What the Theory?: Watch Short Introductions to Postmodernism, Semiotics, Phenomenology, Marxist Literary Criticism and More

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Quick Intro­duc­tion to Lit­er­ary The­o­ry: Watch Ani­mat­ed Videos from the Open Uni­ver­si­ty

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Roland Barthes’s Mytholo­gies and How He Used Semi­otics to Decode Pop­u­lar Cul­ture

Yale Presents a Free Online Course on Lit­er­ary The­o­ry, Cov­er­ing Struc­tural­ism, Decon­struc­tion & More

David Fos­ter Wal­lace on What’s Wrong with Post­mod­ernism: A Video Essay

Noam Chom­sky Explains What’s Wrong with Post­mod­ern Phi­los­o­phy & French Intel­lec­tu­als, and How They End Up Sup­port­ing Oppres­sive Pow­er Struc­tures

The CIA Assess­es the Pow­er of French Post-Mod­ern Philoso­phers: Read a New­ly Declas­si­fied CIA Report from 1985

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.

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