- Theory Aside ed. by Jason Potts and Daniel Stout
Theory Aside, edited by Jason Potts and Daniel Stout, is essentially a culture studies anthology that revisits issues, questions, and gaps in theoretical undertakings in the past. A sort of latter day exploration of theoretical aspects of cultural studies, the book presents work by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Anne-Lise Francois, Natalie Melas, Elizabeth A. Povinelli, Simon Jarvis, Pheng Cheah, Irene Tucker, Jordan Alexander Stein, Karen Beckman, William Flesch, Mark B.N. Hansen, Heather Love, Francis Ferguson, and Ian Balfour. Various essays in the volume stress queer theory/sexuality studies, race theory, African American Studies, women’s studies, media and technical apparatuses, and studies in sensation (bodily and mental experience). These are preceded by a provocative introduction on the state of theory today, by Potts and Stout, and followed at the end by Ian Balfour’s afterword, “Needing to Know (:) Theory / Afterwards.”
Certainly, Ian Balfour is correct when he says that
To be antitheory is to be anti-intellectual. There is no discourse in the humanities and social sciences that is not in some measure theoretical, if by theory we mean a discourse of or entailing a certain generality, addressing or invoking substantially something beyond one or more entities immediately in question. Our engagement with theory might be explicit or implicit, conscious or not; in any event, theory is always at work.
Although Balfour doesn’t define theory, he is obviously addressing the fact that data has to be interpreted by means of a conceptual system that is self-aware of its methodological strengths and weaknesses. Balfour contrasts with Potts and Stout who, in their introduction, embrace the egalitarian American view that we should pooh-pooh high theory and put it aside. According to them, we should mothball the idea of there being master thinkers of theory whom we should privilege, given a belief in the egalitarianism of who says what, which, after all, has to be foundational to the American university in the aggregate, given its size. However, Balfour, who teaches in the UK, subscribes to the idea that theory “denote[s]…a discourse identified with…French or Continental philosophy” and its premier thinkers, Althusser, Barthes, Deleuze, etc. As someone more identified with the European side of things, I entirely agree that “there cannot not be some sort of canon of ‘theory’ across the humanities and social [End Page 528] sciences.” I also agree that “one virtue of having a canon is that if a critical mass of people is versed in it, then they are all, more or less, on the same page in terms of their frames of reference.” However, my lament is that 1) no such critical mass exists, and 2) that the frames of reference don’t converge sufficiently, as the cultural studies essays, intercalated between the introduction and afterword in this book, demonstrate. Balfour is right in pointing out that by now many of the major theorists of the recent past have been largely unread by younger scholars who aren’t necessarily introduced to theory in any rigorous or adequate way in graduate school. This speaks to a certain disappearance of the theory canon into a fog of vaguely recognizable names, figures one should have read but hasn’t and probably won’t. This includes even such major figures as Lacan and Barthes, never mind thinkers such as Jakobson or Baudrillard.
If Balfour generously argues that the essays in Theory Aside are intended to stretch beyond the envelope of what has been called theory, I would point out that typical of theory has always been this sort of wandering out of bounds, something one can see in Bataille’s Oeuvre Complètes, Lacan’s Ecrits (his investigations of topology) or Derrida’s seminars—The Beast and the Sovereign, for example. Of course, one has to say of theory what Husserl said of consciousness: it has to be “…of something.” Moreover, that something has to be rich in possibilities, as in the case of Freud’s writings in the context of Lacanian theorization, or as in the case of investigating...