Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The resistance to theory

If theory is not understood also as a practice, it will often make the mistake of confusing itself with knowledge, and will then cease to be theory. In other words, theory, unless it is understood as a set of ways of talking that prepares for purely theoretical engagement, becomes philosophy--and poor philosophy at that. Unless theory is understood sometimes as the effort needed in order to get to theory proper, then when we theorize, we are not doing theory--we're doing, instead, something like metaphysics.

This is the main reason why Paul de Man says that the resistance to theory is itself theory (in "The Resistance to Theory"). Indeed, his formula here also means that if you are opposing theory, the only way you can oppose it is by theorizing--but to lay too much stress on this misses his point. The point is that the purely theoretical, no longer muddied up by the effort to try and actually do theory, is not theory. The effort to become theoretical, or the effort needed to theorize, which itself comes from outside theory proper and from the domain of reading (in de Man's understanding of that word)--this effort that is an effect of some resistance to pure theory, is indeed theory.

One can see how right de Man is in looking at crappy theoretical work. People just start pronouncing upon things, working out their structure in accordance to certain conceptions justified by their favorite theoreticians. Theory has stopped working here, precisely because there is no problem of how, on a practical level, to go about theorizing. In other words, the real force of de Man's statement comes from seeing it as exclusionary, as a limit upon what can legitimately be called theory: theory that does not resist theorizing (or encounter the problem of how in practice to go about its business) is not theory. The resistance to theory is theory: "the language it speaks is self-resistance" ("The Resistance to Theory").

3 comments:

Robyn said...

I've struggled this semester with trying to explain and show how theory can be practical. Watching the Derrida film yesterday I saw how he makes it practical, first by using it to critique patriarchal structures, and eventually to develop a system of ethics. Looking at 1960s Derrida one may think he's being purely theoretical (even though dealing with language can't stay in the realm of theory long, at least for those of us who agree that language affects reality), but by the 1980s he's clearly more than a pure theorist. Is that the kind of practicality you are talking about, the kind that has implications and effects "on the ground"?

Or does "off the ground" practicality exist too -- like theory that only applies to literature and its interpretation, but not necessarily to society?

I'm rereading ... Ok, "theory becomes philosophy" seems like a bad thing here. You mean a theory shouldn't be part of a system of knowing, it should remain on the level of discourse, and not advance itself further? It seems like there are two different "theories" here -- theory the practice, and theory the end result. So if I understand correctly, theory the practice (the "set of ways of talking," the discourse) should not pass itself off as or behave like philosophy, which claims to find and know truths. Is "theory proper" a "conclusion"?

I'm just trying to connect the hanging-back theories (that won't "expand themselves into generalizations or more wide-ranging reflections") with practical theory, which seems like it must take it upon itself to make a jump toward something like knowledge at some point if it really wants to be practical.

Sorry if this is all muddled, I'm trying to figure this stuff out.

I haven't read the de Man you're referencing, and of course when I looked for the text online your blog was on page one. That's how I found you in the first place! Searching for Derrida on...something. Google loves rich content, so I think you've carved out your front page spot for good.

Hey it's time for summer!

Anuj D said...

Using the Via Negative method... eh?

Am sure u r well aware of which classs of things can be talked abt in this fashion?

Tristan said...

Theory (theoria) was always philosophy, and was always an activity. Theory in Aristotle is the activity of tarrying alongside those things whose principles don't change. Theory is a practice, and the highest practice insofar as the highest activity of man is to tarry alongside constant presence.

Insofar as we now reject Lambda of the metaphysics (or Kappa of the ethics, as it amounts to the same thing), we must rethink the place of tarrying alongside things (which change or don't change - this priority is also problematized), as one practice among many. Is philosophy still a homecoming (Novalis), does it bring man to the self-clarification of his own way of being any longer?

These questions worked on in all of Heidegger's work on Aristotle between 21 and 24. For an overview, parts of Kisiel's book "The genesis of Being and Time", and McNeil's book "The Glance of the Eye".