Saturday, August 09, 2008


Donna Haraway

But didn’t theory fail? Didn’t these grand texts that once promised to change to world simply devolve into being one more “thing,” one last (and slightly sour) dish in the buffet of academic fashion?  Isn’t it true that you can’t find Freudian analysis in most psych departments, not even in an updated post-Lacanian mode? Or that Marx is missing in the econ department? I’ve actually heard somebody have to explain who Saussure was to linguistics majors. Aren’t these old texts & so-called old masters all a little, well, tattered?

Here it’s worth noting a couple of things. One is that just one of the texts I listed Friday really qualifies in any real sense as an instance of American academic writing: Fred Jameson’s Marxism and Form. Jameson’s impact on what has come to be called theory in America is, I think, something that in itself would be well worthy of examination, setting a horizon over the field that positions American theory as forever secondary in its concerns. Thus one of the real attractions several decades hence of the muddle that is Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri’s Empire (PDF) is that it shows a literature professor, Hardt, attempting to take on theory in the largest possible terms. That in itself is refreshing. That he bungles it is another story altogether.

One might go further & claim that the rest of the texts on that list aren’t really academic writing at all, tho that’s a bit of an overstatement. Rather, what each of the others has in common is that its author, whether the Ur-situationist Lefebvre or Charles Olson writing in his most telegraphic critical mode, saw their work, these specific books, as making contributions to practice(s) whose hoped-for fruition existed principally away from the university, whether writing in writing poetry or making a political revolution. They are not contributions to a professional debate.

And what happened to theory in America, more than anything else, has been just that – professionalism, that cancer on thought.

There were, depending on how you count it, two or three distinct stages ( & some might see a fourth) in theory’s role in America. In each case, theory might be said to have been called forward in an attempt to explain some prior disaster – World War I, industrial capitalism, World War 2. What propelled the likes of such disparate souls as Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss, Olson and Vološinov (whether or not he really was Bakhtin) into mixing genres in new & unusual ways was at least as much as the failure of the world about them as it was the possible insights some new combination – say sociology & linguistic structure in the case of Lévi-Strauss – might yield.

And what made theory in America powerful was not just the presence of a few very bright & creative people in various humanities departments, but the failure of 1968 – the year in which revolution seemed plausible in France & Czechoslovakia & not so far from the horizon in the U.S., Mexico, Germany & elsewhere. Up to that moment, the anti-war movement in the U.S. had been remarkably untheoretical. It’s not that there weren’t left factions that didn’t care passionately about theory, but few activists paid them much heed. The Progressive Labor Party’s attempt to co-opt – largely through volunteer labor – some chapters of Students for a Democratic Society in cities where SDS was marginalized was about as far as it got.

But the collapse of SDS & the failure of post-Kent State organizing on every campus in the country to bring the war to a close left many activists asking themselves why – just what were they (we) doing wrong – and theory promised a path through which to rethink many deeply help assumptions. This was then reinforced, profoundly so, by a generation of activists who returned to college between 1968 & 1980 to go to grad school. It is not an accident that the list I posted yesterday consists of works first published in English from 1965 through 1978. Subtract Olson & it all would fit neatly into the ’68-’78 decade.

1980 was the second major moment in the history of theory in America – the election of Ronald Reagan as president & the ouster of a half-dozen major liberals from the U.S. Senate, the combination of which transformed American government overnight. Michael Rosenthal, the dean of progressive booksellers in San Francisco, has said that you could date the end of sales of Marx, Lenin & Mao – three cash cows that could keep a lefty bookshop in business – to the Wednesday after that election. Virtually everyone on the left saw Reagan as transparently unqualified to become president &, in fact, he was the person who first introduced the idea of destroying government as a primary project of the Republican party. Further, as governor of California he had built his reputation & popularity on opposing student activism, deliberately over-reacting to the student strike at San Francisco State¹ & then promoting the political career of S.I. Hayakawa, the linguistics professor who became the hero of the right for his role as the comprador for the Reaganauts on campus.

If you look at the history of The Socialist Review, you can see these stages in fairly clear terms. In the 1960s, SR did not exist, although founder James Weinstein (who later went on to start the East Bay Express, an alternative weekly covering the Berkeley-Oakland side of  the Bay, & then In These Times) was active in the earlier journal, Studies on the American Left, the Madison-based theory journal that broke up after 1968 precisely around the question of whether or not to become the “official” theoretical journal of the new American revolution. Weinstein’s faction had been opposed to that idea, preferring to offer critical support from outside of this theoretical object, the Revolution, but by the new journal finally got under way in San Francisco in 1972, it was calling itself Socialist Revolution and its key participants were mostly grad students at Berkeley, several of them having returned to school after some years of organizing in the community.

For many years, the journal had a dual mission – offering deep theory dives on aspects of the left and also developing a connection between theory, as such, and the actual practice of community organizers. If you were a political activist committed to the democratic left in the 1970s, SR was your journal, just as either the Democratic Socialists Organizing Committee (Michael Harrington’s group of Socialist Party members who exited the SP over its failure to oppose the war in Vietnam) or the New American Movement (a regrouping of sorts of the non-Weather Underground tendencies in & around SDS) was going to be your organization.

By the early 1980s, Socialist Revolution had become Socialist Review and there were now two editorial collectives. Each was autonomous, and neither cared much for the other. The one in the Bay Area still consisted primarily of local activists plus grad students from Berkeley, which made it very open not just to the second real wave of theory, the postmodern boom that moved away from master narratives, even celebrating identarian fragmentation. The collective in Boston began because several early West Coast collective members all got tenure-track jobs there, and by the early 1980s they had replicated themselves among the locals. This group was older and more stable than the one in the west, tenured (or on the way to it) and deeply committed to the academy. Any interest in theory was framed in the class and economics-based terms of an earlier left, but no longer with an eye toward building a movement so much as a department, whether it be in Poli Sci, Economics or Sociology. This collective despised the “flaky” cultural theory articles that were coming out of the west coast collective – Donna Haraway’sCyborg Manifesto” became a touchstone of this dispute – which they saw as abandoning the class-based orientation they gave to the word socialist in favor of identity movements that were, regardless of how progressively (or even outrageously) they expressed themselves, essentially civil rights coalitions for increasingly small fractions of the population.²

By the time I arrived on the West Coast collective in 1986, there were active discussions about changing the journal’s name again, this time just to the initials SR (this never happened) and refocusing it more in the direction of what eventually would become Lingua Franca, a serious critical journal about the academy itself (this also never happened). The journal stopped publishing altogether in the late ‘90s³, before being revived in 2002 under a new name, Radical Society.

SR is just one example, although a good one. In each stage of the post-WW2 left, theory’s underlying primary motive was transformed by events outside of theory. What seemed possible prior to 1968 was far more problematic after – and this was the period when theory blossomed, both on the American left and in humanities graduate programs. But by the early 1980s, what you could hope to get from it was far more constrained. From Socialist Revolution to Radical Society may all be phraseology from the left lexicon, but it echoes the very same rightward drift that governed the U.S. and other western nations during this same period. And as horizons change, what theory itself might accomplish does also. From building a movement to building a department sounds just about right. Or, rather, not.  

One might argue that language poetry was the writing of a generation that was smart about theory, and particularly about that which still sought to transform the world. And it’s interesting to think about how the general time frame of the Grand Piano project – say 1965 to 1985 – overlaps but is not identical to this critical 12-year period, 1968-’80. The smart critic could do a lot with that.


¹ Although in the wake of the Kent & Jackson State massacres, Reagan was circumspect enough to look the other way as every campus in the UC and Cal State systems turned into anti-war organizations in 1970. Reagan understood when to play a winning hand & when to fold.

² In fact, one could easily argue just the opposite, that the identarian push came first with feminism, a movement predicated on a majority.

³ I served as executive editor from 1986 through ’89 and left the collective when my twins were born three years later.


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