Some years ago, I found myself at 24-hour vegetarian diner in a California college town, breakfasting with a dear friend. We had ordered coffee, but the main course was psychoanalysis. “You can’t read Lacan without Hegel,” I assured her earnestly. She broke into a grin, paused for a brief, dramatic moment, and then sang my words back to me, to the tune of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger’s “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” hitting the second syllable of “Hegel” in a flat F.
College was full of capital-T theory: that interdisciplinary set of literary and critical writings which blend Continental philosophy with qualitative sociology and theories of “the text.” As generations of college students have noted, theory is often stylistically difficult and menacingly abstract, as obscure to the uninitiated as any other kind of heavy thinking, and yet way too cool to be called simply “philosophy.” My friends and I were, in the parlance of the day, “theory heads.” We elected to read the Germanic sentences penned by French absurdists, and we had a great time doing so. We were young and smug and deconstructed. In the classrooms and bookshops of millennial California, we staked the foundation for our educations in an incisive critique of foundationalist thinking. We saw the irony, and we embraced it with the kind of reflexive detachment that today’s fashionistas could only hope to conjure when they declare that something is “so ‘90s.”
Detached as it may have been, our experience of reading theory was far from dry. As the Jagger-cum-Lacan anecdote suggests, my college years embraced theory as though participating in what Lauren Berlant (in an essay I read over and over) called “a counter-politics of the silly object.” We had a million puns (Kristeva? Whateva! Bourdieu? Bored me too! Understand Deconstruction? You de Man!) We plotted the names of bands (Foucault’s Hos, The Heidegrrrls) and cocktails (notably the Pink Freud, whose recipe I don’t think we ever perfected, but nearly all of whose iterations involved a banana). I wrote the treatment for a play called “Rendt: A Musical about AID,” which replaced the transvestite character in Jonathan Larson’s Broadway smash with a young, bohemian Hannah Arendt (also played by a transvestite). We created Lacanian drinking games for our favorite movies (“sip your Pink Freud when being and having are confused in a condition of lack”). And in perhaps my most star-struck celebrity sighting ever, I one day had the thrill of walking through a Longs Drugstore three paces behind Angela Davis, who (perhaps unaware of me, perhaps all too used to being followed) appeared to be doing nothing more revolutionary than buying cold medicine.
For someone who wasn’t there, few things capture the tenor of these moments of my youth as well as Feminist Ryan Gosling. This celebrated meme, created by University of Wisconsin graduate student Danielle Henderson, features dashing photos of the Canadian actor captioned by insights from academic feminist theory. When Feminist Ryan Gosling, frocked in a light blue collared shirt, looked softly back at me through my computer screen one day last spring to say, “Hey Girl, Just thinking about Chandra Mohanty’s theory that Western feminism problematically constructs the Third World woman as the pejorative ‘other’ and the colonial habits that keep women oppressed,” I saw nothing so much as myself in 1998. And, Reader, it is not because I look like Ryan Gosling.
Like the games my college friends and I played with theory, Feminist Ryan Gosling yokes the serious to the silly, the obscure and the corny, the dense with the glib. It reminds us that the world of perfect ideas shares an open border with the world of imperfect people—those who are impressed with their own cleverness, who meant to finish the reading between classes but maybe didn’t get to it, or whose thinking isn’t always motivated by what’s above the neck. Sure, some people are interested in theory because of what it is; but like Feminist Ryan Gosling, my college friends and I were interested in theory because of what we could do with it. And we did quite a bit.
Playing silly games with serious ideas provided us with a way to lavish attention on the scene of our learning. In retrospect, it seems clear that the actions of my college friends and I were not about theory, the object, but about creating a reflexive awareness of the context in which that object could (and in fact did) circulate: through the space of early-morning diners and late-night parties, though the hands of amateur mixologists and bargain shoppers, and through the educational transformations of public school graduates into fledgling intellectuals. I would argue that acknowledging just such contexts is precisely what Feminist Ryan Gosling and his sister memes accomplish.
To be sure, living in a world that increasingly measures messages in characters rather than sentences makes young readers of theory ever more inclined to see that philosophical ideas can be pithy, aphoristic, and even pertinent to the kinds of banalities that swell twitter feeds. Hence the existence of Chaka Lacan, whose short-lived twitter persona (billed as “An interstitial space between hair mousse and the I”) includes mashed up gems from its two namesakes, like “Regarding this locus of the Other, of one sex as Other, what does this allow us to posit? I am every woman; it’s all in me.” Similarly and more prolifically, Kim Kierkegaardashian fuses the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard with the tweets and observations of Kim Kardashian, to produce rather stunning pronouncements like “Because my dress isn’t butt-tight, faith alone holds together the cleavages of existence.” What’s most astonishing about such a claim, of course, is that it illustrates Kardashian’s outfit and Kierkegaard’s input far more succinctly than both could explain for themselves. The ideas contained in these tweets matter, but they matter less than the medium of their expression. The ultimate context for these experiments is their form: theory isn’t designed as a sound byte, but not because it couldn’t be.
This lesson about context is not, however, one to which all people readily assent. Indeed, I have talked with some very smart folks who argue instead that an interest in acknowledging the scenes of theory’s circulation is belittling—whether because it prioritizes context over text, or because it forces lofty philosophical ideas to accommodate late capitalist realism. Perhaps no meme is more likely to encourage such conclusions than Adorno Cats, a tumblr that pitilessly superimposes biting quotations from T. W. Adorno’s critical writings onto color-enhanced photos of tiny kittens. It may be difficult not to look at a fluffy Siamese kitty captioned with “No emancipation without that of society” — the much-quoted conclusion to the 111th chapter of Minima Moralia, (whose proper topic, lest we forget, is Greek myth, sexism, and Hegel)—and not see a deliberate attempt to diffuse Adorno’s dialectical critique in the over-large azure eyes of feline charm.
Such an interpretation, however, is decidedly un-Adornian. Ever alert to the machinations of ideology in minute locations, Adorno once devoted an entire book to his unbridled distaste for the LA Times horoscope columnist (a book, I should confess, that I have never finished because every attempt at reading it leaves me laughing distractedly). Filling in the gap between culture and industry, the bland experience of individuals and the nefarious rationalizations of society, Adorno taught generations of thinkers to move fearlessly across seemingly disparate registers in order to expose the face of ideology—and there is no reason to suppose that he would make an exception when that face has whiskers. The cuteness of Adorno Cats, then, can be understood less as a bid for mastery over theory than as a complex embrace of theory’s great dialectic of earnestness and silliness. (Moreover, the cute, writes Sianne Ngai in a formidable kind of sequel to Adorno’s aesthetic theory, is itself dialectical: something so diminutive invites us to imagine that we can control it, while also controlling us by provoking involuntary cooing.) Only in our fantasies can mastery be a one-way street.
Contrary to my previous proposition, these examples suggest that the currency of silliness in the vicinity of theory may have to do less with the uses to which theory can be put, than with something that may inhere in theory itself. If that’s true, then silliness is not an attempt to take theory down; rather, seriousness is an attempt to guard against the queer material of which theory is made—that big, difficult idea which always threatens to turn into a puddle of soft and ridiculous goo. The tonal seriousness and prosaic difficulty that characterizes theory’s most celebrated practitioners, and that is slavishly imitated by many zealous graduate students (including, in the darkness of one disavowed semester, myself) is but a recent manifestation of the age-old paradox of trying to harness potential by denying its volatility. To secure themselves against volatility, serious practitioners of theory often become defensively prone toward obscure platitudes and dry clichés—toward a jargon-laden in-speak, in other words, that somewhere along the way forgot that any seriousness that studiously ignores unseriousness is rather hard to take seriously.
Quite in spite of any aspiration to seriousness on the part of its readers, theory’s volatility persists. I cannot be the only person whose attempts to read Heidegger have left me feeling like I am aboard the Hindenburg. I cannot be the only person who has giggled while reading Deleuze’s unblinking analysis of Artaud’s pronouncement that “All writing is PIG SHIT.” I could not be the only student who was crippled with panic about what to wear to class on the day we were discussing Butler. I know I am not the only person who has swooned while reading Barthes. And I freely admit my complicity with the silly movement of theory’s dialectic, because, contra my more serious theoretical brethren, I am not aware of any rule that says dialectics are most true when they tend toward the tragic. No less an authority on dialectical history than Karl Marx posited that what appears once as tragedy appears a second time as farce. And, despite a perennially estranged relationship to his brother Groucho, Marx knew that farce, properly executed, is pretty silly.
What’s more, acknowledging the silly in theory challenges not only the in-speakyness of theoretical jargon, which takes theory too seriously, but also the kind of demotic counter-snobbery, which dismisses theory out of hand for being too difficult. Those stationed irretrievably far into the anti-difficulty camp tend to suppose that plain speech and realist genres count as neutral representations. The problem with this line of thinking is that the generic claims of normative realism, consequential though they may be, are little more than claims that representation ought to be banal. That is, the inverse of imagining that theory is too difficult tends to be imagining that what often counts as more normal is therefore more true, as though our culture’s clichés—houses with white picket fences, politicians who tell it to you straight, beauty accentuated by its flaws, or career women who have it all—circulate in representation first and foremost because they really and unproblematically exist for some statistical majority. In fact, these clichés are as made up as Monique Wittig thought women’s bodies were—which is to say, totally.
By this line of thinking, there is no objective reason why anyone should automatically understand the cuteness of a LOL Cat, any more or less that one should understand the thunderous exasperation of one of Adorno’s monodies to the world that was cruelly sacrificed in war. Understanding either requires certain kinds of literacies that would enable you to recognize the idiom in which each operates. What’s interesting, however, is that neither a theoretical bon mot nor a meme belongs exclusively to the domain of realism. Words like “realistic” or “normal” apply as little to LOL Cats as they do to Minima Moralia. Moreover, I would argue that these words do not apply to these texts for the same reasons: both texts are highly idiosyncratic appeals to general experience, both combine word and image to produce incongruous pictures of the everyday, both want something from reality that it contains primarily in fragments. To see only that each operates in a different idiom is, I would say, rather foolishly to misrecognize that both are trying to give voice to something that we readers of these texts have perhaps intuited but have heretofore been without a way to represent. Both begin with some familiar aspect of the world, and both use the recontextualizing arts of combination and juxtaposition to push off from what we think, toward what we have not yet thought.
The most valuable aspect of silliness, then, is that it works astride both theory’s aspirations to seriousness and realism’s aspirations to representational simplicity. It reminds us that what is at stake in reading theory is not just what the theory says, but also what we do with it—whether that means penning a devastating critique or downing a Pink Freud. In the act of mashing up Chaka Khan with Jacques Lacan, we’re doing theory; but, more specifically, we’re doing the work of making sense out of our less-than-theoretical world. The silliness of theory makes that work less bracing, though no less urgent. It enables readers of theory to relate theoretical ideas to the very world in which they encounter those ideas, to see how theory does and doesn’t illuminate their realities, and to begin to put the pieces together. Here perhaps is the greatest lesson that theory can teach us about the world: some assembly is required. And who knows? It may be true that you can’t read Lacan without Hegel. But if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you read.
J.A. Stein: Not always the theory guy.