Life After Theory

Not long ago, I watched a panel of noted literary scholars conclude a conference at Yale. The professors were just putting away their papers and wrapping up when, somehow, they started passionately debating the case of James Yee, the Guantanamo Bay chaplain accused of espionage. To explain the government's charges, they hauled out whatever lingering theory they still had available: Walter Benjamin's theories of translation from the 1920s and jargon drawn from the French theorist Alain Badiou. Things were going downhill. At this point, a noted political scientist stood up in the audience and proclaimed, “I would first like to clear up a few points of fact about Guantanamo Bay.”

It was gratifying that a political scientist had shown up at a literary conclave. It was even more impressive that the literary types were eager to listen to her. The moment seemed somehow symbolic of a larger story that's been unfolding in the humanities for some time now. After years of apparent disengagement, the humanities are recovering a public mood. Professors seem more eager to talk about The New York Times front page than their own fields, even on the most public occasions. The shock of George W. Bush's election provoked a renewed interest in electoral politics. But a much more influential development in humanities departments than even Bush's ascent was something called the “end of theory” or “death of theory.” It reduced humanities scholars' confidence in the autonomy of their disciplines, and it is leading some to reconsider their older obligations to public life.

Theory's moribundity has been discussed for at least five years in the academy. Now the news is starting to reach the popular world. In February, Terry Eagleton, the British Marxist responsible for a well-known 1980s undergraduate primer on theory, published After Theory -- a book that tries to identify where things went wrong. Bruno Latour, the hero of constructivist history of science, had a speech excerpted at length this spring in Harper's, where it looked misleadingly like he was issuing a mea culpa. An outstanding journal of the age of high theory, Critical Inquiry, recently published a revealingly anxious symposium on “The Future of Criticism.” And in France, the best intellectual history of this period of American intellectual life has just been published, as seen through bemused European eyes.

This is grounds for a lot of optimism, especially for readers outside the academy. The new topics on humanities agendas come back to themes many believe are the responsibility of academics to investigate. These include a return to the aesthetics of beauty, ideas of cosmopolitanism, literatures in neglected languages, and global culture. No one idea predominates. The academic landscape could become as open as it has been for decades. Most importantly, though, the end of theory could force academics to resume speaking a common political language with the broader public.

What was theory, anyway? It was the best and worst, but certainly the most important, thing to happen to American intellectual life following the 1960s. Theory started as the transfer of French philosophy of the late '60s to the United States. It continued the cosmopolitan trend of our postwar intellectuals, who ever since 1945 had looked to a European tradition for inspiration.

Theory's origin is usually dated to a conference at Johns Hopkins in 1966, during which a range of French philosophers exposed their disagreements about the then-current “structuralism” in front of an American audience. Because the United States had provided a richer home for Freudianism, existentialism, and German émigré thought than could be found in those movements' countries of origin, it was natural that America should make room for a new philosophy of “poststructuralism.” And after the tumult of 1968, this line of thought promised to help make sense of the mixed successes and failures of mainstream technocratic liberalism and the optimistic “liberation” of the radical left. The new French philosophy was supposed to provide a way of understanding political relations apart from a single “us-them” of a universal subject (“the proletariat,” “Man”) who was dominated by obvious oppressors (“bureaucracy,” “capital,” “machines”).

But other trends of the 1960s had broken the lineage of public-minded, self-consciously native commentators, like the New York intellectuals, the liberal theologians, and the anti-Nazi émigrés. In the era of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Herbert Marcuse, those thinkers had added their own important theories while interpreting foreign influences for a broad public. Later, intellectuals didn't reproduce themselves outside of universities -- except, alas, among the nascent neoconservatives (as Irving Kristol led to William Kristol), or for rare specimens like Susan Sontag.

As the younger intellectual left found jobs inside the universities, the public sphere had to depend on gifted journalists (like Sontag's son, David Rieff) and a narrower layer of “policy intellectuals.” The consequence was a power vacuum in the kind of holistic intellect that unites political commitments and practical goals with a whole vision of the good life. This vision was formerly associated with a combined commitment to politics and a critical eye for literature, art, and philosophy -- the sort of dual talent exemplified by an Irving Howe or a Hannah Arendt. In the reduced climate, the new French master-thinkers achieved an exaggerated stature for a small population in universities, yet suffered an unfair isolation from the mainstream audiences that might have appreciated and corrected their real insights.

Eagleton's After Theory starts its story in the early 1970s. His book isn't against theory in any way. It's against what theory's disciples have made of a beautiful thing. Rather than see any complications within an original golden age, he blames the current generation for squandering a first generation's hard work. For his villain, or more for comic relief, Eagleton holds up the sort of contemporary graduate student who feels that “oppositional” culture is all that's necessary for politics and who writes his or her dissertation on “the politics of masturbation,” “vampirism … [or] cyborgs and porno movies.” “Culture had been among other things a way of keeping radical politics warm, a continuation of it by other means,” Eagleton writes. “Increasingly, however, it was to become a substitute for it.”

In fact, Eagleton points out, the original age of theory developed out of the high era of Western European radicalism. Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Louis Althusser, and the Tel Quel group responded directly to political events. The same pens that signed petitions against Gaullism, war in Indochina, psychiatric coercion, and racism -- and in support of gay liberation, women's liberation, and workers' autonomy -- wrote Discipline and Punish and Of Grammatology.

In other words, once we were good, but the kids ruined everything. As a historical argument, this claim of Eagleton's includes a gigantic gap. The really big changes in theory occurred between the 1970s era of the French forefathers and the current decadence Eagleton ridicules. In fact, Eagleton played a crucial role in those changes. He was one of the American and English minor “academic superstars” who, in the 1980s, simplified and popularized theory to give it a home in literature departments. To give them credit, the superstars retrieved continental thought at a time when philosophy departments rejected it. They had political goals, even if their means were arcane. But most English majors weren't trained in the philosophical tradition, and professors who just wanted to teach Jane Eyre felt crowded out by strident pseudo-philosophers, hence the infamous “theory wars” of two decades.

Eagleton, who wrote the book on the practical application of theory to literature in his Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983), manages to ignore his own legacy. Instead of “literary theory,” he now conspicuously calls the stuff “cultural theory.” He evades a historical account of the American and English theory proselytizers of the 1980s -- by far the most significant generation, if your goal is to explain how theory and politics came to have such a troubled relationship.

The U.S. triumph of theory in the 1980s is usually associated with a single name, and it isn't French. It's Ronald Reagan. According to the standard story, the “conservative revolution” forced a political retrenchment for leftists within American universities. Because the left had failed on class and power politics, “tenured radicals” developed a politics of identity. By the end of the decade, it had proven shrill and insular, leading to “speech codes” and “political correctness.”

Of course, the left's turn to cultural politics in America had a longer and more dignified history than this, and it really did intersect with electoral politics. A certain disappointment emerged after 1968, when ideas of revolutionary ferment failed to produce governmental revolution and instead yielded Richard Nixon. That disappointment was confirmed in 1972, as George McGovern's candidacy emerged as a chance for left intellectuals to actually run a campaign. It resulted in an overwhelming loss.

But on the side of culture, progressives had reason in the early 1970s to enjoy an expansionist mood. Feminists won the right to choose in Roe v. Wade, anti-racists saw triumphs of black consciousness alongside successful integration of northern institutions, and environmentalists won an Endangered Species Act. McGovern himself tilted the structure of the Democratic Party to be more responsive to minority groups. Against an illusory background of Democratic cohesion, culture produced real victories, at least through Jimmy Carter's presidency. Reagan's election was so crushing in part because it began to seem that in fact everything apart from culture had been lost overnight to an unsuspected revolutionary conservatism, which even claimed parts of the old Democratic base.

Looking back, university leftists' choice to concentrate ever more deeply on culture after this disaster may have been shortsighted. But it wasn't stupid. The transformation of 1970s high theory into a set of 1980s teaching strategies for undergraduates was a way of reaching the only audience to which the professorial left had complete access: the young people its members taught.

Richard Rorty has argued that the right and left in America parceled out education in a tacit settlement: Primary education went to the right, while the left held higher education. One cost was that both sides had to hide what they were doing in coded language. The right had “standards,” and the left had a scholarly jargon of “theory.” This settlement has lasted, however much Dinesh D'Souza and Roger Kimball tried to make a scandal out of a leftward bias in the humanities that should have been obvious to anyone. Theory was, in this sense, not just a piece of arcana but a form of popularization -- a popularization directed at idealistic youths (and their teachers) rather than jaded adults. (It was not recognized as such, because it could be made more complex for young minds, not dumbed down -- i.e., it required the sort of time, flexibility, and willingness to learn a new language that 19-year-olds possess and business-minded adults don't.) The only real power most academics have is in teaching, and they used it.

Twenty years later, it's tempting to say the movement miscarried, and that it was political suicide to make theory so central to the progressive hopes of the academy without somehow bringing it into the public discourse. Theory that undergraduates learned in college, whether deconstructive or semiotic or subaltern, lost its impact when students found on graduation that outside commentators didn't understand a word they were saying. Frankly, The Wall Street Journal could have learned a lot from Antonio Gramsci or Michel Foucault. But nobody blamed The Wall Street Journal for being ignorant. And the shotgun wedding between English classics and continental philosophy came to seem like a bad dream -- or, worse, a colossal act of professorial bad faith. Acquaintances of mine, recalling papers they wrote during their college years, have a tendency to slap their foreheads.

Could things have gone differently, anyway? The country to look to for an alternate intellectual trajectory, strangely enough, is France. Among American graduate students, there has always been the rumor that the French gave up on Foucault, Jacques Derrida, et al. a long time ago. The French were said to be baffled by our worship of kooks -- not unlike our American attitude to the rumored French enthusiasm for Jerry Lewis. I'd never before heard this case made by the French themselves. But the independent intellectual historian François Cusset has finally made the whole 30-year saga known -- in French -- in a book that is a gossipy and yet superb history of what he calls the “formidable adventure … of French intellectuals marginalized in France.”

French Theory (the book is ironically packaged under an English title) suggests that the major French heroes of American theory, though well-known and widely read in France, came to be dismissed by the mid-1970s as far-out radical holdovers from the 1960s. If Cusset isn't exaggerating, French audiences now view our history the way we would view a discovery that, say, Susan Sontag, Norman O. Brown, and Noam Chomsky had become guiding lights of university life in Germany. French intellectual life, while we were just learning Foucault and Derrida, was turning to a new “civic humanism.”

Starting in the years before 1980, young French thinkers like André Glucksmann and Bernard Henri-Levi went on the attack. The nouveaux philosophes, a group of successor intellectuals who turned away from the '60s, from French communism, from Maoism, and above all, from revolution, became the skilled journalists and polemicists that U.S. academics were ceasing to be. And they slammed their teachers. Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut published a famous book denouncing America's theory-heroes as vestiges of “pensée '68,” purveyors of a destructive anti-humanism.

A new politics emerged in France that valued humanitarianism and human rights in foreign affairs, and republicanism and universalism in domestic life. Taking into account the more openly leftist political landscape of France (where the center-left can still identify itself as socialist), the ideology of the new political intellectuals fell between our own liberal “public intellectuals,” like Michael Ignatieff or Paul Berman, and philosophically trained neoconservatives, like Francis Fukuyama. Multiculturalism, identity politics, and queer theory remained mostly inconceivable in the French context, where pluralism or “diversity” are not always widely recognized as positive civic goals -- down to the recent banning of headscarves, yarmulkes, and religious symbols in schools.

While their stock declined at home, Cusset reveals, the major French theorists we are familiar with were actually making long sojourns within the United States in the 1970s and '80s. The little University of California, San Diego hosted practically every French professor who was instrumental in the creation of theory in America. Foucault got into the gay nightlife of San Francisco while he taught at Berkeley. Gilles Deleuze loved surfing. Earlier foreign influences, like Sartre and Theodor Adorno, had been anti-American, both temperamentally and politically. These newer writers' books had their greatest impact here -- and then came to actually be about America, or so it seemed. Foucault's second volume of The History of Sexuality, ostensibly a study of ancient Greece and Rome, looked suspiciously like a description of California body culture, health, and dieting. Jean Baudrillard just wrote America.

Derrida, the theorist with the most disproportionately American following, had been a regular stateside visitor since a student exchange to Harvard in 1956. “Deconstruction” came into the general American vernacular as a kind of synonym for destruction -- with the extra syllable signifying “destruction by academics.” But in France, even a title like Woody Allen's Deconstructing Harry was unintelligible to a mass audience; the movie had to be released under a different name.

So what happens now? There's some attraction to a neo-Enlightenment turn for American progressives today similar to the turn the nouveaux philosophes made two decades ago. The aging German theorist Jürgen Habermas has been a figure for progressives to rally around for decades, but his cautious, temperate, exceedingly reasonable approach isn't the sort of thing to stir new ideas. One of the things that certainly could come after theory would be a renewed universalism for liberals, a reclaiming of the language of citizenship rather than identity. This chimes with two preoccupations this election year: the quest to bring those supposed “NASCAR dads” into the Democratic Party and the need to keep Republicans from getting a lock on the language of freedom and democracy during our supposed war on terrorism. France's new philosophers, with their civic humanism, really did participate in public life. Bernard Henri-Levy is still a preeminent voice in public discussions, echoing even across the Atlantic in his recent salvo, Who Killed Daniel Pearl? Luc Ferry, meanwhile, became education minister.

Theory has been the bad guy in rants from both right and left -- against academics' pseudo-radicalism, their arcane languages, their identity politics and political correctness. But usually, professors are people you can rely on to have their hearts in the right place, even when you can't tell what they're saying. Unlike the myth of a liberal media, the conservative notion that most humanities professors are dyed-in-the-wool liberals (or something left of that) is probably true. It won't help bring academics back into practical liberal politics as intellectuals if the death of theory is just taken as the occasion for a collective sigh of relief, or, worse, a chorus of “I told you so” from people who didn't understand why theory was important in the first place. Ask famous professors to renounce theory and its ways and you get a lot of watery, trivial op-eds by Shakespeare scholars, who too often pass for being public intellectuals. The questions should be, what can be preserved from the work the professors were doing all those years, and what is it wise to ask them to do now?

The truth is, we don't want academics doing the same things as everybody else. Creating a homogenous climate of opinion between policy-makers and abstract thinkers is bad for intellectual progress. It's also bad political strategy. As the success of the neoconservatives has shown, under the influence of Leo Strauss and some University of Chicago economists, political mobilization still needs original, grand theory.

American humanities departments, during the heyday of theory, really did keep some energies of 1960s utopianism alive. They infused an indigenous American pluralism into philosophy. The controversial identity theories, whatever their merits, were one thing high theorists couldn't have gotten from France or anywhere else; theories of ethnicity and difference bubbled up from the demographic changes and demands of an increasingly diverse American student population.

Humanities professors will offer something major again if we continue to let them fly into the upper reaches of thought. But we have to find out what they see up there, and have it explained -- by somebody -- in a clear and jargon-free way. The best thing that could occur in the present opening would really be institutional, and it has less to do with universities than you'd think. What we need most is the return of “linking intellectuals,” who are not necessarily academics, who have the skills of public controversy, and yet whose sincere knowledge of academic practice will make professors trust them—even when they have to tell professors they're making asses of themselves. And for these types of writers to survive, we need the sort of print institutions that aren't just op-ed pages and that can model what full-on intellectual debate would look like in a better public sphere. (Lingua Franca started to serve a similar function of professorial education in the 1990s, before that magazine's untimely demise. It filled its roster with talented renegades from graduate schools who had the genius to revive public-academic debate, if only anybody would publish it.)

The problem of theory was never the philosophy it drew on but the absence of a public forum to criticize it, expand it for intelligent adults, and correct it. The return of the linking intellectuals -- adept in philosophical thought but not beholden to the academy -- could restore a heritage of speaking to the public about the professors, and, more importantly, could get the professors speaking honestly and intelligibly to us.

Mark Greif is a Prospect senior correspondent and co-editor of a new journal, n+1 (

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)

, after login or registration your account will be connected.