Criticis se quis reprehendat?

December 4th, 2016
by Chris

In an article by David Sessions, I find the following critique of criticism, or more accurately what tends to be called “Critical Theory”:-

“The five characteristics of critique, Felski continues, are negativity (“characterized by its ‘againstness’”); secondaryness (“does its thinking by responding to the thinking of others”); intellectualism (“interested in big pictures, cultural frameworks, underlying schema,” vs. everyday practices and common sense); marginality (“it rails against authority”); and intolerance (“it insists that those who do not embrace its tenets must be denying or disavowing them”).”

I’m thinking in particular here of Radical Theology particularly as evidenced by the work of John Caputo and Peter Rollins (there are many other voices, but these are the ones I know the most about). All of those voices seem to share an origin in “Continental Philosophy”, which means the tradition of European philosophy which runs from Kant through Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger to a variety of 20th century French philosophers of whom Jacques Derrida is the best known (and most notorious). It also prays in aid Marx on the political front and Freud (and then Lacan) on the psychoanalytic front. That tradition is now most commonly seen in “Critical Theory”, which I understand is endemic in Literature departments in academia.

Caputo has often commented that Radical Theology is parasitic on mainstream confessional theology, thus confirming “secondaryness“. One might assume from Derrida’s comment that “he regarded his function as the destruction of meaning”, that negativity is also fundamental to this school of thinking. That would certainly be the naive reading of Derrida’s invention, “deconstruction”. It is, I think, also implicit in the general description of Nietzsche, Marx and Freud as “The Masters of Suspicion”.

It seems to me also pretty clear that, as I’ve invoked the names of several notoriously obscure philosophers, the endeavour is characterised by intellectualism. In defence of Caputo and Rollins on that front, both are very good in spoken contexts at making their field approachable by normal human beings (as opposed to philosophy graduates), and Rollins also writes in a very approachable way (Caputo is very readable, but peppers his work with a lot of references, many of them humorous, which I think most general readers would not pick up on – and, indeed, I include myself; I find, reading Caputo, that I have a permanent sense that I’m missing a significant number of his references…).

Is it also characterised by marginality? One might reasonably think so, as (particularly in the work of Peter Rollins) it bids us rid ourselves of the spectre of the “Great Other” (railing against authority), even if one does not consider the strands of Liberation Theology, Black Theology, Womanist Theology or Queer Theology as being integral parts of Radical Theology. Personally, I think those are more characteristic of Liberal theologies, and perhaps Radical Theology should therefore stand alongside the likes of Liberation Theology (etc) rather than be seen to subsume them. However, I might point out that Christian theology generally probably should (even if it commonly does not) follow the example of Jesus, and privilege the marginalised – women, foreigners, those of opposing religions, the poor and children all have special consideration in stories about Jesus in the gospels, and the mainstream (scribes, pharisees and the Roman occupiers aside a couple of specific examples) tends to get short shrift from him.

As an aside, I think the preferential option for the marginalised is even more important after seeing this attempt to lampoon it… I was in two minds whether to share it, as I tend to feel it goes beyond lampoon to something really quite spiteful and vicious, but it does make a point about some of the problems of this marginal-favouring approach. That leads me neatly into the final category, that of intolerance, which I could recast as being a totalising approach; in it, everything has to be criticised and dissected, and any opposition to that displays an adherence to one or more of the hidden subtexts which deconstruction allegedly reveals (I say “allegedly” because I strongly suspect that the process tends to read into texts things which were absolutely not there in the mind of the author, even as subconscious influences, as well as the hidden meanings which one would want to know of). If marginality is totalising, unless you are a member of a minority, you are effectively marginalised yourself (something which has been suggested as a reason for Trump’s success over Clinton; her narrative was heavily based in identity politics, mentioning African-Americans, Hispanics, women and LGBT to the exclusion of, in particular, while males, who then proceeded to vote in masses for Trump). You also, to my mind, cannot possibly be “secondary” if you are proposing something totalising.

There is thus a potential self-defeating rift at the heart of the deconstructive, critical approach – which has led some Radical Theologians to propose that that rift is fundamental to existence. Rollins perhaps falls into that category, although not to the same extent as (for instance) Alain Badiou in “St. Paul: The Foundation of Universalism”, Zizek in “The Puppet and the Dwarf” or Thomas J.J. Altizer in everything of his I have so far read. I am not personally convinced that reality has such a rift; it seems to me more likely that when you look at something through cracked glasses, it looks cracked. It is, perhaps, high time that deconstruction were deconstructed – which is what the article I linked to first is, perhaps, attempting to touch on in positing the “post-critical”.

In particular, I cannot see Peter Rollins work as being able to achieve this totalising effect, for perhaps just that reason – or, perhaps, because while it is all very good to understand that the “big other” is something which we construct, as are grand narratives (and, indeed, narratives of any kind); that ultimately none of these things exists, we are nonetheless hard-wired to posit the other and to try to make sense of our experience, to weave it into a story which makes sense. Most of us cannot live long in the absurd, the deracinated, the formless void (although I could argue that modern living seems to be moving inexorably toward the need for that). As Terry Pratchett (in my opinion much underrated as a philosopher) said, we are not so much homo sapiens (the wise or understanding man) as homo narrans, the man who tells stories.

Caputo, on the other hand, may have the possibility of doing more than merely clear the ground for a never-to-come rebuilding; his “weak but insistent call” and his “perhaps…” will be enough to weave ourselves a new story.


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