I spent the day asking myself whether I should study critical theory. A coworker, Ashley, is always praising critical theory, doing so with esoteric language that has the tendency to intimidate me. (I understand what she means; I just can’t use the critical theory language as she does.) So here’s what I did today. First, I got online and looked at descriptions of the English literature classes given at Oxford. It seems that they don’t place much (perhaps any) emphasis on critical theory. Instead they focus on Western civilization’s greatest writings. After getting offline, I made the following outline, which attempts to summarize the teachings of certain theorists. I took the notes a couple years ago from a book by Peter Barry.
Ferdinand de Saussure.
Language is arbitrary. The structuralists argued that, if language is an arbitrary sign system, then it follows that “language isn’t a reflection of the world and of experience, but a system which stands quite separate from it.”
Language “constitutes our world, it doesn’t just record it or label it.” Meaning is not just “expressed through” language; it is also “constructed” by it. For instance, Osama Bin Laden can be called either a “terrorist” or a “freedom fighter”; there is no objective way to describe him; regardless how I describe him, I am imposing my values onto the world.”
The meaning of a text is not determined by context or authorial intention, but by the reader. In other words, the author does not produce the text, but the reader does.
The universe is relativistic or “decentered,” having “no absolutes or fixed points.” Facts are not possible, only interpretations.
This leads to the deconstructive “reading of texts,” which tries to unmask “internal contradictions or inconsistencies in the text” and thus reveal “the disunity which underlies its apparent unity.” J.A. Cuddon writes that, in deconstruction, “a text can be read as saying something quite different from what it appears to be saying.”
Defines postmodernism as “incredulity towards metanarratives.”
Claims that metanarratives that “purport to explain and reassure, are really illusions, fostered in order to smother difference, opposition, and plurality.”
Claims that “the best we can hope for is a series of ‘mininarratives’, which are provisional, contingent, temporary, and relative and which provide a basis for the actions of specific groups in particular local circumstances.
Summary: we can never get at “objective reality”
A reader cannot get at the intended meaning of a text; the meaning of a text is determined by the reader; in other words, the author does not produce the text, but the reader does (Roland Barthes) (I don’t think is exactly what Barthes was saying; the perils of trying to make a neat summary).
Language doesn’t get at reality (Ferdinand de Saussure).
Language does not intrinsically reflect reality; it’s an arbitrary, human-made sign system.
Language does not objectively describe reality; rather, language constitutes our world; e.g., Osama Bin Laden can be called either a “terrorist” or a “freedom fight”; there is no objective way to describe him; regardless how I describe him, I am imposing my values onto the world.
People cannot in any way get at reality; facts are not possible, only interpretations (Jacques Derrida); there are no metanarratives (Jean-Francois Lyotard).
This is all a bunch of bullshit. Okay, that’s an immature thing to say. Let me start over. There is definitely truth in what these thinkers are saying. Language doesn’t perfectly convey reality; language does in many ways constitute reality. We are epistemologically deficient; the truth isn’t easily got at. Each reader brings something unique to a text; one cannot perfectly understand what a text means, what the author intended. Okay, now that that’s out of the way…
Why the fuck would one really want to study critical theory? Okay, I get the gist (at least on some level; what reverence I have!). But do we really need to keep studying it? Keep learning how words are arbitrary signs, how metanarratives can be oppressive? Enough enough enough!!!
I guess critical theory is good for some people. And I don’t want to knock them; of course not, I’d never want to do something like that! But it’s not good for me. I get the gist of critical theory, but now it’s time for me to move on. Reading it more isn’t going to make me smarter; it’s not going to make me a better person or a better enjoyer of literature. I get it; I agree up to a point; now let me get on with my life and do something worthwhile.