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Archive for May, 2009

One of the big frustrations of my academic career has been my uneasy relationship with critical theory.  We both seem to have always been talking at cross-purposes.   Critical theory says, “X is really important, and we must work toward it.  Y isn’t so much important as X is.”  Meanwhile, I’m thinking to myself, “X isn’t the issue, really.  It has it’s place, but Y is the really important thing that we ought to be talking about.” 

 In general, I understand and can appreciate the endeavor of critical theory, but in particular, I am often stymied by it.  I leave the piece of reading feeling like I was just examined ruthlessly by the doctor.  Exhausted, confused, and stumbling toward the kitchen for a drink of something stiffer than milk to relax my mind, I often find myself asking, “What just happened here?”  Now, the academic community is very good at posturing, and every honest academic I’ve ever met has agreed with this statement, so I keep that in mind as I think to myself, “Am I the only one who didn’t get this?”  Or, “Am I the only one who thinks that that author actually hasn’t said anything at all?”  I don’t feel this way about all critical theory; there are a few pieces of it that I do understand (I think). 

 One of the responses that I know the reader may immediately have is that of, “Oh, sure.  The white middle-class male American isn’t a fan of critical theory’s agenda; it’s just another example of hegemonic structures resisting change.”  I know this response well because it has been leveled at me many times.  But surely, this reasoning is being remarkably assumptive?  My objection (or frustration, really, since I don’t object to most of what critical theory is trying to do), is that critical theory is built on certain assumptions that I do not automatically grant.  The most significant of these humanistic assumptions is that problems that we find in our social systems can be fixed by collective and unrelenting human effort.  Humanism and critical theory assumes that the solutions to the problems can be fixed by collective human action.  This is an assumption that I do not hold, and this is the fundamental schism between critical theory and me.  I can agree with a lot (though not all) of the observations of the problems that CT expands on, and I can even agree with some of the solutions, but the ultimate political agenda of modern cultural studies and critical theory is one that I believe is ultimately lacking.  It is missing a very important component because it starts in a different place.  Humanism and modern CT starts with humanity and the problems of humanity, but my philosophy of approach is to begin with theology proper, because if we are indeed created, then WHY we exist and WHAT we are made for (what did our creator make us for) is of primary importance; indeed, all things become secondary.  My philosophical and ethical and political views spring out of a paradigm that does not begin where I see most modern critical theory beginning, and it is this difference of alignment that I believe is responsible for the phenomenon of me feeling like CT and I are talking on two different planes that do not intersect. 

 It is for this reason that while I understand some CT, some of it I do not, but almost all of it I view as practically academic and if political, possessing little long-term staying power in terms of its potency to fix the problems of the human race.  In essence, I believe that the answers to the deep problems of human dysfunction in failed social systems, inequality, bias, and hatred cannot be ultimately solved by human effort and mobilization, but by Someone greater than ourselves.  It is there that I start my philosophical and academic investigations, for it is There that I believe the Answer lies.

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A 1945 Prophet??

I am amazed by the fact that credit cards and electronic payment systems, personal computers, and the need for associative informational retrieval and search systems were talked about in 1945 by this guy.  You can read Vannevar Bush’s article “As We May Think”  in its entirety here.

 

Props to Bush...he called it!

Props to Bush...he called it!

 

 

I’m also amazed by the fact that all these things were not impossible then.  There were answers to these questions and these things could have been made with 1945 technology.  They didn’t require a technological shift.  What they did require was an infrastructure that could more cheaply produce them, the will to do it, and especially the demand to do it to get the whole ball of wax rolling.  It is significant to me that the concept behind a modern search engine like Google is not a new thing—the process and the mathematical formulas—the machines’ capacity—has been advanced significantly enough that we don’t think we’re entering codes to access specific data, but we are.  We’re entering search terms, and those are codes.  I think it’s significant to remember that retrieving information has changed and changed a whole lot, but there are fundamental concepts that have been preserved.  They are innovations, but not all innovative. 

Bush is thinking about the enterprise of not just science, but of the Academy in general.  He is thinking about the systematic study of the world and ideas.  This article, besides doing a number of other things, has humbled me by letting me see that the innovations that I think are so remarkable and show our development and application of technology to the world are perhaps not so innovative, but that we are perhaps standing on the shoulders of giants.  Even if we are merely standing on the shoulders of other people just like us, it is good to remember that the whole human enterprise of attaining knowledge is an ongoing thing.  All the things and innovations that are going on now, no matter how remarkable they seem now (or how remarkable they actually are), are pieces of a large scaffolding that mankind has almost continually been in the process of constructing.  We are not the end product of our own investigation.

For some reason, as I read this I also think of two Biblical references.  The first is the writing of the Israelite Teacher/Philosopher who wrote that “There is nothing new under the sun.”  The other is the account of the antediluvian endeavor to build a tower that reached to heaven called Babel, and the judgment that was brought against those who exercised their tower-building skills with great hubris.

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