Criticism by theory (tim dant)

Criticism by Theory

Introduction: To criticise
Marx: Alienation
Freud: Discontent
Culture and critique
Further reading

Introduction: To criticise

We criticise what we don’t agree with. When we disagree with other people’s views or actions and tell them why, we criticise them. To be critical first involves establishing a perspective, a view of the world about how it is and how it should be, including how we, and others, should act. Secondly, it involves having reasons why that perspective is appropriate, and, thirdly, it involves being willing to articulate our views and reasons so that other people hear or read about them. The act of criticism situates us in a position in the world which has interests – ours and those of others that might be different from ours – and there is a link between our interests in that world and the per-spective that we take when we are critical. The object of criticism may be the actions of another individual – as when criticising someone’s driving – or it may be of an institution or other collective of people. Criticism involves a reflection, a standing back and responding to events and actions which have occurred. But these events or actions are always those which human volition has shaped in some way because it does not make sense to criticise non-human phenomena such as the weather or a mountain. We may criticise material objects, but when we do, we are criticising their design, manufacture or use – again it is the actions of human beings that have brought that thing to look or work in the way it does.

To criticise a social formation takes criticism to another level. It suggests that cumulative human actions have led to the particular social features that we dislike, but it often involves criticising the past actions of groups of people rather than identifiable individuals – although we may identify the architects of that social formation in our criticism. For example, if we criticise the law for favouring rich people over poor, two understandings are implicit: that past human action, probably by unspecified people, has shaped the law to discriminate in such ways; and that future human action can change the law in ways that will negate our criticism. We might, for example, feel that acts of fraud and misrepresentation should be punished as harshly as acts of theft or robbery in recognition that the harm done is equivalent and that the reason
people committing the former types of crime receive lighter sentences is because they are likely to come from more privileged social strata. Without these two understandings there would be no more point in criticising the institution of the law than in criticising the weather. Of course, there is an argument that human actions have brought about changes in the weather – the debate on global warming – and we may wish to criticise those actions.

However, when we do criticise the weather, we will attempt to distinguish between what is natural and what is caused by human action. The variability of the weather is produced by long-term climatic changes as well as the continuous flow of seasonal, daily, even hourly, fluctuations; what might reasonably be the subject of criticism are those human actions that alter what was a natural system of variability.

The criticism of social formations and their processes is the stuff of politics. Politicians and electors criticise the actions of those who govern the social formation and seek changes in the law, the economy and administrative practice.