Over at Acephalous, Scott has written a piece on why he doesn’t do theory. I have heard remarks like these from a number of quarters– though usually made by people from a certain reactionary contingent in English departments that resents having to be aware of theory (in contrast to these reactionaries, English departments deserve a good deal of credit for preserving what’s left of continental thought in the United States, where philosophy departments largely dropped the ball) –and find myself thoroughly perplexed whenever I hear them. From a Kantian or Luhmannian point of view, every person observes the world from the perspective of a particular frame and based on a particular set of distinctions. As the Anglo-American philosophers who trained me used to say, “all observation is theory laden”, and every judgment about a state of affairs in the world already presupposes a particular theory of how the world is. If I conclude that my partner is possessed because she is speaking in tongues, frothing at the mouth, and seeing things that I cannot see, my judgment presupposes a theory of the nature of the world, of the “ontological furniture” of reality (that it includes things such as demons, devils, souls that can be possessed, etc), and of how that reality is (that these spirits are concerned about human existence; there not being, as Epicurus famously pointed out, any a priori reason to believe the God(s) are concerned with the doings of humans at all). Such theory laden observation is unavoidable. When I view my partner behaving in this way, I conclude something quite different: that she is having a seizure, that perhaps she has a psychosis, etc. So what could it possibly mean to “not do theory”? Isn’t the claim that “one does not do theory” simply equivalent to arguing that one does not make the premises of their own theoretical universe explicit or meditate on their own theoretical assumptions about the world? How is it possible to read texts, analyze the world about us, etc., without implicitly employing a theoretical frame of some sort? In approaching any text, do I not already make an entire host of assumptions as to what a text is, what meaning is, what interpretation is, etc? I most often hear these sorts of remarks coming from those who advocate some sort of historicism. However, isn’t historicism an ontological theory of what makes things– texts, peoples, scientific disciplines –what they are? Doesn’t the historicist proceed on the theory that for anything that is or has taken place, for any situation, it’s being can be exhaustively explained by its historical context as an emergent product of that context? Deleuze and Badiou’s ontologies could thus be seen as militantly rejecting this [Foucaultian/Gadamerian] hypothesis.

Wouldn’t it be more accurate [and honest] to say “I don’t do a particular type of theory?” Approaching this question from the standpoint of the play of the signifier [the unconscious being structured like a language], I suspect that at the level of the unconscious the signifier “theory” is functioning a bit like it does for creationist fundamentalists in the American evolution debate, when it is declared that “Students should understand that evolution is a theory and not fact”. Whenever it is declared that one doesn’t do theory– usually by “hard nosed positivists”, historicists, or pragamatists –it seems to me that lurking in the background is the thesis that theory is somehow the “unproven” or undemonstrated, whereas the good historicist or positivist is just dealing with hard-nosed historical facts or sense-data. In short, the Quinean point that facts are functions of theories and theories are functions of facts (in endless feedback loops) is ignored, and the person rejects “mere theory” with an air of superiority (that I would call reflexive blindness).

Three questions then:

1) What is meant by theory when someone says “I don’t do theory”?

2) Is it possible to not do theory and what does such an activity look like?

3) What desire animates the desire not to do theory? Isn’t the desire to “not do theory” a figure of reaction? Isn’t it precisely theory that allows us to begin escaping the constraints of our historical and ideological situation?

Have at it!

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