U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What is Theory, for us, and what does it want?

Returning to blogging after a long absence: a happy occasion. I joined this blog several years ago with the notion that I might cover the “Theory Beat” and so it makes sense [I think] that as I resume my writing here I reflect a little bit upon the state of critical theory.

The most straightforward way to do that would be to survey the field from great heights: to talk about the changing fortunes of new endeavors (Animal Studies, Affect Theory, Object-Oriented Ontology, Distant Reading, Post-Humanism, Digital Everything) while accounting for changes in longer-running enterprises (Marxism, Feminism, Critical Race Theory, Queer and Trans Studies, etc.). While thinking about how I might put together such a survey, I had the idea for the present essay: a very different sort of review, one that would eschew any aspiration to fairness and completeness, and instead pursue a diaristic and personal answer to one question: where am I, today with Theory?

Where am I, today with Theory?

[I hope this questions reads, also: where are you, today, with Theory? And: tell me everything that is wrong with my reflections––everything that has been elided or left out or distorted––in the comments section below].

Which is to ask: why do I keep reading this stuff, and is it doing me any good, and how does it inform my historical writing, and what would it mean to teach it to others?

The premise underlying these questions is: because I am not a philosopher in the continental tradition nor a humanist working in one of the newer disciplines of the post-1968 academy, my relationship to Theory is voluntary. [“I can quit any time I want”].

For many historians, reading Theory serves as a sort of preparation for mature scholarship. We may never “use” Foucault or Cixous or De Man or Virno or Sloterdijk, but we regard our apprenticeship––our frustrations and agonies incurred while trying to make sense of these texts––as valuable training. Grappling with antifoundationalism curbs the epistemic arrogance and logical rigidity of the bright youngster; encountering analysis of limit experiences broadens our awareness of the broad gamut of feeling and desire; juggling competing claims approximates, for us, the Socratic torment of the first year of law school.

[I am avoiding, here, any Bourdieuan analysis of Theory-reading-as-accumulation-of-cultural-capital, both because I do not care for Bourdieu and do not believe that “cultural capital” is a useful term: I do not want to talk about the value of reading Theory as a means to generating professionally useful quips and observations in the seminar room or conference session. Within the contemporary historical field, nobody reads Theory for this reason. Invocation of Theory in these spaces is, as often as not, professionally useless—it annoys and intimidates far more than it impresses and credentializes].

So what do I think, today, about this dimension of Theory: that it helps to train the mind, regardless of whether one deploys this or that author in the course of writing up one’s research?

I find it disappointing. To find something disappointing, of course, is not to establish any sort of position regarding its value. At a minimum, such an evaluation of the usefulness of reading Theory would suggest that time put into cracking the spines of those stacks of Verso and University of Minnesota and Semiotext(e) books was time well-spent, or at least not wasted. In good faith, I could tell a student, puzzled by the assignment of texts by Judith Butler or Alain Badiou or Colin Dayan or Fred Moten: this will help you get better at thinking. And perhaps that’s right. And maybe, even, I don’t have a problem with this. I have come to think of over-identifying with learning and writing as some authentic quest for the correct approach to analysis of politics as a form of acute hysteria (from which I, without any doubt, suffer). [One would think that reading so many antifoundationalist texts would have made me wiser to the very pre-deconstructed character of my investment in purity of origins. Alas, no].

Part of my frustration with this medicinal approach to Theory is its arbitrariness.

Another part is the reification of “Theory,” which already solves a problem that remains for me very much alive. I confess that I do not know what I mean by “Theory,” other than that it is a container for the sort of discussion that happens in the so-called “Theory” section of a paper.

And so I turn to our subfield: intellectual history. What does intellectual history tell us about Theory?

On the one hand, some major texts on recent intellectual history seek to make sense of the Theory turn as a symptom of a more general fracture.

Theory, in this light, was a congeries of importations from France, with some input from American traditions of Pragmatism and feminism. It sought to evacuate objectivity from the human sciences under the sway of a jargon-laden passion for perspectivalism.

I do not find this interpretation satisfying. Far more appealing, to me, is Peter Novick’s suggestion that the rise of Theory in the American academy represents a victory for the “epistemic Left.” (If I recall correctly, Novick had some reservations about this victory; at very least, “epistemic Left” was not meant as a term of unbridled approbation]. To my mind, “epistemic Left” is a term that can be reclaimed by Left intellectuals and shorn of any lingering ironic coloration.

Why shouldn’t there be an “epistemic Left?”

If we were to understand Theory as the name for the various projects of the “epistemic Left,” I think we could come to a much better analysis of why we still care about it. And I think we could also better understand what it means to teach Theory. Here––because I am writing about myself––I need to introduce a new character: the one that, in a medieval play, would be called “Guilt.”

Many intellectuals, I know [let’s be serious: I envy] manage to live their lives without too much pressure from an overactive guilty conscience.

For me, [and, I think, for many of my friends] guilt is ever-present.

In the most basic sense, we worry about studying and writing when maybe we should be organizing and agitating. In the event that we have found a way to do both, we fret about the proper proportion. If we manage to justify our time studying and writing, we worry that we are studying and writing about the wrong things. We worry about relevance. We worry about doing harm to the people we study.

We worry about being seduced by the wrong Theory.

We worry that the appealing new enterprise about which everyone is talking is in fact the stalking horse for reaction. We remember that Theory did, in fact, lead many intellectuals in the 1980s to “retreat from class.” We see the awful effects of a more recent “retreat from class” [though those in retreat never had any use for “class” in the first place] on Twitter, a platform that proudly brands itself as “woke.” If we find ourselves scurrying back to the classical texts of our tradition [“screw Object-Oriented Ontology, I’m going to re-read The Holy Family!”] we worry that we are being anti-intellectual, actively avoiding an encounter with the very tools we need to make sense of a changing situation. Or we worry that the form of our fidelity––the impulse to return to the texts that cluster around some single nineteenth-century European intellectual––is, in fact, deeply conservative. We worry about all of this.

[Interestingly, enemies of Theory never imagine that any of this worry is going on. They see “Theory” as a cult, and its adherents as so pleased with themselves and so constitutionally incapable of reevaluating core premises as to render them permanently interpellated].

For those of us who seek to work within the North American academy, the worry extends to pedagogical concerns. I may be working on a continued relationship with the Left political tradition, and thus committed to learning from the “epistemic Left”––but  I cannot assume that such desires motivate my students. In fact, according to the rules of the game, I must find a way to model a way of doing history that speaks to students across the ideological spectrum, and [most importantly] to students who are not especially committed, one way or another, to any overarching project of social change. What, then, should I do?

Perhaps the best approach is compartmentalization? [No, I don’t think so].

To properly immerse oneself in Theory, one gains some command of the Western intellectual tradition: in classical thought and Christian theology and the speculative tradition and the major movements in economics and social science. No student in the humanities can be done much harm by learning about these things. There are worse people than a Marxist intellectual historian from whom to learn about Plato and Aristotle and Kant and Hegel and Durkheim and Weber.

[One of the ironies of Theory is that while conservatives worried that the importation of French thought would lead to the elimination of the canon, Foucault, Derrida, and Deleuze encouraged several generations to attend with renewed vigor to canonical texts. One cannot make much sense of Foucault without revisiting the process through which Phsyiocrats gave way to political economists who in turn gave way to modern theorists of the state. One cannot get far in Derrida without a thorough review of Rousseau, the Socratic dialogues, and the Western metaphysical tradition. And no student Deleuzian makes any headway without checking out some Kant, Hume, Leibniz, and Spinoza from the nearest library].

So, a Theory person should be in a very good position to teach a carefully calibrated introduction to social and political thought, if that is the job requirement.

Where there is less room for maneuver, I think, is in the way in which texts are presented to students. One of the great merits of Theory is that it provides a rich repertoire of novel approaches to texts. What unites all of these strategies is a common posture: that of skepticism regarding culturally powerful [in an unguarded moment, I would say: “hegemonic”] presuppositions. What Marx has in common with Freud has in common with Nietzsche has in common with feminism has in common with Husserl is a belief that to think is to search for presuppositions that get in our way, that harm us, that cause thought to stall and quit. What all of these strains of critique share in common, too, is the recognition that to ask questions about some presuppositions, one must suspend the interrogation of all presuppositions––this is the bracketing or epoche [or, I guess, “negative capability”] that is necessary if critique is to swerve away from immediate self-negation: the whirlpool of the hermeneutic circle.

I will end by wondering if this relationship to presuppositions and this technology of bracketing does not constitute the democratic essence of “Theory” as the language of the “epistemic Left”? C.L.R. James famously wrote a book on the theme “every cook can govern.” Jacques Rancière argues that the proletarian impulse in philosophy and art tends to take the form “everyone [and anyone] can reason”: a proposition that has always and everywhere scandalized elites and the intellectuals to whom they delegate the tasks of legitimation and explanation. One recognizes, immediately, the contradictions, here: how can Theory be described as “democratic” if its arguments are so inaccessible, so forbidding to the uninitiated? How is the reader empowered in situations that more or less require the temporary suspension of skepticism in regard to the authority of masters? What would guarantee that this is not a waste of time?

These are, to be sure, contradictions, but not intractable ones. And here is where the practice of intellectual history may be extraordinarily useful. Careful study of radical movements for political change tends to reveal the centrality of Theory in the development of analyses of crises––this was certainly true of the Black Power movement, feminism, and the movements for gay and lesbian liberation in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, as well as the movements for prison and mental health reform. In the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, mainstream trade unionism foundered as it refused to engage with the early critique of neoliberalism offered by Theory-fluent critics like Barbara Ehrenreich, Mike Davis, Kim Moody, David Harvey, and Robin D.G. Kelley; skepticism regarding the critique of “whiteness” and working-class politics [which had roots in the foundational Critical Race Theoretical work of W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, Frantz Fanon, George Rawick, and the first-generation African American legal scholars who began teaching in the 1970s and 1980s] left the labor left badly prepared for the advent of Pat Buchanan, right-wing talk radio, and, now, Trumpism. The urgent need to revise the mainstream understanding of gender and sexuality in order to end systemic mistreatment of members of the Trans community, too, requires the praxis of an “epistemic Left.” Today’s movements to rethink the meaning of “debt” as class struggle comes increasingly to center around the debtor-creditor relationship also bear the imprints of the long engagement of activists with Theoretical explorations of the meanings of borrowing and owing.

If such connections are not reflected in our accounts of Theory’s history––if they are, even, difficult to integrate within one’s own constantly shifting negotiations with the Theoretical literature––that means, I think, that our accounts must be modified. [Yes?]

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Inspiring, eloquent, probing, thought-provoking–words that came to mind as I read this piece. I especially loved your candid assessment of what Theory is seen to do (or not do) within the context of the historical profession–that resonated with my sense of things. I approach these matters from within literary studies, where it is de rigueur to follow the latest topic in object-oriented ontology or affect studies, so it is refreshing to see this outsider’s account–one motivated by the love of Theory despite the opprobrium with which many hold in the field hold that term. (Is it really true that most historians view Theory as something one “does” while in grad school and then puts safely back on the shelf?). I also really like this speculation that Theory might just be another name for thinking: “to think is to search for presuppositions that get in our way, that harm us, that cause thought to stall and quit. What all of these strains of critique share in common, too, is the recognition that to ask questions about some presuppositions, one must suspend the interrogation of all presuppositions.” There are many different names for this general view about the inescapability of presuppositions (Charles Taylor’s “social imaginary,” Polanyi’s “tacit knowledge,” Wittgenstein’s “forms of life,” James’s “temperament,” MacIntyre’s “tradition,” Heidegger’s “world picture,” doubtless many more) but it remains rare in most academic settings to own up to the inherently normative dimensions of thinking (what Habermas called the “crypto-normativism” of postmodernism). Not all claims can be in question when undertaking a specific inquiry. Thanks for risking a personal view on this subject, Kurt.

  2. Andrew and Patrick: thanks so much for your kind words.

    Patrick: I value greatly your question regarding historians’ continuing engagement with Theory, beyond grad school/first book.

    My sense is that (outside of cultural history and feminist/critical race history): yes, engagement tends to sag in the years following matriculation, offset in part by the regular arrival of “turns.” Thus, the “Empire Turn” saw the assignment of Hardt and Negri in many seminars that had not seen a Theory text assigned in previous years [and we may observe, at the same time, that little of the (generative) writing of the past decade+ on empires really has very much to do with Hardt and Negri’s post-autonomous theorization of transversal powe]r. The “Spatial Turn” encouraged interest in critical geography, leavening urban history classes with discussions of Soja and Latour; the “Affect Turn” encouraged interest in certain strains of post-Freudian heterodox psychoanalysis [if, in the final analysis, “feelings” have turned out to be much easier to historicize than “affects”[; the “History of Capitalism” turn encouraged a return to critical political economy [we are still figuring out, I think, what sort of engagement “History of Capitalism” will have with Theory–whether the “Capitalism” that is its object will not turn out to be caught in positivism’s pincers].

    If I may risk a terrible overgeneralization: it is nevertheless still quite rare to encounter colleagues who are broadly interested in the state of Theory (with the exception of European intellectual historians–for example, students of Martin Jay and their students, and some clusters at Princeton, Yale, Columbia, and Harvard–a grouping that includes many contributors/friends of this blog).

    I don’t know many folks who keep Theory-reading up as an active interest.

    Turning to a more gossipy register: I think, too, that widespread exhaustion with Slavoj Zizek [much of it more than earned by Zizek himself] has made it more difficult to engage in Lacanian or Freudo-Marxist analysis in public, and that the (to me, welcome) arrival of a re-invigorated humanist socialism in the form of the Bernie Sanders campaign and the DSA has made Post-Humanist speculation seem badly out of sync with the times (exacerbated by the mutation of one arm of British Theory into the racist cyberbabble of the Neo-Reactionists). To my mind, OOO/SR can be happily integrated with socialist imaginary–I have even tried to sketch out, here and there, some thoughts on the US proletarian aesthetic tradition as OOO avant la lettre): but there is no question that, as Mirowski and others have pointed out, the cult of Latour is powered by neoliberal passions; it is difficult to think of a more consummately capitalist intellectual, perhaps in the history of western thought, than Bruno Latour. [It is no surprise, therefore, that many Latourians–in particular, in the Netherlands, for some reason–have recently developed a fondness for the writings of Walter Lippmann, the patron saint of the Mont Pelerin neoliberals).

    I love your invocation of Habermas on the “crypto-normativism” of postmodernism. For a long time, this critique gnawed at me–and I don’t think that there have been many satisfying rejoinders. We must accept the critique. We are all “crypto-normatives!” (This reminds me of what made Gayatri Spivak’s proposal of “strategic essentialism” so valuable to so many friends in Postcolonial Studies–one accepts the most putatively “disastrous” critique and then move forward). What I hope to expand on in future essays is a review of some of the ways that a certain radical approach to bracketing works in newer works of Theoretical speculation written by writers engaged with the thought of Alfred North Whitehead (in particular, Isabelle Stengers and Steven Shaviro) and Francois Laruelle (Rocco Gangle and ]Katerina Kolozova), as well as some of the American intellectuals working on what might be called “weird systems” (John Protevi and Adrian Johnston).

    Thanks, again, so much for this wonderful response. Would be delighted if this conversation continues, either here or on future posts!

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