Absurdities and Atrocities in Literary Criticism

All literary theories (except formalism) share one common attraction—they speak to the universal fantasy of being able to know more about someone than that person knows about him- or herself. If you happen to be a feminist critic for instance, then you will examine some author’s work and divine his or her attitude toward women. Because feminist theory insists that all or nearly all texts exemplify patriarchy if they’re not enacting some sort of resistance to it, the author in question will invariably be exposed as either a sexist or a feminist, regardless of whether or not that author intended to make any comment about gender. The author may complain of unfair treatment; indeed, there really is no clearer instance of unchecked confirmation bias. The important point, though, is that the writer of the text supposedly knows little or nothing about how the work functions in the wider culture, what really inspired it at an unconscious level, and what readers will do with it. Substitute bourgeois hegemony for patriarchy in the above formula and you have Marxist criticism. Deconstruction exposes hidden hierarchies. New Historicism teases out dominant and subversive discourses. And none of them flinches at objections from authors that their work has been completely misunderstood.

This has led to a sad, self-righteous state of affairs in English departments. The first wrong turn was taken by Freud when he introduced the world to the unconscious and subsequently failed to come up with a method that could bring its contents to light with any reliability whatsoever. It’s hard to imagine how he could’ve been more wrong about the contents of the human mind. As Voltaire said, “He who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” No sooner did Freud start writing about the unconscious than he began arguing that men want to kill their fathers and have sex with their mothers. Freud and his followers were fabulists who paid lip service to the principles of scientific epistemology even as they flouted them. But then came the poststructuralists to muddy the waters even more. When Derrida assured everyone that meaning derived from the play of signifiers, which actually meant meaning is impossible, and that referents—to the uninitiated, referents mean the real world—must be dismissed as having any part to play, he was sounding the death knell for any possibility of a viable epistemology. And if truth is completely inaccessible, what’s the point of even trying to use sound methods? Anything goes.

Since critics like to credit themselves with having good political intentions like advocating for women and minorities, they are quite adept at justifying their relaxing of the standards of truth. But just as Voltaire warned, once those standards are relaxed, critics promptly turn around and begin making accusations of sexism and classism and racism. And, since the accusations aren’t based on any reasonable standard of evidence, the accused have no recourse to counterevidence. They have no way of defending themselves. Presumably, their defense would be just another text the critics could read still more evidence into of whatever crime they’re primed to find.

The irony here is that the scientific method was first proposed, at least in part, as a remedy for confirmation bias, as can be seen in this quote from Francis Bacon’s 1620 treatise Novum Organon:

" The human understanding is no dry light, but receives infusion from the will and affections; whence proceed sciences which may be called “sciences as one would.” For what a man had rather were true he more readily believes. Therefore he rejects difficult things from impatience of research; sober things, because they narrow hope; the deeper things of nature, from superstition; the light of experience, from arrogance and pride; things commonly believed, out of deference to the opinion of the vulgar. Numberless in short are the ways, and sometimes imperceptible, in which the affections color and infect the understanding."

Poststructuralists believe that everything we see is determined by language, which encapsulates all of culture, so our perceptions are hopelessly distorted. What can be done then to arrive at the truth? Well, nothing—all truth is constructed. All that effort scientists put into actually testing their ideas is a waste of time. They’re only going to “discover” what they already know.
But wait: if poststructuralism posits that discovery is impossible, how do its adherents account for airplanes and nuclear power? Just random historical fluctuations, I suppose.

The upshot is that, having declared confirmation bias inescapable, critics embraced it as their chief method. You have to accept their relaxed standard of truth to accept their reasoning about why we should do away with all standards of truth. And you just have to hope like hell they never randomly decide to set their sights on you or your work. We’re lucky as hell the legal system doesn’t work like this. And we can thank those white boys of the enlightenment for that.