Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Critical Studies = A Vacuum: Part One

There is a left-wing “tradition,” decades old now and imported from Europe, of cyclists amassing at key city intersections and just sitting there for the purpose of immobilizing and snarling motor traffic. It’s called “Critical Mass.” There are chapters of this club of thugs in many major American cities, just as there are still chapters of Occupy Wall Street extant. OWL simply wanted to stage a massive “sit-down” demonstration to bring Wall Street to a screeching halt, which it didn’t, and wasn’t interested in cycling anywhere, but was motivated by the same malign purpose.

 What do they want? “Respect” by disrespecting of the liberty of motorists to mind their own business. More and wider tax-paid bicycles lanes. The banishment of private cars from city streets, so they can have those streets all to themselves and claim a victory for the “environment.”  I’m sure there is a host of other ends and complaints. They’ll get into fights with motorists, or just sit there and wiggle their Spandex fannies at hapless drivers and be as obnoxious and barbaric as they can be. “Try and nudge me out of the way,” they dare. “I’ll trash your car if you do and see you charged with vehicular assault all the same.”

Critical Mass shut-downs of streets and thoroughfares are similar to the Muslim practice in major cities of blocking streets to perform prayers, which can happen with or without a government’s permission, cooperation, or sanction. It happens in New York City, in London, and in most European cities. Muslims want Americans to submit to Islam in the name of Allah; “Critical Mass” wants Americans to submit to force in the name of “social justice.” In an American context, “Critical Mass” is part and parcel of the Progressive agenda.

Wikipedia describes one thuggish tactic of such in-your-way-and-in-your-face “community organizing.”

Because Critical Mass takes place without an official route or sanction, participants in some cities have sometimes practiced a tactic known as "corking" in order to maintain the cohesion of the group. This tactic consists of a few riders blocking traffic from side roads so that the mass can freely proceed through red lights without interruption. Corking allows the mass to engage in a variety of activities, such as forming a cyclone, lifting their bikes in a tradition known as a "Bike Lift" (in Chicago this is referred to as a Chicago hold-up), or to perform a "die-in" where riders lie on the ground with their bikes to symbolise cyclist deaths and injuries caused by automobiles, very popular in Montreal. The "Corks" sometimes take advantage of their time corking to distribute fliers.

The practice of corking roads in order to pass through red lights as a group is in contravention of traffic laws in some jurisdictions and is sometimes criticized to be contrary to Critical Mass' claim that "we are traffic", since ordinary traffic does not have the right to go through intersections once the traffic signal has changed to red. However, groups of cyclists are allowed to pass signals as a group at least in Germany and Austria. Corking has sometimes led to hostility between motorists and riders, even erupting into violence and arrests of motorists and cyclists alike during Critical Mass rides.

San Francisco’s Critical Mass mobs are especially sanctimonious about their ability to cause chaos in the name of “social justice” for cyclists.

But, back indoors and safely out of the path of the cycling fascists (who in New York City are dangerous to pedestrians and arrogant even without being part of a mob), another kind of “critical” amassing takes place, especially in academia.

There are billions of people for whom faith is an essential thing: a consolation, an inspiration – a part of their identity. It matters not which “faith” it is: Christian, Judaism, Islam, Buddhist, whatever. But there are a relatively handful of theorists and philosophers for whom “Critical Studies” also comprise a consolation, an inspiration, and are incorporated into their collective identity – as nihilists. They, and not the lobotomy-capped cyclists, are the vanguard of destruction for the sake of “deconstruction.” They help to make the bike-lifting fascists possible.

What are “Critical Studies”? The list of those “Studies” includes Critical Legal Theory, Critical Literary Theory, Critical Race Theory, and Critical Art Theory. Wikipedia has an enormous entry on the subject allied to and linked to information on the history and ends of the Frankfurt School, whose members birthed the hydra-headed monster.

The purpose of Critical Studies is two-fold: to destroy with the aim of instituting socialism, progressivism, or collectivism with a socialist interpretation of literature, jurisprudence, and sociology; and to make mush of the mind of anyone subjected to “Lit-Crit.” There is no other end. If nothing replaces what is destroyed, that is an acceptable and satisfactory end to the Critical Studies advocates. The Frankfurt School began in Germany. Its principal members were Marxists who fled Nazi Germany to settle mainly in the U.S. Here they established The New School for Social Research in New York City (now simply The New School), which remains the chief representative and practitioner of its agenda. Many of the founders returned to Germany after WWII and reestablished the Frankfurt School.

Let’s start with Critical Literary Theory. Literature was the first victim of the Frankfurt School’s attentions; critical theory then spread like smog to smother the studies of law, race, sociology, and politics and anything else it could infect with irrationalism. For all I know, there might be a school of Critical Cooking Studies. Little remains untouched by the Frankfurt School’s intellectual depredations. Critical Studies is a postmodern development.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines postmodernism.

That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyper-reality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning. The term “postmodernism” first entered the philosophical lexicon in 1979, with the publication of The Postmodern Condition by Jean-François Lyotard….

The French, for example, work with concepts developed during the structuralist revolution in Paris in the 1950s and early 1960s, including structuralist readings of Marx and Freud. For this reason they are often called “poststructuralists.” They also cite the events of May 1968 as a watershed moment for modern thought and its institutions, especially the universities. The Italians, by contrast, draw upon a tradition of aesthetics and rhetoric including figures such as Giambattista Vico and Benedetto Croce.

There is a paper about Critical Literary Studies which is shared in common with a number of educational institutions, including secondary schools, such as Mesa Public Schools, in Arizona, called Literary Theories: A Sampling of Critical Lenses, or Literary Critical Theory, as Washington State University prefers to call it. Como Park Senior High School in St. Paul, Minnesota, prefers Literary Theories, as does the Mountain View/Los Altos High School District, Johns Hopkins University, and numerous other academies of Progressive indoctrination. Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and other major schools have their own renditions of Critical Studies.

Frankly, I had no idea that “Critical Literary Theory” was being taught in any school below the rank of community college. Many of these sites break up “Literary Theories” into flash cards or feature multiple-choice or question-and-answer formats. The School of Visual Arts in New York City has its own method of spaying students’ minds under Critical Literary Studies. But the most popular Critical Literary Theory paper is the consensus favorite. I’ll treat its wording to stand in for Washington State University’s and Purdue’s, because they all say the same things:

Literary Theories: A Sampling of Critical Lenses
Literary theories were developed as a means to understand the various ways people read texts. The proponents of each theory believe their theory is the theory, but most of us interpret texts according to the "rules" of several different theories at a time. All literary theories are lenses through which we can see texts. There is nothing to say that one is better than another or that you should read according to any of them, but it is sometimes fun to "decide" to read a text with one in mind because you often end up with a whole new perspective on your reading.

A subtitle might be: How to Marginalize Literature or Obliterate it, and incidentally emasculate a student’s cognitive powers. The first sentence is crass and invites adlibbing. Taken literally, it could mean that people read “texts” in a variety of physical positions, and we must understand why. With their noses to the pages? With Coke-bottle glasses? But, never mind that. In Critical Literary Studies, books do not exist. Nor newspapers, nor essays, nor even single sentences. Only “texts.” “Texts” can be “fun.” A “text” is a thing in and by itself, whose significance and meaning can’t be taken at face value, but must be wrestled with as a “social construct.” Everything in Critical Studies, regardless of the realm – jurisprudence, race, art, contracts, cooking, and even obituaries – is a social construct. A “social construct” is an entity created by the economic and social environment of any given historical period, powered by that irresistible but intangible Marxist/Hegelian evolutionary force, dialectal materialism.

And, what you see in a “text” depends on the kind of “lens” you’re wearing or were saddled with by your economic and class station. You have no choice in the matter, although Critical Theory assumes it can persuade that you’re just a pan of cookie dough ready for the cookie–cutter. Your mind, after all, say the Critical Studies advocates, is also just a “social construct,” and can be molded to see it all the Progressive way.  In short, they say it can be brainwashed. They would never put it that way.  It’s one of the few “negative” social constructs they dislike encountering. The other is totalitarianism.

Critical Literary Studies are salted with a lexicon of specialized terms.

In criticism, "archetype" signifies narrative designs, character types, or images that are said to be identifiable in a wide variety of works of literature, as well as in myths, dreams, and even ritualized modes of social behavior. The archetypal similarities within these diverse phenomena are held to reflect a set of universal, primitive, and elemental patterns, whose effective embodiment in a literary work evokes a profound response from the reader. The death-rebirth theme is often said to be the archetype of archetypes. Other archetypal themes are the journey underground, the heavenly ascent, the search for the father, the paradise-Hades image, the Promethean rebel-hero, the scapegoat, the earth goddess, and the fatal woman.

The Encyclopedia Britannica is a little clearer on the subject of postmodernism, which is:

….a late 20th-century movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power. Postmodernism as a philosophical movement is largely a reaction against the philosophical assumptions and values of the modern period of Western (specifically European) history—i.e., the period from about the time of the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries to the mid-20th century. Indeed, many of the doctrines characteristically associated with postmodernism can fairly be described as the straightforward denial of general philosophical viewpoints that were taken for granted during the 18th-century Enlightenment, though they were not unique to that period. The most important of these viewpoints are the following.

There is an objective natural reality, a reality whose existence and properties are logically independent of human beings—of their minds, their societies, their social practices, or their investigative techniques. Postmodernists dismiss this idea as a kind of naive realism. Such reality as there is, according to postmodernists, is a conceptual construct, an artifact of scientific practice and language.

So much for studying literature. Chess Hanrahan, a private detective in Honors Due, had these summary thoughts about modern and postmodern criticism:

Many critics either faulted his books for subjective reasons, or devoted most of their writing space to their dislike of the subject. Others forgot the purpose of a review or critical essay and concentrated on how stylishly they could disagree with Munro without substantially refuting his thesis. A typical modern critic was as likely to grasp or report the substance of a book – good or bad, and whether or not he liked it or approved of it – as it was that a chimp would appreciate a thermometer. He’d worry it, nibble on it, look through it, try to clean his ears with it, or use it to fish for maggots.

Never mind the critics. Teachers can also swing from tree branch to tree branch in search of the best way to instruct their high school students in “Lit-Crit.” For example, here is a sample teacher’s guide on how to teach Shakespeare and foster interpretations, close readings, and treating any one of the Bard’s “autotelic artifacts” as a kind of piñata chock full of goodies and social constructs from the capitalist Elizabethan Period:

Oral interpretation of a poem.  Select a poem or short excerpt from a story or novel and plan an oral interpretation of that text. Determine the meaning you want to convey through your pacing, emphasis, rhythm, tone, sounds, and nonverbal cues. Then, perform your oral interpretation for your class or create a video of your performance to be shown to the class. Garner some responses regarding the meaning that was conveyed through your performance to determine if the conveyed meaning matches your intended meaning…..

Storytelling.  This storytelling activity was developed by Sarah McArdell Moore, Madison, Wisconsin.  Chose a partner, tell them a story—any story, something that is comfortable for you.  Topics could be a childhood memory, an apology, a surprise, a recent challenge, or any number of things.  Give the story a beginning, middle and end, give it details.  Each person will have 3-5 minutes.  After both people are finished give the students 5 minutes to write down the other persons story [sic].  Now tell the person back their own story….

Circle Dash: Every one stands in a circle around one person who stands in the middle the object of the game is for 2 people in the circle to silently signal each other to switch places. The person in the middle tries to get to get to an open spot before the switchers.  The person left takes the spot in the middle.  This is a silent game.

Minefield: Everyone stands in a circle and tosses and [sic] object they can find that aren’t [sic]sharp or breakable in the center.  Spread the objects around so that the whole center is evenly covered.  A volunteer closes their eyes.  The rest of the group, using only their voices, tries to direct the volunteer to the space directly across from them in the circle without hitting any of the objects in the “minefield…..”

Create Shakespearean language. Based on their reading of a Shakespeare play, have students create their some dialogue [sic] or insults using iambic pentameter or other uses of figurative language.  Have students perform their dialogue or insults in the class…..

And so on. And so much fun! Please, teacher, don’t let on to the students that you’re patronizing their tiny little heads. It’s easy to let that slip if you regard your helpless charges as a mob of gullible troglodytes. However, one has difficulty deciding if this is a kindergarten class or some kind of therapeutic role-playing session for imprisoned juvenile delinquents and other socially arrested young people. Of course, this is contingent on whether or not Shakespeare is still permitted to be taught to semi-literate students. After all, Shakespeare was a member of the “white privileged” ruling class who strived to keep women in their place and petticoats and “poeticized” their oppression and exclusion. One’s school may not want students to get the idea that Shakespeare was some kind of genius or better than the writers of Friends or Muffin the Mule.

What is the sum total of all the “Lit-Crit” “explorations,” “close readings,” recognizing “signifiers,” and “bringing oneself to the text” to extract from it things that aren’t really there but which can be called “adventures in validation”? 

Nothing. After all, once you’ve learned that Shakespeare changed his socks less frequently than you did and learned how that habit affected his prose about how to diminish the role of women and prevent their self-expression and in general glorified the ups and downs of the ruling class, you’ve learned all you’re going to learn.

Then you can move on to learn that Rachmaninoff’s music was no better than any given, belligerent, obscenity-laden “rap” song. Or rap chant. And that the TV series Orange is the New Black contains more significant and culturally relevant linguistic signifiers and signifieds than can be found in any “text” by Victor Hugo, Ayn Rand, Terence Rattigan, Maurice Maeterlinck, or even in the Declaration of Independence. And what, pray tell, are those? Jack Lynch of Rutgers University explains:

"Signifier" and "signified" are terms used in one branch of linguistics and literary criticism to describe the components of a sign: the signifier, to put it simply, is the word, and the signified is the thing or idea it represents. Signifiers needn't be confined to words; they can include any system of representation, including drawings, traffic lights, body language, and so on. Much of the literary criticism of the last twenty-five years has focused on the relationship between the signifier and signified, and therefore on the very nature of meaning.

And, please, dear student, don’t try to find any signifiers or signifieds in Professor Lynch’s explanation. Granted, it is a “text,” but “texts” by the doyens of Lit-Crit are exempt from close readings and any kind of critical examination.

And perish the thought – if you’re still capable of thinking – that the deconstruction of literature is not so much the purpose of Critical Literary Studies as it is the deconstruction of your mind.

There’s the bell. Now on to Critical Legal Studies and other academic train wrecks. We will cover it and related subjects in Part Two.

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