Postmodernism & Critical Theory; the Good, the Bad, the Traumatic.
My personal experience of the theory. How it drove me crazy and saved me. . . +Some shit about Jordan Peterson.
I remember waiting to talk to a professor one day after class when the girl ahead of me broke down crying. It was a poly-sci class, can’t remember which one, but I’m sure we were covering one more way in which the world is f*$^ed.
What I do remember is that the topic of conversation was on Critical Theory and Postmodernism. Both of which can paint a dismal picture of the world.
As an international relations student, Critical Theory was a core part of our curriculum and was used to deconstruct our narratives about the world in every field imaginable from our poly-sci classes to economics, history, anthropology, sociology, geography.
One of the strengths of the theory is that it calls for input from a wide range of disciplines. We had to study them all.
One of the difficulties in handling the theory is that it breaks down your belief in pretty much everything you were raised with. Many turned to heavy drinking, some of us had mental breakdowns, this girl sobbing wasn’t exactly something new.
What was unique is that it happened in class and the professor's response is still marked in my memory.
“Critical Theory is incredibly difficult to process. There is a lot that is broken in the world and we don’t have answers for it. We’re still trying to figure out all the things going wrong. Maybe someday someone else will come along with answers.”
I don’t often remember the way people say things. I’m more of a paraphraser but that moment has always stuck with me. In its own way, it felt prophetic.
If nothing else it illustrates the point of this article. Postmodernism and Critical Theory in particular, are parts of a process, a cultural dialogue the West is having with itself. In a way, they mimic a person’s response to depression and trauma.
Often times they’re not pleasant but they may be necessary and do serve a function.
The difficulty of talking about Postmodernism.
It is hard enough to remember my opinions without also remembering my reasons for them!
— Attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche.
It’s hard to say what Postmodernism is. Most people don’t go around labeling themselves Postmodern, Modern, or Traditionalists.
Cultural thought forms, “memes,” or zeitgeists don’t work like that. You have different thinkers in different fields sometimes in isolation, sometimes cross-pollinating.
The muses scatter their seeds far and wide.
However, if we’re forced to create a narrative; history, economics, and culture condition certain ways of thinking. As such loosely bound themes to arise in intellectual spheres.
Postmodernism would argue that we lack the ability to fully understand these intellectual spheres, memes, or zeitgeists.
For the sake of our discussion, however, I’m going to hazard a definition.
To understand Postmodernism and subsequent Critical Theory we have to look back at the historic currents that initiated the movement, tracing our way through the Enlightenment, the Modernists, and finally the Postmodernists.
The Enlightenment and the rational agent.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
— American Declaration of Independence.
Few documents capture the Enlightenment quite like the Declaration of Independence. The writing as well as the act of rebellion both illustrate the value systems of the time.
The world of the 17th and 18th centuries was changing rapidly. Throughout Europe and the Americas, science and the pursuit of knowledge was stretching the traditional structures.
Intellectuals looked to the Italian Renaissance as a source of inspiration, its art, its architecture, its fascination with science and its humanism.
Humanism and the successes of science in the Enlightenment led to the self-identification of humans as rational agents (at least male Europeans but we’ll save Postmodernism for later).
This new conception of humanity as rational rather than sinful souls fighting the battle between salvation and damnation shifted the value system of human life.
Philosophers looking back to the Roman Republic and Athens found examples of democracies and republics and heralded an age of community-driven rational individuals.
The bit about community driven individuals may sound like an oxymoron to modern thinkers but there’s no doubt that the Enlightenment held values of community cohesion and the “brotherhood of mankind.”
(. . .saving Postmodernism for later.)
From this age, we get our love of science, our republics, and the beginning of a global vision, not to mention an extreme optimism.
It can not be stressed enough that at the core of these philosophies was the concept of human rationality and its ability through science and mastery of the world to bring about a greater age; an age with the goals of knowledge, freedom, and happiness.
For the most part, I think this how people of the Enlightenment really saw themselves.
While Postmodernism will challenge the reality of these noble goals and their implementation I believe a challenging of the intention is disingenuous. (At least for the most part.)
The difficulty is that later searches into the human mind via analytical, behavioral, and neural psychology show that people aren’t rational all the time. We have blind spots, biases, cognitive dissonance.
As we’ll see with Modernism in the arts, the world of the 19th and 20th centuries came to see the Enlightenment and Philosophical Modernism as naive due to their lack of self-knowledge and the limits of our rationality.
Modernism, trauma, and the amygdala.
But the one thing you should not do is to suppose that when something is wrong with the arts, it is wrong with the arts only.
— Attributed to Ezra Pound.
The Modernist movement of the arts took a drastic turn from that of the Enlightenment.
It was believed that older traditions of art couldn’t keep up with the industrialization and globalization of the world. They were dying and something new, something stimulating had to be found.
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter. . .
— T.S. Elliot Wasteland.
This dissatisfaction with the past only found greater footing after the chaos and trauma of the first world war.
Poets like Ezra Pound and T.S. Elliot felt the collective depression of the war and wanted a break with the past. In a sense, Modernism grew up from the disillusionment of a generation coping with PTSD and rapid social change.
Descriptions of its artistic style reflect those of PTSD experiences.
T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland with its broken narrative and search for meaning in a spiritually starved landscape captures the spirit of the time.
From Ezra Pound to H.D., Goya to Salvador Dali, Picasso to Antonin Artaud, E.E. Cummings to Kurt Vonnegut there is a theme of fracturing, a breaking down of time, a queerness to spatial relation, a questioning of identity, a loss of meaning, a searching for something undefined.
All common experiences of those suffering from PTSD. The hippocampus is responsible for the tracking of time, for memory, and location.
The frontal lobe tends to handle our self-identity and cognition. These are some of the systems of the rational mind. The functions of the brain that the Enlightenment philosophers celebrated.
These are also the parts of the brain that are most overwhelmed and possibly damaged by trauma, stress, isolation, and depression.
All experiences that ran rampant through the World Wars.
What begins to rule the mind in trauma and stress is the amygdala which captures a scattering of sense impressions from traumatic events. It then spends its time looking for signs of these “triggers.”
What results is a fractured relationship to time, the environment, and oneself.
Of course, the artists didn’t know this. Psychology was just beginning, Freud is one of the Modernist thinkers.
People were simply trying to put their lives back together. As many do when recovering from trauma they began to re-examine their lives.
The Modernist era is noted for its self-consciousness.
The Enlightenment saw itself as the pinnacle of human endeavors, it was the apex of civilization. As such there wasn’t a push for personal or cultural analysis. The focus was on the world external, natural law, the exploration of the world via science, new forms of government, eyes on the future.
With Modernism, the eyes turned in, began to critique. There was a self-consciousness about form in art. People mixed mediums, traditions, Ezra was famous for mixing cultural forms from around the world.
T.S. Elliot and H.D. summoned mythological and esoteric themes from the past, mixed them together into new blends. Picasso mastered a variety of styles before he began to create his own.
E.E. Cummings challenged notions of punctuation and grammar.
Freud questioned the conscious rationality of humans as he explored the unconscious and mythology.
Philosophers reexamine assumptions in economics, social and political philosophy, they reexamined human nature.
This self-consciousness certainly fits the experience of people wrestling with depression, PTSD, anxiety, and it even led to grand narratives in the way that trauma survivors often come to their own “epiphanies.”
Modernism, post-traumatic growth, and our narratives.
From this we learn how the spirit of the depths considers the soul: he sees her as a living and self-existing being, and with this he contradicts the spirit of this time for whom the soul is a thing dependent on man, which lets herself be judged and arranged, and whose circumference we can grasp. I had to accept that what I had previously called my soul was not at all my soul, but a dead system. . .
—Carl Jung. The Red Book.
Post-traumatic growth isn’t nearly as popular a subject as post-traumatic stress but as someone who has experienced trauma himself and works with others on their trauma, I’m here to say it definitely exists.
Traits often associated with post-traumatic growth are: a greater appreciation of life; a changed sense of priorities; warmer, more intimate relationships; greater sense of personal strength; and recognition of new possibilities or paths for one’s life and spiritual development.
These arise from the search for meaning, for the healing that occurs when wrestling with trauma.
I would like to add to the list above that we often walk away with grand narratives based on what we found while searching.
It is these narratives that compose the second defining point of Modernism. Not only is it a self-conscious break with the past to create something new but it is recognizable by the ways it explains the world through new narratives.
We have Nietzche’s will to power and the conflict with old “thou shalts,” Freud’s unconscious and sexual repression, Jung’s archetypes, Marx’s narrative of class struggle.
All answers to why the world is less than rational.
All similar to the stories we tell ourselves after trauma, “it was God’s will,” “karma,” “a spiritual contract I signed,” “shit luck,” “random statistics,” “a result of a failing society.”
Postmodernism, Science, and Depression.
. . .the historical audit brings so much to light which is false and absurd, violent and inhuman, that the condition of pious illusion falls to pieces. . .
— Friedrich Nietzsche. Thoughts Out of Season, Part Two, The Use and Abuse of History.
I hope you’re enjoying my narrative of the traumatic effects of the World Wars and the way they broke down the optimism of the Enlightenment.
Postmodernism, however, would claim that this is simply a narrative, a story I tell myself to make sense of a world I can’t possibly understand.
In a way its a scientific necessity, reminding us that our models don’t always work.
Postmodernism takes note that the Enlightenment thinkers thought they understood the world, thought they were rational but that mistaken thought led to the blindness that preceded the horrors of the World Wars and economic collapse.
While the Modernists explained this catastrophic away according to their narratives and pet theories the Postmodernists aren’t taking chances.
The Scientific Method calls for an examination of our cognitive bias. Postmodernism in its own is an answer to that call.
It challenges the basic premises of Modernist theories and narratives by exploring their cognitive bias.
If we’re going to break with Postmodernism and keep with my narrative of trauma Postmodernism is what results when you not only have two World Wars but a Cold War to boot.
Most people begin to heal from stress and trauma when they’ve gotten some space and distance from it.
The generation of the Cold War never got this luxury. It was WWI, Great Depression, WWII, Cold War.
This is where pessimism sets in, or as anyone in the throws of depression will tell you “the reality of the world is made clear,” but it’s cold, it’s cruel, and its bitter.
While Modernists challenged the concept of humans as being purely rational agents and posited a host of things that condition us from the economic division of labor to the unconscious; Postmodernism challenges our ability to understand anything at all.
In a way it is a philosophical skepticism and if we wanted to create a narrative of it having ancient roots we could go back to Pyrrho or even Socrates and ask “how do you know it’s the unconscious?”
“How do you know it’s the division of labor?”
“How do you know it’s the old rule systems, a repression of the will to power?”
Whether scientific method or depression Postmodernism is a challenge of our ability to see the world as it truly is and in its more extreme cases it’s a skepticism of whether the world really is.
Critical Theory, Marxism, and Peterson.
The development of modern art with its seemingly nihilistic trend towards disintegration must be understood as the symptom and symbol of a mood of universal destruction and renewal that has set its mark on our age.
This mood makes itself felt everywhere, politically, socially, and philosophically.
— Carl Jung. Civilization in Transition.
When Jordan Peterson speaks of Postmodern Neo-Marxism he’s essentially speaking an oxymoron.
Marxism is based on a narrative with the assumption that we are capable of understanding the particular pressure of the division of labor in society and history and its effects upon us.
Postmodernism would challenge that narrative as well as our ability to understand the system at all.
A theory closer to what Jordan Peterson is claiming is that of Critical Theory but for the most part, he seems unaware that the theory exists.
A google search of Critical Theory and Jordan Peterson pulls up a video of someone explaining Critical Theory to him. . . in a rather bias way.
Critical Theory arises from Western Marxists in the Frankford school. Please note these are not Communists. They’re not looking to install Mao or Stalin but they are looking for a social revolution. (Not necessarily bloody.)
Critical Theory seeks to assess and critique society and culture with the goal of social liberation.
In essence, it takes the skepticism of Postmodernism and gives to it a goal, social liberation. This shifts the Postmodern tendency for general narrative negation into a tool used to challenge systems of oppression.
The Good of Critical Theory.
In the making of scientific theories and concepts many personal and accidental factors are involved. There is also a personal equation that is psychological and not merely psychophysical.
— Jung, C. G. Psychological Types.
The main tenants of Critical Theory are as follows.
- Critical social theory should be directed at the totality of society in its historical specificity (i.e. how it came to be configured at a specific point in time), and
- That critical theory should improve understanding of society by integrating all the major social sciences, including geography, economics, sociology, history, political science, anthropology, and psychology.
Essentially Critical Theory is the analysis of “analysis,” theories, ideas, and interpretations of events based on a cross-disciplinary approach.
This cross-disciplinary approach is used to facilitate critiques or analysis of the other disciplines and disclose the ways each creates their own disciplinary bias in relation to social, cultural, political, etc. understanding.
In this way, it is Postmodern due to its scientific attempt to reveal cognitive bias.
Where it becomes Marxist is in its goal of liberation.
Essentially Critical Theory seeks to liberate the human population from the cognitive biases that allow for abuses of power through manipulated narratives and propaganda.
While the theory is inspired by Marx and pushes for liberation it does not have the goal of creating a Communist state or tyranny, in fact, much of its analysis is the dissection and criticism of the narratives that went into fashioning Communism.
Further, as Peterson often charges Postmodern Neo-Marxists (closest thing to that reality being Critical Theory) with the accusation they are trying to destroy Western Civilization it is important to remember Critical Theory arises from Western Philosophy.
It was generated in Europe and arises from the philosophical dialogue of the West in relation to society, meaning, and relativity. Particularly in the face of trauma and disaster.
This is where Peterson has valid point, Critical Theory does seek to change society and undermine the way it has previously functioned.
This comes from Critical Theory’s premise that much of Western Society (like many societies) is unstable and oppressive.
Once again this is part of a continuous dialogue exploring how situations like the World Wars, Great Depression, and Cold War happen.
In modern Critical Theory, this also explores the environmental degradation that has resulted from industrialization, the break down of cultures as a product of imperialism and globalization, as well as the economic, political, and lived oppression, exploitation, and violence perpetrated by Western empires upon the rest of the world.
As a result of this analysis, Critical Theory comes to the conclusion that Western paradigms and systems suffer from a host of flaws.
Personally, I don’t find this a weak point of Critical Theory.
I mean the West fought itself into a traumatized bloody pulp and dragged the rest of the world into it. It then proceeded to risk nuclear annihilation based on the ideological and government differences that the West itself generated.
All of that was after the mass genocide and enslavement of much of the world through imperialism.
The difficulty that arises with Critical Theory is that it rarely if ever presents a solution and thus while it is undermining flawed systems by critiquing their failures it isn’t actually creating new systems that work better.
Critical Theory and education. Common Misconceptions.
My international relations education was based on Critical Theory and I have the hundreds of units (not to mention the debt) to prove it.
The cross-disciplinary analysis allows for an incredibly vast perspective of the world.
When done right this perspective is not only great in scope but great in depth. Each one of the above academic disciplines is used to review and analyze the others. Many of my classes were taught by multiple professors so they could illustrate the various viewpoints of their discipline in relation to the others.
The key focus was on data analysis and a mindfulness of cognitive bias. We studied absurd amounts of data and were forced to create our own analysis of that data.
Free thought was encouraged and positive Western values were reinforced which breaks with the common misconceptions of Postmodern Neo-Marxism (read Critical Theory).
The accusations being:
- It discourages free thought (due to political correctness).
- It is morally relative.
- It loathes Western values.
- It is being forced upon students everywhere.
We’ll skip the fact that if a theory is morally relative it wouldn’t have a political correctness to invoke and get to the main points.
Critical Theory does discourage certain types of thinking, theories like racial or cultural superiority are frowned upon. This is because narratives that can lead to oppressive rhetoric are discouraged due to the historical evidence that theories like these produce massive amounts of harm and haven’t shown any benefit.
Unless of course, you cite the cognitive dissonance that allows for the oppression of others and the building of empire. This cognitive dissonance however and the suffering it causes violates Critical Theory’s morals.
Morals based on the Western values of Liberty, Happiness, and Freedom.
I was repeatedly reminded that while we need to maintain cultural relativity in order to better understand how a culture comes to be as it is we should always maintain our own ethics and values.
For example, we can come to understand why societies have developed the practice of headhunting, however, we are discouraged from every head hunting because ethically taking a life is generally wrong.
In a similar way, we can look at the historical development of India’s caste systems, the oppression of women in Saudia Arabia, the discrimination against Irish immigrants in the United States, the genocide of Native Americans, Jews, Armenians, Palestinians, Chinese and analyze how this came to be; the economic and social-political conditions that created the environment, the cultural and historical conditions as well as the narratives, propaganda, and actual means of perpetuation.
When analyzing this data we need to be able to see what is actually happening, a cultural bias would only lead to a cognitive bias, this cognitive bias then leads false narratives.
We blame it on a simplistic model of racial discrimination or class warfare, we blame it on barbarianism or a lack of cognitive evolution, we blame it on the devil.
Cultural bias gets in the way of our analysis so we have to be able to extinguish it, hence cultural relativity. Once again it was strictly stressed that cultural relativity does not mean ethical relativity.
In the end genocide, discrimination, and oppression are wrong.
While Postmodernism would allow for moral relativity due to its questioning of the validity of any premise the Marxian narrative of Postmodern Neo-Marxism (read Critical Theory) invokes ethical values.
I understand that people like Jordan Peterson lay the atrocities of Communism at the door of Marxism but Marx died decades before any communist state was created.
A Critical Theory review of Communism would say that its leaders manipulated Marxist ideas as propaganda to ferment a revolution that then led to a despotic government.
That despotic government, the USSR, for instance, was morally wrong in their subjugation and murder of people. Further, they didn’t hold to actual Marxist theory as capitol was never in the hands of the laborers but rather the political elite.
The association of Marxism and its moral values with Communism is simply poor scholarship and illustrates bias on the part of the accuser.
For instance, while the Nazis used Nietzsche's philosophies of the Uberman and the will to power in order to justify the Holocaust and WWII, Peterson doesn’t accuse Nietzsche’s philosophies of leading to mass genocide.
This is because just like Marx, Nietzsche died before his philosophies were twisted by tyrants to ferment atrocities.
It seems that Jordan Peterson can understand this with his favored philosophies but fails to understand this with Marxism.
To own my own bias let me say now that I’m incredibly thankful for my Critical Theory education even as I realize it caused some difficult psychological consequences.
In counter to Peterson’s other point that Critical Theory or Postmodern Neo-Marxism is being pushed on students everywhere, I would like to note that mine was a very specialized education and is not the prominent means of educating students.
My friends in biology, education, history, and business weren’t covering Critical Theory and if they ran across it, it was a small section of an elective they soon forgot.
And because I’m crazy I combined international relations with another major in analytic philosophy and can attest it never covered Critical Theory. Mainly it ruminated in Modernist and Enlightenment theories and skirted around Postmodernism with a professor who did her best to throw in some Continental, Ancient and Medieval Philosophy.
To be honest I was thoroughly bored of the Modernist and Enlightenment theories which seemed outdated in light of modern biology, neurology, and physics but the old Modernist and Enlightenment analytic philosophy is still standard fare in the United States.
Challenging Jordan Peterson’s narratives that the culture of Western Civilization is being undermined by Postmodernism.
What did Critical Theory do for/to me?
… he who destroys illusions in himself and others is punished by the ultimate tyrant, Nature.
— Friedrich Nietzsche. Thoughts Out of Season, Part Two, The Use and Abuse of History.
Critical Theory helped facilitate my mental breakdown. It also helped to save my life. . . in a way.
The mental breakdown was bound to happen one way or another due to plenty of trauma but the stress of analyzing the world, its history, politics, and systems while focusing on oppression, exploitation, and human suffering didn’t help with my depression.
The questioning of everything I believed in when coming from a conservative Christian family definitely added more stress to my breakdown but also caused the abandonment of beliefs that had lead to suicide attempts and a lack of mental health treatment.
My parents simply didn’t believe in things like bipolar or trauma. To them these were excuses liberals made for evil behavior.
I sure showed them. . . with depression, bipolar, trauma, addiction, and a full mental breakdown.
Critical Theory allowed me to process their understanding of the world without cognitive or cultural bias while understanding that I didn’t have to hold to that same beliefs as them as long as I was still moral.
This helped me seek medical treatment, which didn’t work but started my path exploring other options.
The skill of researching vast data on a wide spectrum while creating a meta-analysis helped me piece together information ranging from nutrition to neurology, Jungian and behavioral psychology, anthropological exploration, biohacking, and spiritual traditions.
If I hadn’t challenged my own cognitive bias through Critical Theory’s cultural relativity I would never have broken out of my parent’s particular culture.
I tried to kill myself when I saw the world the way my parents did. There was no room for me there and there were no tools to help me with my depression, trauma, or bipolar.
Critical Theory helped me break out of this mindset while still realizing how and why my parents hold it. It gave me the tools I need to explore new options as well as the cognitive space to implement them.
Now I’m mainly depression free after two and a half decades of wrestling with it. It’ll pop up once or twice a year for a day or two and I know it won’t stay. So I work on breathing and exploring any deeper messages that come with the intense apathy or writhing in misery.
I’ve overcome my addictions and my manic episodes are minimal. They happen once or twice a year for a couple hours or maybe a day and I no longer destroy my life while depressed or manic.
This was without medication, something my psychiatrist said would be impossible as he loaded me up with hundreds of mg of pharmaceuticals until my pharmacist said he couldn’t fulfill my prescription due to its toxicity level.
Critical Theory taught me how to think for myself and when I got out of the ER from withdraws and my psychiatrist refused to explore other options, I began to explore those other options by myself with great success.
Now I can stand and say (or sit type) that Critical Theory both contributed to and helped me overcome my mental breakdown. This ability to critique multiple narratives and find both the pros and cons is something I also attribute to Critical Theory’s analysis and checks against cognitive bias.
Still, I don’t believe Critical Theory is enough to make for a better life or society. It acted as a tool to break down the parts of my social conditioning that were no longer serving me and open up new doors and exploration into fields that could help me.
What did the actual saving wasn’t Critical Theory but the other theories and philosophies I came to embody.
Why we need more than Critical Theory.
Through his inner vision the prophet discerns from the needs of his time the helpful image in the collective unconscious and expresses it in the symbol: because it speaks out of the collective unconscious it speaks for everyone-le vrai mot de la situation!
— Carl Jung, Letters Vol. 1
Critical Theory is perfect for breaking down the old things that no longer serve.
Jordan Peterson does have a point however in that breaking down the old leads to chaos. If we don’t have a new system ready to go Critical Theory leaves us in an ambiguous place.
It’s not enough to break down the old if we don’t have a vision of the new.
While Critical Theory technically posits a Marxian answer for the vision of the new much of the movement’s energy is devoted to the critique of society rather than solutions.
Or at least it was, I think slowly people are coming up with answers after they pass through the world/mind breaking phase of Critical Theory.
It’s a process.
We are living in what the Greeks called the Kairos; the right moment-for a “metamorphosis of the gods,” of the fundamental principles and symbols.
This peculiarity of our time, which is certainly not of our conscious choosing, is the expression of the unconscious man within us who is changing.
— Carl Jung. Civilization in transition.
If we see Critical Theory as a tool rather than a conspiracy movement designed to overthrow the Western World we can get a sense for how people have been putting “Critical Theory” to good use for centuries.
Nietzsche who is well-liked by Jordan Peterson critiqued the old traditions of “though shalt,” which just so happens to contain all historical systems including the whole of Western society.
He believed that once these systems were abandoned people would have the experience of themselves and discover their personal power. In essence, they would be liberated a similar goal to Critical Theory.
Christ critiqued the legalism and oppressiveness of the conservative religious figures of his time.
In addition to this he challenged the rich and their preoccupation with wealth acquisition, the oppression of undesirables (prostitutes, Samaritans, and tax collectors), and the social status of everyone ranging from women to lepers and children.
He did this with the expressed goal of liberation through the self-identification of individuals being children of God and part of collective spirit and body.
Buddha challenged the caste system of India, his critique of the belief in the atman undermined the entirety of Hindu society. He then supplemented this critique with the cultivation of mindfulness as a means to reduce suffering and liberate the individual from karmic oppression.
All of these figures critiqued and undermined the dominant culture of their day. In the case of Nietzsche, his philosophy didn’t catch enough to have much result (unless we look to the Nazis) but Christ and Buddha undermined the entirety of the dominant culture of the time.
Christianity eventually changed the social structure and society of the entire world. Buddhism massively shifted and changed the culture and social structure of much of Asia and even affected European thought.
Both started as critiques of the dominant culture. Both sought to create a path of liberation. Where they went beyond Critical Theory is that they constructed a narrative that caught the minds of the masses.
Christ eventually became “the way, the truth, and the life.” This particular meme overthrew Roman paganism and extinguished the other Christian sects that held to Gnosticism.
Buddha taught non-attachment and the four noble truths.
At its best Critical Theory or Postmodern Neo-Marxism is part of a process challenging systems of oppression (like Christ, Nietzsche, and Buddha) while paving the way for a greater vision.
Critical Theory is a powerful tool that has arisen from the need for personal, cultural, and societal self-exploration.
This need is born from the Western experience of war and trauma and the disillusionment of seeing ourselves as perfectly rational.
With its roots in this dark experience of the world and the personal mind it does run the risk of invoking depression and it does have the goal of undermining many Western paradigms, thoughts, and beliefs.
If the metaphor holds true between personal trauma and societal woes this undermining of Western paradigms is akin to the overthrowing of old habits and mindsets that result from our depression or trauma that may, in fact, be the causes of much of our depression and trauma.
However, challenging and breaking down the old is only part of the process. We also have to create a new vision, a new narrative, new systems for a new world.
That is a step that Critical Theory has not been able to produce and it is the place where we need more people to focus.
Personally, I’m working on that but we’re going to need a hell of a lot more people. The demonization of an entire school of thought isn’t serving the process.
In its own way its simply a reversion of Critical Theory, a critique of a paradigm with the goal to maintain the status quo. It is neither meeting the needs of the time for a change by breaking down the old nor producing a vision of what we can change into.
We must be more than this. We must risk the entire process and discover for ourselves what we can let go and what we must create.
What are your thoughts on this?
Do you accept the narrative I spun or do you challenge it due to my clear cognitive bias?
If you’re willing to entertain the idea I’m curious what is it you could use Critical Theory to dissect in your life? And what new paradigm can you dream with which to create a better world?