Illustrations by Jenny Hirons
If you decide to get any kind of arts or humanities degree at college you will probably have to read postmodern, neo-Marxist, social and literary critics who write in the kind of language that makes your head cry with pain and your body long for porn. As a breed, these people are known as critical theorists.
Now, you might be thinking, I won’t have to read these people; I’ll just read CliffsNotes. In which case, all I can say is: fair enough, you’ll probably do pretty well. There really is barely any reason to read the books, let alone the theory around them. Further education comes cheap (not literally, sadly) these days and you really don’t have to be very smart to get a humanities degree from a decent university.
But if you feel up for doing a little more work than you strictly have to, why not read some stuff that will be hard to understand and may not actually mean anything? After all, that’s what studying is about. A year after you leave school you’ll have no idea what it means, but you’ll have a better, instinctive (i.e., borrowed) understanding of society, and for a brief moment you’ll be able to say: “I read Roland Barthes, and I sort of got where he was coming from.”
With the intellectually challenging end of the library—as with everything at most universities—it may just be best to embrace it and then look back on it with raised eyebrows. "Oh, those were the days," you can chuckle, 40 years from now, as you come across a forgotten copy of Jay Prosser’s Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality.
In the meantime, here are some of the characters and situations you’ll run into on your journey into the logic jungles of critical theory.
Dear Elaine wields some serious power in this world from her throne at Harvard. Scarry’s big achievement is a book called The Body in Pain, which is about different kinds of pain and how pain is inflicted. The crux of the book is that hurting someone is bad, whereas creating something (anything, unless it is painful) is good. When you do that you “make” the world, whereas when you inflict pain, you “unmake” it. So, if you relentlessly torture someone, then you are not helping the world out, whereas if you write a book about why people relentlessly torture other people, you are totally helping the world out. Still, she is responsible for one of the greatest pieces of Biblical analogy you’ll ever read, in which she compares the creation of God to the making of a table that can think for itself and change its form whenever the time dictates it. Could you have thought of that? No. But you might be able to turn that idea into a zingy sitcom. Other Languages
Yeah, you’re fucked. Go on all you want about how you took French in school, but Jacques Derrida didn’t write about where the train station is, or if the swimming pool was open on Sundays. He wrote about binary oppositions, rhetoric, deconstruction, and a whole load of other things that Rosetta Stone didn't get into. If you are lucky enough to be doing anything that relates to Ancient Greece or Rome (and academics relate basically everything to those two cultural swamps) you will have to also contend with Latin and Ancient Greek. Latin, at least, is written in the same alphabet you find on the back of your average Friends DVD. Greek is written in a bunch of antique wingdings, so good luck with that. Further afield, if you can’t throw a few Old Norse quips into an essay on the Viking sagas, then you aren’t fit to ride my longboat to Asgard. And if it’s on Beowulf, the Ray Winstone accent needs to be implied. Jacques Rancière
No one has done more to explain the role of the spectator, in a complicated French way, than this guy. Yes, the spectator. That’s you at an Atlas Sound gig, or paying Russian girls to strip on the internet. What pissed off Rancière was that the spectator didn’t know the machinations behind the devised theatrical happening (“play”) he was witnessing (“watching”); he just sat there pretending to find Shakespeare’s jokes funny. Rancière wanted to break that fourth wall—a cultural quest which arguably plodded through punk and ended up as Wayne’s World. POWER
Critical theorists used to be very into the analysis of POWER, in an all-caps-kinda-major-you-can't-escape-it-this-is-how-you-are-placed-in-the-world-and-you-don't-in-fact-have-any-agency sort of way. The stupid ones are still going on about the grand machines of the elite and how they can be found controlling our desires in the novels of Henry James, the music of Beethoven, and the ingredients of our breakfast cereal. Writers like the late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, author of, I am not lying to you, Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl, moved on from the POWER place to the “the world is a shades of gray" place, while their former disciples still splutter on about the John Malkovich guy in Henry James novels being a forerunner to Donald Rumsfeld. Walter Benjamin and Michel Foucault
Like Gandalf and Gandalf’s gay son, Walter Benjamin and Michel Foucault (above) are the great wizards of critical theory. Benjamin’s magnum opus, the Arcades Project, wasn’t finished by the time the Second World War (and his subsequent suicide) rolled around, so it was hidden in Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, where it remained, undiscovered, until well after the war. Remember, the “j” in Benjamin is silent. People have been ruined in academic society for fucking that up. Foucault was indebted to Benjamin but created, with his work, a global team of starry-eyed disciples who couldn’t wait to put his pendulous French balls in their mouths. And I don’t blame them. He was an awfully clever man. Excessive Use of Clauses
When an academic is attempting to say something complicated or, as is often the case, analyze a simple phenomenon in a complicated way, justifying a pointless essay, a number of clauses will be used. Sentences will go on for pages. Ideas, or statements, will pile up on top of one another, agency is taken from the reader, the consumer of the text, the product, as ideas pile up; the statements remain, though, buried, amid the clauses, the clause. In high school you were probably reverentially told about George Orwell and his famous rules for writing good English (be simple, be clear, don’t use metaphors, etc., etc. It always sounded boring to me). Time to throw old Orwell in the trash along with your dreams of a brighter future. There's no room for that short-sentence bullshit in critical theory. Theodor Adorno
The great, pontificating old goat of 20th-century seriousness may have famously said that after the Holocaust there can be no laughter, and he may also have spent his life furiously pulling apart popular culture, but that didn’t stop his classic tome Minima Moralia ending up artfully scattered around branches of Urban Outfitters. He would have hated that. But then he deserved it. He was a dick. Queer Theory
You are not a man. You are not a woman. You are not a neuter. You are a construct. Maintaining your gender is a constant performance. These ideas don’t seem that radical now, but before Judith Butler adapted them from Foucault and laid them out in her 1990 book Gender Trouble, they seemed alien. “What do you mean getting hammered with your pals is a culturally ingrained performance? Are you saying I’m gay? Are you saying I don’t like pounding beers at the bar and then going to the club to throw up on my best friend, Steve, whom I fucking love?" A bro might have said those very words to Judith Butler in 1990. Now, he’s read Gender Trouble and is content as can be sitting around watching Sex and the City with his girlfriend. So, welcome, friend, to the innermost circle of critical theory. Before you know it, you will be unmasking the terrorism present in your family, analyzing the agency of the police within literature, and drawing a direct and clear line between the book you are reading and the public nap you are taking. You will be left thinking, Yes, of course, I always wondered why I behaved in that way, and now I know it’s because of the way society works, and the way society works is perfectly demonstrated in this book about gender politics and the novels of William Faulkner. And the day you think that is the day you are born.
Follow Oscar on Twitter