Extinct Theory: Depletion, Decay, Mutation, and Exhaustion

Tom Cohen

Tom Cohen

If we were serious about considering what theory after theory might mean then perhaps we should push this notion to its limit: not simply theory after the 1980s indulgence or heyday of high theory — those days when we could afford to think of texts as such with (some say) little concern for real political conditions — and not simply theory today when no one could be said to be anti-theory — both because theory has been thoroughly assimilated and because what is left remains a toothless tiger, legitimating all sorts of positivisms and moralisms. (Evidence for assimilation is everywhere: no monograph in literary studies appears without some cursory footnote to a theoretical concept; no undergraduate education proceeds without some basic overview of “feminism,” “post-colonialism,” and “post-structuralism”; and no graduate student would be advised to avoid theory altogether.) More often than not, being “after theory” signals nothing more than that one is aware of some textual mediating condition: there is no sex in itself, race in itself, history in itself.

This contemporary theoretical astuteness, consisting of acknowledging the provisional status of one’s position, then allows for local attention to minute particulars without any consideration of the problems, possibilities and impossibilities of reading as such. The new historicism that supposedly emerged after theory allows for a mode of positivism justified by an avoidance of grand narratives (Gallagher and Greenblatt 2001: 6).

Other modes of theory — queer theory, race studies, gender studies, disability studies, digital media studies — seem to be theoretical not so much by a distinct mode of reading but because of a choice of a marginal object. If anything “theory” as it is now practised — with its emphasis on the lived, bodies, multitudes, emotions, affects, the political, the ethical turn — is indeed practised; it avoids the problem of theory — what we can say there is, or the limits of existence — by grounding itself in what one ought to do.

Recently, and in line with the ebb and flow of critical trends, there has been an anti-anti-theory reaction, ranging from a general contestation of historical and cultural locatedness (or, in Felski’s words, “context stinks”) to a profound and wholesale rejection of the Kantian Copernican turn, or the idea that we can only know and legitimately theorize the world as it is given (Felski 2011; Bryant, Srnicek and Harman 2011).

Quentin Meillassoux argues that it is the Kantian turn, or refusal to know that which cannot be experienced by us, that closes philosophy off from the truth of contingency — and crucial to that thought of contingency would be the imperative to think of the world not as it is given to us, including geological statements about deep time and logico-philosophical claims about contingency (Meillassoux 2008).

Increasingly the general claims of speculative realism — or the insistence to overcome the Kantian enclosure within the bounds of the subject — seem both to resonate and jar with broader cultural imperatives. On the one hand, there is an efflorescence of cultural production devoted to imagining a world without humans, beyond human viewing (broadly evidenced in post-apocalyptic film and literature); and on the other, and often from within philosophy or “theory after theory,” there is a retrieval of the world only as it appears and only insofar as it is a lived world for some being (what one might refer to as the “naturalist” turn [Petitot et. al. 1999]). The Kantian conception of theory and its project of self-limitation, despite recent refusals of Kantian finitude, help us make sense of this twin tendency to leap beyond human limits and yet remain restricted to the lived.

Although Kant does insist that we can only have scientific knowledge about that which can be experienced as given this does allow for a mode of scientific realism, for it also encompasses that there are also — beyond the given — the forces from which the given is given to us. What has occurred, since Kant, is an increasing rejection of an “in itself” beyond the given, and yet such a gap should perhaps be thought today — not in order to repair or close the distance that separates us from the world, but to heighten both our non- knowledge and the imperative to think (but not experience) that which cannot be known.

Theory, if it is critical in the Kantian sense, would need to begin from Kant’s distinction between theoretical knowledge, concerning objects about which we can speak because they are given to us, and practice, which follows from the absence of knowledge about ourselves. Lacking anything objective or experienced that might give us a moral law we are left without foundation. It is because we only know what is given — even if “the given” can go beyond the human eye to include all the apparatuses through which humans image and project a world — that a strong scientific realism also creates a unique gap between theory and practice (Langton 1998).

The theory is an acceptance of a distinction between a strong sense of the inhuman (that which exists beyond, beyond all givenness and imaging, and beyond all relations) and an unfounded imperative that we must, therefore, give ourselves a law. We act in the absence of knowledge of the world beyond us, and yet knowing that there is a beyond means that practice cannot be reduced to what we know or feel; nothing we know can ground or determine our decisions. There is a direct passage from the gap of the undecidable (or that decisions are not made for us because we do not and cannot know any ultimate ground) to the burden of having to make a decision.

Human feeling, or “the lived,” does not exhaust what there is. Theory follows from being exposed to a world that is not ourselves; theoretical knowledge is directed to something that is only given through relations but is also not exhausted by the relations through which it is given. In many respects theory, far from being an academic enterprise that we can no longer afford to indulge, is the condition and challenge of the twenty-first-century or age of extinction: “we” are finally sensing both our finitude as a world-forming and world-destroying species, and sensing that whatever we must do or think cannot be confined or dictated by our finitude.

Theory reminds us both of the givenness of the world, or that what we know is given to us in some specific way, at the same time as this knowledge and relation exceed us. Theory is at once necessary and impossible, just as its “relation” to practice is necessary and impossible. Theory, or distance from the real, is necessary: “we” are faced with an existing world that, precisely because it exists, is not ourselves; without that “outside” world there could be no inner subject, no “we,” no agent of practice. But this existing world to which we are definitively bound is therefore impossible: the given world is given to us, never known absolutely. We are not paralyzed by this distance from the world, for it is the distance that provokes both knowledge and practice (Stengers 2011); but the distance nevertheless entails that practice cannot form the ground for our knowledge (“do what works”) nor can knowledge ground practice (“act according to your nature”).

To avoid theory and pass directly to practice would require forgetting that the self of practice is only a self insofar as it is placed in a position of necessary not-knowing. Recent forms of Kantianism that conclude from this separation that there is an inevitable ideal of humanity and human normativity (Korsgaard 2009; Korsgaard and Cohen 1996) focus all too easily on the practical side of reasoning — whereby the absence of knowledge forces us to be self-governing — and forget too happily the theoretical problem.

This self that gives the law to itself is necessarily exposed to a domain which it must theorize but can never grasp as such. To remain with the theoretical challenge, or accepting the distance from the world as it would be without us, is to face up to the formal problem of extinction.

There was a time, and there will be a time, without humans: this provides us with a challenge both to think beyond the world as it is for us, and yet remain mindful that the imagining of the inhuman world always proceeds from a positive human failure. There would be two senses in which theory would fail.

The first sense of failure is necessary and critical: one must at one and the same time be placed in relation to an existence that is never given as such, and it is this world of necessarily given but distanced existence within which we act. (In an era of encroaching extinction this failing theoretical condition becomes a forceful practical problem precisely because we are obliged, practically, to think not only about the unknowable but also the unimaginable. The world we inhabit is becoming increasingly impossible to know and imagine.)

The second sense in which theory fails occurs with its seeming triumph; today, if theory has taken institutional hold it has done so by failing to be theoretical; in various modes of theory after theory, where we have returned to life, affect or “the lived,” theory feels no qualms about the limits of imagination. Indeed, theory as imagination allows “us” to affirm humanity, the lived, meaning, community, the future and life — precisely when the incoherence of these terms should block any easy praxis.

Symptomatic of this failure of theory (via institutionalisation) is theory’s complete success, and this can be gauged by considering what is now no longer possible: anti-theory. In the early days of theory to be opposed to theory was to be opposed to textualism; it was to insist that ‘everyone knows’ that for all intents and practical purposes texts mean what we want them to mean. Theory, by contrast, detached texts from a “wanting to mean.” Such a distinction is evident in the grand debates of the 1980s, including Derrida’s skirmish with John Searle, the latter insisting that context would ground utterances (Derrida 1988). However, that Searlean attention to context and practice — the position that was once anti-theory — is today the hallmark of theory, both the theory that still remains of historicism and the newer waves of anti-textualism that affirm life, things, history, intent and bodies.

In 1982 Stephen Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels published ‘Against Theory’ in Critical Inquiry and posed the following thought experiment. Imagine encountering the marks “a slumber did my spirit steal,” drawn in the sand on the beach; the marks appear to be drawn (by, one assumes, a human) but then a subsequent wave flows and recedes and leaves the rest of Wordsworth’s poem. This, the authors argue, at first seems to present intention-less meaning, but this is not so.

Once we read we attribute intention; any of those supposedly detached, non-referential objects of theory — texts without context, readers or authors — are proven (Michaels and Knapp claim) to be impossible. If something can be read then it has meaning, and therefore intention. What such an insistence precludes is that something might be read, and not be actively or meaningfully inscribed: a geologist “reading” the earth’s layers would not be reading in Knapp and Michaels’s sense, and it follows that it would be a mistake to “read” texts in the way that one might read scars on the earth’s surface or fMRI images.

One would, supposedly, need to distinguish between reading — seeing the lines waves leave on the shore and discerning some pattern — and reading, where one posits someone who meant to leave marks in just this way in order to say something to someone. It seems such a distinction is easy, but is it?

Imagine we find, some hundreds of years from now, remnants of a wall with spray-painted tagging left behind, and then next to the remnant tags would be some paint that fell onto the wall accidentally, and then next to that would be a city-funded community artist’s mural.

Cities today are made up of such human-inhuman couplings, where graffiti mixes with staining, with randomly posted notices as well as scars from the wreckage, damage and animal and technical marking. Knapp and Michaels would claim that our capacity to read marks such as a mural follows from author’s meaning: if there were not an author who had painted the work there would be nothing to be read.

Other marks, like “tagging,” one assumes, could also be read — as forms of signature. Random paint stains might indicate that someone or something had existed but — like the natural marks and wear on a wall — could not be read. And yet it is just this hybrid assemblage of marks, stains, signs, tears, human-animal-technical inscriptions that comprises any archive: how does one look back and decide to read what was left by a hand, and not read or avoid reading what occurred through inhuman and random processes?

For Knapp and Michaels one can distinguish clearly between the rogue methods of theory, that willfully detaches texts from intent-meaning, and reading that relies on texts having a sense which is what an author wanted to say, and what we must assume he or she wanted to say for that is what it is to read.

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