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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

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JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Sunday, September 28, 2008

THEORY’s Going Down

Posted by Bill Benzon on 09/28/08 at 05:31 PM

Gene Expression has a post presenting empirical evidence on the waning of THEORY. Agnostic searched JSTOR archives for the occurance of certain key words up to 2002: 1) social construction, 2) psychoanalysis or psychoanalytic, 3) postmodern or postmodernism, 4) postcolonialism, 5) orientalist or orientalism, 6) narratolog*, 7) marxist or marxism, 8) hegemony, 9) feminist or feminism, 10) deconstruction*. Each search is graphed, and there are commonts on the exercise as a whole. Eight of the ten graphs shows a rise from left to right, a peak, and then a decline on the right-hand side of the graph. That implies that THEORY’s going down.

The peak was in the mid-90s:

Second, aside from Marxism, which peaked in 1988, and social constructionism, which declined starting in 2002 *, the others began to fall from roughly 1993 to 1998. It is astonishing that such a narrow time frame saw the fall of fashions that varied so much in when they were founded. Marxism, psychoanalysis, and feminism are very old compared to deconstruction or postmodernism, yet it was as though during the 1990s an academia-wide clean-up swept away all the bullshit, no matter how long it had been festering there.

The curves seems to reflect mechanisms internal to the academy rather than a response to external events:

Third, notice how simple most of the curves look—few show lots of noise, or the presence of smaller-scale cycles. That’s despite the vicissitudes of politics, economics, and other social changes—hardly any of it made an impact on the world of ideas. I guess they don’t call it the Ivory Tower for nothing. About the only case you could make is for McCarthyism halting the growth of Marxist ideas during most of the 1950s. The fall of the Berlin Wall does not explain why Marxism declined then—its growth rate was already grinding to a halt for the previous decade, compared to its explosion during the 1960s and ‘70s.

Young people today:

Fifth and last, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I find young people today very refreshing. Let’s look at 18 year-olds—the impressionable college freshmen, who could be infected by their dopey professors. If they begin freshman year just 1 year after the theory’s peak, the idea is still very popular, so they’ll get infected. If we allow, say 5 years of cooling off and decay, professors won’t talk about it so much, or will be use a less strident tone of voice, so that only the students who were destined to latch on to some stupid theory will get infected. Depending on the trend, this makes the safe cohort born in 1975 at the oldest (for Marxism), or 1989 at the youngest (for social constructionism). And obviously even among safe cohorts, some are safer than others—people my age (27) may not go in for Marxism much, but have heard of it or taken it seriously at some point (even if to argue against it intellectually). But 18 year-olds today weren’t even born when Marxism had already started to die.


Nice to hear the objective tone of the author’s commentary; that certainly solidifies my faith in their “empiricial evidence”!

By on 09/28/08 at 07:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hey Bill,

You know what would be a great graph to show alongside those in that post? One charting enrollment in English departments! I wonder what’s behind the correlation?

By CR on 09/28/08 at 08:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I read some comments by the author, agnostic. He is an expert on the silliness of theory because he majored in comparative literature for a year and half before moving on to other pastures.

That said, I don’t think the terms he graphed are used terribly much on this blog. Are there new terms? Or have people internalized the concepts the terms represent and feel no need to name them. Or is “theory” really dying? And somehow we directly ascertain “truth” uncritically? Or is way too much being read into the modest declines in term usage he records? Tons of methodological questions with his graphs, of course, but assuming they are capturing a genuine decline in the use of some terms, it’d be interesting to know why.

One commenter said more attention was being paid to close reading than overarching theory. If so, then I suppose close reading—despite its associations with New Criticism—could be seen as a techne, a practice, and not a theory. Is such “practice” really taking the place of “theory”? But that practice has long been used in support of interpretation, which means—theory. Round it goes. I suspect what agnostic really has a beef with is with theories he dislikes, and doesn’t believe the ones he does like _are_ theories.

By on 09/28/08 at 08:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Articles that contains the phrase “angry feminist hags” shouldn’t be linked to.  That phrase used in a context of not relying on one’s long-ago 18-24 year old memory of how things were, followed by “If you write off dating a 21 year-old grad student on the assumption that they’re mostly angry feminist hags [,,,]”—well, even more so.  And there’s nothing in the guy’s methodology that warrants paying attention to him anyways.

BIll, the Valve really doesn’t need this stuff.  You link to things like this, then profess surprise when the comment threads turn nasty.  It’s a bad thing to do.

By on 09/28/08 at 08:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Looks pretty silly to me, not a little mean-spirited, and just about beneath notice.

Agnostic might have done much better to search by name to chart who is being cited and read across time, although here (s)he’d have to bear in mind changes in prominence within the group of critics understood as theoreticians. So we might note, for example, that Freud might dip in popularity as Lacan rises who in turn dips to be replaced by Zizek, perhaps always describing an upward graph relative to the number of pieces being published that year, that Said dips as Bhabha and Spivak rise who dips as Dipesh Chakrabarty rises, or Marx gives way to Jameson who gives way, I don’t know, to Hardt and Negri and then to Badiou or Agamben, for example, or Showalter gives way to Cixous gives way to Butler, and so on. Using the same method, Agnostic might have tracked the way that “queer” and “gender” have (likely) taken up the curve where feminis* slipped, and how phenomenolog* might have picked up where deconstructi* or poststructuralis* have slipped, and that posthuman* has come into prominence. It’s as if Agnostic’s data collection (and the analysis of the data) proceeds as if 1988 were just repeating, with nothing changing but the date itself.

By Karl Steel on 09/28/08 at 08:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, Gene Expression has the feeling of a newsletter site, as in “I find your views intriguing and would like to subscribe to...”

By Jonathan Goodwin on 09/28/08 at 09:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As a broad-brush analysis, this might be OK, but things look a little different if you run a search for articles only, JSTOR only, limited to language & literature journals. 

Here are the results for the past few years of “social construction”:

1986: 17
1987: 36
1988: 38
1989: 55
1990: 66
1991: 51
1992: 69
1993: 62
1994: 65
1995: 79
1996: 81
1997: 71
1998: 62
1999: 68
2000: 67
2001: 57
2002: 77

“Social construction” clearly experiences a sudden jump in popularity in 1990 and peaks in 1996, but I’m not sure that you can say anything meaningful about the numbers after that.  With any luck, someone who knows something about statistics will jump in here, but those look like random variations to me. The numbers certainly aren’t declining; moreover, there’s no way to account for people who take social construction as a given, and therefore never need to mention it explicitly.  (Unfortunately, you can’t really run a useful wildcard search on social construction*.)

Here’s narratolog*:

1986: 25
1987: 33
1988: 28
1989: 31
1990: 47
1991: 35
1992: 45
1993: 46
1994: 44
1995: 41
1996: 34
1997: 40
1998: 32
1999: 42
2000: 48
2001: 32
2002: 34

The numbers seem to swing rather wildly, so I would be hesitant to make any claims about trends.  (Why hate on narratology, anyway?)

And feminism/feminist:

1986: 289
1987: 308
1988: 358
1989: 421
1990: 440
1991: 484
1992: 520
1993: 527
1994: 553
1995: 514
1996: 543
1997: 483
1998: 498
1999: 484
2000: 527
2001: 472
2002: 477

Then, following Karl, I wondered what would happen if you did a search for gender* (sorry, started losing patience here):

1992: 614
1993: 636
1994: 741
1995: 686
1996: 686
1997: 712
1998: 705
1999: 703
2000: 715
2001: 659
2002: 704

Well, now we probably know where the theory is at, although a thorough search would require us to disentangle discussions of masculine, feminine, and neuter nouns from, say, discussions of Judith Butler.

In other words, not so sure that this works particularly well when talking about theory in lang & lit departments specifically, however well it might when talking about large-scale trends in the academy.

By Miriam on 09/28/08 at 11:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This kind of post makes me feel so nostalgic.

By Adam Kotsko on 09/29/08 at 11:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Your best days are behind you, Adam. You missed your chance to live fast and die young, too.

By John Emerson on 09/29/08 at 12:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I still have a couple years to go before 30—that’s dying young still, right?  But I’d have to live extremely fast at this point.

By Adam Kotsko on 09/29/08 at 12:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I know you can do it.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 09/29/08 at 03:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s my impression that, increasingly, articles published today don’t actually cite the individual theorists whose work they use.  They simply use the theory, counting on the audience to already know which ideas come from who.  I’d think the less frequent use of generic keywords would would follow.

By on 09/29/08 at 07:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There doesn’t seem to be any recognition that even if the terms or categories of “teh theory” have a certain (in)frequency in published work, that that work is not nonetheless may be influenced by, or proceed under the assumptions of, a particular school of thought.

I find the findings rather shallow.

By on 09/30/08 at 08:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The purpose of this post is to make fun of the Gene Expression post, right?

By on 10/01/08 at 12:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

There is now a follow-up post on the methodology. Take it for what you will. Regardless of the tone of the author and whatever prejudices he may put on display, I do think he has a point. It’s not so much a question of influence (oh, the anxiety!) as it is a matter of whether those ideas are still actively in play as the centre of attention or source of textual examination.

Current and relatively recent theorists - the whole gamut of them, really: Spivak, Butler, de Man, Nancy, Agamben, and so on - take so much pride in burying themselves in the borrowed vocabulary of their predecessors (instead of having to explain everything all over again) that if the field were still thriving, we should be seeing a stable rate of incidence among their theoretical buzzwords. It’s the house style. As a point of comparison, articles in Science and Nature do take pains to remain readable outside their originating disciplines, which necessarily involves defining the terms (if only in a sentence or two).

And if we are seeing stability in language/literature journals while the numbers are declining in academia as a whole, we should ask why these words were popping up in other disciplines in the first place and why they’re receding now. It’s nothing new for ideas to retreat into the lit-crit shell while everyone else leaves them behind.

My extended thoughts here.

By Nick on 10/01/08 at 05:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s a follow-up study, on the rise of biologically-influenced ideas in the social sciences:


By Bill Benzon on 10/01/08 at 06:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Heh! This hardly looks like a well-designed study.

However, I am completely in agreement that we have seen the decline in THEORY, if THEORY (or “Capital T Theory") is the type of criticism that repeatedly and explicitly labels itself as theoretical. My most recent experience with English departments and journal submissions is that you can’t designate yourself a THEORIST because theory has become completely spread across entire departments and fields as a baseline requirement ---- you can’t get hired as a THEORIST who specializes in nothing but THEORY, but you sure as hell can’t get a job without a basic familiarity in the various theories. All my friends going out on the market with me this year have at least one major strand of theory woven into their dissertations, and we cover all the historical periods.

Theory is no longer the sign of the academic rock star, but rather of basic competence.

By Sisyphus on 10/01/08 at 09:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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