Theory. The word alone can intimidate, and it can especially intimidate those of us outside the academic humanities. The rigor and complexity of scientific theory is forbidding enough, but cultural theory, with its thickets of multivalent meaning and thinkers with their cultishly devoted and territorial followings, has surely made many a hopeful learner turn back before they've even stepped in. But help has arrived in this age of explainers, most recently in the form of a University of Exeter PhD student and Youtuber named Tom Nicholas who has taken it upon himself to explain such tricky subjects as postmodernism, semiotics, phenomenology, and many others besides in his series "What the Theory?"
Nicolas has put his academic background into videos on everything from how to read journal articles and write essays to subjects like his own research and how Bojack Horseman critiques the 1990s. But it's "What the Theory?" that most directly confronts the intellectual frameworks that his other videos put to more implicit use.
In it he breaks down the nature of the most abstruse-sounding disciplines in all the modern humanities as well as the ideas of the theorists who developed them — semiotics and Ferdinand de Saussure, phenomenology and Martin Heidegger, cultural materialism and Raymond Williams, as well as broader concepts like postmodernism and even the modernism that preceded it — illuminating them by drawing upon a set of less-rarefied works, including but not limited to Dunkirk and The Lego Movie.
In more recent "What the Theory?" videos, Nicholas takes on individual ideas as popularized (at least within the academy) by certain writers, theorists, and philosophers. He explains, for example, what Roland Barthes meant when he proclaimed "the death of the author" in 1967, as well as what Barthes' countryman Guy Debord meant when he described humanity as living in a "society of the spectacle" that same year. Watch through the entire "What the Theory?" playlist so far, and there's a chance you might come away with an interest in launching an academic career of your own in order to dig deeper into these and other ideas. But there's a much greater chance that you'll come away believing that these critical texts actually do have insights to offer our world, the societies that make up our world, and the culture that drives those societies — barely intelligible though many of them may still look.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.