Theory as Liberatory Practice: A Primer on the Use and Abuse of Theory
Tuesday, December 29, 2020
Theory as Liberatory Practice is a revelatory chapter. It helps me come to terms with bell hooks' need for and use of theory. Throughout the book, I ask myself, What are theory's characteristics? Its function? How does it connect to life and action? By implication, how does it relate to teaching in a digital classroom? This chapter answers these questions.
HER NEED FOR THEORY
As a child, she couldn't relate to her parents, her experiences, her education. As noted in a prior post, theory gave her a language to work through these issues. (Her precociousness comes from asking such questions in the first place.) This chapter describes her experience with theory as means of succor. I appreciated how she called out bogus applications of theory. Bogus applications of theory decades before (See here) had left a bad taste in my mouth. Now I see the benefit of theory. Her causes and arguments may not be my causes and arguments. I can, though, appreciate the use of theory in teaching in a digital environment.
CHARACTERISTICS OF THEORY
Keep at a distance
Silent, censor, or devalue
Serve as an instrument of domination (homophobia; race; class, sexism; imperialism)
Question prevailing social practices
Heal and liberate
Offer a sanctuary, a place to belong, to understand what is happening
Ensue from and connect to everyday life
Reinforce its connection with practice
Be understood in everyday conversation
Act as a catalyst for social change across false boundaries
THE ONGOING NEED FOR THEORY
She writes that the need for and use of theory never ends. Strategies to confront ignorance-based predicaments and issues become obsolete. Theory provides a way to understand and then engage these predicaments and issues. It helps one transform current realities.
A SUCCESSFUL APPLICATION OF THEORY
...the efforts of black women and women of color challenge and deconstruct the category "woman" - the insistence on recognition that gender is not the sole factor determining constructions of femaleness - was a critical intervention, one which led to a profound revolution in feminist thought and truly interrogated and disrupted the hegemonic feminist theory produced primarily by academic women, most of whom were white.
THE BOGUS APPLICATION OF THEORY
It is evident that one of the many uses of theory in academic locations is in the production of an intellectual class hierarchy where the only work deemed truly theoretical is work that is highly abstract, jargonistic, difficult to read, and containing obscure references.
In the chapter, she recounts a conversation with a black woman. This woman was less interested in hooks' theory and rhetoric. She was more interested in action. That was my reaction to the art-speak I found in theory-driven reviews. Art-speak, I thought, represented legitimate theory-driven art criticism. I wanted to make art accessible to everyone. That became my elevator pitch: Make. Art. Accessible. As a museum professional, I focused on education. As a critic, I created a blog, What the Butler Saw. I continue that mission with the way I teach my online introduction to art classes.
As for my first exposure to and reaction from bogus theory, I was wrong; very, very wrong. I didn't see that these arcane utterances were unworthy of the phrase critical theory. Such reviews divided and separated the audience. They devalued the experience of art. They created an Us versus Them dichotomy. As I see it, art is about all of us.
You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.