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The [critical] theory of everything: exploring a Macalester concentration

Which academic concentration at Macalester combines philosophy, science and math into one field. Stumped? Read on to discover the wonder and complexity of the critical theory (CT) concentration.

“[The concentration] comes out of twentieth century French and German philosophy and essentially opens up a negative critical space instead of one of traditional philosophy,” explained CT student Alex Bartiromo ’16. “It combines psychoanalysis, political theory and critique of theory.”

Kiarina Kordela, Director of the CT concentration said, “Critical theory is defined by its methodology rather than the object it analyzes, which is why it is studied and applied across all possible disciplines in the humanities, arts and social sciences. It is an approach for analyzing various fields, from politics, social issues, culture and ideology, to philosophy, religion, aesthetics, ethics and the constitution of subjectivity.” She also explained that in contrast to most traditional philosophy, Critical theory recognizes aspects such as belief, imagination and rhetoric as constitutive of claims to truth.

If these explanations seem broad, it’s because CT is an extremely interdisciplinary subject. In fact, the concentration involves fifteen different departments in some way, making it the largest concentration on campus. However, only about thirty students are currently concentrating in CT, so it’s simultaneously the smallest. Because of its practicality and breadth, the CT concentration attracts students from all different majors who end up in all different careers. Kordela admitted that it is difficult to identify a pattern of what CT concentrators typically major in because it has so many applications.

As CT concentrators, students can take a wide range of classes to fulfill concentration requirements. From disciplines such as English, German and linguistics, students chose from a plethora of classes, such as Postcolonial Theory, The Power of Words or Kafka: Gods, Animals, and Other Species of Modernity. Students are required to take five critical theory courses, including one course that involves a research paper.

Liza Michaeli ’18 believes CT subsumes everything we learn at Macalester. She sees connections to the theory of relativity and to the way quantum mechanics works. CT can even connect seemingly distant topics such as entropy and capitalism, Michaeli noted. It entails studying subjects at a deeper level and applying a critical perspective to the world.

CT is a distinct discipline. Michaeli found the conversations she has had in CT classes to be totally unique. She recalled a discussion in one class about suicide bombing. The class reflected on the moment when the criminal takes the life of another in one brutal, horrible yet intimate death.

“A lot of people ask, ‘What’s the value of CT?’” Micheali said, and her answer is very practical.

She noted that many people have the idea of proactively changing the world but forget to question their ideologies and dogmas. Critical theory forces activists to question their motives and look at issues from all perspectives. It breaks things down to their fundamentals so students can study what they actually are.

Not only is CT a unique methodology, it’s pretty unique that Macalester students have the opportunity to study it. Kordela noted that Macalester is one of the few colleges that offers the opportunity to engage in critical theory. This little group with an expansive curriculum may very well be one of Macalester’s little known yet fantastic opportunities.

December 7, 2015

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