New York Times
April 19, 2002

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 that."

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."