PRINT September 1993

The Lightness of Theory

The question is how light or heavy we are—the problem of our “specific gravity.”
—Friedrich Nietzsche, 1887

P.M. and M.C.

ONE CRITICAL REFLECTION we might engage in today concerns what “theory” is or has become for us. Not so long ago, across much of “advanced” visual culture, a typical short answer to the question “What is theory?” would have been “post-Modern, ever more post-Modern!” I myself had little use for this category, and some years ago tried to analyze how it had arisen and become so prevalent.1 The designation nevertheless lives on. But it has become too vague and elastic to mean much, and even journalists are growing less fond of it. In fact, post-Modernism is receding from us to the point where one may well wonder what it once was.

Thus, Jean-François Lyotard worries about the “contradictions of the post-Modern” in a work by that title to appear this fall in Paris, while Hal Foster’s remarks, in a recent article, exemplify a discussion more typical of the U.S.: the connection of the post-Modern and the multicultural. He encapsulates a symptomatic confusion when, looking back at post-Modernism, he declares that while French philosophers and critics in the ’60s told us that the subject is dead, we owe it to their American followers to have shown us that the deceased subject is a “very particular one, not to be mourned by all: white, bourgeois, humanist, male, heterosexual.”2 This sort of “parallax vision” makes for very dubious intellectual history. For a basic point of the “question of the subject” in Paris thirty years ago was precisely to get away from the whole idea that we are all “subjects” of such rigid “predicates.” Surely, now as then, we are more complicated, more strange, more mobile and “multiple” than that, as indeed some contemporary theorists of identity have tried to show.

Foster bases his readjusted view on Fredric Jameson. But it is a relief that Jameson does not himself feel the need to indulge in any such identity-political piety about dead subjects. He reacts to identity politics in another way, suggesting that contemporary cultural studies should go back to Sartre, for whom “identity” involved an unresolvable violence and enmity, unlike the class struggle, in which it is nevertheless rooted.3 Jameson thus blithely continues to talk of post-Modernism, confident that it names a stage in “late capitalism” as discerned by Ernest Mandel many years ago, before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, however, it is fair to say that it is much less obvious that capitalism is in a late stage, about to pass into something else (what exactly?); it is unclear what even Mandel himself might have thought about the matter. Our problem is rather to rethink the ideas of class and class struggle, and, in particular, their relation to contemporary minority movements. In going back to older views, Jameson seems to want to make class a sure “identity,” with none of the violence or “alterity” involved in the less certain, more mobile “identities” of minorities. And yet one may argue, on the contrary, that precisely what the “class struggle” showed us was that belonging to a class is no more an uncomplicated matter of “identity” than is belonging to a minority; class too carried the violence of something that was not yet defined, an “alterity” in social classification that invited movement and the imagination of other possibilities.4 In particular, such movement was one reason why class became important for artists as well as for theoreticians, as is the case today for some concerned with the questions of “identity” and cultural “multiplicity.” But what sort of theory allows for such mobility, such multiplicity?

“Multiculturalism” has now become as ubiquitous a term as “post-Modernism” once was, bearing the weight of conflicting meanings. Are we then going to say that M.C. just is P.M., or the latest stage of P.M.? Or is it not rather that our thinking itself needs to become more precise and more lean? The symptomatic and much maligned Whitney Biennial might serve as an indication of the problem: not that there was too much theory, but that there was a reliance on an unthinking and self-indulgent theory, unable and unconcerned to see the questions that in fact sometimes emerged from work. It was as though theory had become too heavy—top-heavy with its own self-importance—having lost the will or the ability to look with fresh eyes for what was real or singular or creative of new movement and possibilities.

It has now become hard even to remember that post-Modernism itself started out in this way, with a sense of new forces knocking at the door, new possibilities to try out, new forms or concepts to invent. For it has long since lost this vitality, its sense of wit, mobility, inventiveness—its lightness. Thus the real question is not how P.M. became “correct” enough to give us M.C.; it is rather how post-Modern theory became so heavy that it lost even the desire to look for those real points that allow thought to move and recreate itself—in short, how it became so dead.


Although there were many earlier uses of the term, “the post-Modern” was invented in the ’80s: a time of a wild debt-financed consumer extravaganza we have yet to pay for. It was as though a great sense of irreality had descended upon us, which extended into the realm of theory. We are only made-up things, we told ourselves, and live in a make-believe world: all is only “simulation,” “hyperreality,” “appropriation.” Two great assurances arose. There was the notion that nothing new can happen, and that we must content ourselves with more or less “ironical” recombinations, juxtapositions, quotations of what has been. And so we were at the End—the end of Modernity, reality, truth, “the subject,” and, of course, art, or, at least, the fine arts. Thus Hegel’s depressive idea that we are the End of History gained new currency in one way through Arthur C. Danto, in another through Francis Fukuyama, along with variations on the old theme of “the death of art.” Connected with this assurance about the End, there arose a second notion: that of the “simulacrum,” which said that there is nothing real, nothing out there for words or images to refer to, and therefore, nothing can be true; all is play of illusion and manipulation of image. Armed with these assurances that all is over and nothing is real, theory oscillated between irony and complacency, boredom and despair. Depression was the dominant affect—at least that was something “real”!

In this climate the “image” of theory itself began to change along “post-Modern” lines:

(i) there would be no new theory, only recombinations of what had already been thought. Gradually theory stopped even trying to invent new concepts or raise new questions, and became instead a set of stock formulas to be thrown together in the computer at will without regard for origin or rigor in an ever more arbitrary and entangled quotational patchwork.

(ii) the two great assurances of the End and of the Unreal applied to our own personalities or identities: “the subject” is dead, we were told, “the subject” is unreal. What this meant was that we are only “images,” only socially manipulated stereotypes, that we are thus not real but “socially constructed,” and there is little to distinguish us from cyborgs. This idea was then introduced into thought itself: “theory” increasingly became the name of a familiar sort of performance in academic symposia for an audience delighted by the personality and the “affairs” of a proud new figure, the Theorist. The problem of subjectivity tended to be reduced to such performance of the personal, as one was invited to speak of him- or herself, in little dramas of great self-importance. In this way the academic conference began to assume the form of the talkshow, allowing theory to find its way into the world of popular media, which, at the same time, it took as its special object.

(iii) At the end of the ’30s, Clement Greenberg’s formalism had taught that to protect itself, its “quality,” or its purity from kitsch, art had to turn in on its own constitutive forms, forms that in turn would become the sole object of theory. In the depressive ’80s, where nothing seemed real or alive any longer, there arose another type of internalization, another way of art turning in on itself. Social or political critique reverted to “internal critique,” a great rage against the institutions of art, their selections and exclusions, their links to market or patronage: they were responsible for the fact that nothing was moving, that everything was over or dead. Thus some “new historians” of art began to work from the assumption that art had always been tied to immovable Contexts (known only to the historian), and to examine the ways in which art had tried (always unsuccessfully) to challenge its institutions. And yet the ensuing theoretical controversy in the discipline—which pitted social Context against artistic Form—proved rather sterile, as though this grand opposition was not so telling after all. For both of the opposed terms were linked to processes of internalization, formal or institutional, and there was little room for those forces of the outside, which don’t fit into contexts, which complicate, deform, transform institutions, and so which cause art to invent new styles of formal articulation, and give theory the impetus to try out new questions.5

Thus in the ’80s, an institutional critique deriding an older formalism joined together with a dead “subject” reduced to an empty play of images to create a familiar style and persona in theory. But amongst all this unreality, all this death, all this talk of the end, all this consensus, where were the forces of the future, the points of resistance against both form and institution, in which art and theory live?

The Art of the Real

In relation to California cyberpunk, Jameson coins a suggestive label—“dirty realism.”6 In part he seems to have in mind a rejection of the “clean idealism” of the manic power-fantasies associated with a “cyberspace,” where the body is prosthetically cleansed of all but its “cognitive” functions, and so enters a realm where it can at last see without ever being seen, where nothing resists the wiring of the brain, and all reality has become “virtual.” “Dirty” means that we need to understand even VR in terms of a messy reality or untidy materialism of our bodies and their forces. Only then might we hope to extract it from a stupefying barrage of simulacrum-hype, where, in a nice West Coast theory-cocktail, we are told that VR is going to solve the problems of M.C., since it will allow everyone, irrespective of origin or history, biology or income, to just make up who he or she or it is (don your data-gloves and disappear! . . . ). Yet VR will only become interesting “theoretically” just when it is not content to “simulate” ourselves or our world, but, against the motives of military money, is used to describe something not given through our current representations of space, time, and movement, something singular and as yet unknown. The idea of “dirty realism” may, however, be extended beyond this particular context.

Jacques Lacan is often credited with being the father of the widespread assurance that “gender is socially constructed,” that sex is only mask and masquerade. But in fact not only did the psychoanalyst defend the perenniality of the phallic function, but his was an ethics of “the real.” When he said “there is no prediscursive reality,” he didn’t mean there is nothing real at all; he had a keen sense that there exists in our bodies something prior and irreducible to our imaginary “roles” and symbolic “identities.” Far from saying that sex images and identities are unreal social constructions, Lacan taught that sex is le réel itself. He saw the libidinal body as a disunified thing, dispersed by objets a (including the famous “gaze”) into the stumbling symptomatic complexities of our bodily existence; and he thought that one of the singular destinies of such objects was to recur and intersect in the strangely public space called “sublimation,” a space that includes “art” (as well as “antiart”). He said the very “function” of art, beyond patronage and market, is to re-create this singular bodily “real” we must otherwise repress.7

There is, then, a “realist” way of reading Lacan. It finds in the body something that is not just “image” or “identity,” but, on the contrary, that takes us away from image and identity to those junctures where an “impossibility” arises in the ways we participate in our worlds, fictive and real, that may spur on artistic or theoretical creation. One use for such “realist” Lacanian theory has been in a revised history of modernism that sees a “base materialism” and a Duchampian nominalism directed against the pieties of the “higher” functions of art, against the supposed “purity” of abstraction, and, in this sense, against art as “sublimation.”8

But perhaps in our own sort of “dirty realism” we may discern the signs of something similar today. We again see a concern with “abject” bodily functions, a need to expose what is intolerable in our society and our relations with ourselves and one another, a desire to speak again of “real” causes and movements. Such concerns, however, are no longer directed against the pretensions of a “sublimated” purity of abstraction, but against a no less fierce idealism: the terrible depressed unreality of our image-obsessed ’80s. It is as though there were a cry of the body, of the real, a refusal to think all is image and identity behind which there is nothing. “A little reality, a little body, a little materiality, if not we shall die!”—such is the cry turned against the cynicism that knew that all is image and that art or theory is anything with a public that will “buy” it. It is a cry that requires that there be more to democracy than such consumer populism. And such is the sort of question that belongs to “theory” rather than knowledge or opinion: questions where “the real” is not a “reality” that is already given or envisaged in our representations, hut, on the contrary, something unseen in them that disrupts them, and again sets them in motion. For theory is not a metadiscipline that supplies one ready-made the concepts for the critical analysis or formal appraisal of what we already know and see. It is not “internal critique” or rage against institutions, and the proposition that theory is practice must be understood in an experimental rather than a reductive way. Lightness in theory is this kind of experimentation not ordered by a given method, which arises when the way is not given, and several things, several questions, must be tried out at once.


Time has come to reinvent theory. It is sometimes thought that theory falls to us prefabricated from the heavens, like a set of abstract edicts, whereas in fact it too is fabricated, invented here on earth, as new questions arise to displace habitual ways of thinking. Too long have we been content to live off theory that has already been made elsewhere by others, adopting its enunciatory positions, assuming the roles in its drama, rather than creating new ones for ourselves. Thus we have grown immobile and wearied, and can no longer distinguish our theory from journalism or “informed” middlebrow conversation. Without question and drama, we have become heavy with too much uncreative theory, and to move again we must disburden ourselves of its weight. We need the lightness of new beginnings. We need to create for ourselves the room and the time to ask again “What is theory?” In the words Nietzsche and Peirce helped introduce into philosophy, we must become “experimentors” or “attempters” in theory.

What would it then mean for theory to again become light and experimental? In the first place, we can afford to introduce a little uncertainty, a little lightness about ourselves or our “identities.” We need to rescue the question of subjectivity from banal biography, from therapeutic narrative (in search of “role models” and “self-esteem”), and from predefined positions (“speaking as a . . .”), and rediscover the “innocence” of not knowing what we might yet become. We must again attain that point where to think is to get away from our “selves” and become “strangers to ourselves,” where we have to “invent ourselves” just because we do not know who we are, since our origins and aims are too various, too complicated, too disunified. For it is then that there is a chance for the movement of something not already “represented” in our relations with ourselves and one another. We need to introduce such multiple movement into our very concept of democracy or pluralism, traditionally restricted to models of representation and participation.

In the second place, we must become more “empirical”—that is, we must stop theorizing. What Peirce called the “experimental spirit” in philosophy was not so much a method as a precept: not to start from Cartesian certainty or abstract postulates. In this respect, it is akin to Wittgenstein’s cry: “Don’t think, look!” Today we need to stop “thinking” so as to start again to see what we can’t yet describe since we think too much. We need an art of description, precise critical description, of what is happening to us. But that art must itself become experimental: an art of “indefinite description” where the “real” is not an already given object, but the point of a gathering cluster of descriptions opening onto the unknown. We need to find that point where “the real” and the imagination of other possibilities are linked to one another, as when Proust says the true dreamer is the one who tries to go out and verify something.

There is, then, a third condition of “lightness” in theory: to lighten ourselves, to experiment, to offer “indefinite descriptions” of the real, is to suppose a certain attitude and relation to event and history. We must allow time in our midst for those events that complicate and multiply our relation to the past, connecting it to the forces of what is yet to come in what happens to us. Lightness is such movement without eternity or tradition, and that is why Zarathustra took as his arch enemy the spirit of gravity. Nietzsche is the one to have linked together the “lightness” of knowing and the “untimeliness” to which it is a force of the arts to give “body” and “space,” inventing new affects and new precepts, new ways of experiencing and seeing:

One has to be very light to drive one’s will to knowledge into such a distance and, as it were, beyond one’s time, to create for oneself eyes to survey millennia and, moreover, clear skies in these eyes.9

John Rajchman



1. John Rajchman, “Postmodernism in a Nominalist Frame,” Flash Art International no. 137, November–December 1987. Reprinted in my book Philosophical Events: Essays of the ’80s, New York and Oxford: Columbia University Press, 1991, pp. 118-125.

2. Hal Foster, “Post-Modernism in Parallax,” October no. 63, Winter 1993, p. 11.

3. Fredric Jameson, “On ‘Cultural Studies,’” Social Text no. 43, 1993, pp. 17-53.

4. Jacques Rancière sketches this conception of the working class in history in “Politics, Identification, and Subjectivization,” October no. 61, Summer 1992, pp. 58-64. For an elaboration of the word “proletariat” as a “word of history” see Rancière’s The Words of History, forthcoming front Minnesota University Press.

5. On this concept of “the outside” see Michel Foucault, “Maurice Blanchot: The Thought front Outside,” in Foucault/Blanchot, New York: Zone, 1987, pp. 7-58.

6. Jameson, “Demographics of the Anonymous” in Cynthia Davidson, ed., Anyone, New York: Rizzoli, 1991.

7. I develop this view of Jacques Lacan in my Truth and Eros: Foucault, Lacan, and the Question of Ethics, New York and London: Routledge, 1991.

8. Rosalind Krauss explores the role of the eye or of the “visual body” in this rethinking of Modernism in The Optical Unconscious, Cambridge and London: M.I.T. Press, 1993.

9. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann, New York: Random House, 1974, p. 343, #380.