What is the State of the Theory podcast?
Hannah Fitzpatrick: Like most podcasts, State of the Theory is a manifestation of our narcissism. It began as an optimistic hope (albeit with few expectations) that our casual conversations might be of interest to, and spark debate among, our friends and colleagues. We used to commute together a few times a week, and the car became a sort of impromptu seminar venue, but without the audience. After the last research auditing exercise undertaken by the UK government in 2014, Impact and Public Engagement became quantifiable entities that might be used for or against us later in our careers, so the podcast is a sort of compromise, a way for us to demonstrate that our thoughts have value beyond the walls of the Vauxhall Astra, while still doing it on our own terms. A way of selling out without entirely selling out, if you will. Also, we missed the long drive, where all we could do was chat, and we could have these long, multi-stage conversations over the course of a week or two, so the podcast was a way for us to recreate that time.
Anindya Raychaudhuri: I think Hannah’s point about narcissism is right on the mark. We suffer from a belief (delusion) that we have something to say about the world, that the commonsensical needs to be challenged, and that the way in which we wield theory can be used for this purpose in a way that is accessible and maybe even at times entertaining. Both of us use theory in different ways in our ‘day-jobs’, and thought that applying this theory to the world around us might help us understand the theory and the world a little bit better. Someone recently commented on the fact that State of the Theory provides few answers – that is very deliberate on our part. We are hesitant, we ask questions, we like to think we expose problematic ideas, but we have very few solutions.
What do you mean by the term “theory”?
Hannah: We use theory relatively loosely, partly because we come from strangely transdisciplinary backgrounds. I was originally trained in cultural theory designed for an American Area Studies degree, which differs slightly from social theory, which differs slightly from literary theory. It’s all about emphasis and some slight variations in how theory gets used, but ultimately they share the same underlying assumption that theory is self-referential, that philosophical thought has a lineage, and that in order to understand one school of thought, it is helpful to know where that school fits into a more complex intellectual web. But for us theory is a lens, rather than an object of study, so the goal is to make theory more accessible, rather than less. It’s a challenge, of course, because a lot of theory is designed to be impenetrable, thus acting as an elitist barrier, but our agenda is actually about demonstrating how you can tackle an issue using a theoretical debate, but without having to follow one school of thought dogmatically. So for us, I guess we define theory as a philosophical approach or tool that helps us to make sense of the complexity of the world.
Anindya: I was exposed to very little theory until my PhD, and perhaps as a consequence, always think of theory as a toolbox. I am hugely interested in theory, but only in so far as it helps me understand something else. It is a way of looking at the world, and challenging what seems to everyone else as obvious. It is encapsulated by a sentence that appears in the preface to Roland Barthes’s book Mythologies: ‘I resented seeing Nature and History confused at every turn, and I wanted to track down, in the decorative display of what-goes-without-saying, the ideological abuse which, in my view, is hidden there.’ So theory gives me this way of questioning the world around me, not in order to come up with definite answers, but to challenge the premise of the questions.
What motivated you to start the series?
Hannah: The dulcet tones of our own voices! No, I think we started to feel like the conversations we were having were helping us to make sense not only of the issues we work on (partition, nostalgia, empire, borders), but also to help us make sense of our academic world and our academic identities. And we were having conversations that we wished our friends and colleagues could be a part of, because I think our mode of approaching both the topics at hand and the theoretical concepts we use are a bit quirky, a bit of a mashup, if you will. So I think we wanted to create a space where we would feel like that mashup method was legitimate, or rigorous, or even just interesting. We expected to record maybe two or three episodes before our audience (or lack thereof) would tell us to politely retire back to the car.
Anindya: I think we both had a notion, as Hannah says, that theory does not have to be inaccessible, that it is possible to engage with some of the debates that the theorists that interest us: Foucault, Marx, Derrida etc. while engaging a non-specialist audience and, moreover, that it is becoming more and more important as a political tool to attempt this. State of the Theory has changed a bit over the time that we have been doing it, and we have moved away at times from looking at specific examples of theoretical texts, but we like to think that the ethos of the series – this theory-influenced way of looking at the world – from music videos to Christmas adverts to Brexit to sexual harassment – has remained the same.
What kind of topics do you cover?
Hannah: When we started, the world was rosy and bright, the future at our fingertips and our innocence intact. The original idea was a pop culture/contemporary politics podcast, where we’d alternate or we’d pick up on what was current. So the first episode was a little ditty on a Coldplay music video and cultural appropriation. Since then, things have gotten a bit overwhelming for those of us of a certain politics, so it’s become a bit heavy on the contemporary politics angle. I think we’re still trying to make it through a single episode without once mentioning Trump, with little success. But always we’re talking about the stuff we’re reading on the front pages, seeing on our social media feeds, watching on the ol’ streaming services. We aren’t so interested in debating the nuances of a particular reading of Jacques Lacan.
Anindya: Our process of choosing topics is, like everything else we do, fairly loose and informal. One of us will mention something as a possible topic – and it may interest the other, in which case we will do it immediately. In other cases, topics will take time to develop, so there have been ideas that we have thrown around that haven’t quite come together, so we haven’t yet done them. Often, we will come back to topics over multiple episodes, because we feel there is more to say.
For newcomers interested in finding out more about critical theory, can you recommend a place to start?
Hannah: Weirdly, a textbook with lots of short excerpts and explanations. I used to answer this question without reflection, and I’d always say the first volume of History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault, because it was the text that inspired my own Aha! I get it! Moment. But I think really for theory you need a community of sorts, a class or a reading group or a mentor, because studying theory isn’t about accumulating knowledge (although some people are good at accessing some invisible encyclopedia in their brains, dropping names into casual conversation, like a nerdy Kanye West) but rather about training your intellect to think differently about an actual problem or a common assumption. It’s a reorientation of perspective more than anything else, and it’s hard to do that on your own. There are some good forums online that provide some of this, but a lot of them focus on identity politics, which is only one small part of the kinds of theory we’re talking about.
Anindya: Barthes’s Mythologies, which I have mentioned before, is a good example of someone doing theory, as it were. It is pretty good as a methodological role-model for what theory-informed cultural studies (which I think is what we do on the podcast) might look like. I would second Hannah’s claim for History of Sexuality, and would also put in a word for Jacques Derrida’s Spectres of Marx as an example of what theory can achieve in terms of transforming one’s understanding of the issues.
What else are you working on at the moment?
Hannah: Tying up loose ends. A book proposal, a paper, and a grant application, all of which are in the late stages of development, but not far enough along to count for much on the job market! I am also in a play, with an amateur theatre group in Edinburgh, called Reckless, by the American playwright Craig Lucas.
Anindya: Finishing two monographs – one on the 1947 South Asian Partition, and one on diasporic nostalgia. I am also desperately trying to find ways of injecting more Marxism into my work. I think this is my response to the overwhelming-ness of the world right now.
You can listen to State of the Theory at soundcloud.com/stateofthetheorypodcast or through your usual Podcast sources.
About the Presenters
Hannah Fitzpatrick is an Associate Lecturer in the School of Geography & Sustainable Development at the University of St Andrews. She earned her BA in Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures (cum laude) from Barnard College, Columbia University in 2010. In 2011, she completed an MA in Social Anthropology of Development at SOAS. She earned her PhD from St Andrews in 2016. Prior to returning to St Andrews, she was a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Geography and Environment at the University of Aberdeen. She is currently preparing my PhD thesis for publication as a monograph, titled ‘The Parallel Tracks of Partition: Geography in the Partition of India and Pakistan’.
Anindya Raychaudhuri is a Lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews. He was previously British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow, first at UCL and subsequently at the School of English, University of St Andrews. His primary research interest is in the cultural representation and collective memory of war and conflict. He is also interested in postcolonial and diasporic identities and cultures. He edited The Spanish Civil War: Exhuming a Buried Past (University of Wales Press, 2013), and is the author of two forthcoming monographs: Narrating Partition: Agency, Memory, Representation (OUP) and Homemaking: Postcolonial Nostalgia and the Construction of a South Asian Diaspora (Rowman & Littlefield). In 2016, he was named one of the BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinkers.