This Academic Life
  Life After Theory
A colleague forwarded me the link to this article, which describes the decline of "theory" in the American academy. I must admit mixed feelings about the author's diagnosis, which berates left-leaning academics for adopting a theoretical language wildly divorced from the language of everyday people, and argues that this created "a power vacuum in the kind of holistic intellect that unites political commitments and practical goals with a whole vision of the good life."

On the one hand, he's correct about a lot of the garbage that goes on under the name of "Theory" (the capitalization is important, methinks), which largely involves re-coding things under the rubric of one or another set of putatively objective categories of analysis. The turn in the social sciences and humanities that regarded a redescription of a text using the categories of race or class or gender to masquerade as a reputable analysis of that same text was deeply problematic, I think. And in some quarters, notably in "post-colonial theory" and in some parts of the study of globalization [I am limiting myself to things I know better, which are in the social sciences], not to mention the upsurge in "rational choice theory" and other formal modeling exercises, we get this conflation and confusion still: as though recoding were scholarship. It isn't, especially when the recoding is called "political" to the extent that the author has a clear agenda that she or he is pursing against the work or situation being analyzed. There is a name for this exercise: knowledge politics, i.e. political struggle by other means. What it is not is scholarship.

[Clarification: not all academics operating with categories like race, class, gender, rationality, etc. are engaged in this sort of thing. Teasing out the gendered practices embedded in some social policy can be very revealing and insightful, and an analysis of the rational calculations at play in some delimited social setting can also generate some helpful insight. However, there is a thin but vital line between using one's assumptions to generate insights, and using one's analysis to convince the audience that one's initial assumptions were somehow transcendentally correct. There are gendered gestures and deployments in Huckleberry Finn and contemporary welfare policy, to be sure. And calling attention to them can help to improve our understanding of the phenomenon by generating novel insights. But I fail to see how the continual demonstration of the gendered, or racist, or post-colonial nature of things counts as a finding. It's an assumption of the analysis, and pretending that it's a conclusion makes your "scholarship" into a giant tautology. Lots of work in "Theory" did this and still does this, largely because it conflates theory-as-analytical-tool with Theory -As-The-Truth-Of-Things-Revealed-To-The-Elect.]

On the other hand, I am uncomfortable with the idea that academics should be trying to remain too close to everyday discourse, or that left-leaning academics should be producing scholarship that somehow advances a leftist political agenda. I know that the right does this, and it's just as bad when they do it; I for one am not willing to adopt that particular tactic in order to resist them. "Left-wing scholarship," like "right-wing scholarship," strikes me as a contradiction in terms, and I am not interested in producing scholarship that serves merely to advance a narrow political agenda. When operating as a public intellectual -- or what the author of the piece calls a "linking intellectual" -- it might be okay to draw on one's scholarship in order to support a position. But that drawing-on is not itself "scholarship"; it is politics. Noble, perhaps, and praiseworthy, but not scholarship, and not what academics should (IMHO) be primarily concerned with.

The author of the piece seems to agree, and I can give hesitant approval to his conclusion: "The problem of theory was never the philosophy it drew on but the absence of a public forum to criticize it, expand it for intelligent adults, and correct it. The return of the linking intellectuals -- adept in philosophical thought but not beholden to the academy -- could restore a heritage of speaking to the public about the professors, and, more importantly, could get the professors speaking honestly and intelligibly to us." Two caveats. First, linking intellectuals have to be based outside of the academy (political journalists, perhaps) and shouldn't be given (for instance) named chairs in the study of particular regions or religions, and shouldn't be teaching classes! Second, I am skeptical that this kind of activity can "get the professors speaking honestly and intelligibly to us." Thinking follows its own course, and those of us with academia as a vocation simply have to follow the path of thinking wherever it leads us. There's nothing dishonest about theory (although there is something disquieting about its transformation into Theory and its subsequent use as a gospel to preach from in the classroom), and "intelligibly" is over-rated as a virtue when and if the audience is, well, uneducated. Just because someone outside of my field or outside of the academy can understand something that I write does not, in my opinion, mean that the piece is any more or less valuable as scholarship. Different criteria apply.

A third caveat: linking intellectuals, or the activity of linking theoretical thinking and scholarship with ordinary everyday discourse, is a form of pedagogy. That kind of writing is, or should be, more akin to what goes on in the classroom than it is to "scholarship" narrowly construed. Pedagogy-at-a-distance, perhaps, because it is mediated by textual presentation and the like, but it is or should be pedagogy nonetheless, inasmuch as it aims to challenge assumptions and provoke thinking instead of simply reporting findings.

Best line in the piece: "Gilles Deleuze loved surfing." Loved that.

[Posted with ecto]

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"Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



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