Because I want one, and I have a hunch that others feel similarly. In other words, I see a need for one. I will not pretend that I have worked my reasons for this out to some set of ultimate justifications. If I did, I think it would be dishonest anyway to report those postulates as my reasons, as if I am somehow a missionary of my rational zeal for perfecting the world through altruistic service. Those narratives are…fill in the blank. But I can say that I find great value in critical theory, I find its promise much greater than its presence within what I have experienced of academia, and I think there is plenty of work that can still be fruitfully done in philosophy and in social research under this umbrella. In the following paragraphs I will outline informally what I imagine to be the state of critical theory in United States academia today. It is against this horizon that I see a need for this sort of a network.
Critical theory is not an academic discipline
There are a few academic programs here and there that are centered on critical theory, and some disciplines more than others are typically hospitable to it. Yet generally speaking, an academic who warms up to critical theory is likely to find themselves in the minority – if not the isolated case – within an academic department. There are a few organizations which put on conferences internationally, and there are several academic journals of a critical bent. The fact that critical theory is historically not limited to any discipline helps, and so does the late 20th century boom of poststructuralism. Yet it is still in many contexts an underground phenomenon, or at least one that has to be fought for in order for it to be granted legitimate space and recognition. One very obvious reason for this struggle is that academic disciplines subsist dependent on their adherence to methodological boundaries, and critical theory is not only overall a transdisciplinary project, but is also constantly questioning just the sorts of boundaries that constrain academics to swear behind the ostensible Truth-value of the intellectual habitus of established disciplines and departments. But this is not the only reason.
“These are loafers, dumbass.”
Poststructuralism is powerful, rigorous, and skeptical enough that it has demonstrated an ability to be impervious to refutation, at least on its own terms as a whole. And so poststructuralism/postmodernism has found a home in the academy within the humanities. This is a win for critical theory. Yet poststructuralism is only one branch of critical theory, and its integration within academic sectors has come perhaps with a kind of implicit agreement to disagree. Within the field of sociology, for example, statistical analysis and “middle-range” theory generally do not occupy the same discussions or articles as the staunchly qualitative work that poststructuralism lends itself to. “Paradigm wars” are a thing of the past, so goes the general wisdom these days. Yet for the most part, this may be due to a peaceful truce of the two. Positivism and poststructuralism are allowed to live in peace, provided they don’t talk to one another or attempt to form mixed progeny. This is an oversimplification of course. Sociological camps such as symbolic interactionism for example, operate in a hazy space that is not sworn to either side. Even Pierre Bourdieu was willing to violate the arrangement and his proverbial bridging of the houses of Montague and Capulet has clearly not resulted in any having to choose between forms of self-annihilation. Mixed-methods research is on the rise, and has been for years now.
At the same time, the relative survival of poststructuralism in the academy may be at least partially due to the impotence implicit in its strength: it can be neutralized by its own relativistic tendencies. It is not monolithic, and it does not have to self-neutralize, but it is vulnerable to this. Marxists are often frustrated with the poststructuralist avoidance of truth claims and concrete reality. How can you hope to inspire real social change if you insist on avoiding the real world? This is the refrain, and to this tune, many Marxists willfully sidestep the greater portion – if not the entirety – of the pertinent insights and questions that poststructuralism has generated.
The Marxist says to the poststructuralist: “How can you hope to tie your shoes if you refuse to see them as having shoelaces?”
The poststructuralist replies: “These are loafers, dumbass.”
In other words, wishing something to be true does not make it true. Requiring some form of empiricism, in order to make truth claims, in order to logically box other people into believing they have to agree with you and act in the world the way you want them to, does not make empiricism any more correct. It may be that pretending otherwise could be more problematic – in the ‘real world’ – than coming to terms with it. Certainly believing in demagogic dictators does not make them true liberators. Historically, this has been another major problem with “orthodox” Comintern-style Marxism. And yet, the Marxist accusation of poststructuralism is not without merit. How can something which undermines its own will-to-power hope to change the world? Some people live in discursive horizons where it is fine to perform routine clitoral “circumcision.” Are we really ethically obligated a priori to accept all worldviews, and all ways of life stemming from those worldviews, and to let them alone? Does the importance of this ethic really overturn all other moral or practical sensibilities? If so, then on what grounds?
On What Grounds?
Enter the question of normative foundations. Critical theory aims to expose and help to overturn domination. On what grounds? A huge discussion these days in some circles of critical theory from Habermas onwards, is how to normatively ground critical theory. For some, the hope appears to be that by somehow proving the necessity or universality of the moral impulse toward freedom and equality, critical theory will gain the foundation necessary to secure greater academic credibility. This engine may prove useful.
“These are loafers, dumbass.”
Regardless where you stand on this, it is a relatively contained engine, and rests upon the requirement that moral philosophy deliver some sort of unassailable imperative, which judging by the history of Western philosophy, seems a tall order to say the least. If any not-only-poststructuralist social research rooted in critical theory is suddenly going to demand an allegiance to Kant’s moral philosophy, for example, then I could only take seriously the only-poststructuralist wing. I imagine I am in the majority on this account.
Ignoring the Question
Another common response to this conundrum of legitimate grounding is just to ignore the question and do the work anyway. After all, if there are enough people who are aligned at heart with critical theory overall, then who needs legitimate grounding? And in this light, I would argue, probably most of the work within the general critical theory landscape of Marxism, poststructuralism and pragmatism is groundlessly grounded. To a degree, it is unrealistic and counterproductive to argue with this. Not every work of social research or philosophy needs to dig deep into epistemology. On the other hand, ignoring the question does not make it go away, and if we can’t frame our claims within a coherent approach to knowledge, then how can we ascertain what our research really means? In all fairness, this is not just an issue within critical theory. Sociology – I keep coming back to it because it is my primary field – is riddled with this problem through and through. In lieu of being able to answer our epistemological questions, we turn away from them, form communities of methodological custom, and pursue ‘provisional’ truths under postpositivist reasoning, or interpretive explorations of qualitative data. What remains under tight social inhibition is thinking big, taking risks, crossing disciplines, looking into potentialities and forming conceptual landscapes that allow us to make connections and criticisms that methods-centric social research decries as archaic. Add to all of this various charges of Eurocentrism and intellectual elitism (which should and can be addressed, in my opinion), and it can seem a wonder that so many people are still reading Adorno and Marcuse.
So why have a Critical Theory Research Network?
We are still reading Adorno and Marcuse. And if we are square pegs in the round hole of mainstream academia today, we can still form independent networks. Do we really need to ingratiate ourselves with big name academic “stars,” mangle our work in order to conform to the customs of the journals with the highest impact factors, and crawl at a snail’s pace up the ranks of the saturated and often stultifying academic marketplace in order to find receptive audiences and like-minded colleagues? If we encourage one another and learn from one another, keep building the rigor, epistemology, creativity, relevance, and presence of critical theory, maybe we can even carve out more space for it in the academy. We can certainly have more satisfying and meaningful careers. That is why.
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- International Herbert Marcuse Society newsletter #23 - February 9, 2020