Is Critical Theory Dead? Does it Have an Afterlife?

Jeffrey R. Di Leo on a new essay collection that explores the legacy of critical theory since the deaths of some of its leading figures

How did you come to put together Dead Theory?

Jeffrey R. Di Leo (ed.), Dead Theory: Derrida, Death, and the Afterlife of Theory (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Jeffrey R. Di Leo (ed.), Dead Theory: Derrida, Death, and the Afterlife of Theory (Bloomsbury, 2016)

I was writing a review of Vincent Leitch’s Living with Theory (2008) several years ago and could not help thinking that the opposite might also be the case, namely, that we are “dying with theory.”  At the time, it was nothing more than a passing thought, but one that stuck in my head.  A few years later, when I was reading about “critical climate change” and the proposal that the time scale and size of climate change calls for an entirely new critical language the thought came back.

It was a volume edited by Tom Cohen on the topic of critical climate change published by Open Humanities Press (Telemorphosis: Theory in the Area of Climate Change, Vol. 1, 2012).  I wrote an essay for symplokē on the subject entitled “Can Theory Save the Planet” (2013).  The subject of whether the work of philosophers like Derrida, who were now deceased, could have any bearing on current discussions in critical climate change intrigued me.  As I started to discuss this issue with some of my colleagues as well as the topic of “dying with theory,” the idea of a collection of essays on dead theory began to take shape.

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Your collection addresses the deaths of some of critical theory’s leading exponents: figures such as Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Emmanuel Levinas, Gilles Deleuze, and Michel Foucault. Does the death of the theorist bring about the death of theory?

Absolutely not.  Just as the deaths of Socrates, Kant, and Nietzsche did not bring about the death of philosophy, the death of theorists does not bring about the death of theory.  Sure, the work of some twentieth-century theorists who have died is beginning to fade. But theory itself has not died—at least not yet.

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Roland Barthes

As with philosophers and philosophy, the work of theorists and theory that stands the test of time (and death) will be the work that speaks to future generations.  I cannot imagine, for example, that the work of Foucault, Barthes, and Derrida will ever be uninteresting to future generations of thinkers.  But only time will tell, no?  And there will surely be periods of increased and decreased attention to their work just as there have been with philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, and Kant and Hegel.

I don’t mean “interesting” or “uninteresting” just in the sense of trying to understand what were the concerns of Barthes and Derrida at the time of the composition of their works.  These are important issues but more ones of “history.”  But “interesting” in the sense of how the results of their concerns (their writing and thoughts) impact and inform current ones—what I call their “contemporaneity.”

While the essays in the Dead Theory collection provides several different ways of answering your question, the conclusion of each of the contributors is still the same: theory does not die with the death of its progenitors. However, how it lives can and does take many different forms.

In what ways can the notion of concept of “death” become a critical tool for investigation and critique?

f5a9e-warholsigmundfreudWhile there will always be those interested in classic issues concerning death like the immortality of the soul (e.g. Plato), being towards death (e.g. Heidegger), and the death drive (e.g. Freud), the issue of the politics of death (thanatopolitics) and its other, the politics of life (biopolitics) are in many ways a contemporary nexus for a lot of the best contemporary critical theory concerning death.

My argument though would be that bio-theory has the critical edge today in terms of the amount of work devoted to it (biopolitics, biopower, biotechnology, biosecurity, etc.) but that thanato-theory (and thanatopolitics) is no less significant—and deserves more work and attention.

“Critical theory sharpens, widens, and deepens debates in politics and philosophy.”

In what ways do you think critical theory remains relevant to contemporary political and philosophical debate?

Critical theory sharpens, widens, and deepens debates in politics and philosophy.  Take for example the bio- and thanato-theories noted above.  Biopolitics and thanatopolics take the elements of contemporary political debates, for example, on women’s bodies, cloning, immigration, and reproduction, and explore the ways in which language, culture, and politics intersect with them. As Foucault stated, it is a politics that moves from “the right to take life or let live” to “power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death.”

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Michel Foucault

The case is similar with philosophy wherein critical approaches provide additional layers of depth and nuance to debates that often grow stale in the cloistered climate of the parsing of analytic distinctions and the pursuit of scholastic arguments.  The question for both politics and philosophy is not whether they are relevant to contemporary political and philosophical debate (they clearly are) but whether politics and philosophy have the stomach to allow them to inform their debates (the jury is out here).

Could you say a little bit about the contributors to the collection?

The contributors to this collection are a group of distinguished thinkers from a variety of disciplines within the humanities that do not worry about what is and is not philosophy (or politics) when pursuing issues like the intersection of death with theory.  Each also brings differing perspectives on critical theory to bear on the topic to create a sort of symphony of voices.  For example, W. Lawrence Hogue is a scholar of postmodernism African-American literature, Paul Allen Miller is a classicist, Jean-Michel Rabaté specializes in psychoanalysis, Nicole Simek in French Carribean literature, and Henry Sussman is a professor of German.

What’s next for you?

In March, my most recent book on higher education was published.  It is called Higher Education under Late Capitalism and focuses on questions concerning personal identity and individual conduct within neoliberal academe.  It assumes that neoliberal academe is normal academe in the new millennium though is well aware of its contested nature and destructive capacities.  It asks what type of academic identity is formed by those who work in the neoliberal academy?  What kind of conduct is expected of them?  And at what peril does neoliberal academe put its participants?  It is one of three books that I have written on higher education informed by the practice of critical theory.

I also have two more works for Bloomsbury in production.  The first is an edited collection called American Literature as World Literature, which is both an effort to broaden and deepen our understanding of what it means to consider American literature as a species of world literature as well as an attempt to complicate and question it.  It will be out in December.

The other is the Bloomsbury Handbook of Literary and Cultural Theory, a massive volume that will be more forward-looking than backward looking, meaning that its primary emphasis is emergent twenty-first century theory than the dominant theories of the twentieth century.  It includes about thirty newly commissioned essays and three hundred entries on terms and figures.  The contributors come from across the globe and provide an energizing portrait of theory’s possibilities for life well into the twenty-first century.  It will be out in late 2018.

About the Editor

Jeffrey R. Di Leo is Professor of English and Philosophy and Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Houston-Victoria, USA. Formerly President of the Society for Comparative Literature and the Arts, he is Editor of the American Book Review and Founding Editor of the journal Symploke. His previous publications include Criticism After Critique: Aesthetics and the Political (2014) and Turning the Page: Book Culture in the Digital Age (2014).

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  1. I’m looking forward to “American Literature As World Literature” since I believe post 1945 US literature has kicked the rest of the Western World’s output into the long grass. That may be changing a bit now, particularly with Houllebecq & Binet in France, but will be interested in seeing what this book argues. Thanks for posting.

    • Rhys Tranter

      Thanks for your comment, Marc. I’m a big fan of modern and contemporary US Lit, too, and am also very curious to see where the book will go! 🙂

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