Bathtub Theory

I’m writing this in the bathtub after a very long day. Why not write in the tub? Steam is rising around the sides of the laptop; it’s romantic. Maybe afterward my laptop and I will have a light supper with roses on the table, then we’ll read Walt Whitman in bed.

I’ve been thinking about this n+1 panel I attended last night at St. Mark’s Bookshop. The panel was on “theory” and its current role in intellectual culture, and the setting was quite appropriate, since St. Mark’s is the spot to shop for Derrida. But I didn’t realize what I wanted to ask until the panel was over. I wanted to ask whether theory’s changes through time aren’t directly related to the flows of capitalism? Capitalism moves one way or the other–it closes, it widens, it morphs completely–and it affects the way we value thinking. It should be of no surprise that we are, at the same time, intellectually and physically obsessed with science and technology, and in a “post-theory” moment in Academia. Base and superstructure, I think one wise man once called it.

Why couldn’t I ask my question during the panel? When I was in graduate school, it terrified me to ask questions at our intimate monthly departmental seminars with eminent guest speakers. A feeling of deep panic rose up in me, from my pelvis to my throat, with the formulation of a question in my head. Would my professors role their eyes at me (overtly or no)? Would my classmates stiffen, thinking, “How elementary/showy/old-fashioned/naive.” Would the presenter be stumped, annoyed, angered at my inquiry? My sense of privilege at being in a private graduate program, and my hyper-awareness of the vicious, competitive careerism of Academia made every question a bearer of guilt, of doubt, and an impediment to really learning anything.

I barely remember panels and talks from graduate school; I was too concerned about whether my question would reveal something unlikeable about me, or I’d say it the wrong way.

We called the anthropology M.A. at The New School for Social Research a “two-year interview.” Who would get into our small, mostly unfunded PhD program? It’s not theory that’s in jeopardy so much as the ability to do anything with it. We devoured theory in a buffet, Deleuze alongside Nietzsche alongside Haraway alongside Lacan. The only rule was you were not allowed to truly love it; you had to gulp it all down and then shit it out. It was the past. It was what made us the neoliberal Academy, bloated with overpaid administrators and debt-funded students, and unable to formulate a single proclamation about how to be and act politically at a time when wars were being waged, the environment was crumbling, our American Dream was fading like the end of a bad movie. The politics in Academic thinking today are buried so deeply in the minutia, in the interstices of meaning, that to acknowledge their existence at all is a sin, reveals you as naive, and likely ends your career.

If we are living in the end times of any epoch, it may be the end of the Enlightenment as we knew it. The privatization of universities in the Eighties under Reagan marked a shift toward an Academy that was inextricable from the whims of capitalism in a way it had never been before, and the impact on thinking has been tremendous. Anthropologists now are studying stock markets and the Fed; sociologists specialize in “expertise.” Theory has marked a spiral into this moment, a movement away from empiricism into abstraction, from the gold standard into derivatives, from dialectics to rhizomes. In this spiral our questions float helplessly like clouds, ungrounded and quick to evaporate, like steam rising from a hot bath.

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