Saturday, 3 October 2009

On the Defensive

- cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
element bearable to no mortal,
to fish and to seal particularly - elizabeth bishop - via seamus heaney -

So it turns out that working three jobs, starting term, and handing in your second chapter to be torn apart do not sit well with blogging. Ah well, all will be settled shortly, and I'm just happy that after a month of fighting with technology I finally have Internet in the house and a working computer on my desk (o.k, it's still on the kitchen table until I can get my wireless card sorted, but it's near the kettle and I can see when my washing's done. It may actually have to stay here).

I'm also really excited to start teaching again. 350 new students start their English undergrads on Monday and I've got four minutes to make them excited about the Critical Theory course by saying "what does theory mean to me" in the opening lecture. Thought I'd post what I was going to talk about on here in lieu of any more cogent thoughts. It's a bit didactic and messy, but it's meant to be somewhat inflammatory and thought provoking for people who've never studied anything like this before. I know I could have done with a little more fervour and a little less practicality on my first day at school.

- What Does Theory Mean to You? -

For the moment, let’s just assume the most basic definition of theory for your needs today: theory is a selection of ways of thinking about art and culture, just ways of thinking, and that’ll do. Plenty of people have, and are going to be explaining to you what theory actually consists of. And if you’re in my class I promise I’ll tell you. But that question of, not what is theory, but what does theory 'mean,' that was really interesting, so I thought I’d finish by saying what theory’s meaning is, why theory’s meaningful to me.

Theory’s what I turn to for answers when I wonder “why did that piece of art make me feel so good, so alive, make me smile, or ache, or stamp my feet, make me feel at all?” and “why does that part of our culture make me wince and cringe, make me feel guilty, make me numb, or wonder just what we’ve come to?” “Why does this thing work and yet that thing not?” Part of engaging with university level English is throwing in our chips with a group of people who have historically said: “these things matter.”

Theory’s been my way into appreciating philosophy, and my way out of just accepting things because someone’s said: “that’s just the way they are.”

That said, there’s a lot of bad theory, and bad theory? Bad theory’s worse than waking up in a dress that isn’t yours: it’s ill-fitting, it’s uncomfortable, and it’s stale with the memories of things best forgotten. Bad theory’s to be challenged at every turn and, luckily, good theory teaches you how to do just that.

Theory’s been my way of bringing what I care about, be it music, anthropology, history, popular culture, art, cinema, poetry, books, the internet, physics, comics, linguistics, politics, classics, ethics, or even kinesthetics all to bear on questions like: “what does Jane Eyre mean and why?”

If books are the universe, then theory is the mathematics which lets us perceive how it functions. But, as Niels Bohr once said that “anyone who isn’t shocked by Quantum Mechanics, hasn’t understood it yet,” I would say the same of theory - if you aren’t shocked by its implications then it’s probably time to read more.

Because this is the weird course, the course that can make your head hurt and your conscience pang. This is the course that makes you talk in class when you’re normally silent, and the course that shuts you up when you normally talk non-stop. This is the course, in fact, which in the most hackneyed and bull-shitty way I can muster, actually asks: “what does theory mean to you?”

Because, beyond its history, theory’s not a thing to be tied down and explained, it should be something in motion, like any good way of thinking, always emergent and changing, and most anything I could tell you about theory now, of any real worth, might be a lie within a year. This means that theory doesn’t challenge you to keep up, but instead to learn and overtake it, and for those of us used to being in awe of authors, or even teachers, who are seemingly always ahead, that can be a somewhat liberating experience.

This is honestly the most fun course I’ve ever been a part of, and it can be exciting with very little effort, but I wanted to say all of these things today because I have a terrible fear that some of you might manage to get through an entire degree without asking why whatever you choose to call art and thought are important, why they are vital. If I can offer you anything, here, or over this year, can it be this: ask the question and mean it: “why is this important?” At the very least you’ll never write anything boring, and that’s got to mean something.




Anonymous said...


Nick said...

^^ What he or she said ;-)

cryurchin said...

Cheers guys, much appreciated. All over in 12 hours time...

Bianca said...

weeeeeee! awesome stuff.

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