The Dictatorship of Theory

(Here’s something I wrote several years ago…I was reminded of it by a current post and discussion discussion at Quillette, so thought I”d post it here and link it there.  The references aren’t current, but the issues raised remain very real.)

Professor “X” teaches at a prominent private university. Recently, he taught a course on “Topics in Theory and Criticism.” He thought the class was going poorly–it was difficult to get the students to talk about the material–but on the last day of class, he received an ovation.

“I didn’t understand what was going on until a few days later,” he writes (in an e-mail to Critical Mass.) “Several students came to see me during office hours to tell me that they had never taken a course quite like this one before. What they had expected was a template-driven, “here’s how we apply ****ist theory to texts” approach, because that is how all of their classes are taught in the English department here…Not a single one of these students had ever read a piece of theory or criticism earlier than the 1960s (with the exception of one who had been asked to read a short excerpt from Marx.) They simply had never been asked to do anything other than “imitate without understanding.””

In university humanities departments, theory is increasingly dominant–not theory in the traditional scholarly and scientific sense of a tentative conceptual model, always subject to revision, but theory in the sense of an almost religious doctrine, accepted on the basis of assertion and authority. To quote Professor “X” once again: “Graduate “education” in a humanities discipline like English seems to be primarily about indoctrination and self-replication.”

The experiences of Professor “X” are far from unique. Professor “Y,” chair of an English department, describes his experiences in interviewing for a new job (also in an e-mail to Critical Mass). “How truthful could I afford to be about my growing dissatisfaction with theory? Should I trump up some ghastly theoretical allegiances, or should I just come clean about my desire to leave theory behind to try to become genuinely learned?” He decided to do the latter, cautiously. In his job talk, he said:

“The writings I’ve published draw on a number of different theoretical perspectives…the overarching goal I’ve set for myself in my scholarship, though is gradually to lessen my reliance on the theories of others…” He sensed at this point that he had lost the support of about three quarters of his audience, and he was not offered the job. Those who did like the statement were older faculty members–one of whom later told Prof “Y” that she hadn’t heard anyone say something like this in twenty years.

Why is theory (which would often more accurately be called meta-theory) so attractive to so many denizens of university humanities departments? To some extent, the explanation lies in simple intellectual fad-following. But I think there is a deeper reason. Becoming an alcolyte of some all-encompassing theory can spare you from the effort of learning about anything else. For example: if everything is about (for example) power relationships–all literature, all history, all science, even all mathematics–you don’t need to actually learn much about medieval poetry, or about the Second Law of thermodynamics, or about isolationism in the 1930s. You can look smugly down on those poor drudges who do study such things, while enjoying “that intellectual sweep of comprehension known only to adolescents, psychopaths and college professors” (the phrase is from Andrew Klavan’s unusual novel True Crime.)

The dictatorship of theory has reached its greatest extremes in university humanities departments, but is not limited to these. Writing 50 years ago, C S Lewis says the following about his sociologist hero in the novel That Hideous Strength:

“..his education had had the curious effect of making things that he read and wrote more real to him than the things he saw. Statistics about agricultural laboureres were the substance: any real ditcher, ploughman, or farmer’s boy, was the shadow…he had a great reluctance, in his work, to ever use such words as “man” or “woman.” He preferred to write about “vocational groups,” “elements,” “classes,” and “populations”: for, in his own way, he believed as firmly as any mystic in the superior reality of the things that are not seen.”

It’s unlikely that the phenomenon Lewis describes has become any less prevalent in the intervening half-century. But in the social sciences, there is at least some tradition of empiricism to offset an uncontrolled swing to pure theory.

The theoretical obsession has even made a transition from academia into the business world, via MBA programs. Many newly-graduated MBAs have in their head some strategic “paradigm,” into which they will fit any business reality like a Procrustean bed. The 4X4 strategic grid, or the mathematical decision tool, are far more real to them than the actual details of manufacturing and selling a particular product. Like Lewis’ sociologist, they believe in “the superior reality of things not seen.” The attractions of theory-driven kind of thinking in business are similar to those that make it attractive in university humanities departments. By emphasizing theoretical knowledge, an MBA with little experience can convince himself (and possibly others) that he deserves more authority than those with broad experience and “tacit knowledge” in a particular business.

I’m not arguing that theory is useless in business management, any more than I’m arguing that it’s useless in academia. I am arguing that theory should be balanced by factual knowledge and empiricism, and that it should never be allowed to degenerate into dogma.

There’s an old saying: when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. In today’s world, we have an epidemic of people metaphorically trying to use hammers to drive nails, or to use saws to weld metal. Academia bears a grave responsibility for this situation. Too often, professors have acted not like true scholars, but like preachers believing that their salvation lies in getting people to accept the One True Doctrine, entire and unmodified–or like salesmen who have only one product to sell and will do their best to sell it to you, regardless of whether it has anything to do with your actual needs or not.

See also Studying ‘Frankenstein’ Without Reading ‘Frankenstein’.

Heuristics for Ukraine (and other places)

NB: some of the following is from a recent videoconference that included our own Trent Telenko, who is very much the man of the hour, but some of it is more publicly available, not to mention common sense. First, though, as is my wont, a quadrant diagram to organize my presentation …

I. Theater “Hardware” (physical assets/consequences)

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Ukraine Thread Part 3 – Day Eight of the Russian Column Held Hostage (by the usual Russian incompetence) –

Welcome to the third installment of the Russian invasion of Ukraine series.  Since Napoleon stated that the moral is to the physical what ten is to one.  After the situation map (below) we are going to start the post with a look at the moral dimensions of the current fighting. Follow it with my impressions of the current fighting.  Then close with a counterfactual of the Ukraine-Russian fighting based on the works of Trevor Dupuy.

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I have posted on twitter about the Russian Army columns North of Kyiv decaying into immobile blobs due to the Rasputitsa, poorly maintained Chinese truck tires and shear “follow the plan” Russian incompetence.

The head and first dozen or so kilometers of the southernmost column north of Kiev have been stuck there for EIGHT DAYS.  The Russians have since rammed more and more vehicles into this monster traffic jam (idiotically “following the plan” Soviet-style) so the whole thing is now 65-70 kilometers long (almost 40 miles).

And, because the trucks can’t go off-road due to the Rasputitsa mud and tire problems, they’re stuck on the roads and the roads’ shoulders three vehicles wide for the whole @40 miles.   That means fuel and resupply trucks can’t move on or off road to deliver anything to anybody.

So all the columns’ heads are now out of fuel and battery power.  They can’t move north, south or sideways, and everything behind them is stuck because of the mud, and rapidly running out of fuel and vehicle battery charge too (assuming they haven’t already).  Nor can any of those columns defend themselves because they’re too densely packed.  They’re just targets waiting for the Ukrainians to destroy them.

Only the Ukrainians had something better to do.  They opened the floodgates of reservoirs around those columns to flood them and turn the surrounding areas into impassable quagmires for months – probably until July or August.  (See photo below) Probably several thousand Russian vehicles in those columns will be irrecoverable losses.  Hundreds of Russian soldiers might have drowned.

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MilitaryLand.net@Militarylandnet As correctly pointed out by some of you, Ukrainian troops seems to flooded the area north of Kyiv. That’s the reason why the Russian advance is stagnating there. #Ukraine #UkraineRussiaWar #Kyiv https://twitter.com/Militarylandnet/status/1499786877448200192

This was not just a debacle, but an EPIC one. About 1/5th of the Russian force in Ukraine is now flooded or trapped, and are definitely out of the war for good.

Now to the moral dimension.  The 1242 Battle of the Neva, where the Teutonic Knights fought Alexander Nevsky, is one of the founding myths of Russia.

See:

The Battle on the Ice, 1242 – Teutonic Knights vs. Alexander Nevsky 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IVAFgSNUukg 

President Zelensky’s drowning of Putin’s minions in the Battle of the Kyiv reservoir may be as central to modern Ukraine’s founding national identity going forward, for similar reasons, possibly with Zelensky as modern Ukraine’s Alexander Nevsky.

Reddit and other Meme generating sites are going to have a glorious time redoing Stalin’s Alexander Nevsky movie by putting Zelensky’s face on the actor playing Nevsky.

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Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine has begun

This thread is for the discussion of the on-going Russian invasion of Ukraine.

This top page will be updated through out the day.

New discussion thread posts will open as and when current ones gets too unwieldy.

The top story at the time of this post (Feb 23, 2022 9:45pm CST) is that Russian airborne forces have landed at the Kyiv international airport.  1204am CST — This report is disinformation.

Soviet VDV exercise conducted in preparation for an ...

9:52pm CST “Ukraine’s Operational Command is reporting that cruise & ballistic missile strikes are targeting command & control assets in Kyiv”

9:55pm CST  Map of initial trikes on Ukraine by Russian armed forces:

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10:08pm CST – “There are reports that the entire Ukrainian Surface Navy has been neutralized in the Port of Odesa, this comes after reports of Amphibious Assaults on and near the coastal city.”

Map of Russian Advances as of 10:20an CST

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Book Review: Tunnel in the Sky, Robert Heinlein

In William Golding’s 1955 novel ‘Lord of the Flies’, a group of students is stranded on an island–and they revert quickly to barbarism.  The book sold millions of copies and has become common assigned reading for high school classes.  Another book, published at about the same time, projects a very different view of human nature and society.

Heinlein’s future world in Tunnel in the Sky has been faced with a crisis of massive overpopulation…a common projected future in books of this period:

…the population of Terra had climbed well beyond that which its farm lands could support.  The hydrogen, germ, and nerve gas horrors that followed were not truly political.  The true meaning was more that of beggars fighting over a crust of bread…Life, all life, has the twin drives to survive and to reproduce.   

Release from the Malthusian Trap was ultimately gained through an invention that opened up new worlds for settlement:  a hyperfold device called a Gate allows people to transition instantly from earth to their new homes light-years away…and, unlike rockets, the Gate technology allows very large numbers of people to be transferred.  There’s a catch, though:  keeping a gate open requires huge amounts of energy, so when the migrants move to a new planet, the gate is relaxed and they are left on their own until such time as they can offer enough trade goods to be worth the energy of reconnecting them…which may be a long, long time.  Hence, old skills have again become relevant…the situation of the settlers:

…made horses more practical than helicopters, picks and shovels more useful than bulldozers.  Machinery gets out of order and requires a complex technology to keep it going–but good old “hayburners” keep right on breeding, cropping grass, and pulling loads.

The book’s protagonist, Rod Walker, is a high school senior who plans on a future as a pioneer and a colonist and hence is taking a course in Outlands Survival.  Final exam time has arrived: the students will be sent to a planet of which they know nothing–the test rules are ANY planet–ANY climate–ANY terrain and NO rules–ANY weapons–ALL equipment.  They will be left on their own for 1-2 weeks, then returned to earth.

The class (which includes girls as well as boys) has a final session with their instructor…Rod is asked to stay after the others and is advised that he would be wise drop the course and skip the test:

Rod, you’re a good boy…but sometimes that isn’t enough.  I think you are a romantic.  Now this is a very romantic age; it calls for practical men…You are way too emotional, too sentimental to be a real survivor type…I’m not sure that you can beware of the Truce of the Bear.

But Rod decides to go, despite the advice and despite the fact that the boy he had intended to team with decides at the last moment to drop the class.  After passing through the Gate and finding himself alone, he discovers one of his classmates–who has been killed.  By a predator?  Yes…but:

Yo’s proud Thunderbolt gun was no longer in sight…The only animal who would bother to steal a gun ran around on two legs.  Rod reminded himself that a Thunderbolt could kill at almost any line-of-sight range–and now somebody had it who obviously took advantage of the absence of law and order in a survival test area.

After surviving for several days, beginning to get oriented, and encountering various local animal species, Rod meets up with Jack, a member of a different class sent to the same survival area.  Over time, they encounter others, and a group begins to develop with Rod as the de facto leader.  Their recall at the end of the test period is delayed–at first, they think it is just a minor technical problem of some sort, but the feeling grows that something has gone very badly wrong, and they may be stuck on this planet for an indeterminate time–maybe forever.

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