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  • Conclusion:Theory Presents
  • Anna Kornbluh (bio)

When is the time of theory? Always already, out of joint, to come, after dinner, is it happening?1 Theory has a past, never less so than when it is dead: periods of emergence, dominance, and residue; conditions of possibility and impossibility; institutional heydays and lost generations. Theory has a future, all the more so when it indicts future thinking, decries synthesis, and exalts dissolutionism: speculative flexing points beyond the already "best that has been thought and said." Theory has a present, the coordinates which it mediates, the constraints that enable it, the place from which it looks.

Theory time would seem multiple; theory makes time for abstraction and recoil, velocity and lassitude; theory syndicates. Fittingly then, this special issue "Theories of the Nineteenth Century" explicitly wagers that the nineteenth century is a privileged past for theory, while it simultaneously tacitly gambles that now is a pivotal present. But the torque generated between these two orbits importantly bends the future: the mutually constituting relation between theory and the nineteenth century has reached, in the twenty-first century, a certain end. Those world-historical determinants of nineteenth century life that originally and continually ignited theory's spectrality and mooring, critical dissection and utopian projection, come soon to their limit: capitalism, liberalism, empire, white supremacy, patriarchy, democracy cannot continue their formidable reigns in the same indefinite arc now that climate crisis confronts us with global war and human extinction. How are these ends to be theorized, especially if they stop the time of theory? Who are the theorists empowered to write and be recognized as such, constituting the community or institution of theory, when planetary perils are also pathetically paralleled by the razing of the university? These foreshortened horizons disturb theory's integral spectrality, complicating its multiform temporality. Hence its presents intensify.

With theory's future in question for different reasons than all its old deaths foretold, a compression of the past and the present eventuates. Such compression motivates the V21 Collective's call for "strategic presentism"2 [End Page 587] as an under-explored alternative to orthodox historicisms, tracking newly perceptible extensions of conceptual frameworks and social infrastructures that weld the twenty-first century to the nineteenth. Epidemic rickets and scurvy. Expulsionary enclosures. Bald racism. Explosive technology. Decadent spectacle. Financialized inequality. Virulent patriarchy. Environmental catastrophe. Who wore it better, the Victorians, or us? Alongside these many social links linger also the intellectual affinities of then and now, both ideology and critique. The past churning with those numerous terrors offered in its present passionate, systematic, outrageous mediations, and synthetic, projective elaborations of alternatives. Utopia. Socialism. Realism. New Amazonia. Communism. Theory itself.

When he broke with philosophy to inaugurate theory, the sideways Victorian Karl Marx started by interrogating philosophy's inability to see that to which it was present. Surveying the state of philosophical idealism amid the emergent German nation, Marx audits the omissions: "It has not occurred to any one of these philosophers to inquire into the connection of German philosophy with German reality."3 Theory materializes from philosophy presented to itself, its relational connections avowed, its social position charted. Reflections on these environments and situations allow theory to encompass the social fact that "the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force."4 Radicalizing the Kantian procedure of examining the conditions for thought by taking present social situatedness as the ultimate condition, theory looks around at the present of thought, shows the investments and limits of ruling ideas, and at the same time it shows that better ideas (and their attendant better rules) are attainable.

Affirming these better ideas at one of his great normative moments of fulfilling the dialectical impulse of critique, Marx describes full luxury contemporaneity: "In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle...


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