Here, as part of our ‘Relationships with Theory’ series, Janet Batsleer describes what she’s learned from a lifetime with theory,
Theory, huh? It used to feel like a privilege. Now, as I live the life of a teacher and manager mostly, it can feel like a hobby/recreation. (Something for the weekend. I’m writing this on Sunday). Still I’m writing it because Social Theory (never credited for reasons of academic boundaries as Philosophy!) has long irritated and excited me, angered me and given me headaches. An early book to hit the wall was ‘For Marx’ by Althusser. (How could the human be as diminished as he seemed to suggest, a mere effect of systems?); later on ‘When our two lips speak’ by Luce Irigaray (wasn’t this account of difference some flowery genital essentialism?); and ‘Gender Trouble’ by Judith Butler (OK, so argue your way out of a paper bag and show that ‘woman’ is a category of the heterosexual matrix, but I am still drawn to women…)…
At times such obscure difficult writers seemed arrogantly lacking in the urgent attention I felt was needed to the sufferings and troubles created by a patriarchal capitalist racist system the world badly needs to rid of.
Now I recognise that the theorists who have irritated and even angered me are among those who have been most creative for my own thinking/practice. So yes I want Theory which unsettles and provokes, offends even (Maclure, Adorno, Butler) as well as Theory which moves and changes as lives do, as histories do (Brown, Stuart Hall perhaps,) but I also want Theory which gives me concepts (a level of abstraction) as tools which help me understand power and perhaps how to change the world. The Marxism/ psycho-analysis pairing was for many years offered as a fantasy of Total Theory/ Total Explanation. That’s a seductive and scary place still (Zizek: all those post-Hegelians); a trick that offers to set in perpetual motion all three of my desires from Theory. But better than seeking a synthesis, I enjoy the friction of the three ‘moments of theory’… it’s why I enjoy being around ESRI and this blog… and I prefer to draw on the resources of critical theory to support hunches and imaginations, suggest directions for practicing otherwise, being (a very small) part of movements away from injustice and suffering towards heteropias to be named only in their creation.