The Future of Theory

Victor E. Taylor
York College of Pennsylvania

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Gregg Lambert
Syracuse University

There are four legends concerning Prometheus:

  According to the first he was clamped to a rock in the Caucasus for betraying the secrets of the gods to men, and the gods sent eagles to feed on his liver, which was perpetually renewed.

  According to the second Prometheus, goaded by the pain of the tearing beaks, pressed himself deeper and deeper into the rock until he became one with it.

  According to the third his treachery was forgotten in the course of thousands of years, forgotten by the gods, the eagles, forgotten by himself.

  According to the fourth everyone grew weary of the meaningless affair.  The gods grew weary, the eagles grew weary, the wound closed wearily.

  There remained the inexplicable mass of rock.  The legend tried to explain the inexplicable.  As it came out of the substratum of truth it had in turn to end in the inexplicable.

—Franz Kafka, Prometheus

    The future of theory, similar to its past, will be Promethean. The legendary, heretical writings since 1967 ('Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences") or 1916 (Course in General Linguistics) or ca 330 B.C.E. ("Encomium of Helen") forming the corpus of theory remain the "inexplicable mass" giving rise to a desire to explain, to refute, to show, and to occasionally hide the contours of its own "image of thought."

  1. Down through the ages, theory has been called many things and we could easily rehearse the litany of ancient questions: Is "theory" philosophy? Is it merely literature? Does it attend a higher text, a cleverly disguised metaphysics? Does it serve one master or many? Where does it belong or, really, Where should it go?

  2. What is called "Theory," on its way to the future, has "always already" passed, will again pass, through these questions. Once upon a time . . . theory was strapped to its inexplicable rock as punishment for betraying the commandments of literary criticism and the dominant canons of taste. As in Kafka's parable of Prometheus, tired of the endless torment, theory pressed itself deeper and deeper into its own analytic, becoming a self-inflicting, masochistic discipline.

  3. Finally, as so many have believed, everyone grew "weary" of the "meaningless affair," and many declared the inevitable end to the 2,300 year old "theory fad." After the weariness, the wounds, especially to literature, seemed slowly to heal as revised modes of inquiry furtively returned to the appreciative sensibilities of a by-gone era. From theory's own wounds new canons of taste(s) sprung, providing new technologies for reading the time-honored works of the literary and philosophical imagination. In departments of literary studies, literature returned to the comforts of mimetic space; only, this time around its representation is re-fashioned not in the image of nature, but as a reflection of "socio-political reality," past and present. Elsewhere, across the humanities, disciplines retrenched, found a new lease on life "against theory," and moved on to other concerns (yet, without ever successfully leaving theory behind). The academic community at-large began pulling together its collective "alibi"—theory belongs to "English," a badly botched discipline, and to the spirit of the Humanities in general, that haggard plow-horse. Whatever the limitation of other disciplinary fields, such as the social sciences or analytic philosophy, "it is clearly far preferable to what has befallen humanistic fields, which have largely collapsed as serious disciplines while becoming the repository for all the world's bad philosophy, bad social science, and bad history.[1] As Nietzsche already prophesied a century before:

    Let nobody suppose that one could possibly avoid such crippling by some artifice of education. On this earth one pays dearly for every kind of mastery . . . For having a specialty one pays by also being the victim of this specialty. But you would have it otherwise--cheaper and fairer and above all more comfortable--isn't that right, my dear contemporaries. Well then, but in that case you also immediately get something else: instead of the craftsman and master, the "man of letters," the dexterous, "polydexterous" man of letters who, to be sure, lacks the hunched back--not counting the posture he assumes before you, being the salesman of the spirit and the "carrier" of culture--the man of letters who really is nothing but "represents" almost everything, playing and "substituting" for the expert, and taking it upon himself in all modesty to get himself paid, honored, and celebrated in place of the expert.[2]
  4. In the end, however, the gods, eagles, hunchbacks, no matter how weary, could not and still cannot ignore or explain the inexplicable "mass" of discourse that grew out of the substratum of truth. Theory is here. Why does theory persist? Grow stronger? Not only move to the future, but even have one?

  5. "If theory is reduced to the ghost of itself," writes Jean-Michel Rabaté, "then this is a very obtrusive ghost that keeps walking and shaking its chains in our academic castles."[3] Ghosts have futures, too, ironically. This point, through a careful historical and theoretical analysis, is emphasized throughout Jean-Michel's Rabaté's recent book, The Future of Theory, which is featured in this issue of The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory. Theory, while obtrusive, is not dead and the attempts in the academy, particularly in literary studies, to declare it so have, in many ways, resuscitated "theory's ghost"; that is to say, in making a ghost of theory, it has included by exclusion the trace of "theory" within all intellectual work today.

  6. The "death of theory" proposition requires that one accept that much of theory was "the very coinage of [our] brain."[4] Have we, like Hamlet, been bending our eye on "vacancy"? Have we been that wrong? Have we been indebted to something so . . . meaningless? If one believes in the "death of theory," the answer is simply (or stupidly) "yes." The "death of theory" phenomenon refuses theory or, what amounts to the same thing, refuses to engage theory, which is very different from theory "being" dead. At the same time, theory refuses to be dead or disengaged, to invest in the very fatal flaw that has been assigned to it—"bending on vacancy," clamped to the realms of ideas, while the "real" world remains untouched and untransformed, an "inexplicable mass." Clearly, the opposite is true. Theory is an engagement with the Real, with the limits of all representation, and the refusal of theory (not to be confused with theory's own promethean refusal) has been, ironically, a return to the positivistic goals of a pre-theoretical understanding of history, and to the ageless belief in a "verb" that will finally effect that magical leap into practice. Consequently, we believe that the future of theory will be the same as its past: the story of its being forgotten, "left behind" and then suddenly returned, a return that also occupies the future since, no doubt, it will be forgotten and "left behind" again.

  7. The Future of Theory (special issue) is an endeavor to coordinate "theory's" possible points of its return. In the "trans-genre" forms of interview, review, critical essay, and reflection, a time for the future of theory is considered in relation to the ways it has been "dead." Each declaration of theory's demise presumes that theory was/is something—a set of rules or key concepts that fall or have fallen out of favor. Much of theory, however, is what one desires it to be, often and generically the opposite of everything that defines its current representation. Thus, the "future of theory" is, as it always was, yet unwritten and it will remain so until someone gives this future a proper name that it will never cease in refusing.

—Victor E. Taylor and Gregg Lambert

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This first special issue of the JCRT made it to the present (and future) through the very difficult work and generosity of the following people and institutions: Carl A. Raschke (senior editor), Clayton Crockett (managing editor), Neal Magee (technical editor), Jeff Robbins (associate editor), and Kerin Ogg (editorial assistant). York College of Pennsylvania partially funded the editorial work of this special issue through a Research and Publications grant.

We are also tremendously grateful to our contributors for engaging the future of theory: John D. Caputo (Villanova University), Gregory Flaxman (UNC, Chapel Hill), Stephen Nichols (Johns Hopkins University), Vincent Pecora (UCLA), Jean-Michel Rabaté (University of Pennsylvania), Avital Ronell (New York University), Craig Saper (University of Central Florida), and Jeffrey Williams (University of Missouri-Columbia).


Victor E. Taylor teaches in comparative literature and humanities at York College of Pennsylvania. His books include Para/Inquiry: Postmodern Religion and Culture (Routledge 2000), The Encyclopedia of Postmodernism (Routledge 2001), Postmodernism: Critical Concepts (Routledge 1998), and The Religious Pray, The Profane Swear (Pen Mark Press, 2002). He is executive editor of the JCRT and currently completing work on two volumes, Intimacy and Mourning: Myth and the Postmodern Imagination and Cultural/Rhetorical Theory.

Gregg Lambert is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies of English and Textual Studies at Syracuse University. He is the author of The Non-Philosophy of Gilles Deleuze (Continuum, 2002), Report to the Academy (Davies, 2001), The Return of the Baroque: Art, Culture, and Theory in the Modern Age (Continuum, forthcoming), and co-editor (with Ian Buchanan) of Deleuze and Space (Edinburgh UP, forthcoming). His essays on theory and continental philosophy have appeared in many international journals and collected editions, including essays on aliens in contemporary art and on psychoanalysis and religion in earlier issues of The Journal of Cultural and Religious Theory (see archive).

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