Theory and Me
What is it that makes 'theory' so enticing? I think it can simultaneously convey feelings of surprise, hidden connections, and newfound mastery that together bring the theorist or reader into a charmed state. Thinking becomes an urgent activity, and big thoughts make contact with the world, resonating in the air like gongs.
Anyway, this was my experience as a junior and senior in high school when I discovered and got feverishly involved in the 'postmodern' theorists--Foucault, Deleuze, Baudrillard, etc. At a point when I was still fairly uninterested in math/science, tired of school, and resentful of the authority of both, these authors offered an exhilerating counternarrative and an alternative standard of intellectual rigor. Although they generally disavowed systematic thinking, their writing was characterized by a small number of patterns (often taking the form of a surprise inversion) that operated repeatedly in diverse settings to yield radical consequences--a set of 'magic keys' to experience.
That experience gradually turned sour. I realized that in my eagerness to apply these new theoretical ideas anywhere and everywhere I was becoming insensitive to the world; my thinking was driven by the need for radical contrarianism rather than the desire to truly understand. Then, too, I took my first computer science course, which opened up a whole new chapter in my adventures in theory (a tale for another time). Today I am very far removed from the person I was in that period. My relationship to theory has cooled down considerably even as it's grown happier and more productive; this is, I'm sure, due both to the nature of mathematics as a field and to my changing temperment as I leave adolescence behind (of course, the factors are related).
But mathematical and scientific theories are not necessarily so different from others. They too can form empires in our minds and govern our search for meaning, and it is up to scientists to choose their masters wisely. Just as philosophical systems like postmodernism run the risk of becoming vacuous in their generality and predetermined in their findings, I think there are significant risks in becoming absorbed in scientific trends, like 'nonlinear science', that combine emotional resonance, polemicism, and seemingly unbounded applicability.
Not to say that good science doesn't appear under that rubric. None of this should be taken as criticism of particular theories, in particular of the pomo theorists mentioned, whom I've seldom read since high school (oh yeah, and their appeal wore off even faster once I got to Swarthmore and they became commonplace..). I'm just describing an individual relationship to theory, in the hopes that it might help others reflect on theirs.
Some people have 'break-up songs', that help them both to look back and to move forward; for me and postmodernism I'd say it was Pynchon's novel 'The Crying of Lot 49', which captured in transmuted fashion a lot about my own search for meaning in high school: the growing uncanniness, the thrill of transgression and revelation; the need (without clear motive) to uncover patterns of power, domination, and covert resistance; the eventual nausea and disillusionment, along with an unshakeable sense that a mystery has slipped thru one's fingers.
And on that note--new Pynchon out this month. Fingers crossed!