Critical Theory

The British publisher Icon Books has a series called Introducing …. The books are heavily illustrated, and tend to present in the style of graphic novels instead of conventional texts. I checked out Introducing Critical Theory, by Stuart Sim, illustrated by Borin Van Loon.

It was short, and closely focussed. When most of the page space was devoted to illustrations, the text got to the heart of the matter. The subject was Critical Theory in the narrow sense of the theory Frankfurt School, and the book presents a short survey of variants of modern critical theory, from Lukacs, Gramsci, Kafka, Mann, Brecht, the European Marxists of Frankfurt school, through Lacan, Derrida, Barthes, Baudrillard, Lyotard, Foucault through Mouffe and Zizek, and the permutations of post-modernism, post-Marxism, post-colonialism, post-structuralism and post-feminism.
He covers a lot of material, and on point after point, Sim presented lucid explanations of obscure material – for instance a good explanation of the reflexive dialectics. He touches the limits of critical theory with a discussion of the Sokal Hoax and quick reference to Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
One of the most interesting points in critical theory is Fredric Jameson’s thesis, in Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, that post-modernism represents a condition of discontent and alienation which is endemic under the social conditions of global capitalism. There is a constant sense, among critics, that there is something wrong with the world, that might be fixed to make everyone free and happy, but will never be fixed due to the hegemony of capitalist ideas. This sense allows the modern humanist intellectual to maintain a posture of victimization, presented as gloomy realism. It’s a posture nicely captured by Ian McEwan in his interview with The Independent:

McEwan … likes the company and outlook of scientists as an antidote to lazy arts-faculty despair. “Among cultural intellectuals, pessimism is the style,” he says with a tinge of scorn. “You’re not a paid-up member unless you’re gloomy.” But when it comes to climate change, he finds (quoting the Italian revolutionary Gramsci) that scientists can combine “pessimism of the intellect” with “optimism of the will”. “Science is an intrinsically optimistic project. You can’t be curious and depressed. Curiosity is itself a sure stake in life. And science is often quite conscious of intellectual pleasure, in a way that the humanities are not.”
He loves the spirited playfulness evident in places such as John Brockman’s celebrated website Edge, where “neuroscientists might talk to mathematicians, biologists to computer-modelling experts”, and in an accessible, discipline-crossing language that lets us all eavesdrop. “In order to talk to each other, they just have to use plain English. That’s where the rest of us benefit.” Science may also now “encroach” on traditional artistic soil. McEwan recently heard a lecture on the neuroscience of revenge, in which the rage to get even – that inexhaustible fuel for tragedy and comedy alike – illuminated parts of the brain via “real-time, functioning MRI [magnetic resonance imaging]. What was demonstrated was that people were prepared to punish themselves in order to punish others: negative altruism.”
For all the storytelling confidence of scientists who try to uncover the biological roots of personal emotions and social beliefs, McEwan keeps faith in the special tasks of art. “I hold to the view that novelists can go to places that might be parallel to a scientific investigation, and can never really be replaced by it: the investigation into our natures; our condition; what we’re like in specific circumstances.”

Sim and Van Loon, however avoid the posed pessimism mentioned by McEwan, and convey a sense of the intellectual pleasure of critical theory, in part by reducing influential thinkers to little cartoon talking heads, debating with each other.
It seems to me that scientists and humanists tend to be the same kind of people, engaged in projects that compete for economic and social resources. They enjoy similarly privileged lives. They are confident in their analytical and verbal skills to solve problems and gather resources. They respect reason over magical thinking. Their skills are relatively highly valued in society. They take themselves and their work seriously. They are both subject to having their work pillaged and imitated by charlatans. They are manipulative and obsessive, hanging on to what they have achieved.