Blog Post

After the Revolution, or, The Embarrassment of Theory?

Why have the revolutions that theory enacted become an embarrassment?

I have been finding myself a bit puzzled lately by some of the relief that scholars new and established alike are expressing over the death of theory, or at least the waning of high theory with a capital “T” and/or any variety of theoretical “cocktails” in which a conceptual eclecticism obtains. Indeed, I was talking with some equally puzzled colleagues with whom I went to grad school the other night over dinner about the sense that somehow the humanities would be in better shape now—less threatened by obsolescence—if only Theory had never occurred. Many things have been laid at the feet of Theory, most of which have been rightly or wrongly linked to the institutional crisis in the humanities at the moment: bad or obtuse writing; a lost audience in other disciplines; the irrelevance of literary studies to students; the declining authority of literature in universities; an anti-science stance; inappropriate claims for the social or political function of cultural forms. Theory has not left us with an embarrassment of riches. Instead, it is just plain embarrassing, sort of like the fashions we once wore but which we now find contemptibly out-of-date (Parachute pants? Ugh!).

So to reiterate: Why? Does it really make sense to be so embarrassed by Theory, or theory, or theoretical mixes?

Or to ask a different question: What might we be displacing onto Theory in making it into an object of contempt? Can really so much be laid at its feet?

Or to turn all of this around in what may be a more productive fashion: Has Theory done anything worthwhile?

I offer these questions up genuinely, and I don’t want to caricature the increasingly anti-Theory stance. I concur with some of what falls under the critique of Theory. A political and social account of cultural forms may not be inappropriate, but it must at least take care to delimit its boundaries. Our “irrelevance” may have something to do with uncomfortably abstract thinking, and perhaps it is time for a more robustly “applied humanities.” Science can make claims that the humanities cannot, and that’s a powerful thing. Jargon does limit who listens to us.

So yes, it makes sense to indicate certain ways in which what we have been doing for the past 30 or 40 years might have something to do with why we are in a moment of institutional crisis now. But I’m also just struck by the anti-Theory atmosphere as a kind of revolt against history, almost as if we wish the history of the humanities for the past 30 or 40 years could be wiped clean. I sometimes get the sense that, for some, if only those 30 or 40 years of Theory had never happened, then we might not be in the moment of institutional crisis we are in today. But is this so? I don’t think so, but it would be interesting and useful to hear some good causal or strongly correlative accounts, especially from those more empirically minded than I!

I want to offer up two perspectives here, neither of them mine, that seem useful in thinking through the moment of theoretical and institutional transition that we certainly are in.

One comes from a history of skepticism I have just begun to read in which the author attempts to struggle with what we should do now that “the moment of high theory…has passed” (14): Christian Thorne’s The Dialectic of Counter-Enlightenment. Thorne gets theory powerfully right when he writes, “Theory, in short, is philosophy that recognizes itself to be a form of social and historical thinking—the historically changing attempt to comprehend historically changing things” (8). A sentence like this one indicates Thorne’s sympathy and sensitivity to the historical phenomenon of theory that I have suggested others seem to find so embarrassing. In my view, Thorne accurately names what many have understood theory is along with the reason for doing it, whether they thought of it explicitly in Thorne’s terms or not from within their particular theoretical precincts (Marxist, postcolonial, queer, anti-racist, feminist)—almost all of them, as Thorne indicates, anti-foundationalist to the core. But it is precisely this core anti-foundationalism, especially the assumption that skepticism can function as a “political guarantee” for “consistent or coherent political effects” (13), that Thorne seizes upon as an object of knowledge with the passing of high theory. But as he indicates, seizing upon this object need not entail dismissing it. Thorne writes that he does “not [want] to shut down anti-foundationalism, but to find new ways to take its measure. It has come time, I think, to investigate the skeptical categories through which many of us still think, through which it seems we must still think—through which many of us register our outrage at the continuing degradation of our common lives—but whose multiple political valences we do not get to dictate or control, leaving them forever in excess of our utopian imagination” (18).

The second perspective comes from Louis Menand in The Marketplace of Ideas. Menand is not taking the kind of measure that Thorne is calling for, but he nonetheless also offers up a historically sensitive and sympathetic view that dovetails with the history of skepticism Thorne pursues: “What the humanities experienced between 1970 and 1990 was the intellectual and institutional equivalent of a revolution. Despite what some critics claimed, the humanities did not make themselves irrelevant by this transformation. On the contrary: the humanities helped to make the rest of the academic world alive to issues surrounding objectivity and interpretation, and to the significance of racial and gender difference. Scholars in the humanities were complicating social science models of human motivation and behavior for years before social scientists began doing the same thing via research in cognitive science. That political and economic behavior is often non-rational is not news to literature professors” (91). And further: “It is probably impossible, after the revolution, to put the toothpaste back in the tube. Eclecticism seems to be the fate of the academic humanities. But there is no reason why that cannot in itself constitute a claim to legitimacy. If one part of the university is (along with its many other projects) continually enacting a ‘crisis of institutional legitimacy,’ it is performing a service to the rest of the university. It is pursuing an ongoing inquiry into the limits of inquiry. And it is not just asking questions about knowledge; it is creating knowledge by asking the questions. Skepticism about the forms of knowledge is itself a form of knowledge” (92).

Both Thorne and Menand make me think that after the revolution, theory may not be so much of an embarrassment after all. And that we might be better off if we start to wrestle with the legacy of theory in a way that taps into its riches, even if it is no longer to do high theory as it was done at its most intensely skeptical.

To state my conclusion as a question: How, like it or not, has theory shaped your thinking today? 

Joel Burges's picture
Starting in September 2011, Joel Burges will begin teaching at the University of Rochester as Assistant Professor of Media Studies in the Department of English and the Film and Media Studies Program. He is currently Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he is affiliated with Literature and Comparative Media Studies. He is working on a book entitled Turning back the Clock: Technological Obsolescence and Historical Time in Contemporary Culture. He has recently published an essay on filmmaker Douglas Sirk in the 2010 collection Trash Culture: Objects and Obsolescence in Cultural Perspective, edited by Gillian Pye; has another essay related to his book, "Adorno's Mimeograph: The Uses of Obsolescence in Minima Moralia," forthcoming in New German Critique in 2011; and will be publishing a "riposte" to MIT Press's collection Third Person at the electronic book review in 2011 as well.