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Readers of my many books sometimes get frustrated with my dialectical style. I seem to contradict myself, they say.
Guess what? I contradict myself on purpose, ladies and gentlemen. That's called dialectics.
Dia-what? Well, I think (and write) in contradictions so as to bring these very contradictions to the surface and work through (or against) them. I'm fishing for truth in all these contradictory viewpoints—in opposition to society, which tells us to think this way and not that way. Dialectical thinking is a looking at all viewpoints and assessing them against each other in order to find where the truth may lie.
I call the way society insists that we identify things according to society's rules "identity thinking." Identity thinking is oppressive. It quashes all dissent. It's authoritarian and even, at times, totalitarian.
In opposition to this, thought must be critical. To be critical, it must be dialectical. You could say I'm like a good version of the Joker in The Dark Knight, showing society how fragile its identity really is. I do this with dialectics—with thinking done both with and against society.
Unlike the Joker, I don't just want to watch the world burn. I dream of a world in which dialectics is no longer needed, because society no longer causes suffering by controlling thought and suppressing criticism against the prevailing order. Utopian, I know. What are you going to do about it?
In the history of Western philosophy, aesthetics is used signify both the philosophy of art and the philosophy of beauty. My aesthetic theory focuses on modern art—art that refuses to be easily classified, in part because it refuses to conform to natural form or to the forms considered legitimate by society (translation: forms that rake in the dough).
Fans of traditional art desire art that reflects and sustains "reality," whatever that means. They want people to look like people, mountains to look like mountains, dramatic situations to look like real-life drama.
I say take up photography, then, if all you want to do is capture the likeness of things. You won't succeed, though. You can't capture pure nature with poetry or film or anything else, because pure nature no longer exists. You take a stroll through the woods to get away from it all only to spy an airplane soaring overhead, the noise of its engine polluting the sounds of wind and rain, the chatter of birds and the scampering of squirrels. Society has already remade nature. Reality is full of contradictions.
Modern art gives reality its due by grasping its essential contradictions. This, and not conformity, is the truth of art. Art resists the conformity society seeks to impose on it—in that way, it's dialectical itself. By displaying and working through its own contradictions, it shines a light on the disorder that the social order would like to hide from your consciousness.
Human beings seek control. We wish to be masters of nature, masters of ourselves, and masters of one another. Domination takes many forms: political leaders dominate others through law and sanction; priests dominate with doctrines and promises of eternal penalties; marketing departments dominate by manipulating our desires and our sense of our needs.
Everyone's out to lord it over other people. Fear drives us: fear of sickness, fear of death, fear of decay, fear of not being just like everyone else, fear of not having the same smartphones and the same apps as everyone else. Yet we moderns think we're free. LOL.
(I, uh, freely used that LOL.)
Only dialectics and critical thinking can ever hope to get us out of this mess.
People talk a lot about the modern age's championship of freedom from old oppressive systems of rule and thought. Democracy, capitalism, and enlightenment forever, right?
Well, don't count your emancipated eggs just yet. What if these new systems have their own forms of social control and oppression?
We critical theorists say they do. The Enlightenment might be a step up from the kinds of oppression that came before it, but it has its own internal contradictions. The Enlightenment says it stands for Reason, but what does it mean by "Reason"? It certainly doesn't mean everyone thinking freely in his or her own way. Nope: the expectation is often that everyone will think in exactly the same way. There's only one kind of Reason.
We critical theorists aim to steer the Enlightenment away from these tendencies. We're not anti-Reason or anti-science or anti-Enlightenment. We argue rather that rational, scientific, and enlightened thinking needs to always be critical—mindful and appreciative of the ways in which these forms of thinking can undermine themselves. Don't just blindly believe in Reason—critique it just as much as you would critique anything else.