The laziness of Critical Theory

Critical approaches have done great work in social sciences, adding greatly to our collective insight. However, some scholars have taken the useful viewpoint it brings and turned it into a simplistic replacement of all other social science. For these critical theorists, mere deconstruction has replaced all other scholarship. The notion that all knowledge is premised on power has led the most publicly visible parts of Critical Theory down a path of taking apart all that came before without offering anything in return. However, we still live in this world and it does not go away just like that.

Just as when an academic discovers a new statistical method that allows them to quickly churn out new publications using old datasets, once deconstruction was popularised, it allowed academics to revisit all the major points in their respective fields. Great opportunities for getting yourself published in academic journals! However, there comes a point where deconstruction loses its usefulness. Of course, you can go ahead and deconstruct everything. Bit by bit you take apart every big concept, proving how everything is problematic. Then, there you are, the critical project complete, power relations and the hypocrisy of it all visible to everyone. You turn to the world you have deconstructed, and all that faces you is noise.

Because, meanwhile, we still need to live in that world. While it is good to think outside the box—to deconstruct that box—when people can only but spend their time inside the box most, it might not be a bad idea to explore the inside for a bit. That is why I use the provocative word ‘lazy’: once you have gotten the hang of deconstructing, it is comparatively straightforward to then go ahead and take apart everything. What is really difficult is to still devise some theories, some explanations, some understanding of how the world works that can help us in our lives.

Proving that something is a social construct is not proving anything interesting. The insight that everything is a social construct, because we can only understand the world through language and other shared ideas, is the basic contribution of constructivism. However, the implications of this are often misunderstood. The conservative effects of the interplay between structure and socialised individuals makes constructivists generally a lot more pessimistic than liberal institutionalists and human nature realists. No matter that everything that makes up society is intersubjective, when people deviate from the established structure, the structure will correct them through other people.

Therefore, while it is okay to point out the power dynamic behind notions such that of ‘state’, it does not take away the fact that for all intents and purposes it is real in everyday life. What is hard is not to point out the obvious fact that it is a human creation, but how to still say something meaningfully substantive about it. However, that challenge is precisely what the academe should strive to meet.

Also published on Medium.

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