Writing in 2016, it’s sometimes hard to believe the influence that poststructuralist and postmodernist ‘theory’ had on university and intellectual culture in the 1980s and 1990s. Virtually every humanities and social-science department (and even some science departments) either adopted or at the very least was forced to confront the body of work of half a dozen (mainly) French thinkers and the English-speaking colleagues who took up the implications of their work. In the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, ‘theory’ was deeply polarizing – either the high point of intellectual virtuosity, the voice of a new politics or a nihilistic assault on Western culture. English and Philosophy departments fractured or split entirely, newly formed cultural-studies journals enthusiastically applied theory’s insights to the quotidian world, academic publication expanded massively. Outside the academy, theory was often denounced in the mainstream media as being meaningless jargon or politically dangerous, or both at the same time, while the theorists themselves retained a cult status both inside and outside the academy.
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