At The Crossroads of Critical Theory and Creative Practice

“Making” Theory (In More Ways Than One)

With Covid-19 turning the digital age into the virtual age, students and professors everywhere are adjusting to new ways of learning and engaging with education. Amidst this struggle, Professor Alexander Hollenberg wants to introduce new ways of approaching critical theory, content that typically feels “impenetrable”.

Critical theory aims to critique and reflect on elements of culture and society. Primarily used by academics in the humanities and social sciences, it can be challenging for students to approach. Theorists often presume readers will be equipped with close reading skills and advanced knowledge of the field. The theories are often dense and complex, leaving students and non-scholars alienated and overwhelmed.

What differentiates this from other scholarly articles or research papers is that critical theory discusses issues that directly and overwhelmingly affect the groups that are most likely to have trouble engaging with them.

Critical Making

“I really like the possibilities of taking a theory and actually physically making something out of it.”

Professor Alexander Hollenberg

That’s where the “making methodology” comes in: the process of turning critical theory into something physical and tangible has real implications on our ability to understand and digest it. It’s the basis for the Remaking Critical Theory research project, which is funded by a $5,000 SSHRC Explore Grant and a $5,000 SRCA Growth Grant.

Professor Hollenberg is in charge of selecting texts and facilitating discussions. So far, he’s introduced a group of research assistants and fellow Sheridan professors to critical theory by Stanley Fish, Judith Butler, and bell hooks. Each week, they work to synthesize the concepts introduced by these scholars into zines (DIY magazines).

The practice of making introduces endless ways for students and professors alike to tackle critical theory. Professor Hollenberg – who is accustomed to conducting classes and research on critical theory in a more traditional manner – has gotten to explore this methodology for the first time in this project. He says that the target audience for this project isn’t just students, but professors who are looking for new and engaging ways to introduce and teach theory. In fact, he hopes that this project can be expanded in ways that brings this methodology to the forefront within the academic world: even expressing the potential of a class which focuses on studying critical theory through the making methodology.

Inspired by a Judith Butler reading on censorship, Dr. Hollenberg made Fun with Anagrams. The zine responds to the Polish government's "Amendment to the Act of the Institute of National Remembrance" (2018) which banished public statements critical of the nation's responsibility for Holocaust-related crimes. Note, the spreads have been cropped for online display.

Where Criticality and Creativity Intersect

As a society, we tend to view creativity and criticality as polar opposites. Consider the common myth of the right and left brain, which says that every person is either left brain dominant (logical thinkers), or right brain dominant (creative thinkers). This theory became so popular that teachers began to incorporate it in their classrooms, and a generation of students were taught that they could be only one or the other.

In reality, creative and critical thinking are more of a Venn diagram than they are ends of a spectrum. As a Professor of Storytelling and Narrative Theory Professor Hollenberg sees this overlap every day. For him, “Creativity always has to be critical”. Texts that people are most drawn to are those that have something to say about the world, and finding that meaning is what drew him to this project and the making methodology: “We’re not just making things for makings’ sake. We’re making as a way to interrogate, explain, and expose ideas.”

“I think what’s really important to realize about critical theory is, it’s not fact. It’s people’s interpretations of the world they live in. We should be able to question it and talk about where it makes sense, where it doesn’t make sense, where there are gaps, and where it really does help explain the world. I think the process of making adds another layer onto that inquiry.”

Professor Alexander Hollenberg

Through this process, critical theory can become more accessible, not just for students, but for the masses. Every person has the capability to be creative and critical, and by flexing those muscles, we can interpret critical theory in ways that are meaningful to our lives.