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  • Can Theory Save the Planet?Critical Climate Change and the Limits of Theory
  • Jeffrey R. Di Leo (bio)

Can theory save the planet? We already know that it can provide readings of everything from Baudelaire to Barbie Dolls, but what can it do with tsunamis, droughts, and floods? What can it do with the disasters of the present—especially those that appear to be linked to the actions of humans?

There has been an innovative initiative of late to use anthropogenic climate change as the starting point to gauge the capacities of established critical modes such as deconstruction, cultural studies, post-structuralism, and Marxism—or more neutrally, to examine the degree to which the work of thinkers like Agamben, Badiou, Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, and Žižek can account for environmental disasters caused by humans. “The eco-catastrophic logics disclosed in the past decade,” comments Tom Cohen, “were not addressed by the master thinkers of the 20th century, whose idioms form different guilds and extensions today” (2011, i).1 For Cohen and others, at issue is whether existing theory can “account” for anthropogenic climate change or whether climate change demands a new kind of “theory.” Also at issue—as we shall see—is whether climate change, in the words of Cohen, “opens to an exteriority irrecuperable by the current tropological order”—and is “in a sense unrepresentable” (ix).

The locus of the critical climate change initiative is the Institute of Critical Climate Change (IC3). In a series of colloquia and workshops beginning in 2005, the IC3 has embarked on discussions that have the potential to change the way engaged intellectuals regard climate change. “The IC3 project,” writes Henry Sussman and Jason Groves, “has from its outset been at its core an incitement to torque the suggestive and empowering treasury of contemporary [End Page 27] theoretical inquiries, improvisations, interventions and performances toward the actuality, in several senses, of an interrelated, if open-ended sequence of ecological, demographic, economic, and informational contemporary disasters” (2012, 30).

The work of the members of this initiative, especially Sussman and Cohen, who have edited two landmark collections of essays on critical climate change, has the potential to produce innovative and significant insight on the multiple disasters that color our present historical moment. If this were not enough, it also has the capacity to raise the bar on what we call and expect from “theory,” and to produce ruptures and revisions in the disciplinary fabric of the academy.2

In this essay, I’d like to argue that the critical climate project is one that challenges both theory in particular and the academy in general. Namely, it challenges theory by asking whether and where it can contribute toward understanding, curtailing, and ultimately, reversing anthropogenic climate change; and it challenges the academy by asking whether and where it will accommodate these progressive, transformative, and heterodox critical interventions. The first part of this essay will summarize the present state of theory and situate the critical climate change initiative within it. I’ll argue that critical climate change has the potential to awaken theory from its current neoliberal slumbers, and open it up to a vibrant future. The latter part of the essay will look at the way in which this critical initiative challenges the disciplinary configuration of the academy—and provides important evidence for the addition of “emerging zones” of inquiry to the academy. I’ll conclude that even if the critical climate initiative is unable to slow down or reverse the disasters of the present, it is nonetheless valuable as a means of advocating critical citizenship and reinvigorating humanities (or post-humanities) scholarship. Let’s now step back and reflect on the current state of theory for a moment.

Living with Theory

Theory is definitely not what it used to be. Gone is the aestheticism, stylistic analysis, ahistoricism, and search for patterns and archetypes that typified theory in the 1970s. Today they have been replaced with a whole new field of considerations and fresh areas of inquiry. Theory is now used to examine and account for everything from the rise of the corporate university and nature of the culture wars to free market economics and the...


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