the second of my yearly essays on contemporary theory
‘Theory on theory’ is not in itself a project or program. Rather, work in this register represents something less explicitly thematised, yet more pervasive—call it an attitude, or a preoccupation. The seemingly vague psychologism of such terms may be the very source of their value: as John Guillory has observed, the notion of so-called ‘theory’ (understood as a singular noun) belongs less to the determinate reality of theoretical schools and approaches than to ‘the pedagogical imaginary’. When we commonly talk about, say, the ‘theory wars’, or about being for or against (or nowadays ‘after’) something called ‘theory’, we are playing a distinctive kind of language-game—one in which the word ‘theory’ points at an aspect of academia’s psychic life; its tacit self-understanding. As an umbrella term, ‘theory’ resembles what the intellectual historian Peter Gordon calls a ‘normative image’—an implicit mental picture, which constitutes ‘a precondition for concept-formation, although it is not in itself conceptual in form’. Later on, I will look more closely at these non-conceptual and ‘imaginary’ qualities that inhere in our ideas about theory. For now, I will simply note the curious sense in which ‘theory on theory’ connotes an orientation toward an orientation; an imagining of an image.