Theory's Empire

As theorists became endowed chairs, department heads, series editors, and MLA presidents, as they were profiled in the New York Times Magazine and invited to lecture around the world, the institutional effects of Theory displaced its intellectual nature. It didn’t have to happen, but that‘sthe way the new crop of graduate students experienced it. Not only were too many Theory articles and books published and too many Theory papers delivered, but too many high-profile incursions of the humanities into public discourse had a Theory provenance. The academic gossip in Lingua Franca highlighted Theory much more than traditional scholarship, David Lodge‘spopular novels portrayed the spread of theory as a human comedy, and People Magazine hired a prominent academic feminist as its TV critic. One theorist became known for finding her ?inner life,? another for a skirt made of men‘sneckties, another for unionizing TAs. It was fun and heady, especially when conservatives struck back with profiles of Theorists in action such as Roger Kimball‘sTenured Radicals, sallies which enraged many academics and soundly defeated them in public settings, but pleased the more canny ones who understood that being denounced was better than not being talked about at all (especially if you had tenure).

The cumulative result was that the social scene of Theory overwhelmed the intellectual thrust. —Mark BaurerleinTheory’s Empire (Butterflies and Wheels)

Now that the theory movement has firmly established itself in academia, faculty members who want to introduce theory have a lot of history to cover. Is it legitimate to say that theory is somehow “over” when people outside the circle of theorist-activists learn it and teach it?