meta-

Theory and Scholarship


In my dissertation, I’m looking at the place of the Filipino in the United States, specifically in the US deployment of a new kind of imperialism. The new imperialism is not easy to define: late capitalism, anticolonial imperialism, globalization, empire, neoliberalism, hegemony—these are only some of the terms used against disavowals such as, “We don’t do empire.” This is symptomatic of US imperialism’s novelty, which renders the designation US empire, made visible only recently and partially, “problematic.” Interestingly, the Philippines is one of the few places in which US empire can be unraveled. After all, the new imperialism has as its precursor the direct, colonial imperialism that the US undertook in the Philippines at the turn of the last century. However, even in the Philippines, empire is forgotten, and it is easy enough for the US to dissociate itself from its imperialist history through the claim that the Philippines was an “aberration.” In fact, the Philippine “disenchantment” changed the way that the US does empire. That is, its experience in the Philippines caused the US to configure a new imperialism, one that is invisible and “problematic.” Drawing from characterizations of aberration and disenchantment, my dissertation aims to explore the ways in which the Filipino itself is problematic, in particular with regards to the US denial of empire. In refuting the US exceptionalist rejection of its imperialist designation, the “problem” that is the Filipino undermines the supposedly “problematic” nature of US empire.

The “problem” is thus the metaphor I’m pursuing in thinking about my dissertation topic, namely the Filipino and the US. What led me to this trajectory? What allowed me to think about such a relation, one that has an entangled, contradictory, and erased history, in a way that makes some sense, and which could be articulated along political lines? Tracking down the mutation of empire aligns with the poststructuralist sense of the world as having changed after WWII, which demands that we think about power, desire, etc. anew, in a way appropriate to the changed nature of things. The old lens brought us this far, and while we should keep their aspirations and lessons in mind, poststructuralism, as it were, points out the ways in which they don’t work anymore, or are in need of adjustment. At the same time, poststructuralism may be in too much accord with its time, of which, after all, it is a product, even in struggling against it. There are thus important ways in which the insights and strategies of older traditions, such as Marxism and psychoanalysis, afford more pointed critiques of the now, especially when this now legitimates itself precisely through its disconnection from history. Empire, in other words, has to be understood in its specific and contingent workings; at the same time, however, it has to be connected to, or studied as a variant of, good old imperialism.

There is thus a need to ask simultaneously: How is the new empire different from old imperialism (the new being poststructuralism’s emphasis, as it were)? And how are empire and imperialism one and the same thing (which calls for the expertise of older discourses of power and desire), as the (mere?) play in words seems to indicate? Poststructuralism provides the tools needed to discern change, the contemporary, its moment; however, many of the political positionalities, tendencies, and strategies at play in the present have a much older origin, from which we cannot simply dissociate, and which teaches many valuable lessons indeed: about the “class” struggle, the relation between subject and object, between conscious and unconscious … The “problem” as response to empire, in turn, derives from queer theory. And what is queer theory if not a hybrid, especially in its positing of the queer (as subject, as object?) as that which is excluded in the system (dissected so well by poststructuralism) because if fails to abide by the norm (the subordinate “class,” the repressed), an anomaly (the invisible, the remainder, the unconscious?) that, in turn, returns as the system’s failure, to make the system fail.

I offer this brief, rudimentary sketch of my project and unravel my method as deriving from theoretical schools in order to make a larger point. What I did to my project description can be done, I argue, to any scholarly undertaking. Is it really possible to carry out scholarship without theory? One can describe one’s project in the way I did in the first paragraph, through a straightforward statement “unburdened” by theory. I wager, however, that paragraphs (not always the same as mine, of course, and not always explicitly) always lurk underneath as the theoretical context of any scholarship. The genealogy tells us that critical theory derives from the Frankfurt School, perhaps the first attempt, dissenting from established philosophy, to integrate or, better yet, intersect Marxism and psychoanalysis, with the goal of “liberat[ing] human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.” This does lend critical theory a certain inflection. Critique, however, goes back even earlier, and critical theory has forked into multiple paths since the Frankfurt School. This is perhaps why the Critical Theory Emphasis at UC Irvine simply describes critical theory as the “develop[ment of] theoretical models” (compare to Critical Theory at Berkeley). If critical theory is the analytical attempt to develop ways of thinking about value, power, desire, rhetoric … more broadly, social forces and structures, and if scholarship, especially in the humanities, is the study of cultural materials (both objects and subjects), can we really disentangle one from the other? Can we really study a work of culture without thinking about our stance and method, about the social conditions of culture? And can we do such work without the political goal of liberation, or at least of critique of the given?

Far from something extraneous added to an argument to make it seem learned or which gains one entrance into an esoteric field, critical theory, in developing ways, modes, and frames of thinking about cultural materials, is the foundation of any project of thinking—and we should assert it as such. Critical theory itself would tell us not to take anything for granted, to not stop asking questions. At the same time, however, the question should not be about how theory is relevant, but about how what we’re doing, whether we like it or not, consciously or unconsciously, is already and thoroughly imbued with and founded on theory. This, I argue, shifts our concerns and affords a stance that sees, and can therefore productively use, the value of critical theory at a time when it is urgently needed, when the humanities are being undermined. We should stop apologizing for being too theoretical; it is them who claim not to be theoretical who are either ignorant or in denial. This sense of the foundational importance of theory is something that a scholar ought to have, and instinctively—you see it in the way he thinks, in her practice … It is, likewise, something that, as second nature, like the way that one carries himself, she fosters, like something contagious. Just as language is his/her primary medium, critical theory is the scholar’s pen.

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