Critiquing Critical Theory

Critical theory builds on the theories of psychoanalysis put forward by Freud, and applies them to areas of literary analysis (among other areas) and has yielded a number of fields which take specific framings to deconstruct entities and relationships which claim to reveal realities about power imbalances. An oft repeated maxim of the use of models is that: the outputs are only as good as the inputs. This is one case where a whole field is corrupted by the systematised proliferation of models which encourage bad inputs derived from unstated and often undue assumptions.

The exact framing and assumptions used in each case vary slightly depending on the specific subject, but to take a critical gender theory lens; the representation of femininity and women, as pitted against men and masculinity – will be used to generate conclusions pertaining to the writer, the reader, and/or society at large. For example: Romeo and Juliet may be said to provide encouragement to a view of masculinity which is aggressive, and domineering, whereas femininity is demure, accommodating, and subservient. The prevalence and wide readership of this book thus subjects many to this categorisation and way of being – which reinforces existing stereotypes, and guides men and women into discrete positions in society in the dominant and submissive positions respectively. The conclusion might then be something like; Romeo and Juliet thus needs to be removed as a central pillar of literature if women are to be equal – else successive generations of girls will continue to be subjugated by the patriarchal encouragement of the text. In this example then, how many assumptions have been smuggled into this (admittedly rather basic) analysis?

As in most such instances, a social constructivist approach is assumed, by the implication that this piece of media is informing interactions and expectations of conduct; where there had prior been, and thus where there would otherwise be: equality. It is assumed that equality is either preferable, or ‘good’ in a metaphysical sense. It is assumed that the portrayals of these characters are designed to be taken as uncritical recommendations of conduct by the reader/viewer, and that they are indeed viewed that way. This list is far from complete, and only covers the elements which are known to be questionable, but nonetheless – many of these broad assumptions apply in other critical theory fields. Whether through the lens of race, sexuality, class, or potentially any other characteristic, a dichotomy is set up between the two considered categories, and observations drawn out with relevance to prevalent attitudes or historical relationships. This would be the more neutral view of what is taking place during these analyses, though this neutrality – again, makes certain assumptions about ideals and preferences.

Drawing all of these presuppositions into an entire field of study is justifiable perhaps – if these presuppositions are either continually reinforced and proven, beyond doubt (and/or true by definition), or engaged with in the full knowledge that they may be incorrect – or indeed are subject rather than objective assessments. None of these options seem to apply to the outputs of critical theory.

In order to reverse this issue, and prevent the products of this flawed methodology damaging our collective understanding, quite simply the reverse of the above stated problems must be implemented. If a charitable interpretation of the conduct is maintained, then it ought to be simply encouraged that the practitioners of critical theory make themselves more aware of the totality of the justifications for their subject, rather than accepting tenuous conclusions as fact for their starting point. Or even merely that they acknowledge that their presuppositions are flimsy, and factor that into the analysis. If these practitioners are not trusted however, then the issue becomes more difficult – as it must be tackled from the outside.

In the past, study was rarely consigned to a single specialist subject, and most academics would have a basis in philosophy (or generally the foundational building blocks of their subject) which would then allow them to construct their own contributions atop this more foundational understanding. This was particularly true in Ancient Greece, but so too during the Enlightenment and Victorian eras, though ever less so in these latter two periods. In light of this, while it might be perhaps desirable to reimplement the same expectations of a more complete academic education in order to be considered a serious contributor to the academic world – the requirements this would impose on the sciences may be considered intolerable compared against current needs. If this is not an option then, a specialist response may be required.

The mistakes made in the fields of critical theory are elementary in the sphere of formal logic and philosophy, and so the expertise developed there might be drawn upon. It is however, not an issue solely possessed by critical theory, as many more fields (of the social sciences particularly) make certain presuppositions of sometimes dubious merit. Therefore, a refined method of observing and perhaps even criticising the connective tissue of these fields – could be a field in itself (if we must make it a separate field). The issue of how a subject is framed, what are the devices used to frame it, and whether the frame itself leads to certain conclusions; are all meta-topics which need to be discussed and considered for all subjects as a form of audit, which might prevent the runaway self-replicating but ill-founded authority of an academic field which has an illogical founding. If this proposal requires a name, then perhaps something akin to; Skeletology, or Framology – the study of frames and frameworks.

The obvious structural issue here, and a potential barrier to this subject having any real success is that it – by design – treads on the toes of vested interest groups within these institutions. There is little reason to think that any field of academics will willingly accept the judgement by an outside entity – that the subject of their life’s work is illegitimate, but this is a necessary outcome if the newly proposed field is to have any meaningful effect. In all likelihood then, any attempts to manifest this suggestion will have to take place outside of the established academic context if it is to be honest, truth-seeking, and unconstrained by institutional pressures which have thus far been the purview of the administrative university apparatus.

To gather this all together then: to untangle the web of assumptions, presuppositions, and accumulated baggage of academic specialisation, a field of study perhaps ought to be introduced which can conduct itself across the range of all these disciplines to take a wider view of whether their core assumptions and by extension sometimes their currently constituted existences – are warranted. To take some examples outside of the aforementioned and subject of this piece: is it reasonable to separate business as a distinct entity of study, rather than one of a number of forms which all function similarly given certain conditions? Is there such a thing as a psychological baseline ‘norm’ from which deviations can be measured, or are there merely observable characteristics of individual or group-level psychology? Are the assumptions of materialist rational self-interested individuals in economics – reasonable? Many of these sorts of questions are posed within the subjects themselves, but their conclusions are often leveled merely as criticisms of certain models, rather than being taken to their paradigm-shifting logical conclusions (where they are sufficiently significant, of course). Unifying these efforts under the microscope of philosophers with the appropriate training ought to, as previously stated, streamline these efforts, and escape the muting of the implication of their findings.

Therefore, let there be a cadre of philosophically trained, rigourous, and clear-thinking analysts; who can state with clarity and categorise the assumptions, presuppositions of different fields and subjects, and how topics are grouped, with an eye to streamline and clarify these disciplines now that centuries of specialisation have siloed them, despite their ever increasing authority and prestige.