Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Note On Theory and the University

A terrible beauty is born.

- William Butler Yeats, Easter, 1916

This essay regards the state of theory in the university, and its relation to society as a whole. I shall critically engage with the university in its modern form and ask some questions of it, specifically with regards to what can be called the death of modernism, or the death of the idea that theory can and should effect society (or its apparent death).


Critique holds within it the means to destroy ideological constellations, but it is impotent - in its initial form of attack at least. For example, Marx's ideas have been disseminated through society in wildly varying ways, some straightforward, and some surprising. But it is not simply the theory itself which brought this about. It is rather a filtering effect, an entanglement begun by Marx himself and his will to engage, to construct a movement, and make sure his theory reaches past itself, a praxis.

This is what all theory should attempt to do, even if the ways in which such a reaching out will play out are never predictable. To confine oneself to the loop of theory is itself a certain kind of eternity - a narcissistic eternity. Marxism must be dead for it to be truly effectual. And so, in a talk about one of his books at google, Slavoj Zizek was asked how he could still be a Marxist in the modern age. His answer was simple - if there are still deep contradictions within capitalism itself, then of course he is still a Marxist.

But the person asking the question assumed the death of Marxism, not recognising that it is all over what we call the postmodern era, in politics (left and right) and science and countless other human spheres. We cannot properly understand the modern age without an understanding of Marxism. But the woman who asked the question is perfectly right. Marxism, as a theory, a loop of ineffectuality (in its ideal form, which probably can never have true existence), is dead because of its success outside of theory. It is silently alive, then, but always silently.

There is a certain tragedy in the theory which does not die, does not want to die, remaining in the loop of its own articulation. This can never be complete, obviously, and discourse (to whatever degree) is inevitable from the moment of a theory's inception. However, it is how this is directed, by social institutions and such, that ensures, if not a loop of a singular theory, then the looping of discourse. Think of analytic philosophy, which is concerned largely with abstract problems (which itself is not its greatest crime) but also has little engagement with the outside of its own constellation of rules and norms and even ways of writing. This is a willful impenetrability, an attempt to move away from the horrors and chaos of discourse and the world in general. One could say that there is a masturbatory element to this also. This could even be a wider problem - the problem of the modern university itself.

It is a kind of embarrassment at its own theories, coupled a lack of bravery to deal with their implications, to see them through till the end. If the age of modernism is truly over, then it is embodied by the suicide of praxis itself, a collapse into the ideality of theory. The will to preserve theory within itself and, when this is not possible, to contain it and direct it towards certain set discourses within the rules and highly structured limits of certain disciplines is very worrying indeed. Or perhaps more worrying is the lack of a will to move outside such discourses.

Lets take the simple example of the language used. The words become ever more complex, the metaphors ever more elaborate and impenetrable, and the rigourous structuring of the writing itself, unimaginative and dull in the name of a universal opening, a sameness, the goal of which is to set up a universal system of judgement and assessment, a universality within the system of the university (as its the name "university" implies). It is an attempt to stop contagion into other spheres. It is not truly universal, obviously (how can it be?), but it is universal within itself, for itself, by itself. At least, it attempts to be so. When theorists complain about the lack of dissemination of their theories, or lament the apparent death of modernism, they should reflect upon the nature of the modern university itself.

A theorist interested in praxis must in some way open his or herself to a literary way of thinking, and use allusions which, maybe not simple, but certainly accessible. They also need to get rid of any notion of higher and lower, and not think of this reaching out, this praxis, as a kind of dumbing down. Rigour is needed, but the will to engage is also needed. Lets bring about a new age of modernism.


Mourning the death of modernism holds within it a hidden expectation, which is that of an acceptance of fate. This is an imagined fateful fatality to have befallen modernism. Perhaps this death happened during, or was brought about by, the great atrocities of the early twentieth century, or the failure of the soviet world to bring about the just society. Or perhaps it was with the advent of new media which our changing the ways we perceive our world in some uncertain ways that brought about such a death. Or perhaps it was the advent of the postmodern - its insistence of its own displacement through saying that it is postmodern, that is after, beyond. The beyond is already here. It holds within it a notion of found presence outside of itself. That is to say, it implies the beyond, the transcendental, the city on the hill (to quote Aquinas), but it also literally is the beyond. These are only two of probably many theories for the usurper of modernism, its killer.

Take Baudrillard, for instance. Is not his vast theory of postmodern culture not itself an ode to modernism, when theory could enter the social sphere and effect change? But this entering into the social sphere effects a changing of theory, a contamination. And so, marxism will always carry with it the memory of soviet Russia, however far away that state was from Marx's original vision. Equally, Nietzsche will be forever linked with the nazis, no matter how much someone tries to show that this is not the case. (Heidegger here is probably the most explicit case, but deceptively so. The man engaged in nazism, whereas Marx's and Nietzsche's thought respectively have been viewed as founders of these movements, evoked in a kind of quasi-religious way by each of the movements as part of the narrative of the origin of each.)

Does this then lie at the heart of a great fear on the part of the university? It can be said the the university, in general, is afraid of its own implications, of the effect of theory itself. The fear, then, is twofold. It is a fear of contamination of theory by vulgarity, as is the case with the examples of Marx and Nietzsche. But it is also the fear that theory itself holds within it such horrific consequences and implications that led to the disasters of the early twentieth century. Here, Heidegger can be discussed as an example. People have gone over and over his philosophy to find links to nazism, and he has been either accused of being a fascist (whatever that means philosophically), or radically separated from his own philosophy, or vice versa, in an attempt to save his philosophy from the contamination of nazism. This is the fear that thought itself, grand thought, will inevitably lead to such horrific consequences. It also elevates theory - the humanities itself - above lower society, which will ultimately misuse it. Or, if the fear is from within, contained inside, then theory needs to be institutionalised, put away like a psychiatric patient, walled up, impenetrable only to those who possess the sacred knowledge.

Yes, there is a religious aspect to it. Just as, for much of its history, the church said their sermons in latin, a language and for the scholar and the priest only, so too another language of impenetrability erected around the sacred mysteries of the university. I use this metaphor fully aware that it is a provocation. But, then, this is the point of what I am writing here anyway.

There is also an un-acknowledgement by the university, or a kind of story that is told that misleads. In a way it must mislead, as I shall show. It is is the proclamation of the death of modernism by natural causes, a fate beyond control, and a definite happening. This only serves as an excuse for a lack of praxis, a lack of engagement. It serves as the point of separation, a rigorously enforced separation, through the latin of the university.

In this essay I wish to provoke out a love of theory itself, and a desire to see it effect life in general, throughout different classes in society, throughout social boundaries, even a bringing of theory into the realm of ideology (which is the greatest fear, and the greatest inevitability of theory). Let's bring death back into theory, and through its death, profound influence. Modernism is not dead - it is in stasis. Let's wake it up in this, a time when we need grand theories of social structuring and restructuring. The worry of negative consequences for us and them ( a worrying distinction that goes to the heart of the problem), be it theory and society, or even high and low culture, then I cannot quench those fears. They will remain, must remain, in the face of the play of language, its reconstitution, and political rebranding and retooling of "the message".

I reiterate my "message" once again: lets bring about a new age of modernism, and lets be brave, bold and rigorous about it, but not at the expense of engagement itself. This age, like Marx's, demands it of us, even more so, from a contemporary viewpoint. Let's not be afraid of ourselves, of contamination and of contaminating, for if we allow such a fear to takeover, then we leave behind any notion of responsibility. And is not a sense of responsibility the driving force behind theories of society? A terrible beauty may well be born. This is certainly a possibility. But the possibility of no praxis, no theory becoming disseminated wildly within society (even ideologically) is a worse fate. It is impotence in its most calculated form. It is our responsibility to birth theory into the world, not to keep it institutionalised.

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