Making it Work: Teaching Political Theory as a Toolbox

Michael Laurence, PhD, University of Western Ontario

Just imagine, as joyful or painful as it might be, that you are an undergraduate student again.

Political theory class. Always mandatory. No escape. A semester of reading antiquated texts, sitting through lectures with drooping eyes, fleshing out abstract arguments that barely seem to make sense, reproducing them ad-­‐ infinitum so you can ‘move beyond’ political theory and never look back. Is it really surprising that so many undergraduate students do everything in their power to avoid theory? Perhaps a more direct question would be: how lifeless is the political theory ‘experience’ for most undergraduate students?

A sure recipe for draining the life out of political theory, or of any discipline for that matter, is to maintain a pedagogical structure where the student is rendered a passive recipient of knowledge, and the instructor, a figure or guardian of supreme knowledge, who acts almost unilaterally upon the student. Where they are fashioned solely as passive subjects in

This essay is part of the Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List

relation to theory, there will always remain legions of the unaffected, multitudes of disinvested students who care little for the richness of thought and living relevance that political theory can offer.

As a new professor in the field of political theory, I have begun to develop a series of assignments and exercises with the aim of encouraging students to transform themselves from passive subjects of theory to agents of it -­‐-­‐ users of theory. I believe that when students become active users of theory, they invest it with their own desires, and it becomes entangled in their lives. They begin to see the immensity of what it can offer, the potential for vision and action that it enables. Because that is what political theory is: a living cartography of who we are and what we might become.

In its basic form, the idea comes from French theorist Gilles Deleuze. In a discussion with Michel Foucault, Deleuze argued that we ought to think of theory as a box of tools: “It must be useful. It must function. And not for itself. If no one uses it, beginning with the theoretician himself (who then ceases to be a theoretician), then the theory is worthless or the moment is inappropriate (208).” This might sound alarming or dangerous to theorists who desire to safeguard the ‘canon’, or to those concerned with the reproduction of existing epistemic orders and their corresponding economic and social hierarchies. Yet Deleuze is making an important point, one that must be taken seriously in a democratic culture. He cites Marcel Proust, who asked readers to “treat(his) book as a pair of glasses directed to the outside… (208).” The point here is to use theory as an instrument. Deleuze goes even further, however, suggesting it should be an instrument for combat against dominant forms of power and it should multiply the possibilities for thought and action rather than totalize and imprison them. Some of us have experienced what it feels like when theory works upon us or with us in this way, as a multiplier of thought. In such moments it feels as though the world is opening up before you and that anything is possible. This is precisely the point: anything is possible, nothing inevitable.

Assignments and classroom activities constructed upon Deleuze’s idea must incite and challenge students to become agents of theory, to ‘put theory to work’ as a device for intervention in the present. In writing and in discussion, I have begun to call upon students to deploy the theories that they learn, to use theory to analyze and make sense of current events and everyday situations in their own lives, and to use it to articulate future possibilities for thought and action in relation to such events and situations. In a course I taught last year, the final paper asked students to select a theory we had studied (some possibilities included: Socrates’ conception of citizenship, Hobbes’ notion of the social contract, Marx’s conception of class, Nietzsche’s idea of the “Will to Power,” Judith Butler’s notion of the performativity of gender, etc.), and to use his/her ideas to read a current event or political issue in a critical manner. The aim of the exercise, however, was not to swallow up the event or colonize it completely under the systems of Plato or Marx, but to multiply the possibilities for reading it, to produce alternative ways of seeing the present, ways often foreclosed by the media and other forms of popular discourse. Nearly all of the students reacted enthusiastically to the concrete nature of the assignment and to the sense of agency enabled by it. Many developed a strong sense of ownership and responsibility concerning the task at hand.

The papers that resulted were fascinating and full of unexpected insights. While reading them over, I recalled another of Deleuze’s arguments concerning theory: “As soon as a theory is enmeshed in a particular point, we realize that it will never possess the slightest practical importance unless it can erupt in a totally different area (208).” The point of this passage is not, I believe, to discount the fact that theory always comes from a particular point or position. Concepts and ideas have histories, they are always born in a particular place, at a particular time, and from within living bodies that exist in relation to other bodies. Theories emerge from and within life. It is important to understand the materiality of ideas in this sense. Yet Deleuze’s point is that they must be made to travel across contexts if they are to function for us. They must erupt somewhere else. They must re-­‐enter life, a different life, and in the space of difference opened up by their application, a great deal of innovative and concrete critical work can be done.

I am still working to develop these ideas and to improve my students’ experience of political theory. I hope that learning in my classroom never becomes a simple matter of reiteration, of mapping a history of ideas. I want agents of theory, not just subjects of it. I prefer to see political theory as something living and working, and as the fidelity to a future that is more democratic than less. I think if more students could see it in a similar way, they would not wait until their final undergraduate semester to take that mandatory class.

References and Suggestions for Further Reading

Deleuze, Gilles. 1980. “Intellectuals and Power.” In Language, Counter-­‐Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews by Michel Foucault. Ithica, New York: Cornell University Press. Pp. 205-­‐217.

Nealon, Jeffrey and Susan Searls-­‐Giroux. 2003. The Theory Toolbox: Critical Concepts for the Humanities, Arts, & Social Sciences. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc.


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