Mi / 10:00 – 11:30

Theory as a Cognitive Good and the ‚New Spirit of Capitalism’

Gregory Jones-Katz, KWI International Fellow

Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut Essen (KWI), Raum 106, Goethestraße 31, 45128 Essen

A euphoria for speculation, generalization, and abstraction swept through the American academic humanities in the late 1960s and the 1970s. “Suddenly, an Age of Theory,” Elizabeth Bruss observed. This talk explores how and why Theory, in classrooms, at institutes, centers, and conferences, and in publications, became a “cognitive good” in the sense given by Rens Rod and colleagues: an epistemic tool of “knowledge-making disciplines,” circulated “with the purpose of knowledge production” and “transferred across disciplinary boundaries.” This story is also part of the longer “history of critique.” Like the modernists who sought freedom from conformist attachments, Theorists, by way of art’s power to demystify and undermine social bonds seen as cruel and repressive, performed a Sisyphean labor that subverted the “ties that bind.” The progressive political effects of the development and trading of Theoretical cognitive goods were legion. Coming intellectually of age in and after the post-Sixties breakdown of the appearance of consensus, Theorists extended the broader post-1960s artistic critique of culture’s stress on individualism, imagination, antiauthoritarianism, and freedom. Yet Theorists also ironically came to firmly personify the hyper-individualist neoliberal work ethic. The “industry of high-tech theory,” Camille Paglia observed, was an industry “as all- American as the Detroit auto trade.” Indeed, as elaborated by Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, the “new spirit of capitalism,” a postsixties “ideology that justifies engagement in capitalism,” animated Theory and possessed Theorists, as well as spaces that circulated Theory, such as the Theory and History of Literature book series, Theory journals, and the Critical Theory Institute.