Whinge: Theory

Something is really bugging me, and the frustration of which has been accumulative so I think is related to my subjective constitution (of the order ‘self-discovery’): the description of ‘theory’ as ‘theory’. As a function of pedagogy I have no problems with such a description, and maybe all the below can be simply understood as my impatience with processes of pedagogy, I am not sure. However, it seems to be something else; one of the affective divisions within academia where scholars are happy or at least comfortable to call ‘theory’ ‘theory’. This may simply indicate a difference of perspective, but as Foucault has argued and I agree, discourse itself is part of the ontological fabric of reality, therefore even such a simple description may be demonstrative of more pervasive differences.

Indeed, it is as if people imagine that ‘theory’ is somehow separate from everyday life. No, bullshit. In the Humanities we are given the opportunity to enrich our perspective on living itself by folding theory back into practice and the cultural poverty of everyday life. There is no intellectual division of perspective. In opposition to this, to somehow malign such an enriched perspective, the argument runs that ‘theory’ or such ‘perspectives’ are divorced from ‘reality’. No, the way of living demanded of those who take this sort of stuff seriously means they have to live in a sort of way. It is not simply a difference of perspectives but the perspective is only the tip of a complete way-of-life iceberg.

I get exceptionally worried about those who also do not belong to a ‘reality’ (the ‘reality’ from which theory is allegedly divorced) — which by this I basically mean the culturally barricaded playground of the Spectacle — but who do not have the resources and quite frankly the privilege to live a way of life that is sustainable outside of the ‘reality’ of living a way of life which basically everyone else unquestionably forces themselves to live. I am very lucky to have a generous family who can help me out while I am finishing my dissertation. In all honesty if I did not feel a responsibility to my friends, family and colleagues then I would ditch this thing. Academia is not a refuge from the stupidity of the world as I once imagined it to be. In some respects, particularly regarding labour relations, it is on the forefront of the neoliberal charge. Academia is infected with a cloistered infrastructural stupidity that bends truly creative minds to the will of the hegemonic, common sense ‘reality’. If I am going to have to do it this way anyway, then why fuck around playing nice? Foucault’s use of ‘war’ metaphors makes perfect sense in this context…

7 replies on “Whinge: Theory”

  1. Glen – Keep at it – don’t be discouraged. My advice is keep it simple, so that all understand your intent. Good luck – Jenny

  2. the thing is, the way that theory is written (jargon, overblown sentences, stylistic oddities, the oys or lack there of of translation, et al.) IS divorced from the “everyday” ways people (a) think, (b) read and (c) write. it may have an impact on real policy (or have the potential to influence those who impact public policy) but that doesn’t mean it’s going to or it even should.

    i like theory as much as the next guy but anyone who doubts this is seriously divorced from the everyday aspects of “real” politics (by real, i mean the people who write the laws and policies that become a part of one’s life) and everyday life.

  3. The final chapter in my doctoral thesis was kind of about this question. Rather than bore you with the details of that, let me summarise it via a few words on the following sentence:

    “There is no intellectual division of perspective.”

    I take Graham’s comment above to be a negation of precisely that statement (albeit one couched in some, shall we say, “conventional” terms). I would say, rather, that there both is and is not an intellectual division of perspective. That’s kind of how I read Derrida’s meditation on the fragment, “I would like to learn to live, finally”, in the exordium in Specters of Marx (though, of course, there’s a whole other set of issues connected to the question of finality, which was what my thesis chapter was mostly about):

    To learn to live, to learn it from oneself and by oneself, all alone, to teach oneself to live (“I would like to learn to live finally”), is that not impossible for a living being? Is it not what logic forbids? To live, by definition, is not something one learns. Not from oneself, it is not learned from life, taught by life. Only from the other and by death. In any case from the other at the edge of life. At the internal border or the external boder, it is a heterodidactics between life and death.

    If there’s no intellectual division of perspective then there’s simply no possibility of learning from theory — in the same way that, if academia (“theory”) weren’t already part of the everyday, weren’t already a way of living (in) the everyday, there would also be no possibility of learning from theory.

    To put it simply, glen: if being an academic were really an “escape” in the way you used to imagine it, would it be anymore a struggle? And if it werent a struggle would it be what you (as “theory” personified, so to speak) would otherwise want from it?

  4. Of course, that’s no reason not to whinge about the way idiots keep talking about theory as divorced from reality, etc. Whinging is thus a way of being part of the everyday too.

  5. graham,

    Firstly, if theory IS divorced from the way people think, read, and write, then i am in fact not a person!!! Secondly, reality luckily (y y y!) isn’t yet determined by policy however much governmental foucauldians would like it to be so.

    I have a kind of formulaic encounter in my head of what I am describing: SOmeone says something which demands some specifalised esoteric knowledge of something else, another person dismisses this statement on the grounds that it is not translated enough from the specific esoteric circumstances (perhaps a discursive field of truth where such a statement operates according to a specific rationality). There is something of a failure here in the communication, not only of the insufficient translation between discursive fields (which may actually be a differend) but of the dismissal of the statement premised on a meta-level dismissal of perspective in part constructed through the discursive event (array of subject, object, relatin etc enabled by the esoteric knowledge). So there is the status of the discursive field and the truth of what is sayable as a statement, and the there is the capacity to translate both the truth of what is said (the ‘sense’ in Deleuzian parlance) and the conditions of possible truth enabled by the discursive field.

    What I am critical of is the _comfortable_ uncritical distinction between perspectives. Note I have deliberately refrained from using terms such as ‘theory’ or whatever because the distinction between ‘theory’ and ‘reality’ that I _do_ agree with is a simple flat distinction that can be made between any dicursive fields. I am describing a situation that could emerge between any distinct discursive fields. My Deleuzian discourse is no different to the ‘common sense’ discourse of one of my medical doctor friends. We have different regimes of enunciation with different capacities.

    I have framed it in terms of comfort because it is a reinscription of subjectivities (almost in a biopolitical fashion of signaling belonging to a given population) that reproduces perspectives presmised on affective dispositions (collectively individuated habitus) rather than the capacity for change. It is a non-change that reinscriobes the capacity for further non-change of perspective by refusing not only the given truth of the perspective (ie ‘sense’) but the field of possibility enabled by the discourse from within which any given statement or mode of address is produced.


    I agree with your point. I was not clear on the points of contact common to different disourse that enables distinctions to be made. Distinctions need to be made not only for the movements of pedagogy but to comprehend and appraise value the capacities (‘forces’, ‘affects’) of different disourse. Speaking like an aggressive tough cunt bogan certainly has different capacities than conversing as a middle-class Deleuzian. My point of frustration is the exclusion of whoever reads theory from everyday ‘people’ because of an extremely esoteric discourse that demands about 5 years of solid learning to acquire and become part of to a relatively sufficient level. The whole thing about ‘way of living’ was meant to illustrate that theory heads have their own everyday life.

    In part of was feeling depressed about meeting some guy in a pub who dismissed academics out of hand as irrelevant because they can’t talk to clients in his advertising firm. To me this is a bit like when I cop the criticism of writing in an unclear manner on my blog or in comments elsewhere. I don’t want to be ‘clear’, and I certainly would not want some advertising executive to understand me. I would become far too useful, unforgivable! My diss is different again…


    I am good. Don’t be concerned.

  6. I don’t like the word “theory” without any modifiers. I don’t like it when colleagues or students in sociology speak of “theory” rather than “social theory” or “sociological theory” – and the same for law, political science and literature. I also find it annoying when people act in an imperial manner: “the Deleuze (or Marx or Derrida or Foucault or Hegel) I learnt in my [disciplinary] “theory” class is the only one.” Digressing, this is, I think, the core of the extended battle over “Theory” across a number of blogs.

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