Jacques Derrida, 1988 (Photo by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)

Critical theory is dead

And theory itself has killed it

Artillery Row

In academic circles, there is a growing awareness that critical theory has passed its prime. Literary scholars are seeking alternatives to deconstruction and denunciation, taking tentative steps towards devising a collaborative approach to humanities research, peering into possibilities for anchoring their inquiries to physical reality. New ventures range from digital humanities projects, interfacing dozens of scholars worldwide; to cognitive criticism, drawing on neuroscience and psychology. Jean-François Vernay, a cross-disciplinary researcher and lecturer, summed up the situation: “This craving for openings is a tacit acknowledgement that literary studies is suffering from intellectual asphyxia and is therefore in need of a strong wind of change.” The endlessly self-referential and self-negating process of exposing problems and undermining premises has exhausted itself. The only question is what will replace it, as it replaced modernism in its turn.

This ambivalence has yet to filter down to the general public, where critical theory has consolidated its influence over how we perceive literature and language. Take for instance the now obligatory section in Wikipedia articles on the latest blockbuster’s diversity representation failures. Meanwhile Duolingo, an app with the ostensibly apolitical project of teaching languages, rolled out its new Zulu course in August with this disclaimer:

[W]hile it’s exciting to talk about all the interesting features of languages, there’s also a long history of non-Western languages being treated as curious oddities as the result of a colonial mindset that’s positioned these languages (and their speakers) as strange or “other.”

The ripple effect of this thinking manifests in the founding of companies like Offbeat Travel, which borrows its mission statement directly from critical theory: “we pride ourselves on being at the forefront of decolonizing travel”.

Reason itself is suspect in the postmodern framework

What’s striking about these instances is the assertion, the confident assumption of shared premises. Travel must be “decolonised”. Duolingo users would not want to perpetuate a “colonial mindset”. Films must promote diversity in their casting and hiring. There is no discussion, no defence.

Assertion without rational defence is the essence of critical theory. This is not intended as a slur — adopting such a mode of analysis was the motivating purpose of critics like Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man in their rejection of modernism’s hyper-rationality. They deliberately developed their theories to undercut our confidence in mutual intelligibility and the universal validity of argumentation. Reason itself is suspect in the postmodern framework, so naturally critical theory would not appeal to objectivity as its guide.

Instead of building an argument from reason, in the tradition perfected by the Scholastics, critical theory operates as a lens. Turn it on anything, and it will bend its object to new dimensions, according not to the nature of the object but the make-up of the lens. This is part of the appeal of critical theories for interpreting race relations, colonial history, sexuality. Postmodern theories can explain anything and everything according to the predetermined views of the critic. Thus in African literature, the author of lighter pigmented skin is found guilty of racism, no matter how committed he is to liberal causes — see the waning enthusiasm for Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, for instance. Meanwhile the disadvantaged author loses his minority credentials once he gains success and recognition. The diverse winners of international literary prizes are not evidence of improvement in class conditions, which would contradict the theory, but disqualified as no longer representative.

Bolstered by the social pressures now exerted to force conformity to its prevailing narratives, the inexorable logic of critical theory makes it insidious. Even if we reject critical theory’s principles and conclusions, we may find ourselves subconsciously peeking through its lens whilst browsing Netflix titles. “Another white lead? Does a mixed race couple suffice to counter that?”

The irresistible appeal of critical theory boils down to arbitrariness

Two can play at this game, however. I recall a friend’s response to George Bernard Shaw’s critique of puritanism in The Devil’s Disciple. The lead actor of our undergraduate production dubbed it a “‘kick in the pants’ for Christians across campus”, but my friend found a message of grace in it. The return of the prodigal son, the Christ-like self-sacrifice, the husband’s forgiveness for his unfaithful wife — if you only considered it from the right angle, Shaw’s play reflected all too evidently the truth of the Gospel. Why not? Just as the postmodernists triumphantly unearth homoeroticism in Homer and the Bible, the Christian lens can as easily override all context and authorial intention. As Michael Polanyi wrote in Science, Faith and Society: “All theories are ‘epicyclical’ in the sense that reasons are always conceivable which will account for an observed deviation.” A theory cannot be discredited by evidence; it will always adapt and expand to incorporate that evidence into its original explanation of reality.

All the irresistible appeal of critical theory boils down to arbitrariness, a self-confirming project. This might not trouble a postmodernist committed to the chaos of moral relativism, but it isn’t necessary to insist on objective truth to sound a cautionary note. If the conclusions of critical theory are willfully imposed, then its proponents are not resisting power but perpetuating it.

As the ivory tower has already discovered, the project of critical theory defeats itself.

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