We all have the books we've never read that lurk around our house. They sit on their shelves, ignored but for an occasional dusting, cursing us. But when so many readers use devices of one kind or another to mediate their reading, the books we've never read hide from us in unopened folders.
So I decided to take a look through the vault, and found a set of PDFs I'd downloaded nearly four years previous. I had a lot more free time back then, and was still quite dedicated to that big project of cultural studies, the "postmodern" dissection of human knowledge. And I wonder why, four years on, do so many of them remain unopened?
My first introduction to this project, so often known with a wonderful smugness simply as "theory," began a little less than a decade ago. I arrived at my little liberal arts campus, a gawky 17 year old with a boxful of my high school idols. Ferlinghetti. Kierkegaard. Camus. And god did they look fantastic on the bookshelf of my dorm room, next to the posters of R. Crumb comics, the Interpol LP sleeves, and the giant beneficent head of Jack Kerouac with that quote about the mad ones and the burn burn burning.
But these were adolescent heroes. At smoke-hazed house parties, in my English classes, I was suddenly surrounded by a whole new raft of predominantly French surnames. I knew that these writers, or at least a passing awareness of them, seemed to go hand-in-hand with any number of other things that I felt were worth my time: various psychedelia, whole bottles of red wine, noise rock, sex with arty girls.
And as a freshman, my attempts at theory-- much like my attempts with the psychedelia and the red wine and the noise rock and the arty girls-- were stabbing and met with mixed success.
But looking back, I don't think my embrace of theory was in any way insincere. The avenues of thought offered by European celebrity intellectuals suggested that whatever progress I thought I'd made was illusory, that I needed to revise my worldview. That struck me as a challenge, and off I went with a thick stack of reading material-- glossy new Verso editions, classic texts re-bound in plain, primary-colored card, LOC catalog numbers stamped on the spine in white ink. The opacity of French academic prose didn't faze me-- if anything, it emboldened me. This was not writing for weak minds, and I fully believed that it was only in the France at the height of the evènements de mai '68 that academics had the courage to fire such volleys at the system.
And, for some time, I swore by the power of theory to change lives. Each text I read seemed to swing a hammer at some bias, some invidious way in which the logic of late-capitalist society had penetrated my psyche. Reading became a giant Whac-a-Mole game, and I smashed away at orientalism, at phallocentrism, at the spatial fetish, at scientism.
But at some point, I began to read less and less theory. Slowly, I started checking out fewer and fewer library books by Gilles Deleuze and Herbert Marcuse, and instead opted for William James and Primo Levi. It happened so imperceptibly slowly that, looking back, I have to wonder why it happened.
The story of the postmodernist apostate returning to the humanist fold has, in the past decade or so, become something of an intellectual cliche. Any number of center-left magazines abound with the narratives of onetime theory fanatics recanting their heresies. These stories have a few common themes: a citation of some of the sillier claims made by big-name theorists (Jacques Lacan being a particularly egregious offender), a misty-eyed recollection of a foolish and idealistic youth, and a return to soberer thought-- typically the world of cognitive science and its unfalsifiable handmaiden, evolutionary psychology.
But that seems like bullshit too. Because a lot of theory does have value. As Terry Eagleton pointed out, we-- society as a whole, and especially those of us who like to think about things and write about what we think about things-- cannot return to a pre-theory age of innocence. The conversation has changed.
I still read theory from time to time. And not only because a lot of it is dense and interesting in the same way good poetry is-- Jean Améry, Theodor Adorno, and Roland Barthes were perhaps better stylists than philosophers-- but because a good metaphor can provoke us out of an intellectual slumber. In earlier eras, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein refused to systematize their philosophies, and no one doubts their importance and influence.
But the problem lies in the fact that it is just a set of provocative metaphors. The more I read, the emptier I felt. When you boil the world down to nothing but contradiction and a truth that might not even be intersubjective, you're left with a sickly feeling of inability.
Which of course allows for neoliberal capitalism, in all its ruthless, mechanical efficiency, to completely logroll any attempt at liberation. After I graduated from college, I spent the wet Seattle winter of 2008-09 in a rat's-nest apartment, with unemployment spiraling upwards, with working class black and Latino homeowners waking up to find the properties they'd invested their life savings in valueless. Somehow, all of the metaphor systems that suggested the predominance of the virtual, the evil of late capitalism lying essentially in its dullness, and the suggestion that the welfare state is in many ways as evil as the 19th Century liberal-capitalist state due to its totalizing quality-- ideas I can pin to Baudrillard, Debord, and Marcuse, respectively-- turned to dust when I was faced with a dwindling bank account, an empty e-mail inbox, and the marginal, insecure position I held in the much-vaunted "creative economy" when I finally found employment. All that was solid had, as Marx had put it, melted into air.
Yet whole swaths of the left still seemed entrapped in the mode of Baudrillard and Debord and Marcuse and their disciples, most of them operating under the baleful influences of orthodox Freudianism or the dark seductions of late-period Nietzsche.
A perfunctory look at any number of anarchist and left-wing blogs or the cultural studies shelf at an academically inclined bookshop or any of the manifestos issued by the erstwhile leaders of the Occupy movement-- oh how my hopes were dashed there-- will reveal a certain writing style. This cant is characterized by delirious cold opens, a sense of deathly ennui, and a poetic airiness without admitting its essentially literary character. It's been imitated enough to be commonly parodied, it doesn't sound nearly as good in English as in French, and it's something I self-consciously try to steer away from when I edit my own writing. And I hope to the god I've never believed in that anyone who reads what I write doesn't class me with those assholes.
Then what comes post-postmodernism? Being the sort of person who loses sleep over things like the correspondence theory of truth, I sort of flail about. I pick up book after book, whether it's science or philosophy or sociology or whatever. I read them with the same enthusiasm and for the same reasons my countrymen devour books by simpering self-help gurus.
So all I can say, without answers or solutions, is that I will continue to sit under my pile of books, no matter how futile it might be. Read and read and read, and do your best to ignore the abyss that keeps threatening to swallow you.