McKenzie Wark on Thu, 24 Apr 2003 11:31:49 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> hypocritical theory

Critical theory becomes hypocritical theory when it fails to examine its
own conditions of production and reception. For theory to be critical, it
must turn its talents, first and last, on itself.

When critical theory becomes institutionalized, it necessrarily becomes
hypocritical theory. It is a condition of the installation of theory in
bourgeois institutions that *not* turn itself upon those institutions,
which have become its conditions of production.

Thus, critical theory falis in the moment it 'succeeds' as an
institutional discourse. Or in other words, once you can get an endowed
chair at Harvard in it, it has ceased to exist.

At least in its current incarnation...

The story below is ample documentation of the death throes of theory as a
critical discourse. Of course, once on institutional life support, it
refuses to actually die. It becomes the spectacle of its own death, staged
for itself.

Note that its muffled squarks take two forms: bad faith (Bhabba) and pure
bourgeois ideology (Fish). Who says the latter is not to be preferred to
the former?


New York Times
April 19, 2003

The Latest Theory Is That Theory Doesn't  Matter

These are uncertain times for literary scholars. The era of big theory is
over. The grand paradigms that swept through humanities departments in the
20th century  psychoanalysis, structuralism, Marxism, deconstruction,
post-colonialism  have lost favor or been abandoned. Money is tight. And
the leftist politics with which literary theorists have traditionally been
associated have taken a beating.

In the latest sign of mounting crisis, on April 11 the editors of Critical
Inquiry, academe's most prestigious theory journal, convened the scholarly
equivalent of an Afghan-style loya jirga. They invited more than two dozen
of America's professorial elite, including Henry Louis Gates Jr., Homi
Bhabha, Stanley Fish and Fredric Jameson, to the University of Chicago for
what they called "an unprecedented meeting of the minds," an unusual
two-hour public symposium on the future of theory.

Understandably, expectations were high. More than 500 people, mostly
students and faculty, squeezed into a lecture hall to hear what the
mandarins had to say, while latecomers made do with a live video feed set
up in the lobby.

In his opening remarks, W. J. T. Mitchell, the journal's editor and a
professor of English and art history at Chicago, set an upbeat tone for
the proceedings. "We want to be the Starship Enterprise of criticism and
theory," he told the audience.

But any thought that this would be a gleeful strategy session with an eye
toward extending theory's global reach, or an impassioned debate over the
merits of, say, Derrida and Lacan, was quickly dispelled.

When John Comaroff, a professor of anthropology and sociology at Chicago
who was serving as the event's moderator, turned the floor over to the
panelists, for several moments no one said a word.

Then a student in the audience spoke up. What good is criticism and
theory, he asked, if "we concede in fact how much more important the
actions of Noam Chomsky are in the world than all the writings of critical
theorists combined?"

After all, he said, Mr. Fish had recently published an essay in Critical
Inquiry arguing that philosophy didn't matter at all.

Behind a table at the front of the room, Mr. Fish shook his head. "I think
I'll let someone else answer the question," he said.

So Sander L. Gilman, a professor of liberal arts and sciences at the
University of Illinois at Chicago, replied instead. "I would make the
argument that most criticism -- and I would include Noam Chomsky in this
-- is a poison pill," he said. "I think one must be careful in assuming
that intellectuals have some kind of insight. In fact, if the track record
of intellectuals is any indication, not only have intellectuals been wrong
almost all of the time, but they have been wrong in corrosive and
destructive ways."

Mr. Fish nodded approvingly. "I like what that man said," he said. "I wish
to deny the effectiveness of intellectual work. And especially, I always
wish to counsel people against the decision to go into the academy because
they hope to be effective beyond it."

During the remainder of the session, the only panelist to venture a
defense of theory -- or mention a literary genre -- was Mr. Bhabha. "There
are a number of people around the table here and a number of people in the
audience, in fact most of you here are evidence that intellectual work has
its place and its uses," he insisted. "Even a poem in its own oblique way
is deeply telling of the lives of the world we exist in. You can have
poems that are intimately linked with political oppositional movements,
poems that actually draw together people in acts of resistance."

But no one spoke up to endorse this claim. In fact, for a conference
officially devoted to theory, theory itself got very little airtime. For
more than an hour, the panelists bemoaned the war in Iraq, the Bush
administration, the ascendancy of the right- wing press and the impotence
of the left. Afterward, Mr. Gates, who arrived late because he had been
attending a conference in Wisconsin, said: "For a moment, I thought I was
in the wrong room. I thought we would be talking about academic jargon.
Instead, it was Al Qaeda and Iraq -- not that there's anything wrong with

Finally, a young man with dreadlocks who said he was a graduate student
from Jamaica asked, "So is theory simply just a nice, simple intellectual
exercise, or something that should be transformative?"

Several speakers weighed in before Mr. Gates stood up. As far as he could
tell, he said, theory had never directly liberated anyone. "Maybe I'm too
young," he said. "I really didn't see it: the liberation of people of
color because of deconstruction or poststructuralism."

If theory's political utility is this dubious, why did the theorists spend
so much time talking about current events? Catharine R. Stimpson, a
panelist and dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York
University, offered one, well, theory. "This particular group of
intellectuals," she said, "has a terror of being politically irrelevant."

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