The question “what is theory?” has been central to the project of the humanities and social sciences since their modern beginnings, and has always been both a “theoretical” and a “critical” question. Certainly, at least since Hume, the question of theory has included a skepticism about theory, that is, a critique of the possibility of generalizing from experience. And at least since Kant, the questions of the conditions of possibility of knowledge, and of the limits of our subjective reflections on it, have been understood as two sides of a coin.
A symposium at the University of Chicago last year asked its participants to consider the critical question of the status of theory: is the era of theory behind us? Has the theory that still remains become more modest in its aspirations, less political, and more focused on private concerns and “the care of the self”? (In this last question the Call for Statements made its only direct reference to a specific theorist; curiously enough, it was Lacan who was taken to represent this non-political “therapeutic turn” in theory.) These questions posed by and to the editorial board of Critical Inquiry, which sponsored the conference, produced a rather wide range of comments, from the pragmatism of Stanley Fish’s reply that “theory has no political consequences” to Fredric Jameson’s assertion that in a time of weak artistic production such as our own, the political urgency of theory to generate critical interventions is all the greater. In any case, whatever diversity of opinion emerged at the symposium, the conclusion reported by The New York Times and other popular journals in rather sensationalist terms was that “Theory is Dead” and “Theory doesn’t Matter.”
It is certainly true that the theory that emerged largely from French readings of German texts in the 60s and 70s no longer has the discursive hegemony it briefly enjoyed. The prestige of philosophically and linguistically informed theory (or what now gets called “High Theory”), however, was already in decline with the advent of the New Historicism in the late 80s, an d continued in abeyance with the emergence of Cultural Studies, Post-Colonialism, and Transnational Studies, all of which insisted on the irreducible materiality and specificity of culture, which was understood as resistant to the totalizing systems and grand narratives associated with “Theory.” But the best work in those fields has never given up on theory, and has instead sought to integrate it into cultural analyses, under the conditions of theory’s new, more modest avatars, which seemed to be based on the critique of all assertions of global truth and knowledge. The infinite diversity of culture and the materiality of its practices are, of course, absolutely irrefutable facts, and the production of archives of knowledge concerning these practices is an immensely valuable work. But the modes of theoretical reason that have been employed by these new forms of postmodern study are often hobbled by their own limited assertions and endlessly self-critical reflections. Must we resign ourselves to cautious relativism, for fear of imposing “Eurocentric” values and epistemological categories on non-western cultures both beyond and en-ghettoed within the West? Why has so-called “post-modernism” abandoned the political and intellectual hope of universalism? Why has theory taken on such a modest posture, one that has by and large given up on both the revolutionary impulses and the desire to participate in larger and bolder epistemological projects that marked the 60s? Why is theory in general no longer willing to take chances, to make strong gestures, to act?