The Nuclear Bombs of Criticism, A History Boy, 19/12/2015

The discussions I took part in at Jockey Club, the flat hierarchy philosophy club of Memorial University's philosophy department, were tremendously influential on a lot of my life, the way I think, and the way I approach teaching and educating. 

They taught me to be open-minded and interested in whatever came my way, that there was value and something to learn from every tradition and style of thought. But it also taught me that critique was equally necessary for a thinker and an approach to maintain itself. Neither close yourself off, nor accept everything without forethought.

University of Chicago's Lisa Ruddick
I remembered those lessons when I was reading this article about the ethical dissonance that many young practitioners in literary theory experience. The whole article by Lisa Ruddick lays out the problem quite comprehensively.  But here's my short version.

Even on top of the institutional pressures of the insane academic labour market and university research funding economy today, they feel pressure to write using a particular theoretical framework. And that framework leaves them anxious, adrift, and a little terrified.

The intense humming of literary theory. Literary criticism’s tools have become nuclear bombs, weapons of political mass destruction that – no matter the progressive aims of its users – destroys everything in their wake.

Sounds crazy, but have a look at Ruddick’s article and I think you’ll see what I mean.

Ruddick even starts her article describing how many young practitioners of literary theory sense “an immorality they can’t put their finger on” in professional discourse. This immorality is in the fundamental presumptions of the analytic framework. The major publications require sticking to a particular model.

Ruddick calls such a theory an anti-humanism that “make[s] ruthlessness look like sophistication.” In the name of destroying old moral and political idols like essential gender identity, disciplinary cultural critics let theoretical analysis blind themselves to real cruelty.

She sticks to examples, hoping that the concept will be clear from the cases. Ruddick describes an essay by Judith Halberstam that describes Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill as a heroic figure for his deconstruction of binary and essentializing gender identity.*

* I encourage you to read Ruddick’s entire essay, as it contains examples that are even more disturbing when you think them through.

Ruddick wants us to understand how inherently horrible
it is to venerate a fictional serial killer as a hero for
his transgressions against essentializing conceptions
of gender and identity.
Murdering women, flaying their skin from the corpses, and wearing them as his own deranged gender transition is analyzed as a heroic act because of how it breaks down a human gender binary that’s oppressive when it’s taken as essential, eternal, and unchanging. Yes, it’s a fictional story, but . . . . 

Western culture’s liberal mainstream of political philosophies and presumptions has many problems, and many vectors of oppression. Most of these are rooted in liberalism’s veneration of the individual: 

a) entirely self-possessed, a stable personal identity;
b) freedom as the total autonomy from community (to the point where moral obligation itself is oppressive);
c) an uncritical embrace of the free market (which ignores the problems of venerating greed and understanding only individual injustice instead of the systemic as well).

But this anti-liberal attitude that sees any assault or critique of essentialist individualism as good also blinds you to real injustice. In the case of Halberstam’s essay, it turns a fictional serial killer into a heroic figure in the crusade against the oppression of gender essentialism.

The notion that people have any kind of genuine psychological self-cohesion is understood as a control mechanism. Attacks on essentialism of the individual can be useful in many circumstances. Trans people, for example, have benefited greatly from popular understanding that gender isn’t an essential binary.

But applied to all circumstances requiring liberation, such a principle can blind you to real injustices, and worse, justify real material violence as liberation.

Theory becomes a form of silencing. Instead of listening to the narratives of people who’ve suffered violence that assaulted or shattered their identity, the uncritical critic praises that violence as having attacked and eroded the oppression of essence itself.

While we sit proud of our theory’s power, a real victim weeps, ignored.

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