A different kind of theory

What do we see in winter trees – negative or positive spaces?

I have been working on the theoretical framework for my critical-creative pedagogy. Once again, I find myself drawing on Gibson-Graham’s writings in their book Postcapitalist Politics, where they interrogate contemporary (leftist) theorizing about capitalism and neoliberalism to argue for a different kind of theory that can better support the emergence of alternatives. Following their lead, I develop a theory that at the moment goes by a number of possible names: capacious/expansive/generous/generative/reparative.

I fully agree with Gibson-Graham’s observation that ‘we are trained to be discerning, detached and critical so that we can penetrate the veil of common understanding and explore the root causes and bottom lines that govern the phenomenal world. This academic stance means that most theorizing is tinged with scepticism and negativity, not a particularly nurturing environment for hopeful, inchoate experiments’ (618, all quotes are taken from this GG article). More specifically, and drawing on Eve Sedgewick, Walter Benjamin and Saul Newman, Gibson-Graham find the sources of such negative theorizing in academic paranoia that is all-knowing to protect itself against surprises, in melancholia that looks back towards certainties, and in moralism that aims for the purity of powerlessness. Taken together, these practices ‘render the world effectively uncontestable,’ which also forecloses the possibility to develop any kind of credible alternatives.

To develop their own alternative theorizing, Gibson-Graham draw on Sedgewick’s writing on weak theory that supports rather than discredits the emergence of alternatives. In contrast to strong theory that dismisses experimental or alternative practices as always already co-opted, tainted or inadequate, which in turn reinforces dominant political-economic structures, weak theory adopts a beginner’s mind that refuses to know too much. It has a reduced reach, localized purview, attenuated explanations to create spaciousness into which possibilities can grow, rather than foreclose them from the outset with overwhelming or destructive critique. Such weak theory is undertaken with a ‘reparative motive that . . . cares for the new’ (619).

Because I don’t really like the connotations of weak, I am exploring different terms for my theoretical approach. I like reparative in reference to a theory that seeks to repair rather than discard, that is about diagnosing problems, failings, punctures etc and then taking a partial, humble but proactive approach to addressing them. It is not about grand, absolute or technical solutionism but about finding work arounds, accommodations, fixes, however incomplete and imperfect they may be. I also like generous or expansive because this theory has an experimental and open stance, an attention to multiplicity and ambiguity. It seeks connections and collaborations. It is willing to consider rather than judge, interested in building rather than tearing down. It embraces the unexpected and celebrates surprise. And I like generative because it is about creating something, imaging and working towards new possibilities.

Whether to practice reparative/generous/generative theory is not only a pedagogical decision but also ‘a political/ethical decision that influences what kinds of worlds we can imagine and create, ones in which we enact and construct’ (619). It is a commitment to being willing to become a condition of possibility rather than impossibility, to use academic practices to nurture the experimental, to support the new and to care for the emerging. It does not mean suspending critique, but to put it second-place. But it also does not mean to deny or ignore the existence of oppressive and exploitative systems and structures that work against the realization of possibilities. Rather, an alternative theory ‘simply encourages us to deny these forces as fundamental, structural, or universal reality and to instead identify them as contingent outcomes of ethical decisions, political projects, and sedimented localized practices,’ as Gibson-Graham put it in their own explorations of Postcapitalist Politics.

If, after reading this, you have any suggestions of which of my three or four terms works best, please let me know. Thank you!

One thought on “A different kind of theory

  1. Anke, these are beautiful ideas. I gravitate towards your term generative as the work that needs to be done to recover agency must be formative and nurturing of the radical imaginary and of emerging alternatives. I also like the idea of assuming the beginner’s mind; even the most knowledgeable person knows only minuscule fraction of that which is knowable and that tiny fraction is inevitably partial and provisional. Humility about the limited nature of our knowing and continued curiosity about improving each others lives is perhaps not so much a refusal to know too much but a clarity about about the limits of knowing. I agree that the trouble with academic critique is that its tends to reveal the mechanisms by which structures of oppression reproduce power and injustice. This can understandably leave a person feeling skeptical rather than generative. I do not conclude from this that we need to cease critiquing injustice (nor do I read you as arguing this). As someone who’s academic work is composed of negative critique but who’s practitioner work supports generative experiment I see this as embedded in the academy rather than pedagogy. I agree that we must find ways of replacing the skepticism in our theory/hearts with compassion and positive regard/action. We must make a conscious effort to do the things that academia does not reward, including expressing love and admiration for each others (necessarily speculative and flawed) attempts to produce structures of liberation (theories or otherwise). As you suggest, it is not that we are short of alternatives but we need to do a better job of supporting emerging alternatives.

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