BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 17 SEP 09
Featured in
Issue 125

Ancient & Modern

The evolution of theory and its impact on contemporary thought

BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 17 SEP 09

Anselm Feuerbach, Das Gastmahl des Plato (Plato's Banquet), 1869. Courtesy: Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe

Philosophers ruined theory. Not Jean-François Lyotard, Giorgio Agamben or Judith Butler – I mean Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Theory lies at the origins of philosophy as a discipline shaped by those three Greek thinkers in the 4th century BCE. But as some modern scholars – from Hannelore Rausch to Andrea Wilson Nightingale – have demonstrated, the term designated an even older tradition which was established long before Plato started turning his mentor Socrates’ musings into the Dialogues. Despite its archaic origins, ancient theory not only mimics global migration but also offers a crucial paradigm for artists-on-the-move. Hard to believe? Read on.

Ancient Greek dictionaries have some weird entries for theory (theoria). There’s nothing about the Frankfurt School, semiotics, (post)Structuralism, différance, the sex which is not one, Postmodernism or the simulacrum, let alone race and representation, post-colonialism, the predicament of culture, identity politics, the Other, queer theory, the cyborg body, biopolitics or the aesthetic unconscious. Instead, there are words like watching, contemplation, spectator’s pleasure, shows and festival delegations. According to Rausch, there are five related meanings for the individual called a theoros: someone seeking advice from an oracle; the envoy to a festival; someone who announces a festival; an official with local authority; and a spectator. Scholars attempting to go back even further have been arguing for centuries about the true root of theoria: theos (god), which led to ‘theology’, or thea (sight, spectacle), which gave rise to ‘theatre’.

How did it work? In this pan-Hellenic civic tradition, a respected member of a polis (city-state) was chosen – and often paid – by the city to consult an oracle or to attend festivals in other cities. A theoros or a group of theoroi constituted a theoria. As the Ancient Greeks were polytheists, there were countless oracles and festivals. In addition to the pan-Hellenic Olympian, Pythian, Nemean and Isthmian festivals – with rituals, sports, plays and art competitions – there were celebrations for individual gods and goddesses, where theoroi from many cities were incorporated into the religious ritual without losing their outsider status. As Wilson Nightingale explains, theoria always involved a three-step process: the trip beyond the city limits; the observation as an initiate; and the return home to report one’s findings.

The modern-day successor of a theoros might be an ethnographer writing about participant observation; a diplomatic envoy attending an international trade fair; the Queen opening the Commonwealth Games; even a witness for an execution, since theoria included the confirmation that an event took place (no mass media in Ancient Greece). Art exhibitions, however secular, fit right in with theoria, due to their spectacular, public and international dimension. Prominent theoroi set up tents to welcome their hosts and other guests at a festival and hoped to raise their city’s status by having the best food, the cutest slaves and the sweetest oils. It sounds like the receptions at the Venice Biennale.

According to Wilson Nightingale, there were not only civic but also private theoroi – prototypes for pilgrims, tourists, travel writers and artists-on-the-move, especially those interested in capturing and sharing their encounters on the road. With its tripartite structure, theoria casts travel not as leisure, nor as business, but as a duty: to leave one’s home city, to be initiated into the native practises of a foreign city and to translate what one witnessed to those who were not there. Moreover, theoria involves a collective ritualization of viewing, whereby foreign and native perspectives meet without losing their differences. The pan-Hellenic unity was flexible enough to include such experiences of radical alterity. With today’s globalization, we could use some more theoria to prevent cultural differences from turning into cultural clashes.

So what did the philosophers do? Socrates et al. turned theoria into a metaphysical trip to the land of pure thought and a report on speculative findings. Plato’s The Republic (c.360 BCE), which defines philosophers as we know them today, remoulds theoria into an ideal model for philosophical reflection, devoid of any face-to-face encounters, beyond the adoring acolytes. Socrates describes being a private theoros at the first festival for the Thracian goddess Bendis at the port of Piraeus. Friends invite him to stay longer for a torch-lit relay race on horseback followed by an all-night celebration. But Socrates misses the festivities because he gets caught up in a dinner discussion about the nature of justice. What a party-pooper!

Later, Aristotle paired theory with practise, only to limit theory to ‘useless’ knowledge. But making theoria and practise into an antagonistic couple is akin to pairing aeroplanes with practise, only to take away the flying. While inventing philosophy – god bless their Platonic souls – the Ancients erased the traces of a crucial intercultural tradition marked by tolerant sharing. Are we still struggling with that erasure? Ultimately, many of the theoretical strivings of the last century, especially towards its close, have been struggles about the claims of bodily difference, starting with language and culture and culminating in gender, race and sexuality. Maybe theory is not so far from theoria after all.

Jennifer Allen is a writer and critic based in Berlin.