Introducing Critical Theory by Stuart Sim. The notion of history moving toward some grand end is suspect.


Critical theory is a way of understanding culture. It proposes a theory to analyze literature, music, entertainment, politics, religion, and so on. It is typically interested in political change. Marxism is a classic example, but there are many other theories, e.g., deconstructionism, feminism, queer theory, and black politics.

Alienation. A core concept in critical theory is alienation, a condition of existing on the outside, in estrangement from a community or nature or even one’s self.

Dialectic. The dialectic refers to the alienation or contradiction latent in all thinking. An idea inevitably provokes its opposite. For Hegel, opposites are resolved at a higher level of consciousness.

Narrative. Marx applied the concept of the dialectic to politics, with a grand narrative in which history is the struggle of the working class against property owners. According to Marx, the inevitable outcome is the overthrow of the property owners and the formation of a Communist state. Narrative is basic to the human condition, but grand narratives tend to be authoritarian. More recent theorists prefer to use small narratives to describe their distinctive experiences.

Subtext is a hidden level of narrative or meaning at which people are influenced or controlled. Marx pointed to the cultural ideology of consumerism to explain why the class revolution had not yet succeeded. Freud proposed the psychological unconscious from which repressed sexual desire influenced our behaviour. Structuralists examined how language shapes our interactions.

Structure and Totality. Subtext introduces the idea of hidden and shared structures. We may able to define a grammar or syntax of the unconscious, e.g., universal symbols such as male and female. The systems of Marx, Freud and the structuralists propose a horizon to knowledge, limiting human claims to enlightenment. At the same time, these theories make a claim on identity, a totality, transferring authority to those who understand them. Always a risky proposition.

Difference. Post-structuralists reject structuralism and systems, and emphasize the plurality of meaning. Derrida said there is no precise meaning to a word. It is better to talk about a field of meaning. Foucault rejected the idea of human essence. He described the plight of the mentally ill, homosexuals, prisoners and ethnic minorities. Lyotard coined the term, differends, intractable disputes, e.g., First Nation land claims, which tend toward marginalization of those with less power. Lyotard discussed how postmodern science — incompleteness theory, complexity theory — shows that the future is still open.

Perception. Art reflects the unconscious. Art can be used as propogranda, and it can be used to reveal ideology. Shklovsky contributed the concept of defamiliarization, the making strange of everyday objects to break fascination and perceive freshly. Defamiliarization is a defining quality of literature. Benjamin stated that original works of art have an aura, a context and history that cannot be mechanically reproduced. Barthes proclaimed the death of the author. It is readers who complete the narrative.

Evaluation. In the absense of a grand narrative, evaluations and ethical judgements can still be made on a case-by-case basis, much like our courts. Bentham prescribed “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” and rejected the Ten Commandments.

Simulcra. Technology has changed the nature of the working class. Lyotard was concerned that technology was a last attempt to eliminate difference from the world. In contrast, Haraway saw the internet as a female friendly space, and said she would rather be a cyborg than a goddess. Baudrillard said we now inhabit a world of hyperreal simulcra, “signs without referents” including the Gulf War and Disneyworld. With technology mediating all our relationships, are we simulcra of human beings?

History. Is there such a thing as progress? Hegel saw an evolution toward absolute spirit. Marx insisted that communism was inevitable. Kafka believed that alienation was an inescapable metaphysical condition. Witnessing WWII violence, Adorno and Marcuse rejected what they called the Enlightenment project, while Habermas said it is just an unfinished project.

An Opinion. To me, the dialectic suggests a two-step. Sometimes we can take two steps forward only to take three steps back. The notion of history moving toward some grand end is suspect. We undertake projects and glimpse meaning, but anyone who thinks they know the big picture with certainty is mistaken. Both memories and hopes are tainted by our fantasies and fears. The meaning I trust is local, actual moments in space and time. Perception is an end in itself. The future is open.