The New Theory: A Provisional Manifesto

The New Theory is already afoot, coming together in a variety of amorphous ways across a welter of different popular and intellectual contexts (such as the present journal). What follows is simply an attempt to impose an artificial shape on this movement, to provide a ‘conceptual cartoon’ of what may eventually become a dominant theoretical paradigm. The hope is that making it explicit in this way will simultaneously render it more available to criticism and emulation.

Ignorance, after all, is invisible.


The New Theory is critical.

The New Theory realizes that theory, in order to be critical, must proceed with some awareness of the ways in which it is historically, culturally, and biologically contingent. Of all the tricks played by the Old Theory, none has been so disastrous as its attitude toward scientific discourse. Claiming to know What Science Is (usually via unwarranted commitments to contextualism and social constructivism), it managed to slip science into the pocket of culture, and thus convinced itself of its immunity to and even superiority over, the claims generated by the sciences. In other words, it used prior commitments to wildly contentious metaphysical claims (science is a language game/social construct/ontic discourse/and so on) to condition its commitments to empirical claims, despite the risible history of human theoretical cognition outside the sciences and the astounding results provided by theoretical cognition within the sciences.

This has never been a comfortable state of affairs. But so long as the limitations of human cognition remained safely tucked out of sight, the Old Theory could continue convinced of its criticality. But scientific research into human cognition has continued apace, amassing a veritable mountain of psychological and neuroscientific data. We now know just how apt we are to fool ourselves, how rarely we employ the problem-solving centres of our brain, electing instead, to simply stereotype and sort claims according to cognitive self-interest. We now know the way humans are prone to unconsciously game ambiguities to confirm preexisting assumptions. We now know that human brains are, in effect, rationalization machines. This knowledge has recently found its way to mainstream culture. As a result, the Old Theory finds itself in the embarrassing position of being less critical than much of the popular discourse it pretends to critique.

The New Theory, on the other hand, realizes there is no such thing as critical thinkers, only hard-won moments of critical thinking. It also realizes that few things are more pernicious to critical thinking than the assumption that one has somehow transcended, by dint of training or disposition, the cognitive limitations imposed by their psychology and culture–that one is, in other words, a ‘critical thinker.’ Where the Old Theory pays lip service to its cultural and historical parochialism, the New Theory is founded upon the inevitability of its self-deception. The New Theory self-consciously utilizes analogies that underscore its cognitive limitations, and remains suspicious of those that legitimize and aggrandize.

The New Theory, in other words, is a kind of joke, one that somehow facilitates understanding, and thus provides contingent motivations for various forms of communicative practice. Understanding the limitations confronting it, the New Theory provides nothing more than ‘as if’ cognition. It remains deeply critical of the sciences, while giving due respect to the cognitive power of the claims arising from it. It realizes that trusting its own theoretical intuitions over the claims of the sciences is little more than a gratifying pipe-dream.


The New Theory is scientifically literate.

For better or worse, the soul has finally found itself upon the table of scientific examination. Given that science is the most powerful claim-making institution in human history (one that has utterly reorganized society, let alone made possible pretty much every artifact humans now use), its relevance cannot be ignored. Given that the findings of the new ‘sciences of the soul’ have already generated innumerable real world applications–everything from deep-brain implants to neuromarketing–we can assume that the scientific rationalization of the Inner will follow the same pattern as the scientific rationalization of the Outer–and that the kinds of drastic transformations we have witnessed with the latter will find troubling analogues with the former.

The New Theory stands astride this revolution.


The New Theory is Socratic.

Our biases are invisible to us, even though they are numerous and in some case amazingly egregious. Unlike the Old Theory, the New Theory knows that it does not know. Realizing its cognitive liabilities, the New Theory always seeks to strike a genuine dialogue, which is to say, to avoid commitments that render communication monologic. Once we become convinced of our theoretical commitments, the ambiguity of the subject matter and the absence of institutional regress enders (such as those found in the natural sciences, where scientists generally agree on what will change their minds), assures that we can happily continue servicing those commitments for the rest of our lives, utterly convinced of our rectitude. The minimum condition of rationality, it appears, is the awareness that one is in all likelihood wrong. Argumentation is little more than self-serving rationalization otherwise.


The New Theory is stipulative.

With the suspension of our cognitive commitment to nonscientific theoretical claims, comes a concomitant appreciation of the utility of nonscientific theoretical cognition. The point of theory is to explore the possibilities of human understanding–all theory, in this sense, is valuable, insofar as it enables us to think unthought possibilities of cognition. Thus, the New Theory seems to suggest a kind of communicative pragmatism, one similar to the philosophies of the same name, only stripped of all metaphysical and performatively circular commitments (Such as those found in Wittgenstein: Is meaning use? Well, let us look at the way the term ‘meaning’ is used…) Since the problem with Theory as presently practiced is primarily one of exclusionary commitment, the New Theory is quite content to concede issues of nomenclature in the pursuit of various theoretical possibilities, to speak Derrida to Derrideans, Adorno to Adornians, Wittgenstein to the Wittgensteinians, and the like. The New Theory strives to be theoretically inclusive, even while urging others to abandon their commitments, if not their jargon.


The New Theory is ontologically agnostic.

What is Science? What is Meaning? According to the New Theory, answers to questions of the form, ‘What is x?’ are typically a matter of convenience, ways to facilitate whatever theoretical chicanery we happen to be engaged in. The complexity of the World, whatever it is, outruns the possibility of human cognition, whatever it is, stranding us with ambiguities and cartoon simplifications, which we are hardwired to unconsciously game. This is a fact. Only ignorance and bias make it appear otherwise.


The New Theory is polemical.

We live in a time of unprecedented crisis. Our means of exterminating ourselves are multiplying to be sure, but even if one concedes the technological optimists their arguments, we still have grounds to fear that humanity as we know itis doomed to extinction.

We are entering the beginning of what might be called the material post-modern. Science is presently reverse engineering the machinery of the natural world, whatever it is, down to its deepest kernels. Materiality, in other words, is in the process of becoming thoroughly plastic to desire, such that innumerable ‘rules’ imposed by the ‘way things are’ are in the process of becoming obsolete. Cures for aging. Neurocosmetic surgery. Genomic manipulation. Nanotechnological engineering. Artificial intelligence. Any one of these ‘advances’ will revolutionize society in nonlinear, supercomplex ways, and we find ourselves facing their simultaneous onset.

Where the breakdown of traditional normative authority characterized the post-modernity of the 20th century, we are confronted with the breakdown of material authority. The very materiality that grounds our contemporary definition of categories as fundamental as ‘humanity,’ ‘life,’ ‘intelligence,’ and so on, is in the process of being instrumentalized. Quite simply, humanity will not survive unless it possesses some actionable understanding of the multiple transformations gripping it and the numerous limitations that cripple its decision making. The New Theory seeks to provide that understanding. Given these stakes, and given the cultural, institutional, and psychological obstacles facing it, the New Theory is unrelenting, even vicious, in its criticism of the intellectual and popular status quo. It eschews the siren song of posterity and seeks immediate and vigorous contact with dissenting views, even at the risk of violating norms of civility. It argues with the evangelical. It ridicules the apologist, especially when disguised as a critic. It is obnoxious and obsequious by turns.


The New Theory is exoteric.

It always considers the popular reach of its discourse to be an important metric of its success, and conversely, the specialization of its discourse as a metric of its failure.

Where the Old Theory remains largely unconscious of the ways in-group status seeking drives its practice, the New Theory is always aware of the ways in which specialists cater to the expectations of their peers. How many papers find their inception in the simple need to impress colleagues or meet institutional requirements? How often do Old Theory articles honestly reference their own, often bureaucratic, motivations? The Old Theory, in effect, continually pretends: to be wholly invested in its subject matter, when it is in fact quite cynical and disinterested; and, most damning of all, to be interested in cultural reform while eschewing any substantive contact with that culture. The Old Theory, by and large, seeks redemption in the post-secondary classroom, the only point of meaningful contact it possesses with the outside world (X), convinced that this is the privileged locus where its criticality impacts the greater community. But that criticality is in fact a pseudo-criticality (as one might expect, given that the Old Theory purports to teach and deploy something–namely, ‘critical thinking’–that it in fact knows almost nothing about). And that impact, all too often, is to either alienate or to indoctrinate. Too often, the Old Theory simply teaches students how to adduce premises for preexisting conclusions, which is to say, how to more effectively rationalize, as opposed to critically reason. Too often it simply replaces old dogmas with new dogmas, then congratulates itself for resisting an ‘authority’ it has merely supplanted. The Old Theory has the effect of sequestering culture’s critical potential within communities of like-minded specialists–potential that culture needs now more than at any time in human history.

The New Theory strives to never forget the threat that it represents to its very own programme. It always recognizes the psychological tendency to cognitive and moral egocentrism, the empirical fact that all humans assume their moral and intellectual superiority, and their tendency to form self-confirming communities. It always recognizes the social tendency of intellectual institutions to become self-serving: to police their cognitive boundaries with blithe dismissals of competing cognitive programs, and to embrace formalisms and specialized nomenclatures to protect the autonomy of their discourses. The New Theory, therefore, always strives to reach beyond itself, to adapt its practice and jargon to those belonging to other cultural institutions. No ear is too high or too low.


The New Theory is opportunistic.

It draws upon any resource that can facilitate its practice, and remains suspicious of any canon that may arise within it, knowing that canon formation is symptomatic of institutionalization. Rather than doggedly cleaving to parochial, specialized modes of expression, it continually adapts itself to the expectations of its audience, always seeking to maximize its critical impact.


The New Theory is radical.

Insofar as the scientific sea change that motivates it is radical. The Old Theory, which considers itself radical, is actually startlingly conservative. The critique of the subject arising out of Freud, Nietzsche, and the French philosophies of difference remains largely unaware of the truly astounding findings coming out of the sciences of the mind and brain. Where the Old Theory discusses ‘fragmented subjectivities,’ cognitive science has moved on to fragmented intentionalities more generally, questioning the stability and reality of things–context, affect, normativity, perception, and so on–that the Old Theory still takes for granted. The Old Theory, in other words, continues to anthropomorphize its discursive domain, positing intentionalities that the sciences are now calling into serious question. Ignorant of the truly radical alternatives, it continues to service the same folk-psychological intuitions that underwrite the cultural status quo.

The New Theory, on the other hand, realizes that all bets are off, that tradition and intuition may have been duped all the way down. For this reason, the New Theory is receptive to the possibility of facts that are out-and-out indigestible–culturally, psychologically–as well as to daring re-imaginings of political economy based on radically counter-intuitive accounts of ‘human nature.’ As a result, the New Theory embraces the crank, the amateur, understanding that unprecedented answers tend to come from institutionally unconstrained sources–from the weeds outside our academic gardens.


The New Theory is contemporary.

The past ten years have witnessed a cultural sea change that has largely passed unnoticed in the Old Theory. For all the ink spilled about the Enlightenment within the humanities, humanistic discourse has been relatively sheltered from the Enlightenment’s primary cognitive consequence: the scientific functionalization of explanation. The reason for this is relatively simple: For centuries the human brain has remained a black box, the one corner of the natural world that, thanks to its sheer complexity, has resisted the inroads of scientific inquiry. As a result, the humanities have been able to continue theorizing ‘in the old way.’

As with the Medieval Scholastics, the Old Theoreticians find themselves adrift in ambiguity, utilizing intentional concepts and explanations in almost total ignorance of their own cognitive shortcomings. And like the Medieval Scholastics, they have produced libraries of esoteric discourse possessing no real utility beyond their immediate institutional contexts. The angels have been replaced with social a prioris and the pins have been replaced with promiscuous signifiers, but the form of the game remains very much the same: cloistered specialists arguing largely for the sake of in-group identification and prestige.

The Old Theory is the product of the scientific intractability of its discursive domain. Questions of meaning and morality could be safely pursued in utter ignorance of the sciences, simply because the sciences had been repeatedly repulsed from the bastions of the brain. One need only cry “Positivism!” to banish the demons of scientific theoretical cognition.

No longer. The walls of complexity that once protected the soul have fallen. Cognitive neuroscience is no phrenology. Psychology is becoming ever more ‘naturalized.’ The knowledge produced in these discourses has already thoroughly permeated our society, determining what we see and purchase, how we raise our children and deal with our emotional difficulties, and more. This is why the Old Theory is doomed whether the New Theory is embraced or not: the intellectual ecosystems that rendered its myriad discourses viable are in the process of collapse.

The self-serving instinct, of course, will be to rationalize. Some will develop hybridizations, attempting to salvage as much of their old cognitive labour (as fruitless as it has been) as they can. The most valuable thing about a canon, after all, is that one has completed the labour of mastering it. Others will deny the collapse altogether, deny their obsolescence, and attempt to continue practicing theory in the old way. Thrown from the walls that once protected the soul, they will take shelter in the citadel of tenure. And there they will dwindle.


The New Theory is ugly.

As contemporary, as scientifically literate, particularly with regards to human cognition, the New Theory understands the kinds of resistance that will face it. It accepts the inevitability of strawman and guilt-by-association critiques. It realizes that humans, no matter how ‘gifted’ or ‘educated,’ cannot help but use their ongoing commitments as a rule to measure commitments they do not understand or like. The literature PhD is no different than the Baptist minister in this respect. Certainty is the human drug.(xz) The Old Theory may have quit smoking cigarettes, but it remains addicted to the cognitive gum.

Doubting our own claims is the high road, the hard road. Everyone but everyone, from the philosophy professor to the suicide bomber, thinks that they have either lucked their way or bootstrapped themselves into the winning combination of beliefs, more or less. Everyone thinks they have won the Magical Belief Lottery.

All that distinguishes the New Theory in this respect is that it knows its own hypocritical conceit, understands that it is inescapable, yet blunders doggedly forward nonetheless, always trying. The New Theory does not seek to conceal its ugliness; on the contrary, it revels in it, knowing that it will be more honest for its honesty. The New Theory is clap-trap and humbug, wishful thinking and flights of fancy. The New Theory, like all theory, is as biased and ignorant as the theorists who practice it…

As ugly as us.