In defense of Theory.

I’m supposed to be writing a blog post for my department’s academic journal and obviously, instead of doing that, I blog here.

This blog post is for future reference when I’m irritated with people who complain about the lack of political mobilization in the academy or rant on about how its of no ‘practical’ use in the ‘world outside’ and I let them go on out of the fear that a) I can’t articulate why I find it annoying, b) perhaps I am part of this system of impracticality that they’re hating on.

Some context: In a class discussion today, a classmate asked (for the umpteenth time) what the purpose of queer theory was if it couldn’t save the abject figure of the transgender from their difficult lives, i.e. that the theory isn’t enough for real political change.

First, what really counts as ‘real political change’? Does it mean changes in policy? Changes in lived experiences of people’s subjectivities? Are there a quantifiable number of people who should be saved in order for it to count as political change? Is politics the thing that happens every four years when we elect someone or is politics an everyday negotiation of social relationships and their accompanying fears, stereotypes, cultural awareness and so on? And if it is the latter, is the academy completely removed from this process?

Second, in our current political economy, the division of labour is such that the University as a system exists to produce, enhance, store and distribute Knowledge (as opposed to knowledge with a small k which denotes any and every kind of knowledge, vs. the institutionalized knowledge of the academy.) If we function with the idea that political change is policy reform, then yes, it is something that the University never claimed to engage in as an institution. Now, admittedly, this isn’t a completely static system, universities do have professors who consult, research institutes that contribute to policy work and actual schools of public policy that teach one how to do all that’s demanded of one within what ever institutes make policy around here. Indeed, the world of the university is quite porous in its relationship to the ‘real’ political change that one speaks of. (Though we could endlessly criticize even the policy-making institutions on their efficiency, and success in causing political change.)

Third, questioning the validity of production of knowledge such as queer theory due to a problem of its lack of distribution (i.e. the argument that half the people don’t have access to it, what’s the point?) is quite pointless, it seems to me. Yes, the dissemination of Knowledge is a stratified system that I don’t condone in any way but that specific point doesn’t make the knowledge produced any less important.

Finally, if one were to accept the second definition of politics as a suitable one, the University’s contribution to it is necessarily epistemic – the Academy is a merely another field in which to bring change, not the catalyst for it in every instance. Individual professors, institutional policies, and committed students lead change, not a social system (yet). No one institution is going to solve all the problems of the world and expecting the Academy to single-handedly do so (the implied assumption that is embedded in the criticism that it is politically irrelevant) is quite ridiculous.

So the next time someone simply dismisses Theory due to its impracticality, please hit them on the head for me.

P.S. I don’t mean that all theories are always useful, but to dismiss the function of Theory (i.e. the idea of it in its entirety) as apolitical is ignorant.


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