“Theory Crossroads: Vincent B. Leitch in Conversation with Daniel Morris”
Daniel Morris: Your Blackwell Manifesto is called Living with Theory (2008). A cunning title. It could mean a grudging acceptance, as in “OK, I’m an old school literature guy, but, I give in, I’ll learn to apply bits and pieces of theory in my survey of canonical masters.” Or, it could be a kind of virus, an affliction: “Darn, I’ve got this theory bug, but I’m learning to live with it.” Or, and this is what I assume to be the Leitch approach: knowing theory has somehow changed or enabled or informed your daily life. Could you reflect on how you “live” with theory? Can you ever turn the “theory head” off and, to commercialize this conversation, “Just Do It”? You mention in your book how even your decision to wear a suit and tie to class is a meaningful, a theoretical, gesture, one that allows you to go undercover as a subversive “dangerous professor.” What is it like for you “living with theory”? It must inform the way you read the paper in the morning, the food you eat, the way you watch TV, the car you drive, your interpersonal relations. I guess it could be described as a bit of a viral disease, this living with theory!
Vincent B. Leitch: Let me answer the question this way. When Fredric Jameson discusses the features of postmodern culture in his landmark book, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), he mentions architecture, film, music, food, literature, art, and philosophy as well as political economy. The pastiche at the heart of the postmodern aesthetic, he suggests, recurs across the different domains of culture, high and low, from the 1950s onwards. Here are some examples from me. Wolfgang Puck’s putting Asian-Style shrimp on Italian pizza in 1970s Los Angeles resembles the sampling of rappers, who at the same time are mixing and matching odd musical tracks, which is what some leading L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets are also doing. The same goes for the neo-expressionist painters, especially David Salle whose zones of collaged images copied from pornography, popular culture, and later aristocratic interiors jostle against one another on the same untextured matte canvas. Gene splicing and recombinant DNA come to mind as technical analogues. The rise of the assemblage as the dominant new genre of contemporary art substantiates the implosion of borders and fusions typical of the era. This is the period when literary critics start talking about intertextuality, deconstructed hierarchies, interpretive communities, multiple subject positions, heteroglossia, and hybridity. We label it “theory.”
Today the typical Web 2.0 page mixes formats derived from newspapers, videos, radios, graphic designs, and advertisements. But theory or no theory, such fusions are happening. Well, so, my point is the disaggregation and pastiche characteristic of postmodern times might be spotted anywhere in [End Page 291] the culture. Other instances: rock operas, channel surfing, the mixed family, the family of 157 mutual funds offered by Vanguard, the latest Cremaster Cycle of Matthew Barney. We need to account for these phenomena. Theory does that effectively.
I can make my point another more historicist way. The autonomies of art, science, religion, and politics characteristic of modernity have been collapsing around us, for good and ill. The autonomy of art seems now a distant dream of the historical avant-gardes. Likewise with the ideal of separation of church and state. What kind of criticism best responds to such neo-baroque historical mutations? Cultural studies, I believe. Itself a hodgepodge—a postmodern interdiscipline—it consists of customizable mixtures of sociology, anthropology, history, Marxism, media studies, gender studies, popular culture studies, and so on. This kind of theory responds to its time.
Allow me to come at this challenging question from one last angle. The notion of “everyday life,” a fundamental concept for cultural studies, requires of critical inquiry investigation into the quotidian, the vernacular, the commonplace. No restrictions. Now, if you add to that the ancient philosophical admonition to self-reflection, you end up with a criticism and theory extending into...