no, this isn’t about deconstruction

Everyone’s got their wishlist, and mine, like yours, starts with an effective vaccine for COVID–19 and peace and justice in the world. But after than mine probably diverges from yours: I want an end to essays and articles about literary and cultural theory written by people who have no idea what they’re talking about. Like this one by Elizabeth Powers:

These dogmas go by various names (among others, “postmodernism,” “multiculturalism”), but I will gather them under the term “deconstruction,” as it best encapsulates what is at their core. It consists of critiquing the writings of past authors, especially male ones, “deconstructing” them, which means exposing the submerged ideology of power, racism, misogyny, repression, and so on that is hidden below the overt text of a novel. This French cultural product, which began to occupy a prominent place in American university literature departments in the 1970s, has had the effect, over several student generations, of bringing literature departments, especially those of foreign languages, to extinction. Why? It is in the DNA of adolescents, even of those who have never heard of Jacques Derrida, to deconstruct, to tear apart the assumptions of their forebears. When professors stopped talking about Milton’s prose and began pointing out his treatment of his daughters, students got the point immediately. Why would 18-year-olds hang around to confirm what they knew only a year or two earlier, anyway: that anyone born before their own birth year doesn’t have a clue?

In the immortal words of Bob Marley, I got so much things to say.

I will try to set aside my small annoyances — If students think anyone older than them is clueless, why would they listen to Derrida? Don’t literature classes read texts other than novels? — and focus on the bigger problem.

All the strategies of reading Powers despises — “exposing the submerged ideology of power, racism, misogyny, repression, and so on that is hidden below the overt text of a novel” [sigh] — are not examples of deconstruction, they are repudiations of deconstruction.

Several generations of students, and their professors too, have learned what literary theory is about primarily from one book: Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction, now in its third edition (the first was published in 1983). I think almost everyone in my profession, including me, has assigned it at one time or another. A 2001 article in Times Higher Education says that at that point it had sold 750,000 copies, so surely it’s well over a million at this point.

Here’s Eagleton’s wittily polemical summation of deconstruction:

Anglo-American deconstruction largely ignores this real sphere of struggle, and continues to churn out its closed critical texts. Such texts are closed precisely because they are empty: there is little to be done with them beyond admiring the relentlessness with which all positive particles of textual meaning have been dissolved away. Such dissolution is an imperative in the academic game of deconstruction: for you can be sure that if your own critical account of someone else’s critical account of a text has left the tiniest grains of ‘positive’ meaning within its folds, somebody else will come along and deconstruct you in turn. Such deconstruction is a power-game, a mirror-image of orthodox academic competition. It is just that now, in a religious twist to the old ideology, victory is achieved by kenosis or self-emptying: the winner is the one who has managed to get rid of all his cards and sit with empty hands.

There are several things to be learned from this passage:

  1. Deconstruction is fundamentally an inquiry into language and meaning, and in that sense continues the “close reading” model that traditionalists in our time tend to like, especially when it’s exemplified by the American New Critics rather than foreigners. It’s essentially formalist, even if it’s concerned with the dissolution of form rather than formal coherence.
  2. It is therefore politically quietist.
  3. Eagleton, as a Marxist, deplores this.

I think literary scholars were already tiring of deconstruction at this point — it seemed to offer a rather limited repertoire of critical gestures, and they had begun to feel rather foolish hunting around for some text that hadn’t been deconstructed yet in order to perform that repertoire on it — but Eagleton hammered some big nails into deconstruction’s coffin. And he did so by arguing that deconstruction “ignores this real sphere of struggle” — the struggle for social justice.

I don’t want to overstress this point. There were influential critics — Robert Scholes most notable among them in his 1985 book Textual Power: Literary Theory and the Teaching of English — who tried to redescribe deconstruction as a tool in the toolbox of the politically motivated professor. Scholes’s book is important because it explicitly describes the task of the teacher as liberating students from texts that have power over them, and giving those students the power to dominate texts. But in general the rise of theories of power — above all those articulated by Michel Foucault — meant an end to the dominance of theories of language. Deconstruction was not the beginning of our current regime of critique, it was the end of the previous regime.

last word on critical theory

In these posts on “critical theory,” I’m doing what I pretty much always do: I am separating and sorting questions that tend to be conflated. That’s my thing, right? It’s why I wrote a book called How to Think, and why I say, in a blog post, that “it seems to me that arguments about Christianity and politics have an almost unique ability to reduce the intelligence of the people involved by at least a third. We desperately need clarity about what, exactly, we’re arguing about.”

So, in that spirit, onward! — with apologies for self-quotation. A number of these issues I have dealt with before, sometimes at greater length. Here I’m trying to some up with I think are the key theological themes we need to keep in mind when evaluating what people are determined to call “critical theory.” It’s a bit of a stepping back from the details.

ONE: As noted in an earlier post, some of the questions raised by “critical theory” are empirical ones. Has the history of what became the United States been deeply, indeed essentially, implicated in the slave trade since 1619? Is our society still dominated by white supremacy? Is our social and political order structurally racist? To answer these questions is to evaluate historical and sociological evidence. You could be a deeply orthodox Christian and answer “Yes” to all those questions. You could also be a deeply orthodox Christian and answer “No” to them all. It would depend on the evidence you gather and how you evaluate it.

TWO: But — and here’s where things get complicated — the people who hold the political views mentioned above tend to hold other views that are philosophically unrelated to the historical claims. Indeed many people who are not “woke” at all in their thinking about race also hold these views, which cluster around what I have called ”metaphysical capitalism”: I am a commodity owned solely by myself; I may do with this property whatever I want and call it whatever I want; any suggestion that my rights over myself are limited in any way I regard as an intolerable tyranny. I am what I say I am. I am my own. As a Christian I do not and cannot believe this. My only comfort in life and in death is that I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.

But how can I communicate this to people who aren’t Christians? Can I give them any reason to believe that they are not their own without invoking Jesus? Is there some kind of political principle accessible to non-believers that would encourage them to overcome the I-am-my-own principle? I hope so, because I think that self-ownership is destructive to the self and damaging to that self’s community. But in a plural and indeed pluralist society it’s difficult to know how to make such arguments effectively. I have tried to explore some of these issues in this essay, which, though it is largely about intra-Christian disputes, has relevance for the larger social body. I hope.

THREE: More generally, we need a great disentangling. You can see from the above how philosophically unrelated claims get entangled with one another and can seem to belong to the same general movement even when that’s logically impossible. One cannot simultaneously be fundamentally defined by one’s group identity and free to be whatever one wants to be. The attempt to hold both views at once without acknowledging their incompatibility is what leads to situations like the Hypatia transracialism controversy, in which a single academic article shorted out the entire system. Similarly, the doctrine of “intersectionality” tends, as I have written in this blog post, to focus on intersections that intensify but to ignore intersections that cancel each other out. The problem with the Ongoing Oppression Thesis is not that it’s wrong about ongoing oppression, but that the people who deploy it tend to think they need in any given situation to have a clear victim and a clear perpetrator. That’s morally simplistic, and also cannot account for the distributed character of power, as I explain in this interview: “I’ve got a chapter in my book [The Year of Our Lord 1943] called ‘Demons,’ about demonic activity. Or if you don’t want to say ‘demonic’ activity, you can call it the activity of what St. Paul calls the ‘principalities and powers.’ It’s interesting, Foucault is a kindred spirit — the ‘principalities and powers’ is a kind of Foucauldian argument, right? In the sense that it is power — and what Weil would call force — disseminated through social and political structures.” That whole interview is relevant to a lot of the questions I’ve been exploring in these posts. It’s an attempt to think in as thoroughly biblical a way as I can manage about these questions.

FOUR: The final set of questions relates to what I will call, for lack of any catchy and concise term, the practical implications of theological anthropology. My point here is closely related to the previous one. Whatever Christians think about the issues I have raised above, we are obliged to conduct ourselves in ways that avoid what I call “rhetorical Leninism.” We have to extend mercy to those whom we believe to be wrong, even tragically wrong, because this is how God treats us. He loves the unlovely, and is gracious to the wicked — like me. We are to be imitators of Him. For us there can be no “Lord, I thank you that I am not like that racist over there,” or “Lord, I thank you that I am not like that pathetic cuck over there” – there can only be “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Because when we choose to measure others according to a certain standard, we are asking that that same measure be used to measure us.

Okay, that’s it, I’m done. No more from me about this — though I am, as I mentioned earlier, engaged with some colleagues on a project that will address many of the issues at stake here. But that has to remain a Big Secret for now.

Christians and critical theory

Here’s the question I mentioned in my last post: What should be the Christian’s response to critical theory? Note that this is not a question that is equally relevant to everyone concerned with the debates over “critical theory.” (I still hate that term.) Neil Shenvi is a Christian, but James Lindsay is an atheist, last I heard anyway. What follows is specifically for Christians and will likely be of no interest to anyone else.

But note: this will not be good. Because of other commitments I don’t have time to do this thoroughly, and anyway I have serious doubts that anyone will pay attention to anything I say — the whole discourse is now running like a perpetual-motion machine and I can’t do anything even to slow it down, much less stop it. But I have promised some people that I would say something, and this is something.

Let’s begin by trying to replace the question by a more specific and more accurate one. How should Christians respond to a workplace environment in which employees are pressured to acknowledge the historic and ongoing systematic oppression of racial and sexual minorities by white straight people, and to welcome and support all efforts to remedy that oppression? I think that’s the really substantive question for the church to deal with. The questions of intellectual genealogy that I pursued in my previous post are not especially relevant here, though they might be relevant in another context.

Before going any further, it’s important to recognize that this whole question feels a lot different to a person of color than it does to a white person. I do not mean that all persons of color will agree with the Ongoing Oppression Thesis, or that all white persons will disagree with it; neither is true. But the Thesis will have different valences for different people, and much of what I say below will be more directly relevant to the fears of white people than to the experiences of others. This makes me slightly uncomfortable, but it’s white people, by and large, who are asking the question. I do believe that the general principles I articulate are valid for all Christians, as will become evident. What I’m exploring here today provides but a particular instance of the kind of challenge that most Christians regularly face, in infinitely varied forms. In one sense it represents nothing new under the sun, and there is a great tradition of faithful Christian response throughout our history for you to draw upon for instruction and courage. You’ll see what I mean.

Now, let’s get to the substance. Any valid response to the question I’m addressing will necessarily have three components: the empirical, the prudential, and the principial.

Empirical: If you claim that our society is characterized by “historic and ongoing systematic oppression of racial and sexual minorities by white straight people,” you’re making an empirical claim, a claim that is to be assessed by gathering and sifting evidence. It’s not clear to me that Christians will, or should, do this any differently than anyone else. Some Christians will believe the claim to be warranted, and some will not; but I don’t see that what they believe about these matters has any necessary relation to their Christian faith. After all, a Christian might believe — many Christians do believe! — at one and the same time that (a) homosexual acts are forbidden to Christians and (b) straight Christians have singled out gays and lesbians for demonization while turning a blind eye to their own sexual sins. The empirical questions are distinct from the theological ones.

Prudential: It’s when we get to remedies that things get complicated. If your employer is suggesting remedies that you don’t think are ideal — let’s suppose that you’re not opposed to “diversity” hires but think that not enough attention is being paid to professional qualifications; or, again let’s suppose, you think an enormous amount of valuable company time is being devoted to woke “training exercises” — what, as a Christian, do you do? You do what every intelligent person does: You try to exercise prudence. You reflect on the difference between major and minor problems; you think about who in your workplace might serve as your advocate or ally; you look for ways to gently nudge the company in what you believe to be a healthier direction. Meditate on Joseph and Daniel: you think they didn’t have to deal with some messed-up stuff? They put up with certain practices and policies that troubled or even offended them because they had a strategy for faithfulness. If you don’t have one of those, you should think about getting one.

Principial: But of course, as the example of Daniel illustrates, sometimes you’re invited — or rather ordered — to cross a line that you can’t in conscience cross. Most of you will know what that line is when you’re presented with it; it’s very difficult to say in the abstract what it might be. Indeed for me it’s impossible, not knowing your situation. But that will be at the very least a small martyrdom for you, and the rule about martyrdom is very simple: Lord, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not my will but yours be done. That said, do, please, take prayerful thought to distinguish faithfulness to the True God from obeisance to any of many false gods who forever seek to occupy the highest place. It was the tragedy of Stonewall Jackson’s life that he conflated the cause of the Confederacy with the cause of Christ.

One more post is coming on all this, connecting these general reflections to some of the more technical theological issues. It also will be bad.

more on “critical theory”

This is not the promised follow-up to my recent post on fear, but it certainly concerns related matters. This is a follow-up to my earlier post on “critical theory.” Neil Shenvi has emailed to alert me to people responding to my post. So let me respond to the responses! But just as an initial clarification, I don’t reply on Twitter to people I don’t follow because I never see their tweets. That’s how I have Twitter set up. I recommend that policy to everyone.

I am truly sorry I didn’t know that Lindsay and his colleagues have written frequently about the very terminological confusion I point to in my post. That must be frustrating to them, and I apologize for adding to their frustration. I can only plead as an excuse that I wasn’t aware of the extent of their empire!

The quotes in Shenvi’s post indicate that there’s disagreement among those who critique critical theory about how confusing the term is. Such disagreement confirms the relevance of my post, which, after all, wasn’t meant primarily as criticism of Lindsay et al. so much as a capsule history lesson on all the confusion the term “critical theory” has been causing for decades.

I wish I had time to support these claims in detail, but I don’t, so just for what little it’s worth, here’s my take: The movement Lindsay et al. are opposed to did not originate with the Frankfurt School, and would be largely what it is if Horkheimer and Adorno had never lived. Its raw materials derive from Franz Fanon and Paulo Freire and bell hooks and Edward Said etc. — the people who get quoted by today’s activists! — scholars who rarely if ever refer to the Frankfurt School or, in the case of Said, claim that that school was culpably negligent in its failure to combat racism and colonialism. The crisis of colonialism, and maybe more than anywhere else in French Algeria, has had an almost infinitely greater role in shaping today’s discourse than the Frankfurt School. It was French thought, not German, that dominated American humanities departments in the last third of the 20th century, and bequeathed a vocabulary that people are still using. (Beyond that lie the “masters of suspicion” I mentioned in my post.) One reason that that French discourse — along with certain English-language writers like C. L. R. James and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, whose “Decolonising the Mind” is hugely influential — has been so dominant is that France and England had vast colonial enterprises and Germany did not. You can hardly overstate the extent to which colonialism has established the terms for current discourse about race and ethnicity and even gender and sexuality. I really do believe that the term “critical theory” misleads people about the relevant history. (By the way, Ngũgĩ decolonized his own mind by ceasing to write in English and turning to Gikuyu instead.)

One might of course argue that all of this intellectual genealogy is beside the point, and what really matters is combating false and dangerous ideas. But the genealogy is what my post was about. Also, I don’t mean that Lindsay and colleagues are wrong about everything, or even about many things. I mean to suggest only that they get the genealogy wrong. I am actually at work, with some other folks, on a project that will address these issues, but I am sworn to secrecy about that right now. More in due course.

Randomly: James Lindsay thinks I’ve been irresponsible in failing to … I’m not sure, do what he does, maybe? I suppose my most recent essay to addresses the same movements that Lindsay does is this one, from 2017; my first one, an ethical critique of deconstruction, and in fact my first published scholarly article, appeared in 1987. So I’ve been at this for a while. But indeed that kind of thing isn’t my chief focus, because quite early on I came to believe that pure critique is a high-demand, low-reward kind of work. It can be helpful if you want to rally your base, but I find it more useful to celebrate what I believe to be true, and true, and beautiful, and embed critique in a larger, more constructive enterprise.

Okay, all that duly noted, I suppose I need to say something in response to a question I get asked all the time: What should be the Christian’s response to this “critical theory”? I’ll do that in my next post — but I will do it badly. This I pledge to you.

on misunderstanding critical theory

Recently there’s been a lot of talk among conservatives about “critical theory,” and it’s been puzzling me. So finally I looked into the matter and think there’s some confusion that needs to be sorted out.

The person who has been leading the charge in the identification and denunciation is James Lindsay, of the grievance studies hoax fame, and he has helped to generate a whole discourse about critical theory, much of which you can find at Areo Magazine. If you look at the essays there, you’ll see some that identify critical theory quite closely with the works of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer — the leading members of the so-called Frankfurt School — but then others, who clearly think that they’re talking about the same phenomenon, lump Adorno and Horkheimer together with thinkers who differ from them quite dramatically, like Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Lindsay himself uses the term “critical theory” in extraordinarily flexible ways, sometimes quite narrowly and sometimes expansively. It can be hard to tell in any given sentence of his what the intended range of reference is.

To someone like me who has been studying and teaching and writing about this stuff for thirty years, the whole discourse is pretty disorienting because, frankly, so much of it is just wrong. It’s like listening to people talking about a “Harvard school” of political theory that features John Rawls and Robert Nozick; or a “California school” of governance to which both Ronald Reagan and Gavin Newsom belong.

However, the folks who write for Areo didn’t arrive at this confusion all by themselves. It’s endemic to the humanistic disciplines, in which “theory” can be used in many ways, some of which involves the acts of social and cultural and literary “criticism” — which of course is also an ambiguous word, since it can denote close attentiveness or a negative view of something. I am an Auden critic, but that doesn’t mean I am critical of Auden. All these things get mixed up together, and have done so for a long time. Decades ago, when I started teaching a class on these themes at Wheaton College, the class was called “Critical Theory,” but what it was really about was “Literary Theory.” I asked for the name of the course to be changed because I thought that the phrase “critical theory” should be reserved for the Frankfurt School tradition, but several of my colleagues were puzzled by this request, thinking that “critical theory” and “literary theory” were functionally synonymous terms. I seem to recall one saying that the existing description was better because the class was really about literary criticism rather than literature as such. Theory of criticism = critical theory.

So no wonder Lindsay and his colleagues get confused. But let’s try to straighten things out a bit.

In the broadest sense, literary theory and cultural theory are academic disciplines based on the conviction that the ways we think about our humanistic subjects are not self-evidently correct and require investigation, reflection, and in some cases correction. This impulse arises in part from the experience of teaching, in which we discover that our students tend to do things with literary and historical texts — for instance, decide whether they like a book or a historical account on the basis of whether or not they “relate” to its most prominent characters — that we would prefer them not to do. But also, there was some 80 years ago a fight in America (it happened earlier and rather differently in the U.K.) to convince academic administrations that the study of literature was not simply impressionistic, like some higher book club, and writing about literature was not merely belletristic. Rather, we’re doing serious, disciplined academic work over here! And to prove it, and then to teach our students, we’re developing a theory.

All this ferment is of course related to science envy: the need to reckon with the fear that science has a method and humanistic study does not. A theory at least approximates a method, and there arose some considerable agitá about whether there’s anything scientific (truly methodical) about what literary critics do. The most influential literary critic of the middle of the twentieth century, Northrop Frye, said in his landmark book Anatomy of Criticism that literature is not a science but literary criticism is, or should be. Not everyone agreed, but everyone did seem to think that literary criticism needed to give an account of itself, needed to specify and enumerate its procedures. In a famous essay, Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels defined theory as “the attempt to govern interpretations of particular texts by appealing to an account of interpretation in general.” They didn’t think this could actually work, which is why they called their essay “Against Theory,” but even people who agreed that it didn’t work, like Stanley Fish, still acknowledged the necessity of “theory talk.”

So this theory talk — which started in Europe well before the likes of Northrop Frye came around — spawned a proliferation of schools, and not just in literary study but also in other humanistic disciplines, among which there was a great deal of overlap in terminology and approach. And, in relation to the arguments that James Lindsay makes, almost none of this was closely related to the Frankfurt School’s “critical theory.” Adorno and Horkheimer and friends had some influence, to be sure, but not not nearly as much as, say, the structuralism that made its way into literary study via Claude Levi-Strauss’s anthropology, or the various psychological theories that stemmed from the work of Freud and Jung. Then came post-structuralism, deconstruction, feminism, gender theory, body theory, postcolonial theory, ecocriticism — all of which were critical and theoretical but usually had only minimal overlap with the concerns of the Frankfurt School. (The figure that I think most generative for Critical Race Theory, Franz Fanon, was in no way connected to the Frankfurt School’s critical theory, as far as I can tell. All of his guiding lights were French.) Certainly each movement operated according to their own internal logic.

But there is among all of these a family resemblance, just not one in which the Frankfurt School has any kind of initiating role. All of these movements assume that (a) most of the time we don’t really know what we’re doing and (b) we’d rather not know, because if we did know why we do the things we do we might not like it. The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur famously wrote that all of these recent movements descend from the three great nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century “masters of suspicion”: Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, the “destroyers” of the common illusions from which we derive so much of our placid self-satisfaction. So if you’re going to blame anyone for the corrosive skepticism of Critical Race Theory and the like, you’ll need to start well before the Frankfurt School.

And one more thing: as Ricoeur knew perfectly well, there were other great destroyers of illusions in the nineteenth century, perhaps chief among them Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky — but those two did it in the name of the Christian faith. Because no less than Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky knew that the human heart is deceitful above all things, and added that it is deceitful in ways that we cannot through our own efforts fix. Perhaps the chief problem with the masters of suspicion, and their heirs, is not that they are too suspicious but that they are not suspicious enough. Especially about themselves.

the post-truth thought leaders at work

Giorgio Agamben

The other thing, no less disquieting than the first, that the epidemic has caused to appear with clarity is that the state of exception, to which governments have habituated us for some time, has truly become the normal condition. There have been more serious epidemics in the past, but no one ever thought for that reason to declare a state of emergency like the current one, which prevents us even from moving. People have been so habituated to live in conditions of perennial crisis and perennial emergency that they don’t seem to notice that their life has been reduced to a purely biological condition and has not only every social and political dimension, but also human and affective. A society that lives in a perennial state of emergency cannot be a free society. We in fact live in a society that has sacrificed freedom to so-called “reasons of security” and has therefore condemned itself to live in a perennial state of fear and insecurity. 

Rusty Reno

That older generation that endured the Spanish flu, now long gone, was not ill-informed. People in that era were attended by medical professionals who fully understood the spread of disease and methods of quarantine. Unlike us, however, that generation did not want to live under Satan’s rule, not even for a season. They insisted that man was made for life, not death. They bowed their head before the storm of disease and endured its punishing blows, but they otherwise stood firm and continued to work, worship, and play, insisting that fear of death would not govern their societies or their lives. 

I find this convergence quite interesting, and wish I had the time to trace the intellectual genealogy that led a post-Heideggerian, quasi-Foucauldian continental philosopher and a traditionalist Catholic to make precisely the same argument. Reno’s contemptuous dismissal of the value of “physical life” echoes Agamben’s “purely biological condition,” his famous concept of “bare life,” while Reno’s attack on “a perennial state of fear and insecurity” echoes Agamben’s “perennial crisis and perennial emergency,” his equally famous “state of exception.” (One common ancestor, I think: Carl Schmitt.)

But for now I’ll just note that perhaps the strongest obvious link between them is indifference to the truth of their historical claims. What Reno got wrong about the American response to the Spanish flu I mentioned in an earlier post; for a refutation of Agamben’s claim that a sense of emergency in plague time is a new phenomenon, see, for instance, this post by my friend and colleague Philip Jenkins, and Anastasia Berg’s critique. When the facts get in the way of the narrative, print the narrative. 


UPDATE: One brief thought: We see here an excellent example of what happens when you over-extend a plausible thesis. For both Agamben and Reno technocratic modernity is really really Bad — that’s the plausible thesis! — so when they see uncomfortable social constraints occurring in the reign of technocratic modernity they think that technocratic modernity must, perforce, be the cause of those uncomfortable social constraints. So they instantly assume that earlier societies did not respond to plagues in the way that we do. But, it turns out, the primary factor shaping social behavior in time of plague is not technocratic modernity but rather the actual transmission of infectious disease. Imagine that: human behavior shaped not by ideology but by plain old, unavoidable old, biology. 

intersections

Re: “intersectionality”: Intersections can diminish as well as intensify. Take Kamala Harris as an example. A woman and a minority (a Jamaican father and an Indian mother): the intersection of these theoretically increases her cultural marginalization. But wait: both of her parents were also academics at elite universities, first as students and later as faculty and researchers. Such an economic and cultural placement forms a vector that, intersecting with others, diminishes Harris’s marginalization. (One could go into her story in more detail: for instance, her parents divorced when she was quite young — that adds another vector of social force that should be accounted for. One could also go into anyone else’s story in such detail, if one is interested in a full accounting of a person’s social placement. A big “If,” these days.)

People who fancy themselves theorists of intersectionality are only interested in intensifications: intensifications whether of privilege (white + male + heterosexual) or of marginalization (black + female + homosexual). The diminishments are just as real; but they’re not as useful. At least for those who, while they may like their gender identities on a spectrum, like their political narratives binary.

enough with the “Cultural Marxism” already

Alexander Zubatov tries to rescue the term “Cultural Marxism” in this post, and I don’t think he succeeds. Now, he might succeed in defending some users of the term from some of the charges Samuel Moyn makes here, but that’s a different matter (and one I won’t take up here). I simply want to argue that the term ought to be abandoned.

Here’s Zubatov’s definition:

So what is cultural Marxism? In brief, it is a belief that cultural productions (books, institutions, etc.) and ideas are emanations of underlying power structures, so we must scrutinize and judge all culture and ideas based on their relation to power.

The problem here, put as succinctly as I can put it, is that you can take this view of culture without being a Marxist, and you can be a Marxist without taking this view of culture.

Taking the latter point first: in The German Ideology Marx and Engels state quite clearly that there is a relationship between the art that is produced at a given time and place and the overall character of that time and place:

Raphael’s work of art depended on the flourishing of Rome at that time, which occurred under Florentine influence, while the works of Leonardo depended on the state of things in Florence, and the works of Titian, at a later period, depended on the totally different development of Venice. Raphael as much as any other artist was determined by the technical advances in art made before him, by the organization of society and the division of labour in his locality, and, finally, by the division of labour in all countries with which his locality had intercourse. Whether an individual like Raphael succeeds in developing his talent depends wholly on demand, which in turn depends on the division of labour and the conditions of human culture resulting from it.

But notice that there is a lot more going on here than “underlying power structures.” Marx and Engels are making a rather commonsensical point, which is that the history and social organization of Florence meant that the work produced in it would (of course!) be different than the work produced at the same time in a society such as that of Venice. They are implying that those who really want to understand a work of art will make themselves familiar with the wide range of circumstances that form a given culture, only some of which are political or economic. Certain “technical advances in art” — the use of varying pigments, for instance — might arise in a given place less because of the economic conditions than because of a particular artist’s ingenuity.

To be sure, many later Marxists would get highly agitated by Marx and Engels’s use of the word “determined” in the passage just quoted. But a decade after The German Ideology, in an appendix to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx would clarify this point:

As regards art, it is well known that some of its peaks by no means correspond to the general development of society, nor do they therefore to the material substructure, the skeleton as it were of its organisation. For example the Greeks compared with modern [nations] …. It is even acknowledged that certain branches of art, e.g., the epic, can no longer be produced in their epoch-making classic form after artistic production as such has begun; in other words that certain important artistic formations are only possible at an early stage in the development of art itself.

Marx believed that capitalism was an advance over feudalism, which was in turn an advance over more primitive forms of political organization; that did not mean that he thought Benjamin Disraeli a superior writer to Homer — or that you could explain Homer’s greatness by invoking the politics of his world. But if you want to understand a given work of art you need to pay attention to what Marx and Engels habitually called its “material conditions.”

So, if we grant that Marx and Engels are Marxists, we must then conclude that Marxists do not necessarily believe that “cultural productions (books, institutions, etc.) and ideas are emanations of underlying power structures.” And many later Marxists, including some of the ones Zubatov quotes, go even further in separating the superstructure of cultural production from the economic base. (Georg Lukács, for instance, was taken to task by Bertolt Brecht for writing criticism insufficiently attentive to the base and therefore to the revolutionary imperative: “It is the element of capitulation, of withdrawal, of utopian idealism which still lurks in Lukács’s essays and which he will undoubtedly overcome, that makes his work, which otherwise contains so much of value, unsatisfactory; for it gives the impression that what concerns him is enjoyment alone, not struggle, a way of escape, rather than a march forward.”)

Moreover, the one figure who did the most to consolidate the idea that all culture is deeply implicated in the “underlying power structures,” the power-knowledge regime, is Michel Foucault, and there has always been the suspicion on the academic Left that Foucault is actually a conservative.

It is equally clear that one can believe that an advocate “for the persecuted and oppressed must attack forms of culture that reinscribe the values of the ruling class, and disseminate culture and ideas that support ‘oppressed’ groups and ‘progressive’ causes,” without endorsing any of the core principles of Marx’s system. (There are forms of conservatism and Christianity that are as fiercely critical of the ruling class as any Marxist, while having no time for dialectical materialism or communism.)

I am not convinced by Moyn’s claim that there is something strongly antisemitic about the contemporary use of the term “Cultural Marxism” — though I’d be interested to hear him develop that argument at greater length. I tend to see there term deployed in the classic Red Scare mode of the McCarthy era: in some circles, now as then, there’s no quicker and easier way to discredit an idea than to call its proponents Commies. And that’s the work that the “Marxism” half of “cultural Marxism” does.

Notes for a Book I Won’t Write

I’m always getting ideas for books that are very much worth writing but which I know I’ll never get around to writing because other projects come first. Here’s one — I bequeath it to the world.


It is perhaps only from this vantage point, in the second decade of the twentieth century, that we can see the ways in which the most lasting contributions of twentieth-century literary criticism are extensions of the great Modernist project. Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism might fruitfully be seen as an embodiment, in criticism’s vocabulary and in accordance with criticism’s procedures, of Joyce’s Ulysses. Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis may be said have a similar relationship to the fiction of Thomas Mann, especially The Magic Mountain and Joseph and his Brothers. George Steiner’s In Bluebeard’s Castle translates the concerns of Beckett’s Endgame into an impassioned critical idiom. Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending might best be understood as a late work of modernist aesthetics, an homage to and extension of the major poems of Wallace Stevens — specifically, Stevens’s idea of the “supreme fiction.” Stepping outside the realm of literary criticism as such, Claude Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques is a Proustian gem, a exceptionally rich and subtle work of narrative art. And Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era, with epic scope and its obvious echoes of Pound’s unfinished Cantos, might be seen as the final masterpiece of magisterial Modernism. Each of these works draws on deep scholarship but also commands deep resources of narrative art, metaphorical imaginativeness, structural ingenuity.

I think it would be fascinating and rewarding to explore these great works of criticism as artworks. And such a book would also demonstrate that we academics, who love to think of ourselves as being on the cutting-edge of thought, are typically running about half-a-century behind the novelists and poets.

boundaries

One must not, however, imagine the realm of culture as some sort of spatial whole, having boundaries but also having internal territory. The realm of culture has no internal territory: it is entirely distributed along the boundaries, boundaries pass everywhere, through its every aspect…. Every cultural act lives essentially on the boundaries: in this is its seriousness and significance; abstracted from boundaries it loses its soil, it becomes empty, arrogant, it degenerates and dies.

— Mikhail Bakhtin, from a late essay translated by Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson. This is one of my foundational beliefs: it governs many of my choices, especially about what I read and whom I converse with — and on social media also. Choose wisely and carefully the people you follow on Twitter and you can create a digital version of Bakhtinian/Dostoevskian polyphony.