The Principle of Theory: Or, Theory in the Eyes of its Students

By contributing writer John Handel. This and Jonathon Catlin’s “Theory Revolt and Historical Commitment” respond to the May 2018 “Theses on Theory and History” by Ethan Kleinberg, Joan Wallach Scott, and Gary Wilder.

“It is impossible, now more than ever, to dissociate the work we do, within one discipline or several, from a reflection on the political and institutional conditions of that work. Such a reflection is unavoidable. It is no longer an external complement to teaching and research; it must make its way through the very objects we work with, shaping them as it goes, along with our norms, procedures, and aims. We cannot not speak of such things.”

-Jacques Derrida (1983)

In 1967 Jacques Derrida famously asserted that “there is no outside-text.” This was not a literary formalist screed against historical context, it was rather that context as such was an unstable category–that context itself was endlessly shifting and was never a stable given. Derrida’s injunction to us, as scholars, in whichever discipline we worked, was to question and deny these categories of certainty, to see things in their most capacious sense, to know that our own sight was always already constrained and limited. It was imperative to constantly question the adequacy of our vision. Theory Revolt is a welcome, deconstructive, reminder on this front, as it lays bear many of the central assumptions of the epistemology of the historical profession and what they problematically overlook. Yet, despite its protestations that “Critical historians are self-reflexive,” and “recognize that they are…implicated in their objects of study,” there is little impetus on the part of Theory Revolt to question this further, to turn its sights inwards to the institutional site of knowledge production: the university (III.6). Bringing the ethics of deconstructive criticism back to the university especially in the context of the colonialist, military-industrial, production of post-war American knowledge, was a critical move for Derrida, and likewise, is a necessary mode of critique that Theory Revolt must take up if it is to effect the radical change in the profession that is desires.

Without actively thinking through the institutional forms of power and politics that structure the production of historical knowledge they wish to critique, Theory Revolt’s project itself is implicated in perpetuating them. “Structures of…politics, or even identity that do not conform with convention are ruled out or never seen at all,” they write. Indeed. In focusing so intently on assaulting the “guild” mentality of the current historical profession and its epistemological assumptions and practices, Theory Revolt misses what constitutes their central problem, for it is impossible to explain why we stopped arguing about theory without attending to the political economic transformation of the university: the collapse in undergraduate humanities enrollments, the implosion of the academic job market, and the subsequent proliferation of the precarious labor which manages to keep the university afloat.

This is, in large part, a generational blindness. Theory Revolt argues that the historical profession sees “theory as one more turn (a wrong one) in the ever-turning kaleidoscope of historical investigation. The lure of theory is taken to be an aberrant stage in the intellectual history of the discipline, happily outgrown, replaced by a return to more solidly grounded observation.” (II.3) But, as James Cook has argued in an essay entitled “The Kids Are Alright: On the ‘Turning’ of Cultural History,” “turning” becomes synonymous with a generational rite of passage—most typically, from the new social history of the 1970s to the new cultural history of the 1980s.” Theory Revolt’s emplotment of its own intellectual history rests on the specters of a generational revolt, in particular on the radical critique of post-structuralism that lost the generational fight to a new empiricism. But it is hard to have a generational revolt when your generation has been systematically excluded from the academy. The kids are definitely not alright.

My own brief trajectory at Berkeley provides some anecdotal evidence for this shift. I arrived at Berkeley in the fall of 2015 for graduate school, excited to come to the place that was the birth place of cultural history. I expected to find a place that was the center of radicalism in the United States for so long, the place that founded the journal Representations, that prided itself on being “happily at the margins” of the mainstream historical profession. Instead, I found an institution that was rife with crises. From a culture of systemic sexual harassment to a structural budget deficit that seemed to spell the end of the public research university; from an endemic housing crisis to a campus that was overrun by right-wing trolls and heavily armored police. These were inauspicious years to be at Berkeley.

Somewhere amid the institutional decay that blighted the landscape of Berkeley (not to mention the rest of higher education), the Berkeley of the cultural turn had also seemed to disappear. Where I thought I would find intellectual iconoclasm, all I found was methodological malaise. For instance, at the institution whose connection to Foucault helped bring his work into the mainstream of U.S. academic culture, one of the professors teaching the department’s “Historical Methods & Theory” course notoriously refused to read Foucault with us. “You’re all more or less cultural historians at Berkeley,” the professor informed us, “you all need to read Foucault in chronological order, start to finish on your own, anyways.” What was the use of actually discussing it in a seminar?  The next year this course was replaced with one on professionalization—on using twitter in academic contexts, on building a CV, on networking at conferences, etc. Professionalization for an almost non-existent academic job market had replaced theoretical stakes.

And therein lies the unseen problem of Theory Revolt’s critique of the mainstream practice of history. In ignoring the neoliberal transformation of the university, they miss the reason we stopped arguing about theory in the first place. It is hard to engage in a collaborative rethinking of historical methodology when most of your generation will not end up in the academy. The disciplinary and professional pressures of the historical guild weigh especially heavy when you are fighting for one of the few jobs available in your field. In the midst of institutional crisis, how can we orient ourselves to address both that crisis and the epistemological malaise of the historical profession that Theory Revolt rightly critiques? Ben Mechen argues that as graduate students we can use our precarious position in the university to inform both a new politics of solidarity and critique of the power structures that produced such precarity. Can Theory Revolt’s critiques be joined to this purpose?

One way Theory Revolt’s mode of critical history might work itself in and through its objects of study is in relation to the New History of Capitalism. HoC was a field born in direct response to the new political realities after 2008, as well as a response to the new institutional directives within universities. But the History of Capitalism remains notoriously under theorized. In a programmatic state-of-the-field essay in 2014, Seth Rockman claimed that HoC “has minimal investment in a fixed or theoretical definition of capitalism,” and that “the empirical work of discovery takes precedence over the application of theoretical categories.” In the words of Theory Revolt, this type of empiricism only serves to “reinforce disciplinary history’s tendency to artificially separate data from theory, facts from concepts, research from thinking. This leads ‘theory’ to be reified as a set of ready-made frameworks that can be ‘applied’ to data.” (I.9) Theory is not a lens that can be applied to historical work, it is rather the political stances that every historian, whether implicitly or explicitly, brings to their attempts to understand the past. Despite our protestations to the contrary, we can never get outside theory.

One of the most prescient and enduring critiques of this type of empiricism, especially as it relates to the history of capitalism and the economy, is from none other than Joan Scott, one of the authors of Theory Revolt. In her canonical Gender and the Politics of History, Scott performed a brilliant reading of mid-19th century French statistical reports. Rather than viewing these reports as “irrefutable quantitative evidence,” Scott argues that in merely using these reports in a purely empirical sense, we “have accepted at face value and perpetuated the terms of the nineteenth century according to which numbers are somehow purer and less susceptible to subjective influences than other sources of information.” These statistical reports were neither neutral representations nor sheer ideological constructions, she argued, but were rather “ways of establishing the authority of certain visions of social order, of organizing perceptions of “experience.” Scott’s project constituted a major post-structural attack on the categories that undergirded the basic assumptions of the dominant strains of Marxist and social history at the time and problematized what could be taken and used as historical “facts.”

Years later, Adam Tooze would revisit the ways in which economic historians in particular might make use of numbers as historical facts. “The polemical energy involved in tearing up the empirical foundations of economic and social history, to reveal them as rooted in institutional, political, and indeed economic history, overshot its mark,” he argued. Rather than jettisoning numbers as usable historical facts, Tooze argued that we should adopt a “hermenutical quantification,” where we “move from a generalized history of statistics as a form of governmental knowledge to a history of the construction and use of particular facts.” In other words, we could be attentive to the contingent, cultural construction of numbers, while also acknowledging that those numbers were operationalized and did work in the world for those who used them.

Tooze’s move from questioning the category of statistics to thinking about the particular moments & conjunctures by which certain quantitative facts, once constructed, gain authority is consonant with the radical strains of cultural history influenced by STS & ANT. Revealingly, Tooze takes most of his theoretical cues in that article from Bruno Latour (see for instance notes 51 and 52). Latour’s radical constructivism finds sympathetic allies in Scott’s post-structural wing of the cultural turn, for instance, Patrick Joyce’s insistence on not conceiving “culture” as an essentialist superstructure, but culture as a process, “as for or around practice,” and “located in practice and in material forms.” This continual attendance to the process of knowledge production, rather than ever taking forms of knowledge either in the past or presence as givens, is what I take Theory Revolt to be stressing in their insistence on a “Critical history (that) recognizes all ‘facts’ as always already mediated, categories as social, and concepts as historical; theory is worldly and concepts do worldly work.” (III.4). This kind of critical history, when brought to the history of capitalism and the economy, seems well positioned to cut through the endless methodological stand-offs between economic historians and historians of capitalism.

A critical history thus positioned is also poised to make sense of the broader political moment within which we live. In his 1987 work, Science in Action Bruno Latour asked: “Given the tiny size of fact production, how the hell does the rest of humanity deal with ‘reality’?” In our moment of Trumpian politics that has witnessed the collapse of post-war America’s key sites of fact and knowledge production—from universities to the media—it becomes clear that the answer to this question is “not well.”  Plenty of pseudo-intellectuals have been quick to proclaim that post-structuralism bears at least some responsibility for the collapse of these institutions and the  rise of Donald Trump. It did not take long for critics to marshal these claims against Theory Revolt, and rehearse the “dismissal oftheory as dangerous relativism.”(II.6).

Yet it is precisely here that the type of radical constructivism—a post-structuralist critical history that is always methodologically self-conscious—can make a key intervention in our current political moment. There is no doubt, for instance, that Donald Trump has launched a dangerous assault on facts and facticity, but post-structuralism didn’t cause Trump’s rise, it can help explain him. As Nils Gilman has argued, in the current maelstrom of fake news, “dry fact-checking does not work in the face of a deliberate assault on facts as such.” A critical history that refuses to take any fact as a given, and insists on historicizing how facts are constructed and operationalized, is far more politically exigent than a dry empiricism that attempts in vain to fact check those who refuse the very premise of factuality.

In the age of Trump, knowledge is up for grabs in ways previously unimaginable. On one hand, this is profoundly terrifying, as those in the highest offices of political power seemingly refuse to share the same factual reality with the world around them. But instead of driving us to a knee-jerk and uncritical defense of our universities, it should push us to further critique. The knowledge production of the academy has thus far not been up to facing the challenges within or without. This should force us within the academia to rethink not only the epistemological practices of our discipline but the institutional structures that created them. As the structures of the post-war university crumble, we can, finally, begin to imagine new collectivities, institutions, and forms of professionalism that do not have to replicate the neoliberal logics that have hollowed out these institutions to begin with. Theory Revolt’s critique of historical epistemology is a welcome part of this project, but rather than being a radical move forward, it is too often a nostalgic look backward to the generational revolts of the 1980s and 90s, obfuscating the tectonic shifts in the structure of our institutions and professions that have occurred in the meantime. But it doesn’t have to be. The critical history it advocates can and should be positioned not just to bring its critique to bear on histories of capitalism and neoliberalism, nor just on the high politics, but on the academic institutions that not only have failed to stop these transformations but have, in ways, been complicit in them. For Theory Revolt’s critiques to take shape, and to work their way into our practices of history, they cannot limit themselves to a critique of their own self-proclaimed outside Other—empiricist epistemology—but they must also turn inside, and examine their own sites and sights of power within the university itself.

John Handel is a Ph.D Candidate at UC Berkeley.

3 comments

  1. I appreciate the reference to my 2014 article, “What Makes the History of Capitalism Newsworthy?” I want to urge you to read deeper in the essay, wherein I position the field primarily as a cultural history undertaking, a project of critique oriented towards “denaturalizing” the economic as a discrete realm of human experience. The essay seeks to position the field as something akin to STS, doing precisely what you call for in your essay here.

    Like

    1. Hi Prof Rockman, I did read your whole essay and was, in fact, a bit worried about misrepresenting it in the blog post. If I had footnotes, I would have included the exact point you make in them. I left it in because I thought it was broadly correct about the state of the field as it’s currently constituted, though not representative of the directions that both you and I think the field should move. In retrospect, I should have done a better job making this distinction more clear.
      John

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s