By Lindsey Scott
There is a great task we have been served, we the youth of social scholarship. Critical theory, as we knew it, is dead. Constructivism lies limply in its hospice. We are conscripted to the infantries during something of an interregnum: Do we wage war for old paradigms, or paradigms yet to come? Whose flag am I really flying, here?
Since the 1960s, philosophers and scientists of social and cultural phenomena have exhausted a good deal of paper and caffeine challenging conventions of how social science “gets done.” Underlying this question is the oft uncomfortable tension between describing and prescribing. We want to offer an array of experiences and legitimate individuals’ realities, but we also want to apply our research towards the creation of a world that allows for individuals’ realities to be legitimated more freely on a daily basis. In 1937, Max Horkheimer famously delineated social research which attempts to prescribe some change as “critical theory,” in that said theories critique social systems as they stand to suggest potential, emancipatory changes. Drawing from Marx and his interpretation of the Hegelian dialectic, the hallmark of critical theory has traditionally been identifying and disrupting naturalized political power in an attempt to empower the disenfranchised.
Despite critical theory and the Frankfurt School’s revolutionary approach to social inquiry, it was not long until a new paradigm came to knock it down to size. A few decades later, in the late 1960s, French philosophers from the psychoanalytic and literary theory traditions noted what they found to be an egregious hypocrisy in classic critical theory: It tended to critique metanarratives like wage-labor in capitalist production by replacing them with new metanarratives—which these new theorists saw as a practice too informed by Marx’s dialectical materialism and sure to ensnare those whom the critique attempted to free. Since then, a good deal of social science research (especially, anthropology) has leaned towards the deconstruction of metanarratives altogether. Rather than prescribe social changes based on historical generalizations, such research has been deeply involved describing particular experiences, at the very least to further denaturalize social systems and point to the constructedness of subjective realities.
But this, too, shall pass—and it largely has. From comparative international social history to medical ethnography to theoretical geographies, social philosophers have critiqued the two paradigmatic behemoths which precede us: critical theory and constructivism. Many agree that the first lends itself to discursive violence by over-generalizing, while the other lends itself to a semiotic rat race in which change only happens inside the crumbling ivory tower. Academics have flanked their figurative horses far past death with reconceptualization after reconceptualization, intoxicated from the perfumes of discursive warfare waged on podiums and password-locked journals. Some of has certainly provoked conversation—which is half the battle—but how much conversation has it precluded? It seems now we have one foot in critical theory, one foot in constructivism, and our head in the clouds while we’re mad as hell.
As a slightly more–than–neophytic student of social life, who is armed more often with a pen than with a megaphone, my technologies are those of discursivity. I study the actions and words of social networks in an attempt to assist in the liberation of the actions and words of these networks. I strive for the manifestation of my words into actions; I strive for praxis. But it has become increasingly apparent to me that many of the philosophies of the current academic epoch provide me the tools to build a window, rather than a door, into this goal of praxis for which we all strive. The subjectivist mouth attached to the dialectical-critical body shouts “freedom for all” while throwing the limbs of the theorist before her into a pyre. In so much of today’s critical inquiry, writing aimed at emancipation engages with the rhetoric of taking away—that our colleagues are always missing something, to be edited, even censored, and must be held on trial for the crimes their rhetorical missteps have created (or, as is often the case, could have possibly created in the virtual-possible!). How are we, the new generation, to serve our philosophical forepersons and rupture hegemonies when we’re so intrepid to misstep that we seem to either turn a blade to our brother-mothers behind our backs in self-defense or shake in guilt in the grasses of our ineluctable defeat? We have a very grand tradition of critical and humanist theory to be thankful for and indebted to, but its weapons have grown dull and its strategies have pitted us against one another, distracting us from the larger worldling project(s) at hand.
This discussion may be far from underground in academia at the moment, but it is largely addressed in either such piecemeal terms as to be written off as “niche” or in such grandiose terms as to be written off as “provacateuring.” And it is no small problem to those of us who inherit these traditions—even if (possibly, especially if) your goal is to do away with these or any traditions. It is vastly important to choose your interlocutors wisely, and to be aware of the interlocutors you inherit even if you do not engage with them explicitly. So, I invite you to consider these engagements, and empower yourself with them. I invite you to critique as a means to make it easier to speak, not more difficult. I invite you to investigate, for a change, how we may agree about some tenants of social realities in order to instigate policy changes more efficiently. Most importantly, I invite you to be aware of your work and be proud of your work, because it is through your work, as my new colleagues or comrades in this fight, that we can transform theory into practice through that beautiful thought machine: praxis. It is in this spirit that I offer a couple of recent contributions to this question of “where do we go from here?”
The first of the two philosophers I’ve mentioned is the ex-Althusserian bad boy who’s stolen the hearts of many in recent years: a grumbling Frenchman by the name of Jascques Ranciere. Ranciere has never been a passive acolyte to critical theory; his tactics in fighting for social justice include wholesale defamation of its most prolific proponents, placing him on track to become one of the most inflammatory philosophers since Baudrillard. That being said, Ranciere has very publicly chastised Baudrillard for his reproduction of metanarratives—a “hypocrisy” of critical theory that Ranciere is hell bent on rectifying. Ranciere contends that even the most contemporary critical theory often falls in the same dialectical traps as its predecessors nearly a century ago, effectually disempowering those whom it seeks to free by trapping them in a story in which they have no control.
Ranciere’s prescription for our ails? De-scription. That is, perhaps the scholar disenfranchises the pupil in the pupil’s understanding of a concept is qualitatively less than their teacher. For Ranciere, this guilt-laden learning process has extended beyond the classroom from the outmoded practices of critical theorists who he believes have, in turn, castigated all agents of discourse. His 1991 work, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, surveyed the work of French teacher and educational philosopher Joseph Jacotot, who found that the teacher of some object of knowledge need not “know” anything about it at all; the learning that occurs is always through the interaction between master and pupil, and, in this way, there is space for any pupil to become a master, or to decry the project of masters altogether. Ranciere expands upon this in 2010’s The Emancipated Spectator through the model of the theater and the supposed relationship between the actors and the spectators. He charts the growth of theatrical criticism by the German Romantics (Ranciere 2010:3-5) and later the critical responses to proliferation of fetishized images and representations in the early twentieth century capitalist society. Many artists wrestled with developing art practices that did not simply promote passive spectatorship: to watch or look at, and simply to go home, hang their hat, and take no great message of political action, and so to acquiesce (Ranciere: 5-6). After spectacle theory gained traction, especially equipped with the suggestion that images entrap us in contemplation rather than action, theatre organizers felt it was their duty to liberate the spectator from their passivity. Community theaters and schools sprung up to create a theatre-as-community model which incited political action by making the audience member an actor–in whatever capacity–in that performance as well.
It is at this juncture that Ranciere returns to what he had previously explored in The Ignorant Schoolmaster: “It is the very logic of the pedagogical relationship: the role assigned to the schoolmaster in that relationship is to abolish the distance between his knowledge and the ignorance of the ignoramus” (Ranciere 2010: 8). For Ranciere, these movements fell short, just as critical theory has under the modernist paradigm that even provocateurs like Baudrillard have fallen ill. The first step to emancipation, Ranciere claims, is to blur the dichotomy between actor and viewer, from master to pupil, from producer of knowledge to consumer of knowledge: spectatorship, because it requires psychological engagement and drawing connections between identities and times and spaces, is not passive, but is active, is not simply consumption, but production in its own right. It is in this way that the viewer is an actor and the recipient of knowledge a creator: the spectator is not to attempt to “occupy the position of the scholar [master], but so a better to practice the art of translating, of putting her experience into words and her words to the test; of translating her intellectual adventures for other and counter-translating the translation of their own adventures which they present to her” (Ranciere 2010: 11).
We can take the model of the theatre or the classroom (both equally enticing) to the scholarship of cultural critique and how it plays out on the world’s stage. Ranciere’s closing thought on the pedagogical relationship of knowledge mediations is that an emancipated artist does not fool herself into thinking that she can transmit a pure object of knowledge unfettered into the mind of another, so she does not try. Instead, she simply tries to inspire thought. On the other side of this, the emancipated spectators, or consumers of thought, do not aim to procure a pristine understanding of that which they are perceiving. Instead, they receive it as a translation that they are completing with another agent, and so may be free of the guilt of being shackled by passivity and inaction. They may enact change in ways unforeseen and unstructured yet in the present, as bodies constantly in translation and translating one another (Ranciere 2010:16-18). Where the modernist tradition of cultural critique begs that we chart new territories on an invisible map, a critique employing emancipated spectatorship thrives in the dissensus that occurs through a continually-developing democracy of knowledge, free of understanding disagreements between masters and pupils and full of fervent free-wheeling translations.
While many theorists have reimagined the critical project, Ranciere argues that they have often done so through a characteristically critical critique. This is problematic for Ranciere in that doing so “proclaims the obsolescence of [the critical paradigm] only to reproduce its mechanism…to transform the desire to ignore what makes us feel guilty into a desire to ignore that there is nothing to feel guilty about” (Ranciere 2010:30). He argues that even very contemporary philosophers have employed critique as a means to unveil the great web of appearances by which the masses are oppressed, masses who are “victims of a comprehensive structure of illusion, victims of our ignorance and resistance to an irresistible process of development of the productive forces” (Ranciere 2010:31). And while these theorists may not align themselves to the critical tradition, they reproduce its logic of dialectic, and as “all that is solid melts in to air,” disallow the reader to take action as a participant in any kind of real world. If we adopt Ranciere’s pedagogy and apply it to the dissemination of critique, we see that the critical approach towards unmasking a system of illusions may do a disservice to the spectator/pupil, as the position of the unmasker of an illusion stultifies the recipient of that knowledge rather than freeing them (through a treatment of critique as active translation), as the actor/master is likely intending. Once we assume difference in kind rather than value in the transmission of critique from writer to reader, maybe then we can inspire spontaneous praxes, “scenes of dissensus capable of surfacing in any time at any place” (Ranciere 2010:48).
Even in my own cursory unpacking of Ranciere’s un-critique, it’s apparent the dangers of slippage into a textual cascade of what can easily appear as a critique of Ranciere’s critique of critiques of critique—and while I wouldn’t be engaging with it in this way unless I thought this ice was traversable without it cracking, other neo-critiques may provide slightly more explicit grounding in the actual, something we can more easily tango without falling prey to that which we are playing with new means to grapple with: staying with the complexity of social life without talking past one another or talking in to the air. Ranciere’s theorization of the democratic mediations that occur between master and pupil bear similarity to the cybernetic body politics of the late 1980s and 1990s. After Donna Haraway revealed that “we are all cyborgs” (Haraway 1991), Bruno Latour told us that “we were never modern” (Latour:1991). In Latour’s eyes, the Enlightenment project fought and won to divide nature and culture in our minds, so that nature was the object of truth to be conquered and discovered by human rationality; while these boundaries have become naturalized by scientisms, these are merely organization schema which disguise the multifariousness of human actors. For Latour and other philosophers of science and technology, identity is only constructed at its intersections with other human and non-human actors. Though Ranciere does not use this language, I don’t believe it’s blasphemous to suggest that both Ranciere and Latour contend the first step to an emancipated body and an emancipated polis is to acknowledge the blurriness of dichotomies, especially in the form of subjects, and to take pleasure in it.
In his more recent work, Latour offers some suggestions on the other side of what Ranciere has explored. Are there dangers to becoming so avoidant of classical critique as to become constructivist? Ranciere and Latour write that one of the greatest gifts of critical theory has given scholarship is the nearly-wholesale constant vigilance about the constructedness of all claims to truth. Even in papers of the “hard sciences,” it is old hat now to churn over the mantra that our conclusions are influenced by our perspectives which have been molded from birth by our varied and fractured personal experiences. Definitions get mucky here: Nietzsche referred to this as perspectivism, some social scientists refer to it as subjectivism, some as relativism. Latour refers to it universally as constructivism, and syncs it up with the entirety of the cultural critique project. On the one hand, the paradigm has been especially useful to the social sciences—perhaps paving the way for the non-passive spectator as Ranciere sees it. But what Latour fears is similar to that of Baudrillard or Jameson’s doom-and-gloom spiraling of signified-less signifiers which leave us actual bodies floundering in a world where we have no common truths, and therefor find praxis next to impossible.
In 2004, Latour claimed that he is “no longer a constructivist.” He did not mean that he is no longer a subjectivist, but that if cultural critique is ever going to develop as sustainable praxis, it has to be able to come to compromises about the world that the actors and subjects of its theories live in . In exploring why he believes critique has “run out of steam,” he evokes an editorial from the New York Times in which a Republican senator says that reports of human influence in global climate change still present “a lack of scientific certainty.” While this may seem laughable to academics, it’s problematic in that many scholars, especially those in the neighborhood of the philosophy of science, have made careers out of complicating claims for their “lack of scientific certainty” (Latour 2004:226-227). In valiant efforts to “emancipate the public from prematurely naturalized facts,” Latour laments that he has incidentally taken part in “destroy[ing] hard-won evidence that could save our lives” (Latour 2004:227). He extends this to the larger conversations surrounding cultural critique, arguing that perhaps in attempts to emancipate by the means of complicating identities, power relations, and knowledge, theorists have over complicated to the point of making ourselves “prisoners of language,” warring with one another over uncertainties and becoming stagnated in the process (Latour 2004:227-230).
Latour recently sketched this out in his 2010 treatise for a new form of scholastic critique, “An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto.’” In Latour’s “compositionalism” (which he calls not a critique of critique, but a reuse, a reimagining of critique), he suggests that she who critiques should aim to produce with a perspective in between absolutism and relativism, one that gives credence to the biased perspectives of di-viduals while aiming towards a common world: “Nothing is beyond dispute but closure has to be achieved” at least to a certain degree (Latour 2010:478). What’s interesting about Latour’s newest additions to STS is this sort of republican search for the common; it is to this very intention that he attributes the use of the term “Manifesto” in reference to Marx and Engel’s leviathan: it is a sort of metanarrative, modernist in that it replaces the competing-narrative metanarrative of postmodern constructivist social theory but still of the postmodern (or, as Latour vehemently refers to it throughout his career, non-modern) in that it treats truth as not revealed but created by the compositions of its ever-translated agents.
Though he speaks about it in a very different way, something similar could be said about Ranciere. Like Latour, Ranciere suggests that the critical project has lost its way in how it has transmitted its findings. Both seek a new critique which not only provides for, but necessitates, heterogeneous actors and thought; the new critique is not an answer but a prospect, not progress but process. Both provide, I believe, provocative new ways to engage the subject in way that inspires her to produce but does not arrest her production. In this way, we may inch closer to exorcizing our guilt in the journey to exorcize the guilt of our networks, no matter how large or small.
And these texts are only the beginning! It’s the provision of what they hint at that makes the project of critique exciting in a new way—the promise, I believe, truly is something different: namely, that these approaches call for some action that is non-directed, but embodied. While they do suggest a turning away from certain practices, they open more doors than they close. They encourage the neophyte philosophers to get messy in discourse, to fry the big fish without fearing failure at the sword of their sensei or fearing whether they will do their own word justice. Let us find cohesion in our heterogeneity, let us take pleasure in our spectatorships and tutelage as active and meaningful translations of knowledge, let us create justice in pieces, and re-create it. And let you take of this text what you will—take pleasure in the interpretation! Maybe there is no such thing as “just a text” or the question of “what to do with it”—or, perhaps, you disagree. Perhaps, I disagree, too. Humor me, though, and let us dig for some compromise, for as long we’re both incited towards a little bit of both, I believe we’re on the right track(s). Perhaps we can get a little closer to imagining and living like there is “no lost community to be restored … simply scenes of dissensus capable of surfacing at any place and at any time.” Maybe we (whoever we may be) deserve to get a little empowered by the prospect of inciting, as writer or reader, “organization[s] of the sensible, where there is neither a reality concealed behind appearances nor a single regime of presentation and interpretation of the given imposing its obviousness on all … every situation can be cracked open from the inside…to alter the field of the possible and the distribution of capacities and incapacities” (Ranciere 2010:48-49).