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The Humanities Conference 2003

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Needing Theory in the Next World Order?

Kenneth Surin.

The institutionalization, in the United States, of critical and cultural theory as a field within the field of literary studies has taken place through a series of phases and developments.

Speaking very generally, critical and cultural theory emerged in this country in the late 1960s and early 70s in the form of a reception of several movements, the most prominent being structuralism and poststructuralism (whose provenance was mainly French, though the French themselves had no sense of structuralism and poststructuralism as specific movements in French intellectual life, nor indeed did they have any use for these designations in characterizing the work of Lvi-Strauss, Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, et al.), hermeneutics (German in inspiration), psychoanalytic criticism, feminist theory, Marxist theory, Black Studies, cultural studies (primarily British in origin), and certain strands of continental European philosophy (the work of the Frankfurt School and phenomenology being perhaps the most prominent).
My aim in this paper is to describe in detail the conditions for the emergence of the above movements and developments, highlighting two tendencies: the parochialism that besets American philosophy and sets it apart from the rest of the humanities and the attachment to textual formalisms in literary studies (which made a turn to the cultural and the social necessary as it was inevitable). My conclusion will suggest that work in some areas of the social sciences, especially cultural anthropology and certain forms of historiography, has now supplanted theory as a way of reflecting on such important questions as the constitution of the subject, the nature of agency, and the form of the political. Theory had its day, and that day is now over.


Kenneth Surin  (United States)
Literature Program
Duke University

Kenneth Surin is based in the Literature Program at Duke University. He has published articles on political economy, critical theory, French philosophy, and cultural anthropology.

  • Theory
  • Politics

(60 min Workshop, English)