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What I’m Reading: Barbara Carnevali, “Against ‘Theory'”

Here's an old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 6 years ago, in 2018, on the World Wide Web.

Shared Article from The Brooklyn Rail

Against Theory

A simulacrum of philosophy has risen in university departments all over the world: theory, fake philosophy for non-philosophers.


A simulacrum of philosophy has risen in university departments all over the world: theory, fake philosophy for non-philosophers . . . a sort of collective thinking, of a koine, well-known to anyone who teaches in a field of the humanities at a university: a mix of ideas and phrases . . . blended into one melting pot, in varying doses and combinations. . . . Formed in a DIY fashion inside a limited thematic agenda–power, gender, desire, the subject and the multitudes, the dominated-dominating couple–theory is defined and recognized mainly by its pragmatic use. Those who cultivate it, coming from other disciplinary sectors–mostly comparative literature, art theory and criticism, and cultural studies–seek to justify their own research inside a wider and more "committed" framework, that is programmatically turned towards the challenge of the present. . . .

Differently from philosophy, which functions under long, frustrating timings, and very rarely reaches any certainty, theory is quick, voracious, sharp, and superficial: its model is the reader, a book made to help people make quotations from books that are not read. Exactly for that reason, it functions as a common language and a ground for transdisciplinary aggregation. Those who teach risky subjects such as aesthetics and political philosophy have begun to worry a long time ago. . . . The main weakness of theory is the loss of all the specific attributes, which have allowed to define philosophy in its different traditions: it does not have the rigor, the clarity, the solidity of definitions and argumentations, which characterizes the practice from a formal viewpoint; it does not have the ability to raise truly defamiliarizing questions, and, above all, it does not have a taste for a passionate search for truth. Not only does theory not exceed the doxa, but it produces a second level thereof. Therefrom comes the paradox of a radical gesture, which becomes a habitus, conformist and predictable.

–Barbara Carnevali, Against Theory,
The Brooklyn Rail, 1-Sep-2016

2 replies to What I’m Reading: Barbara Carnevali, “Against ‘Theory'” Use a feed to Follow replies to this article · TrackBack URI

  1. Lori

    So is this supposed to be yet another exercise in postmodernism-bashing? Not that I would complain if it were. My only objections (if any) are aesthetic. It’s just that the whole sport of postmodernism-bashing is getting to be pretty cliche, probably because they’re picking such an easy target.

    The way you describe “theory” sounds very much like what I call “pat theory.” (not to be confused with “pet theory,” although there is considerable overlap)

    Also, there’s certainly a punk element in me that approves of pretty much anything “formed in a DIY fashion.”

    • Rad Geek

      Re: bashing — Well, the way that the author of the piece (not myself) describes their target, Theory isn’t a matter of a particular philosophical school, but of a way of engaging with intellectual problems, often using quotes or themes from the works of people who the author explicitly considers to be doing genuine philosophy.*

      Judging from the argument of the piece, I expect they’d say it’s true that a lot of people in the humanities academy now do what they’re describing with a bunch of the authors who get lumped under the awkward heading of postmodernism (especially in dime-a-dozen jeremiads against postmodernism of the sort you describe). But also that it’s perfectly possible to do it with other authors of other schools of thought. (Speaking for myself, I’ve certainly seen similar sorts of things done with hot takes from libertarian and anarchist texts, or with a certain kind of Catholic traditionalism using mishmashes of Chesterton, Mortimer Adler, popularizations of Scholastic authors, and etc. etc. I think I agree with you that the dime-a-dozen jeremiads against postmodernism have been pretty boring for many years now, even when they are intellectually acute. And I’d argue that they often aren’t that. But I think or hope that Carnevali is doing something a bit different, even if there’s some overlap in their targets.)

      I agree with you about DIY; I think I know what the author is getting at,** but I found that jarring too, given my normal set of associations.

      ** They compare it to assembling Ikea furniture from instructions, not to pasting together a zine according to your own ideas.

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