The world teems. As Nietzsche says of nature, it is “boundlessly extravagant, boundlessly indifferent, without purpose or consideration, without pity or justice, at once fruitful and barren and uncertain.” There is no higher order, no “laws of nature” as if there was some great legislator ordering it all. Culture neither progresses no regresses. It just morphs, always. The world does what it does: it’s all one great, infinitely complex swirl of stuff and events.
Day to day, we see things according to well enculturated schemas. Those there, those are men; and those, they’re women. But, sometimes, we get a glimpse of the arbitrariness of gender, we truly see — we know — that they are just bodies more or less motion, all different. Taken together, they form diverse and various zones of intersection and divergence: a veritable lava lamp Venn diagram.
We see this amorphic flux of all things and sense the grand merciless indifference of the cosmos. It is an exquisite, humbling, and terrifying experience.
And then, perhaps, we see other ways of ordering these flows. Men and women? Really? How odd. Look again and you’ll see a breadth of genders. Or a fluidity of gender that is not part of a body, not immanent to you or I, but that flows like a force between us, through us, taking us up for a bit. Or we see swirls, sexual marbling. Or….what?
That “or” is affirming. That “or” is life. That “or” is theory.
All knowledge is a way of assembling, of distributing, the merciless, purposeless flux of Nature. Science studies the flow and then, sometimes, says: This is the way it is. Here are the hidden orders. Philosophy, too, shares this tendency: This is what truth is, what morality is, what freedom is, what being is.
And then there’s theory. Theory is less sure of itself. Where science and philosophy have a tendency to write in ink, theory writes in pencil. Theory is, well, theoretical.
Theory gives us different lenses with which to see the world, to make sense of it. Of course, science and philosophy create theories, too. This is my favorite part of each: when they don’t claim to know but suggest, hey, the world is 11 or eight dimensions. Or: Being is defined by nothingness. Or: there is no being, only becoming. Or…or…or. I love looking over my bookshelves and seeing this proliferation of possibilities, of universes, all of them and none of them true. As if they were all in one eight page Borges story.
From one angle, theory is art. It gathers this and that, propositions and events, things and tendencies, and weaves them together into some shape.
Theory, like art, is a mode of making sense that enjoys the practice of making sense.
When I taught theory to MFA fine art students, I didn’t teach it as a way to explain or understand art. I taught this or that theory as a confrontation with this or that art. Each class, we’d read and discuss a text and see and discuss art. A theory is a sculpture and a sculpture is a theory.
In the work of Sarah Sze, I see possibilities of seeing, possibilities of making sense of this world. “Things Fall Apart,” she says, quoting Yeats and in the same breath superseding him. They fall apart not because the center cannot hold but because, well, they just fall apart and in so doing create something new.
This is to say that Sze, in her whimsy of form and car and styrofoam, proffers a fundamentally different architecture of order than Yeats: where his world needs a center to orient it, hers proliferates centers. It is, quite literally, a different way of seeing the world.