Hall: Theoretical fluency

I recently stumbled upon the phrase “theoretical fluency” in an essay by Stuart Hall. In one sense, it is an intuitive phrase – being able to converse fluently about things theoretical, knowing how to produce discourse around things in the abstract. In another sense, perhaps equally as intuitive, it connotes an ability to spring into lengthy soliloquies on any topic theoretical, be it postmodernism, feminism or the mood in late 19th century Prussia prior to German unification – without necessarily knowing what the ever increasing voluminousity of verbiage actually means. The first sense is, as you might imagine, preferable; nothing quite beats someone who knows what they are talking about. Yet there is always the suspicion whenever someone goes on at length, on any topic, that it might all very well be a case of fluency in the second sense; the author, having finally found an excuse to expound the matter, goes at it with gusto and great enthusiasm. Being able to tell which is which is not always an easy proposition.

It does not help that the ability to explode into theoretical discourse is a skill in its own right, only loosely related to grasping the theories themselves. Knowing the theories of Foucault (to take a popular example) does not automatically lend an immediate proficiency in retelling them in an interesting or accurate manner. It takes time and effort to craft language which conveys both the broad strokes and the fine points, and like everything else there is a skill to it. Like with most theory, the one surefire way to improve this skill is practice.

What makes matters even less clear is a cultural tendency to view presentational prowess as intelligence. Being able to perform the moves of presentation (as in giving a lecture or writing a text) lends an aura of being knowledgeable. Someone who has delivered a stunning TED talk is seen as more competent than someone who barely managed to stumble through the same material. This goes even if the TED presenter exhausted every bit of knowledge in that one presentation, while the stumbler has spent years reading up on this stuff. Knowledge is not necessarily a powerful mover of hearts and minds, as it were.

This opens up for a notion of theoretical fluency which conforms very closely to a common stereotype of academics: people who are very adept at blowing hot air, but whose range of actually useful knowledge only extend as far as keeping themselves employed in their cushy jobs. And to be sure, being able to perform Foucault, Derrida or whomever else happens to be in vogue at the moment – is a very useful skill to have in academic settings. It helps in getting the grades needed to insert oneself into such circumstances, and can be instrumental to maintaining an employment once attained. Since so many things in academia do not go without saying, being able to blow hot air has a very tangible real world application.

It might be tempting to go all in on the bullshit angle, and describe someone who knows nothing but is very good at verbally passing the bucket along. This would be unfair, however, and less than useful. It takes a certain amount of effort to find out what to say, which sources to invoke, which turns of phrase will accomplish just the right amount of ingroup bonding – and so on. A more interesting aspect of theoretical fluency is how knowing these subtle discursive signs becomes a skill and goal in itself. Given that most of them are rooted in reasons that are historical (and thus ruthlessly arbitrary), they can not be intuited or deduced from general principle. The only way to know the generic markers and secret handshakes is to perform a certain amount of work – or, phrased another way, to undergo the process of socialization. Attaining theoretical fluency is not a matter of pretend or being an impostor; it is still necessary to become a legitimate member of the academic community, jumping through all the requisite hoops and performing all the rituals.

What worries Hall is a possibility (perhaps a tendency) to become too proficient at performing the theory, at the expense of grappling with what the theorists set out to do. A non-trivial number of the canonical 20th century theorists wrote under 20th century conditions, and wrote with the intent to accomplish a radical theoretical shift which would prevent their present from repeating itself. Never again. There is a radical intensity to these thoughts which is not easily translated into theory, even in contemporary academic circumstances which style themselves as critical. There is a tendency of translating manifestos into tokens, talking points which convey just the right amount of context without actually having to work through the implications. A reference to this thinker here, another thinker there, and a third one just to cover all the bases. Suddenly the history of ideas is reduced to a number puzzle pieces, which only have to be placed in the correct order to achieve publication.

Again, let’s avoid the temptation to fall into caricature. Some shorthand is always necessary, and finding fast ways to convey complex ideas is a virtue. Hall’s worry is a theoretical fluency which turns on all topics with equal alacrity, without first assessing where theoretical action is most necessary or useful. To use an example: someone wearing a piece of symbolically loaded article of clothing of an indigenous culture may or may not be cultural appropriation. It probably is, in several ways. However, if an author’s first and only response to centuries of colonial history leading up to this point is to mobilize a vast array of theoretical frameworks and resources in an elaborate attempt to show why this one singular person was wrong – then the author has exhibited an impressive amount of theoretical fluency, and a very clear case of not getting the point of any of it.

Hall: Theoretical fluency