Do we need to write and publish so much theory?

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In addition to novels, I always bring a stack of scholarly books on our annual summer vacation. I bring books in my field, books not in my field, books in fields I might be ready to explore, books I might like to teach and books that I read so that I will be a better blogger.

I also bring books on vacation that are too long, or too complex, for me to be able to read in a sustained way when life is full of distraction and interruption. Sustained reading means finishing a difficult or lengthy book in a reasonable number of sittings — between one and three, or few enough to allow me to hold the parts of the argument in my head as I move toward the end.

It is in this spirit that I reached for a recently published book of theory — in my field, I was thinking of teaching it — and was disappointed within the first ten pages. I’m not sure that it was fair for me to be disappointed, but I was. It’s hard to be specific about the nature of my distress without identifying the book, but suffice to say it is about a lively contemporary political phenomenon. It purports to engage a set of vivid characters and cultural texts and…..

….I found it so densely theorized, with such an elaborate internal structure and so many run-on sentences, as to be virtually unreadable. In fact, the commitment to theory seemed greater than the commitment to the subject. The book seems, in other words, to be about itself rather than about the topic(s) it promised me on the cover and in the title. Basic rules of grammar and argumentation within the paragraphs and chapters appeared to have been checked at the door. As yet (yes, I am still reading it) there is no narrative account of the phenomena it claims to engage, nor are there adequate descriptions of the events and people who are being examined.

Why do so many scholars who genuinely care about making an impact on their world privilege what purports to be the creation of theory? Particularly when it is actually applied theory masquerading as a “critical intervention,” and written in a way that only specialists in the field have a chance of decoding? (Variants on the word “critical” are used so frequently in contemporary theory that it is often difficult to understand how the word is being used, or whether, like the Buddhist prayer flags hung by college students , it is simply meant to signal an atmosphere.)

Some of you might say, “Hey, this isn’t a problem with theory – this person is just a bad writer.” Perhaps, but I cannot say that this author is any worse than a great many other people writing and publishing theory today. One of the few things that is completely legible within the book is this author’s commitment to a polemical style and a set of keywords that don’t necessarily make for clear argumentation but do let you know what intellectual tradition s/he hopes to be associated with.

To put my critical intervention (with which I hope to critically intervene) into context, let me say that I am neither neither for or against the writing of theory, nor am I against the appearance of theory in scholarly books that have other rhetorical and methodological commitments. If I have leanings in any direction they are favorable to theory: I know that writing it is not one of my strengths, nor have I ever really been inclined to do so for more than a moment or two. I do read a lot of theory — you can’t be in my fields and not read theory even if you are a boring old historian — and my own work has benefitted enormously from doing so.

This is why I continue my struggle with the book that dismays me. I wonder, however, why so many people feel that they have to write theory, why — if they must write theory — they must elaborate the same “critical intervention” for hundreds of pages when one hundred would do, and why so many publishers feel the need to publish theory that improves in such infinitesimal ways on prior scholarship. I also wonder why more editors don’t say to authors, “Hey: you have a great topic that is relevant and interesting to lots of people. Your book is currently hiding under a rhetorical duvet, and I’m not going to publish it until you bury the theory and write this book in an engaged and readable way.”

In fact, I would argue in relation to the book that prompted this post, the text was not even easily accessible by a specialist in the field, which I am. I find unreadability to be a particularly curious aspect of contemporary academic publishing. The vast majority of theorists whose work I follow have quite serious political, usually left, commitments. They tend to be preoccupied with social justice, the possibilities for a progressive society and the potential for radical change. These commitments not infrequently lead to institutional and individual participation in community partnerships and activisms, and the documentation of subcultural intellectual and artistic phenomena.

Despite the seriousness with which these commitments are conceived and pursued, too much published work continues to be written for an inside crowd, and can be extraordinarily difficult for even a skilled academic, much less a merely educated reader, to decode. Sentences go on, clause after clause, for the length of a normal paragraph, and the urgency of the issues at hand is lost in the endless obfuscations, text doubling back on itself, and extended references to other, often more obscure, theory.

Perhaps we also need to think about how we package theory. With some exceptions, the most influential contemporary theoreticians seem to write articles and short books that galvanize others into action. They are often suggestive, rather than prescriptive; encouraging rather than fiercely polemical. They avoid exegesis and instead supply concise interventions that are then illustrated through narrative and story telling. They attend to basic rhetorical rules like the topic sentence, and they take pains to make their vocabulary available to the reader in the form of keywords. Instead of constantly insisting on the importance of their theoretical intervention, they show how it works and why it matters, attending to the contemporary significance of the argument in its parts and in its entirety.

I have purposely avoided naming names in this post and would prefer that commenters do the same: but let’s begin the conversation, and readers are invited to link to other material that addresses this question. I ask you: Do we need to write and publish so much theory?

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