language: in search of theory and conversation

Bob King (
Sun, 13 Oct 1996 18:46:47 -0400

Just a note to weave a few strands of this thread together. It occurs to
me that theory is in search of conversation, and conversation is in search
of theory. I got onto this thinking about Ian's response to Beth's
response, and from thinking about Tom's post about the theory of word
processing and "staying primitive."

In the days of yore, Beth and I taught a class across disciplines in which
we pretty much just started in with conversation -- no frills, no
front-loaded theory, both classes conversing on electronic media. Things
were going along fine, but about a third or a half of the way through the
semester, it seemed like many students were puzzled as to what was going
on, so we responded to that by constructing a theoretical framework in
which what we were doing could be understood and seen-as-valid by our
students (much like Eric has created ways to see Net writing as valid by
providing it with "frames" -- Snapshots, etc.) We constructed our
framework with complexity theory, Deweyan democracy theory, problem
formation theory (all of which are constructivist in their leanings), and
in the context we were working, this venture into theoryland was very
helpful both to us and our students. In a way this exemplifies
conversation going in search of theory.

Later, in another sort of writing project, we brought in theorists Donna
Haraway, Julia Kristeva, and others -- but again this was bringing the
theory in as needed. Using theory in this way makes a certain kind of
organic sense, in that the need for it "emerges" out of the lived
circumstances of conversation. In such circumstances, one tends to be
glad that theoretical texts exist rather than bemoaning them, because they
help with a project at hand.

"Doing theory," however, usually means doing theory first -- I think
that's the way we've come to think of it, largely because school tends to
train us that one needs to know the theories before one is entitled to
converse. I think some of the negative reaction to theory, in America
anyway, comes from having it jammed down our throats, such that we have to
cough it up before we can speak, so to speak. It's hard to appreciate
theory in those kinds of circumstances. For a similar, more personal
story, I'm just now beginning to appreciate poetry after having an English
1B teacher in my freshman year of college (many, many years ago) assign 70
pages of it to read a week + much memorization of terms like iambic
pentameter. She figured we needed the exposure and some theory *first*,
then we could speak about poetry from a position of knowledge. For me
that meant I couldn't wait to never speak about it! :) -- and it seems
that a lot of grad students feel similarly about some pomo theorists.

To make what could be a long story short, it seems to me that the
difference between Beth's position and Ian's has much more to do with
methodology -- putting theory or conversation first -- than it has to do
with whether pomo should be banished from the earth or not!
Beth's work speaks of conversation first, but it's also theoretically
astute (and references difficult, theoretical texts). Ian's work speaks
of theory first, but he has shown an open willingness to bring theory to
conversation (with us first of all, and it seems that's what he and
his co-editors plan to continue to do with their _Space and Culture_ venue
in general, and in different ways). The negative feelings about theory
seem to me rooted in school experiences: otherwise we might find it fun,
or put it aside if we don't need it just then!