Putting practice into the theory

January 5, 2007

Theory is alive and well, argue Derek Attridge and Jane Elliott, but it has taken a more practical diversion

Is theory dead, as some have claimed? At the height of theory's impact on humanities departments in the 1980s and 1990s, the names Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan and Luce Irigaray were ubiquitous. Sometimes their influence was combined with that of the German intellectual tradition descended from Marx, the most significant names being Theodor Adorno and Jurgen Habermas.

While the work of these figures has not been relegated to history, the tide of books, articles and courses devoted to theory has certainly dwindled.

For some, this means that older forms of humanistic activity - editorial and bibliographical projects, empirical history and biography, evaluative judgment - can carry on as they were before the continental shift; for many more, it means that these and other fields of study now bear the indelible traces of that shift and must be carried out with a greater awareness of their theoretical implications.

What is less obvious is that the theoretical revolution has not lost its energy. Work continues to be done to test the limits of what can be thought and to break down the barriers that remain between traditionally separate domains of knowledge and practice. The thinkers most frequently cited in such work are still largely continental, and still roughly of the same generation as the earlier group: Gilles Deleuze, Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben and Jacques Ranciere.

One striking feature of the new work is that theory and practice are often indistinguishable. At a recent conference titled Theory after Theory at York University, Mariam Fraser, a sociology lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, spoke of the significant contribution to theoretical work made by the installation of wind turbines on the building of the Goldsmiths Centre for the Study of Invention and Social Process. This enables the group to claim back money saved on energy and invest it in research. Similarly, Peter Hallward, professor of modern European philosophy at Middlesex University, described two projects in Haiti, one in public health, the other a sports programme. In both cases, the instigator of the project did not wait for feasibility studies (which would have separated theory from practice), but discovered what was possible by doing.

If theory in the 1980s and 1990s tried to give us new ways of thinking about actions and objects in the world, then Fraser and Hallward seem to be reversing that equation, asking if certain actions and objects in the world might not give us new ways to think.

Another border that is regularly being crossed is that between the humanities and science. In its heyday, theory was often seen as sceptical of the empirical methods associated with science, and such views sparked notorious battles between thinkers in the two areas. Now, however, science seems to offer to some in the humanities new theoretical approaches.

Fraser, for example, singles out the work of Bruno Latour, a contemporary historian of science, while Claire Colebrook, professor of English at Edinburgh University, has highlighted research that brings together cutting-edge cognitive science and the work of the philosopher Martin Heidegger.

But there are dangers in such transformations. For example, Colebrook finds the notion of "life" in science-based theory too simple to be applied to literature. Peter Osborne, professor of modern European philosophy at Middlesex, suggests that one of the troubling aspects of the current state of theory is the muting of its challenge to traditional philosophy. And Chris Fynsk, director of the School of Language and Literature at Aberdeen University, warns against mistaking new trends in the academic marketplace for new developments in the intellectual work of theory.

However, one of theory's key arguments is that there is no single, authentic, original state on which to base our thinking. It insists that when we go back to the beginning, we never find it as stable or as coherent as we had hoped; the ground on which we stand always turns out to be crumbling beneath our feet. Although such insights can be uncomfortable, they can also be exhilarating, creating room for radical ways of thinking and acting. If theory is increasingly fragmented, at odds with its own beginnings, perhaps that is only to be expected. To confront us with uncertainty, to make us question what we thought was self-evident, has always been what theory does best.

Derek Attridge is head of the department of English at York University and author of The Singularity of Literature . Jane Elliott is a lecturer in the department of English at York.

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