1. Extinct Theory
Of the Earth, the present subject of our scenarios, we can presuppose a single thing: it doesn’t care about the questions we ask about it. What we call a catastrophe will be, for it, a contingency. Microbes will survive, as well as insects, whatever we let loose. In other words, it is only because of the global ecological transformations we can provoke, which are potentially capable of putting in question the regimes of terrestrial existence we depend on, that we can invoke the Earth as having been put in play by our histories. From the viewpoint of the long history of the Earth itself, this will be one more ‘contingent event’ in a long series. (Stengers 2000: 144)
To the shame of philosophy, it is not uncommonly alleged of such theory that whatever may be correct in it is in fact invalid in practice. We usually hear this said in an arrogant, disdainful tone, which comes of presuming to use experience to reform reason itself in the very attributes which do it most credit. Such illusory wisdom imagines it can see further and more clearly with its mole-like gaze fixed on experience than with the eyes which were bestowed on a being designed to stand upright to scan the heavens. (Kant 1991: 62-63)
If we were serious about considering what theory after theory might mean then perhaps we should push this notion to its limit: not simply theory after the 1980s indulgence or heyday of high theory—those days when we could afford to think of texts as such with (some say) little concern for real political conditions—and not simply theory today when no one could be said to be anti-theory—both because theory has been thoroughly assimilated and because what is left remains a toothless tiger, legitimating all sorts of positivisms and moralisms. (Evidence for assimilation is everywhere: no monograph in literary studies appears without some cursory footnote to a theoretical concept; no undergraduate education proceeds without some basic overview of ‘feminism’, ‘post-colonialism’, and ‘post-structuralism’; and no graduate student would be advised to avoid theory altogether.) More often than not, being ‘after theory’ signals nothing more than that one is aware of some textual mediating condition: there is no sex in itself, race in itself, history in itself. This contemporary theoretical astuteness, consisting of acknowledging the provisional status of one’s position, then allows for local attention to minute particulars without any consideration of the problems, possibilities and impossibilities of reading as such. The new historicism that supposedly emerged after theory allows for a mode of positivism justified by an avoidance of grand narratives (Gallagher and Greenblatt 2001: 6). Other modes of theory—queer theory, race studies, gender studies, disability studies, digital media studies—seem to be theoretical not so much by a distinct mode of reading but because of a choice of a marginal object. If anything ‘theory’ as it is now practiced—with its emphasis on the lived, bodies, multitudes, emotions, affects, the political, the ethical turn—is indeed practiced; it avoids the problem of theory—what we can say there is, or the limits of existence—by grounding itself in what one ought to do. Recently, and in line with the ebb and flow of critical trends, there has been an anti-anti-theory reaction, ranging from a general contestation of historical and cultural locatedness (or, in Felski’s words, ‘context stinks’) to a profound and wholesale rejection of the Kantian Copernican turn, or the idea that we can only know and legitimately theorise the world as it is given (Felski 2011; Bryant, Srnicek and Harman 2011). Quentin Meillassoux argues that it is the Kantian turn, or refusal to know that which cannot be experienced by us, that closes philosophy off from the truth of contingency—and crucial to that thought of contingency would be the imperative to think of the world not as it is given to us, including geological statements about deep time and logico-philosophical claims about contingency (Meillassoux 2008). Increasingly the general claims of speculative realism—or the insistence to overcome the Kantian enclosure within the bounds of the subject—seem both to resonate and jar with broader cultural imperatives. On the one hand, there is an efflorescence of cultural production devoted to imagining a world without humans, beyond human viewing (broadly evidenced in post-apocalyptic film and literature); and on the other, and often from within philosophy or ‘theory after theory,’ there is a retrieval of the world only as it appears and only insofar as it is a lived world for some being (what one might refer to as the ‘naturalist’ turn [Petitot et. al. 1999]). The Kantian conception of theory and its project of self-limitation, despite recent refusals of Kantian finitude, help us make sense of this twin tendency to leap beyond human limits and yet remain restricted to the lived. Although Kant does insist that we can only have scientific knowledge about that which can be experienced as given this does allow for a mode of scientific realism, for it also encompasses that there are also—beyond the given—the forces from which the given is given to us. What has occurred, since Kant, is an increasing rejection of an ‘in itself’ beyond the given, and yet such a gap should perhaps be thought today—not in order to repair or close the distance that separates us from the world, but to heighten both our non-knowledge and the imperative to think (but not experience) that which cannot be known.
Theory, if it is critical in the Kantian sense, would need to begin from Kant’s distinction between theoretical knowledge, concerning objects about which we can speak because they are given to us, and practice, which follows from the absence of knowledge about ourselves. Lacking anything objective or experienced that might give us a moral law we are left without foundation. It is because we only know what is given—even if ‘the given’ can go beyond the human eye to include all the apparatuses through which humans image and project a world—that a strong scientific realism also creates a unique gap between theory and practice (Langton 1998). Theory is an acceptance of a distinction between a strong sense of the inhuman (that which exists beyond, beyond all givennness and imaging, and beyond all relations) and an unfounded imperative that we must therefore give ourselves a law. We act in the absence of knowledge of the world beyond us, and yet knowing that there is a beyond means that practice cannot be reduced to what we know or feel; nothing we know can ground or determine our decisions. There is a direct passage from the gap of the undecidable (or that decisions are not made for us because we do not and cannot know any ultimate ground) to the burden of having to make a decision. Human feeling, or ‘the lived’, does not exhaust what there is. Theory follows from being exposed to a world that is not ourselves; theoretical knowledge is directed to something that is only given through relations but is also not exhausted by the relations through which it is given. In many respects theory, far from being an academic enterprise that we can no longer afford to indulge, is the condition and challenge of the twenty-first century or age of extinction: ‘we’ are finally sensing both our finitude as a world-forming and world-destroying species, and sensing that whatever we must do or think cannot be confined or dictated by our finitude. Theory reminds us both of the givenness of the world, or that what we know is given to us in some specific way, at the same time as this knowledge and relation exceed us. Theory is at once necessary and impossible, just as its ‘relation’ to practice is necessary and impossible. Theory, or distance from the real, is necessary: ‘we’ are faced with an existing world that, precisely because it exists, is not ourselves; without that ‘outside’ world there could be no inner subject, no ‘we’, no agent of practice. But this existing world to which we are definitively bound is therefore impossible: the given world is given to us, never known absolutely. We are not paralyzed by this distance from the world, for it is the distance that provokes both knowledge and practice (Stengers 2011); but the distance nevertheless entails that practice cannot form the ground for our knowledge (‘do what works’) nor can knowledge ground practice (‘act according to your nature’.) To avoid theory and pass directly to practice would require forgetting that the self of practice is only a self insofar as it is placed in a position of necessary not-knowing. Recent forms of Kantianism that conclude from this separation that there is an inevitable ideal of humanity and human normativity (Korsgaard 2009; Korsgaard and Cohen 1996) focus all too easily on the practical side of reasoning—whereby the absence of knowledge forces us to be self-governing—and forget too happily the theoretical problem. This self that gives the law to itself is necessarily exposed to a domain which it must theorize but can never grasp as such. To remain with the theoretical challenge, or accepting the distance from the world as it would be without us, is to face up to the formal problem of extinction. There was a time, and there will be a time, without humans: this provides us with a challenge both to think beyond the world as it is for us, and yet remain mindful that the imagining of the inhuman world always proceeds from a positive human failure. There would be two senses in which theory would fail. The first sense of failure is necessary and critical: one must at one and the same time be placed in relation to an existence that is never given as such, and it is this world of necessarily given but distanced existence within which we act. (In an era of encroaching extinction this failing theoretical condition becomes a forceful practical problem precisely because we are obliged, practically, to think not only about the unknowable but also the unimaginable. The world we inhabit is becoming increasingly impossible to know and imagine.) The second sense in which theory fails occurs with its seeming triumph; today, if theory has taken institutional hold it has done so by failing to be theoretical; in various modes of theory after theory, where we have returned to life, affect or ‘the lived,’ theory feels no qualms about the limits of imagination. Indeed, theory as imagination allows ‘us’ to affirm humanity, the lived, meaning, community, the future and life—precisely when the incoherence of these terms should block any easy praxis.
Symptomatic of this failure of theory (via institutionalization) is theory’s complete success, and this can be gauged by considering what is now no longer possible: anti-theory. In the early days of theory to be opposed to theory was to be opposed to textualism; it was to insist that ‘everyone knows’ that for all intents and practical purposes texts mean what we want them to mean. Theory, by contrast, detached texts from a ‘wanting to mean.’ Such a distinction is evident in the grand debates of the 1980s, including Derrida’s skirmish with John Searle, the latter insisting that context would ground utterances (Derrida 1988). But that Searlean attention to context and practice—the position that was once anti-theory—is today the hallmark of theory, both the theory that still remains of historicism and the newer waves of anti-textualism that affirm life, things, history, intent and bodies.
In 1982 Stephen Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels published ‘Against Theory’ in Critical Inquiry and posed the following thought experiment. Imagine encountering the marks ‘a slumber did my spirit steal’, drawn in the sand on the beach; the marks appear to be drawn (by, one assumes, a human) but then a subsequent wave flows and recedes and leaves the rest of Wordsworth’s poem. This, the authors argue, at first seems to present intention-less meaning, but this is not so. Once we read we attribute intention; any of those supposedly detached, non-referential objects of theory—texts without context, readers or authors—are proven (Michaels and Knapp claim) to be impossible. If something can be read then it has meaning, and therefore intention. What such an insistence precludes is that something might be read, and not be actively or meaningfully inscribed: a geologist ‘reading’ the earth’s layers would not be reading in Knapp and Michaels’s sense, and it follows that it would be a mistake to ‘read’ texts in the way that one might read scars on the earth’s surface or fMRI images. One would, supposedly, need to distinguish between reading—seeing the lines waves leave on the shore and discerning some pattern—and reading, where one posits someone who meant to leave marks in just this way in order to say something to someone. It seems such a distinction is easy, but is it? Imagine we find, some hundreds of years from now, remnants of a wall with spray-painted tagging left behind, and then next to the remnant tags would be some paint that fell onto the wall accidentally, and then next to that would be a city-funded community artist’s mural. Cities today are made up of such human-inhuman couplings, where graffiti mixes with staining, with randomly posted notices as well as scars from wreckage, damage and animal and technical marking. Knapp and Michaels would claim that our capacity to read marks such as a mural follows from author’s meaning: if there were not an author who had painted the work there would be nothing to be read. Other marks, like ‘tagging’, one assumes, could also be read—as forms of signature. Random paint stains might indicate that someone or something had existed but—like the natural marks and wear on a wall—could not be read. And yet it is just this hybrid assemblage of marks, stains, signs, tears, human-animal-technical inscriptions that comprises any archive: how does one look back and decide to read what was left by a hand, and not read or avoid reading what occurred through inhuman and random processes? For Knapp and Michaels one can distinguish clearly between the rogue methods of theory, that willfully detaches texts from intent-meaning, and reading that relies on texts having a sense which is what an author wanted to say, and what we must assume he or she wanted to say for that is what it is to read.
Benn Michaels felt this point still had relevance in 2001 in his ‘The Shape of the Signifier,’ which was, again symptomatically, an appeal to the political. Reading and texts go together to yield intentions and contexts; there are not just signs as such, mere markers of ostensive identity, but historically sedimented and meaningful intentions. In a recent review in The London Review of Books Benn Michaels insists again that identity itself cannot bear significance; it makes no sense to say—for example—that race means something or anything, for one reads such markers only because of socio-economic and historical semantic horizons. One would not ‘read’ a body as being of a certain identity, unless that body were located in a broader network of human and meaningful sense. The very markers that allow us to read identity presuppose some understanding of a common humanity that is unfairly differentiated (Benn Michaels 2009). Whereas Knapp and Michaels could articulate this insistence on the necessarily contextual and political production of meaning as an argument ‘against’ theory in the 1980s, Benn Michaels’s position is now exemplary of what counts as theory. That is, theory is just this attention to the human, intentional and interested ground of the emergence of texts. This is what theory is and ought to be. What was once anti-theory—a reaction against the detachment of texts from any supposition of humanity or meaning—is now so mainstream, that the same argument can be rehearsed and become central to a defense of theory ‘after theory’.
Theory ‘today’ is not an acceptance—as it once was, or might have been—that we do not know the political or the practical and that what we are given as objects of theory are both inhuman and can be considered rigorously only with something like an extinction hypothesis. But theory, if it takes on the impossibility that is its twenty-first century potential, might be imagined as a radical de-contextualization. Let us not fall too readily into assuming the human, or assuming ‘our’ intentional presence behind texts; let us short-circuit ‘man’s’ continuing readability of himself in the context of texts and his reflexive mode of judgment whereby he sees marks drawn in the sand and immediately recognizes his own inescapable will.
Theory after theory might take a more robust form whereby we consider what it might be to think in the absence of theoria. What would be left without the distanced gaze that the thinking human animal directs towards the world? An absence of the look or point of view of theory could take two forms, one of which (I would suggest) is dominant in whatever remains of theory today, and another that represses theory. The first mode was articulated by Hannah Arendt in The Promise of Politics. Politics—being in common, speaking in common, living as a multitude—has always been repressed, Arendt argues, since Plato at least, and has been subjected to the ideal of bios theoritikos (Arendt 2005: 85). The contempt for labor and for the multitude has meant that political philosophy has always been oriented towards contemplation rather than action, a privileging of theoria over praxis.
[S]ince Socrates, no man of action, that is, nobody whose original experience was political, as for instance Cicero’s was, could ever hope to be taken seriously by the philosophers […] Political philosophy never recovered from this blow dealt by philosophy to politics at the very beginning of our tradition. The contempt for politics, the conviction that political activity is a necessary evil, due partly to the necessities of life that force men to live as labourers or rule over slaves who provide for them, and partly to the evils that come from living together itself, that is, to the fact that the multitude, which the Greeks called hoi polloi, threatens the security and even the existence of every individual person, runs like a thread throughout the centuries that separate Plato from the modern age. (Arendt 2005: 83-84)
Since Arendt that targeting of theoria for the sake of life and praxis has intensified, particularly in the work of those whose redemptive political theory has seemed to save theory from the cartoon characterizations that consigned the irresponsibly formalist and textualist modes of ‘French’ thought to a past that was not yet properly attuned to the politics of life. I will consider this retrieval or saving of theory later. For now I want to suggest that there might be another, diametrically opposed, sense of theory after theory. This would not be a return of theory to life, and certainly not a return of theory to the body, to affects, to living systems, living labor or praxis. One could create an exhaustive and exhausting list of all the ways in which theory has been re-territorialized back onto the lived, all the ways in which a radical consideration of force without centre, without life, without intention or sense is continually relocated in practical life, in doing. One diagnostic point, for example, would concern the migration of certain terms, such as ‘performativity’, or ‘difference’, which harbor the potential to think an act without an actor, but which have actually operated to reinforce the practices of self-formation. Although Judith Butler insists on there being ‘no doer behind the deed’ in her theory of performativity (Butler 1993: 142) one might observe that performance was nevertheless for Butler that which, ex post facto, produced a body who would recognize itself as human (Butler 2005). This aspect of human recognition, with a specific focus on the face, comes to the fore in her later work (2006). Whereas theory might be approached beginning from estrangement and distance, considering a world that is not ourselves and a force that cannot be returned to the human, theory is moving precisely in the opposite direction to being nothing more than the expression of praxis, nothing more than relations of recognition. Antonio Negri insists that ‘living labour’ and the self-producing body of ‘homo homo humanity squared’ opens up a world liberated both from the centralizing exploitation of capitalism and freed from any position of knowledge and cognition outside the collective body, and he appeals to the master thinkers of theory (Derrida and Lacan) in order to generate this ‘genealogy of vital elements’. How, we might ask, is a Lacan whose corpus was devoted to the necessarily alien and inhuman fact that there is system, and a Derrida who began by considering genesis as ‘anarchic,’ read as modes of vital living expression?:
the living expressions of our culture are not born in the form of synthetic figures but, on the contrary, in the form of events; they are untimely. Their becoming is within a genealogy of vital elements that constitute a radical innovation and the very form of the lack of measure. Some contemporary philosophers have set off in pursuit of this new expressive force of postmodernity, and they have attempted to characterize it. Already Lacan had pointed to the absence of measure in the new; for Derrida, the productivity of the margins as it seeks new orders as it disseminates; as for Nancy and Agamben, we find them picking the flowers that grow in these extreme fields. (Negri 2008: 66-67)
This joyous affirmation of the living, of the multitude, of productivity, of the other, or of pure potentiality and futurity is but one way of reading theory. But is this the best mode of thinking and reading when we are at a moment when there is no shortage of information about life and its temporality—no shortage of data bombarding us daily with the inevitable end of the human organism—and yet are all the more insistent that whatever else it is thinking and theory are primarily organic? Does not one of theory’s earliest gestures towards a force without production, or a potentiality without actuality or presence, at least suggest that one might consider relations beyond life and creation? How would theory confront the absence of theoria: ‘life’ without the human look? Life without praxis, life without meaningful action, life without production or labour: such would be theory after theory, or theory that opened itself to the thought of extinction. Hints of such a theory were articulated at theory’s very genesis: not only explicitly in texts such as Derrida’s ‘No Apocalypse, Not Now: Seven Missiles, Seven Missives’ (1984) or Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s suggestion that one might need to think of the world beyond or before the gaze of the organism (‘becoming-imperceptible’), but also in theory’s most scandalously ‘apolitical’ moments, such as Paul De Man’s suggestion that theory begins when one reads a text as if there were no readers, no contextual life that would be its site of emergence, and no living horizon that might maintain or animate its sense (De Man 1972). More recently, hints of a surviving or nascent theory occur in extensions of Alain Badiou’s promising ‘theoretical antihumanism’ that push theory beyond Badiou’s own decision of the subject (Badiou 2001: 5). Ray Brassier (2008) takes up Badiou’s antihumanism, along with Quentin Meillassoux’s insistence that it is possible to think beyond human knowledge (Meillassoux 2008), to move further into a world without cognition. Graham Harman has also taken up phenomenology, not to insist that the world as given is always given to some subject or body, but to demand that we think of relations of givenness beyond self-present thinking (Harman 2005). Despite the fact that Kantian philosophy defines ‘theory’ as that which is given to a necessarily presupposed subject, we might say that these gestures are theoretical insofar as they begin from what is not immediately present to a subject of action.
One might want to go further than these suggestions from within philosophy to consider what literary theory might offer to a present that is dominated by information calculating the end of time, alongside a range of cultural productions striving to witness such an end—however paradoxical such an end might be. That is: how would theory approach the influx of data regarding irreversible threats to the human species—an onslaught of evidence that is met at one and the same time by increasing climate change denial, a resurgence in ‘theories’ of human praxis, and a widespread cultural production that intimates the end of human life? How would a theory that was literary—or that considered the remnants of the letter—‘read’ the spate of films of the last decade or more that have been witnessing the possible end of all human life? Such films include, especially, redemption narratives where the potential extinction of the species is averted by a popular or ecological victory over techno-science: James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) would be the most recent example. But for all their redemptive and re-humanizing work, post-apocalyptic films and novels also open up the thought of literary theory, where the ‘literary’ would signal something like Benn and Michaels’s enigmatically inhuman traces. One can think here of texts as remaining, unread, dead objects without authors or audience. Would readers fifty or one hundred years from now who found random copies of Glamorama or Finnegans Wake be secure in attributing intent and meaning, or would not such texts be more likely encountered as marks or traces without animating hand? A literary theory would not assume that texts or letters were the work of a living body, and yet would be theoretical as well as literary in asking what sort of reading, viewing or look such texts or marks might open. Imagine a species, after humans, ‘reading’ our planet and its archive: if they encounter human texts (ranging from books, to machines to fossil records) how might new views or theories open up? Such a literary theory would not, as Derrida suggested concerning literature, be an opening to democracy insofar as literature is a right to ‘say anything’ (Derrida 1997: 58). Rather the ‘text’ would operate as an ‘anarchic genesis’ or ‘mal d’archive’: a force or disturbance not felt by the organism but witnessed after the event in its having always already occurred.
Leaving those suggestions aside for now, I want to begin by addressing the question of why such a strong sense of theory after theory ought to be entertained. First: one might consider the current terrain of theory as a reaction formation. In response to a world in which ‘the political’ is increasingly divorced from meaningful practice (whatever that would be) theory has insisted in ever more shrill tones on the grounding of theoria in meaningful, practical, productive and human-organic life. Second: our context or life is one in which a radical sense of ‘after theory’—the non-existence of thinking beings—is all too obvious, despite the fact that the one area theory has failed to address is what it might mean in this (literally post-human, or after-human) sense to be ‘after theory’. That is, one might ask why it is just as the world faces its annihilation, or at least the annihilation of something like the organic life that was capable of bios theoretikos, that ‘theory’ turns back towards productive embodied and affective life? Third: if popular culture is dominated by a genuinely post-theoretical meditation—by a constant, obsessive and fraught imagination of a life or non-life beyond the gaze of the organism, and by the literal image of extinction—why is this the one mode of post-theory that ‘theory’ has failed to consider?
The twentieth century witnessed several waves of extinction threat or catastrophic risks coming in various modes with various temporal intensities: the sudden nuclear annihilation of the cold war was perhaps the only potential extinction threat that has abated. Sudden nuclear catastrophe is perhaps the only event that would produce apocalyptic annihilation; all other possible extinctions would be gradual, allowing for a minimal ‘human’ presence to witness the slow and violent departure of the human. Indeed, two of the senses of post-apocalyptic lie in this indication that there will not be complete annihilation but a gradual witnessing of a slow end, and that we are already at that moment of witness, living on after the end. Indeed, this is what an ethics of extinction requires: not an apocalyptic thought of the ‘beyond the human’ as a radical break or dissolution, but a slow, dim, barely discerned and yet violently effective destruction. Since the cold war, other threats to human species survival have succeeded each other with the public imagination being turned now to one human extermination menace, now to another. It is almost as though there is a global and temporally myopic attention deficit disorder: we can imagine as other and as ‘our’ end only one threat at a time. If post-9/11 culture seemed gripped by the threat of terror, then more recent fears of systemic economic collapse have overtaken the focus on the war on terror. One might note that although the threat of AIDS—the initial figuration of which was highly apocalyptic—has hardly gone away, little mention was made of viral disaster once other concerns such as climate change began to attract attention. After 9/11 and the shift from a war on drugs to a war on terror, various viral disasters have deflected ‘attention’ from bio-weapons, nuclear arsenals and suicide bombers, ‘focusing’ instead on SARS, bird flu and the H1N1 virus. Interspersed among those surges of panic have been waves of other threats (including the threat of panic itself, for it may be the case that it is the fear and chaos of terrorism and viral pandemic that pushes the system into annihilating disorder). Before the financial meltdown of late 2008 the ‘era of cheap food’ came to an end (due partly to the shift in production towards bio-fuels), with food riots in Haiti presaging intense global aggression from the hungry. This was eclipsed by waves of lawlessness and violence that followed the stringencies caused by economic chaos, which in turn would lead to a fear of disorder that would be both precipitated by diminishing resources while also exacerbating the increasing fragility and incompetence of systems of social order that would suffer from widespread uncertainty and confusion.
These terrors—viral, political, economic, climactic and affective—have not failed to dent the cultural imaginary. In addition to quite explicit texts about viral disaster, from Outbreak (1995) to the more recent The Invasion (2007), 28 Days Later (2002), 28 Weeks Later (2007) and Contagion (2011), other disaster epics have focused on spectacular catastrophes prompted by global warming (including Danny Boyle’s Sunshine in which a space mission to reignite the dying sun is thwarted when the space travelers fail to resist the desire to stare directly at the source of the light that would have saved the earth, so drawn are they to light’s blinding intensity). Like The Invasion in which humans are infected by a virus that robs them of all affect and thus annuls their capacity for violence and emotion, fiction and documentary culture have repeatedly asked the question that theory has failed to ask: why should the human species wish for or justify its prolongation, and what would be worth saving? (Exceptions to this investigation of species-worthiness would be David Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been (2006), Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (2010), and Ray Brassier’s far more questioning Nihil Unbound (2009).) But beyond asking the worth of the species, we might ask why and how such questions are both possible (given that they are implied in so much contemporary fiction) and yet impossible, given that the human species seems to have defined itself as a will to survive? How might the human race imagine its non-existence, and how would we humans of the present adopt a relation to those whose miserable future will be ‘our’ legacy? (In The Day After Tomorrow (2004) survivors taking refuge in the frozen-over New York Public Library decide not to burn the works of Nietzsche, choosing an economics text book for some final warmth.) Other texts have passed judgment on a self-extinguishing humanity, with the recent remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) featuring a dead-pan Keanu Reeves informing humanity that it has no right to live given the waste and violence of its history. Such worlds are after theory in a quite banal and literal sense. There are no theorists.
This era of theory after theory has been considered by ‘theory’, if at all, either in the mode of mournful despair (by an Agamben who wishes to retrieve the political in the face of the hedonism of spectacle) or re-humanizing emancipation, (by a Hardt and Negri who regard liberation from any external point of judgment as the consequence of living labor no longer subjected to spatial fragmentation or material production). These new trends in theory are accompanied by a series of returns or relocations of the previous generation of thinkers to their less threatening philosophical fathers. Derrida is returned to Husserl in order to avoid the radically disembodied and inhuman forces of writing; Deleuze and Guattari are returned to Bergson in order to re-affirm the boundaries of the organism; the machinic potentials of digital media are located in the bodies of meaning-generating audiences (Hansen 2000; Hansen 2003; Hansen 2004). A Merleau-Ponty whose concept of ‘flesh’ bore the possibility of taking the body and even ‘life’ beyond the sense of the lived has, for theorists of biopolitics, become a way of positing vital norms (Esposito 2008) or, even more alarmingly, a re-grounding of thought on embodiment (Gallagher 2005).
More specifically still: if theory after theory has any meaning, should it not refer to a hyperbolic and minimal theoretical condition in which we consider not simply the formal absence of a population but an actual disappearance? Theory is constitutively distinct from practice precisely because theory relates to that which is not ourselves; theory is the consideration of that which is given to us (while practice is the law one gives to oneself in the absence of knowledge). Hyperbolically, then, theory ought to relate to cultural production not in terms of bodies, affects, multitudes and identities, unless these too were also considered not as self-evidently familiar and living but as strangely dead to us. This would also give us a minimal approach to an ethics of extinction, which would also be a counter-ethics. We would not assume an ethos, a proper way of being, community, ‘we’ or humanity that would be the ground and value of literary or other objects. Just as Foucault’s counter-memory sought to consider all those forces that had some power in the present but were not present to living history (Foucault 1977), a counter-ethics would be theoretical in beginning from the condition of the present—looming extinction—without assuming the ethos of the present. That is, one would—as the world after theory ought to compel us to do—consider what is worthy of concern or survival, what of the human, the multitude, or the living would enable an ethos that was not the ethos of the present.
We can return again to the question of theory after theory, today, and ask why it has so focused on an empty tomorrow—a future of open creativity, and unbounded possibility—that it has not considered the tomorrow of its own non-existence. Given even the minimal assumption that reading theoretically requires some necessary distance from any actual audience, and given the now-literal threat of the absence of the human species, why has theory survived, after theory, in a mode of increasing humanization and organicism? Why, when events and timelines would seem to demand just the contrary, does theory takes its current self-englobing form? As an example of the ways in which theory has, just as Arendt suggested it ought to do, retrieved a politics of living in common (a polity of the multitude with no outside), we might consider three dominants. First, a deconstruction that now mourns Derrida does so precisely by insisting on a dimension of deconstruction oriented towards hospitality (Royle 2009: 137), and towards a future whose radical openness defies all calculation (saving justice and democracy to come) (Naas 2008: 67-68). Such a mode of deconstruction would survive at the expense of a Derrida who suggested an ‘untamed genesis’ that would be neither living nor dead, neither before nor after the human but nevertheless disruptive of any mode of good conscience. Second, a turn to life or naturalism insists that the world is always the world for this or that living system, always embedded in a milieu given as a range of affordances: this ranges from the retrieval of phenomenology and the embedding of mind in life (Petito, Varela, Pachoud and Roy 1999) against an anti-organicism or textualism that would draw attention to forces beyond the lived, to the celebration of bio-political production and the multitude against a bio-power that is seen as extrinsic and opposed to life (Hardt and Negri 2000). Finally, one might cite a return to the aesthetic, whether that be an aesthetics of language that separates man as a speaking being who gives himself his world from animality (Agamben 2004), to a re-affirmation of literature (Joughin and Malpas 2003; Attridge 2004) or art in general as grounded in the human organism’s sense-making capacities of its world. It would be far too obvious to add to this list the affirmations of identity politics or, worse, subjectivity, that would posit a self that is nothing more than the negation of a world in itself (knowable, measurable and presentable) precisely because the subject is that which gives a world, law and norm to itself.
Theory might have both interest and worth—if we accept the thorough contingency of such worth—only if it is as destructive of the imagination as our milieu of possible extinction allows. We might need to abandon the grounding of ecology on nature (Morton 2007) or consider modes of deconstruction in which the future were not radically open, hospitable and affirmative (Clark 2010). There is no shortage of data regarding the possible or inevitable absence of humans: terror threats are calculated meticulously by government think tanks; climate change protocols and negotiations require detailed prediction and scenario plotting, and popular news is dominated by economic, climactic, viral and political ‘updates’ regarding a range of intruding violences (Grusin 2010). Such information, far from indicating the location of texts in a polity, suggests just the sort of approach deemed to be horrifically absurd in Knapp and Benn Michaels’s miserable summation of theory. Let us imagine texts as lines drawn without any preceding or ideal community. Let us also, more importantly, be aware (insofar as we can) that the text of the current ‘multitude’ includes information regarding climate change, terror, destruction and extinction expressed in a vocabulary of mitigation, adaptation, viability policy and sustainability, none of which can figure the non-existence of the human. If theory were to operate as it might then it would be destructive of such an imaginary; it would be theory after theory.