Book Notes: Theory’s Empire

So, over at The Valve, they’re talking about the new anthology Theory’s Empire, and I was asked to join in the fun. Beware of what you ask for: I may have achieved true Holbonian length here, at 3,000 words or so.


I’ll start with Jeff Reid’s cartoon “Breakfast Theory: A Morning Methodology”, just as the book starts. I was one of the thousands of academics in graduate school or newly hired in 1989 that cut that cartoon out and put it up on a bulletin board. I remember showing it to my wife, saying it was the funniest thing I’d seen. She read it attentively and smiled politely.

The cartoon stayed funny but it also started to become an emblem of something else for me, a growing awareness of distress. In 1989, I was well into graduate school. I had actually had a lot of exposure to “critical theory” as an undergraduate major in history and English in the mid-1980s. I had even had a class with Judith Butler on Foucault while she was at Wesleyan. I liked theory, even when I felt I didn’t have the faintest idea what was going on, because if nothing else you could sense the energy behind it, that the theorists we read were urgently engaged by their work, the professors who taught the theorists were among the most exciting and skilled teachers at the college, because in the backwash of the 1960s and 1970s, many of us had a restless sense that the next intellectual and political step was waiting to be taken, but none of us knew what that might be. Theory made you feel almost like you were in the dream of the Enlightenment again, everyone speaking the same language with disciplines and specializations set aside.

The cartoon was funny for those of who spent time reading, thinking, speaking theory at a very particular moment in the institutional and intellectual history of American academia. For anyone who didn’t, the cartoon is mildly amusing in another way: as a kind of pre-Sokal confirmation that the eggheads in the humanities had gone deep into the swamps of nonsense and pomposity. And this is how the cartoon wormed its way into my head: both as a funny satire of things I did and said and as a salvage operation dredging up an intellectual self already alienated by the distance between what I found myself doing as an academic-in-training and the underlying desires I’d brought with me when I signed up to get a Ph.D.

Which is still how I feel now about “theory” and its alleged overthrow. I warm to the talk that it was an empire, but I’m equally aware that my sense of it as such is a direct personal consequence of my individual experience of academic careerism. I warm to the various critiques and denunciations of theory in the volume but to some extent because I get both the insider and outsider version of them, the same way I could read the cartoon in two idioms, and for the same reason, the glee of some contributors can be a bit off-putting. This is why I tend to bristle on one hand at know-nothing denunciations of theory, like E.O. Wilson’s in Consilience, but also at circle-the-wagons defenses of it, or even those defenses which argue that the problem with theory was only its occasional excesses and over-zealous acolytes.

The main point, and it is one made again and again throughout the anthology, is that theory was above all a professional consciousness, a way of feeling and being academic that was native to a past time and place (the 1980s and early 1990s). You can’t just separate out some of the chief manifestations of the era of theory, like the star system, as unrelated epiphenomena, or insist that we just talk about the actual texts. (Though at the same time, the volume could really use an ethnographic retelling of a conference or conversation from the late 1980s or early 1990s. Anthony Appiah comes closest in his short essay, and maybe there is nothing that really fits the bill besides a David Lodge novel.)

This is not to say that theory’s moment is done and gone, with no harm to anyone. There was lasting damage done in a variety of ways.

A number of contributors observe that one thing that the theoretical moment did which has had lasting effects on academic writing in general is not so much the feared disfigurations of jargon but the escalating grandiosity of scholarly claims, the overinflation of argument, the Kissinger-joke ramping up of the presumed stakes in scholarly writing and speaking. Theory, particularly but not solely in literary studies, withdrew from an imagined relation to public discourse which apportioned it a mostly modest role but in exact inverse proportion to that retreat developed a more and more exaggerated sense of the importance of its own discourse.

You cannot just make this a folly of the theorists, or talk about it in isolation from the economic and institutional changes in the academy itself. Academic literary critics in 1950, like most professors, made poor salaries while working for institutions which were still relatively distant from American mass society. Professors in 1989, particularly those employed by selective colleges and universities, were working for institutions which were relatively wealthy, paid good salaries and offered good benefits, and which were now a familiar component of the American dream. Most research university departments in the humanities and the social sciences at that time also had to confront the seismic shift in the internal budgeting of their institutions, that external grants not only kept the sciences going but also funded the whole institution in major ways. The scientists weren’t usually being modest about the usefulness of their research in their grant applications, and a good deal of that spilled over as a pressure on the rest of the academy.

This inflation has a lot to do with explaining the relation between the first wave of high theory and its evolution into historicism and identity politics of the race/class/gender variety, much discussed in the anthology. (In many ways, this mutation is the central issue under discussion.) On paper, this relation is hard to explain: it is not an easy or natural evolution of argument from the initial round of continental postmodern or poststructuralist philosophy, much less so from the first wave of the high priests of deconstruction in the United States like Paul de Man. The contributors to the anthology hammer on this point again and again, but it iss worth emphasizing: whatever “theory” began as, it quickly metastasized into a much vaguer way of being and acting that could be found in most corners and byways of the academic humanities, and a way of being and acting that was often a new and virulent practice of academic warfare which left a lot of casualties and fortifications in its wake.

It is true that a response to the volume that insists on reconfining theory to a properly constrained set of texts and authors has a valid point. If nothing else, it leads to taking the actual content of actual writing seriously, rather than just a marker of academic sociology. Saussure, Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, and even many of the various American academic superstars who dominated the era of theory like Fish, Jameson, or Spivak had important, substantive arguments to make that cannot just be waved away or ignored. (Nor does this anthology: it collects some smart detailed ripostes to the substantive arguments of Derrida and many other theorists.) Still, I agree with many of Theory’s Empire‘ authors: the geist and historical moment of theory is an equally important part of the subject.

Which maybe is best known experientially, by those of us who lived through the sometimes-subtle, sometimes-blatant transformations high theory brought to academic practice and consciousness. Many are right to say that is a perilous claim, not to mention a potentially narcissistic one: it is a short step from that insistence that “I lived it, so I know it”, to blasting everything you don’t like as “postmodernism”, to ignoring the things that made various mutations and permutations of theory attractive and productive, to alienating your present intellectual self from the self that found it all very exciting and generative.

It is also dangerous because you begin to overread the theoretical moment as the causal agent behind every problem of the contemporary academy. Valentine Cunningham, for example, attributes almost every novelty in the vocabulary and practice of humanistic scholarship since 1960 to theory’s conquest. There are deeper drivers here, and they not only survive theory, but predate it. Among them is academic careerism itself. Theory sharpened its knives, but aspirant scholars in the humanities and elsewhere must still today present an account of themselves as more brilliant, more original and more important than any others of their cohort while also pledging their fidelity to reigning orthodoxies in their discipline. Theory’s overthrow has not changed any of that, nor did theory cause it to happen. Too many talented people chasing too few desirable jobs did. Cunningham argues that “criticism always claims newness”, but really, all humanistic scholarship since modernism or so does, and in this, is really only following on the lead of literature itself, as Morris Dickstein notes in his essay in the volume.

This is not to underrate the particular forms of self-interest that theory serviced in very particular ways. J.G. Merquior’s essay “Theorrhea and Kulturkritik” notes this by commenting, “That a deep cultural crisis is endemic to historical modernity seems to have been more eagerly assumed than properly demonstrated, no doubt because, more often than not, those who generally do the assuming ‘humanist intellectuals’ have every interest in being perceived as soul doctors to a sick civilization”. In many ways, theory was the ultimate careerist maneuver, because its normal operations conferred upon the theorist a position of epistemologically unimpeachable, self-confirming authority (in part by claiming to abjure authority) while also freeing the theorist from having to know anything but theory in order to exert such authority. I cannot be the only person who was subjected in graduate school (or later) to the peculiar spectacle of a dedicated, philosophically rigorous postmodernist proclaiming that only those who had thoroughly read the entire corpus of a particular theorist’s work should be permitted to speak about it. Indeed, such gestures of intellectual hypocrisy, some of them more subtle, some less so, are a particular target of mockery and anger from the authors in Theory’s Empire, and with some justification. It was hard not to see Derrida’s infamous assertion of conventional authorial rights over his interview on Heidegger as one of many such moments of contradiction.

One of the other oddities of the anthology is that almost no one gives a convincing account of their own survival of colonial domination by theory (including those essays contemporaneous with theory’s rise, which already adopt the posture of defeated defiance). I suppose you could say that some paint themselves as autochthonous survivors who dug themselves into the institutional maquis for a long guerilla struggle and are now celebrating as the colonizer’s regime collapses. Others set themselves up more as members of a lost Stone Age tribe who were never contaminated by the colonizer’s modernity, or as archaeologists digging into layers of criticism that lie below the theory strata. A few are positioned as latter-day nativists reaching back to the precolonial era for renovation, and still others, as nationalists who worked with the empire, have assimilated the colonizer’s ways but are now ready to renounce him and declare independence. (Pretty close to my self-presentation here.)

What’s important in this regard is that because the anthology collects many older essays as well as recent ones, it gives rise to some suspicion that theory’s empire was considerably less imperial than its most strident critics tend to claim, that it was always less influential and powerful than either the lords of theory or their enemies suggested. Perhaps I’m only inclined to think that because that’s what I think about other empires, too, but I think many academics simply amiably went about their business in the era of high theory, borrowing a bit from such work here and there, but hardly worshipping at its altars or angrily burning its fetishes. Certainly that’s the way Foucault was commonly appropriated by many historians, as a practical device for identifying new subjects to research (said historians then, as often as not, debunked Foucault’s concrete historical claims in consequence.)

There’s some other points that emerge along the way in the book that strike me as important. One is the amnesia of theory at its high-water mark, which I think was both a substantive feature of theoretical argument and sociological feature of the reproduction of the humanistic academy in those years. So when John Ellis observes of Stanley Fish’s work that it ignored the past, that in Fish’s work, “philosophy of science begins with Thomas Kuhn, serious questions about the idea of truth and the positivist theory of language begin with Derrida, jurisprudence begins with the radical Critical Legal Studies movement”, I think he’s exactly right, and not just about Fish.

I think this became a feature of how many of us were trained and how we trained ourselves, a part of the ordinary discourse of conferences, reading groups, and so on. Theory began with the last person who was commonly authenticated as its progenitor, and that was good enough—largely because it helped younger academics frame themselves as making original gestures or “interventions” into various debates. I had a senior colleague in anthropology who used to fall into amusing rants every time he and I went to hear a presentation by a young anthropologist, and with some reason, because in the vast majority of such presentations, the author would proclaim, often citing critical theory, that they were beginning for the first time to reflexively consider the role of the anthropologist himself or herself in generating anthropological knowledge. He was right, this is a silly gesture: such concerns have haunted anthropology all the way back to its origins. The same affliction affected us all across a wide swath of disciplines: we reinvented wheels, fire, alphabets and chortled in satisfaction at our own cleverness. Theory dropped into our midst like commodities drop into a cargo cult, and our reaction was roughly the same, right up to eagerly scanning the skies for the next French thinker to drop down and inventing our own crude substitutes when the interval between drops grew too lengthy.

This makes me think that another issue which gets discussed here and there but whose importance is underappreciated is the role of theory in shaping the average or ordinary work of scholarship. Almost all the hue and cry in the essays is either about the foundational or canonical theorists or about various academic superstars. While I think it’s true, as I suggested earlier, that many scholars only had a passing and pragmatic relation to theory, I also think theory was a kind of attractor that pulled a wave of “ordinary” scholarship towards it. I remember being paralyzed by one of the first scholarly book reviews I wrote, holding on to it for months, because I found when I had finished that I’d written a very hostile review, largely because of the way that a work which might have had some workaday, craftsmanlike value as a monograph about the history of European representations of African bodies had wrapped itself in a rigid Foucauldian straightjacket and used theory as a justification for its chaotic and empirically weak arguments. (I was paralyzed because I felt bad about roughing up the author so much, but I got over it and published it eventually.)

This would be one of my acute criticisms of the subspecies of theory that became postcolonialism, that the ordinary work of postcolonial scholarship takes the already deeply problematic arguments and style of the dominant superstars like Spivak, Prakash and Bhabha and operationalizes it as yeoman-level banality. There’s a kind of missing generation of monographs as a result, an absence of substantive, minutely authoritative, carefully researched and highly specialized knowledge that serves as a foundation for more sweeping syntheses and broadly argued scholarship. As I look over my shelves, I spot numerous works in history, cultural anthropology, critical theory, literary studies, cultural studies, whose only major lasting usefulness is as a historical document of a theoretical moment, works that you literally wouldn’t consult for any other purpose. As Erin O’Connor notes in her essay, the problem here in part is the dissemination of formulas, of totemic gestures, and more frustratingly, of a scholarship which is consumed by an understanding of its own impossibility, or as M.H. Abrams says of Hillis Miller, of a deliberate dedication not just to labyrinths but to dead ends within labyrinths.

Though once again, it’s also important to remember that some of the deeper driver here is not the boogeyman of theory, but the whole of academic careerism. Our bookshelves still groan with books and articles that need not have been written, but they will continue to be written as long as they are the fetish which proves that the academic apprentice is now a worthy journeyman who can step onto the tenure track. But at least if we must write unnecessary books, it would be nice if those books might add minutely to knowledge of some specialized subject. In fact, one of the good things that came out of the moment of theory was the legitimate expansion of academic subject matter: I was pleasantly surprised to see that the bitching and moaning about cultural studies, popular culture and “trivial subjects” from scholars who superficially call for a return to a high literary canon as the proper subject of literary criticism was kept to a minimum in the volume, indeed, the longest specific criticism of cultural studies, by Stephen Adam Schwartz, never indulges in this vice. (I especially liked Schwartz’ observation that cultural studies is actually governed by methodological individualism, and thus a form of ethnocentrism: my principal answer would be to say that for me that’s a feature rather than a bug.)

It is a straightforwardly good thing that historians now write about a whole range of topics that were relatively unstudied in 1965; a straightforwardly good thing that literary critics read and think about a much wider range of texts than they once did. As Morris Dickstein notes, the era of high theory in the 1980s was not the first to discover the problem that there might not be a hell of a lot left to say about literary works that people had been reading and interpreting for centuries. This is why is makes me all the more regretful that theory dragged so much of the workaday business of academic writing towards its own forms of epistemological blockage and vacuity, because there were at least a great many new things to write about.

I suppose if I had one hope from this volume, it’s that people who read it and take it seriously won’t be the kind of lazy Sokollites that Michael Berube justifiably complains about, because nowhere in the volume does anyone claim that doing literary analysis or humanistic scholarship is easy or straightforward. If this is a roadmap to the future, it does not go from point A to point B, much to its credit.

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31 Responses to Book Notes: Theory’s Empire

  1. bbenzon says:


    A most interesting article, Tim. I’ve not purchased much less read “Theory’s Empire” myself, though I’ve been thinking about it. I think that a lot of capital-T Theory is over-wrought, and much of the criticism of it is correspondingly over-wrought as well. I take this volume as yet another sign that Theory and its Anti are beginning to rot and settle down into the dust beneath our feet.

    So let me begin with a comment you make near the end of your essay: “It is a straightforwardly good thing that historians now write about a whole range of topics that were relatively unstudied in 1965; a straightforwardly good thing that literary critics read and think about a much wider range of texts than they once did.” Yes.

    It seems to me that that is a big part of Theory’s legacy. And that’s not going away. Nor is theory, but we’re going to see new types of theories. There are signs on the horizon, but it will take a while for these to solidify.

    Now onto other comments.

  2. bbenzon says:


    You say:

    “This inflation has a lot to do with explaining the relation between the first wave of high theory and its evolution into historicism and identity politics of the race/class/gender variety, much discussed in the anthology. (In many ways, this mutation is the central issue under discussion.) On paper, this relation is hard to explain: it is not an easy or natural evolution of argument from the initial round of continental postmodern or poststructuralist philosophy, much less so from the first wave of the high priests of deconstruction in the United States like Paul de Man.”

    Yeah, the institutional pressures you discuss are real, important, and probably causal. But you left out something about the theory transition that seems a bit obvious, and even more seminal: the 60s. The French landed in Baltimore in 1966 (the Structuralist conference with Barthes, Girard, Derrida, Lacan and others), when the Civil Rights movement was in full cry, Black Power was on the rise, the anti-war movement as well, and the Jefferson Airplane was dropping acid behind enemy lines. I was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins at the time, and it was all going on around me, all at the same time and in the same loose network of people. The same was happening at SUNY Buffalo, where I got my PhD.

    Roughly speaking, High Theory penetrated the enemy’s perimeter and all these other armies came in through the breach. Why, because they were there, ready and waiting, and they wanted in. French Theory may have initially been used in English Departments to dethrone the New Criticism, but it was a short step from saying “we need to talk about tests in a new way” to saying “we need to scrap the canon and listen to other voices.” Theory was appropriated to provide a rationale for Other Stuff.

    At the same time, young academics and would-be academics were getting worried. The government funding that had been so generous in the wake of Sputnik (1957) and the Cold War generally was beginning to wind down in the early 1970s and then OPEC oil embargo hit in 1973 and everyone was feeling pinched about that. It was clear that the academy was going to go on rations.

    Now, the thing about Theory – as has been pointed out most explicitly by someone over at Michael Berube’s blog – is that it is easily worked-up by the young. Traditional humanistic scholarship requires a lot and a lot of spade work; you have to read a lot, dig around in the archives, and ponder it all. It takes time to do this. But theory can be worked up more quickly. And so it is more amenable with careerist watering down.

  3. bbenzon says:


    Thirdly, you say:

    “What’s important in this regard is that because the anthology collects many older essays as well as recent ones, it gives rise to some suspicion that theory’s empire was considerably less imperial than its most strident critics tend to claim, that it was always less influential and powerful than either the lords of theory or their enemies suggested. Perhaps I’m only inclined to think that because that’s what I think about other empires, too, but I think many academics simply amiably went about their business in the era of high theory, borrowing a bit from such work here and there, but hardly worshipping at its altars or angrily burning its fetishes.”

    Remember, that the “triumph” of theory was not at all obvious in the late 60s and early 70s. I remember sitting in a seminar back in 1970 or 1971 and listening to mild-mannered J. Hillis Miller tell the graduate students that the MLA was intellectually worthless, that the only reason to join was for the job market. Fifteen years later he was president of the MLA – and complaining about the decline of deconstruction.

    Yes, lots of folks just went on about their business while Theory was whipping itself into a frenzy.

    As a comparison, consider cognitive science. It was on the rise at roughly the same time; the term itself was becoming visible in the early 1970s. We may take cognitive science for granted now, but the fact is that there are precious few cognitive science departments. There are some, but mostly we’ve got interdisciplinary programs pulling faculty from various departments. These programs grant PhDs by proxy; you get your degree in a traditional department but are entitled to wear cog sci gold seal on your forehead. As Jerry Fodor remarked somewhere (I forget where) in the last year or three, most cognitive psychologists don’t practice cognitive science. They do something else, something that most likely was in place before cognitive science came on the scene.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, I think the historical backdrop is a crucial part of the story. Another piece of it I’d add is that the institutionalization of identity politics in the academy (and other institutions) was accomplished separately at first from the rise of high theory, and was much more about a response to that historical backdrop. In many ways, I think identity politics was the real empire-builder here, and to some extent seized upon theory rather than than the reverse.

    The point about the ease of theory is also spot-on, and I hinted at it above–that it accelerated and sharpened academic careerism precisely because of its intrinsic suitability for careerist ambition. Not only did theory come with built-in protections against challengers, it was, as you say, relatively easy. It didn’t require either spade work or the kind of humanistic erudition that Scott Eric Kaufman is mourning over at his site.

  5. bbenzon says:

    “In many ways, I think identity politics was the real empire-builder here, and to some extent seized upon theory rather than than the reverse.”


    I’m deeply ambivalent about this. I don’t like identity mongering. But the pluralization was and is necessary. If and when the hack-work gets cleared away, then there’s real work to do. And it won’t be easy.

  6. Doug says:

    Completely off topic, but I thought the canonical adjective was “Holbovian.” As, “How many Holbovian lengths comprise a sagan?”

  7. akotsko says:

    I’ve only ever read “Holbonian,” but I think that “Holbovian” actually rolls off the tongue much more easily. I vote for Holbovian — and I must say: What an honor that thousands of people John Holbo has never met instinctively recognize his name as a synonym for longwindedness.

    It occurs to me that someone (for example, “me”) needs to write an account of what it’s like to discover theory at a small Christian college.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    I’d buy that for a dollar.

    Seriously, let’s hear it. Clear the Valve! New post coming!

  9. eb says:

    I’m hesitant to get involved, as my theoretical background is still such that whenever I hear the word “Bakhtin” my initial thought is of the disinfectant of a similar sounding name, but I do wonder about the way the historical backdrop to theory is often presented, especially as it relates to the supposed decline in solid, extensive archival work.

    I realize that there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on how to periodize the rise of theory, but just about everyone seems to agree that it was beginning to gain in influence throughout the 1970s. Yet in American history, at least, the 1970s was the heyday of the community study. Intensely archival, extremely local – sometimes covering just a neighborhood – and unquestionably empirical, these studies made extensive use of census data and other types of demographic records. And without personal computers most of these works relied on painstaking punch-card data entry. This may not have been “erudition” but it sure involved a lot of spade work.

    On the other hand, some of the works of the 1950s, such as Richard Hofstadter’s, though still (to my mind, at least) valuable today, are somewhat notorious for a lack of archival work. Indeed, a lot of the archival work done today may have been quite difficult to carry out in earlier generations for logistical reasons.

    At the same time, Kenneth Stampp’s overturning of the earlier interpretations of American slavery and Reconstruction in the 1950s did not rely heavily on theoretical innovations. And 20 years later Gutman’s Black Family was in many ways a response both to the Moynihan report and to the focus, in many earlier studies of slavery, on what was done to slaves and not on what slaves themselves did. (It’s flawed, in part for reasons that we’d attribute to identity politics today, but not because of an over-reliance on theory.)

    It seems more accurate, as you note in a comment above, to say that the race/class/gender work actually picked up theory much later in its trajectory. A lot of earlier studies really took these kinds of identity to be much more fixed and clearly-defined than we do today, uncritically examining the categories they employed. The increasing use of theory in later studies seems to have coincided with both a questioning of the boundaries of race/class/gender categories and a growing focus on mixture/marginality/fluidity/(similar buzzword).

    I don’t know her work very well (full disclosure: I only know the titles) but I wonder if Joan Scott’s career trajectory is relevant here: from social historian to gender theorist. And I believe Le Roy Ladurie went from saying, “Tomorrow’s historian will have to be able to program a computer in order to survive” to studying ritual and mentalite. I’m sure there are others who have followed similar, if less prominent, paths.

    Finally, to make a long comment even longer, I wonder if theory really came into history in the 1980s largely because of dissatisfaction with the results of community studies and other very detailed empirical works. After spending so much time thinking that each small study was a brick in some grand edifice, a lot of people surveyed the landscape and found only piles and piles of bricks, few of which were suitable for building upon. Some of the biggest questions of the 1980s – is synthesis possible or even desirable? should we revive narrative? now that we’ve written about previously unexamined or poorly studied people, can we write from other perspectives as well? – by their very nature invite a certain amount of theoretical speculation.

    All of this is to say that I simply don’t find such a material explanation – academic careerism – entirely convincing as an explanation for why it was theory, rather than something else, that swept through many departments and disciplines. Similar pressures could have led to an expansion of quantification, for example – and in some quarters, they did just that. Careerism seems more like a condition than a cause.

  10. abrey says:

    I’m an undergrad at Vassar, and senior year of high-school I was introduced to theory (Foucault and Lacan and Zizek, mostly). I was handed some amazing analytical tools that made my freshman year of college fairly easy. Some of my professors were amazed that a freshman had even heard of Derrida, while others were annoyed by what they saw as my use of a pretentious and fundamentally unstable set of ideas. So I basically spent the last year navigating the somewhat surreal academic landscape that theory and it’s opponents have left behind. In high school, I was able to read Foucault at face value and grapple with his ideas, albeit with a certain naïveté and lack of sophistication. Now, when I tackle a new theorists, I’ve already read critiques of them and critiques of said critiques, and critiques of said critiques of said… well, you get the idea. I suppose what I’m trying to get at is that for “young people today” (you know you love the sarcasm quotes, admit it) just getting into theory, it can be very difficult to figure out why professors react to its use in such strange and diverse ways, and why it has turned in on itself and been attacked so viciously from without.

    Really, this is just an explanation of why I’m thanking you for writing this, so… thanks! Thank you for writing a lucid analysis of the high-theory era, but more importantly thank you for not disparaging it in a way that might ruin it for students about to tackle Derrida for the first time. I think theory often suffers from the lack of historical distance that tempers any normal approach to a philsophy (say, Kant for example), and you seem to have achieved a sort of distance despite your proximity that isn’t just a result of theory’s ridiculously alienating potential. Not only do you put theory in perspective, but you put my professors’ sometimes bizarre reactions to it in perspective as well.

  11. jholbo says:

    Accepted variants are ‘holbovian’ – with overtones of ‘bloviate’; or ‘holbonic’, sounds like ‘bionic’ [‘ch-ch-ch-ch-ch’-sound as I type long posts.] Adam, you are welcome to write that post.

  12. bbenzon says:

    abrey said:

    “So I basically spent the last year navigating the somewhat surreal academic landscape that theory and it’s opponents have left behind. In high school, I was able to read Foucault at face value and grapple with his ideas, albeit with a certain naïveté and lack of sophistication. Now, when I tackle a new theorists, I’ve already read critiques of them and critiques of said critiques, and critiques of said critiques of said… well, you get the idea.”

    Sounds a bit like what I said in another venue about how, back in the day, I came to learn how to “read” texts:

    When I first studied literature in college I was pretty much at the mercy of the last interpretation I had read (or had heard in lecture). I simply didn’t have a conceptual space in which I could arrange and compare two or three readings and make judgments about their relative merits regardless of the order in which I read them. Even when I had built up such a space I found it easier to have someone else “break open” the text for me by providing a reading (which I consumed either through lecture or reading). Once I had encountered one or two readings I could then reason about the text on my own, applying my knowledge of psychology, philosophy, and whatever else to the job.

  13. bbenzon says:

    On theory at a small Christian college, a few years ago I was asked to keynote a student research conference held at Goshen College in central Indiana. Goshen is small, and Mennonite. The Mennonites are very conservative, but not so conservative as the Anabaptists brethren, the Amish. They are also pacifists and insist on separation of church and state.

    So I gave my lecture, but I also listened to student papers and had dinner with some students. One of the papers was a feminist reading of an Old Testament text delivered by a Goth-styled young Mennonite woman. I thought “cool.”

    I was only there for a day and a half and so don’t know much. But I’d guess that there are some interesting stories about encountering Theory at Goshen College. I wonder how those stories would compare to those from a different type of Christian College.

  14. It doesn’t quite count as a “small Christian college,” but perhaps I’ll try to get a couple of friends of mine (one of whom long preceded both you and I, Tim, in the realm of theory, and another who is younger and still very much a part of it) to write about theory’s small imperial outpost at Brigham Young University.

  15. Timothy Burke says:

    eb: I think Joan Scott is a terrific person to write about in this context. Another person that I think of similarly is Ann Stoler, whose early work on gender, sexuality and colonialism was great, and whose recent writing has been good, but who wrote a really weak book in between on Foucault and colonialism–that was a good example of how much “pull” theory exerted on many ambitious people.

    abrey: That’s a really, really interesting contribution. Thanks for it. I think this is a place that most of us fall down a bit as teachers: we let our students go from class to class without explaining why someone who is used heavily in one class is denigrated in the next. Or we have phrases and words that we say sarcastically or with eye-rolling without explaining what’s bad about them. Like “functionalism” or “essentialism”. My students always seem pleased when I stop to give the really simple, practical definition of “hermeneutics”, partly because I sense that they’ve heard or read the word a bunch of times and have no idea what it means. Sure, the simple definition bowdlerizes the multiplicity of kinds of philosophical hermeneutics out there, etc., but every little bit helps.

    I’m also glad that what comes through is that I really did love this stuff at times, and there are moments where I can still sometimes get into the stream of high theory and drift along happily for a while. The aesthetics of it were and are important. Even when, say, postmodernism was just a hopped-up version of nominalism, trying to say it had all been done before is like trying to say that every story worth telling was told two thousand years ago and it’s all been shifting the deck chairs ever since. The merry-go-round feels different each time you come around the bend and grab for the brass ring.

  16. bbenzon says:

    It does seem to me that theory is very important, and I believe that that is why various theories, models, explanatory frameworks, whatever, swept through various departments. Lots of people thought they were important, not because they were star struck by the academic celebrities, but because they sensed the ideas were importanta and were genuinely interested in them. The question is: How did this become transformed into capital-T Theory and what can be done about it?

    The first certainly calls for an institutional answer, as does the second. But the second also calls for new theories, models, explanatory frameworks, whatever.

  17. David Salmanson says:

    I have a hard time thinking of Stamp as not being influenced by Theory. The Theory of his day was the personality studies (think Kluckhon, Bellah) and the hotbed was Harvard with a significant outpost in Chicago. It was interdisciplinary (Harvard’s Laboratory of Human Social Relations was one model) and it exerted a pull for a time over all sorts of people and much of the work now seems foolish and silly, even if some of it holds up now.

  18. eb says:


    I agree; I should have been more clear. I meant not influenced by the kind of theory that was on the rise from the 60s to the 80s. Of course Stampp, as well as Elkins, were influenced by the behavioral science of their time, but when people today talk about theory opening up new areas of study they usually mean the later kinds of literary/critical theory.

  19. bbenzon says:

    Over at the Valve I’ve been exploring a parallel between the rise and demise of Theory and that of cognitive science. Here’ ‘tis.

  20. Joey Headset says:

    So wait, let me get this straight… theory has been overthrown? When did this happen?… And if this has indeed occured, might it be possible for me to call “mulligan” on my Swarthmore education and get a free pass back there for another 4 years? Maybe this time around I could actually take a few English courses…

  21. Jeremy Rich says:

    A few things come to mind for me in this discussion.

    I went to Chicago as an undergrad when theory was in flower in the early 90s, and remember being transfixed when ass’t profs would read the class their conference papers by the magic of their argot. Once we left the room, I realized I had no idea what the paper meant, but boy it sounded powerful. Unfortunately, I tried to harnass the mystic quality of half-understood concepts in my BA thesis, and even worse, Michael Taussig’s “Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man” was one of my guides! Michael Taussig may do a lot of things in an interesting way, but narcotic-fueled ethnology is not a harried senior’s best friend. Ironically, my career has brought me to small schools that the imperial troops of theory (for better and for worse) have simply ignored or quickly left behind as unpromising terrain. If the empire of theory had equivalents on a world map, I think my institutions would be in northern Mauritania.

    As someone who has taught at a small Catholic and a small state school, I’m struck by how little critical theory is used by instructors with students compared to other places I know. It isn’t a shocker, obviously! However, what I think is actually interesting is how the vocabulary of critical theorists can be used to differentiate people. When I look at some of the posts, it strikes me that knowing the language of “theory” could be cultural capital demonstrating class status outside as well as inside academe. The handful of students who go on to grad school from most of the places I worked at won’t know a thing about theory, and so they’ll have a steep learning curve that, say, a Colby or Williams student would not. And reading Zizek in high school? It strikes me people who went to a high school where he’s on the syllabus will be able to talk about their high schools the way elderly Africans I have interviewed talked about their missionary lycees being better than colleges today…

  22. isorkin1 says:

    Speaking as an econ/math guy, this whole question is rather entertaining, for you get the identical debate in economics. What is the use of theory? But what is theory but the set of intellectual tools (moves) at your disposal when you go to analyse a text, situation, problem etc. Insofar as high theory forces you to question the assumptions, check the consistency of those assumptions, and refine those tools, it is useful and good. Insofar as the quest to perfect theory gets in the way of actually ever using those tools, you have, if not a problem, then at least a very claustrophic and inward-looking discipline. I imagine this empiricism v. theory debate is alive in some form in all other disciplines. Perhaps only mathematics isn’t divided.

    In economics, like in english, the 70s and 80s marks the ascendancy of high theory with Arrow-Debreu general equilibrium models, models of information asymmetries and incompleteness, game theory, rational expectations and real business cycle models in macroeconomics, and then what made (Uncle) Paul Krugman famous, new trade theory in international economics. All this based on mathematical sophistication. And this mathematical sophistication forced economics to “forget” a lot of what it knew in the more verbal and intuitive ’50s and ’60s and leave policy relevance behind(Krugman has an excellent little pamphlet on this loss in which he defends theory: Development, Geography and Economic Theory). Yet the ’90s has seen the rise of people who are statistically savvy, and not mathematically savvy, like Steven Levitt (though computing power has rendered deep knowledge of statistical theory unnecessary). An example of the change: a professor in the econ. department at Swarthmore told me I must take a second semester of mathematical statistics rather than topology (so much more fun!), which he would have recommended in the ’70s.

    My experience with literary type theory is but two courses at Swarthmore: one of Professor Burke’s and a french course. In both, theory was something which the readings used and students threw around enough such that I couldn’t claim to actually have read Foucault, say, but I do have an idea of what a Foucauldian move is. I always felt a bit in over my head, and retreated to the more comprehensible (for me) math-based theory.

  23. bbenzon says:

    So we’ve got high theory peaking in the 70s and 80s in Engish, cognitive science, and economics. Anything else?

  24. hestal says:

    Forgive me, but I agree with much of what E.O. Wilson said about theory in Consilience.

    But, what I really would like to know is where to find the lessons of history. I’m retired and ordinarily I play golf every day, but it has gotten too hot for me. I therefore wanted to read. I’ve always heard that we need to heed the lessons of history so I wanted to learn what the lessons are. But it is not so simple, or at least not for me. I can find only one book on the lessons of history. The history books I have in my library don’t really point out any lessons. I sent this question to History News Network about a year ago, and it has appeared on their website ever since, but I have received no answers. I also sent this question to some national association of historians — also silence.

    Are there any lessons of history?

    By the way, the reason I’m asking you this question is that you seem like a really smart guy and my grandmother always said that if you need to know something ask a smart guy.

  25. Timothy Burke says:

    On Wilson, I don’t think you can write a book of the kind that he does that harkens back to the Enlightenment and the unification of knowledge and then be as openly lazy as he was in dealing with critical theory. On Foucault, he just says, and this is a pretty close paraphrase, “Oh, come on, things aren’t that bad!” If it’s not too difficult for Ian Hacking, it’s not too difficult for Wilson, given his ambitions. Otherwise his ideal of the unification of knowledge ends up being, “Science is legitimate, so everyone has to work hard to think properly scientifically. Everything else is junk.” Why bother writing the book, then?

    On the lessons of history, I think there are two questions, and you ask both of them. Are there any lessons of history, and if there are, what are they?

    Both of them are questions that genuinely allow for a wide range of answers.

    There are perfectly consistent, well-reasoned, intellectually rigorous ways to argue that there are no lessons to history, none at all. Either because we can’t really know the past the way we know the present (we can’t experience, recreate or repeat it directly) or because nothing ever happens the same way twice even when it superficially appears to do so.

    You can argue that there are lessons to history that are not universal or abstract, but very specifically about those aspects of our contemporary lives which are primarily determined by the weight of the past: racial identity, the Constitution, the relative wealth and poverty of the West and the Third World, Social Security, Christianity, and so on. In this context, history’s lesson is simply an understanding of why things are the way they are, and perhaps a warning that a train that’s been moving down a particular track for a long time is hard to shift.

    Then there’s the argument that history’s lessons are potentially more abstract and universal. That I can learn something about my own life or personality, or about the condition of being human, by learning about Genghis Khan or human sacrifice in pre-Columbian Mexico or the early modern religious scholar Erasmus and so on. I think this is the way the idea of the “lessons of history” often comes up for most of us. Scholarly historians tend to be uneasy about this idea of the lessons of history, for a lot of reasons, some sound, some not so sound. On the not-so-sound side, it’s because this way of approaching the past tends to strip out a lot of the detailed knowledge that most specialized, scholarly historians spend their lives insisting upon. On the sound side, it’s because this way of thinking about the lessons of the past tends to vastly underestimate the important differences between past societies and the present, to disregard the reality of the way things were. It seems very easy to learn a lesson about war and futility from The Iliad, and it’s right that you should, but you also need to pay attention to just how utterly different the pre-Homeric Greeks were in the way they looked at war, violence, masculinity and so on.


    Let’s suppose that you’re happy assuming there are lessons to history, and that they don’t just have to be about understanding the specific history of some contemporary problem or institution, that there might be universal lessons about the human condition. Here I think maybe you can see why historians might be a bit nonplussed about what you should read, because in some sense any history holds those lessons for you, and it’s hard to predict in advance which lessons you’re craving. I just read a book on the Reformation, and there are a number of interesting things that it got me to think about in terms of what happens in societies that divide bitterly on ideological or religious lines. It also made me think again about the problem of evil, given how inhuman by my own standards the actions of many leaders in the Reformation were. Others might draw very different lessons from the same book.

    So to some extent, my answer would be to read well-written histories of people, places, events, ideas or institutions that interest you, and you’ll inevitably find lessons in those. Equally, I’d say try by whimsy to pick up a few that you have no prior interest in. One of the most amazing classes in terms of general “lessons” about human beings that I ever took was an undergraduate course on medieval legal practice in Iceland.

    If there’s one kind of historical scholarship that tends to deliberately try to come up with lessons, or to generalize about the human condition, it’s “big-picture” world histories. Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel; Ferdnand Braudel’s three-volume world history; and so on. That’s probably a good place to start, though I think sometimes that’s like trying to learn about what’s going on in a neighborhood in New York City today by peering at the Earth through a telescope from the Moon. For me, the more abstract “lessons” about being human come from the nitty-gritty historical details, from the littlest pictures rather than the whole enchilada. But when a historian writes a big-picture book, they almost have to generalize about human beings.

    It would be kind of fun for a group of historians to just compile a huge list of one-to-two-line “lessons” of history along the lines of, “Never start a land war in Asia”, largely for laughs.

  26. hestal says:

    Thank you for your response. I will try to learn something about this Foucault person, his/her name seems to come up a lot. And I will read some more in Consilience to apply your overlay to what Wilson wrote.

    I am disappointed that historians, philosophers, and theorists of any stripe have not produced the huge list you described. I do understand some of the concerns that people might have in drawing conclusions about history, but what a wonderful thing it would be if every author of a history book of any kind would include a final chapter spelling out the lessons he/she thinks that the ordinary person should learn from his/her efforts. Without something like this, how will history become a predictive science?

    I am worried that the details of history are already so overwhelming that ordinary people will not be able to learn anything from them. When I query Amazon about the lessons of history, only a book about Durant comes up.

    After I sent in my original comments I was concerned that you might misunderstand the “smart guy” phrase. I meant it as a compliment, but I have to confess that my grandmother did not say exactly that. What she actually said was, “If you need to know something, don’t bother asking your Uncle Charles.” Uncle Charles was widely recognized as being one of the dumbest people in the county.

    I will study your remarks further, but they have already helped me a lot.

  27. Timothy Burke says:

    At the most general level, the lessons of history are the same lessons of philosophy, religion, and so on. Everything that humans have been lies within history, so the lessons of history concern everything that human beings have been. The thing we don’t know, as you suggest, is how or whether what we have been is a constraint on what we can be. One of the real problems that historians struggle with is how there can be anything new in the world. Indeed, some historians end up arguing, deliberately or by accident, that there isn’t anything new in the world, that everything is today pretty much as it always been except for some superficial changes here and there. Not too many take it that far, but when you look backwards into time, you still struggle to figure out where the source of change is, to understand how it is that one set of conditions can make it possible for something quite different to emerge.

    I think it’s easier for historians to think in terms of lessons learned if there’s some constraint on the kinds of history we’re talking about. For example, if you were to say, “What lessons have we learned about how societies achieve political stability?” then I think there’s a whole set of fairly concrete lessons that pop up. Or, “In military conflicts, are there consistent reasons why one side wins out?”

  28. hestal says:

    I have done some reading about Foucault, and I have read some chapters from his books which are available online. I confess that I am overwhelmed. I tried to follow it but I seemed to be going in circles. This is my fault, because I have the same problem when I read other philosophers. The sentences are long, and seldom declarative.

    I read Wilson again and he is just a tad nasty in his dismissal of theory — it seems too shrill. I agree about the scope of his ambition and perhaps that is why I am disappointed with the conclusions of Consilience.

    But, in any case, I want things that are practical and useful to emerge from all of our analytic efforts. I am results oriented, I guess.

    Historians, I have since learned from you and elsewhere, avoid lessons. They view their role as that of a reporter, it seems to me. When some historians say that there is nothing new any more, they are wrong. There is new knowledge and new applications of knowledge every day, and that fact is what allows them to study history professionally — otherwise they would be like the Man with the Hoe, brutalized, dirty, hungry and ignorant. Which leads me to the idea that poets draw better lessons from history than historians.

    Finally, I wonder why historians write their stories the way they do. When they write about the Soviet Union’s beginnings they write about personalities. They write about Stalin and his “climb.” They don’t write about, in any real detail, the millions he murdered and brutalized. Historians seem to gloss over the blood and to me the blood is what it is all about. The most important question of history is how to stop the bloodshed and who better to answer that question than historians.

    How do bloody tyrants get power in the first place, and how can they be identified and stopped? Why hasn’t that question been answered? What is inherent in the nature of some humans that gives them the internal authority to murder millions? Who are these people and how can we stop them? I think that the answer is being indirectly developed by those who are trying to understand the causes of human nature and its range of expression.

    Our recent political history offers an important question about how our leaders are elected, and, even more importantly what kind of leader will they be? If we compared the public history of George W. Bush and H. Ross Perot, both Texans and in many respects similar, would we have been able to predict what they would do if elected President. How should we have made the comparative analysis, and what should we have done with the results?

    From a systems analysis standpoint it is really not so difficult. The options open to each man, if elected, are actually rather few. All we need do is estimate the chances that each man would elect each option. A few election cycles of this and we might have something worthwhile.

    So thanks for giving me a place to blither, or is it blather?

  29. Timothy Burke says:

    Hm. I think actually that most scholarly historians today would write about something like the rise of the Soviet Union in terms of underlying causes and structures and less in terms of personalities. There’s certainly a lot of attention to Stalin, but the most powerful orthodoxy in scholarly history today is still social history, which tends to see causality as rooted in underlying forces, conditions, structures and less in particular personalities or leading individuals.

    The thing is that most scholars, social historians or otherwise, are reluctant to abstract from that kind of account of one place, one history, one story, to a general-purpose argument about all places. A bit of that is simply the conventional modesty of historical argument, that historians in general tend to be reluctant to theorize on a grand scale. There are important exceptions: world historians do theorize on a grand scale, of necessity; historical sociologists like Charles Tilly do as well. Even there, however, historians often stick to arguing that there are lessons about modern societies to be learned that may not apply to premodern ones.

    The missing piece–and here’s where Foucault enters in (you’re right to find him very difficult)–is that also most contemporary academics in the humanities are at least tempermentally and often explicitly anti-foundationalist, meaning they tend to avoid arguments that rest on absolutes, axioms, root causes, what is “natural” or “intrinsic”; they are suspicious of claims about human universals. That’s a bit due to the recent influence of postmodernism and postructuralism, but it also runs deeper and further back into the intellectual history of the 20th Century. After all, there’s some grounds for thinking that ideologies that make strong claims about human universals or absolutes lie behind some of the most murderous episodes of 20th Century history.

    To get from “lessons about modern nationalism” or “lessons about modern bureaucracy” or “lessons about cultural difference in the world of the last two hundreds years” to “lessons about humanity”, you somewhere along the way have to think you’ve discovered principles that operate in most places, most times, most human beings. Economics and to a lesser extent political science are much more comfortable with those claims than history, with (in my humble opinion) mixed results. But I do think you’re right that there are times where historians could stand to shed a little of their ingrained suspicion of universals and talk about general lessons about politics, sociology, human character and so on.

  30. hestal says:

    Well, you scared the hell out of me. If I understand you, my remarks about the causes and range of expression of human nature are somehow connected to, no descendants of, murderous episodes of the last century. Don’t misunderstand me, I am glad that you told me this. But, I am literally frightened by the idea that my idea falls in line with the ideas of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, — well you know better than I who they were.

    I will try again, if you will indulge me just once more. My idea is one based on mathematics, not on race or some similar marker used by tyrants. Human nature can only be expressed within a narrow range of potential, recurring behaviors. There are only so many things that a person can do in any set of circumstances. In fact there are many, many more sets of circumstances than there are behaviors. So people, after a certain age, repeat their behaviors throughout their lives. Most people become one type, defined by a range of behaviors, and never change.

    I think that you and I are probably similar types because of the life choices we seem to have made and the interests we seem to have. At any rate, based on what can be seen so far, we are on the same arc of expression. But you and I don’t become tyrants and we would not do so. We do not lust after power and we might not want it if it were offered. Others, however, in my view, can become tyrants and lust after power.

    This range of expression of human nature is like a rainbow spectrum with willingness to give one’s life for another at one end and willingness to take another’s life at the other. There are only five bands. So the expression of human nature is very limited. And it exists across all races, creeds and cultures. It is brain-based, primarily.

    So the sadists who perpetrated those “murderous episodes” are from band 5. There is already some recognition of my idea in the catalog of mental illnesses. People such as Mother Teresa are not considered mentally ill, but people like Hitler certainly are. So my view of History is that men shape it. They move it toward the self-sacrifice band or toward the sacrifice-others band, depending which band governs the leader in question.

    When I look at history, it seems so clear that blood red is the color of the last 13,000 years and that those who blast the bodies of their contemporaries all share the same band of human nature. I further believe that means can be developed to identify these individuals and to keep them under control. I know that there have been many attempts to do this sort of thing and they almost always lead to disaster, but I just can’t shake the idea. I have seen hundreds of individuals in serious, dynamic situations in my life and they all act within this narrow range of behaviors — it never fails. And mathematically speaking, it can be no other way.

    I am not espousing an ideology, I am saying that there is the possibilty that something akin to a medical diagnosis is in order and that any ideologue can have the disease.

    Foucault’s idea, as you condensed it, is that most contemporary academics are tempermentally inclined to act in a certain way. I rest my case — in my spectrum of types of human nature, these academics fall into type 2 — those who want to help others live their lives the way they want to.

    Historians argue forces, conditions, and structures rather than personalities and that is an amazing thing to me. No force, condition or structure ever pulled a trigger, or raped, or burned or… Only personalities do these things and only personalities order them to be done. Human nature is the root cause of everything human. Forces, conditions, structures are only the means for letting human nature of the worst sort do its evil work.

    What if some historian rewrote history with the idea that the main actors should be medically diagnosed along the lines I have outlined. What would it show?

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