There used to be a saying about LSD in the Sixties: once you get the message, hang up the phone. The same thing could be said for critical theory.
Both are good exercises in mind expansion. But too much LSD and you might end up like Pink Floyd singer Syd Barrett, in a mental institution trying to convince a social worker that you are a carrot.* Too much critical theory might land you at the same mental institution, trying to convince Syd Barrett that the distinction between himself and a carrot is merely a social and linguistic construct.
I know I must define critical theory here, yet I feel reluctant to do so, because one of the key tenets of critical theory is that (I am fairly certain) a piece of writing cannot count as critical theory unless someone more savvy and well-versed in critical theory scoffs when they read it. Therefore, any definition must by definition be inadequate to be adequate.
Here is my attempt, which is certainly an act of crude reductionism. First there was literary theory. That was a technique of using strategies derived from other disciplines, such as linguistics, philosophy, psychology, and anthropology, to analyze literature: fiction, plays, poetry. This developed into textual studies, which used the same strategies to analyze any type of written text, including newspaper articles, diaries, legal and religious documents, and most famously, laundry lists (who lists their laundry?). Then the definition of text was expanded to include non-written forms of expression such as music, film, photography, paintings. Then the definition of text was further expanded to include any event or occurrence, now called cultural texts. Finally, the term literary was dropped and the term critical was introduced to indicate the broadness of the field being studied, which included not just literature or texts but all things.
So, in a nutshell, critical theory entails analyzing everything in the world as though it were a text, using theories that were meant to explain the world and not texts in the first place.
Here’s an example: One of my favorite professors once told me that she didn’t like eating meals. “When I eat a meal,” she said, “I feel that I am doing something other than nourishing myself.” Here she took a physiological idea (nourishment) that had been extrapolated into a psychological idea (eating for reasons other than nourishment) and turned it into an idea about categorization and language (nourishing oneself versus doing something other than), and then applied it to its originally intended subject matter, physiology (eating). In other words, she was interpreting her eating patterns not as a physiological problem, nor as a psychological problem, but as a problem of definition and categorization, a textual problem: the problem of determining what it was she was doing when she ate meals, a question that she answered not in the positive but in the negative, what it was that she was not doing.
Lesson: Critical theory can make you read your own life as though it were a book and you were a character whose actions need to be mined for their symbolic meanings.
The ten years I spent deep into theory certainly expanded my consciousness and gave me a vast toolbox of unlikely ways to understand the world. But the signs of damage are there, too: the indirectness, the intertextual interpretations, the perception of the world as a secondary epic, the inability to see life as something other than a projection, a scrim, a simulacrum to be analyzed in absence of access to any thing-in-itself, if such a thing can exist.
Why else do I remember the particular words of a particular sentence spoken at a dinner party twelve years ago, complete with rhetorical analysis of the sentence structure and word choice? Shouldn’t I be remembering what a person meant, her point, the information she was trying to convey? “When I point at the moon,” my friend tells me, “you look at my finger. You should look at the moon.”
When I was in graduate school, one of my classmates decided to attend a book club that was for regular people. She was sorely disappointed by the experience; it turns out that regular people wanted to talk about aspects of a book like the characters, the story, how it connected to their own lives. My classmate, on the other hand, wanted to talk about the Foucaultian power dynamics in the text, the fundamental interchangeability of subversion and subjugation.
“I can’t turn it off,” she said. For the purpose of narrative drama, I want to say that she lowered her voice conspiratorially when she added the next part, but she didn’t; she said it loudly and with pride: “And I’m glad I can’t turn it off.”
I think about her sometimes, shaking my head and clicking my tongue. What a shame. I don’t know what happened to her, where she is today, that girl who couldn’t turn it off. I hope she’s okay; she was into some pretty heavy shit back then.
*This was the story that was always told at my high school about Syd Barrett; I'm fairly certain it's completely fallacious.
Thanks to Adam Caldwell for the illustration.