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Who needs theory?

2009 February 22
by Ruth Goodlaxson

In class on Wednesday, two people mentioned that they really didn’t like theory. I think this is a pretty common sentiment. Theory can be very difficult to read, and is often perceived as “bull” because it isn’t based on empirical research, studies, or any kind of evidence most of the time.

That being said, I LOVE THEORY LIKEĀ  OH MY GOD. Claims derived from theories are not supposed to be the same kind of claims derived from research. While it is difficult to read, it’s written that way on purpose. Each word (in a well-written) is chosen for a specific purpose, to interact with the words around it as nearly as possible to the idea that is being conveyed. It is very dense, and takes forever to read, but the idea being expressed is hopefully so novel unfamiliar to our experiences and previous understandings that it has to be very carefully worded.

I understand if theory is not beautiful to everyone. But it’s also important. (I’m going to be very circuitous and explain my love of theory with a piece of theory.) Homi Bhabha is a post-colonial theorist who explains the place for theory with the concept of the creation of a “third space of enunciation.” In theory, we can create a space for new thoughts and ideas which are impossible within the assumptions and ways of looking at the world which we cannot escape from. This “third space” creates a new language in which to speak of new ideas, and he argues that this is the space from which serious and fundamental change in our culture can occur. This isn’t a great summary, but basically what I’m trying to say is that theory really is useful. It helps us to examine how we think, and why we think what way, and how we understand the world. It might not be “right” or accurate most of the time, but it helps us to question the very notions of accuracy.

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