The Theory Toolbox

  • Jeffrey Nealon and Susan Searls Giroux
  • Rowman and Littlefield
  • 267 pp.

A text for understanding and using the tools of critical social and literary theory.

Reviewed by Y.S. Fing

Do you remember the Gang of Four? Not Mao’s wife and her Chinese Communist henchmen, upon whom the blame was pinned for the atrocious excesses of the Cultural Revolution. I mean those heady British Punk/Funk/New Wavers who were too smart and too good for mass appeal. Well, they haven’t simply faded into the twilight of late 20th-century deconstruction. They stand today as inspiration for and instigators of this book, The Theory Toolbox, with their song, “Why Theory?”

We’ve all got opinions/Where do they come from? Each day seems like a natural fact And what we think/Changes the way we act

Jeffrey Nealon and Susan Searls Giroux present the entire lyric to the song and delve deeply into the “why, where, what and how” of the Gang of Four’s musing to provide us with an exciting and cogent breakdown of a variety of modern thought. However, if we were to boil their message down to one word from the lyrics, it would be “seems.”

“Seems” is a most untrustworthy word. It implies a secure reality while at the same time undermining faith in that secure reality. The purpose of this book, it seems to me (!), is to prepare the reader to cultivate the vast potential that opens when one’s faith in a secure reality is undermined.

A college textbook, The Theory Toolbox is unlikely to be readily accessible to casual book store browsers or followers of The New York Times bestseller list. More likely, it will be assigned to students as an introduction to critical thinking and argumentation. But that makes it no less valuable to those out of school who don’t know the difference (or similarity) between Foucault and Derrida, Saussure and Bloom. It seems as if an alternative title might be, “Post-Modern Thought for Dummies,” but that, according to our exploration above, would be an insecure reality.

The book is a compendium and distillation of many of the great and influential thinkers of the last 40 years. But its more noble intent (and its success) is its focus on the last line of the Gang of Four song, “What we think changes how we act.” Nealon and Giroux present us with a destabilized view of reality, but they also give us a toolbox with which to construct a secure reality of our own. As an educator, I find this wondrously refreshing.

The second key word, which follows on the heels of “seems,” and which Nealon and Giroux use far less, is “skepticism.” As our authors note, “Theory rule number 1: Everything is suspect.” The “opinions” and “natural facts” of the Gang of Four song are actually locked doors to the untrained mind. The key to unlocking the “opinions” and “natural facts” held by most people is to approach them with questions and doubts. This book provides a primer for that in chapters which analyze late 20th-century notions of author/authority, reading, subjectivity, culture, ideology, history and space/time.

These general chapters are followed by specific investigations of various Posts (post-modern, post-structural, and post-colonial) and Studies (Gender, Queer, Race, and Class), as well as contemporary conceptions of Life and Animality. Finally, to attend to the notion that what we think changes how we act, we are given a discussion of Agency. This is not “pie-in-the-sky theory” that has no application to our lives. This is a revelatory exposition of the foundations of our thinking, intended to prepare us to securely build upon them for the rest of our lives. The authors want skeptical thought to lead to responsible action.

The Theory Toolbox is a bold attempt that succeeds well, despite various casual intrusions in the text. Sentences such as, “What the hell does that mean?,” phrases such as, “the same damn thing,” and references to “The Jeffersons” television show theme song may provide some connection to younger, cooler minds, but they are jarring and unnecessary to readers engaged in critical thought.

The Gang of Four may have addressed the question of “Why Theory?” in a matter of minutes, but Nealon and Giroux have been more encyclopedic. In 267 pages, they range widely and confidently through modern thought to bring two powerful answers: “If you want to know what something means, you’d better take into account the process of meaning’s production”; and, “That’s why we need a tool box, to work on the present, to affect it, to build a present to live in.”

Y.S. Fing, an instructor of English at a community college in the Washington, D.C. area, is the author of such unpublished works as “Socialize Yourself: A Teacher’s and Student’s Guide to College-Level Composition” and “Event Horizons: Aphorisms on the Life of D. Selby Fing” (

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