I am planning to spend some more time looking again at critical theory and how it relates to my photographic practice but without my books with me in Skye decided to think about critical theory in itself.

Readings in critical theory whether relating to a text or an image lead to two questions: first, is the criticism based on rational criteria, evidence or opinion and, second, in what sense are the statements made theoretical?

The use of the word ‘theory’ is problematic in itself because, as the philosopher David Papineau (1979) explains in his book Theory and Meaning, theoretical terms are both under and over defined. So, for example, the word ‘value’ is a theoretical term in that any definition will introduce further terms of the same kind leading to a vicious meaning regress. There are also numerous ways the term can be operationalised. Jacques Derrida also addressed this problem as he attempted to work through the problems of deferment in meaning.  In my view, Papineau’s explanation is much clearer and to the point. There is never a singular link between signifier and signified, theoretical terms invite multiple interpretations and multiple distortions. However, the value of theoretical terms in our discourse is that although their meaning is very elastic or, if you prefer “fuzzy”, they are still useful in enabling critical thought, providing one recognises their malleable nature and the uncertainty in the factual or empirical realisation of their meaning.

The more substantial problem with critical theory is that the writing invariably unmasks the prejudices and biases of the author as effectively as it targets the object of their analysis. It has been said that the camera looks both ways and that is equally true of the pen. Any text or image has an emergent meaning that is not uniquely in the eye of the reader or in the eye of the author. Margaret Syverson’s (1999) in her book “The Wealth of Reality” explores the reality of meaning in great depth and rigour. Although her field is composing, her analysis is equally appropriate to the field of photography:

“. . . meaning does not reside solely in the text (a la new criticism), nor does it reside solely in the writer (a la psychoanalytic schools of criticism), solely in the reader (a la reader-response criticism), nor even solely in the “context” (a la cultural studies and new historicism). It is not an entity that exists prior to the writing or reading of the text that instantiates it. Rather, meaning emerges as a dynamic process among these participants, a process that changes each of them even as it is unfolding. Meaning is an emergent property of the relationships among texts, writers, readers, and textual environments.” (Syverson 1999)

 It is also no accident, that many of the most prominent critical theorists of the last 50 years have been highly egocentric and narcissist in their behaviour (see: Makinen and Tredell 2003).

Biographical research into many of the leading critical theorists of their day were driven by a compulsion to draw attention to themselves at the expense of a fair assessment of the object of their criticism. Susan Sontag is a much debated case, but issues of narcissism surrounded the lives of Barthes, Derrida, and famously Michel Foucault who wrote on the topic inverting it into an argument that madness is what we define it to be. Part of the explanation for the narcissist dimension in critical theory originates, I suggest, within a philosophical tradition that locates certain knowledge solely within the experience of the individual. By privileging the individual and their experience as the only valid source of true and certain knowledge, the authors of that tradition created a framework of fundamental belief that was particularly attractive to those who followed and who lay deep within the narcissist spectrum.

All philosophies attract to themselves followers who find commonalities between the ideas expressed and their own personalities. Few are comfortable with philosophical traditions that, whilst being intellectually rigorous and persuasive, lead to cognitive dissonance that the individual finds impossible to resolve. This has led to a critical theory genre that whilst containing valid points worth reflecting upon are submerged in rhetoric which I think can best be described as language designed to impress rather than to illuminate.


Makinen, M and N Tredell (2003) Critical Theory, the Family and the Narcissistic Personality in How A Critical Theory – Traditions in Social Theory Palgrave, London

Papineau, D (1979) Theory and Meaning Clarendon Press, Oxford

Syverson, M A (1999) The Wealth of Reality – the ecology of composition, Carbondale, Ill, Southern Illinois University Press

Alison Price

Alison Price

My name is Alison Price and for the past ten years I have travelled the world photographing wildlife, including Alaska, Antarctica, Borneo, Botswana, the Canadian Arctic, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
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