May 24, 2006

Critical Theory is a Bunch of Bullshit--in my humble opinion

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.”

Roland Barthes.

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.

Jacques Derrida.

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.”

Jean-Francois Lyotard.

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).

Personal conclusions.

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.

May 8, 2006

Random Stuff

“Cute” Sneezers. I don’t like to use the word “hate” and try to save it for especially worthy targets: the devil, slave traders, child abusers, soccer moms. Well this week I’ve added a new group to the list of people I hate: “cute” sneezers. What are “cute” sneezers, you ask? They’re people (usually women) who try to make their sneezes sound cute. See, a sneeze is a reaction in your nose caused by snot—and it’s not supposed to sound cute. Achew! That’s how a sneeze is supposed to sound. Let me do that again. Achew! Well, many people sneeze like this: acheeeewwww!, the cheeewww rising from alto to soprano. Believing it’s cute, such people try to hold the cheewww as long as possible, sometimes getting as far as cheeeeeeewwww! Now I’ve been told by some that they’re not faking it, that this is really how they sneeze. Baloney! Nobody sneezes like that. Let me again demonstrate the proper sneeze: achew! If you’re not sneezing like that, then you’re trying to get attention, and I’m sick of it.

Politics. I haven’t been following politics lately and, know what, life has been a lot better. On the one hand, I feel guilty for shirking my civic duty to stay informed. But, on the other hand, not only have I been happier, but I’ve been a lot less angry and more easy to get along with. Why is it so difficult for me to follow current events without becoming a monster?

The Ineluctable Charles Dickens. The first time I read a Dickens’ book, The Old Curiosity Shop, I was quite disappointed. It was just so melodramatic. But I wasn’t ready to give up on the guy, so a couple years later I read Great Expectations. But again I was disappointed. This time my complaint was that it was too long-winded, way too long-winded. So I resolved that I’d never read Dickens again. Life had been fine before Dickens and it’d certainly be fine after him. But then a strange thing started to happen: he started to grow on me. Lately I’ve been busy reading other books, but Dickens’ stories and characters keep invading my mind. I’ll be brushing my teeth and suddenly start marveling at the main plot twist in Great Expectations. Or I’ll be helping a customer at work and be reminded of Joe or Dick Swiveller. Any writer that can effect you like this must be all right. So I’ve officially added Bleak House to my list of must-reads. Yes, the journey with Charles can at times be tough, but the destination seems to be worth it.

Politics. Okay, I lied, I’ve been following politics a little. (But just a little.) So let me speak my mind about this whole immigration controversy. Liberals make me sick. (Yes, Republicans are destroying civilization, but the Democrats aren’t even trying to stop them.) Sojourners, for example, argues against a House bill that would punish “anyone who aids undocumented immigrants, even in providing basic services.” Now, I think Sojourners is right to oppose the House bill, but why don’t they say anything against illegal immigration? Let’s review possible views one can take regarding the issue: no legal or illegal immigration, both legal and illegal immigration, legal but not illegal immigration. I favor the third view: let ’em in, but only if they do so legally. But for the life of me I can’t understand those who don’t address the problems that come with illegal immigration. A disproportionately high number of these illegals join street gangs; many of them take advantage of social services even though they’re not paying taxes. Moreover, allowing illegals to stay here isn’t fair; it’s an insult to those who have played by the rules and worked to become citizens. And lastly, allowing illegals to continue to come here sends the wrong message, telling the lawbreakers and their children that they need not play by the rules.

Quote of the Day: Here’s what a friend said to me when I asked if she liked Charles Dickens. “I hate Charles Dickens! James Joyce was verbose because he had something to say. Dickens was verbose because he was getting paid by the word.”

May 1, 2006

Unconditional Love

Dear Mom,

What can one give back to a mother who has given a lifetime of unconditional love? The answer, of course, is nothing. So, why even try? Yes, tomorrow’s Mother’s Day, but how could a bouquet of flowers or an expensive gift ever compare to all you’ve given me? You know what I’m saying? So no gift, this year, Mom. But instead, I thought I’d try to put into words just how much you mean to me.

Thank you, Mom, for so fully devoting yourself to me during those first critical months. I know it must have been rough on Dad, suddenly having a wife so consumed with this crying little baby. How rough it must have been when, right as he got home from work, you no longer asked how his day was but instead went into an hour-long discourse about what new things I’d done, what I’d eaten for lunch, what my bowl movements had been like, etc. How rough it must have been when he stopped getting much sex and absolutely no foreplay. But thank you, Mom—for faithfully heeding your true calling.

And thank you for coming to my defense when the babysitter spanked me for supposedly biting that other little boy. It’s must have been tough for you, making such a fuss in front of the other mothers, threatening to sue if she didn’t apologize to me right then and there. I’ll never forget that look in your eyes ,that look of indignation that said “I trust my son, I know he would never lie.” Looking back, it doesn’t really matter that I had in fact bitten the boy. What matters is that you took my side, that you were there when I needed you most.

And thank you for continuing to stick up for me throughout my childhood. I remember that time at the Little League championship when the umpire called strike three on me, and you stood up in the bleachers and started shouting at him in front of all the other parents. I still think of that day sometimes. What I remember most isn’t that the ump made the right call; it was right in the middle of the plate, Mom. What I remember is you being there for me. So many of my friends’ parents didn’t even go to the game, but there you were, cursing at the umpire, being forcibly dragged back to your car by Gerry Lubinski’s mom.

There are so many other fond memories I have of you, Mom. So many that if I wrote every one of them down, I doubt that even the whole world would have enough room for the books that would be written. Like that time in college when I owed those guys that money and you went behind Dad’s back and sold his mom’s china set. Or remember back when I had that “problem” and you kept writing me checks? And please stop beating yourself up over that; you had no idea I’d just use the money to buy more drugs. Or remember that time you went and talked to Jeanie and pleaded that she forgive me for bagging that high school student? And how you told her that if she decided to leave then you’d hire the best lawyer money could buy and see to it that she never saw the kids again?

If only every boy had a mom like you. The world’s harsh enough. The world always tells us that we’re not good enough, that we won’t make it. But you, Mom, you never made me feel like that. I always knew that, no matter what, you loved me, that you were always in my corner. All I can say is thank you. Thank you, Mom. And, by the way, since I have your ear, I was wondering if maybe I could have an advance on next month’s allowance. See, I met this guy at work, a really good, standup guy. Anyway, he was telling me about this business opportunity that’s already making huge profits. It has to do with health products, and there was this guy in Florida, for example, who started selling the stuff just last year and he didn’t even put that much time into it and now he’s like a millionaire. Anyway, I thought it’d really be good to get in now, you know, before everyone else has heard about it. So if I could come by maybe Sunday morning that’d be really great, because they have a deadline at midnight and if I don’t invest by then I won’t be able to again for at least two weeks, and maybe never.

Anyway, Mom, I just wanted to say thank you for all you’ve done, for your never-ending love.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

Your Son