Kathleen is a senior at Sarah Lawrence College who has just returned from the Oxford Program.
When I speak disdainfully of a ‘theory boy,’ if you are somewhat (even reluctantly) involved in the world of academia, you’ll know who I’m talking about. He’s an archetype that’s all too familiar in an academic setting. He spends a lot of time speaking — perhaps he just likes the sound of his own voice? — and he is preoccupied with performing what he thinks is intellectual behavior. He speaks authoritatively and confidently, and is often less than diplomatic — attributes which women are taught, consciously and unconsciously, to suppress. ‘Oh, you’re reading that?’ he gestures at your book, rolling his eyes under his beanie and returning to his copy of Being and Nothingness before you have a chance to defend yourself. I am not the only one who has attempted to classify him – the feminist literature professor Toril Moi was perhaps the first to officially coin the term ‘Theory Boy,’ back in 2003.
Her analysis is observational and rooted in her own experience (a breed of analysis in which the Theory Boy is inept), and describes what she has observed as a professor to graduate students. Many of her female students expressed to her that, in the classroom with the Theory Boy, they felt as if “…they are not listened to, that they are not taken seriously, and that they get the impression that their perceptions of the matter at hand are of no interest to anyone else.” (1) If you or your loved ones happen to be caught in the theory boy’s audience, you may feel this way. You could suffer from a nasty case of Imposter Syndrome. Unfortunately there’s no class-action lawsuit we can take against the Theory Boy. Indeed – the theory boy is not a monolithic breed of problematic man, he is a symptom of a larger issue. His actions replicate what Toril Moi defines as “a particularly clichéd ideology in which theory and abstract thought are thought to belong to men and masculinity, and women are imagined to be the bearers of emotional, personal, practical concerns.” (2)
Sixteen years later, Moi’s description still seems eerily familiar. In the seminar setting, women are often confronted with feeling as if their contributions are overlooked in favour of those who speak with the kind of conviction that does not allow for another perspective. When Moi confronted the theory boys in her own graduate seminar, she found that they were shocked to hear that they were being inadvertently sexist. Unacceptable as their actions may be, they were simply speaking to a Western masculine tradition of strong monologic rhetoric, one that they had been stewing in since birth.
In the seminar room, you bring up a good point, but grow weary when you believe no one has heard you, for they were all squirming in their seats trying to think of the clever point they were going to raise themselves. Theory Boy to the rescue: he repeats your exact point to a lively response from the group. Later, you bring up another brief point, being very careful to keep it precise and succinct: you’ve even written down verbatim what you want to say in the margins of your notes. You’re afraid that if you spend too long speaking, someone is bound to interrupt you. To your relief, you’re able to finish speaking, but as soon as you’re done, the Theory Boy swoops in again with the infamous words, ‘Piggybacking on that point…’, and spends the next five minutes pretending your ideas are his.
Annoying as he may be, the theory boy is not the root of the problem, he is the symptom: the problem is a broader pedagogical tradition of the intensely individual “genius.” It’s a regurgitation of a white male canon. The proclamations of the men in this canon are what have taught the Theory Boy to postulate as endlessly as he does. He co-opts other people’s points (often women’s), because he has learned that he must have his own bafflingly academic monologue in order to be considered a valid intellectual individual – individual being the key word here. He wants to establish himself and his thought and has little time for real dialogic conversation. He holds court in the classroom, monologuing like a Shakespeare character with a vocabulary consisting only of academic theory terms, without the courtesy of asking everyone else if he can borrow their ears.
He does this because he strives for symbolic capital, and thus it seems that symbolic capital is awarded to those who speak in abstractions, and taken from those who bring up observational analysis, rooted in lived experience. It is no wonder that these two categories have traditionally been assigned a gender: past philosophies have implicated that the abstract theory of the “masculine” mind trumps the truths of “feminine” embodiment. Perhaps this is why, when discussing an issue in an academic setting, people who abstractly theory-babble are somehow lauded as more intellectual than those who share their real-life experience with the issue at hand. The theory boy has learned what will gain him heaps of symbolic capital, so he performs a role to ensure he continues to roll around in it. Maybe you are ignoring the theory boy and thinking about what the next clever thing you’re going to say – this might actually make you theory-boy-adjacent, because his hallmarks are a flaunted academic prowess coupled with poor listening skills.
This is why theory boys are not always male: they are simply people who have learned a way to glean this symbolic capital and have become addicted to multiplying it, in a perverted sort of academic greed. But it is unsurprising that theory boys tend to be men, because they are socialised to engage in this kind of behavior. Boys coached in childhood that they must always win, particularly those with white privilege which has indicated to them that they are destined to always win, may very well grow up to be academics obsessed with this kind of word-regurgitation.
Theory boys are not destined to be rooted in this role forever, but there has yet to be any remotely hegemonic suggestion that he would be better off listening, contemplating, or considering; as opposed to his monologic routine. Theory boys reproduce theory boys in a vicious cycle: in undergrad, theory boys read theory boys; eventually become mentored by them, and in later in their academic careers, they cite each other, sit on panels together, and score tenure alongside people who talk just like them. This relation, according to feminist theorist Sara Ahmed, is “…often paternal: the father brings up the son who will eventually take his place. Patriarchy: it’s quite a system. It works.” (3)
There is, however, a potential antidote to the negative symptoms of the theory boy. It’s by no means a quick fix, rather, it would require a complete overhaul of how we are taught to intellectualise in the Western male tradition (unlikely), but just learning about it just might relieve you slightly. Eve Sedgwick dissects a particularly helpful dichotomy in her essay, ‘Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You.’ According to Sedgwick, critical theory has often relied on what Ricoeur called a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion.’ This just means that theorists are concerned with being right by defining the way things are without any wiggle room, squashing all potential counterpoints. Think of Freud insisting that his theories create a framework for the operation of pretty much all social relations – that’s a hermeneutics of suspicion. These theory boys, trying to replicate their theory boy forefathers, seek universality and totality in their definitions. Sedgwick calls this ‘strong’ theory, but ironically it’s not actually strong: it doesn’t leave room for the contingencies that academic analysis should value.
The opposite of this (and, maybe, our solution) is weak theory, which I prefer to call ‘soft’ theory, because it can be powerful. Weak theories can be described as ‘situated knowledges,’ in that they preserve nuance, which would otherwise be trampled and crushed by strong theory. Strong theory tries to be universal, but weak theory realizes that is an impossibility and instead focuses on local observations rather than all-encompassing proclamations. Strong theory seems to be much easier: it’s easier to strongly argue for the subjugation of bodies under matrices of power than it is to propose alternative solutions – yet the theory boy thinks he’s quite clever for bringing up Foucault for the hundredth time. If soft theory were valued, the woman who describes her lived experience in relation to a topic would not be scoffed at by the man who only speaks in abstractions.
Soft theory is a creative feminist reimagining of what our theoretical conversations could be, if we committed ourselves to opening up the dichotomies that silently control our seminar rooms. It isn’t about diplomacy or trying to avoid hurt feelings, it is a way to find bits of colour in problems that are often considered black and white. Next time you’re in a seminar with a theory boy that won’t shut up, remind yourself that you’ve got the upper hand when it comes to nuance and creative analysis, and you don’t have to lean on a paranoid hermeneutics of suspicion to articulate your thoughts.
- Moi, Toril. ‘Discussion or Aggression? Arrogance and Despair in Graduate School’, in The Grind: The Duke Graduate Student Newsletter, vol. 4 issue 1, Fall 2003.
- Ahmed, Sara (2014) ‘White Men’ Feminist Killjoy Blog http://feministkilljoys.com/2014/11/04/white-men/.
Moi, Toril. ‘Discussion or Aggression? Arrogance and Despair in Graduate School’, in The Grind: The Duke Graduate Student Newsletter, vol. 4 issue 1, Fall 2003
Burton, Sarah. The Monstrous ‘White Theory Boy’: Symbolic Capital, Pedagogy and the Politics of Knowledge, Sociological Research Online, 20 (3), 14<http://www.socresonline.org.uk/20/3/14.html> DOI: 10.5153/sro.3746
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky, ‘Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,’ in Touching Feeling : Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham ; London, 2003. Print.
Ahmed, Sara. ‘White Men’ (2014) Feminist Killjoy Blog http://feministkilljoys.com/2014/11/04/white-men/.