Alex Payne is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.

since 2001, has served as his online home.

Critical Analysis by Arbitrary Theoretical Filter

I’ve been thinking a lot about the human need to systematize, and it usually just leaves me irked.

I grew up in an academic household. I remember my mother coming home from MLA one year and describing an amazingly boneheaded paper. The gist: why early female playwright Aphra Behn must have been black because her name sounds like “Africa.”

This sort of thing happens when a critic’s desire to employ her theory of choice outweighs any intellectual principles. In the above case, the academic in question was desperate to apply a cultural studies/postcolonial critical approach to a controversial figure in theater history. See also: gender studies approaches to the Bard yielding curricula on “Shakesqueer”.

I find it useful to imagine theories as big rusting filthy filters like something off the set of Brazil. Culture and history goes in the top, bullshit comes out the back. Remember the filters when you hear phrases like “Marxist reading” or “postmodernist deconstruction.” Translate to “critic can’t come up with own idea” and you just might be able to survive academic jargon.

When I first started pouring through my mom’s university bookshelf in middle school, it seemed like this brand of intellectual output was safely quarantined to small academic presses. Looking around any chain bookstore today, though, it essentially dominates the non-fiction section. Book after book that’s nothing more than theory/worldview(input) = output.

The worth of systematizing the world seems to be in breaking down complex problems into manageable chunks; that makes sense to me, as a programmer. But we’ve reached a state of systematization for its own sake, a cluttered attic of theories toward no practical humanist end. It’s intellectual partisanship, I guess, and it leaves me as unsatisfied as its political counterpart.

Projects, and What Does Ruby Development Support on the Mac Really Mean?

C4-[1]: Cabel Sasser on Coda