Who's Afraid of a Little Theory?

A history of how one term became so critical to American conservatives

Influential French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930- ), founder of the International College of Phi...
Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Getty Images
Samuel Catlin
Pearl Clutching

“‘Critical race theory,’” conservative activist Christopher Rufo told the New Yorker in May 2021, “is the perfect villain.” Before landing on that term, “critical race theory” (or “CRT”), Rufo had in fact been cycling through other, less-than-perfect options for a while: “political correctness,” for one, a term which now sounds slightly quaint in the post-Trump media landscape and which, he added, “doesn’t apply anymore”; “cancel culture” (“a vacuous term” that “doesn’t translate into a political program”); “wokeness” (“too broad, too terminal, too easily brushed aside”). Obviously both “cancel culture” and “wokeness” have had staying power, but it’s hard to deny that Rufo was right to identify CRT as his “perfect villain,” if only because of the swiftness with which CRT was slotted into position as one of the central MacGuffins of the contemporary American culture wars. Just what was it about this term that made it so potent?

Although CRT often arrives packaged together with “wokeness,” “cancel culture,” and other buzzwords — “cultural Marxism,” “social justice warriors,” and so on — Rufo correctly understands that they perform different, albeit related, kinds of ideological work for the right. Take “wokeness.” As Sam Adler-Bell has defined it, this word indexes “the invocation of unintuitive and morally burdensome political norms and ideas in a manner which suggests they are self-evident.” If wokeness is thus the practice of invocation — along with, per Sam Kriss’s argument, the “cluster of postures and affects” involved in that practice, rather than “a cohesive ideology” — then CRT names (at least according to right-wing activists) the “cohesive ideology” that’s being invoked. Moreover, CRT is understood as institutionally, and more specifically pedagogically, disseminated: educators teach CRT, the story goes, and thereby use a combination of authority and social pressure to turn ordinary, thoughtful American students into a mindless horde, “the woke.” As Rufo put it: “It’s not that elites are enforcing a set of manners and cultural limits, they’re seeking to reengineer the foundation of human psychology and social institutions through the new politics of race.”

Actually, until Rufo got his hands on it, CRT uncontroversially named a delimited corpus of legal scholarship, taught almost nowhere except in the seminar rooms of some American law schools. Its proper academic application is so narrow that many actual critical race theorists were surprised and frustrated to see it suddenly meme-ified in the mass media, applied to a great many things — the 1619 Project, elementary education, etc. — which no academic would ever call CRT. For the right, however, the point is the rhetorical effect of the label “CRT” itself, the connotations it bears and the affective charge it detonates in the national media imaginary. Those connotations hang on one particular piece of the formula: “theory.” CRT is a “perfect villain” where the slangier “wokeness” is not because “critical race theory” already conveys everything Rufo wants it to, without any sustained explanation, thanks to the tag “theory,” which dredges up a very specific tangle of collective psychic baggage and readymade media tropes.

Accordingly, we find a phobic reaction to “theory” elsewhere in contemporary right-wing discourse beyond the specific moral panic over CRT. I was recently struck, for example, by Andrew Sullivan’s repeated pejorative use of the phrases “gender theory,” “critical gender theory,” “critical queer theory,” and “critical theory” in his Tweets. That rhetoric is perfectly in keeping with the anti-queer theory, pro-homonormativity political ethos Sullivan has consistently advocated since the height of the AIDS crisis, but it’s interestingly out of step with the terminology of transphobic activists in the UK, who tend rather to speak of “gender ideology.” Sullivan, who was born in the UK but has resided in the US since the mid-1980s, would appear to be imbibing something peculiar to stateside culture wars.

Indeed, “theory” reigns as one of the right’s chief villains du jour. In their book Cynical Theories (2020), James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose harangue against “Theory,” which they spell with an imposing capital T and under whose aegis they indiscriminately lump a wide range of heterogeneous philosophical and political projects with little in common except the authors’ disdain. Among the hundreds of stories the Federalist, a reliable bellwether for this stuff, has published about “theory” over the past few years, the alarm is raised not only about CRT but also about “critical theory,” “trans theory,” and “white privilege theory.” Some of the appeal of the phrasing can be attributed to the smash success of the CRT panic, but it’s telling how “race” can be dropped from the formulations in order to slot in other identity categories. A conservative activist group that explicitly identifies itself as “adamantly opposed to Critical Race Theory” calls itself Parents Against Critical Theory, or PACT; the chosen acronym is obviously catchier than PACRT would’ve been, but one wonders why they didn’t go with “PART.”

The right’s rhetorical attachment to “theory” and “critical theory” is clarified when we take a longer view of the culture wars, a historicizing move that requires us to pay attention to a different set of rhetorical bundles: not “wokeness,” “cancel culture,” and “CRT,” but “theory,” “critical theory,” “postmodernism,” “deconstruction.” If we look at the recent media frenzy around CRT from this slant, we can better understand how it fits into a storied American tradition of anti-intellectualism whose favorite target has for decades been something called “theory.”


“Theory” drifted into the American mass media downwind of academic debates in the 1970s concerning a perceived influx of French thought — especially deconstruction — into the literature departments of select universities. The hysterical intensity of the backlash to so-called “French theory” is difficult to overstate: literary critics spoke out against its “hermeneutical mafia,” its “degenerate” and “uncivilized” writing, and warned it would “destroy literary studies.” By the mid-1980s, you could find lurid stories of the intellectual goings-on in, say, Yale’s English department splashed across the pages of the New York Times and Newsweek as well as literary journals like the NYRB and LRB, tales of a lit-crit “Gang of Four,” of “tyranny” and “all-out war.”

For its academic opponents, theory threatened to displace the analysis, interpretation, and appreciation of literary works. In addition to reading a canon of great works, English majors and especially graduate students were increasingly expected to master an equally towering secondary canon of theoretical works by the likes of Derrida and de Man, Freud and Lacan, Spivak and Said, Jameson and Althusser, Butler and Sedgwick, Agamben and Deleuze…. So theory named, first, the abandonment of what many took to be the normal, self-evident purpose of studying literature. Second, it signaled the non-commonsensical: on this view, the rise of theory meant you had to learn something from outside a text in order to understand what was going on inside it. Critics worried that when theorists and their students read a text, they were not reading the work itself but rather an overlay of ideas, indeed of ideology. Extending this critique, others maintained that those who bought into theory did so because they were seduced by the charisma of its leading proponents, implying that theory not only inhibits access to the aesthetic experience of literature but also that it lacks intellectual content, reducing it to an arcane — and foreign — tongue.

This might sound like a merely academic affair. And it was, for a while. Literary studies has never been a strictly academic concern, though, because aesthetic culture has long been regarded as the space of the nation’s self-idealization, just as the elite university — what with its carefully curated, nominally diverse classes of the nation’s best and brightest — is the exemplary scene of American self-formation. This is one leading reason why media commentators care so much about what’s happening in humanities departments, even as those departments’ budgets are slashed again and again in obedience to the marketplace’s pitiless calculus. Today, non-profit universities closely resemble for-profit corporations, not least in their labor relations, and yet on the ideological level the expectation remains in place that the university should cultivate tasteful citizens. The elite university or college still assumes a disproportionate role in debates about American identity and values, and the humanities consistently draw the bulk of that attention. What goes in the English classes of the Ivy League is somehow thought to be indicative of the essence of the nation at large.

And so we continue to get op-eds like this one in the Wall Street Journal, wherein James Campbell bemoans how theory,

[c]onceived in Paris…began a takeover of English studies in the 1980s. The reverberations are felt today in the ‘decolonization’ of criteria—the latest step being the banishing of allegedly ‘white supremacist’ ancient classics—and in the toppling of statues and the renaming of schools. Until Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and others revolutionized literary studies, specialist writing was reserved for specialized disciplines…. But literature by its nature resists marginalization. Since the time of Homer, it has been the common cultural conversation.

If Campbell voices the standard right-wing line about theory here, it’s worth noting that there’s also a less robust but equally persistent tradition of anti-theory sentiment in some corners of the left. In a review of Gregory Jones-Katz’s excellent new intellectual history Deconstruction: An American Institution (2021) published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, literary critic Timothy Brennan exemplifies the recurrent tendency to dismiss theory, especially the “high theory” of deconstruction, as abstract, elitist, and detached from material, historical, and political exigencies. Placed alongside each other, Campbell’s and Brennan’s pieces — each casting Jacques Derrida as its antagonist — would seem to be describing two distinct and politically opposed phenomena. Derridean deconstruction is somehow glossed from the right as the root cause of “the toppling of statues and the renaming of schools” by left-wing student activists and at the same time from the left as not nearly politically radical and liberatory enough. Proceeding from the shared premise that theory abstracts from things in themselves, both right- and left-wing commentators who regard this abstraction as politically deleterious can set theory up as their straw man. (One memorable recent essay even charges theory with being an intelligence op devised to defang the Marxist left.)

The sense that “theory” may be something of an empty signifier is confirmed when we consider the matter of its supposed Frenchness. On one level, it’s indisputable that the stateside dissemination of French philosophy was essential to the phenomenon — but Jones-Katz details in his book how this dissemination was made possible only through local social, economic, political, and cultural factors in the US. “French theory” is as American as it gets: in France, the texts Americans call “theory” are referred to as critique littéraire or philosophie. In fact, the euphemism “French theory” is so identifiably American that it stands untranslated in the François Cusset’s 2003 French-language intellectual history French Theory: Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Cie et les mutations de la vie intellectuelle aux États-Unis. In an ironic reversal of Americans’ Europhobic resistance to theory, the French intelligentsia is now kicking up a fuss over (as Emmanuel Macron put it in an October 2020 speech) “certain social science theories imported entirely from the United States of America [certaines théories en sciences sociales totalement importées des États-Unis d’Amérique].” Macron warns that these American theories, in vogue at French universities, endanger the integrity of the French republic by asking questions about racism, Islamophobia, and the legacies of colonialism in French society. On both sides of the Atlantic, then, the nation’s youth — and, therefore, its future, which is to say the nation itself — is imperiled by a foreign invasion of educational institutions, an invasion of theory.

So it’s unsurprising that “deconstruction,” too, makes regular appearance in right-wing rhetoric of recent years, as do philosophers associated with it like Derrida (and, just as frequently, philosophers emphatically not associated with it, such as Michel Foucault; recall Jordan Peterson’s list of “Postmodern NeoMarxists,” which lumps together Derrida, Foucault, and, bizarrely, Robin DiAngelo.) The Federalist has complained about deconstruction, “deconstructionism,” “deconstructionists,” and “theoretical deconstruction” upwards of 50 times, the majority of them in 2020–22, often tracing a direct line from Derrida to “CRT”: “What binds and fortifies the self-declared woke,” writes Lewis M. Andrews in one of those stories, “is a cynical academic philosophy known as ‘critical race theory,’” which he traces “from deconstructionism through political correctness to identity politics.” The ambiguity of the phrase “critical theory” — which sometimes means “theories that are critical” (as in “critical race theory”), sometimes means “theories of [literary] criticism,” and at still others indexes the discrete Marxist enterprise of Frankfurt School thinkers like Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse — is of course very convenient for these purposes, allowing polemicists to slide from the one to the other in order to spin out specious genealogical webs binding deconstruction to CRT to Marx.

The salient point is that it’s “theory” to which the right returns again and again over the decades, updating its denotations while the same connotations remain in place. “Theory” continues to set off rhetorical effects in the discourse of the culture wars. Just as importantly, those effects have no necessary relation to the ideas communicated in the texts labeled “theory.” This is crucial, because anti-theory polemicists of all persuasions typically have such a weak grasp on the material that it can be tempting to expend one’s energy correcting their misrepresentations, especially if, like myself, you care about the ideas being smeared. To do so — say, to wade into a dispute as to whether Immanuel Kant invented CRT (he didn’t) — would be at best a vain distraction. Theory is back in the right’s vocabulary, if indeed it ever left, because it serves a political purpose: it inflames public anti-intellectualism and directs the media toward ideas which are made to seem non-commonsensical, foreign, and dangerous. At first glance this appears to be an academic fight, but really it is a political one.


Aesop’s Fables records the story of Thales of Miletus, an ancient philosopher regarded as the first to have inquired rationally into the natural world:

While Thales the astronomer was gazing up at the sky, he fell into a pit. A Thracian woman, both wise and witty, mocked him for being interested in what was happening above his head while failing to notice what was right there at his feet.
(Fable 314, translation modified)

This fable’s moral evokes contemporary American anti-intellectualism. The historian and philosopher Hans Blumenberg has even suggested we regard Thales as “the first theorist.” What Aesop leaves out, however, is the fact that by spending his nights craning his neck to look up at the heavens, Thales became the first Greek without prophetic or oracular powers to successfully predict a solar eclipse. That is to say: Thales’s “theorizing” helped people better understand their world. Aesop’s fable sides with the Thracian woman, but it does so only by eliding the value of Thales’s intellectual contribution to his society.

We can read this fable as an allegory of the resistance to theory. One such interpretation remains confined to the narrative world, such that theory is indeed ridiculous and mystifying. However, a second interpretation accounts for the narration as well as the narrative — accounts, that is, for how theory is framed pejoratively by being dissevered from its social function.

This interpretation points toward a different conclusion: When “theory” is disparaged, which ideas are being obscured and which are made to seem natural, self-evident? Who benefits from this eclipse? And what are they doing in the dark?

Samuel Catlin teaches literature and Jewish studies at the University of Chicago. His current research tracks the historical role of ideas about Judaism and Jewishness in the academic study of literature in the U.S.