Dogma and criticality

by Carl Dyke

“I always believed that two masterpieces (I say this very seriously) summarized the thousand-year-old experience of mankind in the field of mass organization: the corporal’s manual and the Catholic catechism. I’ve become convinced that it is necessary to add, though in a field that is much more restricted and of an exceptional nature, prison regulations, which contain true treasures of psychological introspection.” Antonio Gramsci, Letters from Prison I, 97.

Critical thinking is hard. I work in a humanities / social sciences / liberal arts field where we celebrate but seldom practice critical thinking (and perhaps ‘wisdom’). Much more often what you get is some “critical theory” or other reduced to a kitsch algorithm and “applied” as dogma. This is obviously a mistake, but it’s also not at all a mistake. So I’m writing this post out of frustration, but also, I hope, critically.

“Criticizing,” in the sense of finding fault and locating errors, is always available, but it’s the thinnest possible understanding of critical thinking. You’re finding mismatches between one set of standards and another set of practices, which in a lumpy, complex world is like shooting ducks in a bucket. (I started out by doing that here. I’m still doing it. I’m trying to do better. It’s hard.) People start to get good at this kind of critical thinking around the age of two. “Critical theories” at this level simply provide the more or less elaborate standards in comparison to which practices can always be found wanting. Don’t do that thing, do the other thing. “This ham sandwich is not the platonic essence of the ham sandwich.”

I should say that I often revere the standards provided by critical theories. In my experience the platonic essence of the ham sandwich was produced by the Good Food Bus, parked beside Paley Library at Temple University, circa 1983. It was glorious. I’m also in favor of flourishing, human and otherwise, and firmly believe that mean people suck.

What “critical theory” even at its most algorithmic gets right is that criticality is edgy (fractal, as Nietzsche said, and therein lies the abyss). The center of any practice is never where the critical action is, as any bored suburban teenager can tell you. In those centers there’s just a way things work, and part of how they work is by locking out critical disruption. At a systems level all of the metaphors of mechanism and organism suggest themselves here. Engines and hearts don’t do a lot of critical thinking about how and whether to make the old crate go, and that’s for the best. It’s never a good thing when those subsystems ‘go critical’.

This sense in which locked in, algorithmic regimes of ‘normal’ enable a smoothly successful function of business as usual is incredibly, one might say critically, important. This is what critical theories do for communities of like-minded intellectual practitioners, and why they’re critically not critical. As Marx himself noted, there’s nothing less critical than “Marxism.” The road from theory to cult to cultural system is paved with good intentions and sound practical reason.

All of this makes both practicing and teaching critical thinking really tricky. Anything we tell the students is dogma. If we drill them in it they are foot soldiers, or prisoners. If we tell it to them charismatically and they are moved to embrace it, they are disciples. If we show them our work, they become priests. To enter criticality and think critically, they must somehow evade the syllabus and the curriculum with which we tell them things, without just falling back into a prior dogma. The ones who get this routinely drop out, leaving the priests to reproduce their orthodoxies on the next generation.

In complex systems, such as all of our doings together, criticality is the turbulent edge between order and chaos. It’s a creative but dangerous space. Critical thinking is hard precisely because you have to suspend and disrupt the algorithms, entering criticality and exploring the possibilities that become available there, with the settled order of dogma behind you and the wild chaos of nonsense churning all around.

2 Comments to “Dogma and criticality”

  1. Your post prompted a lively exchange about the best ham sandwich vis-a-vis the platonic ideal of a ham sandwich. We just ate dinner and they still sound good.

  2. Hurray! I just love a good ham sandwich, even though I am aware of many reasons why I shouldn’t.

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