About Theory...



It feels as if you're Einstein, suddenly understanding that matter is an expression of energy, not loosely but according to a pattern, E=mc^2, and suddenly things click into place, mysteries are solved, things that never quite made sense before make sense.

Sometimes it feels like being Einstein with no credentials, with no one but the neighbors and your brother and maybe your high school algebra teacher to share it with, and they look at you like you're nuts and they say, "Energy is mass? Huh? I don't get it"; or "So? I'm not saying you're wrong but why does it matter as long as a chair is still a chair?"; or "Well if that were so, then I think the experts would say so and they don't".

I'm talking about theory -- theory as a verb, doing it. As a beginning grad student teaching undergrads, I used to tell my freshman students that we all have a social theory of our own, our picture of the world and what it's about and why it is what it is. And I do hate to mystify theory and the process of theorization by saying that this is not so, that people who "do theory" are engaging in some sort of different, more exalted process. But in fact it is not true for most people that they have a social theory of their own.

Because, unfortunately, most people by the age of, say, 15 or so have stopped trying to make sense of the world; they no longer proceed, if they ever did, on the assumption that one day on the road towards becoming a grownup they'll understand why things are the way they are, and how one should live; and they stop expecting the world as such to make sense and instead they look around and take notice of who seems to be surviving relatively well, and they observe how such people live and behave and what they apparently believe, and they copy them, they emulate them. They learn the "rules" from such people without expecting or requiring that the rules and the reasons and the belief systems on which they appear to be based make any real sense.

So in all fairness they cannot be said to be theorists, although it is true that to be a theorist you don't need any particular credentials or training.

There comes a moment when you consider an idea--a concept--and see how it explains a whole lot of true and factual yet (apparently) contradictory things about human experience so that the facts suddenly make sense, and when first this happens, it is thrilling and exciting!

You become addicted to the delicious notion that things do make sense and that the pieces do fit once you find the right way to turn them.

Then one day you're puzzling about some aspect of it all that has always confused you, perhaps even caused you personal torment, and all of a sudden everything clicks into place and it's like understanding 3-dimensional shapes where before you'd been thinking in 2, or seeing the world in color instead of as shades of grey. Something about life and people and society you'd never seen before, and then once you see it you can't imagine ever again not seeing it, it becomes so compellingly true, so blatantly obvious; the world is incomprehensible to you without this new understanding!

As you can imagine, anything so powerful can be a dangerous thing, all the more so if the ideas are at least partially contagious. And, mostly anything that rivets the individual theorist strongly with its undeniability as an explanatory framework is likely to be capable of affecting at least some other people in a similarly powerful manner.

For this reason a healthy respect for human fallibility is a good and useful thing. Human fallibility is something even the clearest explanatory theory and the most intense emotional response to it can never fix or eliminate.

Having said that...come, let me show you what I have seen!