Critical Theory

The last two posts were actually provoked by the following thoughts, which I have not previously dared to write.  But I’m feeling secure these days, so….

One of the more fascinating aspects of working in the English department of a modern university is the continual confrontation with students who are neck deep in literary theory. Now, I obviously cannot speak for other English departments, but I suspect that what I’m about to talk about is rather widespread on university campuses. Regardless, here goes.

Modern literary theory is a case of the Emperor’s new clothes, with the theorists themselves being the guilty tailors. Generally speaking, it’s just a bunch of post-structuralist, ideological hoo-ha based on a series of faulty assumptions. It is neither deep nor insightful. It destroys the sense of common humanity that gives literature all of it’s power. It is anti-philosophic to it’s core. Of course, it’s that last statement that bugs the shit out of me.

Let’s go back a bit. Philosophy is a lot of things, and the proper place to give it a thorough definition is not a blog post. But if we were to try to reduce it to a single statement, and if we were to restrict it to what Socrates and his followers thought philosophy meant, it would be this: philosophy attempts to replace faith with logically verifiable truth. (Actually, the Greeks would have said “orthodoxy” rather than “faith”, and “knowledge” rather than truth; but this is a blog post, remember?) What this means is that philosophy demands that nothing be assumed to be true without an investigation. It also means that “knowledge” exists in the realm of “idea”, so philosophy is also fundamentally idealistic. Philosophy is the search for “true ideas”.

This was understood by Karl Marx. Marx was no philosopher. (Were Marx alive today, and were he to read my blog, he would leave a comment saying, “You are correct, Sir. I am not a philosopher.”) He had been a philosopher, but once he decided that materialism was true, and that economics was the science of materialism, he ceased being a philosopher and became an economist. And all of his followers worked with the assumption of the truth of materialism and economics, and did not bother with any kind of philosophic investigation of materialism itself. They were not philosophers; they were Marxists. The rejection of idealism meant a rejection of philosophy.

(I also think that the Frankfurter School of critical theory is anti-philosophic. But I won’t belabor the point here. I would only again point out that it is materialistic, and rejects idealism, and that the consequence is anti-philosophy.)

Literary critical theory is something else. A friend of mine—a literature professor with impeccable intellect, taste, and education—told me it’s all “just a game”. Yet another friend of mine—another literature professor with a gigantic IQ and an eclectic and admirable curiosity—announces on the first day of class (according to a student) that she is “not a philosopher.” What neither seem to get is that philosophy might actual be capable of establishing that thinking is not just a game—that is, philosophy might actually be able to discover truth and untruth (just because one cannot possess ALL truth doesn’t necessarily mean that truth doesn’t exist)—and that philosophy might also have critical relevance for…ahem!…critical theory.

In other words, if I were able to logically prove that the foundations of, say, a concept like “performativity” are…hm (be polite, Jeff) non-existent, then any interpretations of literature that use performativity as an insight are foundationless. Which doesn’t make the interpretation untrue, of course; but the teachings of my imaginary friend might also not be untrue. Non-untruth is a rather spongy and wobbly thing to search for intellectually. Which is what makes it a “game”.

I suspect that regardless of the various threads of thought leading to these rather bizarre ideological approaches to literature, Marxist and neo-Marxist-influenced materialism and the a priori belief that all “meaning” as such is a cultural construct, bound by culture and history, and plagued by negative and exploitive cultural constructs—like “binarism”—lies at the roots of much of it. If idea as such doesn’t exist, then there cannot be anything like “meaning” in a text; there can only be a culturally-imposed “reading”. Further: critical theory and a sense of justice implies that a culturally-imposed reading be freed from earlier ignorance and prejudice, so we ought to approach the text with full awareness of the categories of injustice. The text becomes material for my ideological agenda.

But what if “idea” indeed exists? What if “meaning” exists? What if a text actually communicates something of the human experience to other human beings, across time, culture, and language?

Critical theorists will have nothing of it. They know that such communication is not possible, so they comfortably go about making up interpretations based on sessions with their imaginary friends, and they publish and publish and keep tailoring the emperor’s new clothes.

Which is all OK. More power to them, I suppose. But I myself not only think that the emperor is naked; I think that it would take me all of five minutes to prove to a logical, open-minded person that the emperor is naked. Which means: those who propagate critical theory are either not logical or are not open-minded. Which means: we send our kids off to university, and they end up sitting in classrooms with illogical, close-minded ideologues. Unfortunately, these ideologues are exceedingly intelligent, well-spoken, and attractive to young people.

Then those young people come to one of my classes, and they start talking about something like gender studies, and I say it’s a bunch of hoo-ha. And then I laugh and tell them how much I love them.