Nothing is more prevalent in the contemporary academic approach to the humanities at Wesleyan, whether in the classroom or beyond, than the critical mindset: deconstructing inherited narratives in order to identify and eliminate hierarchical structures of power through means such as feminist historiography, combatting the Orientalist gaze, and introducing what postmodernists recognize as underrepresented authors and texts, has become accepted dogma. This postmodernist following of Foucault and Derrida, in its more official incarnation, can generally be characterized as critical theory and will serve as the object of this article.
It should be noted that we are not referring to critique, that is to say the employment of individual reason and open discourse to question established norms; critical theory is a political stance, an ideological force that has overtaken and reshaped the theoretical sphere. Indeed, I shall be arguing that this philosophy of deconstruction, which distances itself from the more reformist efforts of progressive modernism is, by its very nature and definition, an intellectually destructive system of thought which can, as a result, bring no positive social propositions. The contemporary intelligentsia’s obsession with fighting power has led to a total rejection of order, with a senseless moral anarchy having replaced the stride to transform society.
The absurdity of the situation is quite clear: Unlike their predecessors, students today arrive at Wesleyan with cultural lacunae that would shock any non-American, and yet, this same demographic has chosen to dedicate itself to criticize this collective knowledge unknown to them. Whereas fluency in Latin and the classical writings was once a naturally acquired prerequisite to textual engagement of any sort, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to find anyone on campus who could go beyond a painful reference to the Aeneid, if that. This continues to be the case in other nations such as France, which aims to provide communally shared knowledge the opportunity for people of all backgrounds to become social actors, a great defense of the exclusion that modernity places on culture. Virgil, Homer, Caesar, Pliny the Younger, Cicero, these of course were all old white men, the same group of people who invented colonialism, and pressed for the racial separation of society: What could one possibly learn from them besides hatred? The goal of a liberal society can only be the identification of latent oppressive influences in order to actively discard them, freeing academia from collective identity altogether.
Whereas the progressive of yesterday would collect the past surviving in the work of these authors—those who constructed our moral beliefs and thus created the society surrounding us—build upon it, and preserve its influence where it has been positive and transform it where social results have been wanting, the critical theorist rejects the paternalistic establishment in its totality. One can, in this volition, detect a hint of Marxism, classical feminism, and even a certain rationalist desire to find the most theoretically pure and understandable truth. Postmodernism can certainly be understood as a part of this progressive lineage, in that the deconstruction of power and its structural influence appears to it as the primary manner of eliminating all conclusions that were not derived from the intellectual detachment that critical theory has brought about. In Marx specifically, we can begin to see the idea of applying directly to the public sphere the abstract modeling of thought, revolution being the instrument by which the previously illogical, self-contradictory system is eliminated.
But what has survived from his critical and revolutionary approach, however, is not the discovery through the past of the true meaning of history as Marx had attempted, but the violent desire for undefined change, for novelty, and for the passion of social hatreds. Even the anti-reformist fanaticism of Marx culminated in a positive vision for society, which postmodernists see as plagued by social preconceptions and thus impure. The question of course then presents itself: What exactly is it that we are criticizing? Must one come to a university to simply attack the work of the old white men? If we are to create a totally transformed society, should we not simply return to a state of nature? A hearty book burning of Hume, Chateaubriand, and Goethe may be more productive than the employment of an obscure terminology to engage in the process of imposing ignorance. The classroom seems rather a bourgeois décor for such an ambitious venture.
The result has been, I think, a rather stagnant liberalism, whatever the excited shrieks of campus activists might have observers believe. The progressive that has read the misogynistic writings of Cato the Elder and confronted and discredited his ideas also sees the genius that allowed him to inscribe himself into the canon, a genius that goes well beyond his power as a man and that cannot solely be explained by his views on female inferiority, and through their critique, continue the relevance of him. The critical theorist will have none of this: the power that Cato possessed as a distinguished rhetorician is a direct replica of the power he held over the oppressed women of Rome. But rather than observe the beauty which this figure contributed to our society through his more collective ventures, and thus, to the distancing of man from his state of violence, we must combat male dominance through the reading of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a novel whose purpose seems to be the observation that society and men can be oppressive and mean, rather than offering a positive model to counter it. It is so much more fun to hate Donald Trump, as well as those progressive sellouts who seek to change the fundamentally evil system that gave birth to him, than to offer an alternative beyond punching white supremacists.
Critical theory has made you, intellectual work, and progressivism, irrelevant. It’s time to move on.
Mathias Valenta is a member of the class of 2020. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.