There is a vein of anti-intellectualism that characterises some iterations of feminism. Symptomatic of this is a rejection of theory and a conflation of academic obscurantism or elitism with the process of describing complicated or difficult ideas. In this post I want to argue for the continuing relevance of feminist theory for political practice and explain my own relationship to theory.
The case against theory is compelling, especially if we understand the relationship between theory and practice as a process of “acting on the basis of an autonomous, esoteric and abstract corpus of knowledge” (Fargion). Here theory unnecessarily (and perhaps maliciously) mystifies commonsense, on-the-ground understandings of women’s lives and oppression. Implicit here is also the conception of theorising as passive and a ‘waste of time,’ standing in opposition to the active, world-shaping effects of political practice. I think this is a seductive but ultimately wrong-headed idea. Instead I want to argue for a dialectical relationship between theory and practice, where the two ‘talk’ to each other to enrich and strengthen their purchase on the truth and/or impact on the world.
What about the objection is that theory is somehow elitist? Certainly, if we conceive of theory as a purely academic exercise that takes place in exclusionary social institutions, we would have every reason to be suspicious. Chandra Talpade Mohanty, for instance, has argued against “a kind of careerist academic feminism whereby the boundaries of the academy stand in for the entire world and feminism becomes a way to advance academic careers rather than a call for fundamental and collective social and economic transformation.” It’s true that careerism in academia or politics may entail the adoption of theoretical models or apparatus that are irreconcilably antagonistic towards our liberation but this temptation shouldn’t preclude the activity of theorising. We all engage in theory at some level. Choosing to participate in a march, for instance, is underwritten by a particular idea of what is politically efficacious. While feminist suspicion of academia (from within and without) is absolutely vital, it needs to be decoupled from the activity of theorising which is at base a kind of thinking about how things work and interact.
Not everybody is going to be interested in theory. I get that. There are some people (me included) who like to deal with things at a high level of complexity and abstraction. More pragmatic types are liable to get impatient with us at times for not ‘doing something’ or being ‘out of touch’. We as theoreticians need to listen to these people: an autonomous, esoteric and abstract corpus of knowledge does little to stop workplace discrimination or violence against women on its own. But, I would still contend, practitioners need theory. Urgently. I can’t talk about being raped as structural and systemic, for example, without engaging in some level of abstraction- like having a theory of patriarchy or some working hypothesis about the relationship between structure and agency. Theory is a kind of action or at the very least the intentionality behind political action.
It may not come across in my writing but my feminism, my relationship to theory is intimately connected to the biographical details of my life: a fraught family life, mental illness and male violence and sexual exploitation have all shaped how I think, but biography shouldn’t be the only criteria of theoretical salience. I’m adamant that we need a robust theory of patriarchy. Not doing so precludes us from talking about oppression in two ways: first the term becomes discredited as thin and reductive; it strikes people as insufficiently historical or nuanced and outdated. Second, we talk past each other; the imprecision of the term creates confusion about effective forms of struggle and resistance or the bases for solidarity and antagonism. In this mode patriarchy becomes a feeling, a kind of general malaise incapable of attaching itself to concrete structures and processes.
We don’t need less theory. We need to democratise it and lay bare our own implicit theoretical commitments. This is why theory is important to my feminism.