Posts Tagged ‘critical theory’

England and Wales School Guidance on Lesson Materials

Banning things, silencing people. There’s a lot of that going around these days.

Barely a day goes by without the shambling, animated corpse of the left being puppeteered into calling for someone or something to be cancelled or excised. Usually for spurious reasons. The older amongst you will remember the censors tending not to come from the left, but the right.

Conservatism has never had a particularly strong relationship with freedom of expression or freedom of speech, save when its own use of these rights is threatened. The left, traditionally did have. After all, it was through the strenuous use of these rights that art, culture, politics and so on were pushed forward. It is through these rights that the battles around liberation and civil rights were won, especially those around LGBT issues.

It is painful, and perverse, to see the ‘left’ being behind so much of the censorship push these days then, people who seem to have forgotten the value of the rights that helped win all their victories, and now only seem to understand that they hold the whip. A similar problem can be seen in today’s feminism and ‘anti-racism’, both of which seem more about revenge than justice – at least in the WEIRD countries.

There has begun to be a bit of a fightback, sadly coming from the right, dressing itself up in the clothing of free speech and free expression, but not really meaning it any more than the pseudo-left does. This just means we’re going to be caught between two sets of arseholes and called either problematic or degenerate, depending which one it is having a go at you at the time.

Two things have happened now, that exemplify this problem.

On the one hand Trump has banned a loosely defined ‘Critical Race Theory’ from being promulgated in federal departments and contractors. Doubtless his motivations are sketchy, or stem from senility, but this may be one of the few decent things he’s ever done.


Because it’s bollocks.

Implicit bias training doesn’t work, racial and other sensitivity training tends to worsen work relations, not make them better, and it’s a steaming morass of terrible scholarship, fake peer review and ‘laundered ideas’.

Still, banning it rather than demonstrating it to be worthless (or even worse) doesn’t seem like the way to do it, and it’s hypocritical to be claiming to be defending free speech, free expression and the marketplace of ideas while banning discussion of something, even though it’s bollocks.

Not to mention, this is coming from a political party tied to even worse unscientific bollocks – religion.

Then we come to the UK guidance, which has been lauded, but which is even worse. Education IS the place to explore these ideas, and to expose them as being terrible, misguided bollocks (Sokal Squared being a prime example).

They’ve amended the text a couple of times now, but even so, much as with the attempted ‘Porn Ban’, which would also have banned ‘esoteric’ and ‘politically extreme’ material, this is vast overreach and rather comedically contradicts itself by simultaneously saying you shouldn’t teach XYZ while also claiming to be protecting free speech.

“If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for those we despise, we don’t believe in it at all”.

– Chomsky

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636.x600.ft.muppetsOne of the most common spurious defences against #Gamergate’s appropriate concerns about censorship is to dismiss those concerns as ‘Criticism isn’t censorship’. Now, technically, that is true, but the trouble is that what most people understand by ‘criticism’ is now what your ‘SJW’ means by it.


As most of us would understand the term ‘criticism’ we would think of it in terms of ‘The analysis and judgement of the merits and faults of a literary or artistic work’. So a film critic watches a film and gives their assessment of its plot, cinematography, storytelling prowess, acting, set design and so forth. We might also think of this in terms of ‘constructive criticisms’. Offering reasoned, valid analysis with the hopes of making things better.

Art is parasitic on life, just as criticism is parasitic on art.
– Harry S Truman

Literary Criticism

Literary criticism, by contrast, is ‘The study, evaluation, and interpretation of literature.’ While it’s called literary criticism, it can be applied to many different art forms including games and films. The emphasis is on interpretation. The trouble with literary criticism, and the related field of literary theory, is that it is all completely subjective – sometimes wilfully so – and as such its interpretations are only really true for the individual applying it. They can tell you essentially nothing about the work itself, only about the person doing the interpreting.

Literary theory is essentially a set of ‘lenses’ through which literary criticism can be applied. A literary critic using feminist theory, for example, might subject a piece of art to examination based on the Bechdel test or unsupported hypotheses such as objectification. Obviously, to use these lenses it to deliberately and wilfully invite a huge amount of subjective bias, something not normally invoked in any serious study or academic discipline, which usually strives for objectivity – insomuch as is possible.

Literary criticism need not be entirely useless. It may be able – in aggregate – to help us understand how people interpret different symbols, metaphors, similes, music, palettes etc, but in individual cases it remains largely useless (save for understanding the critic) and relies overmuch on the arrogant conceit of ‘death of the author’.

Isaac Asimov repeated in several places an anecdote based on this: He once sat in (in the back of a large lecture hall, so semi-anonymously) on a class where the topic of discussion was one of his own works. Afterward, he went up and introduced himself to the teacher, saying that he had found the teacher’s interpretation of the story interesting, though it really wasn’t what he had meant at all. The teacher’s response was “Just because you wrote it, what makes you think you have the slightest idea what it’s about?”

Critical Theory

Critical theory is defined (OED) as: ‘A philosophical approach to culture, and especially to literature, that considers the social, historical, and ideological forces and structures which produce and constrain it.’

As with literary criticism (to which critical theory is in part related) the problem with this is that it tells you more about the critic (or the ideology they are using) than the subject of the criticism itself. This philosophical lens that they apply is distorting to such a degree that it can only really tell you something useful about a product that derives from that same philosophical basis.

Critical theory is also steeped in Cultural Marxism, stemming as much of it does, from the Frankfurt School of sociopolitical thought. As such it was originally predicated upon the idea that fictional and cultural constructs are operating tools of oppression that shape a culture, rather than deriving from it. In cases of cults, closed societies or propagandist totalitarianism this may be valid, but in a pluralistic media landscape it’s clearly nonsense.

Modern critical theory, at least as applied by activists, applies the same idea to a wide variety of different causes and ideologies and takes it further. Any examination or attempts to understand the topic in question are to be ‘deplatformed’ lest they cause damage.


True, actual, criticism strives for objectivity and distance. It assesses an artistic artefact on its own terms and adjudges its success. Some of these matters are subjective, some are objective (especially when it comes to games).

Literary criticism is entirely subjective and as such can tell you little or nothing about the artefact or product in question – and a great deal about the critic. Literary criticism is not ‘this is…’ but rather ‘I think…’ or ‘this made me feel…’ This has no real place in a consumer review and is of the quality and type you’d get in a small conversation with friends.

Critical theory only tells you about the ideology of the critic, not the quality, intent, execution or true nature of the artefact being assessed. It’s literary criticism writ large. Of the three literary criticism is probably the most ‘problematic’ (to coin a phrase) as it relates media content to real social problems, apparently as a means of justification for not liking something. As such it transmutes a matter of taste into a matter of policy, which is then used to justify censorship, control and limitation.

Lit crit and crit theory have their place in commercial product assessment – in editorials. If you want to know about the actual product, stick with those who simply and purely are critics.

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