Underlying Recurrent Ideas of Critical Theory

By Peter Barry, from his book Beginning Theory, pp. 34-36.

"...several ideas are recurrent in critical theory and seem to form what might be regarded as its common bedrock. Hence, it makes some sense to speak of ‘theory’ as if it were a single entity with a set of underlying beliefs, as long as we are aware that doing so is a simplification. Some of these recurrent underlying ideas of theory are:

"1. Many of the notions which we would usually regard as the basic ‘givens’ of our existence (including our gender identity, our individual selfhood, and the notion of literature itself) are actually fluid and unstable things, rather than fixed and reliable essences. Instead of being solidly ‘there’ in the real world of fact and experience, they are ‘socially constructed,’ that is, dependent on social and political forces and on shifting ways of seeing and thinking. In philosophical terms, all these are contingent categories (denoting a status which is temporary, provisional, ‘circumstance-dependent’) rather than absolute ones (that is, fixed, immutable, etc.). Hence, no overarching fixed ‘truths’ can ever be established. The results of all forms of intellectual enquiry are provisional only. There is no such thing as a fixed and reliable truth (except for the statement that this is so, presumably). The position on these matters which theory attacks is often referred to, in a kind of shorthand, as essentialism, while many of the theories discussed in this book would describe themselves as anti-essentialist.

"2. Theorists generally believe that all thinking and investigation is necessarily affected and largely determined by prior ideological commitment. The notion of disinterested enquiry is therefore untenable: none of us, they would argue, is capable of standing back from the scales and weighing things up dispassionately: rather, all investigators have a thumb on one side or the other of the scales. Every practical procedure (for instance, in literary criticism) presupposes a theoretical perspective of some kind. To deny this is simply to try to place our own theoretical position beyond scrutiny as something which is ‘commonsense’ or ‘simply given.’ This contention is problematical, of course, and is usually only made explicit as a counter to specific arguments put forward by opponents. The problem with this view is that it tends to discredit one’s own project along with all the rest, introducing a relativism which disables argument and cuts the ground from under any kind of commitment.

"3. Language itself conditions, limits, and predetermines what we see. Thus, all reality is constructed through language, so that nothing is simply ‘there’ in an unproblematical way – everything is a linguistic/textual construct. Language doesn’t record reality, it shapes and creates it, so that the whole of our universe is textual. Further, for the theorist, meaning is jointly constructed by reader and writer. It isn’t just ‘there’ and waiting before we get to the text but requires the reader’s contribution to bring it into being.

"4. Hence, any claim to offer a definitive reading would be futile. The meanings within a literary work [NOTE: for critical theory, works of philosophy count as literary works] are never fixed and reliable, but always shifting, multi-faceted, and ambiguous. In literature, as in all writing, there is never the possibility of establishing fixed and definite meanings: rather, it is characteristic of language to generate infinite webs of meaning, so that all texts are necessarily self-contradictory, as the process of deconstruction will reveal. There is no final court of appeal in these matters, since literary texts, once they exist, are viewed by the theorist as independent linguistic structures whose authors are always ‘dead’ or ‘absent.’

"5. Theorists distrust all ‘totalizing’ notions. For instance, the notion of ‘great’ books as an absolute and self-sustaining category is to be distrusted, as books always arise out of a particular socio-political situation, and this situation should not be suppressed, as tends to happen when they are promoted to ‘greatness.’ Likewise, the concept of a ‘human nature,’ as a generalized norm which transcends the idea of a particular race, gender, or class, is to be distrusted too, since it is usually in practice Eurocentric (that is, based on white European norms) and androcentric (that is, based on masculine norms and attitudes). Thus, the appeal to the idea of a generalized, supposedly inclusive, human nature is likely in practice to marginalize, or denigrate, or even deny the humanity of women, or disadvantaged groups.

"To sum up these five points: politics is pervasive, language is constitutive, truth is provisional, meaning is contingent, human nature is a myth."




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