on The Left and Radical America are crucial pillars of what would become the Epistemic Left–although contributors would find themselves arrayed on both sides of the Theory wars. And the NLR connection, stateside, is absolutely crucial. The NLR was extraordinarily effective in setting intellectual agendas, and its peacemaking with Theory in the triumph of Anderson over Thompson must be regarded as a key moment.

      Thanks so much! Please let me know if I haven’t gotten at the things you were pointing me towards!

  8. This post was wonderful, especially how it approaches the early Said to explore further the Epistemic Left genealogy (many of his literary and cultural studies colleagues would say that in his later works he did not abide by his call for “effective history, effective archival work, effective management in the actual material of history”; much of this discussion can be found in journal special issues and book readers dedicated to Said that started to sprout in the 90s).

    While reading this post, I was asking myself what exactly is Theory, at least in your definition? In the field of literary studies, it can be quite a vague, seemingly all-encompassing notion. One can ask of course what literary and cultural form of analysis is not theoretical. On the other side of the spectrum, hard science scholars look with askance at the word, since it has no relationship with what they define as a scientific theory. In addition, one has the deeply theoretical reflections that criticized post-structuralist theory, I think of scholars such as Terry Eagleton, Alex Callinicos, David Harvey, even Nancy Fraser, which form a (post?)Marxist trajectory that leads to contemporary Marxist critiques of Judith Butler and company (Jodi Dean, Holly Lewis, whose latest book on Marxism, gender, and sexuality is a must read). And one would have to quarrel too with the links that have been traced by others between the rise of Theory in the U.S. and the emergence of neoliberalism, especially if we are to take into consideration the relationship between what you call the Epistemic Left and leftist politics. Which brings up the institutions themselves, the contexts where these ideas are formed and how they circulate. Beyond the finger pointing tactics of polemicists who suggest that Foucault had neoliberal leanings or that Butler’s idea of precariousness is essentiallly pro-capitalist–which lead them to arguing that Foucault and Butler are not “real” leftists–the materialist in me wants to learn about how these ideas emerge, in response to what situations, in accommodation to what surroundings and affects?

    • Kahlil, as always, I treasure your thoughtful comments.

      Your point about Said-qua-historiography is spot on–there are those unresolved questions of whether a lingering idealism colors Said’s inquiries into the power of ideology, and questions, too, about how Orientalism is to be thematized within a more intersectional framework. Perhaps the key question concerns the place of binary oppositions as structuring forces of the political unconscious–a question worth revisiting.

      (And, too, there is the question of Said’s hostility to Foucault, against the near-consensus among contemporary scholars that their projects are complementary rather than mutually antagonistic).

      And I am grateful for your prodding as to what Theory is.

      My formulation of Theory, for the time being is something like: Theory is a name given to a body of European thought by Americans, in the post-68 reconstruction of the university and the humanities and social sciences. This surprised the Europeans (eventually, however, the Europeans would give in and begin speaking about “Theory” in the American style).

      Structurally, then, Theory followed the inverse path of “film noir.”

      This presentations of Theory is––somewhat pathetically––Eurocentric. But ca. 1970s-90s *Theory itself* was also powerfully Eurocentric (perhaps, and maybe this is wishful thinking, it is less Eurocentric today).

      That, to my mind, constitutes the primary contradiction of Theory as a project of an Epistemic Left, and would drive any narrative I would write about that topic. But my experience getting to know and making friends with a wide variety of activist intellectuals within the worlds of Critical Race Theory, antiracist feminism, Queer and Queer of Color Theory suggests to me that encounters with Theory have often been transformative and energizing (if also generative of a host of principled critiques).

      This sociological truth, I think, is not much reflected in any of the intellectual histories that touch on Theory. And this strikes me as indicative or symptomatic of several strains of intellectual racism. Either historians don’t know about the negotiation with Theory in antiracist/feminist/queer-theoretical fields (and thus are the ignorant kind of racists, feeling that these fields don’t matter); or they associate Theory with volvo-driving, status-anxiety-fueled––read “white”––NPR listeners (and thus assimilate any critical-race or feminist or queer agenda to liberal guilt or some such thing), or they think of Theory-fluent critical intellectuals in these fields as (in the language of Fox News) “race hustlers,” or some variant thereof. My friends explain their attraction to Theory as deriving from the persistent desire to find language to describe structures of power that work diligently to prevent their own disclosure. I’d like to find a way to write about Theory that honored that relation.

      Finally, I love this part of your comment…
      “Which brings up the institutions themselves, the contexts where these ideas are formed and how they circulate… the materialist in me wants to learn about how these ideas emerge, in response to what situations, in accommodation to what surroundings and affects?”

      This––without question––is the urgent work with which we need to proceed! I am hoping to make this my post-dissertation project, and to begin doing the real shoe leather archival work that is needed to test the Epistemic Left hypothesis. (Which means I will probably be asking you to go on the record, in exchange for a lunch on me, at some point, to do some oral history about your experiences with Theory in academia. This work has weirdly not been done much, but I think the best way to get at the history of Theory/the Epistemic Left is just to start talking to folks who studied or taught this material [or resisted its incursion into departments oriented towards other modalities] in the decades since the 1970s).

      • Kurt, as I see it unfold here, I cannot help but saying that, put simply, this is a lovely project! And I do not think that your point about the inspirational power of Critical Race Theory, antiracist feminism, Queer and Queer of Color Theory, can be underestimated. Even with my growing reservations as I look back and distance myself from much of what I was interested in, reading “Theory” was for me an empowering experience in my undergrad and first grad student years. ¡Palante!

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