[From the Archives]: Teaching Theory

Diana Fuss’s “Teaching Theory” first appeared in issue 71/72 (2009) of the minnesota review. Fuss is the Louis W. Fairchild Class of ‘24 Professor of English and the Director of Graduate Studies at Princeton. She is the author of Essentially Speaking (1989), Identification Papers (1995), and The Sense of an Interior: Four Writers and the Rooms that Shaped Them (2004), which won the 2005 MLA James Russell Lowell Prize for outstanding scholarly book of the year. Her most recent book, Dying Modern: A Meditation on Elegy, is forthcoming from Duke University Press. Fuss is also the editor of several volumes and she is currently co-editing, with William Gleason, a collection of teaching exercises called The Pocket Instructor.

When I was a graduate student in the humanities at Brown in the heady theory decade of the 1980s, it seemed as if all the men were studying Marxism and all the women were studying Psychoanalysis. There were a few border-crossers here and there in the graduate program, and quite often the Marxist theorists and the Lacanian theorists coalesced around Deconstruction, but, for the most part, the men were in steady search of the real and the women were in hot pursuit of fantasy. While my male compatriots investigated material conditions, my female colleagues and I explored psychical emotions. The battle lines were drawn: hard and soft, economic and affective, public and private. Looking back, I find these highly gendered binaries surprising, especially in light of virtually everyone’s shared interest in feminist theory, one of the great attractions and strengths of the Brown PhD program, staffed at the time with some of the smartest gender scholars in the academy (Mary Ann Doane, Ann Fausto-Sterling, Ellen Rooney, Naomi Schor, Kaja Silverman, Elizabeth Weed…). And yet still we found ourselves splintering off into predictable byways, caught up in artificial theory debates largely of our own making: Foucault vs. Freud, Habermas vs. Irigaray, Marx vs. Derrida. Where our theoretical resistances found common ground was on the point of resistance itself: if you were not resisting something, we believed, then you were not theorizing. Theory is resistance.

Over twenty years later, the ghost of Paul de Man continues to haunt me still. For years his remarkable essay on “The Resistance to Theory” was my credo. De Man’s great insight was to see that the resistance to theory is not something outside the act of theorizing but inside it. Resistance, he insisted, is intrinsic to the theoretical enterprise itself. Theory works as a practice that raises questions about itself, and resistance operates as nothing less than its built-in precondition. Can the resistance to theory ever be overcome? For de Man, the answer is no: “Nothing can overcome the resistance to theory since theory is itself this resistance” (de Man 19).

De Man’s foundational essay is a tour-de-force piece of logic, a way to claim for theory the power of resistance while overcoming all our own. For a long time the paradox of this masterful definition of theory escaped me; only when I began to teach did I discover that the best way to lessen students’ immediate opposition to theory was to show how their concerns were themselves resolutely theoretical.

Ironically, de Man became useful as a strategy to mitigate student resistances rather than to cultivate them. De Man’s “The Resistance to Theory” became the most effective weapon in my own theoretical arsenal for resisting the students’ resistances.

 You can read the rest of “Teaching Theory” by accessing our online archive, available from Duke University Press here.

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