criticaltheory

What is It is also Other (Or So Chuang-Tzu Tells Me…): Questioning Common Sense and Ideology (23 Oct. 2015)

What is It is also Other, what is Other is also it.  There they say ‘That’s it, that’s not’ from one point of view, here we say ‘That’s it, that’s not’ from another point of view.  Are there really It and Other?  Or really no It and Other? Where neither It nor Other finds its opposite is called the axis of the Way.  When once the axis is found at the centre of the circle there is no limit to responding with either, on the one hand no limit to what is it, on the other no limit to what is not. –– Chuang-Tzu, The Inner Chapters

At first, it might seem to you that what Chuang-Tzu means is deliberately incomprehensible, that perhaps the repetitive rhetorical questions and the deliberate unclear antecedents “It” and “Other” are meant to be nonsensical in the strictest meaning of that word––“non” “sense.”  How can what we deem “It” also be “Other” when the terms themselves indicate a separation? Unless that “it” is infinity itself, then how can it have no limits? For the few people who encounter this text in the West, what Chuang-Tzu proposes is frankly impossible, undoubtedly preposterous because it precisely defies what we “know” to be true: “It” and “Other” are separate entities––a dog is not a cat by virtue of its definition.  What can be simpler? It’s common sense!

The reason why first-time readers of The Inner Chapters are so frustrated with its zany circumlocutions is precisely because it specifically undermines the very idea of “common sense.”  The point of the passage is that what we deem a “dog” or “cat” has nothing to do with essential reality––they are merely names we give things in the world around us in order to make sense of them, something we are apparently only capable of doing through categorization (i.e., could we not have decided to call the “dog,” “cat,” or even “hamster”?).  The confusion that is engendered in the reader is deliberate because it both underscores and undermines our tendency to analyze, categorize, and thus delineate what is “It” and what is “Other”––what is a dog vs. what is a cat.  For Taoists, this “common sense” gesture is actually what defies a fundamental truth about the world for anyone willing to listen:  “It” and “Other” are merely names; in reality, “It” and “Other” belong to the same––the Way––which encompasses everything, even you and me.[1]

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Behold “The Way”

Thousands of years before Ferdinand de Saussure and his theory of “structuralism,” Chuang-Tzu theorized, in religious terms, what critical theorists now accept as fundamentally true about our “knowledge” of the world:  that, in fact, what something “is” is not fundamentally true, but merely a construct.  Saussure’s theory itself is actually far more complicated and nuanced, as are the theories of the critical theorists who came after him, but ever since I first took an introductory course in both East Asian philosophy and Critical Theory, I have always understood the basic message of both critical theory and Taoism to be the same, even if different in their ultimate conclusions:  that when it comes to assumptions about the world, especially ones that sanction our treatment of ourselves and other human beings, what I or anybody else “knows” is never anything that can be deemed undeniably true, but in fact is always a matter of perspective––perspectives that themselves are always inextricably tied to ideology.

Let me explain.

Many people have either given or received advice rooted in so-called “common sense.”  In my own middle-class, suburban American upbringing, such advice might include, for example, “Always read instructions carefully, especially when assembling your pricey bookshelf from Target with a hammer and tiny nails that apparently cannot be removed once set in place.” or “Don’t buy episodes of a TV show off Amazon if you can find it on Netflix for free…especially if that show is Girls post-2nd season and Marnie’s hot boyfriend is no longer part of the cast…” But while this kind of common sense advice is innocuous and useful (for the most part), the problem is that oftentimes “common sense” is a notion unconsciously used in order to lend a statement an air of indisputability that, in certain contexts, can sometimes lead to more troubling assumptions.

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#MillenialIdeology

Take, for example, a recent interview between Donald Trump and Michael Savage in which they condemn the “corrupt” scientists concocting “fake global warming research” and America’s lack of “real science and real medicine” as a result of “fake” climate change propaganda.  In response to Savage’s sincere offer to direct the National Institute of Health when Trump inevitably becomes president, Trump quips that we’d “get common sense” if that were to happen as opposed to what the NIH and environmentalists apparently are––nonsensical, sleazy, downright liars.

Or take, as another example, the kind of “common sense” advice proliferated by the 10 billion dollar-per-year self-help industry. In the few remaining book stores across the country, a sizeable self-help section can be found, but more common today, for this millennial at least, are the articles encountered online on a daily basis offering between 12 to 17 ways you can improve your life from healthy eating all the way to figuring out which small pet is right for you as a poor graduate student (Answer is, apparently, a guinea pig).  Articles abound on the internet with get rich quick schemes for your well-being––“6 Common Sense Tips To Immediately Improve Your Life,” for example, which claims, like many internet motivational memes, that “[y]ou can do anything with your life” so long as you dedicate yourself to your aspirations.  Moreover, the truly dedicated understand that “[i]f you want a better paid job you have to put in the effort to find another.” This indeed is common sense that we are all familiar with––“you won’t know until you try,” as the adage goes––however, underlying its assumptions is an ideological belief in an upward mobility achievable by hard work and grit alone.  All obstacles can be overcome and it is up to the individual to make it happen. It is, as another adage goes, “No one’s fault but your own.”

Such articles could be seen as fairly innocent pabulum for procrastinators everywhere, and we can probably dismiss Trump’s statement as innocuous insofar as it is merely stupid, but to dismiss either of them as simply trivial would be to rely on a “common sense” of one’s own, given that the notion of “common sense” essentially argues “that’s just the way things are”––that is to say, the attitude becomes one of “Oh well! Trump will always be Trump, and the Internet, the Internet!” The danger in dismissal, however, is that it misses an opportunity to launch a critique of the ideologies produced as “common sense” knowledge. As Louis Althusser famously theorized, “all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects,” (Lenin 115) by which he means that we, as “subjects,” have an identity or a “sense of self” that is formed by the workings of ideology––ideology that is always present at the very moment language appears to delineate and mark “That’s It” from “That’s Not.”  What this means is that what we deem as “common sense” is really a construct not only on the level of words––dog vs. cat–– but also at the level of ideas or beliefs.

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The lesson here is really quite simple and one that is no doubt familiar to anyone who has gotten a humanities degree, especially at the graduate level: always interrogate and investigate the assumptions undergirding what is often hailed as “common sense” or as undeniably “true.” But this is obviously not an activity that happens everywhere across all campuses nationwide.  I am always surprised every semester by how many of my students have never even heard of the word “ideology,” and some who tend to think that the explanation “because it doesn’t make sense to me” is a valid critical response.  Even more concerning is when students insist that cultural values do not need to be interrogated because “everyone has their own opinion and can think what they want to think”––a statement often praised as espousing a cosmopolitan, multiculturalist attitude, if it weren’t for the crucial fact that these comments are most common in my classroom when talking about issues of race, discrimination, and systemic oppressions, revealing sympathies in line with a cultural logic scholars in critical race studies have termed “color blindness”. There are very real consequences to our perceptions of the world––whether we think, for example, “Black Lives Matter” or “All Lives Matter.” For my students or anyone to so easily insist that perceptions are harmless or relative is thus obviously worrying.

While the tendency for my students to rely on common sense explanations or relativist perceptions could be cause for consternation on my part (and theirs), in the classroom, I often find comfort in Chuang-Tzu’s saying that “on the one hand [there is] no limit to what is it, on the other no limit to what is not.”  It expresses the limitless potential and possibilities of multiple perceptions.  That’s not to say that all those perceptions are all equally valid, of course, especially when it comes to people’s lives–– a matter Chuang-Tzu doesn’t take on in that quotation above.  Yet a the end of the day, By taking apart “That’s It” and “That’s Not,” the hope is always that a “Way” will be found.  For me, however, it is not an axis that I want to arrive at with my students, but rather an arrow pointing forward.

[1] It should be noted that this Taoist position obviously relies on a common sense notion of its own––“The Way” that is also “Truth”––and it is at this point I should point out that contemporary critical theory drastically differs in its theoretical principles with “Truth” always being regarded with skepticism and by necessity, when employed, as in service of some ideological agenda.  At the same time however, I would add that the very position that all “Truth” is either relative or manipulated is a truth claim of its own and thus, as such, cannot be exonerated of its own ideological assumptions.  It sometimes seems as though those who are quickest to say all truth is relative––end stop––are the ones who believe the exact opposite.


Liana Willis is a second-year English M.A. student genuinely interested in all branches of critical theory, but in particular traditional Marxist and neo-Marxist cultural materialisms.  When not teaching, reading, consulting, or writing, she can be found somewhere nearby discreetly practicing yoga asanas and wishing she could be sleeping right now.

Slow and Steady Wins The Race (Unless You Prefer to “Spritz”): Debunking the Myth of Faster = Better (So You Can Feel Better About Yourself) (16 Oct. 2015)

In my first year of graduate school I discovered I was not as strong of a reader as I had fancied myself to be. I discovered the amount of pages to read every week was massive in comparison to undergrad, which wouldn’t be so bad if this were still high school English and I was reading Huckleberry Finn or watching the Leonardo DiCaprio adaptation of Romeo & Juliet.  But instead, I found myself hunkering down with texts like Derrida’s Of Grammatology. I’m not surprised that within the first few weeks of my first semester of graduate school I found myself pleading for help on Facebook.  I treated my peers like they were Google and stated simply and interrogatively: “It has taken me 4 hours to read 100 pages.  Is this normal? Help!”

Among the advice bestowed upon me was a solitary link to a website for Spritz – a new app designed to help the fledgling reader reach his/her peak reading performance levels using technology that surpasses traditional reading methods, which, though proven to work for thousands of years, are burdensome and as a result are becoming quickly outdated.  Spritz is designed to liberate the human eye by increasing the focalization of the “Optimal Recognition Point,” the magical spot in each word the brain encounters, registers, and then quickly obtains meaning before moving on to the next. As the Spritz website claims, it is the “saccade” – the movement of the eye that occurs as it moves from one word to the next – that slows down the reading process.  The algorithm is thus as follows: Reduce the “saccade” effect; increase your reading speed.

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The Original Spritz. (Also a proven reading aid and arguably the more pleasurable.)

The app accomplishes this in an almost painfully obvious way.  Each word flashes on the screen sequentially, in keeping with a steady WPM that users set for themselves.  According to the website, “Removing eye movement associated with traditional reading methods not only reduces the number of times your eyes move, but also decreases the number of times your eyes pass over words for your brain to understand them. This makes Spritzing extremely efficient, precise, convenient and comfortable.”  I can see the meme now:  A photo of a disgruntled but glowing youth, hands clutching the side of her head and crumpling her hair in despair, the caption ruthlessly blaring: MOVING MY EYES IS SO UNCOMFORTABLE. I CAN FEEL THEM SPASMING, OR AM I JUST BLINKING? – #firstworldproblems. Now our eyeballs, relieved of the burden of moving from left to right, can do the work of reading without actually working, much in the same way we can now do the work of sit-ups with our “Belly Burner Weight Loss Belts” without ever having to move a muscle.

It’s a comparison worth making for more than a laugh: Spritz is advertised as “the best way to engage with content in the digital age” and the results it boasts are claims that warrant scrutinizing.  What is different about our “digital age” other than the fact that we prefer pixels to the paper page? We have our Nooks and iReaders, true enough, but does the digital version of Pride and Prejudice create the need to read faster simply because it’s digitized?

The creators of the app concede that there are other ways of improving one’s reading skills that have also been proven to work, but they require a lot of time, effort, and patience, unlike the magic of Spritz, which only requires less time, no effort, and seems to cater to the chronically impatient.  Increasing one’s deep knowledge within a field, for example, helps to increase reading speed.  But increasing deep knowledge is time-consuming because it requires reading, often books, and at the same measly WPM rate you can barely manage already, and therefore slowly, slower than the time it takes you to read a text message or scroll through Facebook status updates or invent a clever hashtag to your latest Sunday Selfie.

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Just saying.

Scanning the reviews in Apple’s app store, I’ve found users who praise Spritz endlessly for the way it has allowed them to “keep up”––students in summer classes boast how efficiently they can speed through their reading rather than slog through it and what I suspect are businessmen are elated they’re able to “keep up with current company.” For these users at least, reading has been stripped of its former inherent pleasure and has instead become a taxing task endured for rewards extraneous to the act itself.  To me it smacks of Marx’s notion of the “objectification of labor,” which argues that “the worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates” (71). In other words, the more “stuff” produced creates value in the thing being produced––the commodity (the iPhone, the latte, the Netflix)––and its reciprocal effect is the “devaluation of the world of men,” or the people who do the producing, to the status of commodity too (The Marx-Engels Reader, pp. 71).  As a result, “labour’s product confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer” (71).

Although it’s important to keep in mind that Marx is speaking of industrialized labor in particular, this insight can also be applied to the phenomenon of Spritz: Instead of dealing with the deplorable conditions of factory labor directly, we are witnessing an era that is suffused in a highly increased value of the world of things and perhaps at the expense of what makes us human.  We too become commodities or “objects,” are asked to maximize our performance in order to prove ourselves valuable to our economy.  The fact that so many users cite their jobs in their reviews as the motivating factor behind their use of Spritz is a strong indicator of this. It isn’t for pleasure that they’re reading.  For many avid users, reading itself appears to either have been, continues to be, or become “something alien.”

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The obvious retort to this post is “So what? What’s wrong with getting ahead? Aren’t you English grad students always griping about how no one ever really reads anymore?” The answer is equally as obvious: Reading faster will not make you wiser.  And as to the question of who should care, the answer should be everyone, given that the literacy rate in the United States hasn’t changed in the past ten years; 21% of adults in the U.S. read below a 5th grade level while 19% of newly minted high school graduates can’t read period.  That statistic only accounts for illiteracy that admittedly are not Spritz’s demographic, which is precisely what makes its existence so vexing.  Apps like Spritz offer the promise of improvement for a) people who don’t really need it, who are at a level where they can improve on the relative literacy they’ve already achieved and b) partially distract from the real impediment––a lack of investment in the humanities, English especially, specifically at the primary and secondary level and in low-income neighborhoods perpetually given the educational short shrift, while at the same time c) promoting a mode of reading that encourages a lack of critical thinking by emphasizing reading more instead of reading better, not to mention d) the fact that this reflects an overall obsession in our culture with “more, more, more” instead of “better” in a crucial time and place in which the collective desire for better is exactly what we need.

On a personal level, I came to a realization that soothed my performance-obsessed conscience. It was not that I was incapable of reading faster and therefore was somehow deficient; it was that I believed in the joy of reading slowly so as to understand completely, and to the extent I resisted the app and what it stood for, and to the extent I came to be aware of what reading had now become––a product of my own labor––I began to understand my own alienation.

I’m told often that I have a tendency to over-read situations as a symptom of my overdeveloped critical thinking skills, and while this may be true in certain (usually romantic) situations, I have found it to usually be beneficial.  Like, for example, the time I found Spritz’s own study that supposedly proves the merits of the app, stating that reading comprehension using the app is “comparable” to that of traditional reading – roughly 82% of the text comprehended using traditional methods vs. 77% using Spritz.  77% could be construed as comparable to 82%, but only if you’re stretching it (or reading it on your Spritz app at 550 wpm).  That’s a 5% difference but, you know, only if you care to take the time to notice.


Liana Willis is a second-year English M.A. student genuinely interested in all branches of critical theory, but in particular traditional Marxist and neo-Marxist cultural materialisms.  When not teaching, reading, consulting, or writing, she can be found somewhere nearby discreetly practicing yoga asanas and wishing she could be sleeping right now.

Changing The World From Within to Without: My Take on the Importance of Critical Theory (9 Oct. 2015)

The fact that there is a so-called “crisis in the humanities” is old, though persistent, news, with many theories behind its impending demise.  The main culprits are understood to be funding cuts at the state and national level as well as an overall cultural shift toward valuing professional degree paths in the private sector, spurred by conservative thinkers’ critique of the humanities as a degree that leads to “nothing but unemployment.”[1] It’s an ironic position, given the fact that coexisting with this concern regarding practical employment is another dilemma the business community has recently brought to the public’s attention: a general lack of sophistication in critical thinking skills among recent college graduates, as reported recently by Doug Belkin of The Wall Street Journal.

“General lack” is probably not the best way to put it given Belkin’s mention that, according to a survey of business owners by American Association of Colleges and Universities, “nine out of 10 employers judge recent college graduates as poorly prepared for the work force in such areas as critical thinking, communication and problem solving”––a rather staggering statistic. While critical thinking skills are not only found in English or History classrooms, no one would dispute the fact that the crown jewel of an education in the humanities is the extensive training in critical thinking, whether fostered through in-depth textual analysis or in developing the argumentative prowess of a PoliSci major.  The powers-that-be would do well to reflect on this.

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“They’ve redesigned the logo in the wake of funding cuts.”

Yet in terms of the humanities, even amongst those sympathetic to its aims, the popular perception of the “real” reason the humanities exists comes down not to critical thinking, but to passion––the fact that some of us have come, through the process of time, to be enamored with the great ideas of the past (and in fact, the term “humanities” emerged out of the intellectual turn from “scholasticism” to humanism in the 15th century).   As Adam Gopnik has succinctly put it, “The best way we’ve found to make sure that everyone who loves to talk about books have a place to do it is to have English departments around.”  History majors love history, philosophy majors love philosophy, and so on and so forth.  In defense of the existence of English departments, Gopkin stresses that love of literature is the raison d’etre of studying English and if there is a reason to continue supporting and not axing English departments it’s because

No civilization we think worth studying, or whose relics we think worth visiting, existed without what amounts to an English department—texts that mattered, people who argued about them as if they mattered, and a sense of shame among the wealthy if they couldn’t talk about them, at least a little, too. It’s what we call civilization.

Because we are human and because we need to feel pleasure – this is why we should continue to teach English (and philosophy and history too), not because, as Gopnik puts it, “they will produce shrewder entrepeneurs or kinder C.E.O.s.”

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And also this reason.

But why not have our cake and eat it too?  Is it possible that the humanities can offer all of the above? Practical skills, attention to moral and ethical concerns, as well as plain old fun?  In fact, for centuries literary endeavors were to follow the Horatian Ode and do just that“to delight and to instruct.” In an era in which deep-reading is also as much in crisis as deep critical thinking skills, it’s important to engage with both literature and critical theory, two areas that are in fact at the core of the humanities.  Although opposites in their intentions and aims, they also complement one another.  While art and literature seek to unabashedly put forth entrancing new ideas that hope to transform its viewers/readers and their world, critical theory seeks to analyze it to pieces and, in some cases, debunk it.  As the adage goes, “Opposites attract.”

Critical theory is not the only way to teach critical thinking, but it is, in my opinion, one of the most important, given its attention to analyzing and critiquing the assumptions a society makes.  As the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy more specifically puts it, “Some of [critical theory’s] core issues involve the critique of modernities and of capitalist society, the definition of social emancipation and the perceived pathologies of society,” critiques that inhere in traditional Marxist philosophy interested particularly in Hegelian dialectics.”  (Don’t worry if you don’t know what the hell I mean by “Marxist philosophy”––we’ll get to that later…)

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What she said.

For the month of October though, I’m not going to go into the history of critical theory or solely summarize the concepts of some of its most influential thinkers (You’re welcome.)  Instead what I want to talk about and to demonstrate is the importance of critical theory, not for academics or undergraduate students, but for people, plain and simple––that is to say, critical theory on a personal, rather than purely “academic,” level.  Why? Because I believe the most exhilarating power of critical theory is its ability to allow us to discern the structural forces that act upon us as individuals, its ability to reveal the inner workings of life and destruct the monolithic force of our everyday understanding that things are “just the way they are.” It has the incredible ability to cultivate the power of discernment––to look at the world and see through its most tantalizing lies and insufferable cajolements.  And it has the same capacity to help one see through oneself, to understand the assumptions our perspectives come packaged with.

Real people, as people, not just professionals or academics, need these skills.  Not because it will help you get a job or make you more erudite, and not even because it’s “fun,” but because, in the end, it is empowering; it can change and liberate your perspective.  As Marx famously put it, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” And to be or not to be the change we want to see in the world––that is the question.

[1] Many critics and scholars have noted that there are other factors to consider when it comes to the “crisis in the humanities” too. Heidi Tworek argues in a December 2013 issue of The Atlantic that the humanities technically lost favor in the 1980s and simply haven’t gained back its relative influence is primarily due to the increasing opportunities for women to major in subjects outside of the humanities, an attractive option for those with an eye toward gaining employment in more lucrative careers they were formerly unwelcome in.


Liana Willis is a second-year English M.A. student genuinely interested in all branches of critical theory, but in particular traditional Marxist and neo-Marxist cultural materialisms.  When not teaching, reading, consulting, or writing, she can be found somewhere nearby discreetly practicing yoga asanas and wishing she could be sleeping right now.