Thursday, April 08, 2010

No, Not Mostly Bollcks

Manolis asks,

"I just want a philosopher's opinion: are cultural studies, film studies, critical theory, social theory and whole bunch of English departments all mostly bollocks?

I have the sneaking suspicion that those fields love a theory, especially a flimsily-constructed one built on pop psychological foundations, much more than they do thinking things through, rigour, analysis etc."

The fields you list are certainly intellectually legitimate. The underlying theme in the examples you cite is what we call in philosophy the theory dependence of observation. The idea is that among Enlightenment empiricists, folks like John Locke, for example, the notion of observation was taken as basic. We receive observations, impressions the world make on our senses. Locke himself wonders which of these impressions are really in the things themselves and which only in our minds (this is what leads to his famous distinction between primary and secondary qualities), but the idea is that we receive the ideas complete from the outside impressed on the inside.

Kant argues that our observations are a combination of raw unformed data from the senses and categories or molds that the mind uses to take the mush of sensory input and construct a well-formed world out of it in our minds. He argues that all people have an innate faculty that orders our sensory input in one and the same uniform way. There are certain ways we have to see things because that's just how we're wired to make sense of the world.

Nietzsche argues that these intellectual cookie cutters that we use on the observational dough provided by our eyes, ears, etc. are influenced by our cultural background and this in turn is determined by the distribution of political power. If you control a culture, you control its language and if you control its language, you control the frames through which we understand things. He begins the project of showing how our labels for ideas, our words have histories that show a development we may not be aware of and how the words remain interestingly pregnant with their etymological baggage.

This is the basic insight behind those who objected to the modernist view with its purity of observation. Seeing may be believing, but it is believing in a way that is influenced by social power. Their task is to show where there is hidden politics in notions we thought were completely objective and world referring.

And this is an interesting and important project. This does not mean that every attempt is successful and certainly during the 80s and 90s there was an extension of this doctrine in which everything was held to be mere social constructs, a view that is certainly naive. The more sophisticated project -- showing what and how much is socially constructed -- is a worthwhile discussion, but there were those who went overboard. If you read pieces over at Butterflies and Wheels, you'll find folks trying to keep such excess in check. But I don't think some poor work condemns the project as a whole. Every field has its crap -- after all, someone published my articles.

The one I have been thinking of differently though is film studies and I've been wondering about this for a while. We have a burgeoning film studies department here and I was wondering if it really is an independent field of study or if it is just a new subfield of literature and theater. English departments cover prose, poetry, lyrical composition, and plays. What is so different about film? We have theater departments that cover the technical stagecraft angles for plays, why would film studies be a field unto itself and not be split between language departments and theater departments?