Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Bad theory

Almost forty years now of theory widely practiced in the US--and we only have a general sense of what theory is. It's a notorious problem that is actually its own solution: theory is one of the only fields where knowledge doesn't know what it has to be. So perhaps we shouldn't ever have to lock down what it is. Neverthless, it has assumed certain shapes. These too should not be avoided or combated in the name of preserving continual micro-self-differentiation etc., etc. Rather, bad elements (that is, bad procedures, bad ways of writing into which we slip--bad theorizing rather than bad theoretical positions or theories) should be identified, isolated, and clipped off or left alone to wither. Here then is what might constitute the "bad theory" (and it should be clear that by "bad" I mean something like "defunct" or "spoiled") that we might just hesitate before putting into service yet again, in another empty denunciation of... what have you:

Theory gone bad is theory that tries to assure the unqualified prolongation of theory. Theory should be finite--more than that, it should continually, with each use, project the point at which it might not be of use. Thus even if you want to say theory is immanent to thought itself, and therefore finite in that respect (when thought dies out theory will die out too), it would still be avoiding the issue: the issue is that the production of something different than theory cannot just be problematized from the outside.

Ethical theory is theory gone bad. There is too much talk of ethics and responsibility now, and this produces a lot of bad theory. This is because the use of ethical terms is the quickest way to build a bridge between politics and theory, or rather the politicization that takes place as theory (as I've outlined before) and the realm of society in all its diffuseness. Perhaps it is an attempt to thicken the overquick linkages to the political realm which early theory indeed made. But there's no reason this has to take the form of ethics--except possibly because this allows theory to sound more relevant, to issue more injunctions. At it's limit, this involves the dissolution of everything political about theory into philosophy, which has always been too comfortable with staying out of politics as it is: why ethics and responsibiliy are semi-proper philosophical subjects is because politics often comes to interrupt and situate philosophical speculation, embarrassing it. Theory that strives to be philosophical (or pseudo-philosophical) shouldn't go down the same road. In this respect I agree even with the extreme assertion of Zizek that, within the period under consideration (1933 and a little after), Heidegger's politicization of his philosophy is more valuable than his outlines of the structures of proper philosophizing (in his courses especially) that borders on an ethics--which is what in general I take away from his recent consideration of Heidegger's joining the Nazis (in In Defense of Lost Causes). That doesn't at all make what Heidegger did right--as Zizek would crudely hold, himself couching things in an overblown ethical language which supposes that the value of this could have been disclosed to him personally and guided his action at the same time as that action could represent a value attributed after the fact, which we perceive as the imposition of politics on the situation (this language--increasingly Badiouian--confuses things almost completely, as I've said before regarding Zizek on this fraught issue). But to attribute such value means (however crudely or confusedly) to recognize that politics imposes itself continually and is actively contained and bracketed by philosophies as well as other forms of knowledge. Theory normally attempts to trace what is thereby left out--but with an ethical turn (which was foreshadowed in the "deconstructivism" practiced at Yale by de Man, where people preached to no end about responsibility in reading), it loses its vocation and becomes increasingly irrelevant. At the same time, and insofar as this irrelevance suffuses theory, "the political" comes up more and more, leading us to the next form of bad theory:

Reifying concepts in order to protect them from reification. Such, at least, is the strategy I see behind such ugly invocations of "the political" or "the social." This form of parody only lends itself to a high seriousness that undoes the reason for adopting the parodic gesture in the first place.

Similarly, bad theory trades in commonplaces. These include the use of phrases like "identity politics," which are most of the time just codes for a reactive movement against queer or feminist impacts upon the humanities. But "western metaphysics" is also a commonplace. Eventually, this trade in commonplaces (a dissolution of the commons?) results in a prohibition on experience itself, as each of these are traded in for something supposedly known (and never described in detail)--or turned back into their reified pseudo-philosophical counterpart by the move we just mentioned.

This is related to the bad-theoretical overuse of alterity as a concept. The dynamics in which alterity engages us are ultimately reductive and need to be reopened back up into the contexts (experiential) from which they emerge. Even if the concept is used to precisely fight reduction, to insist on irreducibility, it has become an uncreative way to reorganize a wide array of phenomena along too-familiar lines.

This is also the way that bad theory ends up relying too much on "language," and makes it into a homogenous field through which everything has to pass. Language isn't that important to good theory. Or, rather, when it becomes a crutch, it isn't language.

Next, bad theory quickly displaces social dynamics too quickly into theoretical terms. An example would be the oft cited "subordination of feminism by Marxism." What and who are we actually talking about here? It is here where Foucault's "discourse" comes in to save the day: when in doubt, say discourse does it. Theories of ideology, in comparison, have infinitely more subtlety--and that's saying something. In Foucault himself, the notion is structured (in the Archaeology of Knowledge) to get him out of precisely the dilemma this question (what? who?) produces, as it is posed to him by people who rightly were wondering just how he was able to coordinate so much information concerning the rise of the human sciences. While it's right to insist that the stratifications of discourse, as well as its effectivity (and by means of such insistence, discourse thereby becomes a richer concept in Judith Butler and Edward Said), this might not be enough to rescue the concept from its reduction to an empty field producing too many of those effects. Discourse has to be used more carefully, with more structuralist concepts brought in to thicken the mix.

Bad theory thinks of itself as avant-garde. It has an easy relationship to its own history that sadly ends up mirroring the simplistic histories of ideas which it was supposed to displace. In general, it proceeds as an arrogant new humanism by thinking of itself as a progressive adventure.

Bad theory thinks it only includes by opening itself to multiplicities. While the focus on alterity is reductive, it'd be wrong to see multiplicity as an alternative, or something that does the job better--even if one conceives of it "rightly" (that is, itself fraught with difference or composed only of differences and dimensions, as in Deleuze rather than in Laclau and Mouffe). Multiplicity might not always be the right thing to which a situation must be opened up or in terms of which it should be conceived. Something like totalization can be mobilized against universality and even unity and oneness, as in Sartre or Adorno.

This touches on another aspect of bad theory: it's unwillingness to use more than one or two theories. Bad theory is usually only one or two theories, which gets stuck to or followed to the letter. It's not yet dogma, because it has so much functionality and can in general also be illuminating. But it seeks to eliminate other theories or foreclose their imposition--which occurs often, and as an annoying conceptual muddle--precisely by extending the one position (and flattening or restricting itself so they can be assimilated without reducing them--which would require changing the current stance). Good theory is polyglot and patchwork: it knows when to shut up in one system and shift to another (in other words, it shouldn't proceed by increasing the number of prohibitions upon itself--something nearly all bad theory does--and then get angry at those who misunderstand the minimalist language). Just because the concept itself--here multiplicity--is actually structured (rigorously) in order not to foreclose something, doesn't mean everyone should see how it doesn't exclude something. Everyone shouldn't have to get on your page (or be immanent to whatever) to be on the same page. Moreover, theory should actually open itself up to other things at the edge of theory, which theory isn't--thus I insisted at the beginning on the finitude of theory, which now is rethought spatially--indeed like literary theory and literary analysis. This leads into my last characterization:

Bad theory thinks it itself is politics: while theory represents the politicization (if only by oblique suggestion) of various other fields and their materials and procedures, it has to be interrupted by something from outside itself--or, as theory, has to go someplace other than the lecture hall--in order to actually become something like activism. Along these lines, one shouldn't think that because one's theory says it does not separate a particular conception and politics (like in theoretical Spinozism), introducing the concept into an arena is not political, nor does it link the politicization that might (and only might) thereby occur to actual politics. It's not that there is a gap which we can never bridge--it is simply that politicization and politics itself requires this lack of certainty as to whether it is, in any instance, traversed, as I think Judith Butler (for one) outlines quite well.

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