Critical Theory, Dr. Levinson, Dr. Shenvi, and Evangelicalism: Final Thoughts

Some thoughts in response to the recent exchange on Critical Theory.

Since I was implicated in Dr. Levinson and Dr. Shenvi’s recent exchange published on The Aquila Report, I thought I might offer some final thoughts in response. If you have not read either of the pieces, it might be helpful to start there. (“Does Critical Theory Matter for the Evangelical Church to Act for Social Justice?: A Response to Neil Shenvi” and “A Response to Dr. Levinson On Critical Theory“)

When Dr. Neil Shenvi originally published his review of Dr. Bradley Levinson’s text, Beyond Critique, he wrote the following:

Hands-down, this book is the best source I’ve found for those interested in a systematic explanation of critical theory from the pen of critical theorists themselves. (“A Short Review of Levinson’s Beyond Critique” [emphasis original])

One would think, then, that Dr. Levinson’s critique of Dr. Shenvi’s own characterization of “critical theory” would be received with all due weight; but instead, Dr. Shenvi has chosen to rely on his own perceived expertise in the field to sidestep Dr. Levinson’s correctives. I wonder if Dr. Shenvi believes his review of “dozens of books” and collection of “thousands of words of quotations from primary sources” is an advantage over Dr. Levinson’s twenty five page CV, including several books, dozens of peer reviewed articles, and thirty years of teaching in the field?

Dr. Shenvi’s first move is to claim that Dr. Levinson “doesn’t actually state that any of my four tenets are false.” This is a curious claim, given that Dr. Levinson did exactly that; he wrote,

These so-called tenets read to me as caricature. They carry minor grains of truth, but they also simplify and obscure. (“Does Critical Theory Matter for the Evangelical Church to Act for Social Justice?: A Response to Neil Shenvi”)

For each of Dr. Shenvi’s “core tenets” (see HERE), Dr. Levinson explains in what way they are indeed caricatures. And last I checked, a “caricature” is still a false representation of the original. My presumption is that Dr. Levinson’s kindness and deference to a non-specialist tempered the bluntness of his underlying critique—a temperance seized upon by Dr. Shenvi to deny the important contradictions.

  1. “Contemporary Critical Theory” vs. Critical Theory?

But the meat of Shenvi’s reply, and how my own work was implicated in the discussion, is his claim that he is not in fact talking about critical theory as either I or Dr. Levinson understand it, viz., not that “critical theory” which Levinson so ably, by Shenvi’s own account, presented in Beyond Critique. As such, Dr. Levinson’s correctives, according to Shenvi, come short of their target, i.e., “contemporary critical theory.” Now, since there is no field called Contemporary Critical Theory, nor a group of scholars operating under this title, we are right to be skeptical of this manufactured category. I, for one, am very skeptical. Dr. Shenvi has been using his “four tenets” or “core tenets” to describe some theory or ideological system for quite some time now, and I don’t see how his newer list of theorists and concepts can be the exclusive content he has been attempting to characterize.

He recently stated his intended scope of characterization to be the following:

Contemporary critical theory is promoted by scholars like Robin DiAngelo (who coined the phrase ‘white fragility’), Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (who coined the phrase ‘colorblind racism’), Kimberlé Crenshaw (who coined the phrase ‘intersectionality’), and Peggy McIntosh (who popularized the phrase ‘white privilege’). (“Is Critical Theory a Threat to Evangelicalism?”)

In his recent response to Levinson, he writes,

I attempt to characterize a specific subset of contemporary critical scholars who coined or popularized phrases like “white fragility,” “colorblind racism”, “white privilege”, and “intersectionality”, which permeate our culture.

So, that which he is characterizing by his four “core tenets,” dubbed Contemporary Critical Theory, is an ideology promoted by DiAngelo, Bonilla-Silva, Crenshaw, and McIntosh, and includes concepts like white fragility, colorblind racism, white privilege, and intersectionality. (Or is it yet a “subset” of these?)

I find this difficult to accept, given his own descriptions of the “critical theory” he has been attempting characterize. For many months, we have seen Dr. Shenvi identify this theory in the following ways, and, in each case, apply his tenets in explanation:

Like many broad philosophical movements, critical theory can be difficult to define. It originated with the Frankfurt school in the 1930s but has evolved considerably since then. (“Critical Theory & Christianity”)

Over the last few years, new terms like “cisgender,” “intersectionality,” “heteronormativity,” “centering,” and “white fragility” have suddenly entered our cultural lexicon—seemingly out of nowhere. In reality, these words and concepts have been working their way through academia for decades, perpetuated by disciplines such as Post-Colonial Studies, Queer Theory, Critical Pedagogy, Whiteness Studies, and Critical Race Theory, among others. These fields can be placed within the larger discipline of “critical theory,” an ideology more popularly known as “cultural Marxism.” (“The Incompatibility of Critical Theory and Christianity”)

Critical theory is a set of beliefs or ideas that is foundational to many different disciplines in the humanities: Gender Studies, Cultural Studies, Critical Race Theory, Critical Pedagogy, Feminist Studies, Anthropology, Literary Criticism. It’s also the ideology at the heart of large segments of the secular, social justice movement. (“Christianity and Critical Theory—Part 1”)

People use many different terms to describe what I think is the same underlying ideology: ‘identity politics’, ‘cultural Marxism’, ‘intersectionality’. Jordan Peterson calls it: ‘postmodern Neomarxism.’ James refers to it as ‘applied postmodernism’ or by the humorous moniker ‘grievance studies.’ I personally like the term ‘critical theory.’ Academics talk routinely about ‘critical theory’ and self-identify as ‘critical theorists’ whereas I’ve never heard an academic self-identify as a ‘cultural Marxist.’ (“Notes for Unbelievable Interview with Esther O’Reilly and James Lindsay” [emphasis original])

And in the article titled, “Critical Theory Quotes,” Dr. Shenvi organizes dozens of quotes from, presumably, critical theorists around his now familiar “tenets” (though here expanded to six). Those quoted as representatives include not only DiAngelo, McIntosh, Crenshaw, and Bonilla-Silva, but Stephanie Wildman, Adrienne Davis, Michael S. Kimmel, Patricia Hill Collins, Richard Delgado, Jean Stefancic, Margaret Andersen, Jacob P. K. Gross, Beverly Tatum, Bobbie Harro, Iris Young, Warren J. Blumenfeld, Heather Hackman, Rosie Castañeda, Madeline Peters, Audre Lorde, Lauren Langman, Adrienne Rich, Ted Fleming, Mary McClintock, Suzanne Pharr, Cooper Thompson, Judith Lorber, Michelle Alexander, Ibram X. Kendi, Bell Hooks, Cherrie Moraga, and Stephen Bronner.

Again, in each of these articles, Shenvi employs one or another variant of his “core tenets” in answer to, “What is critical theory?”

Therefore, it is abundantly clear that the theory, or set of ideas, that Dr. Shenvi has been seeking to characterize with his tenets, is identified as a theory that “originated with the Frankfurt School in the 1930’s,” is a “larger” discipline which contains “Post-Colonial Studies, Queer Theory, Critical Pedagogy, Whiteness Studies, and Critical Race Theory,” is “foundational” to many fields like “Gender Studies, Cultural Studies, Critical Race Theory, Critical Pedagogy, Feminist Studies, Anthropology, Literary Criticism,” is the source of phrases like “‘cisgender,’ ‘intersectionality,’ ‘heteronormativity,’ ‘centering,’ and ‘white fragility’,” is often called “‘identity politics’, ‘cultural Marxism’, ‘intersectionality’,” and is represented by the list of an additional twenty eight diverse scholars noted above.

But—and here is a significant difficulty—I am also to believe that he has not been attempting to characterize that which most theorists simply call “critical theory,” that which Dr. Levinson wrote about in his book, nor even any known critical system like, e.g., Critical Race Theory, but rather is only seeking to characterize a small group of modern theorists and concepts?

This is pure contradiction. Either (1) Shenvi has in fact been using his “core tenets” all along to characterize a critical theory much broader, much more historical, and much more inclusive than just the subset he now identifies, or (2) he has moved his target in recent months after criticism. If (1), then how can his recent claim be true and function as an escape from Dr. Levinson’s (and my own) criticisms? If (2), then isn’t this just an obvious case of special pleading, wherein Shenvi is allowed to move his target into the path of his arrow as he sees fit in the face of criticism?

CONCLUSION 1Either Dr. Shenvi has in fact been seeking to characterize a much broader understanding of critical theory with his tenets, or he is now moving the target to fit his characterization. If the latter, are there any parameters, or can we just create a title that sounds a lot like a common title, and add and subtract ideas and theorists which appear to “fit,” as needed?

  1. “Contemporary” Critical Theorists’ Own Views of Critical Theory

As for the small group of theorists Dr. Shenvi now says he is exclusively attempting characterize, all would be considered Critical Race Theorists (CRT’s) and all would consider themselves to be working within the CRT tradition (except, possibly, Peggy McIntosh). But Dr. Shenvi well knows that the core tenets provided by CRT theorists are not his four tenets (see his article, “What is Critical Race Theory?”). For example, Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic ask in their popular Introduction to CRT, “What do critical race theorists believe?” In answer, they offer the following tenets: (1) the ordinariness of racialization, (2) interest convergence, (3) the social construction of race, (4) differential racialization, (5) intersection of identities and anti-essentialism, and (5) the “unique voice of color”—only the last of which obscurely figures into Shenvi’s construction. That is, the most obvious route to knowing what “critical theory” Crenshaw, Bonilla-Silva, McIntosh, and DiAngelo represent is blocked by the simple recognition that their tenets are not are not his. (And, of course, each of the ideas mentioned by Shenvi—colorblind racism, white privilege, intersectionality, and white privilege—were born of CRT.)

Further, these theorists give their own explanations of what broadly constitutes “critical theory”; and they are, again, not Shenvi’s. For example, Ozlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo write in their text, Is Everyone Really Equal?:

Our analysis of social justice is based on a school of thought known as Critical Theory. Critical Theory refers to a body of scholarship that examines how society works, and is a tradition that emerged in the early part of the 20th century from a group of scholars at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany…. These theorists offered an examination and critique of society and engaged with questions about social change. Their work was guided by the belief that society should work toward the ideals of equality and social betterment.

… Critical Theory developed in part as a response to this presumed infallibility of scientific method, and raised questions about whose rationality and whose presumed objectivity underlies scientific methods.

… Efforts among scholars to understand how society works weren’t limited to the Frankfurt School; French philosophers (notably Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, and Jacques Lacan) were also grappling with similar questions (this broader European development of Critical Theory is sometimes called “the continental school” or “continental philosophy”).

… The logic of individual autonomy that underlies liberal humanism (the idea that people are free to make independent rational decisions that determine their own fate) was viewed as a mechanism for keeping the marginalized in their place by obscuring larger structural systems of inequality. In other words, it fooled people into believing that they had more freedom and choice than societal structures actually allow.

… Critical Theory’s analysis of how society works continues to expand and deepen as theorists from indigenous, postcolonial, racialized, and other marginalized perspectives add layers to our collective understanding. Thus, to engage in a study of society from a critical perspective, one must move beyond common sense–based opinions and begin to grapple with all the layers that these various, complex, and sometimes divergent traditions offer. (pp. 25-27)

As such, they briefly explain the nature of “critical” as an academic orientation:

By critical stance we mean those academic fields (including social justice, critical pedagogy, multicultural education, antiracist, postcolonial, and feminist approaches) that operate from the perspective that knowledge is socially constructed and that education is a political project embedded within a network of social institutions that reproduce inequality. (p. 1)

Kimberle Crenshaw, who reportedly coined the title “Critical Race Theory,” was simply borrowing the notion of “critical” already operating within Critical Legal Studies (CLS). As Crenshaw’s close collaborator Angela Harris explains,

CRT inherits from CLS a commitment to being “critical,” which in this sense means also to be “radical”—to locate problems not at the surface of doctrine but in the deep structure of American law and culture. (“The Jurisprudence of Reconstruction”)

As mentioned above, Peggy McIntosh does not even consider herself a critical theorist (nor CRT in particular), but has merely worked from her own experience of race in the workplace and academia (see “A Critical Caricature? : Dr. Peggy McIntosh Responds to Dr. Shenvi’s Characterization of Critical Theory”). Edwardo Bonilla-Silva does consider himself a Critical Race Theorist, but self-consciously operates within the loose paradigm described by Crenshaw, Delgado, Stefancic, and others, all of whom offer a description of their critical endeavors within CRT; which, again, is not Dr. Shenvi’s “core” tenets.

Since Patricia Hill Collins has been explicitly brought into the orbit of “contemporary critical theory” in Shenvi’s response to Levinson, her recent work is also helpful here. Seeking to position her understanding of Intersectionality as a critical social theory, she explores the question, what makes a theory properly “critical”? In order to answer, she reviews three critical theories thought to be paradigmatic. She begins with the Frankfurt School, arguing that,

The Critical Theory advanced by Frankfurt school scholars provides an important benchmark for subsequent discussions of critical social theory. Other perspectives build on its foundation, identifying various aspects of the concerns of Frankfurt school scholars as foundational to critical social theory writ large (Agger 2013; Bohman 2016; Calhoun 1995; Held 1980). (Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory, Location 1382)

While assessing the critical nature of Frankfurt, she zeroes in on a few identifying tenets:

Horkheimer identifies several core elements of Critical Theory that distinguish it from its traditional counterparts: (1) a distinctive theory of how social change has been and might be brought about; (2) adherence to an ethical social justice framework that aspires to better society; (3) engagement in dialectical analysis that conceptualizes critical analysis in the context of socially situated power relations; and (4) reflective accountability concerning critical theory’s own practices. Horkheimer’s discussion of Critical Theory provides a useful starting point for specifying the contours of critical social theory in general. It also provides an important set of ideas for conceptualizing the meaning of critical inquiry for intersectionality. (1314)

She then moves on to the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies, zeroing in on these scholars’ cultural critique, drawn from within the wider Marxist sociological tradition (i.e., not Communism). According to Collins, CCCS scholars recognized that,

Many aspects of culture could be analyzed as social texts where meanings were not free-floating and detached from social interests, power relations, and material life. … Their work was groundbreaking in examining how subordinated groups (or classes) also used popular culture to resist their subordination. (1437)

Thus, she notes the “critical” character of their theorizing as examining the social basis for inequalities, produced and reinforced through common culture, as well resistance movements drawing upon the same.

Last, she turns to “Francophone Social Theory,” focusing first on the critique of colonialism advanced by existentialist Algerian scholar, Franz Fanon, recognizing the critical character of his liberation efforts, and then moves on to postmodernism and poststructuralism, lauding their critique of power relations and deconstructive methods, but questioning their title to “critical theory” for lacking the commitment to an ethical core, social justice, and liberation theory, and lack of the “reflective accountability” found in the Frankfurt tradition; they are “more wedded to criticizing society than to reforming or transforming it” (3039). We could also note Collins’ emphasis on the “transformative” aim of critical theory, as opposed to the “reformative” aim of traditional theories, directly hearkening back to Crenshaw and Harris’ understanding of “critical” as moving beyond mere surface analysis—a hallmark of critical theories going back to at least Horkheimer. Throughout the book, Collins likewise argues that the union of praxis and knowledge production is an essential component of the properly “critical,” as well as the value laden and “dialogical” nature of epistemology.

In short, there is something that is properly “critical” about critical theories—something which, when lacking, disqualifies a theory, or system of ideas, from the title—at least according to actual critical theorists. And this is true whether we are talking about the critical theories of Max Horkheimer, Stuart Hall, Derek Bell, Kimberle Crenshaw, or Robin DiAngelo. Dr. Levinson offers the following helpful characterization and “defining characteristics”:

So what do these theoretical traditions have in common, and what enables us to be audacious enough to call them all “critical,” when their influences and assumptions may otherwise be so varied? Perhaps it is best to articulate this in terms of common values and common goals. Here are a few that might inform a critical project, just for starters:

  • Participatory democracy and self-determination
  • Social justice, equity, and respect for human dignity across lines of cultural difference such as class, nation, race, gender, sexual orientation, age, and the like
  • A redistributive, sustainable, and community-oriented economy
  • Equality of economic and educational opportunity and an abatement of severe income inequalities
  • Environmental awareness and responsibility
  • Critical awareness of power and social interdependence

This is a dangerous list, we realize, in the sense that it projects certain values of the present onto thinkers of the past. Few critical theorists would selfconsciously embrace all these values and goals; certainly, Antonio Gramsci (Chapter 2) was not an environmentalist, nor was Horkheimer a great proponent of gender equity. Some, like Foucault (chapter 5), might even reject these values, insofar as they represent a singular normative vision. Still, we suggest that such a list provides a handy reference for the contemporary critical theorist. And if you share most of the values and goals just articulated, then you may well be a critical social theorist, too!

But of course values and normative goals are not enough to identify a critical social theorist. A lot of “liberal positivists” may in fact share such goals. So we have to go a bit further, into the procedural realm. Following Agger (2006, 4–5) and Allan (2005, 16), we would add just a few more defining characteristics. Critical social theory is driven by

  • “value-rationality” rather than instrumental rationality. In other words, it is not neutral in reference to values and has a definite (though not teleological) conception of “progress” and the social good, often a utopian vision or concept of “liberation.”
  • the assumed need to dismantle and critique taken-for-granted ideologies, to challenge the “false consciousness” (Lukács) or “misrecognition” (Bourdieu) that enables social domination.
  • an understanding of domination as structural yet dialectically connected to agency in people’s “everyday lives.”

(Beyond Critique, pp. 10-11 [emphasis mine])

This is as good as any description, or list of distinguishing tenets, that I’ve seen, and captures well the “critical” nature of even Crenshaw, Bonilla-Silva, McIntosh, and DiAngelo’s work.

It is my contention that for any theory, or system of ideas, to be considered properly “critical,” it must at least see (1) group-wide inequalities, hierarchical social stratification, and social ills generally, as not simply the product of individual policies and individual actors, but deeply ingrained in the socio-historical development of institutions, common norms, common values, cultural expressions, etc., and the relations of power which operate thereby, often with the approval and consent of both the dominant and subordinate, (2) that these “pathologies” develop through historical processes of social creation and change, and that much of the furniture of social life and knowledge are therefore constructed and conditioned imminently, and (3) that remedies require critique of the whole, and that the transformative action required to dismantle the systems and ideas which embody social dominance and pathology is inseparable from knowledge production itself. (This should be seen as consistent with the above and is presented more historically HERE.)

CONCLUSION 2When theorists, who advance what Dr. Shenvi titles “contemporary critical theory,” give their own defining and distinguishing characteristics of “critical theory,” they simply are not Shenvi’s “core tenets.”

Brad Mason a husband, father, parishioner, and cabinet maker, and a member of Covenant Reformed Church (RCUS) of Sacramento, CA.

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