05 October 2005

Show Me

For the last couple of years I've been carrying around this quote from Wendy Brown and posting it on my door. It's rather long, but it ends as follows:

theory is never ‘accurate’ or ‘wrong’; it is only more or less illuminating, more or less provocative, more or less of an incitement to thought, imagination, desire, possibilities for renewal.

I spent yesterday reading al these texts that are tangentially about Butler. They were very disappointing, as they wasted all their time talking about a dozen different theorists and how each one was wrong or limited in just these ways, and then bouncing on to someone else in order to say the same thing. The argument ended up being that we 'needed' theorist A mixed with theorist B, but in just this one sort of way.

Reading this crap made me realize why I love Brown's description of theory. I want theory (or anything else I read, really) to show me something. It strikes me that there are three ways that theory can show:

  1. A truly great theory or theorist (there are very few of either) shows me the world in a way I hadn't seen before. It puts things together, reveals connections or ruptures, remaps bodies and matter in a way that had simply never occurred to me. Thus, after reading a great theory one simply sees differently. And yes, that's why the Greek word theoria means seeing and showing.

  2. Thus, it is appropriate for writers, sometimes, to spend their time and energy simply talking about another theorist. In trying to figure out what they are saying/showing, this secondary work shows us something as well.

  3. But theory need not be about only itself. Often theory can be best used to show us somethig about the world, to take the theory as already written and then put it to work to reveal or illuminate concrete events or cases in the world.

What theory should not be, however, is about moving around theories and theorists as if they were pieces on a chessboard. The approach to theory that treats 'theories' as monolithic entities that are somehow valuable in their own right – and then spends all their time doing 'math' (i.e. adding and subtracting) with these theories – does not show anyone anything at all. This is the work that always trots out 'standard critiques' as if they are givens. To criticize a theory can prove very important, if the criticism itself shows something. But hearing things like, 'Foucault can't account for agency', 'Butler is determinist' over and over again, can quickly lead one to that ridiculous conclusion that theory proves onanistic.

This cannot be described as a problem with theory, however. It's a problem of bad writing, of poor argumentation (over here they'd call it a bad narrative, and I wouldn't disagree) in which theory gets used as the crutch. In other words, if they weren't babbling about theorists, the authors I read yesterday would have had nothing whatsoever to say, because they had nothing to show me at all.


dan said...

Great post, I totally agree, especially with your point that "a truly great theory or theorist...shows me the world in a way I hadn't seen before." I think texts/works outside of theory can be illuminated by and illuminating to theory, and I also think that interdisciplinary theoretical or academic texts should have conversations, however unlikely, as much as possible. I love when theory is read into works of art or literature, and when the opposite is done. Sometimes the most meaningful understanding I can attain about a complex theoretical text is when I recognize exactly what it's saying in a photo in a popular magazine or a song/album from my cd collection. That's not to say theory is only valid in the context of popular culture (nor to imply that that's what you were saying/implying), but just that "seeing the world in a new way" is in fact theory in practice, rather than a writer simply using theory to "talk about" theory.

sageblue said...

I think that has been something of my fear of theory: that I will do what your detested books did and just masturbate. I remember writing my diss intro and seeing the slippery slope and dipping a toe into those waters: I could have (and initially did) write all day long about how poco and 18th cent. theorists were all wrong...about my favorite texts.

But, then I stepped back from the edge and said, yeah, ok, they may not talk about my stuff, but watch me use them to talk about my stuff.


So, in sum, theory is all about making love to texts, instead of just wanking.