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Toward better critical theories

Yesterday, many students at Willamette participated in a day of silence in support of Gay/Lesbian/Bi/Transsexual etc. rights and equality. Last year, I hadn’t found out about it in time to participate, but I was struck by how much it impacted me, this having intelligent and articulate classmates not contributing to our class discussions.

This year, I threw my metaphorical hat in the ring. It was an interesting experience; I think that a lot of my classmates imagine me as on the verge of coming out in the first place, and for some of the younger classes, there’s an odd sense of prejudice that I picked up on, one that I’m not accustomed to encountering among my peers. It was a good to have this time of silent solidarity. I am so used to being among tolerant, justice-oriented people that it always stuns me to find bigotry in places where it shouldn’t be.

Perhaps the most significant element I noticed was in power differentials. As a white heterosexual American, I am part of the loud majority, the unquestioned assumption. People in power don’t have to worry about inclusive language, because language generally supports their power. Any destabilization of language, such as, for example, using “partner” instead of husband/wife or girlfriend/boyfriend, meets resistance from people who at some level recognize this as questioning whether their dominant view of culture and society is indeed correct.

The potential to destabilize the language which serves the hegemonic purposes of dominant culture is one that GLBT activists have very effectively used in the US. I’m not saying that our society has achieved equality, or indeed even come near it, but subversive use of language has opened up new and more tolerant discursive spaces and advocated for inclusion rather than exclusion of marginalized groups.

I have been wrestling with the various theories that I’ve studied over the past few years. Marxist, feminist, structuralist, post-structuralist, queer, psychoanalytic, post-colonial, African American, gender, relativism, the list is practically endless. I think I was so attracted to theory in the first place because I look out, see a world that is unjust, and I want answers. I want to know what someone who cares should do. These theories have their strengths and their weaknesses, most notably among them exclusivism and a certain amoralism.

By exclusivism, I mean both that critical theories tend to be buried in language, rhetorical tropes, and arcane academic arguments, and also that many are quite limited in focus, advocating for one issue at the expense of others. The way that this plays out is that we must now identify ourselves with a string of epithets, each attempting to counterbalance the weaknesses of the last. I am, for example, a post-feminist Marxist postructuralist new historicist episcopalian environmentalist, ad infinitum. I could easily spend the rest of my life teasing out exactly where on the radar of thought I should be located. Many do.

But this ignores two important ideas: one is that if we do spend all of our time merely theorizing our position, we become somewhat ethically or morally bankrupt, and the other is that theories divorced from life are useless at best and destructive at worst.

What seems to me to be missing is the sort of praxis, the cycle of action and reflection, that social justice advocates. Theories, rather than demanding action, seem to demand an inward, nitpicky self-dissection, an endless production of new journal articles and debates, and all the while, suffering is increasing in the world. Do the issues of whether sex precedes gender or gender precedes sex, or the question of ethics in regard to cross-cultural medical treatment really contribute to a better world, or are they being used as forms of escapism and ignoring suffering?

Next time, whenever that is, I’ll be discussing the usefulness of a meta-critical approach to theories, that is, asking whether we can construct and implement a justice-oriented criterion for looking at theories, at world views, at religions, etc., and draw on the knowledge of these various positions to effect social change. How do we, for example, go about drawing on the experiences of GLBT activists in the US and see their place within a larger system of injustice–one that oppressesses people who often have no voice to speak for themselves?

4 comments to Toward better critical theories

  • radmama

    Excellent, Christine. :-) You knew I would like anything on theory, especially a discussion that used the term praxis! More commentary later…

  • Natasha

    I won’t pretend to understand every single word but I can go with your arguments about you using theories to find out what someone who cares should do – but one also shouldn’t be bound by someone elses thoughts. Do what you feel is right, rather than subscribing to someone elses ideas of what should be done in that situation (i hope that makes sense…).
    Having said that, if we all believed, as i do, that every human being has the right to be happy, and no one has the right to cause anyone upset or pain, then the world we’d be living in would almost definitely be better. So, lets join the Natashas and be done with it!

  • TreeKid

    Writing theories without moving toward a better world is just like praying for peace while polishing your gun… eh?

  • Liz

    you didn’t know me back then, but I once did a 5 day vow of silence. five of the most liberating and lividifying days of my life. (yes, I just made up a word.)

    I spent those five days writing and rethinking why it is that I do what I do. the fight for children’s rights. the fight for recognition and acknowledgement. instead, I had people yelling things at me like “hey liz! child labor is good! I’m gonna go hire some 1st graders to clean up my lawn.” and as facetious as those comments were, of course they were said for the intent and purpose of showing my “impotence.”

    i’ve never posted my reflections on that week, but I’m almost inspired to do so now… 😉

    much love, darlin.