Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Critical Approaches, Rational Argument, and Commitments

"I turned to Alastair Pennycook’s Critical Applied Linguistics: A Critical Introduction  in the hope of finding a systematic and coherent account of what I took to be one particular way of doing applied linguistics. I was looking for an (introductory) text which would make explicit not only the “real-world” problems critical work addresses, but also the principles it is based on together with an exploration of the (philosophical) origins of these principles and above all on their interrelation with each other. These expectations turned out to be inappropriate for a (critical) book on critical applied linguistics. But even more than that: I know that everything I have said above is based on my belief in the value of rational argument. And since I am not sure whether (or how) there is a place for rational argument in Pennycook’s world of critical applied linguistics, I am not sure whether what I have said here has any relevance. Maybe – if one truly adopts the CALx way of thinking and doing – a book review like this ceases to have any point or purpose."

 - Katharina Breyer (2002) in her review of Pennycook (2001).

I am sympathetic to Breyer's desire to, in essence, "critique the critical" (though I have promised myself this will not be a central feature of my own work -- too often my resistance feels to me like petty squabbling). Yet I am also (maybe due to my postmodern sympathies) suspicious of her deployment of "rational argument." Basically: Whence rationality? It is this critique of modernist discourse which both neo-Marxist/Gramscian/etc scholars and crazy religious people like me who actually believe in transcendence can agree on. (See, for example, Canagarajah's contributions to his and Wong's Christian and Critical English Language Educators in Dialogue.)

One wonders, then, is there room to wade in the waters of CAL for someone who will ultimately choose not to embrace its theoretical commitments? I'd like to hope so. Critical approaches tend to be shunned in part, I think, because of what reads like a you're-either-for-us-or-against-us attitude: if you are not questioning the basic assumptions of your discipline, you tacitly support existing injustice. This is a hard pill to swallow, yet it feels important. Like Canagarajah, Freire, and Osborn, I see important resonances between Christianity and critical practice. But I'm Just Not That Into Foucault, Marx, etc. I like to hang out with the Russian Orthodox version of Bakhtin; neither he, nor I, nor any theorist, is "the first speaker, the one who disturbs the eternal silence of the universe."

If one declares one's epistemological commitments, one is open to critique. Tell a staunchly materialist neuroscientist and philosopher of mind that you are committed to a particular religious story, and you may be ridiculed. Tell a critical theorist that you are committed to scientific materialism and Reason, and you may be written off as naive. Tell a critical applied linguist you are committed to an alternative vision of justice and ethics and you may be taken to task.

This, I suppose, is the price one pays for finding a way of thinking, being, and doing which allows one to sleep at night. The source of our commitments is complex, multifaceted, and mysterious, yet I suspect the further we drill down into them, the better chance we have of strengthening, rather than destroying, the foundations. What, after all, is the purpose of tearing down, if not to build?

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