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another look at theory

Like good mathematical theorems, which usually, once you understand them, seem entirely obvious, bell hooks’ prose so rings with large-scale truth that it feels virtually tautological. Almost always firmly rooted in her own personal experiences, it still has a revelatory power that transcends her individuality. I find her conclusions so obvious and compelling that I often wonder why someone didn’t write them down sooner. The answer, of course, is that they weren’t so obvious until she pointed to them.

And so some reflections as I read “Theory as Liberatory Practice” from hooks’ Teaching to Trangress.

The essay begins by surprising me.

I came to theory because I was hurting . . . . I came to theory desperate, wanting to comprehend . . . . I wanted to make the hurt go away. I saw in theory then a location for healing.

Many people think of theory as navel gazing, the privilege of coffee shop philosophers and ivory tower academics. I, too, after having spent perhaps too much time on theory in my younger days, have now possibly gone too far toward the side of action, rather than theorizing. But this is the beauty of hooks’ opening and of her title: they speak of the power of theory to bring action into being, of theory as a location for action, for praxis.

Praxis is not automatic. “Theory is not inherently healing, liberatory, or revolutionary. It fulfills this function only when we ask that it do so and direct our theorizing towards this end.” It takes focus and discipline, because it is, as I know only too well, easy to theorize for the fun of it only. I have spent many hours reading and thinking and talking and writing about theory, with little thought to putting it into practice. There were vague fantasies, perhaps. But no plans of action. Not even manifestos written. I was lazy—not intellectually, but lazy in my privilege, not needing to act; I already felt free to do whatever I wanted so I had little motivation to act on liberatory theory. I was content to know the words; yet, “possession of a term does not bring a process or practice into being.”

Further, it is possible to “practice theorizing without ever knowing/possessing the term, just as we can live and act in feminist resistance without ever using the word ‘feminism.’” Paradoxically, it is often the people who use such terms the least that act the most—and vice versa. So it is easy to think of theory as not so useful, “politically non-progressive, a kind of narcissistic, self-indulgent practice.” It can even be counterproductive, since theory is so often used to “create a gap between theory and practice so as to perpetuate class elitism.”

Many have responded to this issue by

trashing theory, and, as a consequence, further promoting the false dichotomy between theory and practice. Hence they collude with those whom they would oppose. By internalizing the false assumption that theory is not a social practice, they promote the formation . . . of a potentially oppressive hierarchy where all concrete action is viewed as more important than theory written or spoken.

In other words, to reject theory altogether is to reinforce the separation of theory and action. hooks wrote those words in the specific context of feminist political work, but the point is much broader. hooks confirms its power with another example: “some elite academics who construct theories of ‘blackness’ in ways that make it a critical terrain which only the chosen few can enter” have something in common with “those among us who react to [those academics] by promoting anti-intellectualism by declaring all theory as worthless”; both are denying “the power of liberatory education for critical consciousness, thereby perpetuating conditions that reinforce our collective exploitation and repression.”

She goes on to talk about the “struggle to discuss issues of gender and blackness” and tells a beautiful story of the way naming and theorizing can ease pain and do real work in the world. After a heated discussion of race, gender, and class with a diverse group of black women and men in a restaurant in the South, a woman approached hooks and thanked her for the discussion. Hearing the words spoken out loud, helped this woman name her pain—pain she had been carrying for years—and moved her on to do more work in the world. “Holding my hands, standing body to body, eye to eye, she allowed me to share empathically the warmth of that healing. She wanted me to bear witness, to hear again both the naming of her pain and the power that emerged when she felt the hurt go away.” The experience engages the whole person for hooks, for the other woman and for the reader.

The power to engage all of us—body, mind, and spirit—is the potential of theory and the promise of truly liberatory education. If all human experience was fully understood, perhaps we would not need to theorize further. But that is not possible. As hooks reminds us, Catherine MacKinnon has written that “‘we know things with our lives and we live that knowledge, beyond what any theory has yet theorized.’” I am inspired to help create theory that makes space for all the experiences in the world, to theorize in the context of working to end oppressions of all kinds.

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