We Thinkers from the Gilt-Edged Margins

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A critical theory that has gotten serious about politics has only one question left to answer. Having convinced another semester’s worth of young philosophers to grant a conceptual priority to non-identity or Becoming, how are these now to become real in the world? What kind of institutions are needed to safeguard non-identity, and not just in thought? Does Becoming recommend some practices over others? Who are that concept’s proper bearers? Critical theory in the US has largely been a fight over this last—over who gets to count as devenir’s chosen agents and avatars—over which identity position can most convincingly pose as its antithesis, as non-identitarian. Queer people? Black people? Diaspora Jews? All migrants? And yet the candidates proposed by radical philosophy’s master thinkers have generally been rather different from these. Their stated preferences have been not for this or that group, but for certain institutions—for free markets or for empire and often for both; the empire of Becoming will help install the non-identity market. The pied noir philosopher sends an old classmate a nineteen-page letter defending French colonial society in Algeria and then publishes a landmark attack on anti-imperial anthropology—an attack which counts among its core claims the notion that indigenous people are fully as violent as the Europeans who have subjugated them. That book’s most famous accomplishment is to declare a certain civilizational technology, unevenly distributed across the planet, a universal term and thereby to render strictly unnameable non-civilizational and decolonized alternatives to it. The theorists of the rootstock, meanwhile, write a jubilant prose in praise of, first, those English nomads who know how to inhabit the whole world by “pitching their tents over the sea”; second, any social formation able to “expand, conquer, capture”; third, Africans who fantasize about being beaten by French settlers. Hardt and Negri, for their part, have simply ejected peasants and the indigenous from the ranks of the multitude; the universal, in their hands, becomes the universal-minus-two. Derrida says that people attached to their localities are conceptually “primitive” and asks on these grounds that we not criticize the mass media, since with any luck the phantasmatic abstraction that these generate will produce “dislocation” in people too attached to place. Hollywood and television will displace the natives. A question thus becomes poseable: Should you still speak of “Western metaphysics” if those you consider most duped by it live outside the West? In “White Mythology,” Derrida says that language has as its corollary or nearest equivalent the (market) economy. Nothing escapes the market; nothing ever has; nothing ever will. Everything is subject to “the general law of value”; such was the great insight of Saussure, as presumably of Jevons before him. We have to think of words as a kind of currency, then, always in motion, always fluctuating, constantly assigned new meanings or values. Attempts to think positions outside of the marketplace are doomed either because markets are entire and comprehensive or because the principles of the market are embedded in language itself, even in those regions that lack commodity exchange. Look backwards: Near the beginning of “Plato’s Pharmacy,” Derrida objects to the king who thinks he can set prices, offering in his place a writing that cannot help but circulate freely, beyond all possibility of regulation. Look forward: Derrida finishes Given Time by arguing against the Aristotelians who think that economies should be ordered according to some non-economic conception of the good. We should pledge ourselves instead to the not-really “bad infinity” of “chrematistics”—the ungoverned accumulation of wealth—because commerce, like writing, is what “opens” the household; it is the “threshold” that teaches us to look beyond the family. International trade is therefore just another version of the gift or “hospitality,” of welcoming into the home something that wasn’t originally there: a high-tea cake stand handmade in India; a fringed shoulder bag whose kaleidoscope-and-bearded-iris print was woven by widows in Guatemala; a batik wall hanging. This Levinasian neoliberalism finds its counterpart in the Harvard professor who, having helped introduce Totality and Infinity to the study of Latin American literature, recommends to the keepers of alterity that they “consider medieval England, where Normans were wise enough to know that they ruled a nation of foreigners”; or to consider the “Moslem empires,” who have “traditionally been hosts to the cultural differences that Christendom does not abide.” Critical theory names itself here as the expertise of invaders, a program for the wise rule of foreigners—not as the fresh round of decolonization you were taught to expect, but as an alternate imperialism. But then who didn’t know this already? Critical theory has long been characterized by a vocabulary of openness, plurality, globalizing flows, and flexible networks that we would have easily recognized as neoliberal and Americanizing in any context other than our own. Anyone surprised to find Foucault arguing that no-one has a right to health care simply wasn’t paying attention. The other name for neoclassical economics is “marginalism.”


The ideological valences of critical theory are routinely inverted. This is often to be welcomed. There is nothing discreditable about those old Marxist glosses on Roland Barthes or anti-colonial deployments of Derrida, as oblivious to their source texts as such rejiggings inevitably are. It is a kind of hygiene to be able to read Nietzsche and not see a single-minded neo-aristocrat or to read Heidegger and think only that you should switch to free-range eggs. Rare is the philosophy that cannot be improved by inattention. But why would we believe that arguments only get flipped in one direction, further on down the road towards emancipation and equity? It is fairly easy, after all, to show how specific theoretical schools become what they claim to negate. Any new concept that allows people to speak hitherto unspoken claims—to write fresh sentences and form fresh sets—will become available, automatically, for purposes other than the ones to which it was first put. Manifestos against consumer capitalism furnish pretexts for less consumerist modes of capitalism or, more often, for un-massified modes of consumption. Queer theory mutates into sex discourse the same day we teach it—back in the dorm, that very afternoon. Postcolonial theorists can only convince themselves that they are carrying on the work of Fanon and Cabral as long as they don’t read their counterparts in history, whose most successful tactic these last twenty years now has been to recycle the arguments of Bhabha, Chakrabarty, and others as liberal justifications for European expansion. Postcolonial theory has summoned as its twin an apologetics in which every incursion is an “encounter,” every confiscation a “new opportunity,” every colony a distended “border”—a zone of “cultural contact,” all membrane, no cell. One historian refers to invasion as “armed immigration.” An introductory course on postcolonial writing begins in an anti-political mode, by recommending that its students set aside “the blunt tools of violence and political rabble rousing” in favor of the “complex identities” on display in literature. But not just in literature: A historian at Vassar, two-time winner of the Bancroft Prize, sets out to overturn the anti-imperial history-writing of the 1960s and ‘70s by showing how “polyphonic” the North American colonies were and offers a few complex identities as evidence: the British baronet who directed the Irish overseer to dress his African chattel in Iroquois drag. A Cambridge anthropologist, meanwhile, director of that university’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, wants you to know that Pacific islanders have always been “cosmopolitan” and offers as his second example of their sophistication three men who were kidnapped by the Spanish near Papua New Guinea in the early 1500s—three non-Europeans, that is, who became world-travelers only because they were abducted. The just society is a multiethnic slave plantation. Worldliness is a good even at swordpoint. Any institutional description of critical theory in the academy would have to flag the predictability with which such transpositions occur. It is no use, at this moment, thinking back to your mentor and knowing her to be righteous. The vocabulary we devise to describe the redeemed society will furnish others with the language they need to justify afresh the protocols of the administered world. This is the service critical theory provides. Every Foucault gets his Ewald.


It has become common for intellectual historians to point out that Marxists give a distorted picture of the long seventeenth century. Almost no-one in that period, they say, was sticking up for commerce or what we would call capitalism. Inherited political discourses simply provided no language with which to justify commercial life, which means that there was no “bourgeois ideology” in early modern England, and the Marxists are wrong to see it there, hiding under every republican rock. There may have been capitalism, but there was no system of capitalist belief. That point seems right as far as it goes, but is misleading all the same, because it badly misunderstands how ideology usually works. Ideology typically has the structure of a disowning, and not just in the seventeenth century. Capitalism-without-strong-capitalist-beliefs names the ordinary condition of modern societies. Only in exceptional cases has ideology ever offered a full-throated defense of the marketplace. Indeed, most of what we think of as “bourgeois culture” names the middle class’s distinctive ways of protecting itself from capitalism—its commitment to family and home; a certain way of enjoying the arts—which quickly leads one to the conclusion that not even the historical bourgeoisie has embraced capitalism or thought of the market as a place one could happily live. It does not much matter, then, that commodity exchange is Derrida’s uncamouflaged druthers or that A Thousand Plateaus reads like it was co-authored by Kipling. Nor does it matter that critical theory is full of conceptual displacements and dignifying proxies, verbal sublimations that, when parsed back to their real-world and institutional coordinates, mostly end up meaning “expanding markets” all over again, though if you already know that “freedom” and “democracy” and “human rights” are neoliberalism-by-another-name, then you are well placed to see that “dissemination” and “deterritorialization” and “the rhizome” are, too. Critical theory’s most significant ideological work has not been to enforce a set of basically metropolitan commitments, entrepreneurial and buccaneering, but to license a set of false disidentifications from same. The problem is not that we read Derrida and thereby become neoliberals, but that we take our reading of Derrida—or Rancière or José Muñoz—as sufficient evidence that we aren’t. One of the forms that power takes in a mature capitalist society is the professional class’s ability to build bulwarks against capital itself: respites and pseudo-negations. A history of bourgeois disavowal is underway; the challenge is to name its changing forms, from domesticity to aestheticism to … critique.


What if we started from the simple fact that critical theory is now a predictable part of a college education for twenty-year-olds who aspire to be professionals, that the works of Agamben and Badiou are mostly housed in (protected and subsidized by) institutions of the state and of status? The first thing a sociologist will tell you about the professions is that they are much larger than they were a century ago. There are more professions—more ways to be a professional, more lines that count as professional—and there are many more people in them, even in relative numbers, more people, that is, whose station involves being highly educated, whose work requires them to showcase that education, and who have at best limited patience with bosses. Even in the administered society, one mode of unadministered labor has continued to grow, and Adornian attacks on administration, mostly silent on the professions anyway, are perhaps best understood as the spontaneous ideology of self-directed work, a further blessing bestowed upon the favored and the exempt—on the understanding, however, that “the exempt” make up an expanding class fraction, and not, as the ideology itself requires, a declining one. The proponents of a creative capitalism, meanwhile—those professors of management who advise rust-belt cities to use gay people as economic bait—write a prose that is sometimes hard to distinguish from Adorno’s own. If you want to understand the current state of critical theory, you could do worse than ask which of the following sentences I’ve taken from Minima Moralia and which from management consulting: “Capitalism has also expanded its reach to capture the talents of heretofore excluded groups of eccentrics and nonconformists. … The creative individual is no longer viewed as an iconoclast. He … is the new mainstream.” “New structures for systematically eliciting and applying creativity … have become ingrained features of our economic life.” “We insist that all our workers contribute their minds.” You can object that the work of Richard Florida and others is ideology—that it is out to instrumentalize fugitive thought—and you’d be right. But it is this objection that is the more thoroughly ideological position, refusing as it does to face the existence of a post-managerial capitalism as a social fact in its own right, as all the evidence one needs, in fact, that fugitive thought is instrumentalizable. Florida is right in a way that most of his critics are not—the ones who think that the alternative and interdisciplinary humanities exist at Princeton but outside of exchange society, the ones who think that because they are not interested in capital, capital is not interested in them.

But then are the anti-capitalists really not interested in capital? The most consequential mistake that casual readers of Bourdieu ever made was to consider him a theorist of high culture in some settled sense of that term, mandarin and European, a theorist, that is, of the concert hall and the sculpture garden, of the art novel and the opera cape. But Bourdieu’s argument, however keyed to the empirie of France in the 1960s, holds only that culture tends to stratify, that social actors will usually elevate some cultural modes (and forms of intellection) at the expense of others. It does not say that the elevated term has to be Chopin. Indeed, there is zero reason to think that eliminating mazurkas (or piano lessons or Henry James or even literature as a category) would overturn cultural capital, any more than eliminating the franc has overturned money. One might, it’s true, wonder how cultural capital has survived the last half century’s apotheosis of pop, the rollback of the old patrician-bourgeois culture of the West, postmodernism’s putative muddling of low and high. But the sociologists have gone and checked, and the answers are not hard to find: Fancy people are now more likely to consume culture indiscriminately, that is, to congratulate themselves on the expansiveness of their tastes; indistinction has become distinction. They are more likely to prefer foreign culture to their own, at least in some who-wants-takeout? kind of way. And they are more likely to enjoy culture analytically and ironically, belligerently positing a naïve consumer whose imagined immersion in the object will set off everything in their own approach that is suavely arms-length and slaunchwise. Such, point for point, is the ethos of the new-model English department: of cultural studies, new media, the expanded canon, of theory-courses-without-objects. To bring new types of artifacts into literature departments is not to destroy cultural capital. It is merely to allow new things to start functioning as wealth. Even here, the claim to novelty can be overstated, since it is enough to read Bourdieu to know that the claim to interpret and demystify has always been an especially heady form of symbolic power. The ingenious reading confers distinction, as do sundry bids to fix the meanings of the social. Critical theory is cultural capital. Citing Judith Butler is one of the ways in which professional people outside the academy understand and justify their own elevation. Bickering recreationally about the politics of zombie movies is just what lawyers and engineers now do.


Scholarship is possible only because learned people need not fight the fights that criss-cross whatever patch of the world they study and because they are not in competition for that field’s distinctive goods. The biggest advantage they possess is that they can come and go as they please. The ecologist will leave the cloud forest before the semester starts. The anthropologist was in Brazil for rather less long than you had imagined. The sociologist won’t even spend the night in Cabrini Green. Likewise, the ethnographer determined to figure out how a particular cluster of villages distributes its yams needn’t amass any, any more than the botanist counting tamarisks is tempted to divert their CO2 for her own personal use. One wonders whether critical theory—this committed thinking, this liberation philosophy—is any different on this score. Is there, in addition to the scholastic point of view, a critical one? Critical theory is perfectly capable, of course, of neutralizing situations in conventionally scholastic ways. Derrida’s differance and deferral, Deleuze’s virtual, Agamben’s potentiality—these all demand that I withdraw from context and conjuncture, that I cognitively bracket any entanglement I might have with this actuality or with this organization of the social, in a manner that presumes leisure and distance—ie, that I can afford so to withdraw. The same could be said of the utopian, the messianic, the open horizon of the future, or the not-yet—and that list could doubtless be extended. Any critical theorist who offers to liberate you via play is confident that you don’t have more pressing business.

Non-involvement, however, is what critical theory most shares with ordinary scholarship. What makes critical theory distinctive is its determination to pantomime the involvement that its scholasticism has already precluded. The critical point of view is the scholastic view that doesn’t take itself to be scholastic, that strikes a set of anti-academic poses while preserving all the core features of academic vision. If the scholar is the one who renders a field legible by suspending its interests and stakes, the critical theorist is the one who pretends that all stakes enter his thinking intact. The critical point of view is what induces us to habitually misdescribe a given colleague’s attitudes and expressed judgments as her “politics” or to write about Spinoza and think that we are thereby writing about matter. The critical theorist, indeed, renovates all the old idealist arguments by translating them into a speciously materialist idiom—materiality, yes, but “of language”; politics, yes, but “of representation”; violence, yes, but “of the concept.” We know now to write the word “bodies” where twenty years ago we would have written “subjects”—and then we go ahead and make all the old arguments about subjects anyway. The wholly accurate insight into the interestedness of philosophy—that all philosophy has a politics—reverses itself into the sluggish conviction that writing philosophy is all the politics one needs. Some scholars, the critical ones, make a claim and think it’s a gesture. They retire to their writing carrels and call it an intervention. It is one kind of prerogative to be able to write about a discourse or culture or social scene and not be bound by its rules, not to have to get something done in it—to not be in the game. It is a second prerogative, derived from this first, to be able electively to treat that deactivated field as though it were still running on live current.


The answer to a theory this uncritical would be an un-critical theory.

2 responses to “We Thinkers from the Gilt-Edged Margins

  1. A powerful critique of the limitations and contradictions of Critical Theory (and its cousins). Despite identifying with critical theory myself, I especially felt the line: “The critical point of view is the scholastic view that doesn’t take itself to be scholastic, that strikes a set of anti-academic poses while preserving all the core features of academic vision.”

    Plus, I very much agree with the (postcolonial) challenge to Derrida in your first thesis. Great stuff!

  2. A powerful critique of the limitations and contradictions of Critical Theory right.. And great stuff but what about reality ?