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  • Why Theory Now? An Introduction
  • Daniel M. Gross

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Figure 1.

“rhetorical theory” since 1800. Data source: Google Trends (

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Figure 2.

“rhetorical theory”, “literary theory”, and “critical theory”, since 1800. Data source: Google Trends (

The old news is that Theory with a capital “T” happened from approximately 1965–85 and then dissipated in scandal. Or to the contrary, Theory is an ancient and global activity we find wherever we have evidence of systematic reflection, upon language especially. Alive and well. But neither of [End Page 1] these stories can be adequate given a graph like those above, and given our facts on the ground. For Theory is still, or is again robust, with Philosophy & Rhetoric as a premier venue, at the same time that it persists in literary studies and under the quasiphilosophical heading “critical theory.” Meanwhile, if Brian Leiter offers any indication in his Avital Ronellscandal quip about theory—what they call “bad philosophy in literature departments”1—then the very question “Why theory now?” would be challenged by professional philosophy in the AngloAmerican tradition, if not ignored altogether. How and to what extent has Theory consumed territory that was once occupied by philosophy per se? Is “Continental philosophy” now practically synonymous with Theory, and if so, how does that work from the two very different philosophical perspectives? From a global perspective, is professional philosophy small and getting smaller, while “theory”—until recently associated with Europeans and others who indeed consider themselves “philosophers”—large and getting larger? In what ways are theories like postcolonial, queer, and critical race related historically to philosophy? That is to say the question of philosophy/theory raised by the Frankfurt School and recently reiterated by Andrew Cole in The Birth of Theory speaks to people in rhetoric and to many others across the humanities and social sciences. In this forum I join Martin Jay, Nancy Struever, D’Angelo Bridges, Steven Mailloux, Peter Simonson, and Catherine Chaput as we address this question “Why theory now?” paying special attention to the relevant histories we need to untangle “theory” on the recent scene.

One might imagine how a single question posed to seven scholars in a forum invites debate, with the answers pitched against one another. Since we can only buy one answer, it would seem the others can’t be right—we are faced with an argumentative scheme of the mutually exclusive. And no doubt there are moments both within and among these essays that don’t allow for easy agreement. My essay is set up polemically, so the reader is faced with a choice between a prevailing take on rhetorical theory that invokes classical antiquity, and my own contrary place and date: Ann Arbor, 1900. Bridges recalls for this P&R readership how in 1985 the literary critic Barbara Christian made us choose between Theory then consolidating in the elite practices and institutions where traditional forms of power—including most prominently white, male, and colonial—came at the expense of theory that has long been practiced elsewhere (formatively in Douglass’s explicitly rhetorical My Bondage and My Freedom, Bridges will argue). And then there are familiar divides within the essays themselves, and into their presumed readership. At the end of this forum, for example, Catherine Chaput forces [End Page 2] a question that has been percolating throughout: Isn’t theory as we mean it now originally and essentially critical, running from Marx through Adorno et al., so that any other uptake like the new materialism must explain itself under pressure, or appear suspiciously uncritical and hence a quiet advocate for the powers that be?

Ultimately, however, the argumentative scheme of the forum as a whole is not mutually exclusive as it might appear in a more systematic philosophical imaginary, but is rather genealogical. And we each try to be critical, while avoiding master narratives in their reductive forms—whether Marxist, colonial/decolonial, or epic as in the battle between rhetoric and philosophy—so that the essays surprise. The biggest problem with master narratives as a form of scholarship is that they can...


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