Thinking has become dangerous in the United States. As Henry A Giroux observes in today’s TruthOut, “the symptoms are everywhere including a Texas GOP Party platform that states, “We oppose teaching of Higher order Thinking Skills [because they] have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental control” to a Tennessee bill that “allows the teaching of creationism in state’s classrooms.”
“At a time when anti-intellectualism runs rampant throughout popular culture and the political landscape, it seems imperative to once again remind ourselves of how important critical thought as a crucible for thinking analytically can be both a resource and an indispensable tool. If critical thought, sometimes disparaged as theory, gets a bad name, it is not because it is inherently dogmatic, jargonistic or rigidly specialized, but because it is often abused or because it becomes a tool of irrelevancy – a form of theoreticism in which theory becomes an end in itself. This abuse of critical thought appears to have a particularly strong hold in the humanities, especially among many graduate students in English departments who often succumb to surrendering their own voices to class projects and dissertations filled with obtuse jargon associated with the most fashionable theorists of the moment. Such work is largely rewarded less for its originality than the fact that it threatens no one.
“At the same time there are many students who find the esoteric language associated with dangerous thinking and critical thought to be too difficult to master or engage. The latter points to the fact that some theories may be useless because they are too impenetrable to decipher or that there are theories which support bad practices such as high-stakes testing, creationism, faith-based evidence, the spanking of children, incarcerating children as adults and other assumptions and policies that are equally poisonous. Theory is not inherently good or bad. Its meaning and efficacy are rooted in a politics of usefulness, accessibility and whether it can be used resourcefully to articulate frameworks and tools that deepen the possibility of self-reflection, critical thought and a sense of social responsibility. For instance, a theory is bad if it inadequately grasps the forces at work in the world and simply reproduces it as it is. Theory is also injurious when it is used to legitimate modes of inquiry and research that are bought by corporations, the military and other state and private institutions to legitimate dangerous products, policies and social practices.
“Theory has no guarantees, and like any other mode of thought, it has to be problematized, critically engaged and judged in terms of its interests, effects and value as part of a broader enhancement of human agency and democratization. At their best, theory, thinking dangerously and critical thought have the power to shift the questions, provide the tools for offering historical and relational contexts, and “push at the frontiers . . . of the human imagination.” Moreover, theory functions as a critical resource when it can intervene in the “continuity of commonsense, unsettle strategies of domination” and work to promote strategies of transformation.=As Theodor Adorno observes, “Theory speaks for what is not narrow-minded – and commonsense most certainly is.=As such, theory is not only analytical in its search for understanding and truth, it is also critical and subversive, always employing modes of self and social critique necessary to examine its own grounds and those poisonous fundamentalisms in the larger society haunting the body politic. As Michael Payne observes, theory should be cast in the language of hints, dialogue and an openness to other positions, rather than be “cast in the language or orders.”
“It is important to note that defending critical thought, thinking dangerously and theory is not the same as solely mounting a defense of academics as public intellectuals, or the university as the only site of critical thought, though both are important. When defined this way, theory is easily dismissed as an academic exercise and practice mediated through an impenetrable and often incomprehensible vocabulary. Theory and the frameworks it supports are just one important political register that keeps alive the notion that critical reflection and thought are necessary not only to address the diverse symbolic and material realities of power, but also for engaging in informed action willing to address important social issues. In this respect, as Lawrence Grossberg has brilliantly argued, theory is a crucial tool that enables one to respond to and provide a better understanding of problems as they emerge in a variety of historical and distinctive contexts.(5) Hence, theory becomes a toolbox that guides the work of many artists, journalists and other cultural workers in a variety of public spheres who are well aware that their work has consequences when translated into daily life and must be the object of self-reflection.(6)Paraphrasing Grossberg, theory is not simply about the production of meaning but also the making of effects. At the same time, critical thought functions to “lift . . . human beings above the evidence of our senses and sets appearances apart from the truth.”(7) Salmon Rushdie gestures toward the political necessity of critical thought, informed action and its effects by insisting that “It’s a vexing time for those of us who believe in the right of artists, intellectuals and ordinary, affronted citizens to push boundaries and take risks and so, at times, to change the way we see the world.”(8)”
As a form of intellectual inquiry, theory thrives in those public spaces that both legitimate the world of ideas and refuse to separate them from addressing the major troubles of our time. At the same time, it is an important register, if not reminder in such perilous times, for determining as Judith Butler observes, “not only the question of whether certain kinds of ideas and positions can be permitted in public space, but how public space is itself defined by certain kinds of exclusions, certain emerging patterns of censoriousness and censorship.” (9) Rather than being a mechanistic enterprise, offering formulas and recipes, theory should provide the frameworks and tools for what it means to be a thoughtful, judicious, layered, complex and critical thinker willing to engage in communicative and collective action. Theory does not resemble the discourse of blind action, a stripped down instrumental rationality, or the vision of accountants. Nor, in this instance, does theory become an end in itself, an ossified discourse that defines itself to the degree to which it is removed from the world and vanishes in a black hole of irrelevancy and opaqueness. Theory as a critical enterprise is about both a search for the truth and a commitment to the practice of freedom. Not one or the other but both. Theory should be used to both understand and engage the major upheavals people face and to connect such problems to larger political, structural and economic issues. In addition, theory is invaluable as a response to particular problems, allowing intellectuals, artists, academics, students and others to connect their intellectual work and critical inquiries to the daily realities and struggles of a world in upheaval, one that is moving quickly into the clutches of a new type of authoritarianism.