A few weeks ago, Dr. Alan Jacobs, a Christian professor of the humanities at Baylor, wrote a blog post that critiqued James Lindsay’s characterization of critical theory. James and his co-author Helen Pluckrose, whose book Cynical Theories is due to be released this August, responded. Because Prof. Jacobs has (wisely) turned off his Twitter interactions, I collected their responses, posted them on my website, and passed them along.
Yesterday, Prof. Jacobs posted another article, and promised more to come. His latest offering characterized Lindsay and Pluckrose more positively, but still claimed that they “get the genealogy [of critical theory] wrong.” Pluckrose responded with what would otherwise be called a Tweetstorm, except that it was impeccably polite and highly informative. I will again post their responses and have passed them along to Prof. Jacobs.
I’m happy to continue being a Twitter ombudsman, but I think that it would be edifying if Jacobs, Lindsay, and Pluckrose had a public dialogue or a written exchange on letter.wiki, especially given the growing interesting among evangelicals on the subject of critical theory.
Shenvi: Christian humanities professor @ayjay continues his discussion with @ConceptualJames and @HPluckrose on the origins and use of the term “critical theory.” May help explain (or add to) the interminable debates surrounding this term.
Lindsay: This person has never contacted me. This is not a discussion.
Shenvi: I’m just passing on information. FWIW, I agree with you and Helen. If you write anything up (as she has), I’ll put it together and pass it on to him, with the recommendation that he reach out to you. I think his is an unfortunately common misconception.
Pluckrose: He’s not having a discussion. First he said we confuse current critical theories with the Frankfurt School & we showed we distinguish them clearly. Then he said we see the current theories as having their origins in the Frankfurt School which is not what we do either.
Recently @ConceptualJames gave a very concise summary of the genealogy we do actually claim (although he was later annoyed that he had forgotten black feminism) which I can’t find now but hopefully he can link. The reality is that it is extremely messy with much overlap.
I would like us to draw up a chart which leads to the critical theories we currently criticise and shows all of its influences. I will attempt a thread on what those are but it is bound to miss some things & simplify almost to the point of being misleading on others.
1) Marxism. Some people will point out that you can’t discuss Marx’s influence on current Critical Social Justice without discussing Hegel, Feuerbach, Smith & many more people’s influences on him but that’s true of them too & we have to start somewhere! Marxism had a profound influence on the current Critical Social Justice (CSJ) that we see today even though the evolutions of various strands of his thought have moved so far away from class, objective truth & the value of dialectic that calling it ‘Marxism’ is just wrong. Standpoint theory, false consciousness & hegemony are the main concepts that have a clear origin in Marxist thought although they were used differently by the group of thinkers known as post-Marxists or ‘cultural Marxists.’ Yes, Frankfurt School is chief among them.
2) Post-Marxists. This is the group of intellectuals who attempted to broaden Marxist thought into cultural analysis. Marcuse, Adorno & Gramsci among others. They were still very much Marxist in their thinking but weren’t totally focused on class. They still thought class was key and they still thought objective truth existed & reason was important but they were unconvinced the Enlightenment thinkers had been doing it properly. They didn’t have many practical solutions though and they laid a pathway to the deconstructionists. They were directly influential on two other developments, one intellectual and one activist in focus, neither of which they approved of very much. These were:
3) The postmodernists. The postmodernists stepped away from Marxism very explicitly and criticised it as a metanarrative. They went further away from class and more into culture. They despaired of objective truth, the power of reason and dialectic (and the reliability of language itself). The postmodernists were radically skeptical and they focused on power, knowledge and language, all of which they conceptualised quite differently from the Frankfurt School and the FS consequently quite strongly disapproved of them. These concepts of power, knowledge & language are the ones we see as the driving force behind Critical Social Justice scholarship & its focus on language as dangerous & perpetuating dominant discourses that are dangerous & operate in the service of preserving power & privilege.
4) The other development strongly influenced by the Frankfurt School was the ‘New Left.” It was revolutionary whereas the postmodernists were fairly aimless & just wanted to pick things apart. It particularly liked Marcuse and his idea of revolutionising institutions. Marcuse, however, was not that keen on the New Left considering them to be anti-intellectual (which they were) and operating on a bastardised idea of his thought. They were the radical activists whose spirit lives on today. So, we have these two currents – the deconstructive, playful, fairly aimless & generally incomprehensible postmodernists & the radical action-orientated, revolutionary New Left. Meanwhile, other developments are happening in separate spheres.
5) The civil rights movement, liberal feminism & gay pride. They were largely liberal in origin. They had their radical elements & so some overlap with the New Left, but postmodernism had not become user-friendly at this point so its influence was largely absent. Mostly liberal. It was the universal liberalism of these movements – we are human beings just like you & yet we don’t get to fulfill our potential & live lives of dignity & freedom – that made them successful. They appealed to a liberal instinct of fairness, individuality & shared humanity.
6) Black feminism was the other current that was growing in the US. Black feminists felt that mainstream feminism didn’t include their different experiences due to being black & mainstream anti-racism didn’t include the ones due to them being female. By the middle of the 80s, all these streams of thought were at something of an impasse. The old-school Marxists were pretty much on their own now as all these other streams had either diverged from class issues or never been Marxist in the first place.
The Frankfurt School had largely grumbled itself into non-existence & ceased to be relevant to anyone other than leftist academics who were neither Marxists nor postmodernists. The postmodernists had similarly deconstructed themselves into irrelevance. Having dismantled everything & left it in a mess on the floor there was not much it could do. The civil rights movements including liberal feminism & gay pride had largely won all its legal battles and was now seeing diminishing returns. Black feminism was still going strong but was really quite niche & not getting much broad support. Oh, and the New Left had largely lost public support for too radical & frequently violent. There was a kind of political activist-scholarship vacuum that was bound to get filled. What it got filled with was a kind of amalgamation of bits of each strand of thought. Something happened at the end of the 80s & beginning of the 90s which we have been calling ‘applied postmodernism’ because it centred on those concepts of power, knowledge & language while using parts of the other movements to make itself actionable.
What did CSJ take from classical Marxism? Not a lot. The ideas that have a flavour of Marxism in the current scholarship have largely come down through the post/neo/cultural Marxists & consequently old-school Marxists disown it & blame it on the liberals.
What does it have from the post/neo/classical Marxists? It has some inverted concepts of standpoint theory (knowledge tied to position in society), false consciousness (uncritical acceptance of dominant narratives) & hegemony – the cultural dominance of a way of thinking.
The New Left? It has the radical & revolutionary spirit & determination to take over the institutions in order to bring about radical change which it took, not unreasonably, from the thought of Marcuse even as he protested feebly ‘No, not like that!”
The liberal civil rights movements? This is where it got its public support & credibility. The new wave of theorists developing what we (and they) now call Critical Social Justice scholarship defined itself as a continuation of those broadly popular movements. This kind of made sense because obviously racism, sexism & homophobia didn’t just go away when laws changed. What remained for these movements was to tackle the attitudes, biases & discourses (ways of talking about things) that remained.
The postmodern concepts of knowledge, power & language were almost perfect for addressing these. But not quite because it was so radically skeptical that it couldn’t allow objective reality to exist. To fight any kind of oppression, you have to accept it objectively exists.
Thus emerged a great flood of writing in 1989 & 1990 which said postmodernism needed an upgrade to make it politically actionable. Mary Poovey described it a toolbox that activists could select deconstructive tools from while leaving the radical skepticism behind. For Judith Butler, similarly, it was the power of deconstruction itself that was an activist weapon & thus breaking down categories of sex, gender & sexuality was an objective good. bell hooks said postmodernism had been able to be aimless coz created by wealthy white men. Kimberlé Crenshaw sets it out most explicitly for us when she described her concept of intersectionality as ‘contemporary politics applied to postmodern theory’ & argued that gender & race are social constructs but those constructs are real & have real impact. Patricia Hill Collins was making the same point with her concept of ‘the matrix of domination’ which is intersectionality symbolised differently. Butler was also speaking at this time about the intersection of race, gender etc. This is where black feminism came in & helped the amalgamation of radical, revolutionary activism with aimless, deconstructive postmodernism. Intersectionality was a wonderful tool for this allowing for complex theorising and problematising to occur.
Of course, the concept of intersectionality has worth. If white American feminists were protesting being seen as weak & passive & expected to be pure, quiet & chaste while black American women suffered from stereotypes that made them aggressive, noisy & promiscuous…Black feminists would not be wrong to feel mainstream feminism did not include them. However, it was utterly catastrophic to think the way to go about addressing this problem was to throw away liberalism & link radical activist currents of the New Left to postmodern theory.
In the 30 years since then, this kind of postmodern theory with elements of post-Marxist, New Left, liberal & black feminist thought has become simpler, clearer & more dogmatic until it is now quite clearly a metanarrative that the original postmodernists could not have endorsed. The metanarrative that the theorists and activist are now operating on looks like this. So sure are they that this is now the objective truth that increasing numbers of institutions & organisations feel it is OK to train people to believe in it & affirm it in diversity statements. We think this is a problem and we seek to show that it is an ideological metanarrative to which the rules of secularism should apply. That is: you have the absolute right to believe this as a matter of personal conscience but don’t institutionalise it or demand adherence to it.
This doesn’t mean that employers & institutions cannot reasonably require a clear commitment from its employees that they will not discriminate or abuse people on the grounds of race, gender or sexuality. It does mean they must not demand that this commitment be underlain by an adherence to any particular conception of the world. It must not require employees to believe in concepts of whiteness, patriarchy, heteronormativity etc that infect everybody & demand they unpick them. eg, your employer should be able to require that you not be racist at work. It is not their business whether your ethical rejection of racist ideas is due to your belief in the concept of whiteness, your universal liberalism, your conservative Christianity or anything else. eg, your employer should be able to require that you treat trans colleagues & customers with courtesy & consideration. They should not be able to dictate that you affirm anything about sex & gender that you do not believe or refrain from political activism about it outside work
Anyway, I digress. This thread has been about all the different intellectual & political currents that have made up the current Critical Social Justice scholarship & activism. No, we do not simplistically blame it on the Frankfurt School. Thanks for asking.
Shenvi: Helen, for what it’s worth, I agree with you and James on this issue, as I think you know. I was just passing on information. I will collect your Tweets and send them on to Prof. Jacobs. Also, here’s a rough genealogy from Sim and Van Loon’s Introducing Critical Theory:
Lindsay: I concur with this almost completely, though we may disagree a little about who was more “Neo-Marxist” and who was more “post-Marxist,” as though such details matter for anything. Intersectionality is about establishing the hegemony of black feminism as described here.
Pluckrose: I tend to defer to you on neo-Marxism v post-Marxism as you have paid more attention to this branch of developments & I am more interested in those that are heavily Foucauldian. And yes! Yes, it is Actually, it’s probably more true to say that you are more interested in continuities between Marxism & what came after & led to what we see right now while I am more interested in departures from it. This is good because we won’t let each other get too black & white on the topic.
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