A Slob’s Guide to Critical Theory
If you decide to get any kind of arts or humanities degree at college you will probably have to read post-modern, 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.