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?




  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.

42 thoughts on “Why I am no longer a Critical Theorist

  1. Go!

    George Bush – C***
    Cuban Cigars – LOVELY
    Clarence Thomas – Who?
    The Hobbit – too long, not watched it
    Mona Lisa – small, long queue
    Teatro alla Scala – ?
    Donald Trump – Sure I should know more about him…
    Al Qaeda – Hunting for the ISIS playbook
    Stop and Frisk – Is that a gay thing unlike stop and search?
    Pearl Harbor – SHIT film

  2. I refrained from commenting on this when you first posted it, but can’t now it’s come up a second time… I think the definition that you give of critical theory here, from the Stanford encyclopedia, is just wrong. Adorno’s /Negative Dialectics/ begins, for example, with an epigraph that rejects the totalities that you here ascribe to Critical Theory: “The whole is the false”, thereby countering Hegel’s Absolute. I do not think a single person I know who has read any amount of critical theory or even agreed with it would really think that people would ascribe universal values onto words and not understand that value systems and interpretations are historically and socially inflected. They might, as do Adorno and Horkheimer, consider the holocaust to be an absolute moral evil, but if that’s something that Lyotard is here supposed to free us from, I don’t quite know what we gain. Actor Network Theory is a powerful framework under which we can understand complex socio-technical assemblages. To justify using it through an extreme reductionist interpretation that “critical theory = absolutism” doesn’t seem to do it justice.

  3. Thanks for the comment, Martin, and great to see you!
    Not sure if you have ever worked with anybody who takes critical theory lenses, such as critical race theory, feminist theory, or even traits of (I have no idea what it is called) the various Occupy Movements or even adjunct advocates, all of which see issues of power and positionality as central to all human endeavors, and in the process (again, to my experiences) tend to reduce discussions to dualisms of right and wrong, with the theorists somehow knowing which side is “right” and thus speaking about anything else, including grey areas, as being wrong. I am not sure if the early critical theorists were quite so unidimensional, but it seems the rage to be self-righteous in one’s views of who has power and what that means for the rest of us (with all generalizations included).

  4. Sure. But I don’t really recognise even the characterisation of critical race or critical disability theories here. I have had many conversations with colleagues about how meaningless the term “Critical” might be here, but I would characterise these two traits very differently. Far from being the absolutist stances that you ascribe to them, I’d situate them as historicising constructivist movements, which are pretty Lyotardian. To see one’s object of inquiry as historically and socially constructed, even while having a stance on its ethical purchase, doesn’t strike me as the a-historic, de-contextualised description that I interpreted in your post.

  5. I think, basically, I’d separate out the normative ethical judgement, to which you are objecting, from the actual method of inquiry, which is to relativise and historicise – at least as I read it.

  6. Since Steve posted his, I’m going to post mine:

    George Bush – evil
    Cuban Cigars – luxury
    Clarence Thomas – evil
    The Hobbit – boring
    Mona Lisa – elbows [the people in its room in the Louvre act more like players in a rugby match than visitors an art museum]
    Teatro alla Scala – unknown
    Donald Trump – blowhard
    Al Qaeda – evil
    Stop and Frisk – evil
    Pearl Harbor – evil

    1. Thanks for sharing these, Michael!

      This is an interesting attempt (on my part) for a light-hearted, though still serious, approach to this issue, one that has gotten some . . . different conversations via the Facebook post. Just glad to have discussion. Thanks!!


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