Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Against critical theory

[This post was previously titled: Philosophy to the rescue? A credo, or something like it]

It’s time I stopped prevaricating and laid out some basic beliefs. So this one’s about what I think is wrong with the humanities (and therefore us graduates schooled in it), why I think philosophy could be a remedy, and why I have misgivings about my own remedy.

(I'm avoiding giving examples for brevity's sake, but will provide if challenged. Update - see here instead for an excellent, and highly amusing, close analysis of an example of theory talk).

To lay out where I stand in all this – I studied English lit. in a theory-heavy English department joint with classics in a traditional, ‘philological’ classics department. I also did some linguistics. Afterwards came a doctorate in classics, accompanied by a side-interest in philosophy that fed into my research; finally (and coincidentally) I ended up working as an administrator at the Philosophy Faculty in Oxford.

My conclusion from this petty odyssey in academia is as follows. Critical theory is:

  1. drek
  2. junk
  3. cack
  4. and balls

Now this won’t do as an argument at all, but at least it gives you a taste of my strength of feeling on the matter. More delicately, then, here is my gripe on how we have been harmed by critical theory (a field in which, he huffed pompously and not a little defensively, I am reasonably well-versed and have achieved some success).

Ceci n'est pas un philosophe.

Leg before wicket and a fair shot

First, a large portion of recent generations of humanities graduates have been taught not only that clarity is dispensable, but also that lack of clarity is a likely sign of a greater intellect than their own at work. 

How did we ever come to this pass? What tailspin into utter, abject debasement has led us to think that understanding one another is not important?

For it seems, how you say, clear that clarity is in fact vital and precious – like the leg-before-wicket rule in cricket, it allows your opponent a clean and fair shot at the argument you are presenting as a target. Now of course, of course, ‘fairness’ is merely a metaphysical construct that can easily be shown to contain fatal internal contradictions… But if we cannot get at each other’s arguments because they are locked away in opaque or nonsensical language, what are our chances of improving them or detecting and rejecting fallacies? And if academia isn’t the business of trying to make arguments better, then what is it? 

This is to say nothing of the toxic, hierarchical notion that students should blame their own deficiencies for the bad arguments of their theoretical elders and betters. It gives a sense of what a stillborn turkey the theory industry really is – it offers an education integral to which is the student’s constant awareness that he is incapable of and unequal to what he is learning. Just as bad, an education that leaves the student feeling unable to tell whether or not an argument is sufficiently clear.

(I’m trying to keep it brief, but I’ve always thought that this degeneracy, this outrageous regressiveness in a supposedly progressive endeavour, is a result of the wider failure of the theory project: while the original theorists had sought to incorporate social-scientific method into literary studies (psychoanalysis, Marxist economics, linguistics) later theorists balked at the democratization implicit in scientific method – that is, the process in which an author’s ideas turn into paraphrasable theorems and principles and thereafter cease to belong to the author, no longer depending on his or her original formulation of them (how many physicists working right now have read Newton’s Principia I wonder, yet how many use his ideas in some form?). Not liking this at all, the post-structuralists retreated into a viciously regressive, oracular prose that resisted paraphrase or methodization - to study Derrida you need to sit at the very feet of the hierophant himself, or near as damn it. Dead as the author may be, the theory industry does a good job of keeping him alive and well.).

The timidity of the blind

So the student of critical theory is punished into timidity, and like a bullied spouse assumes the faults must all be his or her own. It is also the timidity of the blind – being told that truth, falsity, and reason are naïve fictions to be disregarded is a bit like attending a terrifying dinner party governed by strict and totally arbitrary rules of etiquette – fumbling in the dark, with no sense of what the rules are, most would decide it’s best to say nothing at all. Which, funnily enough, is exactly what happens at most seminars.

The acolyte is stripped of her life-long tools of thought and argument (as I remember it, with a certain relish on the part of the lecturers), and given in their stead bad, shoddily expressed, and poorly reasoned maxims. Which explains those silent seminars - we all would avoid difficult questions and ambiguity if we no longer possessed means of arguing and reasoning our way to answers and resolution. Again - any academic discipline that causes its students to shun difficulty and ambiguity is not an academic discipline.

It is noticeable too how the initiate, stumbling blindly through total arbitrariness, tends to grab hold of anything apprehensible, indifferent to how the bit he has grasped belongs to the larger argument (if indeed there is one). In the absence of true understanding, and probably true reasoning too, he usually clings on to the injunctions and prohibitions of critical theory, in the manner of the medieval peasant who knows what heresy is even if he doesn't understand the theologians' arguments. This is the reason, I suggest, why the fervour with which many literature students reject authorial intention, say, is vastly greater than their actual understanding of those writers who rule it out and their putative reasons. Amidst all the babble and confusion, a retreat into a taboo mentality at least offers some security.

In fact, clinging on to whatever paltry certainties can be salvaged, and never abandoning them, is a vital survival tactic - say the wrong thing and the secret and mysterious workings of theory logic (the profound truth of which, like the words of a Sibyl, is confirmed by their obscurity) will show the student to be making the argument of an essentialist, or an intentionalist, or a capitalist, or a metaphysicalist – maybe even a Tory. Given that the danger of denunciation is ever-present and, in the absence of logic, always unpredictable, it is understandable why theorists and their students shun equivocation and exploratory argumentation in favour of reductiveness. 

Indeed, one of the most boring things about theoretical interpretations of literature is that they so often come round to the same, safe conclusion whatever the text under interpretation. This is either because the theorist advances a theory that is true but only trivially so; or because a myopically reductive vision of the world inevitably  makes the things in it look blurred and samey. Or both.

The bad news

The bad news, if you ask me, is really quite bad. A significant portion of our highly educated young people have been schooled in theories that fail entirely to describe the lived experience of being a self-conscious, cognitively rich human being. To be human, the theorist tells us, is to be little more than economically determined, ideologically driven, intrinsically political trash. 

These graduates also have an aversion to reasoned argument, and the inability to do it well when ventured. Theory seminars, in my experience (with the exception of a course taught by cultural theorist John Frow), were rather sorry and sterile affairs, largely because argument becomes impossible when your opponent can always disclaim any intention to say something true, when any potential shared premise can be rejected as arbitrary, and when the absence of clarity means that the very subject under discussion is not clear.

They are timid in confronting differences of degree, as opposed to absolute difference, and unsure in reasoning through their own intellectual ambivalence.  Fatal is any complexity, but particularly moral/political complexity, that cannot be banished by oracular assertion. Acknowledgement of ambiguity and paradox is avoided – as above, speculative reasoning can only lead to further alienation, and possibly ideological deviancy and subsequent denunciation.

Another corollary is the continuing rude health of the absurd and harmful postmodern notion that the difference between the centre and the margin is a moral one. That is, the relativism that says our moral criteria should vary according to identity. Not only is this arbitrary and unreasonable (how is what-I-am organically linked to judgement of the rightness or wrongness of my actions?), toxic (know me by what I say and think, please), and self-defeating (isn’t it racists, reactionaries, and chauvinists who reduce us to what, not who we are?), it also tends to lead us to censure unfairly and oppress those at the centre, while mindlessly indulging those on the periphery. 

The obsession with identity politics, despite its intellectual poverty, is lamentable. That something as important as gender equality is served by the thin and unthinking arguments of modern-day feminism is a howling outrage. And we can lay it right at the door of Kristeva, Irigary, Butler et al.

Given that these ex-students constitute a large portion of our intellectual and cultural elite, the question arises – come the day our way of living is seriously challenged, do we want them to be the ones to defend it and argue its value? Would they even be capable? 

It might be objected (or more precisely, insinuated) that I’m clearly reading the Telegraph too much and making ‘England, summer of 1940’ an arbitrary focal point for all moral and political debate. But then the Second World War is already of moral and political relevance to critical theory, which after all was spawned by a generation of variously defeatist, dishonest, and downright treacherous French authors (though this is unfair to Paul De Man, the deconstructionist who spent the war penning elegant solutions to the ‘Jewish problem’, as he was in fact Belgian).

The good news

But there is good news! On the face of it, it feels callously wasteful and almost nihilistic to say that the solution lies in junking decades’ worth of research and writing. But it does lie there, and we should remember that academia is only valuable to us as long as it is able to turn on a dime and reject its mistakes. Alchemy is no more valid and grounded in truth for all the time and effort it swallowed up, and the academy’s willingness to turn its back on its mistakes is a reassuring sign of a lively resistance to dogma. So in the rejection of all those glossy tomes would be the consolation that we are not damned eternally by our errors.

If the problem with critical theory has always been that it ‘is inept philosophy applied to literature and culture’ (so Denis Dutton), is it possible that the remedy is again in philosophy, but this time philosophy done well. By ‘philosophy’ I mean, totally unapologetically, analytical philosophy – dry-as-dust, Anglo-American, ‘if p then q’ philosophy. And I emphatically do not mean the continental drek that helped get us in this mess in the first place.

Actually, by ‘philosophy’ I mean the kind of philosophy-lite that I dabble in myself and incorporate into my literary research. Here’s why I think it can stop the rot:

  • It will teach us how to argue again;
  • It will teach us to be properly reflective again;
  • It thrives on difficulty and paradox;
  • Beyond academia, it will give us the tools for moral debate needed in a post-religious society;
  • Having rigour and method, it interfaces well with science (esp. maths & physics) – the future of the humanities looks dim without some reconciliation with the scientists taking place;
  • More boldly - all academic pursuits taken to their highest level of abstraction turn into maths, physics, or philosophy. Why not give as many students as possible a head-start in making that climb if they want to try it?

I am not saying that we should make all students into analytical philosophers. Rather, if we wish to theorize what we are doing, we are better looking to philosophy than critical theory. Now here are my misgivings:

  • My idea requires the cooperation of philosophers, and they may have no wish to ride to the rescue of the rest of the humanities;
  • I almost certainly over-estimate the clarity of the analytical tradition – in fact, I know for myself that I do, and have been told as much by a philosopher working in the field . Philosophers have their own love of excessive technicality and jargon;
  • I overlook the many others working in the humanities still uninfected by theory - those practising such rigorous skills as textual criticism, archival research, close analysis, and the like. I overlook them mainly because I find them less interesting, too atomistic, and also because they have little truck with the world of ideas (I'm a classicist - experto credite).
  • The division between analytical and continental philosophy is not as hard and fast as I make out, and prominent philosophers of the former stripe are trying to reconcile the two.

And the main misgiving: it is almost certain that I am a little awestruck, and more than a little gauche in the presence of philosophers. Partly because for some time I’ve been a philosopher manqué, which became embarrassing when I started working in a philosophy faculty (fawning fan-boy). The epiphany was watching philosopher of mind Ted Honderich give a talk in Edinburgh around 2002 – the focus, mental acuity, commitment, and aggression of the Q&A that followed the talk were a revelation. They behaved as if something was actually at stake! It made it immediately obvious to me (or maybe even more obvious than before) that I had to abandon the flaccid sterility of critical theory. My original plan was to digress into linguistics, and then return to do a thesis in Eng. Lit. informed by proper rigorous method. Classics intervened, but I hope I ended doing something not too far off the original plan.

Finally, it is only fair that I  say that Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia, which I gave a bit of a slagging in a previous post, is actually excellent on the impostures of theorists, especially in the chapter of Walter Benjamin. Also, it’s probably clear that my picture of a theory-poisoned humanities undergrad resembles quite closely a certain type who writes for, comments on, and reads the Guardian. This foreshadows my next big post, which will be on the failure of the modern left.


  1. Hi Bryn, really interesting post - I agree with lots of this. However, I have to take you to task for "a post-religious society" - unless you're suggesting this is something we should be aiming for (which I would say it is) - but if you're suggesting it's where we are at the moment, I would point you to the bishops in the House of Lords, the role of religion in state education, Tony Blair and Dubya praying together, etc. etc. etc.

    1. That's a fair point, though I'd still quibble that the lords spiritual are really an anomaly, and the ridicule of Blair's piety confirmed that we generally don't like religion & politics to mix. But you're right, and what I said was still quite imprecise - I think it could be amended to 'a society that feels religion no longer suffices for moral reasoning and debate' and still stand.

  2. I should also add:

    Big respect to Alan Sokal - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sokal_Affair

    And also to one Richard South, who pulled this great hoax on the English department at Edinburgh:


    'to back up his answer, he referred to fictitious academic texts like Art Banditry and Rectus Historicus.'

    I remember reading this is in 1999 - it was vaguely alarming, given it was about the department I had just enrolled in.

  3. First of all, thank you for linking to my post above.

    I come to this whole business with certain disadvantages: I have no background in philosophy (beyond having read about half of Sir Anthony Kenny’s “History of Philosophy”); I have not studied literature formally since I left school nearly 40 years ago; and I certainly have not studied literary theory, either formally or informally, at any time. So when I opine that what I have read of critical theory is utter gobbledegook, I virtually invite the riposte that I do not understand because I am unschooled in the subject, and that, indeed, I have no business talking about, let alone criticising, that which eludes my comprehension. There really is no answer to that.

    But, having read as much of critical theory as my patience could take, I think I am entitled to say, at the very least, that people who have such tin ears for the rhythms of English prose have no business pontificating on literary matters.

    What you say in your post strikes many harmonious chords with me, so, naturally, I cheer it. It has long worried me that while I love literature, and love intelligent analyses of literature, I can make no sense whatever of modern critical theory; so any assurance that the fault lies not with me, but with the writers, salves my bruised ego. I would, however, be interested to see some comments here disagreeing with you, and a debate developing: too much agreement, after all, is not good for the soul. I may not be qualified to take part in such a debate, but I would like to watch from the sidelines. Currently, it seems to me that the emperor is indeed stark bollock naked, but I do not want to dismiss entirely the possibility that it is my eyesight that is at fault.

    1. I met Sir Anthony Kenny recently. He was very nice, so I didn't tell him that I hadn't read any of his works, including his 'History of Philosophy'.

      I think one of the more negative aspects of the teaching of theory (at least in my experience) is that it is revels in theory as a 'sickener' for students - 'you think you know literature with your A levels, but we're going to show you - you know NOTHING!'

      Like you say, it risks entirely divorcing literary study, and literary students, from what it is actually like to understand and enjoy literary texts. The worst theory is so far removed from the experience of literature, that you can only imagine the latter leading to the former via some sort of mystical indoctrination.

      It reminds me of the description of Mr Wopsle's elocution in 'Great Expectations':

      'very unlike any way in which any man in any natural circumstances of life or death ever expressed himself about anything.'

      And I fully agree with you too - more argument please!

  4. I have a practical issue: how to advise a child who wants to study English Literature at A' Level in addition to Mathematics and a science.
    If the A level English Literature syllabus is informed to any extent by Critical Theory then there is a real danger that the analytical skills he has learned elsewhere might cause him to rebel and not give the examiners the answers they want - he is young, after all.
    Whilst developing the ability to dissemble within the rules of an established order may be good training for working in one of our many bureaucracies, I am concerned it might cause him to lose his love of English Literature.
    Do you know if the rot only starts to set in at university?

    1. Goodness, that's a very interesting question, and not one I'm fully qualified to answer.

      I have a vague inkling that A-level English incorporates *some* critical theory (though I'm recalling my time as a teacher seven years back now). My feeling, though, is that the theory element at A level is minimal and designed to give a taster of what the student might face at university - as such I don't think examiners demand students slather their scripts in theory-speak.

      'Dissembling within the rules of an established order' is an excellent way of putting it by the way. To be fair to the theory industry briefly, it has its virtues - it's no mean feat to second-guess the inscrutable, and should the student ever come to serve an unhinged tyrant with a lethally capricious notion of the 'wrong thing' to say, he'll probably know how to choose the words that will save his skin and satisfy the depraved.

      There's an interesting question to what extent A level subjects should be parasitic on the academy, and prepare students for further HE study. In one way I suppose, despite all my misgivings, sixth formers should learn about critical theory as long as it is prevalent at universities, to prevent them coming totally unstuck later. But then, there's surely more to A levels than prepping kids for uni.

      Good luck to your student! A-level maths will always stand him in good stead - any admissions tutor has got to respect the gutsiness (and, I'm sure, braininess) it takes to do maths at that level.