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Does theory exist?

December 18, 2016


screen-shot-2016-12-19-at-12-28-20-pmI spend a lot of time around “theory”, in the sense used by irritating grad students which I will define below. But does it actually exist? Perhaps, in distinguishing “theory” from other kinds of reflection and critique, we are like the pre-modern physician insisting that yellowish-black choler is fundamentally different from blackish-yellow melancholer, when today we call both simply “bile”.

Social theory does not aim to explain society, according to a definition suggested by Kenneth Allan. It is not sociological. Rather, he says, the aim is to comment on and critique society. And the same could be said of cultural theory as distinct from, say, anthropology. In critical theory, of course, this critique is the central purpose.

But what, then, distinguishes a theory of art from an opinion about art expressed by a working class man in an Australian pub in response to a news story about a $2 million Gerhard Richter painting purchased with taxpayer’s money (“What a bloody bunch of wankers, my blue heeler’s dick could paint a better picture”). Both are commentary or critique, after all.

Is it possible that even President-elect Donald Trump could be a theorist?

As that tweet suggests, I think it’s possible to rewrite many of these commonly-heard opinions about art, and society in general, in the language of academic theory. By changing the form but not the core propositions of the argument, the supposed “philistine”would be transformed into an intellectually exciting provocateur? Or at least that’s a hypothesis I plan to test next year.

Perhaps the point is not that theory doesn’t exist as a category, but that every critical utterance is a theory. In 1996, Thomas McLaughlin published a book about “vernacular theories” like the Christian anti-porn movement and new age spirituality. But he was careful to insulate these from the true, rigorous theory of the academy, as pointed out by Horn Sheeler et al. in their critical book review.

I want to go much further.

I think there might be no essential difference between vernacular and academic theories in truth value or importance or even complexity.

And I think non-human utterances are kinds of theories too, such as the squealing, struggling and biting of pigs as they are herded onto the killing floor at the abbatoir.

Indeed, I think sentience itself form of theorising.

Rather than a conception of “theory” that privileges only those expressed in the language of high-status academics, a symbolist metatheory that is focused on the semiotic features of the utterance, maybe we need a sentientist metatheory that pays attention to the inner life of the individual concerned.

Which would also be one that orients us to the interests and worldviews and angry critiques of those who are not middle-class academicians.

Wittgenstein said we wouldn’t understand the lion if it could speak to us. I suggest that both human and non-human animals have already been uttering complex and challenging ideas for a very long time in their words, expressions and gestures.

Their theories may be difficult for us to parse, but then so are the theories of dead Frenchmen.

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