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?
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.Read More
Robert Doran examines how critical theory has always been a form of ethical practice
What led you to write The Ethics of Theory?
The impetus for this project was a feeling that the tectonic shift of Theory–from a hermetic-textualist to a culturally-focused and politically-driven discourse–had not really been examined. This shift (circa 1987) was simply accepted, celebrated, or lamented without any real thinking about how we got from here to there or from there to here. Thus, I wanted to reflect on how this transformation happened and what it means for us now.
What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about critical theory?
That it is definable in terms of some general consensus, that there is some general agreement about what it is and what role it should play, when in fact it embodies many competing and at times mutually exclusive paradigms and assumptions. Nevertheless, I think that what binds everyone (or most everyone) together under the Theory banner is the sense that Nietzsche’s challenge to philosophy (continued and amplified by Heidegger) represented a fundamental break in the intellectual history of the West. On the one side, Nietzsche contested the hegemony of scientific inquiry, which, in the late nineteenth century, had attained great cultural prestige, displacing philosophy’s traditional role as the arbiter of knowledge. On the other side, Nietzsche held that human beings make their own truth–or decide what counts as truth–and that all knowledge is therefore contingent on human projects. The concept of objective, value-neutral knowledge is thereby torn asunder, giving way to the idea that seemingly “objective” knowledge is permeated with social, ethical, and political considerations that can never be completely expunged. The role of Theory or Critical Theory is to keep pointing this out.Read More
Sarah Hammerschlag discusses how the work of Levinas and Derrida can help us to rethink the relationship between religion, literature, and philosophy
What motivated you to write the book?
This project developed organically out of my first book The Figural Jew, which focuses on the revalorization of the figure of the Jew in post-World War II French literature and philosophy. At the center of that project there was already a nascent argument for introducing literary modes of speech into the political sphere to capitalize on the ways in which irony and plurivocity complicate the politics of identity. The last couple of chapters of that book argue that Blanchot and Derrida develop a literary concept of the Jew and Judaism through a reading of Levinas. But I was still concerned to represent the differences between Derrida and Levinas on the question of how to think about the cultural relevance of Judaism in the post-WWII context and to consider the very important political implications of their respective choices. Broken Tablets gave me the opportunity to track the implications of those differences and to conceive of them in terms of how each philosopher negotiated his relationship to religion and literature as competing discourses to philosophy.Read More