When it comes to theory, my own reading habits might encompass something as specific as “literary theory,” or “critical theory,” or, perhaps, to make things awkward through excessive specificity, “French theory,” but usually I just say (and think) I like to read theory. “I’m reading theory.” I also think: I am reading this for pleasure and in order to attempt to understand the world. I’m reading this to have better ideas, to be more alert, to—and this part is key—comprehend the invisible machinations of the system—a paranoid thought, but one which I’m not too proud to admit I’ve, more than once, had.
I learned about theory in college, where I also met someone whose parents had explained Lacanian psychoanalysis to him when he was thirteen, a fact that impressed me no end. For me, however, there was a clear demarcation, a dividing line. There was the time before theory, and there was the time after it. In high school, I had read Hannah Arendt; now I read all the names: the two D’s, the two L’s, gentle B, obtuse K, worrisome A, their predecessors H and N, and, above all, F—F with his masterful sentences. Indeed, these names were like swear words, like drugs, like magnetized tokens in a game played by mildly sadistic immortals. This had nothing to do with literature (which I studied). This was where all of the secrets concerning human culture lay. Once I began to read I couldn’t stop, for the simple reason that I had to find out—by which I mean, what had happened.
Part of me also assumed, because I was nineteen and a college sophomore, that this was a sophomoric phase. I would soon get over theory, and so would everyone else. In this I was, as everyone knows, wrong. Anyway, I’m talking about the early aughts here, by which time (and by all rights) theory should have been, and even was, definitively over. Except that it wasn’t. I could barely wrap my mind around the notion that I hadn’t even been alive during theory’s American heyday, the 1970s, so relevant and necessary did theory seem to me.
Theory was becoming then what it is now. Or, it already was what it now is: something that people write and read, and also a kind of ectoplasm or mood, revelatory and/or offensive and/or self-indulgent. Some have gone so far as to characterize Bill Clinton’s 1998 musings on the significance of the copula (“It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”) as directly derived from the philosophy of Jacques Derrida. There is the longstanding charge of pernicious cultural and moral relativism, probably more correctly understood as narrative relativism—in other words, the practice of treating any form of discourse, knowledge, or information as a kind of constructed narrative. We’re familiar enough with this line of complaint that I won’t rehearse it here.
What I do think is worth adding to the list of theory’s cultural effects is a general deskilling related to the task of criticism, literary criticism in particular. In the extended afterlife of theory, in and around the American academy, it has become common to favor accessibility in critical thought, along with conceptual keywords, whose valence is either usefully transdisciplinary or a little vague, depending on whom you ask and, sometimes, when. In the United States, theory has become a utopian experiment and experience: it exists alongside increasingly historicist literary studies as a site of mixture and reprieve; it promises, for example, to help literary scholars moonlight as media theorists and art historians, while reminding them to consider the horrors of colonialism and the errors of the Enlightenment. Meanwhile, it makes the rounds online, on social media, in popular music, in art world press releases, and in the New York Times, decontextualized and meme-like, sometimes the stuff of conspiracy and outrage and at others the balm of empathy.
Through theory we seem to tarry briefly with the notion of history; at least, this is my opinion. I happen to think that part of the reason for theory’s dramatic success in America is its ability to confirm the existence of history, particularly as a construction that is also, and significantly, real. Theory is not, as some have suggested, post-historical; it expressly addresses the existence of past times and events, though it is not always concerned with historiographic gestures, such as naming and narrating. A more interesting kind of question to ask about theory might be, “How is theory historiographic, i.e., a form for writing history?” Related is another common “how” question: How is theory political?
Given that remarks regarding the post-political nature of the contemporary era—as a time so epistemologically balkanized that debate and compromise are impossible (a style of description itself derived from dear F)—are increasingly widespread, one might well be curious about what aspects of theory tend to accord with a movement away from the possibility of politics, and which tend to resist the shrinking of the public sphere. I can’t, for reasons of time as well as ability, describe all of these tensions, important though they are. Instead, I’ve decided to focus on a certain potted history, which even in its limited scope has something to offer. I think it’s worth thinking about the relationship between institutions and criticism. Or, to refashion my earlier phrase about politics, the possibility of a generative relationship between academic institutions and public conversation.
The Micro Durée
Anyway, everyone knows where theory comes from. It comes from France. It traveled to the United States at some point in the mid 1960s, metamorphosing into something called postmodernism, which might or might not have already begun coming into being directly after the war, even before theory got here.
I joke, but my serious explanation is not much better. The intellectual historian François Cusset has written a fantastic book about this, and most of my knowledge comes from him, along with gleanings derived from the classwork I did as a part of my doctorate. There’s something about the high school-college divide that allegorizes this process of importation, too. So, Camus and Sartre are the starter texts; the world-weary teen absorbs existentialist disillusionment before moving on to purer anti-humanist heights with an excerpt from The Order of Things in a freshman survey of the history of the West.
Or, as it went with the French intellectuals, 1940–45 saw the arrival of surrealists, existentialists, and the work of Annales School historians on American shores. This varied avant-garde, with its taste for rich general interest writing and weird art, may have given some signal of what was to come. Then, in fall of 1966, at a Ford Foundation-funded conference at Johns Hopkins titled “The Language of Criticism and the Sciences of Man,” Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Paul de Man met in person for the first time; Roland Barthes delivered a superb talk, “To Write: An Intransitive Verb?”; and Derrida described “a world of signs without fault, without truth, and without origin.” Some American Marxists found the affair decadent and apolitical, while local literary critics, who largely ignored the English translation of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s structuralist apotheosis, La pensée sauvage, which had appeared that very year, fast-forwarded into poststructuralism without so much as a backward glance at Ferdinand de Saussure.
These names were like swear words, like drugs, like magnetized tokens in a game played by mildly sadistic immortals.
If the enthusiastic Americans, with their grants and soft power, had read Lévi-Strauss’s book, originally published in 1962, they would have seen his then-unusual claim within the context of the humanities that “the final goal of the human sciences is not to constitute man, but to dissolve him.” This might have given a different political valence to the language of criticism disseminated at Johns Hopkins, for the thoroughgoing dependence on the linguistic theory of Saussure—a nineteenth-century Swiss linguist who maintained that regularities exist in language only by reference to internal, structural differences in the language itself—might have been more readily apparent. Saussure sought not laws but relations of differences; his descriptions were influential not only for Lévi-Strauss but for Lacan’s revolutionary description of the unconscious, as well as Derrida’s discussion of the instability of meaning. I don’t mean to imply that there was some naïve adoption of infernal, anti-humanist values here, just a year after Ken Kesey’s first Acid Test, but rather that America was home to many formalist critics, who rapidly became structuralists and poststructuralists, particularly once the 1970s rolled around and the early days of neoliberalism in the university got under way.
Indeed, the difference between formalism and structuralism is worth pausing on for a moment, because the former had become the pride of modernist literary studies in the United States and was only somewhat awkwardly supplanted by the latter (a graft that haunts English departments to this day). New Criticism privileged knowledge of language and its function, but not to dismantle the assumptions held by elites. Rather, after the G.I. Bill of Rights, the New Critics had explicitly designed their poetics to be both accessible and constructive. They offered a literary history and a system of values stripped of classical allusion and baroque allegory in the service of transmission to all. New Criticism had little to say about history, but not because its adherents suspected the constructed-ness of fact and philology. John Crowe Ransom, et al. seemed to have doubted historical memory and political thought as inherently divisive and held high hopes for the redemptive power literature’s special formal affordances might bring to their nation. However, the innovative political speech found on 1960s campuses revealed the New Criticism’s excessively mannered indifference to the politics of reading and writing, which began to seem a toolkit of idealist devices for the repression of history.
In the liberal academy, theory could do something more: it could critique disciplinary boundaries and propose new terms for dialogue. Having borrowed from the spirit of the Annales School, a movement that had coalesced around the journal Annales d’histoire économique et sociale and which considered long-term social histories as well as nonacademic information, theory reflected on everyday life and questioned hierarchies of knowledge. The articles published by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, though serious works of historical analysis, were at the same time pithy, relatively free of footnotes, and legible to non-specialists. It was in this singular journal, for example, that Lucie Varga published her 1937 ethnography of National Socialism, a prescient document that was also unusual for its combination of rigorous method and elucidation of contemporary politics. Systematic philosophical reflection on the role of history and the humanities in general, as distinct from the sciences, had been underway since the polymathic Wilhelm Dilthey (1833–1911) strove to describe the division of the faculties of the German university, and it was to these questions that a thinker like Michel Foucault, partly influenced by his teacher Georges Canguilhem, turned his attention.
If the Annales had demonstrated the political worth of a literary approach to history that validated all possible sources, Foucault expanded this initiative, treating not just the historical text but also the scientific text as a text like any other, in a supreme act of narrative relativism that sought to show how scientific knowledge might be contingent upon conceptual elaboration. This sort of critical cross-research is of course also relevant to Roland Barthes’s intermedial readings—which propose a transdisciplinary rhetoric permitting images and other apparently non-linguistic items and processes to be systematically interpreted as text—along with the work of many other poststructuralist thinkers, who rejected philological approaches along with other forms of disciplinary silo-ing in favor of methodologies claiming forms of critical authority applicable beyond the halls of academe. These methodological choices are related to an ongoing turn from rhetoric and philology in contemporary literary studies—what might be termed either a long process of deskilling or a search for new units of analysis and keywords, or, more complexly, both at once.
Thus, for all we have heard of theory’s much-alleged impenetrability, it seems always to have been involved with the category of the everyday, if not with popular culture itself. Thus it could permit American adopters to gesture toward the context of the society of which they were members without speaking about history or politics in so many words, and this quality of its critical voice proved extremely powerful. It was made for the American campus of the 1970s, which, while still galvanized by the insurgent rhetoric of the 1960s, was at the same time rapidly becoming a space of bureaucratic commerce, as graduate studies grew at a faster rate than the rest of the university and the humanities began to falter and lose funding. Literature departments, activated in progressive quarters by an ongoing golden age of experimental writing (Beats et al.) and elsewhere hoping to make good on the New Critical promise of a pure and universalist literary value, seized the moment—and the moment was Deconstruction.
In 1976 Gayatri Spivak’s translation of Of Grammatology appeared; it gradually defined the moment and, according to Cusset, went on to sell some eighty thousand copies. In the text, Derrida proposes studying the ideological underpinnings of Western society through what he identifies as philosophers’ systematic denigration of knowledge’s articulation as embodied writing—rather than simply as idealized speech. This was a challenging science to grasp but, once you got it, broadly useful and a lot of fun. This critical approach permitted a playful relationship to power; it represented an entry into an adventure, a detective story. Though it spawned a million imitators, adherents, and cottage industries, and was perhaps destined to seem ridiculous due to its ornate performativity, theory went everywhere. In a post–Civil Rights Movement era, it seemed to offer the possibility of education without indoctrination, displacing political struggles onto the terrain of discourse and increasing the prestige and relevance of the literary text. It laughed silently in the face of the American “simple man” and patriot; it circulated freely in the social bubbles of prestigious campuses, in seminars, and even got into the sciences and the art world.
As time went on, it was lampooned by detractors like Alan Sokal, who in 1996 successfully published a dummy article in Social Text lampooning what he saw as deconstructive jargon, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” (A professor of mathematics and physics, Sokal boasted serious hard-science cred that made the stunt hard to ignore.) The New York Times reported on “Postmodern Gravity Deconstructed, Slyly,” somewhat glibly terming Social Text a “journal that helped invent the trendy, sometimes baffling field of cultural studies.” NPR did an interview. There were numerous rancorous transatlantic exchanges. But theory went on. And on. And on and on.
They Go Low, You Go High Twaddle
And now, approaching the close of the second decade of the twenty-first century, we are here. We still have theory. We also have the Internet, as well as various entities on the right who, perhaps taking inspiration from Benito Mussolini as much as Michel Foucault, have explored narrative relativism as well. (“From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, that all ideologies are mere fiction, the modern relativism infers that everybody has the right to create for himself his own ideology and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy of which he is capable,” maintained Il Duce.) Though I don’t want to bore anyone with elaborate parsings of supposed instrumentalization of the writings of Foucault by members of Steve Bannon’s staff, or libertarian tech mogul Peter Thiel’s affection for René Girard’s theory of mimesis, one has to admit that there is an interesting relationship between postmodern apocalypticism and managerial rationality.
While I don’t necessarily believe that the relativism that pervades contemporary discourse, from Poe’s Law down (or up, depending on where you stand), has a causal relationship with the series of figures and writings that constitute theory; as such, there is cause to examine the correlation here. Certainly, given the things that get into movies, you’ve probably at least once or twice imagined a technocratic dictator reverse-engineering Discipline and Punish, but have you imagined an online retailer reverse-engineering Foucault’s late theory of biopolitics? If not, you may not have to! By way of which cryptic joke I want to mention that the French have long been aware of the possibility of a good reader of theory making reactionary administrative moves. See the case of Foucault’s mentee and literary executor, François Ewald, whose entrepreneurial interpretations of his master’s teachings led him to write a dissertation on social risk and the welfare state, which was followed by a successful career in the insurance industry and then various interventions into politics with the ends of reforming the French system by getting rid of cradle-to-grave entitlements. I doubt that, though Ewald credits Foucault with having introduced him to the notion that we are living in a “postrevolutionary” age, Ewald’s politics are entirely entailed by those of his teacher.
Indeed, this is my point. Theory has begun, more and more, to look like an allegedly value-agnostic way of thinking through the circulation of power and the formation of value—which is to say that it looks vaguely formal and vaguely cybernetic and like a lot of other contemporary communication styles in their relationship to contemporary bureaucracy. Certainly, the art gallery press release, one of the prime sites at which the keywords of theory are offered up to contemporary readers anew, epitomizes this trend: a given artist explores and reveals our preconceptions, suggesting that what we thought was the case, a veritable truth, is in fact a context-dependent construction designed to shelter us from an inconvenient view into history and the horrors and disparities of contemporary social life. I mean, I don’t believe that this sort of description is inaccurate. It’s fair to make such claims. This is indeed what a lot of contemporary art does, and I myself have from time to time described it in exactly these sorts of terms and without irony.
But popular culture’s lack of resistance to the circulation of theory tends to publicly obscure something that is happening to the humanities in general, and to literary studies, in particular. These entities are, I’m afraid, failing again. If there is a forty-year cycle on which American academic literary criticism tends to renew itself, we were due for a new installment in the first decade of the twenty-first century, when Sianne Ngai’s glorious work of Marxian affect-theory, Ugly Feelings, a description of neoliberalism’s cruel shaping of contemporary emotion and social experience, might have changed the debate had just a few more members of the old guard gotten onboard. Or, perhaps we would have been successfully carried away by Franco Moretti’s quantification of the novel (alas, everyone has remained quite unconvinced!). Thus, we are left in a situation in which questions like “What is literature for?” and “How do we read literature?” are being most aggressively answered by recent works of autofiction and the lyric essay—not a bad thing in itself, but, then, people are still getting undergraduate educations, and this, I fear, is where the problem lies.
Until recently, I had a contingent position at a private college where a number of my undergraduate students had either been homeless or faced homelessness, and almost all were going into staggering amounts of debt. Many were involved in gig work; some were sex workers. While no one found this particularly sensational, it being New York City, I was confronted by my inability to do anything other than reassure these teenagers (for this is what they were) that they would persevere in spite of the enormous setbacks they were accruing by choosing to get college educations in literary studies at a private institution in the nation’s most expensive city.
There were numerous rancorous transatlantic exchanges. But theory went on.
I was participating in this doubtful project as recently as November of 2017, at which time the novelist and retired professor of writing, Marilynne Robinson, published two strange articles in The New York Review of Books: “What Are We Doing Here?” and “Year One: Rhetoric and Responsibility.” (The former furnishes the title for her recent essay collection). I’m still not entirely sure what she was getting at in these two wide-ranging essays on writing and American pedagogy, but I was particularly struck by what she had to say about why individuals should get educations in the humanities and why, pursuantly, people should continue to provide said education. Robinson writes, “If I seem to have conceded an important point in saying that the humanities do not prepare ideal helots, economically speaking, I do not at all mean to imply that they are less than ideal for preparing capable citizens, imaginative . . . and largely unmonetizable.” I think, without indulging in a deeper exploration of the metaphorical “helots” (i.e. an enslaved caste in ancient Sparta), the general sentiment here is that an education in the humanities makes one independent and that is good for the nation. So, for Robinson, the humanities are good, but something she refers to as “higher twaddle” or “post-deconstructionism” (another name for the contemporary era, I think) is bad. High-twaddling post-deconstructionism is particularly bad, as Robinson contends, because “we have grave public issues to debate.” I think I almost stood up and cheered with sardonic glee when I first read this.
Robinson is, of course, far from the first to use these late mid-century trends in continental theory to explain why American undergraduates aren’t getting the inexpensive pragmatic educations in the humanities they deserve. Indeed, she’s pretty late to this party. But it is telling to see this notion arise again here, around the question of what is due to an undergraduate who wants to study art rather than, as Sokal wisely framed it, what is due in a peer-reviewed journal. It suggests someone deeply out of touch with the state of contemporary discourse in general and upsettingly in the humanities particularly, in that she has no idea where theory currently makes its living—which is hardly in undergraduate curricula.
To test that theory out, I decided to ask my students at the private college (some seniors) if they knew who Jacques Derrida was.
They, to a person, did not.
The thoughts that have accrued here, about the joys and strangeness of theory, are, therefore, dedicated to them. For they are, as students have always been, the ones who will determine whether academic institutions can contribute anything to the public conversation. This has nothing to do with whether students are “well educated,” meeting standards, or acing tests (or whether they know anything about Derrida, for that matter). Rather, it is about whether they have the tools and material support they need to see connections between their studies and the world, a cliché but not less true for that. Theory clearly continues to play a role in various political and intellectual networks outside the university; perhaps it’s useful for undergrads, too. While I remain a bit agnostic on the “Theory, Ruining Everything or Not?” issue, there are two points on which I am clear: 1., it is a mistake to think that you can replace theory’s strong descriptions of colonialism and late capitalism with vague allusions to said descriptions; and 2., the cost of a B.A. is more distracting and enervating to the citizenry than any form of relativism, narrative or otherwise.