The Trouble With Theory

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 August, 2008, 12:00am

The Trouble With Theory

by Gavin Kitching

Allen & Unwin, HK$220

The heyday of postmodernism has long passed, but critical theory-bashing remains a fashionable sport. Global anti-pomo warriors tell us that arcane European ideas have overrun universities and high schools, but they rarely pause to consider how much 'theory' is actually taught.

Gavin Kitching, professor of politics at the University of New South Wales in Australia, suggests in The Trouble with Theory: The Educational Costs of Postmodernism that the brightest tots in political science are unwitting victims of an elaborate hoax perverting their intellects. But postmodern theory (or the ragtag cluster of language-orientated, mostly French philosophies that go by its name) was used in less than 13 per cent of undergraduate honours theses from his department during the 23-year period he surveys.

Political science faculties focus overwhelmingly on policy; the rare theorists often battle to teach their interests. Theory-minded students are more likely to work in English, where postmodernism is widely taught alongside - but not, as is often held, at the expense of - the canon. Kitching is pursuing a phantom threat.

It should go without saying that attacks on postmodernism don't cut much ice without showing a solid grasp of theory. Keith Windschuttle's 1994 polemic, The Killing of History: How a Discipline is Being Murdered by Literary Critics and Social Theorists, was impressive in this respect. Kitching, however, doesn't go there.

Rather than evaluating Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze and company, Kitching examines only 27 student dissertations and extrapolates from their flaws that theory is pernicious.

Theory allows us to consider the cultural and psychological frames through which we view the world. It shows that no observation is as straightforward or innocent as it may seem. But Kitching dismisses theory as a redundant language used to dress up 'common sense' (a term to put one on the alert). Granted, casual allusions to theory might be pretentious, but that is no ground for deriding postmodernism itself.

According to Kitching, the student authors contradict themselves by presenting contrarian ideas at the same time as suggesting that we're controlled by all-pervasive 'discourse'. The dissertations show, Kitching argues, that 'whatever one might choose to say about that dominance it is clear that it does not equate to unchallenged monopoly'.

This is an absurd caricature of postmodernism; no serious theorist suggests resistance is impossible. If power shapes us, it also requires our obedience to maintain its grip. Norms are only dominant as long as people observe them.

Yet Kitching sees theory as promoting a form of 'linguistic determinism', in which our every move and thought is governed by language. The belief that we're imprisoned by discourse implies, for Kitching, that 'anybody who uses words must be committed to the standard definition of those words'.

But it is disingenuous to suggest as Kitching does that the notion of language as all-enveloping power means that a word such as camp can only be used with its usual homophobic meaning, rather than ironically or affectionately. Judith Butler, and the strain of queer theory she influenced, explores how we can attack norms by parodying them. As people repeat words with changed connotations, meaning changes and power shifts.

Odder still is Kitching's use of Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations to assail the deterministic view of language. Wittgenstein's book argues that words have multiple, ever-shifting meanings that are shaped by the context in which they're used; language is a tool that people use to communicate, rather than an objective structure separate from everyday life.

Kitching charges theoretical prose with removing the authorial voice and complains that the student essays contain 'no 'I think's', 'I feel's', 'it seems to me's', let alone any openly introspective or reflexive passages'. But the first-person pronoun is used throughout the work of Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan, for example, whose witty and playful prose cannot be faulted for lacking personality.

Feminist theorists, such as Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray, are about infusing academic writing with emotion - central to their critique of the objective (read patriarchal) tone of traditional scholarship. But Kitching shows no familiarity with these theorists. For Kitching, theory is just opaque, ism-obsessed tosh.

As a general rule, simple prose is best, and he is right that it is often silly to say 'having forms of meaning' rather than means, or 'ideational structures' instead of ideas. But many European philosophers express ideas indirectly, using irony, puns, aphorisms and metaphors, to make us ponder complex ideas.

Kitching is right that the language and arguments of the theses he quotes are often vague and contradictory. Few would disagree that they use excessive jargon and employ theory where it is redundant.

His tips for supervisors are sound. But it is patronising to suggest the writers are 'victims' with 'their hearts in the right place' rather than 'wilful perpetrators of untruths or nonsense'. The defects of their work, though understandable, are fully their own.

Quoting sloppy and dogmatic passages from student theses proves little more than that theory is demanding; which means it should be studied more rigorously and often, rather than less.