The internet was out on campus the other day, almost the entire day. No email, not web surfing. Many routine tasks could not be accomplished. It was the next to the last week of a long semester. In the lunch room the colleagues were in a feisty mood. Four of us got to talking, a group of two of us with PhDs in the late 80s and two in the early 2000s, two peninsularists and two Latin Americanists. One complained about the overuse of theory among certain "big names" in our field. We were supposed to be past a certain style of use of theory, but someone this use of theory persists in certain institutional forms. I pointed out that we were in a bind: we could encourage our graduate students to use theory more lightly or more subtly, but they would still see flashy but overtheorized work featured prominently in books published by Duke University Press. Real briliance, in our opinion, was bringing to light something that should be obvious but that nobody had ever articulated before, not mastering a flashy metalanguage. One colleague's opinion was that theory could be a way of avoiding the hard work of cultural studies, of actually doing the research in the field, the archives. We talked about our graduate students, how some in the past had eagerly taken to Deleuze and Guattari, to the rhizome. But did we really want our students to be "creative" if they were not disciplined? I said that you should understand at least 80% of a theory before you used it. By that criterion, I myself lack the intellectual capital to use, say, Walter Benjamin. Sure, I've read him and read about him, and am very interested in him, but do I really have the philosophical background to say I know what he's saying with 80% certainty? Someone responded by saying that the more mature a critic was, the more this kind of modesty comes into play. I am not a modest person by any means, but I think I know enough to know what I don't know.
The internet should go out more often, because it was truly a stimulating conversation.