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Why I am no longer a Critical Theorist

LyotardLeave it to Maha Bali in her Embracing Paradox: Both/And Mentality and Postmodernism to get me thinking about critical theory and how I find myself somehow free of it.

Egads, what did I just say?

Power is all around us, right?

I agree.

Do all people operate with equality and fair use of power?

Certainly not in my experience.

So how can you be beyond critical theory, given that it generally aims “to explain and transform all the circumstances that enslave human beings?

That is the point; I am not sure we can speak about anything that seeks to explain all circumstances of anything. That absolutism, something that sounds strangely like positivism / postpositivism, is exactly the sort of metanarrative that I have come to notice, and hence reject.

Let’s be clear, I am not disagreeing that there are horrible biases, abuses of power, enslavement, and even wide-spread imbalances in how people–by class or sex or sexuality or gender or color or race or origin or accent or college experience or neighborhood or clothing or car model or anything else you can imagine–treat and act toward one another. However, people are so complicated and networks create, hold together, and modify with forces beyond just the human actors (cf. actor-network theory) that is it difficult to speak for the whole as if there is a unified whole.

Is it fair to think all [fill in the blank with whatever population or community you experience as being somehow oppressed] are treated in that way by all [fill in this blank with whatever population or community you experience as somehow being the oppressor]? Are all the former XXX and all the latter YYY, always because of ZZZ? Perhaps I exaggerate to make a point, but I don’t want it to be missed. Yes, there does appear to be inequalities in society, but can social realities be reduced to a commonality that all members uphold in a similar way?

Let me try something else, perhaps a word association game, and see what comes up.

Here are the instructions:

When I list these words, what is the first term that comes to mind?

Ready?

Set?

Go!

  1. George Bush
  2. Cuban Cigars
  3. Clarence Thomas
  4. The Hobbit
  5. Mona Lisa
  6. Teatro alla Scala
  7. Donald Trump
  8. Al Qaeda
  9. Stop and Frisk
  10. Pearl Harbor

Got your terms?

Great . . . so here is the question . . . Do you think everybody like you would have come up with the same term?

If so, why?

If not, why not?

or perhaps you may be stuck trying to understand what is meant by the question . . . what does “everybody like you” mean?

Here is my test — If you think everybody answers the same way, you may be an advocate of critical theory.

Do you instead think there may be a diversity of responses for this or that reason, perhaps depending on context or experience? Welcome, my friend, you may understand why Lyotard talked about postmodernism being an “Incredulity toward metanarratives.” Language and experiences and clashing systems and ever-changing networks all lack stability, though critical theory seems to want to still maintain systems as if they are frozen.

Very good reasons to try to remind us that people do not treat others fairly, I agree, but to take that and freeze it into place? That is just as scary as absolutism. Hmm, perhaps critical theory is more like an absolutism than it may at first seem, but just an absolutism with good intentions, perhaps? I suppose it depends on what topic or said by whom, or . . . .

Thanks, Lyotard, for freeing us from language that freezes us into place. BTW, that is me, above, putting a stone on Lyotard’s words (I brought with me from NYC) on his tomb in Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris, and yes, I made the trip there to pay him homage a few years ago. In many ways, that was a pivotal step in my life, as I felt, for the first time, really free. I do not have to assume that anybody is anything for this or that reason. We are so much more complex.