What is theory?

This is the first in a series of main articles relating to theory. A new article on either sustainability, the buddha or theory will be posted fortnightly.

Theory (or postmodern theory) will only make sense when we look at the definitions of Modernity, Modernism and Postmodernism because theory can be said to be interchangeable with the term “postmodernism”.

Modernity (or the Modern) is the development of Western history of, say, the last five centuries. Characterized by the rise of capitalism, science and technology, and rational thought, it challenged traditional authority, that of the Christian Church and legitimacy of political power. It can be seen as the beginning of liberalism. But from it also came even more brutal forms of power, like the absolutism of Louis XIV, XV and XVI. And countries such as England and the Netherlands saw political instability but saw the gains through capitalism and Imperial expansionism. And during the Enlightenment the very notion of “Modernity” becomes self-aware, defining itself against previous traditional ways of lifes, Christian dogma and superstition. So by the 19 century transformation and upheaval was seen as the rule.

Modernity can be seen as beignning of the ideas of progress and evolution, and of ideas as different as capitalism and communism. And even today the technological progress is still a place of much of our misplaced hopes. Modernity is now no longer something we celebrate but rather it is something to which we feel we are comdemned.

Modernism – which moved on from the novelty, the “scandal and challenge”, of Modernity – is a constellation of intellectual and artistic Western ideals from the mid-nineteenth century. And it is a late development of Modernity. Modernism is an awareness of Modernity’s conflict and upheaval. But it also thoroughly believed, perhaps more than Modernity, in progress and evolution. And it had hoped to solve problems brought about by Modernity with more radical and absolute forms of Modernity, creating even more absolute answers. An example of Modernism in politics is Marxism. And Expression, Symbolism, Cubism, Futurism and Art Nouveau are further examples of Modernist art movements.

Postmodernism can be defined as the dismantling of the ideas and beliefs of Modernism, and does not replace the latter. Postmodernism maintains a relationship with and relativism to Modernism. It returns with rigour to older ideals but in renewed fashion. In art and literature figure painting and realism respectively becomes important once again. Irony and pastiche – rather than metaphysics and parody – become the main vehicles for expression. And with its borrowing of styles it becomes clear that Postmodernism is both anti-authoritarian and anti-foundational in outlook.

Examples of Postmodernism are Deconstruction, Psychoanalytic Criticism, New Historicism, Cultural Materialism, Feminist Criticism, Queer Theory, Poststructualism, Neo-Marxist Criticism, Post-colonial Theory, Reader Response Theory, Postmodernism (as a self-aware position), New Pragmatism, etc. Names associated with Postmodernism are Derrida, Foucault, Barthes, Kristeva, Said, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Fredric Jameson, Raymond Williams, Deleuze, Lacan, etc.

4 thoughts on “What is theory?”

  1. Why use the term? Because there is not really a better more convenient alternative. Also what people choose to use is artbitrary and owned by no one. And I don’t think it is lost any applicability. All previous definitions of the word theory still apply, but now it has also a more specific use in fields like literary studies.

    As to “speculation” I don’t think people are that unsophisticated as to get the usage mixed. Take the word “philosophy”. It can also mean the things like ‘idealism’, and ‘logical positivism’, but equally used to mean ‘a person belief’ (‘my philosophy in life is…’) and no one is going to get that mixed up. And if they do it is part of the “slip” within language which Derrida is so passionate about.

    As for the etymology, it is from latin and later greek, theoria, meaning ‘spectator’. I haven’t thought about the implications of this.


  2. I see what you mean, but I would still ask: why use the term at all? If theory can only be identified as an activity, without explaining what that activity entails, it seems to me that the use of the word has escaped all applicability – which is, after all, what one is supposed to do with theory. Only having this paragraph to go on, though, `To anyone outside the field, this usage must seem very odd`, seems like a claim to ownership to me. But he`s right, it does seem odd.

    As to the idea that we can still use `theory` to mean `speculation`, I was reading something the other day (can`t remember what), that this very modern usage of the word has increased popular suspicion of scientific and other theoretically based appraoches because, in the minds of many people, theory is merely speculation. How`s that for postmodern?

    What is the etymology of theory, anyway?


  3. In this short space I couldn’t give a reasonable answer, plus other writers like Jonathan Culler say it so much better than I do. This is from the first chapter of Culler’s Literary Theory – A Very Short Introduction entitled “What is Theory?”:

    “In literary and cultural studies these days there is a lot of talk about theory – not theory literature, mind you; just plain ‘theory’. To anyone outside the field, this usage must seem very odd. It is not the theory of anything in particular, nor a comprehensive theory of things in general. Sometimes theory seems less an account of anything than an activity – something you do or don’t do. […] Works regarded as theory have effects beyond their original field.”

    the term postmodernism seems more a usage to designate things that have happened since the 1960s than being a claim. So theory is about this strange migration of ideas which once would simply have stayed within its own area of study.

    Of course the word theory can still be used like ‘speculation’ (‘Yukiko and John have split up.’ ‘My theory is that John is really in love with her sister, Kasumi.’).

    But when we just talk about theory these days we are usually talking about that which can be pigeon-holed into postmodernism because of this crossover tendency.


  4. `[T]heory can be said to be interchangeable with the term “postmodernism”.` – I think this position needs a bit more explanation. There are theories of postmodernism and postmodernity, postmodern theory (ie, the academic discipline) – but these, it would seem to me, are merely a few theories among many. Why does postmodernism take sole claim to theory, both in idea and practice?


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