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Theory without Object: Histories and Historical Accounts

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Organizer: Daniel Carranza

Co-Organizer: William Stewart

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For a term bandied about ubiquitously and with little conceptual caution, “theory” as a discursive category exhibits a remarkably torqued development in 20th-century Western thought. The contemporary sense of t/Theory traces roots back to Max Horkheimer’s 1937 distinction between “traditional” and “critical theory”: where the former is defined by its epistemological relation to empirical facts, the latter concerns itself with the historical and ideological conditions that produce that very act of “theorization.” Horkheimer invoked t/Theory to describe forms of knowledge that engage with the social modes of production from which they emerge. In the intellectual generation that followed, this project of theory continued to decouple from practical application. Following Philipp Felsch, the postwar era treated t/Theory as something closer to an affective mode, a genre marked by the expectations of a specific set of consumers and the contexts in which texts circulated. From this vantage of its reception history, t/Theory is a productively unstable cultural shibboleth: equally a rallying point around which post-68 political movements formed, as a lodestar toward which the post-Cold War art market oriented itself (indeed, even to the point of packaging it as art outright). Notable in both of these historiographies is the way that such a sense of t/Theory—from θεωρία, meaning “contemplation, speculation, looking at”—conjures up not a speculative metaphysical practice aimed at a universal science, but rather a locally specific intellectual history, a reflexive theorization of theory as history. But if, as Horkheimer contends, t/Theory relinquishes any claim to a blind universalism, does the rejection by t/Theory of “objectivity” also necessitate its “object-less-ness”? Or is theory’s retreat from the empirical, rather than a radical epistemological critique, only one more symptom of a broader and ongoing shift toward the virtual in disciplines as diverse as mathematics, natural sciences, economics, cybernetics, and art?

Our seminar invites case studies that investigate how theoretical infrastructures emerge in the humanities. Its core question asks whether the historicization of t/Theory might itself require a theory of the history of t/Theory and of the conditions for its pluralizations. . In laying bare the empirico-historical necessities of a theoretical articulation, do we turn to its media foundations, to the socio-institutional context, or to what is known as the “praxeological” dimension (i.e the way media formats, affordances of collaboration, and social-material practices shape research agendas)? This seminar is interested in papers that locate unexpected juxtapositions in t/Theory’s development, whether in geographical contexts, media regimes, academic settings, or political formations. We also invite contributions that examine how the “canon” of t/Theory is (re)negotiated to include new authors, perspectives, and constellations.

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