Critical theory – a clear explanation by Nancy Fraser

‘To my mind, no one has yet improved on Marx’s 1843 definition of Critical Theory as “the self-clarification of the struggles and wishes of the age.” What is so appealing about this definition is its straightforwardly political character. It makes no claim to any special epistemological status but, rather, supposes that with respect to justification there is no philosophically interesting difference between a critical theory of society and an uncritical one. But there is, according to this definition, an important political difference. A critical social theory frames its research program and its conceptual framework with an eye to the aims and activities of those oppositional social movements with which it has a partisan though not uncritical identification. The questions it asks and the models it designs are informed by that identification and interest. Thus, for example, if struggles contesting the subordination of women figured among the most significant of a given age, then a critical social theory for that time would aim, among other things, to shed light on the character and bases of such subordination. It would employ categories and explanatory models which revealed rather than occluded relations of male dominance and female subordination. And it would demystify as ideological rival approaches which obfuscated or rationalized those relations. In this situation, then, one of the standards for assessing a critical theory, once it had been subjected to all the usual tests of empirical adequacy, would be: How well does it theorize the situation and prospects of the feminist movement? To what extent does it serve the self-clarification of the struggles and wishes of contemporary women?’

Nancy Fraser (1985, p. 97). What’s critical about critical theory? The case of Habermas and gender. New German Critique, 35, 97-131.

Judith Butler on the social construction of sex and gender

‘We are assigned a sex, treated in various ways that communicate expectations for living as one gender or another, and we are formed within institutions that reproduce our lives through gender norms. So, we are always “constructed” in ways that we do not choose. And yet we all seek to craft a life in a social world where conventions are changing, and where we struggle to find ourselves within existing and evolving conventions. This suggests that sex and gender are “constructed” in a way that is neither fully determined nor fully chosen but rather caught up in the recurrent tension between determinism and freedom. […] Gender theorists who call for gender equality and sexual freedom are not committed to a hyper-voluntarist view of “social construction”…’

Judith Butler, in New Statesman

The first mention of genderqueer in print

‘The fight against gender oppression has been joined for centuries, perhaps millennia. What’s new today, is that it’s moving into the arena of open political activism. And nope, this is not just one more civil rights struggle for one more narrowly defined minority. It’s about all of us who are genderqueer: diesel dykes and stone butches, leatherqueens and radical fairies, nelly fags, crossdressers, intersexed, transexuals, transvestites, transgendered, transgressively gendered, intersexed, and those of us whose gender expressions are so complex they haven’t even been named yet. More than that, it’s about the gender oppression which affects everyone: the college sweetheart who develops life-threatening anorexia nervosa trying to look “feminine,” the Joe Sixpack dead at 45 from cirrhosis of the liver because “real men” are hard drinkers. But maybe we genderqueers feel it most keenly, because it hits us each time we walk out the front door openly and proudly. And that’s why these pages are only going to grow. We’re not invisible anymore. We’re not well behaved. And we’re not going away. Political activism is here to stay.

‘So get out. Get active. Picket someone’s transphobic ass. Get in someone’s genderphobic face. And while you’re at it, pass the word: the gendeRevolution has begun, and we’re going to win.’

Riki Anne Wilchins, In Your Face No. 1 (Spring 1995)

Unsticking social research through lived experience and citizen control

Having lived experience and knowing people with lived experience are really effective way of researching social conditions—unavoidably, whether or not you want to—and lead to rich theory.

Compare what activist groups do versus a model of social research in which you have a central institute, running surveys and writing supposedly “independent” reports, making policy proposals. The latter leads to flat, superficial theorising if done without lived experience.

In activist groups with rich communication (e.g., chat groups and regular meetings) the “data collection” is continuous, doesn’t feel like research, and is inseparable from day-to-day individual support and activism. But traditional reports can still be important to get media and government attention: “What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Job Like This?” is a good example of research drawing on lived experience and traditional research skills.

To unstick social research requires holding onto all methodological advances whilst radically opening up research to citizen control. Sometimes getting a good estimate of the population prevalence and correlates of some form of oppression are important to highlight severity and likely causes. Advances in techniques and software for qualitative analysis can be useful too and ensure best use is made of material.

Academics without lived experience running convenience sample qualitative studies with small numbers of people and pretentious methodology are fundamentally limited in what they can discover. But the same sample from lived experience and lived theory is very different.

There are many professional researchers with lived experience (Max Weber, 1864-1920, was one, with experience of psychiatric inpatient stay). But higher education is a hostile environment now—you couldn’t design a better system to reward junk research and cause burnout if you tried. Such a system is deeply challenging for people who are oppressed.

Your various identities, privileges and oppression (due to race, man/woman/non-binary, cis/trans, wealth, monogamous/poly, how valued your labour skills are, property ownership, disabled, etc.) fundamentally constrain who will answer your calls for research participants, what social phenomena you can understand, who will listen to what you discover. They literally change what you see and hear and what you can research. (Epistemic relativism is a useful concept to make sense of this.)

Some researchers break free of these constraints thanks to contradictory locations; for instance, being articulate and well connected can be used to resist a position of oppression. Though then you can end up being attacked for having helpful privilege, even by “your own side”.

Academics with more secure positions can help, for instance:

  1. Support PhD students and colleagues who are oppressed in various ways: grants, decent pay, and mentoring are helpful.
  2. Instead of “giving voice” to people through interview excerpts, give a platform.
  3. Cite blog posts and reports from activists with lived experience.

Ludicrously-large sense-of-self as a way to have free will

Galen Strawson (1994) provides a succinct argument for why we can’t be truly morally responsible for any action. It goes:

(1) Nothing can be causa sui — nothing can be the cause of itself.

(2) In order to be truly morally responsible for one’s actions one would have to be causa sui, at least in certain crucial mental respects.

(3) Therefore nothing can be truly morally responsible.

Intuitively (and arm-waving wildly) this speaks also to the impossibility of free will. This impossibility thesis holds irrespective of whether determinism holds, i.e., whether everything we do “has a cause, and hence an explanation; even if the explanation is inaccessible to us” (Strawson, 1989/2008, p.338).

The gist is that under determinism we and all the actions we take are caused by something outside of us and consequently causa sui fails. Under indeterminism then some randomness — inside or outside our bodies — contributes to an event happening, which doesn’t feel like we are in control either.

This makes a lot of sense to me, and taking it seriously leads to interesting ways of thinking about and coming to terms with the reality in which we find ourselves (if that’s your thing, of course — plenty of people don’t bother). We must find meaning without relying on us being the originator of our actions. Deep curiosity about what happens next seems to be one attribute that runs deep — hence why we watch films even though we know the ending has been predetermined. I’ve recently discovered a Yiddish proverb which goes along these lines: “You should go on living — if only to satisfy your curiosity.” Also if you experience or do something pleasant or important or desirable, accepting that you did not cause it to happen but rather that a universe-old causal chain led to it happening is pretty groovy. This is a potential way to ponder meaning (if you want).

But recently I have been wondering what exactly this something that supposedly cannot be a cause of itself actually is. Intuitively, when I think about whether or not I have free will I think of my Self as encased in a body. The aspects of me of which I am consciously aware feel like me, as do unconscious aspects which I cannot experience but which I know are there: all the gory bodily processes which keep me running like my bladder’s internal sphincter.

Much of what comprises my Self comes from outside me. My genes came from my parents. My experiences come from the world around me. Each of the cause-effect chains stretching back to the beginning of time is clearly outside my body. There is a tradition of pondering where self begins and ends, for instance as popularised by The Extended Mind by Andy Clark and David Chalmers. Consider how much we rely on things in our environment to get things done. Clark and Chalmers discuss a chap called Otto who, like most of us, supplements his skull-based memory with a notebook.

“Most of us already accept that the self outstrips the boundaries of consciousness; my dispositional beliefs, for example, constitute in some deep sense part of who I am. If so, then these boundaries may also fall beyond the skin. The information in Otto’s notebook, for example, is a central part of his identity as a cognitive agent. What this comes to is that Otto himself is best regarded as an extended system, a coupling of biological organism and external resources.”

Kusch (1999, p. 359) also illustrates how stuff going on outside us can get under our skin: “at least some states of the brain might well be called social states. […T]hey predispose us to differ in the intensity, quality, and duration of some of our sensations.” There is a long tradition of this kind of thinking; those of a psychoanalytic persuasion might cite Bion and others.

Here is where the Ludicrously-Large Self (LLS) Thesis comes in. Under LLS, whether or not determinism holds, everything causally implicated in who we are and what we do becomes part of the Self. We certainly cannot be consciously aware of the vast majority of this since it extends spatially and temporally back to the beginning of time (hence Ludicrously Large). The consciously aware bit does not bother me — I feel quite attached to my bladder’s internal sphincter, even though I have no awareness of it. Now Strawson’s first proposition, “Nothing can be causa sui“, melts away. With the neatly encased model of Self, external cause-effect chains lead to who we are and what we do, whereas now under LLS we take each of those events as part of us — hence we are causes of ourselves. This is a radical challenge to our sense of identity; e.g., “even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense” (Rumi).

What is love?

“… romantic love is a syndrome because it is an arational, projected attitude with a plethora of symptoms that vary across cultures and individuals. Some core symptoms have been identified by Tennov’s concept of limerence, including obsessive thinking and idealization.”

“… all norms applicable to romantic love are extrinsic rather than intrinsic to it because romantic love is arational. For this reason, it is up to the lovers to accept, reject, and modify the norms that govern their loves.”

This looks an interesting doctoral thesis, by Arina Pismenny (2018), The Syndrome of Romantic Love.

A psychoanalyst walks into a bar(red subject)

A psychoanalyst walks into a bar with a book on logic and set theory. He orders a whisky. And another. Twelve hours and a lock-in later, all he has to show for the evening is a throbbing headache and some indecipherable bollocks scrawled on a napkin.

That’s the only conceivable explanation for these diagrams from The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious, by Jacques Lacan (published in the Écrits collection):

But, surely this notation means something? After all, Lacan is famous and academics across the world sweat whisky to try to understand his genius.

Also the notion  f(x) is a function, f, applied to argument x — that’s recognisable from maths. So the I(A) and s(A) must mean something…?

Here is a brief interlude on functions to show how they can be introduced and used. The Fibonacci sequence, which pops up in all kinds of interesting places in nature, is defined as follows:

f(0) = 0,
f(1) = 1,
f(n) = f(n-1) + f(n-2), for n > 1.

In English, this says that the first two numbers in the sequence are 0 and 1. The numbers following are obtained by summing the previous two: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, …

If you tell it a number (e.g., 0, 1, 2, …) then it replies with the respective number in the sequence (first, second, third, …). It might look a bit scary if you haven’t seen the notation before, but have a look at these examples showing how the sums are done. You start with 0 and 1 and then to get the numbers for larger values, check back at your previous scribbles and fill in accordingly:

  • f(0)  =  0
  • f(1)  =  1
  • f(2)  =  f(1) + f(0)  =  1 + 0 = 1
  • f(3)  =  f(2) + f(1)  =  1 + 1 = 2
  • f(4)  =  f(3) + f(2)  =  2 + 1 = 3
  • f(5)  =  f(4) + f(3)  =  3 + 5 = 5
  • f(6)  =  f(5) + f(4)  =  5 + 3 = 8

My point here is that the function notation “does something”. It provides a way of defining and referring to (here, mathematical) concepts.

Less well-known, but appearing in university philosophy courses, is the lozenge symbol, ◊, which means “possible” in a particular kind of logic called modal logic. It seems plausible that there is something meaningful here in Lacan’s use of the symbol too.

Here is Lacan, “explaining” his notation for non-mathematicians:

Huh?

Lacan doesn’t try to explain what the notion means; he doesn’t seem to want readers to understand. Maybe he is just too clever and if only we persevered we would get what he means. However, elsewhere in the same text Lacan uses arithmetic to argue that “the erectile organ can be equated with √(-1)”. I’m told this is a joke because √(-1) is an imaginary number. Maybe trainee psychoanalysts learn about complex numbers? Maybe all Lacanian discourse is dadaist performance.

Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont have written a book-length critique of Lacan’s maths and others’ similar use of natural science concepts. Having read lots of mathematical texts and seen how authors make an effort to introduce their notation, I think it’s entirely possible Lacan is a fraud. That might sound harsh, but forget how famous he is and just look at how he writes.

NHS England mental health clustering implementation “disappointing”

A document is circulating from NHS England and NHS Improvement (13 Aug 2018) on the current state of payment systems and clustering in mental health services in England.

It cites “local pricing rule 7” from the 2017/18 and 2018/19 National Tariff Payment System (NTPS) and reports on a survey of progress towards implementing the rule.

Here is what rule 7 said (p. 114):

Rule 7: Local prices for mental health services for working age adults and older people
a. Providers and commissioners must link prices for mental health services for working age adults and older people to locally agreed quality and outcome measures and the delivery of access and wait standards.
b. Providers and commissioners must adopt one of the following payment approaches in relation to mental health services for working age adults and older people:

i. episode of care based on care cluster currencies
ii. capitation, having regard to the care cluster currencies and any other relevant information, in accordance with the requirements of Rule 4(b) to (e)
iii. an alternative payment approach agreed in accordance with the
requirements of Rule 4 (b) to (e).

Commissioners and providers (233 in total) were asked, “What payment approach do you have in place with your contracts for working age adults and older people in 2017/18?”

Here are the results:

So only 14 out of 223 responses (6%) reported a move away from block contracts – the whole point of the new payment systems! The report notes, “The results were disappointing.”

Reasons given by respondents for the poor implementation included:

  • “limited local capacity to implement a new payment approach”
  • “lack of shared confidence in cost and activity data”
  • “uncertainty about how the proposed payment approaches would relate to the new operating models that would develop as part of integrated care systems.”

Services are supposed to be “clustering” the patients they see, irrespective of whether the clusters are used for payment. Rule 6 (p. 114):

Rule 6: Using the mental healthcare clusters
All providers of services covered by the care cluster currencies (see Annex B3) must record and submit the cluster data to NHS Digital as part of the Mental Health Services Dataset, whether or not they have used the care clusters as the basis of payment. This should be completed in line with the mental health clustering tool (Annex B3) and mental health clustering booklet to assign a care cluster classification to patients.

The research on clusters is damning. A recent study (Jacobs, et al., 2018) found that clusters were not very good at characterising the costs of different kinds of treatment and support (p. 7):

“Clusters are therefore not performing very well as a classification system to capture similarities and differences between patients. The categories of the current classification system appear to be neither case-mix nor resource homogeneous. We find evidence of large variation in terms of activity and costs within clusters and between providers.”

Surprisingly, the authors argue that clustering should continue (p. 7):

“… any payment approach needs to be underpinned by a solid classification system and to abandon the clustering approach now will thwart all progress. The clustering approach is already relatively well-established among most providers. Scrapping it all and starting from scratch risks putting mental health services back a decade in terms of developing a more transparent and fair funding system.”

Given the survey results above, it’s unclear how much progress would actually be thwarted by ditching clusters.

 

If you enjoy this sort of thing, you might also be interested in:

Mr Justice Mostyn vs. vague, rhetorical applications of theory

A court case (GM v Carmarthenshire County Council [2018] EWFC 36) has ruled that a social worker’s “generalised statements, or tropes” based on attachment theory are not admissible evidence.

The full judgement by Mr Justice Mostyn has interesting thoughts on the valid application of theory and balance between theory and observation.

“… the local authority’s evidence in opposition to the mother’s application was contained in an extremely long, 44-page, witness statement made by the social worker […]. This witness statement was very long on rhetoric and generalised criticism but very short indeed on any concrete examples of where and how the mother’s parenting had been deficient. Indeed, it was very hard to pin down within the swathes of text what exactly was being said against the mother. […] [The social worker] was asked to identify her best example of the mother failing to meet L’s emotional needs. Her response was that until prompted by the local authority mother had not spent sufficient one-to-one time with L and had failed on one occasion to take him out for an ice cream. […] A further criticism in this vein was that the mother had failed to arrange for L’s hair to be cut in the way that he liked.”

There is also a detailed section on attachment theory:

“… the theory is only a theory. It might be regarded as a statement of the obvious, namely that primate infants develop attachments to familiar caregivers as a result of evolutionary pressures, since attachment behaviour would facilitate the infant’s survival in the face of dangers such as predation or exposure to the elements. Certainly, this was the view of John Bowlby, the psychologist, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst and originator of the theory in the 1960s. It might be thought to be obvious that the better the quality of the care given by the primary caregiver the better the chance of the recipient of that care forming stable relationships later in life. However, it must also be recognised that some people who have received highly abusive care in childhood have developed into completely well-adjusted adults. Further, the central premise of the theory – that quality attachments depend on quality care from a primary caregiver – begins to fall down when you consider that plenty of children are brought up collectively (whether in a boarding school, a kibbutz or a village in Africa) and yet develop into perfectly normal and well-adjusted adults.”

Much to discuss!