Who’s Afraid of Theory?

October 29, 2020 | 5 books mentioned 9 13 min read

In a pique of indignation, the editors of the journal Philosophy and Literature ran a “Bad Writing Contest” from 1995 to 1998 to highlight jargony excess among the professoriate. Inaugurated during the seventh inning of the Theory Wars, Philosophy and Literature placed themselves firmly amongst the classicists, despairing at the influence of various critical “isms.” For the final year that the contest ran, the “winner” was Judith Butler, then a Berkeley philosophy professor and author of the classic work Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. The selection which caused such tsuris was from the journal Diacritics, a labyrinthine sentence where Butler opines that the “move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brough the question of temporality into the thinking of structure,” and so on. If the editors’ purpose was to mock Latinate diction, then the “Bad Writing Contest” successfully made Butler the target of sarcastic opprobrium, with editorial pages using the incident as another volley against “fashionable nonsense” (as Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont called it) supposedly reigning ascendant from Berkeley to Cambridge.

coverThe Theory Wars, that is the administrative argument over which various strains of 20th-century continental European thought should play in the research and teaching of the humanities, has never exactly gone away, even while departments shutter and university work is farmed out to poorly-paid contingent faculty. Today you’re just as likely to see aspersions on the use of critical theory appear in fevered, paranoid Internet threads warning about “Cultural Marxism” as you are on the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, even while at many schools literature requirements are being cut, so as to make the whole debate feel more like a Civil War reenactment than the Battle of Gettysburg. In another sense, however, and Butler’s partisans seem to have very much won the argument from the ‘80s and ‘90s—as sociologically inflected Theory-terms from “intersectionality” to “privilege” have migrated from Diacritics to Twitter (though often as critical malapropism)—ensuring that this war of attrition isn’t headed to armistice anytime soon.   

coverSo, what exactly is “Theory?” For scientists, a “theory” is a model based on empirical observation that is used to make predictions about natural phenomenon; for the lay-person a “theory” is a type of educated guess or hypothesis. For practitioners of “critical theory,” the phrase means something a bit different. A critical theorist engages with interpretation, engaging with culture (from epic poems to comic books) to explain how their social context allows or precludes certain readings, beyond whatever aesthetic affinity the individual may feel. Journalist Stuart Jeffries explains the history (or “genealogy,” as they might say) of one strain of critical theory in his excellent Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School, describing how a century ago an influential group of German Marxist social scientists, including Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, and Herbert Marcuse, developed a trenchant vocabulary for “what they called the culture industry,” so as to explore “a new relationship between culture and politics.” At the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, a new critical apparatus was developed for the dizzying complexity of industrial capitalism, and so words like “reify” and “commodity fetish” (as well as that old Hegelian chestnut “dialectical”) became humanistic bywords.  

Most of the original members of the Frankfurt School were old fashioned gentlemen, more at home with Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone avant-garde then with Jelly Roll Morton and Bix Beiderbecke, content to read Thomas Mann rather than Action Comics. Several decades later and a different institution, the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, would apply critical theory to popular culture. These largely working-class theorists, including Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, Dick Hebdige, and Angela McRobbie (with a strong influence from Raymond Williams) would use a similar vocabulary as that developed by the Frankfurt School, but they’d extend the focus of their studies into considerations of comics and punk music, slasher movies and paperback novels, while also bringing issues of race and gender to bear in their writings.

coverIn rejecting the elitism of their predecessors, the Birmingham School democratized critical theory, so that the Slate essay on whiteness in Breaking Bad or the Salon hot take about gender in Game of Thrones can be traced on a direct line back through Birmingham. What these scholars shared with Frankfurt, alongside a largely Marxian sensibility, was a sense that “culture was an important category because it helps us to recognize that one life-practice (like reading) cannot be torn out of a large network constituted by many other life-practices—working, sexual orientation, [or] family life,” as elucidated by Simon During in his introduction to The Cultural Studies Reader. For thinkers like Hall, McRobbie, or Gilroy, placing works within this social context wasn’t necessarily a disparagement, but rather the development of a language commensurate with explaining how those works operate. With this understanding, saying that critical theory disenchants literature would be a bit like saying that astronomical calculations make it impossible to see the beauty in the stars.

coverA third strain influenced “Theory” as it developed in American universities towards the end of the 20th century, and it’s probably the one most stereotypically associated with pretension and obfuscation. From a different set of intellectual sources, French post-structural and deconstructionist thought developed in the ‘60s and ‘70s at roughly the same time as the Birmingham School. Sometimes broadly categorized as “postmodernist” thinkers, French theory included writers of varying hermeticism like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Giles Deleuze, Jean Lyotard, Jacques Lacan, and Jean Baudrillard, who supplied English departments with a Gallic air composed of equal parts black leather and Galois smoke. Francois Cusset provides a helpful primer in French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States, the best single volume introduction on the subject. He writes that these “Ten or twelve more or less contemporaneous writers,” who despite their not inconsiderable differences are united by a “critique of the subject, of representation, and of historical continuity,” with their focus the “critique of ‘critique’ itself, since all of them interrogate in their own way” the very idea of tradition. French theory was the purview of Derridean deconstruction, or of Foucauldian analysis of social power structures, the better to reveal the clenched fist hidden within a velvet glove (and every fist is clenched). For traditionalists the Frankfurt School’s Marxism (arguably never all that Marxist) was bad enough; with French theory there was a strong suspicion of at best relativism, at worst outright nihilism.

coverTheory has an influence simultaneously more and less enduring than is sometimes assumed. Its critics in the ‘80s and ‘90s warned that it signaled the dissolution of the Western canon, yet I can assure you from experience that undergraduates never stopped reading Shakespeare, even if a chapter from Foucault’s Discipline and Punish might have made it onto the syllabus (and it bears repeating that contra the reputation of difficulty, the latter was a hell of a prose stylist). But if current online imbroglios are any indication, its influence has been wide and unexpected, for as colleges pivot towards a business-centered STEM curriculum, the old fights about critical theory have simply migrated online. Much of the criticism against theory in the first iteration of this dispute was about what such thinkers supposedly said (or what people thought they were saying), but maybe even more vociferous were the claims about how they were saying things. The indictment about theory then becomes not just an issue of metaphysics, but one of style. It’s the claim that nobody can argue with a critical theorist because the writing itself is so impenetrable, opaque, and confusing. It’s the argument that if theory reads like anything, that it reads like bullshit.

covercovercoverDuring the height of these curricular debates there was a cottage industry of books that tackled precisely scholarly rhetoric, not least of which were conservative screeds like Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students and E.D. Hirsh Jr.’s The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. Editors Will H. Corral and Daphne Patai claim in the introduction to their pugnacious Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent that “Far from responding with reasoned argument to their critics, proponents of Theory, in the past few decades, have managed to adopt just about every defect in writing that George Orwell identified in his 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language.’” D.G. Myers in his contribution to the collection (succinctly titled “Bad Writing”) excoriates Butler in particular, writing that the selection mocked by Philosophy and Literature was “something more than ‘ugly’ and ‘stylistically awful’… [as] demanded by the contest’s rules. What Butler’s writing actually expresses is simultaneously a contempt for her readers and an absolute dependence on their good opinion.”

Meanwhile, the poet David Lehman parses Theory’s tendency towards ugly rhetorical self-justification in Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man, in which he recounts the sundry affair whereby a confidante of Derrida and esteemed Yale professor was revealed to have written Nazi polemics during the German-occupation of his native Belgium. Lehman also provides ample denunciation of Theory’s linguistic excess, writing that for the “users of its arcane terminology it confers elite status… Less a coherent system of beliefs than a way of thinking.” By 1996 and even Duke University English professor Frank Lentricchia (in a notoriously Theory-friendly department) would snark in his Lingua Franca essay “Last Will and Testament of an Ex-Literary Critic” to (reprinted in Quick Studies: The Best of Lingua Franca) “Tell me your theory and I’ll tell you in advance what you’ll say about any work of literature, especially those you haven’t read.”

coverNo incident illustrated more for the public the apparent vapidity of Theory than the so-called “Sokal Affair” in 1996, when New York University physics professor Alan Sokal wrote a completely meaningless paper composed in a sarcastic pantomime of critical theory-speak entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” which was accepted for publication in the prestigious (Duke-based) journal Social Text, with his hoax simultaneously revealed by Lingua Franca. Sokal’s paper contains exquisite nonsense such as the claim that “postmodern sciences overthrow the static ontological categories and hierarchies characteristic of modernist science” and that “these homologous features arise in numerous seemingly disparate areas of science, from quantum gravity to chaos theory… In this way, the postmodern sciences appear to be converging on a new epistemological paradigm.” Sokal’s case against Theory is also, fundamentally, about writing. He doesn’t just attack critical theory for what he perceives as its dangerous relativism, but also at the level of composition, writing in Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science that such discourse “exemplified by the texts we quote, functions in part as a dead end in which some sectors of the humanities and social sciences have gotten lost.” He brags that “one of us managed, after only three months of study, to master the postmodernist lingo well enough to publish an article in a prestigious journal.” Such has long been the conclusion among many folks that Theory is a kind of philosophical Mad Libs disappearing up its own ass, accountable to nobody but itself and the departments that coddle it. Such was the sentiment which inspired the programmers of the Postmodern Essay Generator, which as of 2020 is still algorithmically throwing together random Theory words to create full essays with titles like “Deconstructing Surrealism: Socialism, surrealism and deconstructivist theory” (by P. Hans von Ludwig) and “Social realism and the capitalist paradigm of discourse” (by Agnes O. McElwaine).

Somebody’s thick black glasses would have to be on too tight not to see what’s funny in this, though there’s more than a bit of truth in the defense of Theory that says such denunciations are trite, an instance of anti-intellectualism as much as its opposite. Defenses of Theory in the wake of Sokal’s ruse tended to, not unfairly, query why nobody questions the rarefied and complex language of the sciences but blanches when the humanities have a similarly baroque vocabulary. Status quo objections to that line of thinking tend to emphasize the humanness of the humanities; the logic being that if we’re all able to be moved by literature, we have no need to have experts explain how that work of literature operates (as if being in possession of a heart would make one a cardiologist). Butler, for her part, answered criticism leveled against her prose style in a (well written and funny!) New York Times editorial, where she argues, following a line of Adorno’s reasoning, that complex prose is integral to critical theory because it helps to make language strange, and forces us to interrogate that which we take for granted. “No doubt, scholars in the humanities should be able to clarify how their work informs and illuminates everyday life,” Butler admits, “Equally, however, such scholars are obliged to question common sense, interrogate its tacit presumptions and provoke new ways of looking at a familiar world.”

covercoverTo which I heartily agree, but that doesn’t mean that the selection of Butler’s mocked by Philosophy and Literature is any good. It costs me little to admit that the sentence is at best turgid, obtuse, and inelegant, and at worst utterly incomprehensible. It costs me even less to admit that that’s probably because it’s been cherry picked, stripped of context, and labeled as such so that it maximizes potential negative impressions. One can defend Butler— and Theory—without justifying every bit of rhetorical excess. Because what some critics disparage about Theory—its obscurity, its rarefied difficulty, its multisyllabic technocratic purpleness—is often true. When I arrived in my Masters program, in a department notoriously Theory-friendly, I blanched as much as Allan Bloom being invited to be a roadie on the Rolling Stones’ Steel Wheel Tour. For an undergraduate enmeshed in the canon, and still enraptured to that incredibly old-fashioned (but still intoxicating) claim of the Victorian critic Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy that the purpose of education was to experience “the best which has been thought and said,” post-structuralism was a drag. By contrast, many of my colleagues, most of them in fact, loved Theory; they thrilled to its punkish enthusiasms, its irony laden critiques, its radical suspicion of the best of which has been thought and said. Meanwhile I despaired that there were no deconstructionists in Dead Poets Society.

coverI can no longer imagine that perspective. It’s not quite that I became a “Theory Head,” as one calls all of those sad young men reading Deleuze and  Félix Guattari while smoking American Spirit cigarettes, but I did learn to stop worrying and love Theory (in my own way). What I learned is that Theory begins to make sense once you learn the language (whether it takes you three months or longer), and that it’s innately, abundantly, and estimably useful when you have to actually explain how culture operates, not just whether you happen to like a book or not. A poet can write a blazon for her beloved, but an anatomist is needed to perform the autopsy. Some of this maturity came in realizing that literary criticism has always had its own opacity; that if we reject “binary opposition,” we would have to get rid of “dactylic hexameter” as well. The humanities have always invented new words to describe the things of this world that we experience in culture. That’s precisely the practice attacked by John Martin Ellis, who in his jeremiad Against Deconstruction took on Theory’s predilection towards neologism, opining that “there were plenty of quite acceptable ordinary English words for the status of entrenched ideas and for the process of questioning and undermining them.” All of that difference, all of that hegemony, and so much phallologocentricism… But here’s the thing— sometime heteroglossia by any other name doesn’t smell as sweet.

Something anachronistic in proffering a defense of Theory in the third decade of the new millennium; something nostalgic or even retrograde. Who cares anymore? Disciplinary debates make little sense as the discipline itself has imploded, and the anemic cultural studies patois of the Internet hardly seems to warrant the same reflection, either in defense or condemnation. In part though, I’d suggest that it’s precisely the necessity of these words, and their popularity among those who learned them through cultural osmosis and not through instruction, that necessitates a few statements in their exoneration. All of the previous arguments on their behalf—that the humanities require their own jargon, that this vocabulary provides an analytical nuance that the vernacular doesn’t—strike me as convincing. And the criticism that an elite coterie uses words like “hegemonic” as a shibboleth are also valid, but that’s not an argument to abandon the words—it’s an argument to instruct more people on what they mean.

But I’d like to offer a different claim to utility, and that’s that Theory isn’t just useful, but that it’s beautiful. When reading the best of Theory, it’s as if reading poetry more than philosophy, and all of those chewy multisyllabic words can be like honey in the mouth. Any student of linguistics or philology—from well before Theory—understands that synonyms are mythic and that an individual word has a connotative life that is rich and unique. Butler defends the Latinate, writing that for a student “words such as ‘hegemony’ appears strange,” but that they may discover that beyond its simpler meaning “it denotes a dominance so entrenched that we take it for granted, and even appear to consent to it—a power that’s strengthened by its invisibility.” Not only that, I’d add that “hegemony,” with its angular consonants hidden like a sharp rock in the middle of a snowball, conveys a sense of power beyond either brute strength or material plenty. Hegemony has something of the mysterious about it, the totalizing, the absolute, the wickedly divine. To simply replace it with the word “power” is to drain it of its impact. I’ve found this with many of those words; that they’re as if occult tone poems conveying a hidden and strange knowledge; that they’re able to give texture to a picture that would otherwise be flat. Any true defense of Theory must, I contend, give due deference to the sharp beauty that these sometimes-hermetic words convey.

As a totally unscientific sample, I queried a number of my academic (and recovering academic) colleagues on social media to see what words they would add to a list of favorite terms; the jargon that others might roll their eyes at, or hear as grad school clichés, but that are estimably useful, and dare I say it—beautiful. People’s candidates could be divided in particular ways, including words that remind us of some sort of action, words that draw strength from an implied metaphorical imagery, and words that simply have an aural sense that’s aesthetically pleasing (and these are by no means exhaustive or exclusive). For example, Derrida’s concept of “deconstruction,” a type of methodological meta-analysis that reveals internal contradictions within any text, so as to foreground interpretations that might be hidden, was a popular favorite word. “Deconstruction” sounds like an inherently practical term, a word that contractors rather than literary critics might use, the prefix connotes ripping things down while the rest of the word gestures towards building them (back?) up. A similar word that several responders mentioned, albeit one with less of a tangible feel to it, was “dialectics,” which was popularized in the writings of the 19th-century German philosopher George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, was mediated through Karl Marx, and was then applied to everything by the Frankfurt School. As with many of these terms, “dialectics” has variable meaning depending on who is using it, but it broadly refers to an almost evolutionary process whereby the internal contradictions of a concept are reconciled, propelling thought into the future. For the materialist deployment of the term by Marx and his followers, the actual word has an almost mystical gloss to it, the trochaic rhythm of the word itself with its up-down-up-down beat evoking the process of thesis-antithesis-synthesis to which the term itself applies. Something about the very sound of “dialectic” evokes both cutting and burying to me, the psychic struggle that the word is supposed to describe.

Then there are the words that are fueled with metaphorical urgency, short poems in their own right that often appropriated from other disciplines. Foucault used words like “genealogy” or “archeology” when some might think that “history” would be fine, and yet those words do something subtly different than the plodding narrative implied by the more prosaic word. With the former there is a sense of telling a story that connects ideas, trends, and themes within a causal network of familial relations, the latter recalls excavation and the revealing of that which remains hidden (or cursed). Deleuze and Guatari borrowed the term “rhizome” from botany, which originally described the complex branching of root systems, now reapplied to how non-hierarchical systems of knowledge propagate. “Rhizome” pays homage to something of beauty from a different way of understanding the world—it is not filching, it is honoring. The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci similarly borrowed the term “subaltern,” later popularized by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, for whom it came to designate communities of colonized people who are simultaneously exoticized and erased by imperial powers. The word itself was a term used for junior officers in the British colonial service. Finally, I’m partial to “interiority” myself, used to denote fictional representations of consciousness or subjectivity. Yet “interiority,” with its evocation of a deep subterranean network or the domestic spaces of a many-roomed mansion, says something about consciousness that the more common word doesn’t quite.

My favorite critical jargon word, however, is “liminal.” All of us who work on academic Grub Street have their foibles, the go-to scholarly tics marking their prose like an oily fingerprint left on Formica. We all know the professor with their favored jargon turn (often accompanied by an equivalent hand movement, like an intricate form of Neapolitan), or the faculty member who might be taken to yelling out “Hegemonic!” at inopportune times. Thus, I can’t help but sprinkle my own favored term into my writing like paprika in Budapest goulash. My love for the word, used to designate things that are in-between, transitioning, and not quite formed, has less to do with its utility than with the mysterious sense of the sounds that animate it. It’s always been oddly onomatopoeic to me, maybe because it’s a near homophone to “illuminate,” and makes me think of dusk, my favorite time of day. When I hear “liminal” it reminds me of moonbeams and cicadas at sunset; it reminds me that the morning star still endures even at dawn. An affection for the term has only a little to do with what’s useful about it, and everything to do with that connotative ladder that stretches out beyond its three syllables. I suspect that when we love these words, this jargon, it’s an attraction to their magic, the uncanny poetry hidden behind the seemingly technocratic. The best of Theory exists within that liminal space, between criticism and poetry; justifying itself by recourse to the former, but always actually on the side of the latter—even if it doesn’t know it.           

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is the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. A regular contributor at several different sites, his collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion will be released by Zero Books this year. He can be followed on Facebook, his website, or on Twitter at  @WithEdSimon.


  1. As bourgois crimes against Humanity go, theory is not very high on the list. The merest marginalia. God in peace, my son.

  2. I’m wondering if Mr. Simon was aware that, when he made this claim — “Status quo objections to that line of thinking tend to emphasize the humanness of the humanities; the logic being that if we’re all able to be moved by literature, we have no need to have experts explain how that work of literature operates (as if being in possession of a heart would make one a cardiologist).” — he was essentially paraphrasing Hegel in his Phenomenology of Mind? In the Introduction to that work, he says “As regards philosophy…there seems still an assumption prevalent that, though every one with eyes and fingers is not on that account in a position to make shoes if he only has leather and a last, yet everybody understands how to philosophize straight away, and pass judgment on philosophy, simply because he possesses the criterion for doing so in his natural reason — as if he did not in the same way possess the standard for shoemaking too in how own foot.” Hegel uses this same argument on several other occasions, but this is the best version of it, I think.

  3. On theory I’m liminal, betwixt-and-between,
    sometime given to indecision, sometimes to undecidability. It is a hard life but “The Real Thing.” Henry James taught me so. Give his story and the three words tacit, logic, and ideology a DuckDuckGo. You’ll then understand things more securely. My sincere thanks for your fine piece.

  4. We do not mock theory for its vocabulary, we mock it for its content, for its nihilism, for its relativisim, for its derogation of authorial intent, for its political project, for its self righteous value judgments, for its imbecilic inability to grasp that it is self refuting.
    This essay attacks a linguistic strawman.

  5. I’m reminded of Robert Conquest’s limerick (I quote from memory):

    That snobbish postmodernist Carsel
    Once did himself up in a parcel;
    He addressed it, “Lord Carsel,
    The Keep, Carsel Castle,”
    And mailed it first class up his arse hole.

    Actually Conquest wrote “surrealist,” but “postmodernist” works equally well.

  6. Really enjoyed this and the really nice and convincing way you reduced what you love about its language down to the space between theory and poetry. The sublime sense of language which gives a spiritual feeling. It sounds like, in theory, you’re searching for the that thing it undermines- the unfashionable transcendent, the god thing lingering in the text. Or am I reading this wrong?

  7. [Note: Not to nitpick, I hope, but it would be better to distinguish clearly between theories and models: theories providing the logical foundation for hypothesis creation and models reflecting a state of knowledge (further predictions now believed likely to be true) attained from the hypothesis testing and its generalization.]

    Anyhow… the attacks on theory lack charity. Its excesses are completely understandable once you understand the goals of “theory.” If it stands in need of reform it is perhaps in its failure to exercise self-awareness and restraint in its self-promotion and propagation. One can’t stand for hyper-awareness of the cultural ground we all stand on and the inevitability of cultural hierarchies and then go around thoughtlessly seeking intellectual followers who can only secure careers through cultural fashion-mongering and the intellectual hypocrisy that follows from it. But then… theory cannot progress without this growth and hypocrisy. And we cannot become who we are without this growth and hypocrisy. Growth arises from the growing feeling of repulsion towards a point of origin. For people to sustain themselves in the face of such growth they must strike a balance somewhere: capitalists might accept conservatism, progressives might make peace with the state – to name the ideological examples — and everyone may end up building an idol for themselves… or becoming that idol. Pitfalls abound! So beware of ranting against the pitfalls of others.

    All that needs to be said against the rants directed against theory is that this is a branch of thought that demands, by its nature, close reading, because it also happens to demand of its authors close writing. Most authors fail at this. Big surprise. But ALL rants fail… now enjoy the irony of the caps.

  8. …During the height of these curricular debates there was a cottage industry of books that tackled precisely scholarly rhetoric, not least of which were conservative screeds like Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students and E.D. Hirsh Jr.’s The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy…

    The momentous books you describe as “conservative screeds” make me think you should be doing reviews say for a magazine called something like “Marginalia.”

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