Why we're all theorists now

November 14, 2003

There was never a time 'before theory'; there can't be a time after, argues Alastair Renfrew.

Theory, it seems, is dead. The eager obituaries, which began to appear in the late 1990s, roughly at the point where the excesses and evasions of postmodernism had become almost universally acknowledged, have increased over the past few years in frequency and vigour.

What had begun its modern existence in Russia and Eastern Europe as literary theory, before exploding into the western humanities from the 1960s and mutating into a variety of theoretical approaches to any cultural artefact or phenomenon under the banner of cultural theory, is now revealed, the obituarists tell us, as an aberrant phase in the development of the humanities. The truth, however, is somewhat different.

Since the point of impact when the shock of the new theory genuinely did disrupt and polarise the humanities, the lines of division have never been terribly clear. During the 1980s and 1990s, many academics who previously had no cause to acknowledge the philosophical or sociological underpinnings of their approach came to assimilate elements of various critical discourses, a process quickened by the impetus of a younger generation of academics who had never known a world - in an institutional sense - "before theory". The so-called theory wars did not end in a decisive victory for one "side" or the other. Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, we are all theorists now.

Similarly, "theory" was never the monolith it is sometimes imagined to be.

Card-carrying Bakhtinians tend to have as much time for psychoanalytic theory as Marxists have for postmodernism. The divisions and enmities that mark the terrain of theory are often more contested than those said to divide its adepts from its detractors.

And if we look back, we see that theory in the 20th century was a development, and to some extent a rejection, of the philosophical aesthetics of the 18th and 19th centuries, with its roots extending back as far as classical antiquity. It is impossible - or at least of no pragmatic use - to imagine a time "before theory".

In this broad context, it is particularly disappointing that Terry Eagleton, who has done more than anyone to mediate, demystify and even popularise some strands of literary and cultural theory, should choose to call his new book After Theory , a title that implies a self-evident end even to the phase of obituary.

He has also chosen to characterise responses to the book as polarised between the gleeful right on one hand, smugly relieved that the humanities have survived their long dark night of the soul, and the defeated and betrayed left on the other. The great majority of those likely to pick up his book, however, ply their intellectual trade somewhere on the broad ground between Roger Scruton and some mythical, wild-eyed cultural theorist-cum-jungle fighter. On the middle ground, just as at the polar extremes, we can never really be "after theory" (as Eagleton acknowledges), because theory goes on, and has gone on, all the time.

So why insist that we are now in some sense "after"? The answer is that After Theory is in large part a repetition of what the broad left have consistently seen as the fatal limitation of theory - its fondness for closed, immanent analysis of its chosen object, and its reluctance or inability to break through to the world "out there". This is the central problem that the move from "literary" to "cultural" theory was designed to address.

The disappointed cultural theorist might now wish, "after theory", for the reinvigoration of attempts at integrated analysis of the aesthetic, the cultural and the political, and that such attempts will raise their sights to the forgotten "big ideas" of the longer history of the humanities, to morality and truth; but where to start? So long as we remind ourselves of the need for rigour with regard to the immediate object of study and for perspective with regard to the broad context, the answer is simple: start with anything in culture.

Alastair Renfrew is lecturer in Russian at the University of Exeter.

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