Friday, July 09, 2004

On Theory

As I've said in the past, I normally do not link to things in Salon, due to the mandatory ad you have to sit through before reaching any content; but, also as I've also said in the past, in so many words, exceptions are the spice of life. Granted, Judith Butler (professor of rhetoric & comp. literature at Berkeley) is not normally considered 'spicy' -- or at least has not been so, even in 'theory wonk' circles, for quite some time now -- but this article about her newest collection of essays is noteworthy. In it, probably far more than Butler does, the writer goes on at length about how 'maybe theory isn't quite so dead after all'. Hmm ... you think? One of the truisms that arose from the ashes of the Twin Towers was that, along with irony, theory was dead. The New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and even the Chronicle of Higher Education went on at length about the name of the game now is action / praxis. In other words, what with all this reality surrounding us, i.e., the constrant threat of (if not always the reality of) war and terrorism, theoretical 'wanking' is irrelevant, if not irresponsible. I never really bought the doxa, though. It seemed a bit too much like the 'everything has changed now' line. Easy to say, and perhaps even to believe; much more difficult to flesh out into actual, livable content.

I agree with the author's point here, that theory is not only NOT dead but is potentially, at least in the able hands of somebody like Butler, helpful. Nevertheless, Butler (via quotes) makes a far more significant point than the author actually unpacks -- namely, because Butler seems to address the important question that continually dogs theorists: Why is theory important?

Theory, Butler clarifies in our conversation, has been mistaken by many people to be a "position of permanent skepticism." Instead, she sees it as "nothing more than a critical interrogation of beliefs we already carry with us." It is a form of inquiry that does not deny the existence of the world but rather relates to it critically. "Theory is never fully abstract," she says, for "it is in the context of action that we have to think." In her words, theory is an "engaged form of reflection" that frequently "emerges in tandem with suffering."

This is something I've come more frequently to recognize about my work: i.e., theorizing about theology, for instance, is not tantamount to pushing theology in the direction I think it must go in order to retain / generate its vitality. People often regard me (and my kind) as commonplace critics, ones who pick apart what either we cannot do or what we did not do. This misses the point, though. In the end, as Butler rightly notes, theory is about 'the beliefs we already carry with us'. It is a way to think about where we already are, what we are already doing, and wondering aloud "Why?" THIS is the reason theory is scary, and why it carries the potential for abuse. It is not a question we normally ask with any seriousness, outside of wondering about the apparent causes that led event-Y to follow event-X. A compelling, persuasive to 'Why?' is, as such, powerful stuff -- it carries the potential to change lives, ideally for good, if not necessarily the fundamental conditions from which theorising about our lives is possible in the first place (i.e., that we never escape from the possibility of wondering 'Why?') To regard theory as being dead is not to place it in an early grave; but rather, it is to regard ourselves as no longer culpable to 'Why?' For me ... this is far more dangerous than any pesky deconstructionist or scary feminist.