Sunday, August 30, 2009

Stupidity, Thy Name is 'Critical Theory'

It's also 'postmodernism,' incidentally...but that's a slightly different story...

Tom points us to this, via the HuffingtonPost, Occidental college's course (Critical Theory 180) titled Stupidity:
Stupidity is neither ignorance nor organicity, but rather, a corollary of knowing and an element of normalcy, the double of intelligence rather than its opposite. It is an artifact of our nature as finite beings and one of the most powerful determinants of human destiny. Stupidity is always the name of the Other, and it is the sign of the feminine. This course in Critical Psychology follows the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, Gilles Deleuze, and most recently, Avital Ronell, in a philosophical examination of those operations and technologies that we conduct in order to render ourselves uncomprehending. Stupidity, which has been evicted from the philosophical premises and dumbed down by psychometric psychology, has returned in the postmodern discourse against Nation, Self, and Truth and makes itself felt in political life ranging from the presidency to Beavis and Butthead. This course examines stupidity.
Now, there's no way I'm going to pick through this whole pathetic mess, which looks like it was written by a high school sophomore trying to sound smart... But let's just look at a bit of it.

"Stupidity is not...organicity." For chrissake. This is typical of such dunderheads. No, stupidity is not organicity, that's for sure. Stupidity and organicity are two completely different properties that have nothing to do with each other--but no one would ever have thought otherwise. Did the author of this linguistic abomination mean "stupidity is not organic?" Because that's a completely different thing. That's still not as clear as it ought to be, but if it's supposed to mean that stupidity is always caused by environmental factors, then it's almost certainly false. Stupidity undoubtedly has, in at least many cases, a genetic component. Though it can definitely be learned--for example, by taking critical theory courses, which take basically normal people and make them stupid.

" a corollary of knowing."
Almost certainly false, but who the f*ck knows? We're not even to the second sentence yet, and the author is just saying words. I can pretty much guarantee that even the author doesn't really know what s/he's saying.

"Stupidity...[is] the double of intelligence rather than its opposite."
No, it's the opposite alright.

But I just can't go on.

The thing about critical theory and other such nonsense is that there's usually just enough truth in the stuff to provide a kind of plausible deniability. This allows them to run a kind of bait-and-switch: among themselves, or when convincing poor, unsuspecting undergraduates to take their classes and major in the dreck, the pompous, technical-sounding language and outlandish claims are advertised as a bold, radical new way of understanding life, the universe and everything. But when challenged to make sense of their nonsense, they can say "oh, hai, all that means is, um, that (e.g.) stupidity can be caused by enviornmental factors."

It's really sad. Critical theory is largely bullshit, and it's seductive bullshit. Kids are sucked into it when they're young and stupid, and then...well, if they're lucky or smart, they may only waste a few credits on it. But it's a tragedy that many kids major in this crap...or go to graduate school in it.

And it's not just the opportunity costs--not just the fact that those credits could be better spent on almost any other subject. It's not a mere waste of time; studying this stuff actually makes you stupid. It replaces your ordinary, passable-if-not-excellent habits of reasoning with habits of reasoning that are disastrously awful. It teaches people to spew out word salad, prose with a thin veneer of can produce in the reader a vague feeling that something is being said...but normally either nothing is really being said at all, or what is being said is false, or, if true, it is unimportant.

Look, I'll be the first to admit that philosophy may not be the absolute best thing kids can study. There's quite a bit of bullshit in philosophy, and that's not exactly a secret. But a student that studies philosophy is likely to come out with an ability to read difficult material with comprehension, an ability to reason about difficult problems, and an ability to write clearly and analytically. If the same student were to spend his time studying critical theory, he'd be likely to come out not only with none of these skills, but, rather, with a knack for generating still more superficially meaningfull nonsense with which to waste the time of another generation of students.

The fact that this kind of crap is so prevalent in the American academy is an outrage and a tragedy.


Blogger Protagoras said...

Not to defend the particular class you post (though I tend not to spend much time on course descriptions myself; perhaps this one was as rushed as mine usually are), but are you really being fair to critical theory? A lot of the things analytic philosophers talk about can easily be made to sound pretty stupid when quoted out of context (never mind the things that some of us say that just are stupid). On the other hand to take an easily accessible bit of evidence, a typical blog post by Michael Berube, critical theorist, is generally more interesting and insightful than a typical blog post by almost any analytic philosopher I know (certainly he writes better blog posts than I do).

11:47 AM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Hehe. Glad you enjoyed it, WS. We will also note that the course is part of the "Critical Theory and Social Justice (CTSJ)" curriculum [so intertwined it needs its own acronym!].

Apparently nothing's too stupid to mix in a little politics to make it even stupider. I think "creation science" has a rival, and with much better credentials.

3:30 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


Am I being fair to critical you think it would be unfair if I said: I'm being approximately as fair as it deserves?

I'm not saying that there's nothing interesting in it. There's *something* interesting in just about *any* area of study, no matter how confused. But the interesting-truth-to-bullshit ratio is just way, way too low there.

Now, of course, there are different types of critical theory, and I think everybody acknowledges that, say, Habermas is a smart and interesting guy.

IMHO, one way to express the problem with critical theory is something like this: the links Tom has provided are far from atypical, and, in fact, just way, way too representative of the area.

People get famous for publishing stuff in critical theory that shouldn't even receive a passing grade in an undergraduate class.

A fair bit of it is just unmitigated bullshit.

Berube? Meh, he's never knocked me out, but I haven't read much of him. I though he was a literature guy or something. But I have no doubt though that there are smart and interesting people who do critical theory. Perhaps you yourself are such a person.

And: more interesting than analytic philosophy? Lord, I'd hoped we could set the bar a little higher around here...[insert smiley face]

But seriously: representative, non-cherry-picked examples of critical theory frequently look like barely-literate, fuzzy-headed aggregations of shady theories and pseudosciences in the service of extreme leftist politics.

The very fact that it largely aims at achieving political ends rather than discovering the truth means that it ought to find a home outside the academy, IMHO.

5:57 PM  
Blogger Protagoras said...

Me, a critical theory person? Nope, pure analytic philosopher here. I was just thinking of how silly hesperus and phosphorus and twin earth can be made to sound when people are making fun of us. And yet, they're highly relevant to understanding natural kinds, and confusion about natural kinds produces all sorts of errors that are surely worth eliminating. I thus wonder if there might not be some similar relevance to the things critical theorists talk about, which I miss as an outsider, as outsiders (and even I fear many insiders) miss the relevance of twater. This suspicion is reinforced by the fact that some people I respect who seem to know more about critical theory than I do will tell me that there is relevance I'm missing.

10:21 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


I think you're absolutely right that critical theory deserves a serious, sober evaluation.

And I absolutely agree that just about any philosopher or philosophy can be made to look stupid by taking stuff out of context.

And I *certainly* agree that it's fairly easy to find laughable stuff in analytic philosophy--even *without* taking stuff out of context.

However, as I see it, the real problems are that (a) there is, apparently, a very high tolerance for bullshit in critical theory, and (b) consequently there's just too much of it. Bullshit that is.

Too many areas of study with high bullshit tolerance/content have ensconced themselves in the university--a place that ought to teach students to detect and combat bullshit. Instead, it's got whole disciplines that seem downright comfortable with the fact, they seem to promote it.

And I think that--supposing that the above is correct--it's an error to defend such folk by pointing out that *some* of what they do is good. That can be said of virtually everyone and everything. That kind of defense would allow a discipline that's 99% BS to escape due criticism.

That's my $0.02, anyway.

Waddaya think?

9:07 AM  
Blogger collin said...

As a student of critical theory/art history, I agree the bullshit:relevant ratio is disgustingly off-balance; though I do see some use in it. My problem with most of it is a lack of a real-world application, theories are stated but not tested, and certainly never employed (to do anything but write more critical theory). Though I have found some critical theory to be a (very) useful tool in looking at culture through a critical lens, this material tends to be more an abstract version of media studies, sociology, and art history than a distinct field itself. Deleuze is hardly useful beyond writing about Deluze, Michel de Certeau however can be useful when studying consumer/producer relationships. It's not all a bunch of bullshit, but you really need to be cautious of academic masturbation!

7:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I could not agree more with this post. I am doing a broad arts degree in a very 'prestigious' university, and unfortunately, I have to do some critical theory classes.

And my god! It is such utter nonsense. My own 'theory' on 'critical theorists' is that they haven't got a creative, insightful or imaginative thought in their heads. They destroy beautiful soulful texts with over analyzation and they literally suck the marrow juice out of literature

Some of the broader theories, such as Marxism, are useful to apply. But even Marxist interpretations of literature are narrow and mostly based on common sense.

Don't even get me started on post-modernsim, I had a (clearly insane) Joycean professor blather on about her interpretations of Beckett and Joyce for a year, and after each lecture, the entire class would come out half-demented. I learn nothing in critical theory, that I don't already innately know.

There is a huge industry based on this pseudo-theoretic nonsense. It's a scam, it's all just buzzwords and seems much more complex than it is. Critical theorists use language and semantics as tricks, they speak in riddles which makes them sound cleverer than they actually are.

All critical theorists do is make the 'vague' sound like it's somehow 'profound'. It's deceiving and a complete waste of time...

Rant over..


10:25 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Well-put, Anonymous.

11:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I don't understand something, I always just claim it's bullshit, because then I don't have to admit that I'm not smart enough to really "get" it.

10:15 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Latest Anonymous:


You shouldn't do that.

10:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

''The very fact that it largely aims at achieving political ends rather than discovering the truth means that it ought to find a home outside the academy''

Whilst on the topic of passing off bland nonsense as sound reason, it would perhaps be pertinent to subject your own line of enunciation to scrutiny.

Firstly, I will do just as you do, viz: I shall arbitrarily extract a single quotation from your ouevre (which could otherwise have been linked to a coherent whole - though it is certainly not), and I shall make an attempt at utilising it as a pivot from whence your own credibility may be undermined.

You state that critical theory should be relegated to a sphere outside of the academy (and hence, academia) due to (a) its concern with political ends, and (b) its seeming lack of regard for the problem of 'truth' - fair enough, but is this a tenable position? For, so far as I can discern, your chastisement of critical theory and poststructuralism is undergirded by two fundamental presuppositions (which may perhaps be better described as 'naivetes'), these being (i) that those disciplines operating within the horizon of academia (philosophy in particular) should not be concerned with political affairs, and (ii) that any critical endeavour worthy of the name should be concerned with the discovery of 'truth' (whatever that means).

As to (i), linked as it is to (a), it must be asked: is any intellectual (ergo, 'academic') endeavour separable from the socio-political/historical realm? In order to anger this, let us take a look at the origins of the academy itself.

As we know, the academy was inagurated by Plato as a philosophical cloister of sorts, but philosophy itself was first rendered possible by the presence of a polis capable of facilitating amphisbetesis (dialectical rivalry) between fellow citizens; that is, philosophy (and by extension, the academy) arose in contingence upon the socio-political formation peculiar to ancient Greece, which made it possible for 'friends' to engage in dialectical rivalry within an agora (or 'open space') - thus, philosophy (and by extension, the academy, as well as all academic disciplines/endeavours) is intrinsically bound to 'the political', and is not at all separable from it; it follows, therefore, that any notion of truth (as well as the very notion of 'truth' itself) rests as a politically, historically and socially contingent term, and cannot be divorced from socio-political/historical considerations without running into a reductio ad absurdum - viz, stating that an academic discipline should be expelled from the academy due to its having political concerns is tantamount to stating that the academy itself should be cast out of the academy.

This is a paralogism of the first order, and your smug offensive is really only a smug stupidity incapable of concealing itself.

As to (ii), tied as it is to (b), critical theory is most certainly concerned with 'truth', so much so that it interrogates the very possibility of 'a truth' - being a postwar development, it is more than understandable that a critical strain of thought would be highly weary of potentially 'despotic signifiers'; as for the obsfucating prose engendered by many poststructuralists, it may be attributed more to a hypervigilant autocritique than anything else - something important when attempting to avoid microfascisms (the text interrogates itself).

You say stupid. I say meticulous.
Your offensive amounts to nothing more than a crude misrepresentation born of crude misunderstanding.

Anyhow, fuck you all.

6:30 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


Oh, A...that's either a brilliant parody or it's kinda sad...

8:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To the anonymous person:

You used words like "agora" and "enunciation" that I have never heard of, therefore I am going to label your comment as unclear, badly written (because my standard for good writing is derived from a paper published in a physics journal) and lacking in intellectual substance

4:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A different anon here. As for the rejection another anonymous offered here, that of the political, I read the original post to say that critical theory sought to support one end of the political spectrum, not that because it was political it should be stricken from academic study. Just nothing a problem with the objection.

I'm old. I'm 45 and I was in school when theory began gathering momentum. It *is* seductive, but I agree with most everything I read here by WS. I also agree that these "theories" aren't tested in the world. In fact, they really can't be tested in the world. They're not even theories. They're often merely thought experiments. In that, they are valuable for fiction writers or those who think about things, but have little merit for consideration beyond those contexts. As others have stated here, postmodernism attempts to confirm our suspicions that truth may be relative and may change meaning in different contexts, or that postmodernism introduces certain "meta" elements into the discourse of art, but for any young readers who venture here, fear not the complexity you with which you will inevitably bombarded by. It *is* superfluous bullshit.

3:32 PM  

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