Critical theory is a fun little tool that will get you published, maybe even laid on a college campus, but not much else. Pick whatever you wish off the shelves of any Left-leaning library and run with it. If you should be endowed with better-than-average literary chops, you might even be able to secure tenure, or the next best thing: a well-trafficked web-log. Although it stands to reason that there have been critical theorists over the past century who genuinely believed that their largely masturbatory pet projects were actually in the service of “human liberation” (whatever that means), the harsh reality is that most of what emerged from, and following, the so-called “Frankfurt School” remains a niche academic interest for graduate students who don’t really understand life and undergraduates who understand neither life nor the theories that ostensibly elucidate it. Rather, under the critical gaze, all of life is reduced to a series of power struggles, deceptions, interpersonal conflicts, and epistemological anarchy and communication becomes little more than an empty exchange of jargon-filled platitudes parading as insights.
Had I, more than a decade ago upon leaving undergrad, thought that I would still be running across the critical-theory crowd, I might have been inclined to go live in a shack in Montana. It had been my assumption that children’s things would no longer be relevant once I entered the “real world,” and for a time my “real world” was legal academia as both a student and faculty fellow. Sure, legal studies, like most disciplines at one time or another, flirted with critical theory, but by the time I was hard at study that movement had been suffocated by the equally noxious “Law & Economics” movement (one, which I am sorry to say, I actually got behind). Penning law-review pieces that quoted Marx, Horkheimer, Barthes, Habermas, etc. stopped being “edgy” 25 years ago. Sure, for obvious reasons there was still room for some Foucault, but who today wants to admit they spend serious time with the likes of Catharine McKinnon, Duncan Kennedy, and Roberto Unger?
I write this despite the fact several acquaintances of mine believe that what we need now more than ever is a refresher on critical theory, specifically its roots and the social movements some believe it inspired. I imagine this sentiment has emerged out of a general frustration with the contemporary Left, specifically the contemporary young Left and its obsession with the pettiest form of identity politics and melodramatic declarations of oppression. Although less visible, and probably not front-and-center in the mind of any Leftist, is the small but apparently growing body of Christian Leftists who, in an often confused and contradictory manner, adopt what they think is a Leftist posture in order to make themselves appear relevant in a cultural milieu that really has no interest whatsoever in what “Jesus Kids” have to say about poverty, racism, war, and so forth. Might it not be possible, some hope, for the Left to be reinvigorated by a return to a more serious time, a period when critically engaging the world and its power structures meant more than sending out Tweets and discussing “polity” with your fellow white, Ivy League graduates?
Maybe, but it seems to me that a return to seriousness is a return to the days when men would kiss their wives, hug their children, and take to the streets, mountainsides, or forests with knives, guns, and Molotov cocktails to not simply “make a point” but literally take apart the machinery of their misery. Not that I endorse such a course of action, mind you, at least not for all of the purposes and interests that often motivated such otherwise well-meaning men, but there is a great deal to be said for having, as they say, “skin in the game.” For nearly a century, a good number of anarchists, communists, and socialists of all shapes and sizes had a great deal of “skin in the game”; if you don’t believe me, just spend a bit of time perusing the history of Western Europe and the United States from the 19th Century onward. Tales of government-backed manipulation, maiming, and murder—all in the name of upholding the fruits of liberalism—fill the history books or, rather, ought to. Actually, what fills the history books even to this day is one long lie about the “progress” of human history and our arrival at its “absolute moment,” an era of unfettered access to porn, booze, and reality television.
During long stretches of highway driving, or even in just a quiet moment of personal reflection taken while in line to buy cigarettes, I have found myself wondering that if/when the “revolution” comes, who will be lined up against a wall and shot first: Me or the coffee-shop commie kid? I jest. There is no revolution coming, at least not from the Left. The steady erosion of life—its meaning and transcendence—that is and has always been part of the liberal project will likely continue unabated during my sojourn on this earth. To hope for anything else seems unreasonable, and yet it is terrifically easy to imagine three or four moves on the global chessboard that could quickly turn the relative passivity of Western (post)modern existence into a bloodbath. Perhaps that’s already happening and for reasons which are still unclear to me, I don’t want to see it.