Once again the theory wars have erupted throughout the blogosphere (here and here and here) and once again I find myself both disturbed and confused as to what these wars are about. On the one hand, if I find myself disturbed by these discussions then this is because vaguely I experience myself as falling within the scope of these critiques, and I see all of this as somehow being bound up with questions of institutional power.

Somehow critiques of “Theory” with a capital “t” seem to paint things with too broad a brush. To adopt a somewhat worn out critical term, these critiques seem to reify the object of their discussion. Suddenly a nebulous entity is conjured into existence, Theory, that functions as a master-signifier (S1), and then a number of other signifiers (S2’s) are attached to this master-signifier: “Deleuze and Guattari”, “Irigaray”, “Freud”, “Lacan”, “Zizek”, “Derrida”, “Levi-Strauss”, “Foucault”, “Butler”, “Spivak”, “Negri and Hardt”, “Adorno”, and so on. Once this move is accomplished, the nature of the critique becomes obvious. Since one as against “Theory”, any of the S2’s attached to this master-signifier can be rejected a priori simply because they fall under this signifier. The proponent of theory is thus left scratching her head, wondering why she was so summarily rejected and denounced, and is thoroughly baffled as to why none of her specific claims were discussed or entertained.

As an American whose training was in Continental philosophy and who is a Lacanian, it comes as no surprise that such a gesture is thoroughly chilling and frightening. Spectres of Quine and the sixteen others signing the letter denouncing Derrida’s honorary doctorate at University of Cambridge immediately come to mind. What was it that motivated Quine to sign such a thing? Similarly, while Adam Kotsko and Anthony Paul Smith are quite right to point out that the analytic/continental divide is artificial– a number of prominent French theorists, for instance, have been deeply influenced by analytic philosophy such as Derrida (who translated Goedel’s incompleteness proof) or Lacan (who often refers to Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein, and even Quine) –this distinction has nonetheless had real institutional effects on hiring. It has only been in recent years that papers influenced by Continental thinkers have been presented at the American Philosophical Association.

But the real question here is why it is legitimate to group thinkers in this way. That is, what seems required here is a separation of S1 from S2. Drawing a lesson from Plato’s dialogues, it could be argued that Plato’s style itself makes a substantial ethical and philosophical point: Namely, that philosophy occurs as an aleatory encounter between two individuals concerning some pressing matter that is to be hashed out in the here and now. The problem with the master-signifier “Theory” is that it tends to undermine this interaction. If the contention is with some specific claim that a thinker makes, then why isn’t it specifically that claim that is being disputed? If one questions a particular explanatory name about the nature of the world– for instance, Luhmann’s claim that the social consists of systems that are composed of communications, not individuals or persons –then why isn’t it this specific claim that is being addressed. If the issue is with the Lacanian conception of desire or a specific application of this concept, then why isn’t this the object of critique?

Often I hear the suggestion that claims made by the so-called advocates of theory are ungrounded or undemonstrated. Yet is the person making these claims given the opportunity to defend them by the would-be critic? The assumption seems to be that the so-called defenders of Theory cannot support their claims and simply haphazardly apply castles in the cloud to whatever issue they’re attending to. However, wouldn’t the more charitible reading be that perhaps critics are working within a theoretical paradigm much like Kuhn describes, and they take certain claims to be established within that paradigm.

However, as a more pressing matter, what I can’t figure out is what alternative there might be to Theory. If the critics of Theory wish to convince me that they occupy a superior position they’re going to have to offer me something in return, some sort of option or some sort of alternative. All of my analytic training– and by this I mean Anglo-American philosophy –teaches me that there is no such thing as a non-theory laden perspective. This is the lesson to be drawn from the likes of Sellars. What, then, is this non-theory laden perspective of which these critics seem to be speaking?

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