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It is commonplace for academic disciplines to laud their own integration of theory and practice, as if such a move constituted bridging a gap. But one cannot combine two things that are always already together and which are not even two things.

When I see my peers cringe at the word "theory" — it's so abstract! — I hesitate to rip them away from the comforting delusion that their studies are not theoretical or abstract but rather in direct contact with reality. But one must only take a look at the changing, disputable and ultimately inadequate definitions of reality to expose this delusion.

Scientists, scholars and artists alike have long been seen as treasure hunters, diving deep below the fog of illusions, lies and conflicting data to reach the reality of truth and beauty. But the supposed — one might say, theoretical — treasure will never present itself without the observer contributing to this presentation.

One may argue that theories come from observations. But Einstein himself — Einstein, people — argued the reverse, telling Heisenberg that "it is the theory which decides what can be observed." Then quantum physics came along to show us that the theory also determines what cannot be observed.

This is the case in the sciences — though, as an exception, theoretical math is known as pure math, as if application would contaminate it — but let's examine the case of the arts.

We are accustomed to the belief that we live in a world of matter and mind, things and ideas. But things are ideas, and matter is mind. We think not about physical objects in the world, but about our conceptions of them, which are held together by our theories about the world and are invariably distant from the world itself.

Some are creative enough to alter these conceptions by representing them in novel ways, proving that theory is not merely applied to art, but can also be furthered by it.

The thought came to me as I browsed next semester's course offerings that the Department of Theatre Arts and Performance Studies does this better than others. Perhaps this is because the practice of stepping into someone's shoes requires a theory about them. The performer's body language, gestures and sounds have to occur as if they are in a given situation.

This "as if" is a defining part of theory. The French psychoanalyst Francoise Dolto once said in an interview, "What people call my ‘theory,' I don't believe is a theory, I believe ‘everything happens as if.'" Regardless of what is behind concrete sounds and images, the theory gets the vocal chords or pencil or paintbrush to behave "as if" a believable and engaging idea is at stake.

Theater also fits nicely with the theoretical idea — first put forward by Judith Butler — of performativity, the assumption of an identity. It happens as much on the street as on the stage. This appears to be the idea behind both TAPS 1630: "Performativity and the Body: Staging Gender, Staging Race" and TAPS 1690: "Performance, Art and Everyday Life," both offered next semester.

From my own experience, writing classes could use contemplation beyond the mere "what did you think of this book?" — the most interesting part to me is learning about the psychological reactions the author aimed to evoke in the reader — and visual arts professors could put more emphasis on teaching students to convey, or even discover, concepts through their work. Visual art lends itself to discussions of epistemology, culture and other profound topics. Illustration majors at the Rhode Island School of Design are required to take "concepts" courses to practice using their art to make statements, explore ideas or comment on social issues.

For any art form, theory is needed in representing people. If you want to write, play or draw a character demographically different from yourself, it is crucial to consider the influence of factors such as gender, race and socioeconomic class.

I know I'm getting into hot water with hipster-haters, so let me acknowledge that this is all theoretical drivel. But so is the theory-practice distinction. It's never really one or the other. And revolutions can only start with new ideas.

If your parents come this weekend and worry that you're not doing anything practical, tell them that instead of submitting to the confines of reality, you want to change what reality means. And if you can't get a job, you'll just have to make sure to live life "as if" you have one.


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