London and New York: Continuum. ISBN 0-8264-5990-0.
The Theory of Practice and the Practice of Theory
A confession: belligerent as I often am, and tending to support the underdog only when it is really going to turn out to be the superior party (like the eponymous drifter Rambo, say, or downtrodden but soon to be ‘Karate Kid’), I was excited to see a book that promised to put the boot into the underpinnings of and rationales for all allegedly non- or even anti-theoretical approaches to cultural studies. The familiar denunciation of theory as being ‘too much’ or ‘not enough’, or as being an aberration or perversion away from some as-if obviously straightforward and necessary, natural and neutral way to ‘do’ cultural studies (as if sensibly and properly) has always struck me as just way too much of a performative contradiction to be able to tolerate. All claims that ‘theory’ is digression or diversion, or that theory prevents proper engagements with the proper tasks at hand, consistently fascinate and preoccupy me, in much the same way that having touch-sensitive toothache inevitably preoccupies my tongue. I just can’t leave it alone. Statements like ‘that’s all too theoretical to be of any use’ or ‘theory is of no practical use to politics’ and suchlike drive me demented, and I am drawn into the argument like a moth to a light bulb. I am equally, of course, if not more so, drawn to works which attend to how ridiculous all anti-theory arguments are. Hence my excitement about Gary Hall’s Culture in Bits: The Monstrous Future of Theory.
Although less academically blood thirsty than I would tend to be when confronted with the Theory versus Anti-Theory debate, Hall does not disappoint. Along with fascinating excursions into a variety of other problematics (cultural studies and popular culture, feminism, technology, psychoanalysis, and so on), the initialising and overall thrust of Culture in Bits is one of demonstrating the responsibility and importance of deepening and widening, rather than curtailing, the theoretical dimension of cultural studies. This call for more theory is not only justified on scholarly or academic grounds (as in: as academics are obliged to think, which involves theorising, so there are no academic grounds for retreating from this obligation), but also on the grounds of ethico-political responsibility. That’s right: the argument is that more theory, even putative excesses of theory and theoretical excesses, may well be more ethico-politically responsible and practical than the ‘let’s-have-less-of-it’ modes of those who advocate ‘more direct’ or ‘more properly practical’ approaches to cultural studies. Now, the odd thing about this is that Hall’s point is in a way almost obvious or intuitive, commonsensically reasonable and uncontroversial — or, that is, his is an argument which in itself does not require very much theory to be intelligible and acceptable. Quite early on he puts it like this: between two approaches to any cultural/political issue — between, say, a densely theoretical and a ‘direct’, ‘straightforward’ approach to an ‘urgent’ socio-political matter — ‘it is the theoretical analysis . . . which is likely to prove the more “politically” effective, at least to the extent that it will be more self-consciously aware of the politico-institutional factors which affect its operation and development, and therefore less prone to being blindly shaped and controlled by them’ (5). Put crudely, that is, although much contemporary theory appears to be narcissistically obsessed with things pertaining primarily to itself (the institution of the university, cross-disciplinary and syllabus battles, etc.) and to have accordingly subordinated a ‘direct’ and undistracted attention to ‘real world’ issues, it is in actual fact the case that the direct-focus approach — of ‘I analyse that‘ — will likely suffer from tunnel vision. The theoretical (read ‘circumspect’) approach looks like digression because, instead of being happy with ‘I analyse that object’, it sees the importance of asking questions like what constitutes my perspective, this perspective, what influenced all that I take to be natural, obvious, and necessary. What makes that object appear to me as it does, or appear as such, or appear at all? — or, as Michael A. Peters recently put it, ‘theory’ may appear digressive when one does not understand that it proceeds according to the rationale of critical philosophy and the ‘reflexive turn’ in scholarship, ‘that prior to the acquisition of knowledge, we must first inquire into and establish what may or may not count as knowledge’, and how, and why (Peters: 2001, 27). That is, in short, Gary Hall follows many deconstructive thinkers (he names Sam Weber, Peggy Kamuf, Robert Young, Simon Wortham, and J. Hillis Miller, among others) in insisting on the primacy and constitutive character of the secondary/supplementary matter of the ‘institution’. The word ‘institution’ is of course to be read in all senses, as both noun and verb; so that, accordingly, to think the institution is not only to be attending to the secondary matter of ‘thinking the university’, but rather it is to hit upon a way — a kind of master paradigm — to think all aspects the social, cultural, and political. Talk of ‘the institution’ is certainly prone to such virement or displacement: reference to ‘the institution’ in certain circles today means both the particular institution under discussion and institution qua universal, proto-ontological, or (quasi)transcendental form of the socio-political. In fact, the centrality of ‘the institution’ to deconstructive thought today is, in a sense, deconstruction’s way of decisively answering the tedious misapprehension that deconstruction is only ‘about language’ and is ‘not political’. Deconstruction is always about the institution: that is, (the) institution is its object and target; and when ‘institution’ is both noun and verb, its meaning simultaneously encompasses everything from origins to day-to-day realities, and so deconstruction cannot but be seen as political.
This is so unless one can only recognise or conceive of the political ‘with the help of prewar road signs’, as Derrida once put it (Derrida, 1992: 23). Gary Hall goes after this presumption that politics can only take recognisable, traditional forms, and the presupposition that we know what the political is. Such a foreknowledge of what politics and the political ‘are’, is itself a force of closing down and closing off, characteristic of the work of any ‘proper’, the exclusionary force of every sense of ‘propriety’. To say this or that is or is not properly political, or suchlike is, as Žižek once put it, the political gesture par excellance (Žižek, 2000: 234). It is, moreover, a political force which works perfectly well without being attended by some Cartesian conscious intention. Politics exceeds conscious intention. Arguably, ‘conscious intention’ is perhaps the proper of traditional, commonsense, or conventional political thought. But it is an inadequate formulation. For just because you or I were to say something like ‘we will this to happen’ — or if we were to chant it at a public and properly political demonstration, say — we are nevertheless far from being in control of all of the effects of our actions. That is, in adhering to a fixed notion of what is proper politics, as Hall puts it, the case is like this:
the very question that is not raised in all this is the question of politics. Nor can it be, for the simple reason that the various participants in this dispute tend to place politics in a transcendental position with respect to other discourses. Politics here is the one thing it is vital to understand, as politics is that by which everything else is judged. But as Geoffrey Bennington has made clear in his analysis of a set-up he identifies as being repeated across a whole range of ‘Left criticism’, historicism especially, politics is at the same time the one thing that cannot be understood; for the one thing that cannot be judged by the transcendentally raised criteria of politics is politics itself. Consequently, the last question these ‘political’ discourses can raise is the question of politics. (66)
Now, surely nobody wants to expend all of their energy engaged in tasks that they think will have certain effects, if they are in actual fact going the wrong way about achieving their desired results. This is, for Hall, the crucial importance of theory in general, and of deconstruction in particular: it requires that you keep interrogating why and how you are doing what you are doing and why you think you should keep doing it. But crucially, and contrary to the hostile (but perhaps not entirely incorrect) understanding of ‘Theory’ as amounting to nothing more than the parasitic production of inauthentic and disconnected simulations in isolated elitist enclaves of untranslatable language games, Gary Hall optimistically tends to use ‘theory’ to mean ‘deconstruction’. And if you have taken the trouble to reach an understanding of deconstruction by way of reading Derrida, then it will be difficult to agree that what this ‘theory’ (‘deconstruction’) obliges one to do is construct sprawling and self-confident explanatory edifices for everything — or, in other words: it will be difficult to agree that ‘deconstruction’ even allows one to construct any grand theory. This, of course, means that to call deconstruction a ‘theory’ is a misnomer, and so to use ‘theory’ to mean ‘deconstruction’ is, in a way, to concede to the misinterpretation of ‘deconstruction’ by ‘anti-theorists’. Gary Hall knows this, of course; which is why, I believe, he subtly supplements the meaning of the word ‘theory’ with the meaning of — or the demands of — deconstruction. For deconstruction is (paradoxically, perversely, and therefore peculiarly appropriately) itself a kind of anti-paradigm or anti-theory: it demands the responsible interminable drawing into question of everything. As Hall is chiefly involved in the question of politics, and its status within and for cultural studies, he puts it like this:
this questioning of politics is ‘perhaps’ the most ‘responsible’, and political, thing for cultural studies to do, in Derrida’s sense of the term responsibility, since there can be no responsibility, and hence no politics, without the experience of the undecidable; without, that is, the constant (re)taking of the decision of what politics is. (6)
Now, theories tend not to do this: they tend not to demand that everything, including themselves, be ceaselessly drawn into question, interrogated, and if necessary radically revised. Particular theories do not do this: they explain the other, and confirm themselves. Surely, it could only be a practice oriented by the aim of responsibly intervening in ‘reality‘ (yes, that’s what I said) that would demand the incessant revision of everything, if need be, rather than self-preservation. Deconstruction as negative theology? Perhaps. As Žižek recently put it, Derridean deconstruction does involve ‘a direct ‘ontological’ assertion about how différance and archi-trace determine the structure of all living things’ (2001: 204). But the jaded old misreadings that get stuck on the remedial stumbling block that deconstruction ‘denies reality’ do not detain Hall here. What he is concerned to stress are the complex ways in which ‘what seems initially to be the most “theoretical” of issues may eventually turn out to have more practical and political effects than the most apparently “political” of political actions and debates’ (5-6). He is concerned to do this because, as he puts it, ‘by definition, cultural studies is . . . a politically committed questioning of culture/power relations which at the same time theoretically interrogates its own relation to politics and to power’ (10). Now, to me, this is grounds enough to make the leap and to argue that cultural studies ‘is‘ deconstruction, and vice versa. I know that this would cause pain to many — and not least even to ‘our’ most revered allies within the university, those Hall regularly and approvingly (p)refers to, like Robert J. C. Young, Geoffrey Bennington, Bill Readings and Derrida — but nevertheless, I would do it anyway (if only to rattle their cages a bit). Hall, however, doesn’t; and indeed actively distances himself from such totalising gestures (merely referring to deconstruction as a helpful supplement to cultural studies); for his target is the odd status of the political in cultural studies. As he puts it, ‘politics’ is at once central to cultural studies, and also radically excluded from it. Or:
the last thing that is raised in all this talk about the importance of politics to cultural studies is the question of politics, for the simple reason that politics is here being placed in a transcendental position with respect to all other discourses. Politics is the one thing it is vital to understand, as it is that by which everything else is judged. But politics is at the same time the one thing that cannot be understood; for the one thing that cannot be judged by the transcendentally raised criteria of politics is politics itself. (6)
And here’s the rub: ‘if its politically committed nature is a fundamental part of what cultural studies is, then to risk opening the possibility of rethinking this “political” aspect would presumably be to risk opening the possibility of fundamentally rethinking cultural studies’ (73), such that ‘it may no longer be possible to recognize cultural studies as cultural studies if the question of politics is opened up’ (74). Disciplines — even interdisciplines like cultural studies — are just as prone to the compulsion to repeat, to police their borders, to stringently and ‘violently’ impose a strong sense of the proper, of propriety, and hence to institute exclusions that are political in constitution and consequence, as both particular theories and particular so-called ‘commonsensical practical approaches’. The political is, as they say, constitutive. Thus, not only is, as Hall points out, the ‘argument regarding theory’s supposed lack of politics . . . itself a theoretical argument’ (66), and not only is ‘the concept of “political practice” . . . itself a classical, theoretical concept’ (11), but moreover each of these and all such determinations are irreducibly politically consequential impositions based on uninterrogated ethical norms. It is part of cultural studies’ responsibility to interrogate them and their effects. This is part of what Hall means when he says that ‘to move away from theory because it is apparently not political enough is to subordinate everything to political ends. It is to imply that things are only worth doing if it can be established in advance that they will have a practical, political outcome; an outcome which is itself decided in advance‘ (5). It is, as it were, politically irresponsible to have decided in advance what politics is, and even, perhaps and paradoxically, politically irresponsible to prefer political ‘action’ over all else.
These are perhaps ultimately bizarre and highly problematic things to assert, many will contend. For it is to re-open the question of knowing, entirely; it is the question of knowledge itself. Or, rather, it is the question of, as Derrideans sometimes say, the futurity of the future, of the undecidability of decision and destination, and so on. How can you know that you know what you think you know? Arguably, all knowledge is only theoretical — or worse (perhaps), nothing more than a matter of belief and reckoning, in which only time will tell, and this tellingly being the one thing that we have absolutely no control over. Unless, that is, the only way to gain any ‘control’ over it, or responsibility for and in the face of it, is to attempt, as exhaustively as possible, to work out the extent to which all decisions and determinations are always already ethico-politically consequential, and to hegemonize whatever we can, wherever we can, in the name of an ethical relation to the alterity of the future as a possibility that must not be closed down by the impositions of uninterrogated forces of propriety and convention. Hall rightly frames and conceives of all of this squarely as a matter of the ‘relations of politics and knowledge’ (74). There is always a political dimension to knowledge, as many have documented in many realms since the beginning of the twentieth century, at least. What Gary Hall provides us with in Culture in Bits is a compelling account of the most influential ways that the time-honoured theory versus anti-theory polemic or antagonism has/have developed within — and, indeed, as — cultural studies. As such, Culture in Bits is a book for which I only have respect, and which I wholeheartedly recommend that you read.
Derrida, J. (1992) ‘Mochlos; or, The Conflict of the Faculties’, in Logomachia: The Conflict of the Faculties (ed.) R. Rand. Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press.
Peters, M. A. (2001) Poststructuralism, Marxism and Neoliberalism: Between Theory and Politics. London: Rowman and Littlefield.
Žižek, S. (2000) ‘Da Capo senza Fine’, in J. Butler, E. Laclau, S. Žižek, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left. London: Verso.
Žižek, S. (2001) ‘Are Cultural Studies Really Totalitarian?’, in Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? Five Interventions in the (Mis)use of a Notion. London: Verso.
Paul Bowman is Lecturer in Cultural Studies at Bath Spa University College, UK. Formerly editor of the international cultural studies journal, parallax, he has published widely in books and journals on many aspects of political theory, and in particular on the politics of knowledge, and knowledge establishment. Most recently, he is editor of Interrogating Cultural Studies: Theory, Politics, and Practice (Pluto Press, 2002), and author of the forthcoming Post-Marxism versus Cultural Studies (Edinburgh University Press).