Our age is the age of criticism, to which everything must be subjected. The sacredness of religion, and the authority of legislation, are by many regarded as grounds of exemption from the examination of this tribunal. But, if they own they are exempted, they become the subjects of just suspicion, and cannot lay claim to sincere respect, which reason accords only to that which has stood the test of a free and public examination. (Immanuel Kant)
This introduction is about a certain kind of writing, which has emerged in recent years with the force of an independent discipline, without ever taking on the status that an independent discipline normally achieves. You may have heard of some of the names involved, certainly the key historical references, like Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, perhaps even the more recent upstarts, like Kristeva, Foucault, and Derrida. Though you may not have heard of these and you may have only a shadowy knowledge of what arguments and influences they represent. You may have heard of certain developments like structuralism, deconstruction, postmodernism, and you probably have a fairly good awareness of some of the issues that hide away behind those words, through many discussions in the media and through certain portrayals in books, films and on television.
You may, on the contrary, know quite a lot about Critical Theory, whether or not you are or ever have been a student of the Humanities or Social Sciences. This introduction does not presuppose any special knowledge of the subject, just as the writer can have no special knowledge of his reader. For those with little or no knowledge of what the phrase Critical Theory refers to, the introduction is designed as a guide through what is an intrinsically complex field dealing with intrinsically complex issues. For those who have some knowledge, even a lot of knowledge, about the field, the introduction will appear in the form of an argument. In either case, it aims to provide something like a framework for a field that in its most essential moments is concerned with questioning and adjusting frameworks.
In that case the introduction
can best be described as a critical
guide to Critical Theory. It emphasises what is critical about the knowledge it presents. I will go on to explore these two key words,
critical and frameworks, in this preface.
There are many books, for both general and specifically academic
markets, that might easily be described as non-critical. What this means is that they present
knowledge that doesn’t require any complicated questions about its status or
role as knowledge. Books that tell you how to develop certain
skills and that provide an appropriate level of awareness require little more
than clear presentations of methods and facts.
For instance, successful organic gardening would require an awareness of
the appropriate techniques and materials necessary for practising good
gardening. And it would depend to an
extent on knowing how to cultivate an ecosystem in tune with the seasons, how
to produce fertilisers from natural waste and knowing about the cyclic nature
of a soil’s fertility. This knowledge
can be given without a lot of philosophising about the ethical preference for
organic gardening over gardening that makes use of chemical pesticides. There are in fact many books on organic
gardening that do present critical grounds for practising organic cultivation. The erosion of the global ecosystem, the
massive escalation of the production of non-reusable waste, global warming, and
the consumption of the human spirit by vast systems of commodity capitalism,
are grounds enough, some feel, for turning away from modern technics and
developing a more ecology-friendly technics of the earth. But you wouldn’t need to make those points
if you were writing a manual on organic gardening. Think of your market (the publisher
suggests): give them the skills and the knowledge they need, but don't bother
them with distracting philosophising. So
with or without the critical
awareness, the books on organics can sit happily alongside the books on other
types of gardening (in the “Gardening” section of your local B
This introduction is not about growing tomatoes. But I could have attempted to lay it out as if it was. I could have presented an overview of the names and the thought associated with them, the history of ideas within which ideas are produced and disseminated. I could have given short accounts with handy examples of the methods, variously, of structuralism, deconstruction, psychoanalytic theory, hermeneutics, stylistics, etc. While you will find this kind of knowledge embedded in the following pages that is not the main concern of this introduction. The guiding concerns of this introduction are what certain German philosophers would once have called the “Grounding concepts” (the Grundebegriffe). And rather than provide a framework through which you may understand the multiplicity of critical forces out there, I have drawn out a framework from what is consistently critical in what all these thinkers and writers do. The guide in other words does not aim to simply provide knowledge and awareness of Critical Theory. Rather it is intended to draw attention to what provokes critical theory. You will not find an exposition of every important contemporary thinker in the field. Rather you will find a series of expositions of the basic problems that concern us when engaging both with the tradition out of which critical theory emerges and with contemporary thinkers too.
A critical preface to Critical Theory would be expected to examine the meaning of its terms in their intellectual context—just as a book on organic gardening would be expected to explain what is meant by organic in the context of gardening. The word critical involves a complex a web of ideas so it is appropriate that we begin with an exposition of the term. Ordinary uses do not provide much of a clue. If I were to observe that the British electorate was critical of Harold Wilson’s cabinet during the 1960’s I’d be using the ordinary sense of the word critical, meaning “inclined to criticise severely and unfavourably.” In fact critics get a bad name for the way they are often too critical (in the ordinary sense) of artists, writers and film-producers. The word critic comes from the Greek kritikos, which denotes the ability, or even licence, to discern or to judge. A critic is someone one who expresses a reasoned opinion on any matter, especially involving a judgement of its value, truth, righteousness, beauty, or technique. So in 1711 the poet Alexander Pope, in his Essay on Criticism, was able to admonish the many critics of the time for their failure to take responsibility in their task:
'Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill
Appear in Writing or in Judging ill,
But, of the two, less dang'rous is th' Offence,
To tire our Patience, than mis-lead our Sense:
Some few in that, but Numbers err in this,
Ten Censure wrong for one who Writes amiss;
A Fool might once himself alone expose,
Now One in Verse makes many more in Prose.
The opening lines point out that while it is difficult to say whether bad writing is worse than bad criticism, there is little doubt that bad criticism is more dangerous because it misleads us, whereas bad poetry is only going to irritate us. Furthermore there are many more bad critics than there are bad poets. The Essay raises questions about responsibility in judgement and attempts to answer them with some prescriptions about the grounds for judging properly and responsibly:
follow Nature, and your judgment frame
By her just standard, which is still the same;
Unerring Nature, still divinely bright,
One clear, unchanged, and universal light,
Life, force, and beauty must to all impart,
At once the source, and end, and test of art.
is another extre
Pope’s metaphysical notion of nature asserts that the source (or the condition) of art remains invisible. We only know it is there because of its effects (beautiful pictures and poems, in analogy perhaps with beautiful natural phenomena like mountains, lakes, flowers and trees). The real worry here is the plethora of bad critics (in analogy with an unjust world). The trouble is that taste, or good judgement, requires a certain art itself—it is not self-evident or simply given. So the art of criticism requires a developed sensibility that goes beyond mechanical means (as Pope goes on to argue in his poetic Essay). So against the everyday notion of criticism (an act of harsh judgement) the more refined notion is considerably more complex, involving serious questions about the nearly always unstable criteria for analysing, evaluating and appreciating works of art. Art thus signals a problem concerning unconditioned origins. The problem calls on, or provokes, theory (if not an all out metaphysics).
In the most basic sense, then, Critical Theory would offer some principles upon which criticism might responsibly proceed. Pope’s Essay can thus be regarded as a form of critical theory, with his particular reading of the concept of Nature playing a decisive role. Notice that it has to be a decision because Nature, in his conception, remains apart, withdrawn, from the “effects” we come across as evidence for its existence. There are beautiful works thus their source in a transcendent wellspring called art-in-general can be securely inferred. We ought to be able to see already that the responsibility of judgement can rely on nothing but its own resources—responsibility and judgement—in order to arrive at the decisions that constitute criticism. When standing in the National Gallery gazing at one of the respected great masters, like John Constable’s The Haywain, on what grounds can we make an appreciation of it? The fact that it is in a major institution for displaying great artworks perhaps says something about its greatness. But does that fact alone determine our experience of its great grandeur? It might do. Then our decisions are already to a large extent made for us, by historical art institutions and established criticism etc. Does the professional curator’s judgement, then, guarantee all our tastes? Art history has proven that anybody’s judgement may be called in to question, no matter how much institutional authority they have been granted. Yet, on the other hand, we do find that we like, even love, without clear criteria, certain artistic forms—though not necessarily generally accepted ones. What is it about Megadeath’s latest album? What is that je ne sais quoi that makes us love them so much we beat our heads against the PA system until our ears bleed? Where does our appreciation come from? At what point can we say that our individual judgements constitute responsible criticism?
The word criticism comes from a Greek word (as do so many of the words we use), krinein meaning to decide. And it does look as if the work of criticism requires some form of decision. If I think Constable’s Haywain is a magnificent work of art, I have made a decision. Or I might have done. The curator, of course, might have already made it for me, so in this case I don’t have to decide. Everyone knows it is great. It is in the National Gallery, not to mention adorning the walls of countless semi-detached living rooms and chocolate boxes, endlessly and cheaply reproduced for sale in markets and department stores. When people say, “I don’t know much about art but I know what I like,” they often turn out to have the same taste that millions of others also have. How do you decide to like something? One answer would be to say that beauty, in its most refined sense, is something objective, inherent in beautiful objects like trees and artworks. This would be an attempt at a metaphysical explanation. Metaphysics requires a range of abstract concepts that cannot ever be experienced as such, but must somehow be deduced from the evidence of experience. So because there are beautiful things there must be the eternal quality that informs things with greater or lesser amounts of beauty. However against this, as the phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” suggests, people have noticed that there is little agreement, certainly nothing of a universal kind, about what beauty is.
Perhaps what we like or what we find beautiful says more about us than the thing perceived. Another way of saying this is that beauty is subjective. It is a wonderfully reassuring thought for those who come to being in what we now call the modern world, or Modernity. Modernity, as I will explain in a different chapter, roughly outlines a broad historical process and a set of fundamental attitudes that help to structure specific kinds of interpretations of the world. Most decisively (there’s that word again) modernity involves a tension, sometimes even a contradiction, whereby the emphasis on observation and scientific models of research is compensated for by the relegation of subjective experience to the realm of aesthetics. The contradiction roughly marks out the separation of experience into objective and subjective realms. So science is objective and aesthetic experience is subjective. Why is this separation reassuring? Historically science tends to discredit explanations derived from religions and mythologies, with a corresponding de-centring of the place of mankind in the universe. If it was once thought that man on earth was the single most important creation of an eternal and infinite god, scientific knowledge provides strong evidence against this belief. The lack of grounds for criticism, then, or at least the apparent lack of universal grounds for judging aesthetic experience, provides some compensation for the objectification of the world in the subjectification of the person. A person can now be thought of as an independent, free thinking individual, unique in himself (and later herself) and distinguished from others. Modernity thus implies the individuation of the members of the collective called Man.
So the human subject turns out to be yet another metaphysical repository for values that we have inherited historically, as modern subjects. And the subjectivity of the subject is finally guaranteed only by freedom of decision, and thus exemplified in aesthetic judgement. However so long as this subjectivity remains bounded within fields of aesthetic experience, the hope remains that other dimensions can be brought under the governance of the ever more powerful resource called objective judgement. The physical sciences are modernity’s great paradigms for the power of objectivity. But the ideals of objectivity have never been fully realised in the fields that deal with actions and relations (ethics and politics). It seems that wherever objective criteria are not available a decision of some kind is called for. Decisions must be made, whether in the field of ethics or in politics. Should I visit my parents for Christmas and make the family happy or should I stay at home and work, thus pleasing my university? Should we tax the rich, thus incurring their wrath, or should we continue to tax the poor, maintaining our wealth and continuing their wretched state. The easiest decisions are the ones that meet with least resistance. What this normally means is that they are not decisions at all but forms of acquiescence to established norms and expectations. If only I could use the certainty I have about the beauty of the new Megadeath CD to help me decide what to do for the Christmas (hey! does anyone know if they are playing at Christmas?). Critical evaluation, because it is so much a question of taste, offers perhaps some hope that an equivalent mode of judgement might be used in domains other than the aesthetic. But why do we need this hope? The answer rests with yet another derivation from this powerful Greek word, krinein, that is crisis.
It is still fairly common to observe that we (whoever that is supposed to be) live in a time of great social and cultural change. The observation is undoubtedly correct but there are few moments in the long evolution of the human race when anxieties about rapid change have not been voiced. We would thus take most interest in the nature of the specific changes and what they mean for the future. Phrases of the kind “the present crisis” indicate that something has gone badly wrong. After 1933, with the rise of Adolph Hitler and the National Socialist Party in Germany, politicians and journalists throughout Europe and America used the phrase “the present crisis” regularly. Everyone knew what it meant. Everyone feared for the future--many referred to the time as “this dark time,” or “in these dark days.” Their fears were justified of course—beyond their worst imaginings—but it seems that conditions of crisis are nearly always at the point of threatening any community with an uncertain and fearful future. Memories of those “dark days” still live, vicariously in the generation born after the so-called Second World War but actually for those that lived through it and live on with specific memories of the time, as its survivors. The name “Hitler” often gets used as a kind of moral touchstone in debates and arguments about ethics, power and politics. And names like Auschwitz, Nagasaki and Dresden have the power, like so much of the past, to haunt us with dark premonitions of the future. The point here is that a crisis doesn’t just come to us like a rent, a great rip, in the otherwise solid fabric of the present, but it dogs us like some tenacious ghostly embodiment of someone long dead, but who refuses to go away. There seems never to have been a time without crisis or at least the threat of crisis. It is worth noticing then, that even without the negative connotations attached to the term when we think of Hitler and National Socialism, crisis is almost always associated with rapid social and cultural change. Distressing events may happen such that names can then be given to what may actually be more like a permanent principle of existence. In fact, the rise of National Socialism, according to a most complex history, can be partly attributed to a certain way of identifying and responding to the so-called National Crisis that Germany faced in the early 1930s, which manifested in widespread social and economic disaster. Hitler’s party was able to exploit a number of scapegoats as a way of claiming certain causes--most notoriously, and with horrifying consequences, Judaism and Jewish business interests, but also communism and what at the time was called “degenerate” culture, which included, by no coincidence, the works of the radical avant-garde.
So rather than see the rise and popularity of National Socialism as itself the embodiment of a crisis it may be more accurate to see it is a response to crisis generally. In the early years of the Third Reich many Germans were thrilled with optimism for a future imagined in contrast to a wretched recent past. In so far as crisis refers to a situation that causes anxiety, it may be that there is no situation without at least a little cause for anxiety, though people are perhaps happier when they don’t have to think too much about things that make them anxious. So anything that promises to remove a cause of anxiety may in certain circumstances achieve success and popularity. That is one reason why self-help books are so popular, and regularly break bookstore sales records.
There are many kinds of crisis in the sense I’m teasing out here. I don’t just mean major kinds that seem to affect whole swathes of the globe’s population (exaggerated in fictions like Star Wars as the universe oppressed by an evil empire). The Asian economic downturn, the great depression, global warming, can each be thought of as a major crisis. We must also consider the apparently more minor kinds, personal crises, which each of has to face from time to time. Among the earliest of these may be that first moment when a hungry baby finds the mother absent, when hunger is met by the absence of a sustenance that had never before been an issue. The trauma and panic accompanied by this discomfort are perhaps echoed by later incidents where expectations are dashed, needs not supplied and desires not fulfilled. Society often codifies, even naturalises, our anxieties by naming them and giving them likely stages of onset, like personality crisis, mid-life crisis, etc.
It is clear that
coping-strategies, both in individuals and groups, are extre
One common complaint made today is that there is a crisis in knowledge. But it seems that, whenever knowledge attempts to establish itself in the field of human experience, it faces crisis. The key source for today’s use of the name critical theory is the work of the German eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant uses the word critical to describe his mature philosophy. The three main texts that make up the critical philosophy answer broadly to three pressing questions. The first is the question of what we can know (epistemology) and is treated by The Critique of Pure Reason (The First Critique). The Second Critique makes up the so-called practical philosophy, dealing with questions of morality and ethics (what should we do?). The Third Critique, embodied by the extraordinary Critique of Judgement, was intended by Kant to bring his “entire undertaking to a close.” If the first critique deals with knowledge (what can be known as necessarily the case—the necessary laws of nature) and the second critique deals with the freedom of human action, the Critique of Judgement was supposed to reconcile the two otherwise opposed realms (nature and freedom). Tellingly, the third critique is focused on questions of pleasure and judgements of taste contrasted to the kinds of judgements that can be called objective. It would be impossible to overestimate the importance of the third critique for the critical tradition since Kant, though this is not the place to explore it.
I got the quotation that I began this section with from the preface to the First Critique. Let’s have another look:
Our age is the age of criticism, to which everything must be subjected. The sacredness of religion, and the authority of legislation, are by many regarded as grounds of exemption from the examination of this tribunal. But, if they own they are exempted, they become the subjects of just suspicion, and cannot lay claim to sincere respect, which reason accords only to that which has stood the test of a free and public examination. (Immanuel Kant)
Criticism puts all grounds for knowledge into crisis. Even religious authority and state law, must be tried in the law courts of reason. Readers of Kant quickly note how important the metaphor of law, and legality, is for him. Accordingly the word reason is to be understood as a kind of law. In this sense it is not unlike the concept of nature as we found it used in Alexander Pope’s poetic Essay on Criticism (and it is not by chance that Pope was one of Kant’s favourite poets). Notice how he puts it: by submitting to the tribunal, even state law and religious authority can win their right to sincere respect and may then be free of suspicion. It is a positive action--as long as these authorities pass the test. The gesture is designed as an attempt to save traditional authority but will also put the notion of authority into the gravest danger.
Kant’s preface evokes the warlike state that knowledge finds itself in. He tells a story full of violence about the battle for the right to legislate over the relationship between experience and knowledge. At the center of the battlefield, he says, is a queen named Metaphysics:
In the beginning, under the administration of the dogmatists, her rule was despotic. Yet because her legislation still retained traces of ancient barbarism, this rule gradually degenerated through internal wars into complete anarchy; and the skeptics, a kind of nomads who abhor all permanent cultivation of the soil, shattered civil unity from time to time. But since there were only a few of them, they could not prevent the dogmatists from continuously attempting to rebuild, though never according to a plan unanimously accepted among themselves. (CPR 100)
There is much at stake for Kant in this graphic account of the history
of philosophy. The antagonism and the
lack of legal authority for knowledge suggest both a crisis and the promise of
its resolution. The story is now a
canonical history of ideas. It tells of
a century long battle between rationalists like Christian Wolff and empiricists
like John Locke. For Kant, neither had
been able to defend metaphysics from the nomadic (ho
The main issue rests on the status of Reason, given that the aim of establishing a critical tribunal implies a position of judgement that remains free of suspicion. For this reason the Critique of Pure Reason must establish the grounds of reason through reason alone, and we see reason turning back on itself in a pattern that comes to inform the critical attitude since Kant. However Kant has been criticized for insufficiently putting this self-critical approach into operation. We thus find some of the most powerful influences on critical theory supporting what is truly critical in Kant’s philosophy while expressing skepticism regarding the residually dogmatic aspects. Most famously, G. W. F. Hegel shows that there is no available position from which something like reason can criticize itself. Later on Karl Marx, followed Hegel in his dialectical thinking, but criticized him too for idealizing his own concept, Geist (or spirit) without sufficient self-criticism. In Marx’s own phrase, it is necessary to extract “the rational kernel” from the “mystical shell” of Hegel’s philosophy. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly several brands of Marxist, or Marxian, thought often fail to maintain a critical attitude to the writings of Marx, who, as it has been argued, also falls prey to certain lapses that can yield to dogmatic ideas. Friedrich Nietzsche too, whose influence on critical thought is difficult to overestimate, was highly skeptical of Kant’s attempt to establish the tribunal of reason. And during the twentieth century, critique has become synonymous with a constant critical vigilance such that thought should never be allowed to ossify into dogmatic presentations of ideas, as if fixed in place for all time.
The phrase critical theory was adopted most famously by a group of philosophers now known as The Frankfurt School, and is associated particularly with two major twentieth century thinkers, Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. Writing from the nineteen twenties their work represents a vital contribution to the field. Benjamin (who died by his own hand at the border of France and Spain while fleeing from the Nazis) leaves a large number of extraordinary texts that are often difficult to categorize. Adorno emigrated from Germany to the United States and with his colleague Max Horkheimer contributed significantly to the theorization of modernity, technology, and mass culture. Most importantly his critical rethinking of the notion of the aesthetic (and thus the place of the artwork) since Kant has become increasingly more relevant.
Postmodernism and Critical theory
A number of contemporary thinkers have contributed to the problem of knowledge--what guarantees its truth, its rightness, its importance, etc. Two in particular have been influential, the French philosopher Jean Francois Lyotard and the sociologist of knowledge Jean Baudrillard. Lyotard’s 1983 book, The Postmodern Condition, argues that assumptions about civilisation, human progress and the ideals of liberation are rooted in assumptions that take the form of what he calls Grand Narratives. A narrative is a story, like a fairy tale or popular myth. In the western world assumptions about the progress and virtual completion of the human race through technology and civilisation are no longer credible. Totalitarian regimes in politics that attempt universal control and the extermination of all outsiders (most markedly the holocaust of the Nazi regime under Hitler) can be compared with regimes in knowledge that aspire to universal truth. Such systems tend to manifest impulses like the annexation, containment, expulsion or extermination of any knowledge that lies outside or contests the norm. Thus the allegorical evocation of mystery and death we find in literature and art, especially in the avant-garde, can be contained in an enclosure called “the aesthetic” where it is valued for its strange beauty in a way that does not threaten the bland and complacent promise of technological knowledge. “Let us wage war on totality,” writes Lyotard, in a famous battle cry of postmodern theory, echoing, of all people, Winston Churchill, standing alone against appeasement and the Nazis.
The work of Jean Baudrillard focuses on the role of the image in the mass media and he joins others in seeing at the end of the twentieth century a culmination of the logic of capitalism in consumer society. He suggests that in the past humanity was able to make a sure distinction between a “real world” and its forms of representation in books, paintings and other signs. But now signs have become detached from their function of representing a world and have instead become the postmodern world of floating images and simulacra, that is, copies with no originals.
Baudrillard’s arguments have contrubuted to the way we understand the status of a certain notion of reality or the real in contemporary life (i.e., it is a mythical object that has disappeared). But it may be that he is in danger of letting us fall into a mythical notion of the past. Human experience was always a construction and a function of institutions organised in complex ways. Certainly the mass media constitutes a profound (and profoundly new) way of organising experience. But it seems that ways of organising were always governed to an extent by modes of signification, interpretation and institutionalisation. The following section is intended to explore these modes in a preliminary way.
Some say you can learn a lot from books
Thrill ride to second hand living
Life is just as deadly as it looks
But fiction is more forgiving
The lyrics above repeat a distinction that has become so commonplace over centuries that it seems fundamental. But the distinction between books and actual life takes such an extraordinary range of different forms that just thinking about it too much can make you dizzy. The distinction changes each time one considers one of the many different kinds of book. History books relate to life in ways that differ from how fairy tales or works of fiction do. The Bible and The Koran relate to life rather differently too. A biography would be at least subtly if not markedly different from an autobiography—especially if they each relate the “same” life. The workshop manual for my Citroen Avantage relates to life in an entirely different way again.
Perhaps it is a little worrying that these distinctions also imply differences in meaning for the word life. The life of a man or woman who is the subject of a biography or autobiography is not exactly what is meant by life as recorded in history books. The relation between my workshop manual and my car is one of book to life too but does that mean my car lives? Why not? When I finally junk it for the obligatory 25 pounds scrap value I’ll probably tell my friends that it died. I am using a metaphor of course. The difference between fiction, which is often dense with metaphors, and real life implies a rather different meaning of the word life as well—though none of these meanings are unrelated. It is possible to speak of life generally, the life of nations, villages, communities as well as animal and plant life or the life of the planets in the universe, and to speak of a particular life, the life of a man or a woman like Napoleon, George Bush or Madonna. Perhaps, a little oddly, it is easier to talk of a particular life when it’s over—when its subject is dead. With a living person the life is felt to be unfinished, it is yet to be fully determined. The same might be assumed for history too—it is surely easier to write a history once the period in question is over and done with. The implicit association of death with writing seems almost as fundamental as the distinction between books and life. Despite this, as far as history, biography and autobiography especially are concerned, the eyewitness account is valued above second or third hand accounts, as being that much “truer” to life. The value, of course, remains idealistic, for the eyewitness is well known to be chronically vulnerable to lapses of memory, mistakes, misperceptions, skewed perspectives, projections and unnoticed assumptions and presuppositions. So one always requires a more objective and thus removed commentator to sift through the welter of conflicting evidences. That’s life.
If our perspectives on life are as unstable as they so often seem to be, then a similar condition holds for our varying perspectives on books. When I read The Bible I read a very different text to the one that is read by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who knock on my door at 11.00 on a Friday morning (just in time for coffee) to tell me “the good news.” For them The Bible is the revealed truth; for me it is a complex, often contradictory, text with a peculiar historical status. So a book relates to life in different ways depending upon who reads it, as much as anything else. That is, between the book and the life lies a complex if only ever partially perceptible realm in which a number of structuring principles and conditions combine to organize our experiences and actions generally. These principles and conditions include memories, histories, desires, other books that have had an influence (of whatever kind), as well as, most importantly, the variety of institutions that govern both readings and lives. By institution one should understand, family, school, church, university, workplace, village, town, city, nation, etc., and also the genres we put books into, the expectations we bring to them, the functions we assume they play and the ways in which we assume they relate to life. That is, a kind of book, whether theology, history, fairy tale, poetry, biography, fiction or philosophy (and there are many missing from the list) is thought to serve some function for the people who read it. It might be entertainment, edification, identification, consolation or instruction. Whatever, this function concerns the ways in which the book in question relates to life. The function is often that of teaching—the book is supposed to provide the reader with some knowledge or understanding that he or she did not have before, about history if it is a history book or about someone’s life if it is a biography, or about how to fix that darned carburetor if my car won’t start in the morning. The Bible, if you are Christian child, contains knowledge of the one God and tells you how to act. Because this knowledge is only obscurely accessible from the text itself, a whole industry of (sometimes conflicting) commentaries exists, to tell you how to understand it. In each case, a single notion explicitly or implicitly governs the sense of value we generally have regarding the book in question. That notion is called truth.
The institutions we discussed above also govern the meaning of the word truth. The Latin adequatio captures the notion rather well. It means a making equal, an adjusting or adapting. It is this notion of truth—adapting or adjusting something to make it equal to something else—that comes to dominate western notions. You can see how this works with history and biography. Is the account adequate to the life? That is the key criterion. If there were a false account of the Citroen Avantage carburetor in my workshop manual I’d never get to work in the morning. With the Bible, on the other hand, things are rather tricky. If the account is measured against something existing we are all at sea. Nonetheless many (like my Friday morning visitors) assume that some truth is there behind the text. But let’s have another look at the word truth. Where does it come from and what else might it mean?
When you define a word as important and as powerful as truth it is never enough to just look it up in a dictionary. It is often helpful to look for its etymology. An etymology is the history of a linguistic form (i.e., a word), which can be shown by tracing its development since its earliest recorded occurrence in the language where it is found, or by tracing its transmission from one language to another, by analyzing it into its component parts, by identifying its cognates in other languages, or by tracing it and its cognates to a common ancestral form in an ancestral language. By applying this deep form of analysis, we are already departing from the “making equal” notion of truth, which would have had to assume that the true meaning of a word is what it is equal to. Rather, in this way, we are likely to open the meaning of a word to a wider range of possibilities. The word truth seems to have developed from the Middle English trewthe, which is a development of the Old English treowth. Treowth meant something like fidelity and it is clearly akin to the Old English treowe, which meant faithful. Because the word meant fidelity and was used to describe a character—i.e., someone who could be trusted to remain constant in their loyalty and, by extension, someone who was sincere—it also comes to mean what we understand by it today, that is, the state of “being the case.” The words fact and actuality refer us to the body of real things and events. These things and events that make up what we call actuality (or more colloquially life) become the measure of truth in its new sense—does your account fit the facts? If so then it is true. This kind of truth, in so far as it can be tested, would be considered as empirical truth, the truth of experience. Truth, however, with “a capital T” would be a transcendent fundamental or spiritual reality. A reality that is transcendent cannot be tested by experience (rather obviously) so it becomes rather difficult to provide proof of it in the sense that is demanded by adaequatio (making equal). However it is not difficult to see that if adequatio just is truth then you don’t need to prove The Truth, which gets another name: God. God, then, by association with Truth, is the name for that which allows us to make things equal (like books to life). Though this “making equal” is going to get very complicated.
If we go back to the etymology briefly we find some further links (this is like following a “clew” in an old mystery). The Old English treowe (faithful) is directly linked to the Old High German gitriuwi, also faithful, the Old Irish derb, meaning sure, and very probably to the Sanskrit daruna, which means hard, from daru for wood. What is certain is that the words true and tree share their early etymologies. So if to be true is to be steadfast, loyal, honest, even just in certain contexts, and rather centrally to be consistent (as in “he’s true to character”), then this is probably on the analogy with the deep roots and the firm trunk of those tall woody arboreal plants called trees. How true is true to tree?
Our answer to that would concern the kinds of meanings that the words true and truth are used in place of when translating from Greek and Latin. We’ve already looked at adequatio, “to make equal,” but we also find that truth can be used in relation to the odd word allêgoria, allegory, that is, a figurative representation of a thought or of an abstract truth (literally “to mean something other than what is said”). An allegory uses symbolism or imagery in a way that consistently—or cumulatively—carries what is symbolized through from beginning to end in a speech, or a poem or story. The notion of constancy or consistency is helpful here, of course, but I’m not sure the adaequatio aspect is sufficient to account for truth in the allegorical sense. The word vêrus, on the other hand, which means true in the sense of real, actual, genuine, etc. and is therefore opposed to falsus, false, seems closer to our sense of adaequatio. However vêrus is also conventionally opposed to fictus, which means feigned, false or counterfeit and is derived from fingo, meaning to mold, imagine, compose, suppose, form, shape, invent, contrive. Not only is it impossible to imagine a fictional truth (as in “that story seems very true to life”) or figurative representation without this fingo but also the very possibility of adapting something like a narrative or an account or adjusting it so that it is “made equal” to the facts would disappear too. There would be no adaequatio without the possibility of fingo. There would be no truth without the possibility of fiction.
My conclusion to that little diversion into etymology implies that the meaning of the word truth (and the institutions that govern it) hides the fact that it is based upon a notion (fingo, the figure of the counterfeiter) that is radically excluded from the meaning. The meaning of the word truth—in its hidden historical dimension—is a lie (on its own terms). This doesn’t, of course, mean that ordinary senses of the word “true” are no longer usable for people like me. On the contrary, if my workshop manual is not adequate in its representation of the carburetor in my Citroen then I won’t get to work this morning and I’ll be serving coffee again to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, while they attempt to convert me from my stubborn atheism. Rather, I now understand that the very possibility of constructing a workshop manual in the first place—apparently stripped of all fictional or figurative aspects as an ideal historian might aspire to do with his or her account of history—is the possibility of fiction.
If we now return to the lyrics with which we began this section, we find some characteristics attached to our opposed categories, books and life. To “learn a lot from books” is qualified by the line, “Thrill ride to second hand living.” Books are, thus, life at one remove, a second hand as opposed to first hand life. If I read the life of Napoleon or Madonna I live their lives second hand in some simulated form. If I read about the Battle of the Somme I couldn’t say I was actually there at the battle. In the same way, if I read about some fictional character, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlow as he pursues the answer to some mystery set in the mean streets of 1920s Los Angeles, I am living a life second hand—but it is a second hand life that was never lived first hand. There is something intrinsically second hand about books, whether they emulate a first hand life or just evoke a fictional one. Fiction, we learn in the fourth line of the quotation, is “more forgiving” than “life,” which is described (with characteristic relish) as “deadly.” There’s no doubt about this, of course, life is, at its most basic and essential level, deadly. The truest (most consistent) aspect of life is that it comes to an end, usually unpredictably. It is unforgiving in that sense. It is also unforgiving in another sense. In the sense of its never giving up on its throwing unexpected contingencies under your feet—I mean how was I to know that the carburetor would fail this morning, and now this knock on the door?—life consistently excludes our attempts to calculate it. Fiction, on the other hand, can be remarkably comforting in its well-formed and consoling patterns, its tidy oppositions and structural consistency. We judge our allegorical reading not by its adaequatio to actual life, which let’s face it can be a mess, but by its internal consistency. Fiction can give us the sense that there are laws and rules to the game, while in actual life events and organizations seem arbitrary and often unfair. Like fiction, history, philosophy, theology and other types of book that attempt to address the absence of system and order in life do so by supplying one where it is actually lacking. Even discourses that adhere to the narrowest (strictest and thus most true) criteria of adaequatio, the empirical sciences, do so at the cost of considerable exclusion. An empirical science must deal only with what is possible and actual and must do so in a way that produces maximal predictability. These criteria provide a very powerful resource in the development of knowledge but the cost has been a vast blindness to the conditions that make such resources possible. Until scientific theory can cope with a wider and less stable notion of truth, until knowledge can build unpredictability into its understanding of existence and knowledge, it will remain blind to its own conditions. The only way forward is one that can engage seriously with what has always been regarded as the second hand nature of books (regarded as a particular example of representation generally) in relation to life. It is easy to see that life too tends to be governed to a very large extent by structures—governments, families, schools and other institutions, which are more often characterized by their own internal consistency—rules (“the rules of this house”), laws and just the ordinary etiquette of conventional habits (leading people to say things like “it just doesn’t seem right” when they are transgressed), than by anything outside them that might be considered as, say, natural.
I have already pointed out that between the book and the life we may explore a complex if only ever partially perceptible realm in which a number of structuring principles and conditions combine to organise our experiences and actions generally. These structuring principles and conditions take the form neither of an unfolding life yet to be represented in a memory or an account, nor of a finished book, words on a page or set in stone. That is because they are the principles upon which we understand our lives and books. But as soon as those principles are brought into the open—that is, communicated or written down in some form or another—the communication or writing is already a second hand version, to be interpreted and thus subject to the rules of interpretation, whatever they happen to be (and adaequatio is not much help here). It seems always necessary to have passed through some second hand structure (whether thought of as fiction or fact, fingo or verum) in order to arrive at either the book or the life. The structure or possibility of memory must precede the life to be remembered. Otherwise we’d remember nothing. What that means is that the life appears to us only within the structures of representation, which make further representations possible. Furthermore, we cannot reduce these structures of representation to the historical institutions that so seem to govern them—the family, school, church, state, nation etc. for they too are governed just as much by the unpredictable life that they seem set in place to manipulate and tame.
The other pages on this website chart arguments that have in recent years attempted to engage with what I have called this in between realm which structures our experience both of books and life. The history of philosophical thought has always attempted to locate its first principles in some more stable realm, a transcendent one very often, where truths remain unchanging and eternal. There have been numerous attempts to outline the rules and the law of such a realm, in metaphysics, logic, mathematics and theology, to name a few. It is not until very recently that thinkers have turned to the medium—the between of the two poles of human experience, life and representation, to locate what was formerly regarded as being beyond experience, that is, the truth of life and representation. However this turn to mediation as the fundamental ground could not have taken place without a systematic re-reading of the tradition, a re-reading that refuses to extricate the logic of philosophical thought from its historical evolution. The consequences of this refusal include radical rethinking about both logic and history. What we find is not development, as such, but repetition. The classical notion of truth is repeatedly broken into two opposing parts—truth and its representation, which can thus only be measured according to the making equal or adaequatio of representation with that which is represented—the original life, or presence. However, representation will not be so tamed, as we shall discover in the chapters that follow. Instability, always excessive to adaequatio, consistently makes trouble for the equation. This is especially the case where whatever is supposed to be represented has departed the coop (a god or a benevolent monarch). Sometimes the departed thing (res or “something” in Latin) has never in living memory been present yet a representation must nonetheless be made. Somehow the structure of representation can do this (witness any number of mythologies in world history). But not without an unstable excess that is always and unavoidably “more than” just re-presentation. The “more than” can always be regarded as superfluous, yet it is the superfluous aspects that make representation possible in the first place (or second place if we are strict). So representation (already in opposition to truth, which governs the relation between representations and things or books and life) has to be divided into two again. There is representation governed by truth—adaequatio—and representation excessive to truth—or fingo. The Greeks, for instance, used two important words that characterize the repetition of this distinction between truth and representation. They opposed logos to mythos. The first is a kind of discourse or account and is consistently connected to notions of truth, not to mention logic, which gets its name from the logos along with all the sciences that take the logos as their suffix: geology, sociology, psychology, etc. The second means plot or story and is consistently associated with the fictions that take their name from mythos, the myths or stories that speak the truth only by allegory.
One of the most famous statements in world literature is found originally in Greek. The first sentence of St John’s Gospel is as follows: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Greek sentence runs like this:
en arch hn o logoV kai o logoV hn proV ton qeon kai qeoV hn o logoV
In the beginning (arche) was the word (logos). We still do not know how to interpret this. Logos is a very complicated word itself and doesn’t just mean word in any simple sense. The Latin translates logos as verbum, which is supposedly divided between word and idea. The idea remains the same (presumably) while different forms of the word are used (logos, verbum, word, idea) to denote it. If not then translation would be impossible—but it is possible so something must remain the same. The sense that “something remains the same” supports the argument (and 2000 odd years of Christian teaching maintains this) that “the word” means the truth, in the transcendent sense, and that this transcendent truth is God. However the distinction implicit in the word (verbum) between word and idea repeats the form of the distinction we started with—that between book and life or representation and actuality, and it does so on the basis of an implicit notion of adequatio. The implicit notion is made explicit in that St John’s Gospel (as with each of the other three) is an account of a concrete event, the crucifixion and resurrection of the Son of God (a kind of biographical history). But this is a fragile point because St John is writing 150 years after the event is supposed to have happened and, as an apparently Gnostic and allegorical writer (see his Revelations for the really wild stuff), may not be writing in as historical a style as some have believed. If the word must be “made equal” to the idea, then the trouble here is that we have no idea. All we have is the word, and that might mean anything (other than making equal, which would just be a tautology—making “making equal” equal to itself). If by “word” (logos) we chose instead to understand the structure of signification (rather than the thing signified) then we’d make better sense of the otherwise enigmatic statement, “In the beginning was the word.” Before everything else was the ability to represent—representability. Word is divided between the visible or audible word and “something signified.” The “something” now must rather obviously be left open, at least to a certain extent, or we’d never be able to use any words at all in any of the ways we always actually do—to mean particular things in particular circumstances. The price we pay for meaning is that we must be governed to a large extent by the powerful institutions that regulate it. These do not just govern particular meanings but rather they govern the frameworks of meaning. In fact because they don’t govern particular meanings very tightly we have a relative independence with respect to them, which allows me, for instance, to debate the meaning of St John with the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Critical theory is consistently marked by attempts, which are very often contradictory, to draw attention to the frameworks of both meaning and action. Why are these attempts so contradictory? Well you might ask this, impatiently, and quite right too, why should things be so undetermined? The point is this: in keeping what is undetermined in focus (though never literally “in sight”) we bring the more determined structures into view. One of the most influential attempts to do this belongs with the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who, between the late 1920s and into the 1970s brought a singular way of questioning to bear on the intellectual world. His method was to concentrate almost exclusively on the word being.
A being is something that exists, something that is.
The word is a noun produced from a verb that says nothing more of
something than that it just is (the
verb to be). The very least that we can say about anything
at all is that it is. And that is not yet saying very much, if
anything. But we must assume at least
that before we can say anything else about it at all. So beings
denote things that are. And, thus, it can be said that beings have a
relation to their being. This last term is both absurdly trivial and
In an unexamined sense Being refers to the most general, the highest of superordinates. A superordinate relates a being to its type and puts beings in hierarchies, for instance as follows:
Compare the list to a similar hierarchy, one from a fiction this time, James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which includes a section near the beginning in which his protagonist, Stephen Dedalus begins to day-dream during a boring geography class:
He turned to the flyleaf of the geography and read what he had written there: himself, his name and where he was.
Class of Elements
Clongowes Wood College
That was his writing: and Fleming one night for a cod [joke] had written on the opposite page:
Stephen Dedalus is my name,
Ireland is my nation.
Clongowes is my dwellingplace
And heaven my expectation.
He read the verses backwards but then they were not poetry. Then he read the flyleaf from the bottom to the top till he came to his own name. That was he: and he read down the page again.
The hierarchy of superordinates seems to provide a consistent and reversible line between the young Stephen and the universe, in which he is thus securely placed. His identity is considered in terms of location. Notice that the hierarchy is one of spatial surroundings. Stephen is placed within a class, which is itself within a school, and so on until the world, and presumably the round Earth, is placed within a more general universe that surrounds it. The conception evokes a pre-Copernican Universe (Copernicus is the astrologer whose name most clearly evokes the famous discovery that the Earth circled the Sun, thus dislodging “Man” from the centre of his universe and inaugurating modern science). So Joyce represents the child’s world picture as corresponding to the medieval one. However, against this comforting hierarchy of centralising and embedded locations Steven faces, on the opposite page, Fleming’s “joke”—a narrative, which owing both to the peculiar language of poetry and the temporal progress of narrative, is not reversible. The narrative is no less medieval than the hierarchy, of course, in so far as his destination is regarded as being beyond death and outside of locality—in this case, outside of nation. The finite and temporary condition of “Man” is thus supposed to have its destiny beyond the finite in the fabulous yonder called “Heaven.” But the question of what lies beyond seems to trouble the boy in Joyce’s book:
What was after the universe? Nothing. But was there anything round the universe to show where it stopped before the nothing place began? It could not be a wall but it would be a thin thin line there all round everything. It was very big to think about everything and everywhere. Only God could do that. He tried to think what a big thought that must be but he could think only of God. God was God’s name just as his name was Stephen.
He thus begins with the thought of “nothing” beyond the outer limits of the universe. However—as you’ll agree I’m certain—it is virtually impossible to think of nothing—one always ends up thinking a minimal frontier. As minimal as you make it there won’t be just nothing, there’ll be at least a “thin thin line.” And on the other side of the thin thin line not nothing but a name—the name of God. The difference between nothing and God at this stage in Stephen’s fictional development is this “thin thin line.” The thin thin line also seems to separate Stephen from God, in the form of an analogy. Just as Stephen’s name is Stephen, God’s name is God. The analogy either proves the existence of God or denies any essential existence to Stephen, as if Stephen was nothing but naming and placing. This analogy will become decisive for us too, for the analogy between Stephen and God corresponds to the analogy between truth as adaequatio and truth as the transcendent truth of the word, between empirical truth and transcendental truth.
If we return to Heidegger’s meditations on Being (which he began almost contemporaneously with Joyce’s fiction) we find a similar “thin thin line” separating beings from their Being. Being is just the most general of superordinates, more general than the universe (in the register of space) and bounded only to the extent that there remains something rather than nothing. However we quickly find that Being doesn’t mean anything, at least nothing simply or consistently. If I say, “the canary is yellow,” the is doesn’t mean the same thing as it does for “it is raining,” or even “the weather is foul.” In each case something appears to me—the canary and its yellow colour, or this rain and what is foul about it, which I decide on the basis of my sensations of coldness and discomfort. Even the sentences “the weather is foul” and “I am cold,” which seem to be making the same point, can be subjected to pedantic distinctions. In point of fact the “is” in each case means something different. In the first case the “is” belongs neither to the foulness of the weather nor to the weather itself but links the two. This is what is meant by the word copula in grammar. A copula (as the verb to be is) links a subject to a predicate (the canary is yellow). For this reason the apparent richness of meaning that the verb to be has is nothing more than a function of the fact that the word is utterly and essentially empty of meaning. It simultaneously has more meanings than we’d ever be able to add up and no meaning at all. And the second case shows that the copula cannot be reduced to a subjective viewpoint—as if the weather is foul just because I think it is. My daft friend beside me treating the world to a vigorous rendition of “Singing in the Rain” clearly thinks the weather is fine. Rather, the “is” in “I am cold” (the “am”) also belongs neither to me nor to the coldness but links the two on this occasion. The “is” therefore belongs neither to any objects nor to any subjects but provides subjects and objects with a potentially infinite richness of meaning by having no specific meaning at all.
Heidegger privileges the word Being, especially in his earlier writings, but the principle, as it turns out, pervades all our meaning making. An example from yet another contemporaneous work can illustrate how. A contemporary of both Joyce and Heidegger, Walter Conrad Arensberg’s radical experiments with language and structure reveal ways in which emptiness of meaning nonetheless contributes essentially to meaning making. His poem “Ing” shows how the element that, for instance, links the verb “to mean” to the substantial noun “meaning,” means nothing in itself:
Ing? Is it possible to mean ing?
for the termination in g
of the simple fractures
has accordingly a value for soap
to sew pieces
And p says: Peace is.
And suppose the i
to be big in ing
Then Ing is to ing
accompanied by times
and the meaning is a possibility
Playful poetry of this kind can at first glance appear trivial and even irritating in their failure to address the apparently big questions of man, existence, knowledge and truth. Yet the poem does as much as Heidegger’s hefty questioning concerning the truth of being to draw our attention to the inevitable emptiness and simultaneous productivity of our systems of signification. There’d be no meaning if it wasn’t for the funning and punning of language. Notice the ways in which the poem exploits little accidental qualities (“suppose the i to be big in ing as beginning”) and parodies the style of philosophical logic (suppose […] then […]). A traditional view would assume that the poem is exploiting what many refer to as the material or formal aspects of language, in preference to the meaningful aspects of it. Yet this charge cannot stand, for what the poem shows is that you cannot separate the two entirely. The distinction is itself a formal one, designed to simplify the difference between language and meaning. What the poem shows is that we pass through a strange middle world each time we communicate, but without noticing it. The middle world provides our frameworks of meaning, allowing meaning to emerge by withdrawing from our notice. The middle world is the locus, however, of our understanding and our interpretation, so this is the realm that we bring criticism to bear on in critical theory.
Theory: an explanation or system of anything: an exposition of the abstract principles of a science or art: speculation as opposed to practice. [Gr. Theorema, -atos, spectacle, speculation, theorem, theoria, view, theory--theoreein, to be a spectator, to view.]
Science: knowledge: knowledge ascertained by observation and experiment, critically tested, systematised and brought under general principles: a department or branch of such knowledge or study. [L. Scienta--sciens, -entis, pr.p. of scire, to know.]
Theory, especially in its modern form as science, has always been opposed to experience. I intend to substantially weaken that opposition.
It is inevitable that we pass through some implicit or explicit theoretical understanding or interpretation when participating in critical discourse. Sometimes this understanding or interpretation is a matter of convention, usage, expectation or otherwise anticipating structure. At other times this understanding or interpretation is rooted more specifically in traditional theoretical discourse. Whatever the case, there is nothing we come to without from the beginning adding something extra to the bare fact of our experience. For this reason the notion of the bare fact, without anything added, is impossible. If it were possible it would be called the empirical. Empirical experience concerns the experience of the here and now—our experience of presently existing things like these chairs and tables and these other people. Empirical experience puts us in a place and a time that exists independently of our experience of it. So it is the kind of experience that we ought to be able to be confident about. However, as the history of philosophy shows, no one has ever been able to isolate the empirical in a way that could be considered truly objective. The closest we have come to this ideal is through modern science, whose methods of judgement and testing (empiricism) demand that our theories be made explicit and explicitly testable according to the palpable existence of the things in question (rocks for the geologist, for instance). However these methods are always based upon certain clearly defined axioms and postulates, which rest upon certain less well-defined or understood assumptions and interpretations. Opposed to the empirical is the transcendental. The transcendental refers to any form or pattern of being or thinking which stands outside and exists independently of the empirical, but which conditions and determines it. Mathematics is the best example but as Heidegger has pointed out, the mathematical simply means that which is “already known.” In “The Age of the World Picture,” he writes: “Ta mathema means for the Greeks that which man knows in his observation of whatever is and in his intercourse with things: the corporeality of bodies, the vegetable character of plants, the animality of animals, the humanness of man. Alongside these, belonging also to that which is already known, i.e., to the mathematical, are numbers. [...] Only because numbers represent, as it were, the most striking of always-already-knowns, and thus offer the most familiar instance of the mathematical, is ‘mathematical’ promptly reserved as a name for the numerical” (118-119). It seems that there is no knowledge as such that does not pass through something “always already known.” The relationship between experience and the always already known falls into the traditional and pervasive distinction between what we may refer to as the empirical and the transcendental. Modern critical theory gets going by finding problems with this distinction. There are some things, apparently, which cannot be reduced to this difference (like difference itself, as we shall discover). The literary text (and by extension whatever it is we mean by textuality) is particularly resistant to the kinds of thinking based upon this distinction. To get to the empirical one has to pass through perception—in its crudest form, through the senses—and to get to the transcendental one must pass through the intelligible (understanding and then to reason itself, ratiocination, logic and the lofty mathematical and then on, it is supposed, to the spiritual realm, which is, of course, fundamentally opposed to the crude material one). But one never achieves either the empirical or the transcendental in any pure way. Instead, it seems, human experience is stuck somewhere between. This somewhere between is defined and delimited by the standard notion of a text.
The most basic problem for theory is the need to formulate concepts that can stand over against objects, as traditional science does. A scientific theory might, for instance, provide an explanation, a system and a set of principles which would explain, describe and predict processes in the natural world. In the arts and social sciences, however, theories need to be formulated that can explain, describe and predict processes involving persons, events and historical situations. Traditionally this need has been met in diverse ways by separate disciplines, like sociology, psychology, anthropology, history, in the social sciences; and music, literary studies, art history, and linguistics in the arts. Since their respective developments during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and until recently, these disciplines have been more or less content to pursue their own individual paths towards the aim of scientific objectivity in an academic atmosphere of mutual distance and respect. Yet even within any one of these diverse disciplines controversial debates constantly arise and are seldom resolved to the satisfaction of a consensus. In other words the integrity of all autonomous academic disciplines in the arts and social sciences has always been on the verge of crisis.
Over the last quarter of the 20th century theoretical issues have played an increasingly significant role for such disciplines, reflected in the fact that “theory” has come to define specific and often central strands for most kinds of course. Not only does “theory” now seem to describe a field within which new disciplines like Critical Theory, Cultural Studies, Film Theory, Literary Theory, Social Theory, Feminism Postcolonial Theory, Media Studies, etc., all in many senses meet. But it also describes a development within which, to a large extent, otherwise diverse disciplines have begun to interact.
However the recent history of theoretical developments has not been one of organic growth, mutual tolerance and support. Theories abound that contest and explain each other, each from their own particular points of view or chosen grounds. Herein lies a paradox. If theory develops through contestation and debate, each perspective contesting others while making specific claims to objectivity or truth, then what or who can ultimately provide sound objective principles for academic work in these disciplines? Even to say that there are no such principles is to implicitly lay down such a ground, and that too requires theoretical explanation.
The answer to this problem lies with the root of theory itself. The very word carries residual historical associations that we need to understand as having been transformed by the more influential recent work. It will be useful to discuss this transformation here because it embodies the process or pattern by which traditional modes of thinking generally have undergone transformations in contemporary theory. Our aim is, on one hand, to reveal how contemporary theory develops through the constant transformation of both traditional and common sense ways of thinking and, on the other hand, to show that the possibilities for this kind of transformation have been implicit in philosophical and theoretical texts throughout western history.
We must first return to the common and traditional senses of the word “theory” itself. What does it mean traditionally, and what does it mean in everyday language? Traditionally, a science or an art can be thought of as the application of certain principles that may be abstracted in explanation, exposition, or as a system. So a theory is an explanation or a system of anything, an exposition of the abstract principles of a science or an art. Theory is the speculative, abstract aspect in contrast to the actual practice of that science or art. A poet would make use of what is called “prosody” as a theory of poetry, including rules for rhyming, metre, assonance, dissonance, etc. The actual practice in this case, and this will be instructive, may well involve creatively breaking some of those rules. In science, just think of Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity or Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity (E=MC Squared), both abstract systems that account for all known possibilities in their field (the movement of bodies in space). Sigmund Freud’s theory of repression and the unconscious, as well as Darwin’s theory of evolution follow this pattern, but with some subtle differences. For now we note merely that traditionally theory is coupled either with a practice (for which it supplies a set of rules), or with a situation (for which it supplies an explanation). In any given discipline theory in fact usually plays both these roles. Theory always involves either working with methods that provide the means to formulate explanations, or working with explanations that provide the means to understand objects. It is unlikely that any discipline could do without some sort of theory.
If we now investigate the conventional concept of theory further we find that it is in fact a modification of a wider ranging concept. This modification has occurred through long term historical trends and across languages. We need to return to the language of the ancient Greeks to see how and why this modification, which has many parallels, has taken place. We do this not to find the “real” meaning of the word theory–the real meaning of a word is not simply what it used to mean–but it can help to show the kind of trends in thought that occur over long stretches of history. In ancient Greek theoria means “way of seeing” or “setting in view”; and this root provides not only our own current sense of the word theory but also the notion of the theatre, the place where dramas or events (like plays or operations) can be viewed; theory indicates the role of an audience too. The root, at base, involves the sense of seeing, and this sense is precisely what is carried over into the meaning of the word theory. Theory is fundamentally a way of seeing things or of setting things in view. When someone begins a sentence with the phrase “in my view ...” we may expect, however humble, contradictory or crude, at least the trace of a theory. (“In my view the Communist Party would do a better job than the New Labour” indicates at least a basic political theory; “Friends is funnier than Bilko” suggests the vestiges of a theory of comedy.) So in the broadest sense we each use theory all the time, or at least while we are awake, certainly while we think, speak or write, for it is in thinking, speaking and writing that theory is unavoidably expressed.
So the conventional meaning of the word theory can be seen as a modification of a more general meaning, a modification designed perhaps to avoid the pitfalls of everyday language with its imprecision and lack of systematic foundation. Here, however, we face a paradox. For we begin to see that no theory, however systematic one tries to make it, can escape its own foundations in the shifting, often quite vague sphere of everyday understanding and common sense. Theory in the sciences and arts is each time a powerful modification of everyday understanding, infected with a common sense and informed by a historical background.
Now this is only rarely a problem for the various well founded arts or scientific disciplines. Each discipline is informed by a tradition of customs and practices supported by theories and methodologies that are ideally suited for their purpose. If, for instance, theories of human motivation help managers manipulate the behaviour of their workforce so that it is more efficient and productive, so much the better if the theories are in tune with the common sense thinking of most managers. But every now and then a crisis occurs where basic assumptions and principles may need questioning and perhaps setting up afresh. Contributions to the development of a given discipline are generally made within existing rules and any changes are painlessly gradual. Without rules one could hardly function at all, so one puts up with nagging problems with the odd basic principle. But a crisis in any given discipline involves a re-examination of first principles and basic grounds. A striking and famous historical example would be the so called Copernican revolution in which it was discovered, to the shock of the scientific world, that the planets circled in orbit around the sun rather than around the earth. Not only was this discovery “counter-intuitive” in that it went against the common sense but it went against the most entrenched teaching of the church whose authority at the time was of course all powerful. In this case a theoretical discovery not only contradicted the rules but actually broke the law. The kind of “de-centring” that occurred over the following hundred years or so is typical of the adjustments that need to be made during a crisis. Now try to imagine a discipline that is constantly in crisis, continually questioning its own basic premises. Critical theory often seems to be in this state: continually in crisis, without faith in any founding frame of theoretical reference, constantly questioning its own or others’ basic principles. But this is only the way it seems. Critical theory only seems to be in crisis because of its basic field of analysis, which is the rhetorical, historical and cultural background from which all theories must have at some time emerged. It is this background of intimate, residually historical, culturally focused ideas, feelings and opinions that make up a confused yet apparently coherent everyday understanding that contemporary theory turns its attention to. Theory, in other words, is turned around and applied to its own grounds in both traditional and everyday understanding. Thus we tend to find a more or less consistently applied self-reflexivity accompanying most influential forms of critical theory, because in the first place the only concepts available are those we use in traditional and everyday practice.
So we should now be able to see the difference, on one hand, between traditional and conventional concepts of theory and new meanings of the term, on the other. The new sense involves a practice that concerns itself with the very grounds of theory generally, the limits of any theory. So, you might ask, why do we still call it theory? But what else could we call it? We are from the beginning limited to what we can say by concepts derived from the evolutionary patterns of rhetoric, so we must use the terms available, even if it means extending and transforming them as we have with “theory.” And that is the basic method of contemporary theory. As we look back over the history of the term we find that there has always been this tension between a “theoretical” (systematic, abstract) point of view and a “pre-theoretical” (everyday, common sense) one. By investigating the nature of the so-called pre-theoretical background, contemporary theory radicalises the very notion of theory itself, undoing the grounded certainty of traditional theoretical positions. In other words, today we find the same patterns at work in both theoretical and pre-theoretical domains of thought, a tension that describes the intractable mutual relationship between the two.
Traditionally, all objects that are set-into-view by a science are set down under “concepts.” A concept is a “general notion,” a notion that can account for a range of examples. Thus theory is nothing without concepts. The concepts of a theory are designed to account for the range of objects that fall under its domain. In the “natural” or “physical” sciences, for instance, we find that a concept like oscillation can account for a range of motions: the vibrations of a stringed instrument when struck or bowed, the swinging of a pendulum, the movement of a needle on a lie detector, the body’s shivering when exposed to cold. The concept oscillation accounts for an abstract relationship between each of these motions and thus pays no attention to the particular, idiosyncratic aspects of our examples of it. Thus oscillation is simply “swinging to and fro; vibration” and we need make no reference to the cello, violin or guitar, no reference to the lie detector and no reference to a body.
We should also be able to see that each of these examples falls under a single concept by analogy. There can be few more decisive concepts in theory than analogy, for analogy is the very concept that describes the process of making concepts. Think about the ways in which the concept of oscillation gets used to describe–by analogy–types of text, like theoretical texts, as well as fictional and mass media texts. A critic may say that the arguments of Walter Benjamin oscillate between the historical and the mystical; or one might argue that the narrative in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda oscillates uneasily between her two plot lines, or that the popular British TV series Crocodile Shoes oscillates between representations of the North and the South of England, as well as between England and the USA. In each case the term oscillation presupposes that the textual elements referred to can be separated out into contrasting poles, differences which can be represented through the analogy of oscillation as opposites or contrasts.
All the concepts in theoretical arguments have their basis in the use of analogy, which is a means of abstracting typical trends, patterns and processes in concepts that can be regarded as general. By the same account critical theory develops often by pointing out the sometimes inappropriate uses of analogical concepts and by developing new ones more appropriate to the situation under study. That is to say that one cannot use any concept in contemporary theory uncritically. One must be aware of the history of its development as a concept, of the specific uses to which it has been put, of the ways in which it has become currency in theoretical discourse. Many thinkers will go to great pains in defining terms precisely as their argument develops, and this is very important as it helps readers get a firm sense of what is being argued. However, given what I have said about the relation between theoretical discourse and everyday discourse, we should be aware that no precise definition will be able to neutralise or pacify the clamour of historical, cultural and everyday discourses that necessarily inhabit and infect the theoretical term that is fundamentally parasitic upon them. Thus there is no real alternative to the consistently self-critical, or self-reflexive use of theoretical terminology that characterises so many of the most influential thinkers. You will doubtless find that much theoretical writing today fails to consider this important point and this results in apparently jargon-laden texts which reflect the fashion of the moment for certain concepts that have achieved academic currency (and which often filter into use in the popular media).
Notice my own use of analogy here, the analogy of currency, likening the use of current coinage in a relatively closed economy to the use of language in relatively closed institutional contexts. The concept of economy is, as we shall see, very important and has wide ranging uses in contemporary theory. What it disallows in theoretical language is the use of any term that can stand alone, outside or beyond the system that gives it currency. In other words all concepts have an integral relation not simply to others in a relatively closed system, but to all other concepts in a language, as well as to a range of sometimes quite difficult choices with regard to translation. The concept of oscillation, for instance, might indicate frequency or periodicity, concepts associated with regularity and recurrence; but it also might, rather differently, indicate change-ability, under which term it shares similarities with fitfulness, transience and agitation. Oscillation is also understood in relation to concepts regarded as opposite to it, like disorder and discontinuity (if oscillation is thought of as periodisation), or stability, permanence and fixture (if it is considered as “chopping and changing”). All this reveals is that the single concept “oscillation” is capable, depending on context, of meanings that are potentially opposite to each other and therefore mutually exclusive. In principle this capability is a feature of all language.
When the need to translate a concept arises, quite precise attention to the context is necessary, as well as a knowledge of current uses in the language it is being translated into. Oscillate in the German might be oszillieren or schwingen if the context is physical; or it could be schwanken for the lie detector as well as for a great many of the analogical meanings that we have used where oszillieren would sound odd in the German. The concept of “translation” too works to an extent in analogy with the concept of “currency,” as coinage can be translated (“changed”) by virtue of a “rate of exchange” into any other currency. The same is true, of course, for any word, although precise translations are impossible because one cannot at the same time translate the whole system to which the one word belongs. Such a system is by no means fixed and unchangeable but undergoes a continuous process of transformation. As I will show throughout this book, theory must operate very much on the boundaries of fixity and change in critical thought, and is consistently concerned with the family of concepts concerning translation, analogy, and exchange.
Having complicated the notion of “concept,” I will now discuss the ways in which the concepts of critical theory relate to their special objects. First, what is the object or what are the objects of theory? Before we can answer that question we must ask, what is an object? As with all-important concepts used in theory, it is necessary to explore the constructions, histories and conventional uses of the concept “object,” in order to tease out the deeper implications of its use. In the physical world, it would seem, there is no difficulty in establishing what objects are. An object is simply a thing presented or capable of being presented to the senses. What this means is that an object is something that can be observed. If we begin with the least problematical examples we can easily see what is involved. The most basic kind of object that can be observed is a material thing, something in the world like a rock, a tree, a dog or cat, a man, a woman, a child. Leaving aside for the moment (although we will come back to this directly) the fact that rocks and people are conventionally considered to be objects with very different qualities, their shared status as objects in the most basic sense remains the same. That is, each thing can be regarded as existing outside and as being independent of the mind observing it. This indicates already that the concept “object” has its most basic sense in relation to a correlative concept, that of the “subject” who does the observing, who is in possession of “a mind” and is thus capable of understanding the concepts (like rock, tree, dog, cat, man, woman, child) which stand over against the objects in the world (the things to which those concepts are said to refer). Now, because the concept of “subject” is supposed to refer to the very being that does the observing, it is not surprising that it is one of the most difficult concepts in the history of theory. The subject is the one who sees and who sets things into view. Once we have said this, of course, we see an inherent difficulty. If the concept of subject is already part of a way of setting things into view (the objective way) how can the subject itself be the one who does the setting?
Anyway, an object is, therefore, not simply some discrete thing standing passively around in the world but something in the world that has been set into view in some more or less specific way by the subject who observes it, or at least by subjects who habitually observe things in specific ways. In other words, rocks, trees and people share the same status as objects but are viewed in very different ways by different people, i.e. as having different qualities. An object is something upon which attention, interest or some emotion is fixed. A botanist will see an oak tree in a very different light–will “set it into view” in a different way–to the way a painter or a person walking in the country or a lumberjack or timber-merchant would. It is possible to say that each of these different people have different interests in the tree, and thus see it as a different object when their respective attentions are fixed upon it. In the case of people, things get very complex. A child might be the object of a parent’s love or irritation, siblings may be the objects of each others’ envy; a stranger may be the object of someone’s secret desire. In principle the situation remains when rather than an individual a whole group is taken as an object. An identification of “racial type” or a gender is a way of objectifying a group, possibly as being “other” or “different.” These concepts can then be (and often are) applied to individuals in a way which also reflects the attitudes of the subjects who have set their objects into view in this way. There are also concepts, like virtue and crime, that seem not to refer to any object that is in any basic sense “in-the-world.” This reveals all the more that concepts denote objects in an active, productive way, creating their objects, rather than simply reflecting or representing them.
People collectively are actually the objects of disciplines like anthropology, sociology and psychology, in which case concepts like “behaviour,” “group dynamics,” “personality” or “attitude” govern the ways in which people are set into view. And because those disciplines aim for scientific status, they must find legitimate criteria for objectivity, to help reduce the tendency for subjective interests to inform observation. So means are found for making generalisations. People can then be understood objectively thanks to empirical methods like the statistical analysis of measurable segments of society. But the scientific viewpoint is itself a “point-of-view,” or more specifically, a particular way of setting objects into view. And the “subject” of a scientific viewpoint is no less subjective for being scientific. This is not to suggest that contemporary theory should abandon science, but rather it is to suggest that the scientific viewpoint is, in contemporary theory, made more self-critical in its awareness of the styles by which different disciplines (both theoretical and practical) set their objects into view. There is no pure objectivity. Traditionally objectivity would be a condition under which objects could be described and/or acted upon that was not coloured by sensations or emotions. In a more significant formulation it would also be a condition under which objects could be described and/or acted upon uncoloured by any way or style of setting things into view at all. But there is no way of setting things in view that is not coloured by a way or style of doing so. There can be no pure objectivity because the attitude of the subject always intrudes and intervenes in an active way. Take the example of science. We have got so used to adopting a technological way of speaking in the modern world, especially where academic disciplines are concerned, that we often fail to see that technological ways of speaking themselves constitute a positive style. In other words, while such ways of speaking attain to a condition of transparent description and, ultimately, to objective truth, they are in fact part of a system, a set of tendencies, habits of thought and conventional laws of operation.
So the concepts that are developed in contemporary theory are designed to allow us access to elusive objects. But these “objects” are very often the creation of the system their gives their concepts currency. And their use often implies a breakdown in any hard and fast distinction between subjects and objects. The concept for this chapter is “theory” itself, and I have demonstrated the way in which a theoretical point of view can proceed by questioning the very grounds of the theoretical point of view itself, which is simply one specific way of setting objects into view. We can use the analogy of framing and say that theory frames its objects in specific ways. You can take this to mean both in the way pictures are framed to provide tidy boundaries around what they depict, and in the way a person charged with a criminal offence might complain that s/he “was framed” or “set up,” meaning that s/he didn’t do it. The first sense indicates the way objects must be defined, conceptualised, bounded and brought into view in a particular light. The second sense indicates the intrusive, active way in which concepts “produce” meanings, add meanings onto an object (an object does not necessarily mean anything independently of the concepts attributed to it) or even produce their object (an object may not exist independently of its concept, as is the case with Hamlet or the unicorn). There is no alternative to the potentially criminal production of meanings, the risks we must take of “mis-representing” our objects; all theoretical work insists that concepts are created and used, and such use is always an addition and an intrusion. So contemporary practices generally accept a responsibility not only for making their own backgrounds and presuppositions clear but also for questioning them, as I am doing in this chapter. This questioning is not negative and destructive, as some people think, but is productive. It develops concepts as it goes for theories that are intended to account for the very specific situations that require questioning in the first place, situations that are cultural and historical and thus always in a process of change as they fall inevitably into their unknown but often surprising future.
Contemporary theory does not simply rely on past theoretical systems, developed say in philosophy, social theory, anthropology, linguistics, and textual criticism. These must be used, certainly, because we have no already developed system of concepts that could possibly account for the situations that call for understanding and interpreting. But theory too must be questioned and read in a carefully critical way, so we can use it to arrive at new conceptions, whilst as far as possible avoiding the deep seated prejudices that underlie all of our thinking (just by using available concepts we are making implicit judgements). Thus theory operates on two levels. On the level of objectivity, now understood as being impossible in any pure sense, we need to identify the situation that we are both conceptualising and intervening in. On the level of conceptualisation itself, we must self-critically develop our concepts and arguments through careful readings of existing theory, locating contradictions and problems, and developing each time a workable framework for the specific engagement that we wish to make.
Contemporary theory cannot be thought of as belonging to any specific discipline. Theory informs many disciplines, especially in moments of crisis and self-questioning, but it occurs generally as a process that is not reducible to any discipline (certainly not “its own” which would be a contradiction). Theory puts the notion of a discipline under constant interrogation—not so traditions can be undermined in any naively subversive sense (although much contemporary theory is subversive)—but so traditions can be opened up to the possibility of their changing in productive ways, both in terms of their concepts and in terms of their activities, in short, their politics. But whilst theory has its own mode of proceeding and must be regarded as operating outside the strict boundaries of existing disciplines, it cannot be thought of as existing simply independently of any discipline. Theory is what happens when the grounds or the boundaries of disciplines are questioned and altered, certainly, but nothing like that could happen unless theoretical terms and concepts already existed. And only traditional and everyday discourses have them. If contemporary theory became an independent and autonomous discipline with its own philosophy and conceptual framework, it would no longer be theory but yet another discipline in the arts or social sciences, itself vulnerable to theoretical critique and resistant to anything perceived as “not belonging” within it. In this respect it is instructive that the most influential authors, texts and arguments in contemporary theory consistently resist easy disciplinary categories. A critical approach can work productively and often subversively within as well as between disciplines and traditions.
As I have shown, the problems that tax traditional theories in academic disciplines are general. The difficulty of arriving at stable concepts that can accurately stand over against often enigmatic objects troubles all participation in everyday talk, as well as the discourses of the mass media and all practices that characterise a given culture. And, just as the traditional sciences must ignore these difficulties in order to proceed, so too must the participants in everyday discourses ignore their own problematic grounds in order to get on with their lives. What I am calling contemporary theory aims to expose those problematic grounds. So concepts used in everyday discourses may be regarded as constructions, meanings that have been imposed on objects and which thus to an extent create those objects. Everyday concepts, no less than those of a science, are specific ways of setting things in view, and framing them. For participants in those discourses, however, these concepts will often appear natural or transparent. In other words, only their objects will appear and they will appear is if independent of the system of concepts that has played such an important role in constructing the way that they appear.
One final observation now needs to be made. Despite the need in academic disciplines for consensus, that is, a set of shared assumptions and definitions upon which practical and objective work may proceed, a brief history of any period in a discipline’s development will invariably reveal dispute and criticism at the deepest level. If this is the case in science and philosophy, it is even more so in everyday discourse where meanings are by no means shared. Meanings can be regarded as sites ofstruggle, which implies that a culture tends to be made up of individuals who are related only tentatively by shared values and norms, and those relations are often better characterised by mutual antagonism, incompatible interests, and struggles of power. A concept in everyday discourse gets its “naturalised” sense only at the cost of other contradictory senses that would reveal a determination from many sometimes contending positions. In this sense we can say that concepts are overdetermined.
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