The more popular Theory became, the less it inspired deep commitments among searching minds. The more Theory became enshrined in anthologies ordered semester after semester, the more it became a token of professional wisdom. The only energy Theory sustained during those years issued from a non-philosophical source: the race/gender/sexuality/anti-imperialism/ anti-bourgeois resentments tapped by various critics giving different objects of oppression theoretical standing.
This raises another discrepancy between Theory’s intellectual content and its institutional standing. Theory in its political versions claimed to be subversive, egalitarian, anti-hegemonic, and ruthlessly self-critical, but in their actual working conditions theorists presided over one of the most hierarchical, prestige-ridden, and complacent professional spaces in our society. Theory promised to bring a fruitful pluralism to the field, yet the proliferation of outlooks created the opposite, a subdivision into sects that didn’t talk to one another. Theory purported to supply intellectual tools to dismantle the contents of humanities education and undo the power structures of institutions, but while the syllabus and curriculum changed, the networking, factionalism, and cronyism only intensified. No doubt the infusion of corporate approaches into the university, along with the growing isolation of humanities professors from American society, played a role in the process, but while Theorists critiqued moneyed interests and bourgeois conventions, they enjoyed the perks of tenured celebrity as much as anyone. One can’t blame them for that, but one can blame them for enlisting Theory in the service of social justice while insulating themselves from genuine social problems.
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