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[Controversed] Week 3: Critical Theories

Big warm welcome to those who made it to Week 3 – and those who are checking out the series for the first time (there might be something for you too, who knows!). If you’re reading this for the first time, feel free to check out my more detailed introduction here.

Critical Theories and Controversy

This is probably the trickiest Controversed post I’ve had to write yet, and I first want to contextualize it a little. I’m using “critical theory” here in the sense of any framework or perspective that seeks to uncover what a work is about and how it goes about doing it.

Why critical theory? Is it controversial? You’d be surprised, if you haven’t been already. It’s not uncommon to see people shun others for talking fancy or being hypocritical in any online community, perhaps because there’s no shortage of people who do flaunt their authority through various capitalized -isms. Much of the time though, I believe criticism is rather misunderstood or misconstrued.

The most common criticism for criticism that I see is that it’s too narrow-minded or “politically driven.” “You can’t criticize [anime title] for poor representation of women! That was never the point, and you’re just applying your own agenda to it.” Well, I’m sorry if you don’t feel the same way, but for this workshop, any such “agenda” is perfectly valid if it is attached to a coherent argument with a basis in the given work. It is perfectly possible to disagree with a piece of criticism without denying its validity as an argument.

To accept the premise of criticism is to understand a few things: a) criticism isn’t meant to cover everything about a work, b) what it uncovers doesn’t necessarily have to be the author’s intention, and c) it is one specific perspective among many others that exist. I would further argue that to partake in criticism is to accept that all art is political, but I won’t go into it here since I made it one of the prompts.

Wherever my love for literature came from, it was not inspired by my high school English teacher, but his definition of critical theories was useful: a critical theory is a filtered lens through which you see a work in one particular shade of colour. It’s not meant to diminish the effect or meaning of the work (and arguably, lacks the power to do so); it’s for you to appreciate it under a different context.

A List of Fun Theories

For your reference, here’s a list of some interesting theories and what they’re about! Many of them overlap, and I also bunched some together for the sake of convenience.

Formalism

Death to the author

This approach includes what is often called “death of the author,” where a work is analyzed independently from any biological context and sociocultural influences. Instead, it focuses on the form and themes of the work itself (*most other theories below do this anyway, so in a sense, you can call formalism a starting point for criticism?).

  • Are there any recurring patterns/motifs within the work? What do they say?
  • What themes/messages are there, and are they consistently expressed throughout the work, or are there contradictions?
  • Irony, symbolism, juxtaposition, yeah, just pull out all those figures of speech that you probably learned at some point in your life!

Gender and Queer Theory

This field has its origins in feminist theory and feminist movements, and explores what a work says about gender and sexuality.

  • How is gender/sexuality represented? Is any group left out in the representation?
  • Does the work conform to or challenge a patriarchal system?
  • What does the work say about the feminine, masculine, or queer experience?
  • In visual mediums: whose gaze does the camera represent? Are we viewing characters voyeuristically (in a sexual light)?

Race and Postcolonial Theory

Like gender and queer theory, this is technically two highly related fields. This framework is interested in what a work says about race, racial conflict and the power structures inherent in such conflicts.

  • How are different racial groups distinguished from one another, and to what purpose/effect?
  • Who are we meant to identify with?
  • Who is in power, and who is oppressed?
  • What was the colonial context in which the work was created/produced?

Psychoanalysis

Based largely on Freudian concepts, this perspective seeks to understand a work through the psychological motivations of its characters, its author, and/or symbols in the work that represent states of mind.

  • What represents the protagonist’s or author’s id (instincts), ego (identity), and superego (morality)? Does one element triumph over others in the end?
  • Do characters dream, or are there any dream-like sequences? What do the dreams say?
  • If a character goes mad, how is their madness depicted?

Marxist Theory

An actual Chinese anime about Karl Marx

This perspective examines class struggles represented in a work to derive social and political meanings. Marxists sure go hard on “all art is political“!

  • How is wealth represented in the work? Who has it and who doesn’t?
  • What is the significance of labour in the work? Is it exploited in any way?
  • Who is in power, and who is oppressed? What are the social, cultural, or racial characteristics of each group?
  • Do power dynamics shift throughout the narrative? If so, what causes it?

Eco-criticism

This relatively new field rose with the environmental movement in the 1980s, but its application is certainly not limited to recent works! Eco-criticism asks what a work says about nature or the physical environment, and is often used to analyze dystopian works.

  • How is nature represented in the work? Is it nurturing, hostile, divine, endangered, or unpredictable?
  • Is there a human vs. nature conflict in the story? If so, who triumphs?
  • What are the parallels between the physical setting of the work and the real world?
For more interesting theories, check out the references I used below:

Critical Theories of Literature: https://www.wsfcs.k12.nc.us/cms/lib/NC01001395/Centricity/Domain/7661/Literary%20Critical%20Theories%20Condensed.pdf

Literary Theory: https://iep.utm.edu/literary/#H6

Week 3 Prompts

  • Try analyzing a piece of media using a critical theory that you like! Feel free to use ones that weren’t mentioned above, or combine any of them to your liking (e.g. Marxist feminism, eco-colonial theory).
  • “All art is political” vs. “let people like what they like!” appear to be opposite ends of the same controversy, and both takes have the potential to be highly egregious. What is your take?
  • Check out this Stack Exchange post: Why isn’t anime critically analyzed like other forms of literature or entertainment? Do you agree with this observation? What are some of your thoughts?

To join in on this week’s discussion, simply pick one (or more, if you wish) prompt to write on before noon of November 29th, and remember to link back to this post and use the hashtag #Controversed. Your work will be featured in a showcase at the end of the month!

To respond to other prompts in the workshop (you can write on a prompt from any week in November), check out the first two posts in the Controversed series:

*A brief follow-up on anime criticism – it’s a budding field, but yes, it does exist (and you are probably a part of it)! If you’re in the mood for more academic writing, this post from The Vault Publication gives some good pointers to works done in the field, and Susan Napier’s book ANIME: from Akira to Princess Mononoke is available for free as a PDF (I haven’t read all the articles in it, but it’s super interesting!). There’s also a Wikipedia category for anime and manga critics, believe it or not!

Sorry, I get a little excited about these things

Thanks for checking out this post, and until we meet again, happy writing!

7 thoughts on “[Controversed] Week 3: Critical Theories

  1. There is a current push back against anything mildly academic sounding but I still think it’s super interesting. Great Post, I look forward to reading the other posts.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I don’t really have anything interesting too add, but I really like these posts and I kinda want to go find that Karl Marx anime. Where’s the beard tho? 🤔

    Liked by 1 person

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