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Diacritics 31.3 (2001) 3-14
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Theory, Globalization, Cultural Studies, and the Remains of the University
Theory, globalization, university: not just any words. So much commentary has grown up around them; and to write about one of these terms seems always to involve writing about another, sliding down a chain of associations that on the one hand leads straight to the most reductive American mass-media representations of the academy (theory as a species of "postmodernism," ruining the university), yet on the other hand structures some of the most interesting and challenging writing in the humanities today. Cultural studies is perhaps a somewhat more recent and less layered term, but it too has come to serve as a charged nexus of discussion, and has proved inextricable from discussions of theory in the university in a globalized world. Yet despite the commerce among these keywords, the debates about them have tended, with notable exceptions, to remain somewhat distinct. Identifiable mini-traditions exist: arguments about theory that in some of their versions have persisted nearly unaltered since the early 1970s; more recent debates about cultural studies; a conflux of sociological, economic, and cultural discussions around the notion of globalization; an ongoing debate about the university, most recently galvanized by Bill Readings's University in Ruins (1996). 1 Our title offers a slant-rhyme homage to Readings's book, which most of our contributors reference and two or three engage directly, and which constitutes an exemplary effort to provide a story about the modern and postmodern university that would also be a story about globalization, theory, and cultural studies.
It is the wager of this special issue of Diacritics that such stories demand to be told, because in fractured form they are persistently being told, through the relays that take us from one keyword or discursive microtradition to another. This does not mean that we expect to come up with a coherent metanarrative—to ascend, on the wings of speculation, to a vantage from which this particular quadrant of modernity's rugged landscape would become visible. In meditating on theory, globalization, cultural studies, and the university, we are directing our thinking toward internally split conceptual nodes that never quite resolve into stable concepts to be apprehended. Samuel Weber, always attuned [End Page 3] to the complexities of words, begins his contribution to this special issue by unpacking its title into a sequence of contradictions. Theory as conceptual vision (theoria) names the subject's appropriation of objects; yet in recent decades theory also has come to signify a critique of the subject-object model of cognition. The university is the institutional site of both sorts of theory: on the one hand, dedicated to the transmission and production of universally valid cognition; on the other hand, the place where a theoretical critique of theory has found its ambivalent and precarious, but to some extent effective, occasion. Globalization suggests on the one hand the crossing of frontiers and the transformation of substance into relation, yet on the other hand names the reinstatement of substance and identity at the level of the "globe" itself. Weber wrote his essay before I added cultural studies to the special issue's title, but one can easily extend his observation to this fourth term: on the one hand, cultural studies summarizes a range of approaches that have in common a valorization of the local and particular; on the other hand, in its all-embracing emptiness, the adjective cultural invokes the formalization of the human that constitutes the master narrative of aesthetic ideology. None of these terms yield a stable precipitate, and their interrelations are correspondingly volatile.
The matter is further complicated by the deep roots and many-layered contexts of these institutionally and historically local arguments. In their instability and doubleness, both theory and cultural studies form part of the vast, border-rupturing discourse of modern aesthetics. Indeed, the case can be made—I have tried to make it elsewhere—that the journalistic equation of "theory" with "deconstruction" and the subsequent confusing of "theory" (as "deconstruction") with "cultural...