Considering Theory

Today’s guest post is by Jason Potts and Daniel Stout, editors of Theory Aside. Jason Potts is Assistant Professor of English at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, and Daniel Stout is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Mississippi. Here, they discuss the recent launch of The CI Review, and the history—and future—of theory.

978-0-8223-5681-3_pr“Sometimes there is an idea whose time has come, and come again,” writes W.J.T. Mitchell in his editorial note accompanying the June 2014 launch of The CI Review, the new online-only forum from Critical Inquiry. We couldn’t agree more–and, as the editors of Theory Aside, we are happy to see Critical Inquiry putting its considerable weight behind a project that sounds a lot like ours. The goal, in Theory Aside, is to think about some of the thinkers and lines of inquiry that got lost during the canonization of critical theory. In particular, we were concerned that the very dynamics that had made the age of Theory so exciting were also contributing to the speediness of its much-discussed death. Once it began to understand itself as the purveyor of radical newness and to promise the wholesale repeal of outdated methodologies, theory began to treat ideas as especially perishable things, as if they arrived with best-before dates after which they needed to be discarded and replaced. Radical innovation, or nothing: Theory, we argued, both rose (fast) and fell (steeply) because it made “the paradigm shift” the model of intellectual progress.

How encouraging, then, to have The CI Review, a venue in which thoughts whose time has come again might be revisited. And encouraging, too, to see things like the new volume from the University Press of Kentucky, Radical Future Pasts: Untimely Political Theory, a collection devoted to “reinterpreting canonical and current texts [in order] to demonstrate fresh interpretations and narratives.” What should be saluted about efforts like these is their acknowledgement of the need for sustained self-reflection about the boundaries of humanistic attention. Theoretical inquiry, Mitchell implies, has construed itself too narrowly, has been for too long “cloistered around a fixed canon of literary and artistic masterpieces.” What’s needed is the extension of our critical energies outward into what he calls “Humanities in the expanded field.”

The encounters that might be generated by putting theoretical texts into conversations about “climate change and techno-science” will be exciting. But we also hope that The CI Review, in its desire to present work that is “conceptually ambitious” and “important, challenging, and innovative,” will manage not only to extend older ideas into new terrains but to reserve some space for considering ways we might expand the canon of theory itself. As essays from Eve Sedgwick, Anne-Lise Francois, Natalie Melas, and Elizabeth Povinelli reveal, theory might have had a different chronology; as Simon Jarvis, Pheng Cheah, Irene Tucker, Jordan Stein, and Karen Beckman demonstrate, whole approaches and methodologies have been left outside of what we commonly recognize as theory; and as William Flesch, Mark Hansen, Heather Love, and Frances Ferguson show, there is much to be learned by revisiting thinkers whose moment seems to have passed (e.g., I.A. Richards, Irving Goffman, Alfred North Whitehead) as well those many of us have yet to meet (e.g. George Ainslie, A.N. Veselovsky). As Ian Balfour argues, our prosecutions of the theoretical canon might demand that we write theory in a new way.

We have, we’re suggesting, more options than we’ve tended to acknowledge. “Sometimes there is an idea whose time has come, and come again.” But there are also theoretical ideas that never registered as important. We should give our attention to those, too.

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