What are the coordinates of theory? This is a question that has been pressing itself on me for some time now. I ask the question not least because I find myself in an ever more hostile political and epistemological environment in which the backlash against theory has not only taken up its place in those ‘post-theoretical’ rhetorics of well known well-trodden high-profile debates (Eagleton, et al) but the backlash has become absolutely generalised: to theorise, it now seems, is to leave oneself open to the distinction of mere crass generalisation.
I am, to be sure, perplexed by the wholesale academic abandonment of theory in my own discipline. But it is not localised there, of course. My discipline’s falling out of love with theory is, inevitably, a falling out of love with the idea of thought as having a kind of ‘power’ as Simon Critchley has put it. For some, the decline of philosophy into theory is the beginning of the problem, but for me that moment marked a particular fecundity in the idea that the given-ness of the world is available to radical question.
In a recent presentation to my own department, a rather
surly and unfocussed ‘question’ (I use the word most generously here) from a
colleague raised the question as to my own location in the theoretical edifice I
was trying to elucidate: his intervention was based, it seemed to me, on the erroneous
notion that any theoretical observation must begin from an obsessive empirical
elaboration of the speaker’s voice in it, as if to defuse from the start any claim it might therefore be
able to make to having any effect on the world around it. I was ‘cherry picking’
my examples, I was trying to negate my own investment in the world. The
question was followed by an incomprehensible testament to the ‘reality’ of
political action in Greece
This kind of question, and many like it, rather than seeking to engage the world in a radicalising way (in developing . that is a strong trajectory) points to a certain poverty in our ambition in engaging the world: we are prisoners of the new Taleban of empiricism. Theory is the blasphemy that questions the reality principle, that will not quieten its distrustful mutterings about ideology and unspoken truths.
Theory is, I have always believed, and believe it even more strongly than ever, precisely about a turning towards the world, a head-on tackling of the brutal and deadly challenges it poses and a wilful nay-saying to the grey orthodoxy of detail, of historicism and of ethnography.
These, then, are the dealiest of orthodoxies, because they live and breath as if they were in touch with the world, as if the deadening quagmire of its passive avoidance of ideology critique were in some sense a priveleged site from which to get close to the world. This is mere sophistry. Theory requires always that the world be not taken as if presented, but as always already mispresented, as hidden, coded, displaced and and misaligned through the supreme act of hegemony. There is no common sense other than the sense of dying, of giving oneself up to the world in a kind of masochistic play of representations. What theory does, at its best, is not merely show this, but relive it, dramatise it. Make it palpable. Theory is materialism.