The Problem With Critical Studies image

The Problem With Critical Studies

Here’s a great piece from Joseph Heath on the problem with “critical” studies. It is easy to mock critical theory as faddish, already outdated, departmentally bubble-wrapped and intellectually stagnant, but Heath does a good job exposing its frequent “cryptonormativism,” a term he takes from Jurgen Habermas. (He also has the occasional zinger, borne out in my experience too: “the most reliable indicator that a book is going to be a complete mess, from a normative perspective, is that it contains either discussion or extensive citation of Foucault and/or Bourdieu.”) The chief problem, he argues, is that everyone attacks positions that they never quite define, and which nobody actually defends, which suggests either rhetorical manipulation, or cowardice, or both:

For those who don’t know, here’s the basic problem with “neoliberalism.” It’s a made-up thing. It’s just a word that Foucault popularized, to talk about economic ideas that he didn’t really understand. There is no group of people out there who actually describe themselves as a neoliberals. Because of this, there are no constraints on what it can refer to, and there is no one to answer any of the criticisms that are made of it. Compare that to terms like “conservative” or “libertarian.” Because there are real people who call themselves “libertarian,” if you write something that criticizes libertarianism, an actual libertarian might write back and contest what you say. With “neoliberalism,” on the other hand, you can say whatever you want, without any fear that a real-life neoliberal will write back and contest your claims – because there are none. As a result, people who use this term in their writing are basically announcing, up front, that their intended audience is the left-wing academic echo chamber.

It’s worth saying, if it wasn’t already obvious: this phenomenon—of attacking vaguely constructed positions that nobody actually holds, as a rhetorical power play—is not a problem unique to left-wing academic echo chambers.

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