Social Justice Usage
Source: Brian McHale. The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodernism. Cambridge University Press, 2015, p. 48.
With the arrival of poststructuralism in North America, “[T]heory” was born, in the freestanding sense of the term that became so familiar in subsequent decades: not theory of this or that—not, for instance, theory of narrative, as structuralist narratology aspired to be—but theory in general, what in other eras might have been called speculation, or even indeed philosophy.
Source: Brian McHale. The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodernism. Cambridge University Press, 2015, p. 97
“[T]heory” itself, in the special sense that the term began to acquire from the mid-sixties on, is a postmodern phenomenon, and the success and proliferation of “theory” is itself a symptom of postmodernism.
Source: Brian McHale. The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodernism. Cambridge University Press, 2015, p. 172
“[T]heory” itself has survived down to the new millennium. If it is less conspicuous now than it was in the peak years of postmodernism in the seventies and eighties, this is only because it has become so pervasive as to pass largely unnoticed. Since the late eighties, “theory” has especially animated the discourses of feminism, gender studies, and sexuality studies, and it underwrites what has come to be called “cultural studies.”[NB: Brian McHale is a literary critic who is describing the postmodern influence of “Theory” here, so these examples aren’t technically “Social Justice usage,” although this book is an introduction to postmodern Theory. Also, we use a convention of capitalizing Theory, as it is a proper noun, though this is not a consistent convention within circles that traffic in it.]
New Discourses Commentary
Theory—treated as a proper noun and thus capitalized—is an appropriate catch-all term for the thinking behind Critical Social Justice, especially at the academic level. It is the set of ideas, modes of thought, ethics, and methods that define Critical Social Justice in both thought and activism (that is, theory and praxis). In a meaningful way, Theory is the central object—the canon and source of further revelation of canon—of Critical Social Justice. That is, Theory is the heart of the worldview that defines Critical Social Justice. In shortest expression, Theory is a shorthand way to say “critical postmodern theory.”
It is worth pausing to explain where Theory came from, even just the term. Obviously, it is called “Theory” because it is theoretical in orientation (in the philosophical sense, and even somewhat in the social-scientific sense, but not in the hard scientific sense). The term can be understood to be a contraction made in summary and simplification of several theoretical academic approaches at once, including literary theory, Critical Theory (of the Frankfurt School – see also, Marxian, Neo-Marxism, Cultural Marxism, and New Left), and other critical theories that are sometimes but not always derived from those or from Marxist, Marxian, or Post-Marxist thought. These especially include the critical methods of the postmodern approach, which is ultimately simultaneously Post-Marxist and structuralist/poststructuralist). These, particularly, adapted certain among the critical methods to the concept of systemic social power (see also Foucauldian, episteme, hegemony, biopower, and power-knowledge) and systems of language (see also, Derridean and deconstruction), and largely arose out of the (mostly discredited) French theory of structuralism (see also, poststructuralism).
As Brian McHale notes in the examples above, this poststructuralist influence is key to the formation of “Theory,” which places postmodernism at the center of Theory, even while it plainly has adopted and adapted many features of Critical Theory and methods of critical literary theory. In some sense, then, it is appropriate to think of the term Theory as shorthand for “postmodern critical theory,” which many philosophers take pains to deny exists.
In another similar sense, it is appropriate to think of the term Theory as shorthand for critical literary theory as applied to reading everything in society as though it is a text and thus suitable for linguistic deconstruction. This derives from the expansive postmodern understanding of “text,” which can include almost anything. This is because of the fact that many of the techniques in Theory derive from literary criticism (e.g., discourse analysis and close reading) and the postmodern (more accurately, poststructuralist) view that discourses define our entire understanding of material reality—and simultaneously inscribe inherent power dynamics in need of critical examination and, often, deconstruction.
In a more contemporary and slightly anachronistic sense, Theory is a summary term standing for the mode of thought common to the more specific “Theories” that have taken up its methods since the 1980s and 1990s and adapted them to social activism (particularly for doing identity politics). These include most especially including critical race Theory, postcolonial Theory, queer Theory, and critical pedagogy, and also include gender studies, fat studies, disability studies, media studies, and critical studies of X (for just about any X – see also, studies of science and technology, cultural studies, ethnic studies, feminist geography, and whiteness studies). Theory is how these think and what they do.
Of note, Theory is therefore firmly a product of the humanities, specifically demarcating the “theoretical humanities.” Importantly, this is not the same as the social sciences. Those, Theory tends to be content to let people believe it represents, but it isn’t so simple.
Social sciences like sociology, anthropology (especially cultural), and psychology have theoretical and non-theoretical divisions, and Theory can and does often bear significantly on the theoretical aspects of the social sciences in ways that can and do corrupt the fields, but all social sciences have empirical methods and a higher level of rigor than the theoretical humanities. It would be accurate to say that the social sciences, therefore, are not “the problem” and are in desperate need of reform. That reform would begin by identifying Theory, distinguishing the social sciences from Theory, and largely quarantining Theory from the social sciences going forward.
In general, Theory is a nonscientific approach to studying the ways that systemic power exists and oppresses in society. That is, Theory is a particular kind of study of justice and injustice as those are shaped by typically vague, sometimes paranoid, usually cynical forces in society that maintain dynamics of dominance and oppression (see also, e.g., interest convergence), typically by factors of identity. Theory’s concern is identifying these power dynamics, exposing them (with explanations given in its characteristic simplistic and cynical fashion), and finding ways to change or overthrow them. In this sense, Theory explicitly sees everything as being political, even intellectual rejection or emotional reactions to its bullying methods (see also, white fragility, white woman tears, and male tears). Moreover, Theory will see the political relevance of anything as its most important, if not its only relevant, feature.
- it proposes a moral vision for society;
- it ruthlessly (following Marx) criticizes society and especially social systems and institutions for failing to live up to this vision (see also, problematize); and
- it motivates activism on behalf of identifying, disrupting, dismantling, subverting, and deconstructing the system that produces those problematics (see also, antiracism, consciousness raising, feminist consciousness, critical consciousness, and wokeness, and also, false consciousness, internalized dominance, and internalized oppression), which it also tends to see as ordinary and permanent, thus unfixable from within the system (see also, master’s tools and epistemic oppression).
This makes Theory not just radical but revolutionary, as a social revolution that remakes the system is the only way it deems it possible to create a society free of the current manifestations of systemic power.
This, in turn, means that the primary methods of Theory are (1) to look for examples of problematics and other proofs of systemic power that it assumes pervade all of social reality (therefore with profound impacts on how we understand material reality as well), and then (2) to describe those and their alleged impacts and make calls for their identification and dismantling. This is done under a heading of “identifying unexamined assumptions and hidden biases,” which, again, places it squarely in the critical tradition. Theory operates, in particular, by examining the way that knowledge and language shape and define power, which puts it in the (post)structural tradition. Thus, we can conclude against the protests of philosophers that Theory is critical postmodern theory.
In fact, Theory is most centrally concerned with the way that knowledge is socially constructed (thus not objective, in principle – see also, truth) and put into the service of power (see also, social constructivism). In fact, some Theorists (especially the critical pedagogist Joe Kincheloe) have identified the key element of Theory as possessing a “critical constructivist epistemology,” which is to say that, at a minimum, it generates and justifies its statements of “fact” from a view that sees knowledge as socially constructed and in need of critical analysis.
Theory therefore hopes to break down our reliance upon knowledge systems like reason, science, empiricism, and so on, and replace it with its own subjective views, sometimes referred to as “knowledges” obtained through “other ways of knowing” (see also, lived experience). These it deems to have been unfairly excluded from the white, cis–hetero–patriarchal, Western power structure in order to marginalize and oppress “others” (see also, epistemic injustice, epistemic oppression, and epistemic violence). It is also openly critical of—indeed hostile to—liberalism and its big themes, which it sees as myths, ideologies, and/or metanarratives that maintain dynamics of dominance and oppression (see also, human nature, equality, meritocracy, individualism, and universalism). These it replaces with its own similar sweeping concept, known as “the right side of history,” which must be understood as having been defined by Critical Social Justice and its Theory.
One important point to raise in brief here is that Theory is, in fact, critical of itself, but only in the formal sense of the word critical (see also, critical and critical theory). In effect, this means that Theory is not critical of itself in the sense we usually mean by that term—the sense we take from the common phrase “critical thinking,” which critical theory takes pains to distinguish itself from. Even this is not sufficient to explain the way that critical theory fails to be genuinely critical of itself, however.
Rather than questioning ways that Theory itself makes unexamined assumptions and carries its own biases (and metanarrative) and gains and establishes hegemonic power that it then abuses—as a critical theory should—Theory only examines (“critically”) the ways its attempted solutions aren’t able to unmake the existing systems of power or inadvertently uphold them. That is, it doesn’t question its own fundamental assumptions. Thus, rather than being self-critical in the way that liberalism is, Theory is self-critical in the sense of concentrating its core of critical theory. (This is, admittedly, confusing because of the two operating meanings of “critical” in play.)
Importantly, and finally, none of this is to say that Theory is wrong about everything. Indeed, if it were, it wouldn’t be much of a problem. The issue is that Theory very keenly identifies legitimate and important problems that it then fails to understand sufficiently (because that is not the objective of a critical method), mischaracterizes (because of its inherent cynicism, paranoia, and notions of systemic power), and offers (very) poor solutions for (because it is an inherently deconstructive and dismantling approach, not one designed to provide solutions). That is, it’s a highly theoretical approach to complaining in a very specific way, typically in an underinformed or uninformed fashion, without any intention or capacity to make or build anything novel (except training sessions designed to induce more people into critical consciousness, this currently being something like a ten-figure industry annually in the United States alone).
Take, for example, the idea of “white fragility,” which posits that because of their white privilege, white people lack the racial stamina to be able to engage authentically with the claims of critical race Theory and whiteness studies. This, it claims is a manifestation of white supremacy (see also, anti-blackness, racial contract, white solidarity, and whiteness). Under the Theoretical doctrine of white fragility, any rejection of—indeed, any reaction except positive assent and commitment to “do better”—an accusation of white complicity with systemic racism is seen as a (politicized) manifestation of that complicity. In this sense, Theory cannot even accurately understand the reasons someone might not agree with Theory (or having it pushed on them in mandatory diversity, equity, and inclusion trainings, say at work). It then mischaracterizes the reaction as political in orientation and prescribes more of the same inescapable browbeating as a solution, which can only exacerbate the problem (which evidence has begun to show to be the case).
More than this, the entire doctrine of white fragility—like many ideas in Theory—could be useful if it were correctly applied. There are good reasons to believe, for example, that many of the issues described by “white fragility” and the related concepts it puts into its service (e.g., active ignorance, willful ignorance, and so on) have a great deal of merit in certain cases where a person is highly invested in an ideological stance—indeed, especially when both authoritarian and fundamentalist about it—and hasn’t confronted real opposition to it. This could, in fact, occur with the ideology of white supremacy where it actually exists, but according to Theory, that’s everywhere, always, with near-universal complicity. This it then erroneously describes as an ideology rooted in whiteness rather than attempting to genuinely understand the phenomena at hand. (One might note also that Theory had a lot more going for the kinds of claims it makes decades or centuries ago, but because it assumes problematics in systems are permanent without a revolution, it cannot live in the current day – see also progress and progressive.) Thus, again, Theory leads itself to misunderstand valid concepts, mischaracterize the situations they describe, and then prescribe solutions that don’t fit the reality of the situation (which it, ultimately, doesn’t care about).
Active ignorance; Anti-blackness; Antiracism; Authentic; Bias; Biopower; Cisgender; Cishet; Close reading; Complicity; Consciousness raising; Critical; Critical consciousness; Critical pedagogy; Critical race Theory; Critical Theory; Cultural Marxism; Cultural studies; Deconstruction; Dismantle; Disrupt; Derridean; Disability studies; Discourse; Discourse analysis; Diversity; Dominance; Episteme; Epistemic injustice; Epistemic oppression; Epistemic violence; Equality; Equity; Ethnic studies; Exclusion; False consciousness; Fat studies; Feminist consciousness; Feminist geography; Foucauldian; Frankfurt School; Gender studies; Hegemony; Heteronormativity; Human nature; Identity politics; Ideology; Inclusion; Individualism; Injustice; Interest convergence; Internalized dominance; Internalized oppression; Justice; Knowledge(s); Liberalism; Lived experience; Male tears; Marginalization; Marxian; Master’s tools; Media studies; Metanarrative; Meritocracy; Neo-Marxism; New Left; Objectivity; Oppression; Other; Postcolonial Theory; Patriarchy; Post-Marxism; Postmodern; Poststructural; Power-knowledge; Praxis; Privilege; Problematic; Problematize; Progress; Progressive; Queer Theory; Racial contract; Racial stamina; Racism (systemic); Radical; Revolution; Right side of history, the; Science; Social construction; Social constructivism; Social Justice; Structuralism; Studies of science and technology; Subvert; System, the; Systemic power; Universalism; Text; Truth; Ways of knowing; Western; White; White complicity; White fragility; White solidarity; White supremacy; White women’s tears; Whiteness; Whiteness studies; Willful ignorance; Woke/Wokeness
Revision date: 2/20/20