When I was a graduate student union organizer, and was searching for that Holy Grail in which to combine “theory” with “practice,” a mentor gave me some useful advice. Theory, he said, wasn’t best used to arrive at the correct practical action, but as a reflection and assessment afterwards. This advice wasn’t quite as simple as the recommendation to “act first, think later,” but it did help confirm in me a retrospective and historical bent, or what I now think of as an inclination towards the theory of what went wrong. Although theory is often seen as either predictive of the future (especially in our current era of speculative financial capitalism, where the multinational corporations are seeking to make those futures a wholly owned subsidiary) or explanatory of a present crisis (as in those experts brought onto the media whenever disaster strikes to tell us what we already know it means), theory of what went wrong takes time to look through the detritus of a struggle, and takes the measure of loss and defeat in as concrete but also as generalizable a set of terms as possible. As we respond to the present conjuncture, in which “theory” itself, critical race theory, is under concerted rightwing attack in the U.S., all three tenses of critical reflection—retrospective, predictive, and crisis-response—must be drawn upon to make full sense of what is going on.

Why theory of what went wrong? Don’t things ever go right? Certainly they do for some, but what happens when they do is perhaps different, perhaps less open to the querulous activity we call theorizing. In Classical Greek, a theoros was a spectator with a sacred, contemplative role. In modern critical theory, many look to Walter Benjamin’s essay on history for such a retrospective image of theory as backward glance. While the retrospective gaze isn’t necessarily from the vantage point of defeat, it is nevertheless the case that failure must be learnt from in a way that successes seldom are. Not failure en route to success, not failure as engrossed in the performance principle of better and better, but failure as a way of life, as a practice of refusal. Consider, for example, the great leaps forward in theory contributed by imprisoned intellectuals, during their incarceration. Intellectuals like Antonio Gramsci, Angela Davis, and Mumia Abu-Jamal. Writing from a jail cell is also theory of what went wrong, theory written under duress, thinking accomplished with few to none of the traditional resources of the scholar, such as books, paper, pen, and ink. Davis’s “The Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves” in The Black Scholar for a germinal example of this.

I start this commentary on “theory” now with the theory of what went wrong, rather than with an encyclopedic or dictionary definition of what the word theory means. There are volumes of introductions to theory that do this, and each of them exceed my modest effort, which instead seeks to offer a brief portal into the cultural politics of our present conjuncture, in which theory is attacked from all sides. Academic introductions to theory are valuable, although I would caution their readers not to wait until you feel you have “mastered” their corpus to feel entitled to act in concert with others for social justice. And I would also caution the apprentice theorist—in whose number I include myself—from trying to use it to shorthand grand synthetic gestures. Instead of synthesis, I will offer a short narrative in the spirit of critical race theory: the story of my own initiation into graduate-level critical race theory.

Even though I was already in a selective private liberal arts college, I was nonetheless privileged again to be admitted to a two-week summer enrichment school for Black, Latinx, and Native American students who aspired to become college teachers (as I have since become). Many generative things happened that summer, but what stands out in this telling is our reading and debating Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” (1947), an essay that was part of a post-World War II reckoning of what went wrong with, well, Western civilization. We really cracked our collective skulls against the density and difficulty of that particular example of theory of what went wrong (written by Marxists in U.S. exile after the rise of Nazism in Germany). I would now challenge the Eurocentric historical consciousness of that text, which takes the Holocaust as paradigmatic of the complicity of rationality with mass slaughter, and neglects the traumas of slavery, genocide, and colonization that we as BIPOC North American students brought into the classroom. But I would still defend reading “The Culture Industry.” In no small part, I would defend it because the thinking tools that were first honed in its collective, careful study are part of my habitus. In those days, black, brown, and indigenous study was implicitly and explicitly the practice that both centered and decentered the canon of Critical Theory. We were in the belly of the beast, eating our way out.

My young encounter with Adorno and Horkheimer is an anecdotal, not exemplary case. There is no single path into theory, and even the common assumption that theory must be written in a way that is difficult to understand (a position that Adorno held) is one that I wrestle with. I sit with difficulty, I sometimes think, because it’s just what I do. The difficulty of theoretical texts make them an easy target in the culture industries of today: on talk radio, cable television, internet chat rooms, and anywhere else where the “truth” of what is really going on is pushed out relentlessly. When a theoretical school—such as the Critical Race Theory movement in US jurisprudence—gets maligned in the press, or directly suppressed by the state or by school boards, it is not easy to fight back without reducing it to talking points and instrumentalizing it. And with such oppressive conditions out there in the “public sphere,” it is easy to wish for familiarity and ease when we come back to what we imagine to be home ground. But as Kyla Wazana Tompkins wisely notes in a widely circulated essay on teaching theory, we are not here to learn what we already know.

I was educated in the heyday of theory with a capital T. Or perhaps it was the first decade of organized conservative backlash against it. Timelines differ, but the current 2020s assault bears so much resemblance to the 1990s playbook that I feel quite confident a competent intellectual historian will soon connect the dots (in terms of rightwing think tanks, donors, and intellectuals). But any meditation on theory of what went wrong must include at least a brief theory of what went wrong with theory. Not the literally demonized version of theory as weaponized in the rightwing media, but the theory of theoretically-informed practice (or praxis in Marxist terms). Why did theory itself not do the thing we hoped it would do? Why did it not end the grand “metanarratives” of the West? Why did it not replace the essential subject with the hybrid, rhizomatic one? Why did it not build broad intersectional coalitions to confront white capitalist heterosexual patriarchy? Why was it institutionalized in the very decades that neoliberalism was restructuring higher education from public good to private debt? Why did we get a black president and mass incarceration, postcolonial theory and endless war, marriage equality and horrendous violence against transwomen of color, lean-in feminism and ever-widening abortion bans?

The answer to these interlocked but distinct questions probably all fall under one broad heading: theory was never going to be able to do those things anyway, so we should not be disappointed that it failed. But that doesn’t mean that theory is itself quietest or even reactionary. Some on the left do take this position, and I agree that there are theoretical digressions that seem retrograde and pointless. But, really, who am I to judge? Theory of what went wrong comes with it a built-in booster shot of humility, uncertainty as to whether one’s individual judgement (always a tricky value in the best of circumstances, which these aren’t) should be substituted for a process of learning and acting in common. And with that humility comes an approach to teaching theory as a two-way street, or better yet a group improvisation. Yes, theory is a dance; get into it! The struggle today is as urgent as it always was, but because this is so, paradoxically we need every form of reflection and dissemination, including but not limited to theory in its most rarified and “abstruse” expressions, as we dive into the wreck.

What went wrong with theory? Nothing that the end of the imperial university as we know it wouldn’t fix. But seeding decolonial futures for critical theory will be the work of generations.

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