Widgets Magazine


A case for the humanities at Stanford Part I: Demystifying ‘critical theory’

Have you ever wondered what we Fuzzies do all day in the Ivory Towers of our humanities departments? Does studying English bring to mind days spent poring over the Canon (that amorphous set of Great Books decided upon by Dead White Men), waxing poetic on a whim?

Critical theory, and the humanities and social sciences more broadly, are often perceived as serious, specialized, engaging, but also arcane, elitist, unnecessarily abstract. At worst, useless.

But let me attempt to demystify “critical theory.”

In doing so, I underscore the continued importance of the humanities and social sciences, especially within Stanford’s and Silicon Valley’s tech-innovation-focused cultures.

Critical theory is a toolbox that serves as the methodological framework of the humanities and social sciences. It is a set of lenses — whether feminist, queer, racial, structural or otherwise — that allows us to examine what we do and why we do it. Critical theory engages the most fundamental questions of how our society works, and aims to shed light on (and possibly subvert) existing systems of power.

All human traditions — from weddings to funerals to college admissions — are colored by ideology, the collective set of entrenched and unexamined assumptions that weaves us together into a (mostly) cohesive society. We are all products of ideology, and indeed simply by making it to Stanford we have all successfully negotiated the power structures around us. But it would be irresponsible to ignore that the predominant ideology in contemporary American society — though changing — is Western, white and male. The perpetuation of ideological constructs like Patriarchy and Heteronormativity is incongruous with our values of liberty and justice.

Leaving ideology unquestioned is dangerous and propagates existing — and problematic — power dynamics.

Critical theory — and the humanities and social sciences more broadly — is therefore highly relevant to all of us because it fosters a community of engaged citizenship and thoughtful reflection — values at the core of Stanford’s mission in providing us with a “liberal education.”

I don’t intend to dive into the specifics or modes of “critical theory” in this piece — it is a notoriously nebulous, complex and multifarious subject, and one that I will discuss in Part II. But let me demonstrate the power of critical theory with an example:

Consider the following brief “literary” passage, which I have crafted for the purpose of example (and with minimal consideration for style):

I am tired. The early morning sun is shining through my window. I roll out of bed and into my slippers, not ready to face the day.

A simple enough passage, yes? Nothing in particular happens — just a tired character waking up in the morning, right? Perhaps literally. But let us examine this scene through a literary critical lens, and see what it can reveal.

If I were to approach this passage as a “theorist,” I would first acknowledge my assumptions: As I imagine the scene, I assume the speaker is male, though there is absolutely nothing coding for gender. I’m also aware that the speaker in my mind’s eye is white, though there is absolutely nothing coding for his race (his race! Because I’ve already subconsciously gendered him!). Why do I assume the speaker is a white male? Likely because I myself am a white male and therefore project a prefabricated identity onto a work. But when you — a woman, a person of color — read the scene, did you also imagine a white male? Maybe, maybe not, but if you did, is it because you inferred from my name that I — Mark Bessen, a white male — wrote the passage? Or for some other reason?

This type of theoretical reading of the passage underscores my own subjectivity as a reader and a human, leading to a heightened sensitivity to the systems of power operating in the world around me. Another mode of theoretical reading, commonly referred to in IHUM or PWR classes as “close reading,” lets us dig even deeper into the simple scene. We use close reading to gather information about a character (or person), as I do here: The white male self that I (the theorist) have ascribed to the passage’s “I” is likely of a comfortable class — he has a bed, a well-lit window, and even a luxury item like slippers. He may have a job — he is up at the crack of dawn against his wishes — and, to enter even greater abstraction, exists within a society in which individual personhood — his use of “I” — is a presupposition of the self, etc., etc., ad infinitum.

As I have demonstrated above, by considering even the simplest scene, whether in a work of literature or in the Real World, through a “critical” (and thereby humanist) lens, we are forced to question something about ourselves as humans. Every person on the planet has unique subjectivities — and, more profoundly, a unique self or identity. And, subconsciously or not, all of our interactions are colored by our subjectivities — our personal ideologies. These critical readings therefore demonstrate the true power of theory: to make oneself aware of the power dynamics at work in any scene, any interaction, any community.

Critical theory is a vessel, a lens through which we understand how and why we read the world the way we do. Only by exposing the mechanics of power in America can we begin to subvert and reorder those facets of our current ideology that are problematic.

This is Part I of “A case for (reform to) the humanities at Stanford.” Part II asks: Can critical theory actually do anything to enact change? And how can Stanford make critical theory and the humanities more accessible to all students? Read it on Nov. 20. 

Contact Mark Bessen at mbessen ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

About Mark Bessen

Mark is the Desk Editor of Opinions for the Stanford Daily. He is a senior studying English, working on an honors thesis on the contemporary coming-of-age novel. He is particularly interested in the narratives of minority writers in the United States (taking minority to include issues of race, class, and gender/sexuality). Contact him at mbessen@stanford.edu with comments or questions.
  • Not so critical BioE PhD stude

    You get a degree for this BS?

  • Sociology ’16

    I’m sorry, but I think this is a total mischaracterization of the humanities.

    “Critical theory” is not a linchpin toolbox for studying the humanities. Personally, I think it is a very unproductive and narrow minded way of looking at the world. The lenses you mentioned–feminist, queer, racial, structural, gender/orientation-based, etc.–all tell similar narratives and embody similar perspectives. To be blunt, they’re all minorities complaining (apologies for the oversimplification, but on the whole I’m not far off in practice). I’m not saying there isn’t value in those perspectives, but alone they build a very narrow-minded view of the world.

    It shouldn’t take a Stanford degree to figure out that there is a lot that can be appreciated in this world without involving identity politics. Ironically, it would seem that having a Stanford degree hinders rather than helps in this endeavor.

  • Mark Bessen

    Hi Sociology ’16,

    I’m absolutely not claiming that critical theory is a linchpin toolbox–just that it is a toolbox. And I believe it is at the heart of all humanities because it serves as a methodology. Yes, the lenses that I mentioned are only some of many, many that exist (and there I exposed my biased for queer/feminist/poststructuralist theory). But other lenses are part of critical theory none the less. Narratology, for example, looking at a work as a set of formal features and rhetorical strategies, is quite unconcerned with questions of identity. But it IS concerned with questions of power. How does the disenfranchised writer adapt plot differently than the linear narrative of a rich white writer? Or we could look at history as another lens. History provides us with a sequence of events, but it is up to us to process them and to retell history in a way that fairly represents all people if we are to achieve a more just society.

    Does that make sense? I’m fairly surprised to hear your resistance to this as a sociology major. I’m certainly not saying that only the lenses of critical theory that I talk about there are available to the humanities, but that critical theory itself is at the heart of any humanistic study. I, as an English major working on a project in poststructural theory, am just biased toward the types of critical theory I used as examples in the piece; I could have gone with many others.

  • Mark Bessen

    And you get a degree without ever needing to question your position in systems of power! Sounds like I’m getting the better deal, Mr. BioE.

    (But how would I know you’re a Mr. without theory?)

  • William Benjamin Shakespeare

    Aren’t you being strongly ideological by assuming the predominance of an ideology, and in trying to overcome this ideology are in fact lending the emperor clothes? What does it mean for an ideology to be predominant? How can we assume to understand what others think when they interact with media, much less ourselves? The mind is an ocean! Critical theory, as complex as it is, in my view is not complex enough! Critical methods with Michele Elam was the best class I took at Stanford.

  • engineer

    >But how would I know you’re a Mr. without theory?

    Why, stereotypes about Engineers, of course!

  • Mark Bessen

    Exactly! Stereotypes are a part of ideology that I am hoping to help question.

  • Mark Bessen

    Yes, you’re extremely right. That is my ideological bias, but I think it’s important that I’m aware–and foreground–that this is my bias in approaching the topic. Thanks for this really thoughtful and valuable comment–I’d encourage you to comment as non-anonymously so we could continue this convo later!

  • Critical of you

    Mark, I think you have no idea what the humanities actually do, or aim to do. I’m in the philosophy department and this “critical theory” bullshit has nothing whatsoever to do with any of the core strains of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, or normative ethics. You’re not making a case for the humanities; you’re making a case for your own narrow-minded ideology. Congrats.

  • Jenna Shapiro

    To the commenters below – I respect your freedom of speech and opinion, but I have to say that I am very disappointed. It doesn’t seem to me that Mark is making any sweeping comments on the humanities as a whole or treating critical theory as the only way to approach the topic. He is not attacking other areas of study, just sharing a valuable viewpoint. If it is a viewpoint that is more foreign to you–all the better! Look through a new lens and see what there is to see! This article simply and thoughtfully offers a perspective, an opportunity to think about what he has to say–with an open mind. To do exactly what Mark seems to encourage: to think critically, and to reflect.

    Mark, thank you for this article! I especially enjoyed the exercise with the literary passage (also, I did think of a white male). Keep sharing your incredibly important voice.

  • Matt

    I’m sorry to say this, but the author is very confused. The study of human subjectivity is only one aspect of the humanities and social sciences, and critical theory is only one (old) way of studying human subjectivity. To say that critical theory is “the methodological framework of the humanities and social sciences” is ludicrous. It is also, by the way, imperialistic, hegemonic, dismissive–all the qualities that the author apparently does not like.

    May I add that the example given is not even critical theory? The author says nothing about the ideology of the text in question (the part in italics), but only about himself. So, um, why bother to read anyway?

    Sorry to be negative, but now of all times the humanities need to be defined and exhibited well. This essay does us no favors.

  • Critical of Mark

    Right? If anything this essay is a case *against* the humanities for anyone who doesn’t presently understand their value. This sounds like a load of bull.

  • Read this

    Hey Mark,

    Here’s a REAL defense of the humanities:


    Ironically enough, the article discusses how “critical theory” is actually a cancer on the humanities by forcing kids into narrow-minded echo chambers. Says the article, “Agresto said that much humanities instruction has been co-opted by hyperspecialization and especially by critical theory. He said overly-critical approaches at once demean the subject matter and limit students’ free inquiry. For example, he said, when professors portray the founding fathers as mere “white racists,” no student or parent “in their right mind” would pay $50,000 a year to study them.

  • EWM

    I dunno Mark. I am an elderly white male (perhaps unduly given to “critical reflection” ) and I assumed the writer was female (rather dimly) and had made no assumptions about skin colour. Should I have? Am I ideology deficient? Where can I acquire some? What are the side-effects? Or is it all too late? You seriously don’t need to answer – especially the last question.

  • mrgodbehere

    I agree. Indeed, I’d go further (as the comments here seem to also indicate) and suggest that critical theory is fast approaching the fringes of the modern Humanities as better empirical methods of study take its place. The growth of Big Data, Corpus Linguistics and Digital Humanities are just some examples of this.

    It is not the 90s any more. Foucault, Derrida, and their merry band of professional obfuscaters are being pushed out by a genuine, honest wish to understand human interaction without unfalsifiable, untestable, predictively useless and utterly subjective rubbish like critical theory.

    Critical theory and it’s clouded lenses are not only giving us no answers, nor even the right questions, they are harming general attitudes to the humanities, and in turn funding opportunities and the areas very future, as STEM is held up as some sort of gold standards and the Humanities, stained by the backwash of critical theory, is derided, even ridiculed.

    It’s time to change old perceptions, not entrench them..