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Ever Have That Theory About Feelings About Theory in Grad School?

Mechanical brain image by aytuguluturk (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Graduate school, everyone? The glory of Jordan Alexander Stein's Theory is that it unmasks both the utility and the futility of theory.

Avidly Reads: Theory
Jordan Alexander Stein

NYU Press

October 2019


In graduate school, I took a course on Bakhtin where one of the games we played was "Six Degrees of Bakhtin". It was along the same lines of the Kevin Bacon version, except we would just shout out any random thing or idea—coffee, LSD, the Democratic National Committee, Bart Simpson—and then connect it to some aspect of Bakhtin's work in as few moves as possible.

Some other year, I resolved to use the Rubik's Cube as a metaphor in every single paper I wrote, regardless of the prompt, because it struck me as a terrifically empty signifier and I wanted to test the absolute limit of that. I had previously engaged in the same mission as an undergraduate, using Alice in Wonderland instead, but that proved too easy.

For a few weeks one summer, I considered writing a children's book on theory (A is for Adorno, B is for Baudrillard, C is for Cixous, D is for who else but Derrida…). Throughout my collegiate years, I wouldn't consider dating anybody who hadn't read a sizable chunk of Barthes.

If you find any of those anecdotes both entirely comprehensible and at least mildly amusing, you should definitely pick up a copy of Jordan Alexander Stein's Theory, one of the excellent little books in the relatively new series Avidly Reads, from New York University Press. Avidly Reads has been a column in the Los Angeles Review of Books for a while, and the popularity of it entirely justifies the book series. Early entries in the series include Stein's thoughts on theory, and other authors in board games, boyfriends, et cetera. All books in the series are analytical in nature, but also memoirish for their inclusion of feeling and more of a first-person point of view. These books are not simply explainers, but rather, each one charts the emotional landscape of a thing or idea.

Robot by Thor_Deichmann (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

This is a terrific niche; the nearest thing on the market would certainly be Bloomsbury's Object Lessons series, but those books tend to keep a tight focus on the object and not admit quite so much personalization. Avidly Reads also seems more open to discussion of phenomena like boyfriends and theory, rather than keeping strictly to objects like board games.

So I jumped at Theory because as Stein aptly notes, "Without theory ... without the years spent thinking and talking and being and becoming in the ways that theory inspired and captioned, well, I have no idea who I'd be" (106). This is in contrast to Moby Dick or Nina Simone, where maybe life might be impoverished without these influences, but it would still certainly also go on. Yet for a certain group of academics, theory shapes everything.

Most of these folks were running around universities in the late '90s, like Stein himself. I came up just a bit later and still found his insights to be shockingly on point. And this is part of the point of Theory: as a thing that the academy engaged in especially from the mid-'90s to the mid-00s, for all of us who went to graduate school during that time period, almost regardless of particular academic discipline, our encounters with theory turn out to be weirdly similar.

This is due to the ways academics use theory and the feelings produced by that experience. Stein neatly divides these feelings into five chapters: silly, stupid, sexy, seething, and stuck (and bonus points for keeping to words that begin with S, because of both the arbitrariness and delightful superfluity of it). Each of the chapters examines a feeling by attaching it to a different facet of postmodernism that highlights a certain theorist. Again, the mission here is not to explain the theory itself, but rather, how we encounter it.

Stein is investigating the means by which theory produces a rippling ontological impact among graduate students, showcasing symptoms of a particular way to approach how to be in the world. So if you have no background knowledge of theory, Stein is not going to provide that. If you have experience in an advanced, rigorous university setting but no real engagement with theory, possibly the book will be somewhat worthwhile just as a sociological investigation into the nature of higher education, but you'll miss the bulk of its amusement. Theory is for diehards. And die hard we do, don't we?

We buried ourselves in these books, for better and for worse. The chapter on silliness hinges on Adorno with occasional dips into Derrida. Stein considers how the end of the '90s promoted a serious investment in irony; that is, we were quite serious about using these ideas to crack jokes. Pink Freud anyone? Chaka Lacan? See also: Hedwig's dissertation, You, Kant, Always Get What You Want. Kant is the focus on the chapter on stupidity. Because his theory is bad. And badly written—and very badly deployed by graduate students everywhere. Guess who is the dominant feature in the chapter on feeling sexy? I even put a little BDSM pun-clue in there, but I shouldn't have to tell you the answer is Foucault.

The sexy chapter might be the best one, in large part because it makes most plain one of the fundamental conclusions of Stein's project, which is that we took these ideas and used them to frame not only what else we read in class, but to frame our very lives. The way he latched onto Foucault had everything to do with the search to define himself as a gay man. There is a bit on Sedgewick and Butler toward the end of this section that segues nicely into the chapter on seething.

Seething focuses on feminism, with examples orbiting around Kristeva and MacKinnon. Although the conclusion of this section—in which we still don't really know what to do with the rage that is both channeled into and resultant from theory—is perhaps the weakest, it does offer some of the most incisive writing on feelings and their contextual logic. For example, this bit that especially continues to haunt me, about reading an article written by an acquaintance of his a few years after graduation:

"By any rational account, I had little reason to be [seething]. Here was someone I didn't know, bringing up undergraduate recollections toward which he harbored mere impressions, claiming that those impressions amounted to little more than something he wanted to dismiss. Despite some analytical sloppiness on his part, he nonetheless took an anti-antiporn position, which was approximately mine as well, except that by about 2004 these debates had mostly cooled, and if you'd asked me, I would have told you I didn't really care anymore. These circumstances together would seem to provide wholly insufficient fodder to make me as angry as I nevertheless felt" (93).

The glory of Stein's Theory is that it unmasks both the utility and the futility of theory. Thus, the final chapter attempts to deal with feeling stuck. Here the author describes sifting through Lacan, plus a bit of Deleuze and Guattari, as the Twin Towers fall in New York. I was knee-deep in Zizek at that particular moment in history, but still, the appeal of any psychoanalytical approach at the height of a national trauma seems obvious.

On the one hand, Theory is not really in a position to offer us any news—if you lived through graduate school in the '90s, Stein's experience will surely track with yours. The value of his project is in making clear some of the results of having lived through this. Personally, I was super relieved and then also somewhat horrified that so much of my experience tracks with Stein's.

Theory is both the problem and the solution. Then we can synthesize problem and solution through some Hegelian dialectics—and then we can play a drinking game about it? Because for some of us, "fun" is a feeling that remains forever predicated on intellection. Or to put it another way so that we can slide back into the silly delights afforded by this whole scene and conclude on a tidy, less abysmal feeling: "It may be true that you can read Lacan without Hegel. But if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you read" (22).

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