Thursday, September 04, 2008

Theory Weary

Terry Eagleton, the Marxist who has taken to dismantling Dawkins in the public square, has been mentioned here before. Eagleton's suspicion of critical theory didn't start with After Theory (2003). In The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990) he wrote that
it is difficult to read the later Roland Barthes, or even the later Michel Foucault, without feeling that a certain style of meditation on the body, on pleasures and surfaces, zones and techniques, has acted among other things as a convenient displacement of a less immediately corporeal politics, and acted also as an ersatz kind of ethics There is a privileged, privatized hedonism about such discourse, emerging as it does at just the historical point where certain less exotic [i.e. classical Marxist] forms of politics found themselves suffering a setback.
This could be compared to another Nathan Glazer quote, one that encapsulates his perfectly entitled book on modernism.
Architecture in recent years has turned away from the pragmatic social and behavioral sciences to the wilder reaches of critical theory because its early efforts to design better housing turned into a failure...
In both cases, prominent thinkers (both dissatisfied Marxists to varying degrees), without dismissing theory completely, identify it with an escape from action. This is not regrettable. It is a mercy that graduate students inhale the thick smoke of theory instead of the tear gas of the riot police, and that aggressive modernists are no longer trying to reinvent the world.

If - as theory's defenders would have it - theory merely involves a disciplined reflection on one's academic methodology, then fine. Long live theory. Just as nearly everyone is a feminist if feminism is "the radical notion that women are people," so too all but the most unreflective dogmatists are "theorists" if that's the definition of theory. But there are other ways of disciplined methodological reflection. One of them is theological, which, properly understood, always leads to action. Christian theology, for example, has a proven track record of spilling over into soup kitchens.