What’s the use of theory?

[At RSVP this year, I gave a paper entitled ‘”In Our Last”: The Presence of the Previous in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical’. It was presented as part of a panel entitled ‘What’s the use of theory’, along with excellent papers by Margaret Beetham and Matthew Philpotts. I’m currently revising the paper for Resurrecting the Book, but thought that the introduction, which is being cut, was worth blogging. It’s been slightly edited so it makes a bit more sense as a standalone piece.]

The title of this panel, ‘What’s the use of theory?’ provocatively suggests that theory might be useless. I want to explore why it appears that this is so. There is an irresistable supplementarity about this question, which implies – in true Derridean fashion – that theory is both in addition to periodical studies, and yet periodical studies is somehow deficient without theory. For me, this sums up one of the frustrating – and exciting – things about working in this area. For many of us, periodicals represent an important object of study because they were what people in the nineteenth-century actually read. To account for material found in periodicals, it is necessary to account for the periodicals themselves: how they looked, what they cost, how they presented their contents, and how they were put together. The great strength of periodical studies is the way that it is grounded in the archive and the field has been characterized by a strong tradition of methodological reflexivity. The bibliographical problems associated with working with this material – there is a lot of it; it often exists in fragmented runs; it is (or was) hidden away on library shelves – are well known and attempts to solve them have characterised our work. However, the objects themselves still seem to resist us. Each attempt to exert bibliographical control exposes how much more there is to know and how much can never be known. Every volume on the shelf signals the many different formats in which it also exists and has existed. Page after page offers references and allusions to people, texts, commodities and publications of which there are no trace. We want an object of study, not a kaleidoscopic range of forms. We want a single originary source, not plural accounts of writers, editors, illustrators, engravers, publishers and printers. We want a neat set of objects, accessible and delimited, not the fragmented remains of a publishing process. What we have, I will argue, are not nineteenth-century periodicals, but representations of them. We have no choice but to be theoretical.

The richness of the archive makes theory appear supplementary. It is so large, complex and suggestive, that worrying about theory seems somehow redundant (if not indulgent). Given that these were objects designed to be read, theory seems suspiciously to take us away from what the periodicals actually were and were for. Yet without theory we cannot do justice to these complex print objects from the past. Reading periodicals today is not the same as reading periodicals in the nineteenth century: the objects may be date from the past, but we can only work on them now, in the present, in an attempt to recreate a set of uses that have necessarily passed. When we ask what is the ‘use’ of theory, it is implied we have no use for it; yet we never really engage with historical objects in any unmediated way. What we do is already theoretical but, encompassed within the aura of the archival object, we overlook the way our scholarly resurrections of the periodical limit what it might have been.