A Manifesto for Experimental Critical Theory


Theory graffiti tags

by Kenneth Reinhard

[In this talk, I am drawing largely on the work of Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek, Ernesto Laclau. In particular, I am guided by Badiou’s essays “Philosophy and Desire,” “Eight Theses on the Universal,” and his books Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism and Being and Event. Žižek’s work, from The Ticklish Subject through his recent considerations of Judaism and Christianity, has been of central importance. Laclau’s book Emancipation(s) and his comments in the book he co-wrote with Judith Butler and Slavoj Žižek, Contingency, Hegemony, and Universality, have also been helpful here. ]

The question “what is theory?” has been central to the project of the humanities and social sciences since their modern beginnings, and has always been both a “theoretical” and a “critical” question. Certainly, at least since Hume, the question of theory has included a skepticism about theory, that is, a critique of the possibility of generalizing from experience. And at least since Kant, the questions of the conditions of possibility of knowledge, and of the limits of our subjective reflections on it, have been understood as two sides of a coin.

A symposium at the University of Chicago last year asked its participants to consider the critical question of the status of theory: is the era of theory behind us? Has the theory that still remains become more modest in its aspirations, less political, and more focused on private concerns and “the care of the self”? (In this last question the Call for Statements made its only direct reference to a specific theorist; curiously enough, it was Lacan who was taken to represent this non-political “therapeutic turn” in theory.) These questions posed by and to the editorial board of Critical Inquiry, which sponsored the conference, produced a rather wide range of comments, from the pragmatism of Stanley Fish’s reply that “theory has no political consequences” to Fredric Jameson’s assertion that in a time of weak artistic production such as our own, the political urgency of theory to generate critical interventions is all the greater. In any case, whatever diversity of opinion emerged at the symposium, the conclusion reported by The New York Times and other popular journals in rather sensationalist terms was that “Theory is Dead” and “Theory doesn’t Matter.”

It is certainly true that the theory that emerged largely from French readings of German texts in the 60s and 70s no longer has the discursive hegemony it briefly enjoyed. The prestige of philosophically and linguistically informed theory (or what now gets called “High Theory”), however, was already in decline with the advent of the New Historicism in the late 80s, an d continued in abeyance with the emergence of Cultural Studies, Post-Colonialism, and Transnational Studies, all of which insisted on the irreducible materiality and specificity of culture, which was understood as resistant to the totalizing systems and grand narratives associated with “Theory.” But the best work in those fields has never given up on theory, and has instead sought to integrate it into cultural analyses, under the conditions of theory’s new, more modest avatars, which seemed to be based on the critique of all assertions of global truth and knowledge. The infinite diversity of culture and the materiality of its practices are, of course, absolutely irrefutable facts, and the production of archives of knowledge concerning these practices is an immensely valuable work. But the modes of theoretical reason that have been employed by these new forms of postmodern study are often hobbled by their own limited assertions and endlessly self-critical reflections. Must we resign ourselves to cautious relativism, for fear of imposing “Eurocentric” values and epistemological categories on non-western cultures both beyond and en-ghettoed within the West? Why has so-called “post-modernism” abandoned the political and intellectual hope of universalism? Why has theory taken on such a modest posture, one that has by and large given up on both the revolutionary impulses and the desire to participate in larger and bolder epistemological projects that marked the 60s? Why is theory in general no longer willing to take chances, to make strong gestures, to act?

In recent work, Alain Badiou has diagnosed the “present state of philosophy” in ways that are useful for thinking the postmodern dead-ends of theory. Badiou identifies three dominant tendencies in contemporary philosophy that threaten to suffocate its desire: the first is the hermeneutic orientation, associated with Heidegger and Gadamer, but at least as old as the Ancient and Medieval rhetoricians, and persisting today in exegetical and rhetorical analysis, in contextual and intertextual studies, and in formalist criticism. The primary assumption here is that meaning is a process of meaning-making, obscure texts or concepts can be made to reveal and even generate meanings that only emerge in relation to a reader, a context, or a formal structure. The second is the analytic orientation, which Badiou associates with the Viennese School of Wittgenstein and Carnap. In analytic philosophy properly speaking, the major questions are restricted to if and how language can mean something in particular, how it can have determinate, fixed meaning, how those meanings can be verified – assumptions quite unlike those of hermeneutic philosophy, which understands meaning as an ongoing process, produced through rather than in language. Ultimately, according to Badiou, analytic philosophy hopes to “cure” us of the illusions propagated by language, and to return to a strictly determined notion of meaning, assumptions that are shared by some brands of literary historicism, as well as various modes of both intentionalism and objectivism. Thirdly, Badiou describes what he calls the postmodern orientation, which he associates most centrally with Derrida and Lyotard. Postmodern thought takes as its task “the deconstruction of the accepted facts of our modernity” (Infinite Thought 44), and attempts to reveal the hidden contradictions underlying such foundational western concepts as the true, the good, the beautiful; or, the subject, history, and politics. Unlike the other two modern intellectual tendencies, postmodernism sees its task as undoing the work of other discourses, and as such has been most directly related to literary and aesthetic practices. Here, of course, deconstruction has been taken on directly as a type of literary critical theory; but it has also animated a series of other cultural theories, including post-colonialism and other radical, de-totalizing practices.

According to Badiou, there are two underlying assumptions shared by these three otherwise quite distinct orientations: 1) negatively, they share the assumption that philosophy is over, metaphysics is dead, and metaphysical claims for truth are no longer possible; and 2) and positively, all three assert that language is the only locus of meaning, and must now be the only site for questions of truth, now understood as radically limited, contingent, and historical. For Badiou, however, these assumptions present a clear and present danger not only to philosophy, but to thinking as such. The insistence that language is the privileged locus and limitation of meaning precludes the possibility of addressing universal questions and leaves us mired in the babble of multiple and untranslatable discourses, subjective positions, specialized disciplines, and private forms of life. If we assent to the identification of thought and language, both will be condemned to follow the repetitive paths of substitution and displacement, the empty circulation of capital, commodities, and information. Badiou argues that thinking must locate itself elsewhere than in language, and that to do so it must be able to interrupt those differential circuits, to dissociate itself from the worlds of symbolic exchange. This is not to argue that such networks do not exist and do not exercise power over our minds and bodies, but is to not grant them full power over thought. Something must be posited that does not circulate, a point or break that is not interchangeable, something residual to the movement of the signifier – and this is where Badiou locates the possibility of what he calls truth. Truth is not a content, a factum to be recorded, interpreted, and retransmitted, but something precisely intransigent and non-significant within the systems of knowledge and power. Truth happens when something inconsistent or nonsensical emerges in a power-knowledge system, something that cannot participate in the exchanges that it nonetheless seems to organize. Truth is what is left over by the systems of meaning and the circulation of signs. Truth arises precisely and momentarily when the marginal becomes central an d comes to articulate a new universal principle. In a sense, this notion of “truth” is not epistemological at all, not theoretical, but practical, a question of something we do, our recognition of and fidelity to a radical break with the pre-existing situation, of whatever sort.

To aim for truth, admittedly, is a risky business; how do we know it when we see it? What allows us to claim something more than provisional, local status for it? But the stakes are high too: to give up on truth, to argue that it is merely an ideological weapon used, for example, by the imperialist West to justify its self-righteous attempts to disabuse the East of its delusions, is to give up too much. Truth is always singular, always founded on the specificity of a situation, a place and a time, but as such it must be distinguished from the knowledge of situations generated by history, sociology, and the other human and social sciences. It is for philosophy and theory as its more generic, less disciplinary name, to think the more or less than knowledge that is truth.

Badiou argues that the desire of philosophy, the desire that is threatened by the postmodern claim that theory is dead, is supported by four compossibilities: revolt, logic, universality, and risk. First, philosophy (or, if you will, theory) is based on the possibility of radical transformation, revolt, but such revolution has been declared doubly moot by postmodernism; it is said by some that we are already living in the “free world,” and that it is merely a question of time before the bells of freedom will ring globally, from Texas to Tehran. But, Badiou argues, it is precisely in our concept of freedom that we are least free: the account of freedom we export (e.g., free trade, freedom of choice, religious freedom) is itself not free, but is produced in conformity with particular ideological projects, as part of the globalization of capital. However, Badiou insists that revolt is not anarchy, and the desire of philosophy also requires adherence to logic. The world we live in today is one that privileges the illogical movement of signs and images that Badiou calls “communication,” the proliferation of greater and greater quantities of ever accelerating signifiers that erases memory and resists constellation in logical sequences and patterns. Logic implies ordination and subordination, organization of revolt into new systems of thinking, new theories. Thirdly, the desire of theory always involves a dimension of universalism, which appears untimely in our world of specialization, compartmentalization, and disintegration. We no longer are able to perceive what might be universal, what might cut across the obvious cultural differences and infinite particulars of existence. Instead of locating the universal in possibilities of thinking that may emerge only punctually, momentarily enabling authentically disinterested practical reason, we relapse into our particularist identities of blood and tribal affiliations of soil. Universalism frightens us, precisely insofar as it is not the product of ingatherings of particulars, hence seems to risk dissolving the individuality of our will. It is only by undertaking the fourth condition of theory’s desire, through the dimension of risk, that we are able to break with our identitarian politics and our fear of theory. Our society of “risk management” is one that hopes to eliminate risk, to calculate it out of existence for the sake of greater security. But it is only by means of risk taking, of undertaking acts with unpredictable results, that new thought can emerge. If theory will become more than the production of Code for the deciphering of Messages, more than the endless recycling of things we already know in always predictable “new” forms, it must break from the safety of familiar paradigms an d calculated interventions.

There must be a throw of the dice for something new to emerge into the world, and the desire of theory is for the production of new truths, not for the repetition of old knowledge. Such truths are singular, momentary, vanishing, and theory is the vision that discerns what is universal in them, and holds fast to it.

Notes Towards Theses on Experimental Critical Theory

I. Theory (the imaginary, that which is All)

To theorize is to think the universal from within the situation of differences

a) Politics is the field opened by the assertion that all identitarian modes of thinking are barbaric. The condition of civilization is the giving up of individuality, and the imperative to enter into a singular universality. The political space thought in terms of universality is that of the multitude; it is not made up of subjects, but is the condition for the production of subjectivity, as a momentary, evanescent effect of a social discourse. This production of a subject is not the result of a process of interpellation, but the consequence of the failure of interpellation, when a fissure emerges in the networks of symbolic exchange, and a new singularity emerges as the materialization of that failure.

The singularity that is produced in this operation of civilization is not a collection of positive traits or subjective particulars, but is the result of something constitutively lacking or in abeyance, marked as absent. Only insofar as a situation is decompleted by an event can the thought of the universal emerge in it.

b) The Universal is not the totality into which particulars or individuals are dissolved, but the product of the elevation of a particular as exception to the status of the universal. The condition of the particular comes to stand for the possibility of the universal, not in the reduction of differences, but by the determination of what is singularly universal in them. Hence, justice is not a function of the equalization of differences, but depends on the sublimation in thought of the different to the condition of the same.

(cf. Laclau and Žižek on universalism as the elevation of the struggle of a particular people or group of individuals to the status of the universal: the struggle of women for equality is the struggle of all people; the “chosenness” of the Jews is not their particularity among the nations of the world, based on their specialness or particularity, but the elevation of their struggle to a universal condition based on nothing-in-particular, their mere singularity).

c) The universal is neither an empirical situation nor a transcendental ideal but an act of thought. Hence theory is not superfluous to political transformation, but precondition. The thought of the universal can only arise by traversing differences, the infinite particularities that constitute the fabric of our worlds, and raising them to the status of universal. The universal is always singular, a thought formation that momentarily an d contingently arises. The thought of the universal is the immanent exception within the particularities, not a transcendental decreed from outside our situation. As such, the universal is the declaration of the possibility of equality (the political) from out of the fact of alterity (for Levinas, the condition of the ethical).

II. Critique (the symbolic, that which is lacking)

To criticize is to isolate the contradictions or antagonisms internal to a situation, and to articulate the exclusionsnecessary to the thought of the universal.

a) The thought of the universal depends upon exclusions or lacks, not included in the universal; critique is the speech act that insists on these lacks as constitutive, not accidental.

b) Critique is not the project of expanding the universal, making it ever more capacious, since the universal as such is infinite and open, hence cannot be enlarged Critique is the articulation of the cut, the break in a situation, that allows for the universal to be thought. Criticism is the fidelity to the exceptional event that on occasion arises in a situation and allows for the thought of the universal.

c) Critique is the articulation of the constitutive limits to universalization, structural barriers that condition rather than underwrite all acts of predication and interpretation, logical aporias that have been explicit in the sense of criticism as “critique” at least since Kant. The dialectic of Theory and Critique that takes the name “critical theory” is the thinking and speaking in which it is precisely the exception that proves the rule.

III. Experiment (the real, that which is not-All, or excessive)

To experiment is both to determine and to undetermine

a) The thought of the universal and its critique is a testing, an ongoing confirmation that operates via the dialectic of doubt. To experiment is to probe the real, that is, to encounter the inconsistencies which criticism isolates, and to reactivate them, sustain them in their inconsistency (cf. Caravaggio’s Doubting Thomas, probing Christ’s wound, and re-opening it). Experimentation as determinationrepeats the thought of Theory and the articulation of Critique, and in doing so brings out the automaticism of the subject of critical theory, its ventriloquization by the will to the same, as a blind, non-subjective will to repeat. (cf. the OED account of the expression “Theory Blind,” as both blinded by theory, unable to see particulars; and blind to theory, unable to see the forest for the trees).

b) Experimentation oscillates among the logical determinations of politics, science, art, and love: Science is based on necessity, hence repeatability; Politics is based on possibility, the immanent chance that something new might happen; art is based on impossibility, the creation of something new from out of nothing; and love is based on contingency, the haphazard encounter that could not have been predicted but from which new forms of subjectivity emerge.

c) The process of experimentation, thus, cannot merely proceed according to rules, but must involve the risk of non-rule governed action, that is, intervention that is not determined by protocols or the rules of prior language games.

d) Experimentation, in this undetermining sense, is the condition for the production of truth, which traverses the rules of a situation in order to think a new universal. Such productions must be distinguished from any notion of truth based on reflection or adequation, insofar as they introduce something new into a situation.

e) Even though the conditions for a new truth are always immanent to a situation, the results of experimentation cannot be predicted; to experiment is to enter into the Open by taking a chance. If there were a methodology for experimentation (and this not clear), it would be one of subtraction: something new is created only by subtracting something from a pre-existing situation (cf. creation ex nihilo, as the addition of a “nothing”)

e) Experimentation may take the form of unexpected conjunctions (the “with”), non-genealogical accounts of transmission.

Piece crossposted with Sound and Signifier