PEN 2014: The Death and Life of Theory

Economics Literature


Critical Theory


The death of theory, not unlike the end of history, has, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, been exposed as an embarrassingly premature announcement.


In 2003, Terry Eagleton published After Theory, which declared that “the golden age of cultural theory” had ended. This was a mere twenty years after Eagleton had published Literary Theory: An Introduction, which had done more to popularize the strategy and tactics of critical theory than perhaps any work before or since. The generation that cut their teeth on Literary Theory proceeded to disseminate throughout the academy the revolutionary ideas of those pioneers of critical theory: Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Louis Althusser, Julia Kristeva, and all the rest. But this generation, according to Eagleton, “did what generations which follow after usually do. The developed the original ideas, added to them, criticized them, and applied them…But the new generation came up with no comparable ideas of its own.”


The practitioners of the age of high theory, and the works they produced, were essentially, and unashamedly political. Their critiques assumed as given that what counts as culturally relevant “only serves the ruling power-interests of society at large.” But whereas critical theory in the mid-twentieth century could claim feminism and structuralism among its achievements, theory in the twenty-first century seemed exhausted and narcissistic: “Quietly-spoken middle-class students huddle diligently in libraries, at work on sensationalist subjects like vampirism and eye-gouging, cyborgs and porno movies.” According to Eagleton, theory devolved into “political inertia.”


Two years after Eagleton’s After Theory, N+1, an upstart literary journal staffed by academic refugees, published its second issue. An unsigned editorial, entitled “Death Is Not The End” sought to rescue theory from the prophets of its demise. Theory had always stood on tenuous ground in the United States, which constitutionally looked askance at Continental thinkers and their idiosyncratic ideas. The theory taught in American universities was almost without exception foreign born and bred. The end of the cold war and the triumph of neoliberalism seemed to usher in a new age. We were on the eve of the 21st century, and it would belong to the United States; it was no longer necessary to abide French criticism and the bizarre investigations of out-of-touch university English and philosophy departments.


Critical Theory


The editors at N+1 argued on the contrary that the big mistake “would be to fail to keep faith with what theory once meant to us. You hear a great collective sigh of relief from people who don’t have to read ‘that stuff’ anymore—the ones who never read it in the first place. But who will insult these people now, expose their lives as self-deception, their media as obstacles to truth, their conventional wisdom as ideology? It will be unbearable to live with such people if they aren’t regularly insulted.” The defenders of theory in the United States proceeded on the assumption that theory provided a counterweight to American triumphalism and American cultural hegemony, and so absolutely necessary. The cultural warriors at N+1 resolved to sacrifice themselves to the margins and suffer the disapprobation of both the academy and the publishing mainstream in an effort to achieve the impossible: they would resurrect the dead.


The PEN World Voices workshop convened on April 30th by N+1 editor Nikil Saval reveals how far we, and N+1, have travelled since that moment. Entitled How to do Theory in a Literary Magazine, the workshop brought together a diverse group of about twenty to “discuss how to convey and perform the insights of theoretical work in writing aimed at a popular audience.” What happened in the ten years between N+1’s 2005 editorial and Wednesday’s workshop that caused the editors of the journal to change their tune? Why the concern in 2014 for communicating theoretical insights to the people who in 2005 they saw fit only to regularly insult? According to Saval, the 2009 financial crisis and the emergence in 2011 of the Occupy movement galvanized the staff at N+1 and renewed in them the sense of theory’s real political potential—the very lack of which in 2003 caused Eagleton to declare theory dead. Suddenly, it became clear that theory had something real and important to say about challenges of the moment. New thinkers emerged—David Graeber, Christian Marazzi, Paolo Virno, the Tiqqun collective—whose efforts were spent on attempts to think beyond the grotesqueries of Capitalism, rather than exhausted engaging the cultural myopia of ‘those people.’


If the financial crisis and the emergence of a radically new political movement renewed in the critics at N+1 a political consciousness, which has in turn led to a concern with meaningfully communicating theory to the masses, the question remains as to just what sense of theory they were defending in the 2005 editorial. The relationship between the partisans of theory and the ‘people who don’t want to read that stuff’ has always been marked by reciprocal condescension. Critics (especially bad critics) are loath to ‘dumb down’ their work to suite the tastes of the lay-person, while the everyday man and woman understandably resist and mock intellectual snobbery. The goal of the workshop, according to Saval, was to consider ways in which theory could be fit for popular consumption without being subject to a procedure of artificial simplification. As an exemplar of this kind of transformation he shared with the group an essay from N+1’s inaugural issue, Mark Greif’s “Against Exercise.”


The response of the collected participants, whose only common trait was an interest in exploring the relationship between theory and literature, reveals much about the enduring distrust between the academy and the uninitiated. While Greif’s essay is indeed, in my opinion, an exemplary piece of accessible theory, many others voiced the opinion that the piece was perhaps ‘too smart by half’—those ‘in the know’ were quick to recognize the references and influences at play in the work, while those without the theoretical background could not help but think that they were missing something, that perhaps the joke was on them. This reveals the challenge, and the danger, of writing theory for public consumption: by concealing theoretical references in everyday prose, one essentially represents the initial gesture of critical theory. That is, one essentially hides in the work itself clues for its deconstruction. This isn’t writing for a popular audience—this is an intellectual parlor game.


Ultimately, the project of conveying the insights of theory to a popular audience is destined to fail if it proceeds according to a tactic of disguising the theory itself. It is not only the intellectuals who sense the latent potential of the times. The diverse group of participants in the workshop show that many share the intuition that theory, declared lifeless only a decade ago, may be our best hope for thinking beyond economic and cultural dead-end we seem to be facing. But there are no shortcuts, and theory should not make itself into something it is not for the sake of accessibility. Doing so accomplishes a double-disservice. It reduces the diagnostic and creative potential of theory, while echoing the implicit condescension that marked earlier stages of the relationship between the intellectuals and the public.


Follow all of The Mantle's 2014 World Voices Festival coverage here.



Occupy Wall Street, PEN 2014, Philosophy, Theory