by Jack Palmer
Like any well-trained student, I’ll open with a quote. It’s one from the forever-sniffing, forever-scruffy, cultural critic and contemporary theorist Slavoj Žižek: “We need theory more than ever today. We should not feel terrorized by this false sense of moralistic emergence: ‘no time for theory, people are starving’ and so on. My god, it is only through theory that we have at least a hope to learn what to do!”
Žižek’s assertion is a provocative one: it challenges our understanding of that word ‘theory’. In the scientific sphere, ‘theory’ means a comprehensively proven idea – one, crucially, that forms the foundation for knowledge. In the humanities by comparison, ‘theory’ is abstract: it’s speculative, faddish and maybe even a little indulgent. But the claim staked here is that theory in the humanities is not all groundless conjecture; for Žižek it’s vitally grounded, and where the real work of thinking happens.
He goes further still, and suggests that now, perhaps more than ever, theory is the motor through which social, political, and environmental issues can best be confronted.
So where did theory come from, and why should we bother persisting with it? In order to chart the rise of theory, we have to peer back through the technicolour lenses of the 1970s. For it was during this period of platform shoes and Saturday Night Fever that literature, cultural study, film study and philosophy courses were experiencing their own changes. Take literary study for instance: English degree courses, typically chronological in their approach, now offered curious and arcane ‘theory’ components. The École normale supérieure, that prestigious French university, birthed a whole cohort of thinkers – including Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Louis Althusser and Jacques Derrida – who appeared to swan seamlessly from the university halls to the university syllabus.
Now that it’s a staple of our degree courses, we often find ourselves asking what theory does: in short, it gifts us a new set of terms with which to think. Although this return is an ostensibly meagre one, when we consider the implications we find something properly progressive. The work of Sigmund Freud – whether we choose to scoff at or herald this name – would be a case in point. Setting out to discover the meanings of our dreams, Freud coined his own vocabulary, including terms such as repression, displacement and condensation. But what Freud might not have anticipated is the varied and powerful ways in which these terms were taken up. All sorts of thinkers, from all sorts of disciplines, have drawn upon Freud’s vocabulary to read not only dreams, but poetry, trauma, film, and even Freud’s work itself. Perhaps this is what theory is then, a call to read and think radically: the way Saussure calls us to configure language as a relationship between signifier and signified; the way Judith Butler calls us to consider gender as ‘performance’; the way Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls us to recognize the fuzziness of sexual specificity.
Yet theory does retain a strange kind of politics about it.
To a number of us, it seems that theory does not fall outside the jurisdiction of the academic conference table; when it does, it’s the flaunted ornament of the intellectual bully: “You haven’t read Lacan’s analysis of Poe? Well then, I guess you’ll never truly understand ‘The Purloined Letter’…” Yet, owing to its sheer unmasterablility, theory resists becoming a force for conservatism, or even just the reserve of the obnoxious. In fact, one might go so far as to say that theory – by its very condition – removes us from such masterful thinking. Because of course reading (onereading, or reading in general) is never done, completed, or shut up. In response to our intellectual bully, we might respond thus: “well, have you read Derrida’s critique of Lacan’s analysis of Poe?” Another interjector might go further, and butt in with: “that’s all good guys, but what about Barbara Johnson’s reading of Derrida’s critique of Lacan’s analysis of Poe?” This is an argument that is never quite settled; an issue on which there is no single undivided authority.
Single undivided authorities can be dangerous things indeed; so dangerous that their actions reverberate throughout our world.
Deforestation, military coercion, religious bigotry, exploitation from transnational corporations, gender pay-gaps – here are just a handful of consequences, we might argue, that result from the dominance of masterful thinking. Theory doesn’t offer up easy answers for any of these problems. What theory does do, however, is ask us to let go – for a time at least – of the mode of thinking that led us to the problems, and instead to keep engaging, to keep questioning, and to keep reading. It is only by doing this, to quote Žižek once more, that ‘we have at least a hope to learn what to do’.