Bigsley the Oaf

In Defense of Critical Theory

Posted in Uncategorized by bigsleytheoaf on November 13, 2010

Do you know what it is to listen and hear? To feel the words of another person and trust them?

Perhaps some of you have had this experience with your parents, with a religious leader, while reading some book or something. I’m taking it as a premise that this sort of experience exists, so if you disagree maybe you shouldn’t continue reading.

It’s different from the feeling you get when you watch the news, say. I suppose there’s a bit of it in there, but if you’re anything like me, when you hear the news you’re always interpreting it. There’s so much qualification that the news becomes just another data point stored away to be dealt with later.

I’m talking about a feeling like looking at a mountain. When you take it in and absorb it and can’t help yourself because you agree so much. Instead of questioning or thinking complex linguistic critical thoughts you’re just shouting YES YES YES YES

Well anyway, for me it’s really painful to listen to most people. There’s so much qualification and thought inherent in that act. I just can’t buy it. I always think to myself that maybe I don’t understand what people are -really- saying, as if there’s something hidden deep under their words. Maybe I’m projecting meaning on to them. More likely, and what I really do believe, is that the world is just way more complex than what your average person can cope with.

I mean, the way you cope with complexity is by acknowledging it as a flaw inherent in your model. If you have time, once your model is done, you can start recruiting more complexity into it.

The way most people deal with complexity is by denying its existence. I cannot communicate with such people. I cannot trust or respect them.

And there is a world of difference between the two approaches.

Anyway, I digress. But my point is that the former typeare people who I can listen to and scream YES YES YES whereas the latter I can barely bring myself to listen to in a sober state.

My defense of critical theorists is that they often get the difference. Perhaps this is even what is meant by “theory” in this case. The critical theorists that I’m somewhat familiar with (Adorno, Foucault, Zizek, Chomsky, Lacan [does he count?]) all seem to get this. They’re committed to their own frameworks, but they know how to drop them. They are bothered by the inconsistencies in their ideas.

I suppose that the most common criticism of theory/philosophy which I hear coming from the layman/non-intellectual/pseudo-intellectual is that somehow all philosophical claims are equivalent. Besides the extremely low-brow notion that more or less everything is just “opinion” there is the somewhat more subtle idea, closely paralleled by the problem of induction, that there’s no real way to “know” what’s true in some deep sense. Any two philosophical claims are equal under this idea since, when we get down to it, we can’t really “know” if something’s true or not. Everything’s up for interpretation.

Take for example, this quote from Zizek’s debate on “What does it mean to be a revolutionary today?”

“My god, let’s look at the history of anti-semitism. You know that, if you look at when it started in 11th/12th century, it was, unfortunately, from below. And this is not in any way to dismiss or make fun of so-called lower classes but this is the tremendous force of ideology exerted on people in desperate situations. Did you know, for instance, that when violent anti-semitism started that the Pope and the kings tried to control it.”

Now, there are some really strong conclusions which fall naturally out of this, one of which he elucidates in his next statement:

“Don’t fall into this trap – the worst favor you can do to real workers is to make them into these naive good idiots manipulated by some [puppetmaster?]”

The contrarian (and I’m occasionally guilty of this, too) would say things like “oh, how do we know that anti-semitism started among the lower classes? oh, how do we know that they weren’t force to be anti-semitic? etc.” I mean, it’s easy to see how an argument would be constructed that would reduce the status of this provocative statement to “mere opinion.”

It’s only one small step further to start appreciating that such an approach can be brought to bear on more or less any claim that a philosopher/theorist makes. Just deny all of the assumptions of the statement and require further justification. Those justifications will have assumptions which you can deny and so on. At some point the whole thing becomes so confused, at which stage you put your index finger in the air and go “ah ha! so there really IS no basis for your claim!”

Now don’t get me wrong, the pseudo-intellectual contrarian is completely correct. But what he doesn’t get is that the intellectual is not an idiot. They have not ignored the fact that all abstract claims are more or less impossible to completely ground in unquestionable fact.

They have all more or less mastered the art of making a claim, believing the claim fully, recruiting it almost to the level of an ontology, but maintaining a willingness to drop it at the last moment.

Two observations:

First, note that this process itself has side-effects. For one thing, if you know that this is what you are going to do then this automatically limits the complexity and modularity of the belief systems you choose to (temporarily) integrate. What I mean is that you can’t go whole-hog into something crazy and unwieldy like Christianity.

Second, there’s a remarkable analogy framework:theorist :: language:speaker :: computer language:programmer. Languages are super complex and have deep emotional connections to the people who speak them, but one can shift amongst them or drop one (though it is admittedly uncommon to “drop” a natural language).

So theorists are these people who have mastered a set of skills related to self-regulation (rigorousness) and self-analysis (the ability to drop a thought-system once it’s become untenable or displeasing in some way). These skills seem fairly necessary to the individual’s pursuit of a life which is mentally free.

This is the reason that I can listen to these people with respect. This is the reason that their words flow into me, thank god. Without such a flow this would be a miserable, lonely life indeed.


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