Thinking Critically about Critical Theory

First thought. The broad takeaway insight of postmodernism is the following: there is always more in a text than the author knows or intends. This goes rather nicely with Nietzsche’s claim that “there are no facts, only interpretations.” But before killing off the author and truth and casting their bodies in the river, chew on this question raised by two neopragmatist philosophers in 1982 (Knapp and Michaels): if the following stanza from a Wordsworth poem magically appeared scrawled in beach sand in the wake of a receding wave, how would you interpret it?

No motion has she now, no force;

She neither hears nor sees;

Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,

With rocks, and stones, and trees.

In other words, were you to witness these words before you, apparently written via the action of water, how might you explain to yourself such a Twilight Zone moment? Absent an author, would the words signify anything?

Second thought. To orient oneself in the Western critical tradition generally, it might help to think of it as having passed through six periods or turns first sketched out by literary scholar M. H. Abrams in The Mirror and the Lamp (1953): the classical, the romantic, the formalist, the structuralist, the poststructuralist, and the “social text.” When he wrote, Abrams hadn’t lived through the postmodern turns yet (the poststructuralist and social text turns). But these are the two readily discernible critical approaches that have emerged since the 1950s. And all six of them overlap and interact. None has ever really gone away. One way to explain their differences from one another is in their relation to Aristotle’s famous rhetorical triangle (ethos, logos, pathos—speaker, message, audience): 

  • The classical turn. Those who identify with the classical tradition (the tradition stemming from the ancient Greeks) concern themselves with the message (logos) sent to an audience (pathos) in its relation to the universe (the cosmos): does that message reflect the objective truth of matters? That is, does it point to reality as a whole—the cosmos—as it most truly is? If it does, the sender is to be praised for holding (as Shakespeare famously put it) “a mirror up to nature.” Successful mimesis (imitation before an audience of those things that are most essentially true) is taken in the classical tradition to be the highest end of all communication, displaying scientific, rhetorical, moral, and artistic excellence. If you believe that objective truth is, in some sense, “out there” in the world, and that communication ought to be consonant with it, your sensibilities are in accord with the classical tradition. 21st century scientists, for example, tend to take the classical tradition for granted: they assume they’re discovering true things about nature, not constructing them, and they think of themselves as communicating their findings to others clearly, as one might hold “a mirror up to nature.” But some thinkers, especially in the humanities, focusing on the ways that time, languages, and cultures function, have come to doubt vigorously common sense mimetic assumptions (see below).
  • The romantic turn. Those who identify with the romantic tradition (the tradition stemming from 18th century romantics like Johann Goethe and William Blake) concern themselves with the messages they send in relation to their “souls”: does that message accurately reflect the inner truth of the speaker, writer, or artist? If so, it is worthy of praise. As in the classical tradition, the romantic tradition is mimetic (imitative), but the concern is not so much with the message mirroring outer nature, but rather with it mirroring the great subjective truths and insights of the mind, imagination, and heart (inner nature).
  • The formalist turn. Those who identify with the 20th century formalist tradition concern themselves with the message alone, and are not particularly concerned with its mimetic representations of either outer or inner truths (outer or inner nature) or its relation to history. In formalism, the message itself is to be treated as whole, beautiful, and interesting—a “well-wrought urn,” in the critic Cleanth Brooks’ phrase. Each message is a universe all its own, possessing an inner language and logic apart from that functioning in the cosmos or the message’s sender. The formalist turn is to be fascinated with a dab of paint on a canvas in relation to another dab of paint; or to notice the materiality of a piece of window-glass itself, and not just of what is seen through it; or to wish to study, not a poem’s content, but its rhyme scheme, visual appearance on the page, word repetitions, its form. Have a look at paintings by modernists like Kandinsky, Klee, and Miro for a visual sense of the formalist turn.
  • The structuralist turn. No man (or word) is an island. That’s the structuralist’s insistence. Theorists in the structuralist tradition concern themselves with the field of relations. For example, signs (signifiers and signifieds, the words and the concepts they point to) become a great text—a field of signs—in which meaning does not reside outside of that field. Think of a dictionary in which words define words, and those words are defined by other words, etc. Complete meaning necessarily disperses into the field and is chased there. But the great 19th and 20th century structuralists (such as the linguist Ferdinand Saussure) did not confine their field insights to language. For example, thinkers like Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Charles Darwin all introduced structuralist field theories into their respective disciplines: for Freud it is the id, ego, and superego that structure the energies of the psyche; for Marx it is the class struggle that structures history; and for Darwin it is natural selection that structures life into a great and branching tree. In each of these, the human individual, like a word in a dictionary, takes her origin and meaning from the logic and structures in which she finds herself embedded.
  • The poststructuralist turn. Like the structuralist, the poststructuralist is also concerned with fields of relations. But what divides a structuralist from a poststructuralist is whether or not to treat such fields as basically stable (like in a game of chess with its spread-out board accompanied by definite rules and determinate relations). Structuralists see history as largely playing out like a chess game. Interesting things happen, but always within a structure governed by some law (discerned by a genius like Freud, Marx, or Darwin). By contrast, poststructuralists see things as playing out less lawfully, less predictably. The poststructuralist foregrounds the gaps in the structures we purport to understand; the spaces where things can surprise. Think, for instance, of the gap depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel between the finger of Michelangelo’s Adam and the finger of God. They almost touch, yet don’t, and in that gap something unexpected can intervene, transforming the meaning of the image. (A fly could land in that space, or a wasp could build a nest there.) Emily Dickinson’s poem, “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died,” also nicely anticipates the poststructuralist turn. When she expects her life’s structure to close upon her quite meaningfully in that “last Onset—when the King / Be witnessed—in the Room,” she gets instead a fly “With Blue—uncertain stumbling Buzz / Between the light—and me.” That’s the Dionysian trickster to which the poststructuralist turns attention. The trickster is the contingency not anticipated; the margin that disrupts the center. If you’re a poststructuralist you notice that things aren’t stable; that dictionaries evolve in unpredictable ways; that over time signifiers (words) subtly shift their meanings in relation to their signifieds (concepts) and in relation to one another; and you conclude from this that language—and everything else—is  in flux. Thus to “hold the mirror up to nature” is, from the vantage of the poststructuralist, to take for granted a correspondence between stable language and stable reality that is, in fact, illusory. If you’re a poststructuralist, you believe that people in the mimetic and romantic traditions are possessed of what might be called the mirror delusion. They’re under the spell of images and things they take to be fixed, images they’ve constructed. But time and poststructuralists themselves have their ways of undoing things. They are both deconstructionists. Thus even when a poststructuralist is not performing a deconstructive reading of a text or event, foregrounding its margins and instabilities, time itself is, in Jacques Derrida’s phrase, “always already” doing so.
  • The social text turn. Those who identify with the social text turn in criticism have absorbed the insights of poststructuralists that language’s relation to reality is problematic. But they nevertheless insist on making efforts to link languages, in a nonironic fashion, to (left leaning) social causes. This is why they can be properly designated social text theorists. Duke University, for example, puts out an academic journal of socially engaged criticism aptly titled, Social Text. To be either a poststructuralist or social text theorist is what it means to call oneself “postmodern” as opposed to “modern” (formalist or structuralist) or “mimetic” (classical or romantic). But within postmodernism itself is this ongoing tension concerning mimesis: do the ways people represent their inner lives and social struggles mirror accurately a fundamental inner and outer reality or not? Put another way, how do you keep faith with a romantic revolutionary like the poet Byron and a structuralist like Marx after absorbing Derrida (a poststructuralist)?  Another issue in social text theorizing is the relation of the individual to the field of history: is an individual determined in any significant way by biology? Does she have free will? Social text theorists frequently downplay both of these, emphasizing the individual’s embeddedness in the fields of language and culture alone. “Biology is not destiny,” “nature doesn’t speak, we speak,” and “the personal is political” are very near to articles of faith among social text theorists. Except when they’re not. (Think about the above slogans in relation to the question of whether or not some people are born gay). Historian of science Bruno Latour complains that social text theorists are simply not consistent—sometimes affirming, sometimes denying key assumptions. But in their defense, that’s because they’re trying to be a bit of everything (romantic mimetics, Marxist structuralists, and Derridean poststructucturalists). How do you square these circles?  

Concluding thought. Consider thinking of one’s intellectual life as a game of chess. When a writer or speaker makes a claim, offers a support for a claim, or engages in some other critical thinking or rhetorical move, evaluate it as one might a move in chess and reflect on the following: There are lots of moves that could be made across this chessboard (classical, romantic, structuralist, formalist, poststructuralist, or social text ones). Why this one? Why now? What does the person making this move want me to assume about the world and what should be my move in response? What countermoves by others might I anticipate from my own move? Break the spell. See through the blue pipe smoke. Make your move.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to Thinking Critically about Critical Theory

  1. ModWestMuse says:

    Hi, a very interesting presentation and account. Too much to comment on. Perhaps in a later article (I’ll let you know if and when). Two immediate observations:

    1) it is interesting to note how there are always seemingly cyclical actions followed by reactions in the history of ideas. So just as postmodernists respond by critiquing the bases of modernity’s seemingly stable assumption of fixed entities – parallels exist in the past. Skeptics versus the Dogmatists (Stoics) – and even the other way around, Socratics versus the Sophists. One talks about ‘the matter’ the other about ‘the methods’.

    2) You indicate that you are talking about the “Western critical tradition” – but I think it would be increasingly valuable to not necessarily restrict the ‘critical tradition’ to what is ‘Western’. I say this as again, you will be surprised to see the same cyclical parallels repeating. I’d suggest glancing at the Indian Schools of thought and the Islamic Schools of thought. Given that the reach of ‘modernity’ is now global. global critical methods I believe will enrich the debate further. I believe therein (in the inter-debate) is ‘the new idea(s)’.

    I thoroughly enjoyed this read🙂

  2. Thank you. This a very clear, well digested summary. It reminded me that I sometimes discuss literature in terms of it operating under Newtonian mechanics or Quantum mechanics … so a stable/ rational system or an unstable/irrational system. (I also tend to say that a Newtonian book is always also Quantum. The opposite is seldom true however.). These are all layperson terms, of course, and will probably horrify experts.

  3. Pingback: Evolution Outside of the Science Classroom | Prometheus Unbound

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