Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Is theory useful?

If you come from the position that the function of a university is to produce people ready to make difficult things happen, then an answer to this question is very fast to imply itself. Theory is useful in so far as it produces usefulness, and above that it is either contingency planning or wasteful.

There's nothing wrong with having a clear telos. But, as Zizek is wont to point out - if the purpose of education is to produce people ready to solve predefined problems, then that is the death of both ideology and theory. If the overarching goal is usefulness, then the subtler points of reflection and perspective can be sacrificed without any loss. We know what to do, the only thing standing in our way is the lack of manpower to make it happen.

This might have been true if the world was threatened by something undeniably acute, like a huge asteroid approaching the Earth at terminal velocity. When survival hinges on one single factor, then focusing all attention to that one thing is a useful thing to do. There's really no need for theory - just look at the size of that thing! Now go help build the large ass gun that's going to save us all.

Spoiler alert: there's no huge asteroid approaching the Earth at terminal velocity.

Likewise, if the world is going to end, it's probably not going to be because of one single thing. It would rather happen because of the unexpected intermingling of a number of factors. Some of them obvious, some of them not. Most of them needing applied theory in order to be made sense of.

The thing about theory in the absence of huge asteroids is that one never really can tell if it's going to be useful or not. There's no if-then statements that can be made, other than the one that sounds the most useless of them all:

Given enough theory, people will act differently than they would have otherwise.

This goes for all kinds of theory. Rhetoric, comparative literature, political science, philosophy, sociology - the whole gamut of things one can know that are not directly tied to making something happen. You can learn it without at the same time learning to do any one thing in particular, and thus being disqualified from learning anything "useful" - yet you will also see the world in a new way, and approach it in new ways.

Is that useful?

You can paint yourself into all kinds of corners trying to make use out of sense. With enough theory, you will eventually tear down the fourth wall and realize that there is no asteroid, and that you therefore are free to do pretty much whatever you want without it having to be useful. That the world is larger than the scope of one singular task, and that the usefulness of a life is - as of yet - still to be determined.


  1. Isn't everything theory with varying certainty? Our access to reality is mediated so me maybe the best we can do is predict what is happening, rather than experiencing a positive fact. I always liked the Beano strip the Numskulls, in which the kid's brain is run by tiny people... There was a Woody Allen film like this too.

    1. There is a saying among media people. "I work with media, I can predict the future."

      It's either cynical or banal. Or both. ;)

  2. "there's no huge asteroid approaching the Earth at terminal velocity"

    As a matter of fact, there is no way for us to know that - if one is, the likelihood of us finding out about it before it hits us is close to zero.

    We simply lack the manpower and equipment to monitor the whole sky for incoming celestial bodies. The fraction we can monitor is negligible.

    And, to cheer everyone up a bit, there are plenty of celestial bodies that could potentially come our way.

    However, the metaphor still holds — we just have to imagine that somebody happened to be watching the exact right spot of the sky — for no practical reason whatsoever — and just so happened to understand what he/she was seeing, and happened to be philanthropic enough to tell the rest of us, and convincing enough to make us believe it.

    Ah, I see I forgot to bring up the subject of the difficulties with building guns that can blast a celestial body to smithereens so small they all burn up when entering the atmosphere, preferably without blasting the earth to smithereens in the process. Doh.


    1. Lazorz, man.

      No, seriously, it's the latest in asteroid repelling. Fire a whole bunch of lazorz at the same (well-chosen) spot on the asteroid. This will vaporize the rock on that spot, causing a jet of high-velocity asteroid-matter, which will act as a thruster rocket, nudging the asteroid off course, hopefully (if the lazor'd spot is well-chosen enough) making it miss Earth altogether.

    2. Gr8!

      That leaves us with the minor issue of spotting the rock before it hits us in the first place. :)