French theory is dead. Long may it live.
IT’S A BITTERSWEET TIME for those of us who, once upon a time, fell in love with “theory.” Theory — that’s the brusque American shorthand term for the work of a group of mostly French philosophers and cultural critics, from Michel Foucault to Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida to Jacques Lacan, Luce Irigaray to Jean Baudrillard. Beginning in the late 1960s, their ideas about the nature of language, the truth claims of philosophy, the ways power is exerted in society, the nature of gender and sexuality, and many more issues swarmed across the Atlantic to conquer the humanities departments in American universities.
Now theory’s reign is coming to an end. As Mark Greif points out in an article in The American Prospect (Aug. 2004), humanities scholars have been watching the decline for several years. Whether it’s mainly a generational shift as boomer-era theory-heads age, or is tied to the rise of conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, the fact is that theory’s influence has faded. To me, the question of why seems less important than assessing theory’s mixed legacy — what it has given us, and what it has kept us from doing.
The French invasion transformed how many American intellectuals looked at nearly everything, mostly by making everything more complex. Theory gave us an altered image of the “human being.” We were not the captains of our souls, but in many ways were the product of everything said and written over the centuries about entities like “the female,” “the American,” “the black,” and “the human being” itself.
The pioneers of theory were nearly all men and women of the left, but they were in revolt against both the doctrinaire Stalinism of the midcentury French Communist Party and what they saw as the simplistic moralism of the era’s “engaged” leftist writers and thinkers. They wanted richer models of how we’re formed by cultural and social forces — yet they also wanted to continue the great leftist project of liberating the people. The idea that liberation might grow out of radical complexity was their keynote: Their enemies were the large, coercive “master ideas” of the left as well as the right. The way forward was by showing that these ideas were actually jerry-built facades covering a teeming world of difference and potential freedom.
ALTHOUGH THEORY LOST some intellectual freshness as it passed from the French to their American imitators, its fatal flaws were present from the start. As John Sanbonmatsu points out in his new book, The Postmodern Prince (Monthly Review Press), the skepticism of the high theorists extended so far that some of them — like Michel Foucault — denied the value of human experience, seeing it as a mere cultural construct without originality or authenticity. The distrust of concepts like originality and authenticity, in fact, was so pervasive in theory circles that it became difficult even to conceive of the individual human’s having any value. So theory’s image of human complexity was often a bloodless affair, a matter of differing “discourses,” “knowledges,” and “identities,” without a robust sense of personhood.
This intrinsic flaw haunted theory and ultimately undermined its political effectiveness. In an article in The New York Times (April 19, 2003), reporter Emily Eakin tells the story of a University of Chicago confab called to assess theory’s fate. At a session attended by a bevy of humanities superstars, a student asked: What good is theory if, he said, “we concede in fact how much more important the actions of Noam Chomsky are in the world than all the writings of critical theorists combined”?
I take his point. In an age in which members of the American elite openly use the word empire, and when it is clearer and clearer that global economic “growth” means growing poverty and misery in the shantytowns of the global South, the elegant intricacy of the better theory (to say nothing of the jargon-ridden obscurity of the worst) feels like game-playing.
Theory rightly attacked the claims of the falsely inclusive “public voice” that pretends that we don’t differ, that we all belong to vague, ultimately illusory blocs — the West, America, Humanity. But in the current political climate, we need to find a public voice again, even if it’s a chorus of voices.
I DON’T WANT TO DANCE on theory’s grave. I loved it, and I still love it, even if the affair is over. When I was a graduate student in comparative literature a quarter century ago, the French were our liberators, and for one simple reason: They asked more questions than anyone else. We were excited about how rich theory made a work of literature, but even more about the many new things it had to say about our lives and the political and social structures within which we lived.
Derrida asked whether the tidy concepts that organized human thought — Philosophy, Literature, Truth, Humanity, and so on — were watertight categories or slippery, provisional language experiments. For minds deadened by Cold War polarities like democracy versus communism, and then badgered by ’60s leftist polarities like the people versus the pigs, the idea that thinking is an infinitely more subtle business than that was nothing short of thrilling. Foucault insisted that coercive power was not just something that “they” (the pigs) exercised over “us” (the people), but that it could be encoded like DNA into our relationships with others and even with ourselves — that we might, for example, learn from culture how to “police” our own thinking and even our own sexuality. This was a revelation.
As theory encoded itself into our universities, it formed a lot of easy and uneasy alliances: with feminism, cultural theory, film studies, the GLBT movement, critical studies of race and colonialism, and more. These fusions produced the jargon-choked books and essays that theory-haters love to parody: “En/Gendering the King: The Performative Body of the Elvis Impersonator as Contested Terrain.”
At a deeper level, even most politically inclined theory seemed out of sequence with actual political struggle. For instance, people of color or gays who were striving for rights were confronted with theory-based images of themselves as “hybrid” identities “performing” their sexuality, gender, and even race. Theory’s call for complexity came flat up against the need to mobilize people to change the world. Its endless attention to difference began to seem like a way of dividing people, not just from each other, but from themselves.
And that’s where we stand today. I’m more convinced than ever that we’re called to stand up for relatively simple truths, chief among them that greed is killing the poor, demoralizing the rest of us, and poisoning the planet.
This isn’t to repudiate theory — who can repudiate it? It has changed the thinking of everyone with a serious interest in cultures and their symbols, from academics to intellectual zinesters to mobile, inventive antiglobalization activists blessedly free of the chokehold of moribund ideologies. We can’t turn our backs on what we have learned. But we do have to do the simpler, stronger, less intellectual work of persuading our fellow citizens that there’s a crisis at hand.
And so — merci bien, theory, for what you did for us. Maybe, thanks to you, if I find myself discussing the fate of our world with someone very different from me (say, an Indonesian or a Republican), I’ll be less certain that I know what divides and what unites us. You challenged us to climb out of our American-made sandboxes of simple answers and quick-fix thinking, and struggle with the traditions of European philosophy. I can never be grateful enough for this, even if I was, and remain, only a beginner at it. So I won’t say good-bye. I’ll say merci pour tout, et au revoir.
Jon Spayde is a senior editor of Utne.