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!

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