I have been following the discussion of Theory’s Empire Ozma referred to in her last post. I especially liked contributions by Michael Bérubé, Amardeep Singh (and don’t miss his incredibly useful bibliography), and Tim Burke. But I find something very strange about the whole discussion. It seems to me as if the authors accept the basic premise of Theory’s Empire, which is that theory is an insular academic practice of little relevance to the rest of society.
But, aren’t we more in need of theory now than every before? If we just take two of the big questions of the last few years: Why do people in Kansas vote against their class interests?1 And, Why do they hate us? Don’t we need to have a concepts like hegemony and orientalism, maybe even (although I might not go that far) hybridity, to begin to answer these questions?
Sure, to the extent that literary theory has become an academic style rather than a serious philosophical endeavor, it is useless for understanding the world we live in, but most of what we call “theory” now was given birth to in an equally volatile time and place: France in the 1960s. (Its late impact on US academia has to do with the time lag in translating much of this work into English.) These academics were responding to very similar problems: the failure of workers to act in accordance with how the left perceived their class interests, and the war in Algeria. I find these ideas useful, not just for understanding literature, but for understanding the world we live in as well.
1 Yes, I’ve read Rose’s article, but I don’t think it explains away the central problem. Like the solution to Xeno’s paradox, no matter how infinitesimally you divide something up – the arrow still hits its mark. Class interests don’t disappear just because the class is fragmented. But I’ll write more about this on my own blog when I have time …