more on “critical theory”

This is not the promised follow-up to my recent post on fear, but it certainly concerns related matters. This is a follow-up to my earlier post on “critical theory.” Neil Shenvi has emailed to alert me to people responding to my post. So let me respond to the responses! But just as an initial clarification, I don’t reply on Twitter to people I don’t follow because I never see their tweets. That’s how I have Twitter set up. I recommend that policy to everyone.

I am truly sorry I didn’t know that Lindsay and his colleagues have written frequently about the very terminological confusion I point to in my post. That must be frustrating to them, and I apologize for adding to their frustration. I can only plead as an excuse that I wasn’t aware of the extent of their empire!

The quotes in Shenvi’s post indicate that there’s disagreement among those who critique critical theory about how confusing the term is. Such disagreement confirms the relevance of my post, which, after all, wasn’t meant primarily as criticism of Lindsay et al. so much as a capsule history lesson on all the confusion the term “critical theory” has been causing for decades.

I wish I had time to support these claims in detail, but I don’t, so just for what little it’s worth, here’s my take: The movement Lindsay et al. are opposed to did not originate with the Frankfurt School, and would be largely what it is if Horkheimer and Adorno had never lived. Its raw materials derive from Franz Fanon and Paulo Freire and bell hooks and Edward Said etc. — the people who get quoted by today’s activists! — scholars who rarely if ever refer to the Frankfurt School or, in the case of Said, claim that that school was culpably negligent in its failure to combat racism and colonialism. The crisis of colonialism, and maybe more than anywhere else in French Algeria, has had an almost infinitely greater role in shaping today’s discourse than the Frankfurt School. It was French thought, not German, that dominated American humanities departments in the last third of the 20th century, and bequeathed a vocabulary that people are still using. (Beyond that lie the “masters of suspicion” I mentioned in my post.) One reason that that French discourse — along with certain English-language writers like C. L. R. James and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, whose “Decolonising the Mind” is hugely influential — has been so dominant is that France and England had vast colonial enterprises and Germany did not. You can hardly overstate the extent to which colonialism has established the terms for current discourse about race and ethnicity and even gender and sexuality. I really do believe that the term “critical theory” misleads people about the relevant history. (By the way, Ngũgĩ decolonized his own mind by ceasing to write in English and turning to Gikuyu instead.)

One might of course argue that all of this intellectual genealogy is beside the point, and what really matters is combating false and dangerous ideas. But the genealogy is what my post was about. Also, I don’t mean that Lindsay and colleagues are wrong about everything, or even about many things. I mean to suggest only that they get the genealogy wrong. I am actually at work, with some other folks, on a project that will address these issues, but I am sworn to secrecy about that right now. More in due course.

Randomly: James Lindsay thinks I’ve been irresponsible in failing to … I’m not sure, do what he does, maybe? I suppose my most recent essay to addresses the same movements that Lindsay does is this one, from 2017; my first one, an ethical critique of deconstruction, and in fact my first published scholarly article, appeared in 1987. So I’ve been at this for a while. But indeed that kind of thing isn’t my chief focus, because quite early on I came to believe that pure critique is a high-demand, low-reward kind of work. It can be helpful if you want to rally your base, but I find it more useful to celebrate what I believe to be true, and true, and beautiful, and embed critique in a larger, more constructive enterprise.

Okay, all that duly noted, I suppose I need to say something in response to a question I get asked all the time: What should be the Christian’s response to this “critical theory”? I’ll do that in my next post — but I will do it badly. This I pledge to you.