Theoretical Humility

Pascual Sisto: Evolving series transforming certain influential books into confetti. 2008-2010:

I’ve never regarded myself as a theorist, and certainly not a philosopher. Taking on such a title, it’s seemed to me, requires a lot more self-confidence than I’ll ever have. It presumes that you’re making substantial, original contributions to theoretical discourse, or generating a new research program. I don’t do that. For a long time, I would’ve said that’s because I’m not smart enough to “make” theory; I use theory, of course, but I have no grand models of my own to explain how capital circulates, or how identity is constructed, or how objects take form. I don’t neologize, either — which seems a huge (and often annoying) part of theorization. I’ve also come to realize that I’m far too interested in the material world — in concrete things, in real-world problems, and in the situational variables that make it hard to generalize from those things and problems — to want to develop some macro-scale explanation for a whole category of phenomena (this isn’t to say that theory can’t deal with materiality — rather, that I prefer to work with particular concrete cases from which I’m reluctant to draw theoretical generalizations).

And over the past academic year, I’ve had a few experiences that have helped me to put a finger on this persistent, nebulous discomfort I’ve had with “Capital ‘T’ Theory.” It turns out that the primary source of my unease is the “Great Man” model that still pervades the “theory economy.”

First, I’ve witnessed — usually from the far periphery, although, on very brief occasions, also from the inside — the spread of a few new theory fashions. I’ve watched the trend-makers build their brands, develop finely-tuned PR machines, and sell their wares to hungry audiences of graduate students looking for the next big thing. I’ve watched educational and cultural institutions solidify and centralize the authority of few key figures in each of these fields by inviting them to give keynote after keynote, master class after master class; inviting them to contribute to (incestuously produced) publications; organizing conferences and workshops in their honor. What we get is the academic equivalent of the global art fairs: international world-tours of trendy theoretical enlightenment.

I’ve regretted that the junior scholars who constitute the chief market for these theoretical goods don’t think more critically about the modes of academic “production” this New Theory represents. Do they recognize that the conceptions of “labor” and “knowledge” that these theoretical movements actually embody so infrequently match up with their professed politics? We’re advocating for more democratic, fluid, inclusive models of making and thinking in the world — yet the theories we’re building to make sense of these new modes are still built via “Great Man” modes of production.

Second — and I’m of course not the first to comment on this — many of our graduate students still seem to equate “theory” with Great Men. Nevermind the women and marginalized thinkers and critical practitioners whose writings are included — amongst the usual French suspects — on my syllabi. A few well-meaning (male) students have informed me that our classes could be more “intellectually rigorous” if only we did a little more Badiou and Deleuze! Now that’s serious thinking! (One student asked if I stopped using a particular canonical French theoretical text because the “less theoretically advanced” students couldn’t handle it. No, I removed it because I eventually realized it’s a shitty essay.) These same students turn in projects for which the bibliographies are populated entirely by Great Men, despite the fact that there are scores of non-philosophers, “reflective practitioners” (to borrow Donald Schön’s term), and female theorists who’ve done fabulous work directly in their areas of interest. I of course try to turn students on to these other resources, but I wish I didn’t have to convince anyone that non-French theoretical texts can be “serious,” too!

Third, and most immediately (hence the inspiration for this post), I’ve watched this weekend’s conversations on a high profile listserv devolve into a string of condescendingly paternalistic lectures by hypocritical men who blindly adhere to their Theoretical models on principle. Now that I think of it, that description pretty much sums up the regular activity on a few of the listservs I subscribe to. Rather than inspiring me, these conversations among a global audience of smart, like-minded people often make me want to quit my job. Maybe I should just unsubscribe.

Fifteen or so years of such experiences have proven tremendously disillusioning, and have made me extremely averse to any Great Man approach to doing, or teaching, theory. Rather than deifying the Big Men of Theory, assuming that they possess some greater truth that we must adopt wholesale — and warping our conception of the world so as adhere to that “truth” — let’s recognize the theory and the theorists for what they are. They’re models to help us make sense of things, frameworks to help us ask questions — and while the thinkers who generate those models are often brilliant, they’re also fallible and often highly hubristic guides (who are sometimes horrible writers). And they’re often women and people of color… and practitioners… and more often than not, groups of people who develop their ideas collaboratively, over time, through processes that likely won’t bring glory to any one of them or to any dynamic duos (e.g., Deleuze & Guattari, Hardt & Negri, Adorno & Horkheimer). Theory with a little ‘t,’ like knowledge itself, erupts not from the heads of Great Men, but from collectives comprised of folks whose last names, unlike Derrida’s and Deleuze’s, aren’t likely to get “adjectivized” in our everyday academic discourse.

I think we’d all be wise to do what we can to ensure that “little t” theory emerges through processes, through intellectual labor, that embodies the politics those theories ostensibly valorize.

4 replies on “Theoretical Humility”

This is the best thing I’ve read about theory in a LONG time, and makes me passionate for the stuff we’re going to do at THATCamp Theory. If Natalia has shown why DH needs theory, you’ve shown why theory needs to pay more attention to collaboration. Awesome.

thanks, roger! writing this post was primarily a cathartic experience for me; i’m glad to know it’s proven useful for others. i’m really looking forward to continuing these discussions at THATcamp in the fall!

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