For the Love of Theory

Dionne Brand, Theory (Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2018); 229 pages; ISBN 978-0735274235 (hardcover)

• February 2020

Dionne Brand’s fifth novel, Theory, is a satirical send-up of academia from the perspective of a long-suffering graduate student and a reflection on the lonely work of writing while carrying the baggage of broken relationships (familial and romantic). The narrator never claims a gender or racial identity, nor do they tell the reader their name; however, they are called Teoria by one of their lovers. For the sake of clarity, I refer to them as Teoria in what follows.

Teoria writes copiously—in several disturbing asides, we learn that their entire apartment is lined with paper—yet remains unable to complete their dissertation. Their self-absorption (bordering on narcissism) is one of their roadblocks, since they are constantly trying to out-think themself and members of their advisory committee. But Teoria’s self-regard stands in contrast to other moments of self-deprecation. It is never clear whether their sense of themself as brilliant is self-delusion (and possibly mental illness) or an accurate self-appraisal, since Teoria is an unreliable narrator. Perhaps this is part of Brand’s larger point, that all self-representation is, in some way, fallacy. Teoria’s supposed intellectual superiority is actually a disguise for their fear of others and their fear of being legible to others.

The book is organized into four chapters, the first three named for the narrator’s lovers Selah, Yara, and Odalys, with the final chapter named “Teoria/Theory.” Selah is representative of physical beauty, Yara of the art world, and Odalys of spirituality. Teoria uses their research monies to travel with the gorgeous Selah to Ghana and Spain, treating Selah to her heart’s desires, all the while observing in awe Selah’s every move (particularly her interactions with others). The flip side to Selah’s beauty is her vanity, which also exposes Teoria’s vanity: Teoria loves to be seen walking down the street next to Selah. Yara, a playwright, charms Teoria under the pretext of wanting to observe a book discussion between Teoria and other graduate students. Yara claims this is part of her research for a new play, and what ensues is a competition between Teoria and the students for Yara’s affection and attention. Teoria ends this relationship after one of Yara’s other lovers, Marit, tries to kill herself. Odalys is the one lover Teoria decides to marry. Their relationship ends, however, when Teoria senses that Odalys has set one of her nkisis (the small sacred objects that Odalys keeps as part of her spiritual practice) against them. What Teoria’s lovers have in common is their infidelity in their relationship with the narrator. But, then, Teoria does admit repeatedly to always mistaking others and exhibiting poor judgement.

Brand’s prose reflects the narrator’s fixation with high theory. It is simultaneously circuitous and chronological, dry and emotionless. Whether the beginning of a new relationship or the sudden death of their thesis advisor, Teoria delivers information about their life in the same staid tone. This is a stark departure from the lyricism of Brand’s other fiction, such as In Another Place, Not Here (1996) or, more recently, Love Enough (2014), where themes of familial trauma, revolutionary action and idealism, black queer lives, and, foundationally, love are explored in language that is textured with emotion, beauty, and metaphor, appealing to all one’s senses. In contrast, the language in Theory is muted. Here the form of academic writing is what makes the difference. While Brand imbues the novel with a lyrical quality of its own, the narrative is marked by a safe, scholarly distance and an absence of love. Even as Theory shares common themes with Brand’s earlier work, there is no love in Teoria’s relationships, only control and possession, resentment and hurt. The narrator describes their father as a figure who punished his children regularly and without cause. Their parents are invested in oppressively traditional gender politics, where their brother Wendell is expected to take after their father and Teoria is expected to imitate their mother. As a child Teoria is crushed by these expectations, burdened with the knowledge that they can never live up to the role prescribed for them in a heterosexist, gender-normative society. By enforcing these norms Teoria’s parents inflict deep suffering on them, using traditional gender roles to keep young Teoria at an arm’s length so as not to recognize the child’s difference. In turn, Teoria resents their father for imposing these norms, their mother for submitting to them, and their brother for his ability to adapt more easily to these pressures. Whatever their gender identity, it seems safe to describe Teoria as queer, not subscribing to any normative ways of being.

Teoria seems only partially conscious of the weight of this trauma of rejection. They tackle gender as a major theme in their graduate work, while remaining unaware of the need to enact healing in their day-to-day life. Academia presents the narrator with a false sense of escape from their anguish. While teoria is a feminine noun in Romance languages, the novel highlights the dominance of men in the theoretical writing most valued within academia, despite the liberal politics of the university. “Theory has failed so far to witness the spectacle of the masculine,” Teoria claims. “Theory has merely assumed the spectacle of the masculine as a priori” (198). Even as they forge this critique (which seems to bypass the work of black feminist thinkers to establish its originality), Teoria’s primary interlocutors are still figures such as Frantz Fanon, Martin Heidegger, and Theodor W. Adorno. Contemporary women artists and theorists are cited sparingly by Teoria, who is clearly invested in the Western canon, even as they seek to critique it.

Brand’s critique in Theory is not only about an imbalance in the gender politics of critical theory; she is also interested in an examination of the work theory claims to do versus what it actually accomplishes. Brand seems to ask, Theory of what and for whom? In this regard the novel calls to mind Barbara Christian’s famous essay, “The Race for Theory,” published in Cultural Critique in 1987, in which Christian argues that theory has become a “commodity” used to facilitate one’s mobility and status within the academy.1 Christian reminds readers that theory by people of color has often been developed in different forms that play with language without being so abstract as to defy comprehension. Brand makes clear that Teoria’s circumlocutions are more about their ego than about a desire to communicate with others, marking the impenetrability of theory as a sign of the writer’s self-centeredness. Teoria’s unproductive writing represents the stasis of intellectual thought in the absence of thoughtful praxis and community-mindedness. The connection, then, between Teoria’s emotional and intellectual blind spots lies in an inability to connect. They cannot make emotionally safe and loving connections with others because they have been trained over time to avoid vulnerability, to isolate themself, and to mistake that isolation for intellectual superiority. In the absence of a close engagement with black feminist and black queer theories, however, Teoria finds themself both intellectually and emotionally isolated. The academy that Teoria subscribes to, and specifically the canon of Western philosophical and theoretical thought, is structured to deny the humanity of people such as Teoria. At the novel’s end Teoria ties their thesis to their father, describing the pain their father inflicted on them as “epistemology,” as opposed to “narrative” or “trauma” (227). In other words, undergirding the narrator’s personal investments and professional vocation is a theory of knowledge based on betrayal and self-denial. Thus, in their academic ambition and desire for scholarly distance as emotional buffer, Teoria can only further engage in a denial of their queerness that mirrors, sadly, the ongoing rejection they suffer in their personal life.

 

Laurie R. Lambert is an assistant professor of African and African American studies at Fordham University, New York. She is the author of Comrade Sister: Caribbean Feminist Revisions of the Grenada Revolution (University of Virginia Press, forthcoming).


1. Barbara Christian, “The Race for Theory,” Cultural Critique, no. 6 (Spring 1987): 51.