On the infection of ‘theory’

December 8, 2009

Student’s version of Marcus Garvey: Arise ye mighty race, deconstruct the hegemonic ideas of race, and discursively liberate yourselves!



  1. For the uninitiated in the audience, how far is that off the mark?

  2. Well, here’s Marcus: “Arise, take on the toga of race pride, and throw off the brand of ignominy which has kept you back for so many centuries.”

    My major problem with the kind of language that some of my students are using to translate/analyze Garvey (among others) is that its corrupts BOTH Garvey’s ideas/language and any coherent theoretical framing. As far as I know, deconstruction is not a practice of liberation. And I really haven’t a clue as to what it would mean to “discursively liberate” something/someone either. So the brief answer to your question is that I have no idea how that statement could be on the mark.

    More importantly, by constantly shoe-horning all systems of thought and language into contemporary ‘theory’ talk (the quotes were in that title for a reason–I have no problem with theory per se, just with ‘theory’ that lacks any theoretical moorings), students end up blind/deaf to the actual rhetoric being used and the ideas that subtend them. Garvey’s words are rich and inspiring–they did, afterall, rally one of the largest militant movements for black liberation from the US to the West Indies to Africa. And he had a specific vision and I imagine that he would be shocked to find out that it’s really the same thing as some mutant thought-child of French philosophy and Italian Marxism.

  3. Thanks for the clarification. Your frustration sounds totally founded as far as the back-projection of our own ideas onto distinctly and qualitatively different historical thought goes. I am, however, a bit surprised at the categorical sweep of “As far as I know, deconstruction is not a practice of liberation.” It seems to me like deconstruction is a technique that can be used for purposes of a liberation practice (among others) and has been used for such (my meager knowledge suggests that Frantz Fanon might be a figure important in this regard, even if the term “deconstruction” didn’t come about till after his death). Perhaps I’m using “deconstruction” in far too broad a sense — a common undergrad mistake :). I do agree that watching all thought ever produced be reduced to contemporary jargon is not a pleasant sight to behold.

  4. As far as I know, deconstruction is not a practice of liberation.

    I tend to be with you on this one, Buster. Something that can be called deconstruction–as in Fanon for sure, kg–accompanies practices of liberation, but isn’t the same thing, or a substitute. Was the first step Althusser’s use of the term “theoretical practice”? If we collapse theory and practice into each other, what use is the concept of “praxis” for their (dialectical) unity? I find myself recalling what Woody Guthrie painted on his guitar case: “This Machine Kills Fascists.” A worthy sentiment, but no it doesn’t. Academic jargon in place of critical thought is lazy and irritating; “theoretical practice” as a functional equivalent of practice is a flag of political surrender. Not that I think surrender might not be a good choice, but why pretend it’s struggle by another means?

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