How Critical Theory Ruined my Life

7 Dec

Photo on 2012-12-07 at 22.09

Sometimes a phrase pops into your head that won’t leave you alone, that you find so bizarrely satisfying that you just have to get the slogan T-shirt printed. Well, almost. The title of this post is one such zinger, doubtless melodramatic and over-zealously wacky to anyone else who sees it, but mildly amusing to me. It’s actually not entirely a joke, either; Critical Theory, or at least the few semi-understood ideas I gleaned from my reading of it, has on occasion made my skull a rather unpleasant place to be.

In my last year at University, I took a course in Post-Structuralist thought. As a preamble, we learned about Structuralism itself, and of how it was ripe to be hijacked by altogether more prescient bunch of wankers in polonecks. While Barthes, Foucault et al remain more fun than, say, disgraced Belgian academic Paul de Man or the inscrutable Jacques Lacan (the man who famously attempted to express his reaction to having his dick sucked as an algebraic equation), reading their work was a minefield for me.

The premise of Structuralism, as I understand it, rests on the idea that no word has any meaning without its complex system of allusions. The word “dog”, for example, is a shorthand signifier for the image of what we call a dog. There is nothing wrong with this- it just saves the effort of getting down on all fours and miming a bark. What it does imply, though, is that there is no such thing as inherent “meaning”; without the language and obvious connotations surrounding an idea, it simply can’t function. Thus, there is no whole without a labyrinthine series of culturally inherited parts.

After reading- and unquestioningly swallowing- a lot of the theory behind this, I accidentally started applying it to myself; I involuntarily began to monitor the regularity of my vital organs. I was suddenly unable to ignore listening to my heartbeat as I lay in bed, and the slightest irregularity in pace started to scare me. Before I knew it, I was getting severe panic attacks and not sleeping for three days on end. I once ended up in hospital for the best part of a day, deaf to rationality. I turned up at A&E on a bright Sunday morning, shaking like a pneumatic drill with Parkinson’s. I lurched my way towards reception and practically keeled over on top of the receptionist.

‘S-s-s-s-orry to t-t-t-rouble you, b-b-b-but I think I’m having a heart at-at-at-attack’

‘Oh. Have you ever had a heart attack before?’ She said, rolling her eyes,


‘Right. Take a seat, please, sir, and we’ll call you as soon as we can’



I did as I was told, taking no comfort from the gloriously (and quite rightly) indifferent attitude of my interlocutor. I sat there trembling for the entire afternoon. Of course, when I was seen to, I was told that I was just having an anxiety attack. I felt a mixture of extreme terror at my undiagnosed impending death and violent embarrassment at having wasted the NHS’s time. I demanded more tests, which they very kindly provided and used to confirm that I was not, in fact, on death’s door. I left the Chelsea & Westminster Hospital morbidly ashamed but still convinced I was about to perish. For the next two weeks, I had to go out of my way to forget about my phantom heart attack lest I end up soaking up any more valuable National Health hours. Have you ever actively attempted to forget something? You might as well attempt to give birth to a Ford Mondeo through your ear.

Looking back on it, it was a more than faintly risible episode; I think- in my panic- I even told the doctor that my troubles had begun with Roland Barthes’ Le mort de l’auteur: can you imagine how that must’ve gone down in the staff canteen? ‘Yeah, we once had a guy in here who was so fucking pseudo-intellectual that he ended getting an ECG scan’.

Whether or not the human body can be considered a “Text” (it can’t, whatever my neurosis might tell me), I hang my head in non-liminal shame.


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