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b u l l e t i n

Issue IV

Conversation Critique and Critiques

Edited by Fraser Joyce

Table of Contents

The 2014 ISRF Workshop 5 Response to the Reflections on ‘Critique’


Conversation 12

The 2014 ISRF Workshop Critique & Critiques Dr. Louise Braddock ISRF Director of Research


his year’s annual ISRF Workshop was held in York, jointly with ReCSS, the University of York’s Research Centre for the Social Sciences. The workshop format enabled the ISRF’s Fellows, both current and former, to present their work to the foundation and to discuss it with each other over the course of a long but rewarding day of short talks, informal sociability and a roundtable discussion. ReCSS’s Director Rowland Atkinson provided a second day of presentations by the Centre’s scholars and graduate students, including notable keynote paper by Werner Bonefeld. We are grateful for their contributions, and for the collaboration that made it possible to hold a successful Workshop at York. Behind the Workshop title ‘Critique and Critiques’ hovered many questions, notably how to construe the criticality demanded in the Fellowship competitions that are at the core of the ISRF’s funding strategy. It seems that critique, as criticality, is something which academics recognise when they see it, much like innovativeness, the theme of last year’s Workshop. Thus, the way forward in trying to understand criticality was to find out from our Fellows what it is they see as being critical in their own or others’ work. Their responses to this challenge form the content of this issue of the ISRF Bulletin. Among the many background questions in my own mind



was whether there is an identifiable Anglophone approach to critique to set alongside – or offset – the one migrating from German Idealism into post-war French thought? And where in relation to that predominant ‘Continental’ tradition should we place Anglophone thinkers – such as Locke, Hume and their contemporaries – who were undoubtedly critical in some core sense? Whether we are the intellectual heirs of this latter tradition or not, we might at the workshop ask ourselves the question What is critique and (how) are we doing it?, with due emphasis on the ‘we’. The Fellows had their own questions and the ensuing discussions, with their themes and ideas, form the content of this Bulletin. I will not anticipate these here. But, noting there the welcome inclusion of psychoanalytic theory as a critical resource I later recalled a remark by the psychoanalyst Jock Sutherland that psychoanalysis is ‘a form of knowledge the community needs’. Since I’ve never been able to trace the reference (it was quoted at a conference I attended years ago) for all I know it was a general characterisation of critical theories that Sutherland borrowed from social science in the first place. The interest of the remark is partly that it presents psychoanalysis as a form of (critical) knowledge in contrast to the commonly dismissive view of the discipline (as a mythology, religion, or heuristical project). The remark is also interesting in application to critical theory, re-presenting it not just as emancipatory but more open-endedly as ‘needed’, and needed moreover by the ‘community’. Without more background to the quote it would be unwise to read too much into the exact choice of words (especially with respect to that overburdened abstraction, the ‘community’), but it’s a reminder that need is arguably as important a concept as power in understanding the relations that human beings have with each other. One might, further, pursue the idea that this could be – in David Wiggins’s terms – a ‘vital need’: a need for something without which the human community will be harmed.1 1. David Wiggins, ‘An Idea we Cannot do Without’ in Soran Reader (ed), The Philosophy of Need (Cambridge, 2005) p.33. 6


The idea that the community ‘needs’ criticality can be expanded beyond the claim that the need is instrumental in empowering individuals’ emancipation from false consciousness; it can also be read as the claim that the community needs such self-knowledge for an ‘examined life’ intrinsically or absolutely. Further to that is the thought that such a community is what provides a ‘real option’ for us, as Bernard Williams has put it; one that provides us with a chance of living a properly human life. 2 This is of course to call on a humanistic ethic of self-examination that brings with it the conundrum of how to understand and recognise other views of the human situation that do not obviously concur with those of an Enlightened West. More questions than answers, inevitably, from a workshop with such an open-ended theme. What counts, and counted there, was the space (physical, temporal and psychological) it provided for reflection and a free-associative style of discussion, the acceptance of uncertainty, and the absence of pressure to foreclose or deliver. If knowledge was being ‘produced’, both its form and mode of production were sufficiently subtle to escape categorisation. On behalf of the ISRF I am grateful to all who occupied this space, and participated and contributed over the two days. The resulting questions, ideas and uncertainties, and Fellows’ subsequent contributions have been edited into an engaging conversational form by Fraser Joyce, the Bulletin’s outgoing Editor. Thanks are due to him for his work in producing this year’s ISRF Bulletins on the successful format he has developed. This fourth issue benefits also from Liz Frazer’s masterly reflections on the issues engaged with at the workshop. Lastly, and crucially, we are very fortunate in our Fellows for the contribution they make not only to their own fields of scholarship but to the goals and intellectual life of the foundation.

2. Bernard Williams, Moral Luck: Philosophical Papers, 1973-1980 (Cambridge, 1981) p.139. 7

Response to the Reflections on ‘Critique’ Dr. Elizabeth Frazer ISRF Academic Advisor, Associate Professor of Politics, University of Oxford, Head of Department of Politics and International Relations, Lecturer in Politics, and Official Fellow of New College, Oxford


ritique is a term that clusters with a range of cognates including ‘critical’, ‘critic’, and ‘criticism’. Conceptual analysis enables us to articulate the distinctions between these. In its philosophical meanings – which are both vague and contested – it is connected in particular with Immanuel Kant (1704-1824), among whose great works are the three critiques: of Pure Reason (1787), of Practical Reason (1788), and of Judgement (1790). Karl Marx’s (18181883) celebrated works also include this term, both in title – eg. Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875) – and in text. Translators’ decisions to render the German not as ‘criticism’ (Kritik) but to use the French grammatical form of the noun indicates one such conceptual distinction. In these philosophical contexts, in my understanding, ‘critique’ indicates an activity of uncovering, by philosophical analysis, the conditions that must obtain for things to be as they are – where ‘things’ encompass matters of epistemology and metaphysics, ethics and social practices. For Marx, importantly, such conditions were historical, not universal; and accordingly, our expectations are that ‘things as they are’ are not for all time, and, most critically, that human engagement in the world, and the creative capacity of humans as makers, means that the conditions underpinning institutions and the things of the world can themselves be (re)



made by collective interactions and efforts. In the twentieth century the term critique became associated in particular with Ideologiekritik in the works of the Frankfurt School, for whom the role of theory and understanding in social transformations moved to the centre. Frustration, concern, anger, reflection, dreams, and aspirations were bound up with action in concert which created new social relations, and began to realise the interests that humans will have (not the ones that they do have in the setting which generates the frustration, deprivation, and anger). Critical theory contrasts with the kind of theory which is detached from real social conditions (contemplation), and with the kind of hypothesis testing which stays firmly in the realm of the ‘as is’ and fails to get to grips with the possible. Critical theory, also, is theory which accounts for itself and its own role in the world. The ISRF Fellows who write in this Bulletin undoubtedly approach this creative and constructive aspiration with a good deal of ambivalence. The scepticism about the metaphors of ‘depth’ and ‘surface’ that are so forcefully expressed by Michel Foucault (1926-1984) and by Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), along with the implications of Derrida’s deconstructive method (which shows that philosophical oppositions – depth and surface, prescription-description, truth versus falsehood – invariably trade on and mutually constitute each other so that the elimination of falsehood by truth, or of superficiality by depth, are impossible) cast a shadow over critical theory’s and critique’s versions of enlightenment and progressivism. Further, care about evidence, and care for the people with whom research is conducted, means that any project of ‘unmasking’ must be conducted with great caution. Ambivalence about critique is also inevitable, perhaps, in a context where the paradoxes, ambiguities, and uncertainties of the term are more pressing than are its enlightenment credentials or its analytic powers. Critique, historically, has been



a technique of progressives and revolutionaries, rather than of apologists or reactionaries. But the method that discloses the historical conditions that have to be in place for authoritarian societies to remain stable can also be used by the defenders of authoritarianism to give a historical and critical diagnosis of the peculiar conditions that have led to the hegemony of a characteristic set of liberal values that, for example, prize voluntarism in sexual choice and life partnerships. Emphasising the self-concealing nature of different forms of exploitative power does not establish that the power to engage as non-exploited or oppressed equals must be transparent to consciousness. In the contest between ‘liberal freedoms’ and ‘traditional constraints’ critique, in itself, does not clearly put us on one side rather than the other. These and other complexities and ambiguities come across more clearly in the contributions here than does any shared, consistent, commitment to any ethical or scientific standpoint or procedure: critique as overly intellectual, and hence a barrier to (or shield from) the imperatives of action; critique as ambiguous regarding its standpoint inside or outside the practices in its purview; critique as a commitment which is a badge of compliance rather than of dissent. These and other paradoxes, uncertainties, and ambiguities are what spring to contributors’ minds when they are asked to speak about critique in relation to their own work. But, academic understanding, and social scientific schemes and concepts, do participate in the worlds that are engaged by ISRF researchers – the worlds of institutions like prisons, economies like those in post-revolutionary societies and states, or flows of persons and goods, and transformations of social and political relations. There is less conviction here, and now, than there was in past centuries, that the contradictions can be overcome, that contestations can be resolved, whether by reason or by power, that understandings of how the world comes to be as it is can promise to deliver a world that is as it should be in harmony with material and social provision, and human social relations. Yet,



the commitment to discerning and articulating the contestations and contradictions, the dilemmas that catch human subjects and diminish their capacities to act, and the practical responses that imaginative, creative, human beings have to these dilemmas, is evident in the work of ISRF researchers. Critique, it seems to me, persists in the form of a refusal to be dazzled by the profusion and confusion of appearances. It persists in the view that we can work out why what is impossible is impossible, and know that one day’s impossibility can be another day’s probability. And that under certain conditions – not all, not always – human beings can make, and re-make, the worlds in which they live.


Conversation Critique & Critiques Edited by Fraser Joyce ISRF Editorial Assistant


his issue of the ISRF Bulletin is based on the annual workshop held this year at York on the theme of Critique and Critiques. For the foundation, the workshop is our opportunity to engage with large, unwieldy subjects and to ask our Fellows to discuss them in the contexts of their own research and scholarly fields. As a result, we are able to consider these topics from a number of disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives. Following the workshop the Fellows were asked to reflect on the events of the day and to provide some thoughts on the topics that caught their attention. To allow the responses to ‘speak’ to each other, they were lightly edited for clarity and fluidity, and amalgamated thematically to produce the ‘conversation’ here; the author’s views remain (it is intended) unchanged. The contributors are Kimberley Brownlee (Legal and Moral Philosophy, University of Warwick), Bregje de Kok (Institute for International Health and Development, Queen Margaret University), Olly Dowlen (Politics and International Relations, Queen Mary, University of London), Jonathan Hearn (Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh), Derek Hook (Psychosocial Studies, Birkbeck, University of London), Audra Mitchell (Politics, University of York), and Pál Nyíri (Social and Cultural Anthropology, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam). Full abstracts of their projects can be found online at The conversation is made of two parts: the first outlines the core



components of critique and the different roles it plays in social science research. The second introduces some of the problems our Fellows have encountered in their own critical projects, and the ways they have tried to address them; could this be considered a ‘critique of critique’? This conversation does not profess to provide an entirely comprehensive or even unified overview of the topic; if anything, it demonstrates how varied these perspectives and practices can be! But we hope it will provide an insight into the work of the ISRF, and into the world of critique.


e take as our point of departure the understanding that as social scientists, our research questions and methods attempt to make sense of the world around us ‘as it is’; Jonathan Hearn asks how critique plays a role in this objective agenda: HEARN – I think there is a lot of social value in criticizing ideas and institutions in an informed way, but doing so effectively depends on there being an underlying effort to understand the world ‘objectively’, or at least as much as can be humanly possible. I agree with Hume’s injunction from his Treatise on Human Nature (1739) that we cannot derive normative statements from descriptive statements: even if we understand that the world ‘is’ a particular way, we cannot necessarily determine from this what it ‘ought’ to be like. But this doesn’t mean that we cannot cultivate normative and descriptive understandings of the world separately, nor that there is nothing to learn from exploring the relations between these different understandings, even if they cannot have a relationship of logical derivation. So, my own ‘working definition’ of critique would be something minimal like ‘empirically informed evaluation of social institutions and practices, which may be either negative or positive’. This is at odds with a tendency to see critique as simply debunking conventional wisdom (not that this isn’t often needed), or more vaguely, as an expression of estrangement from the status quo; Bernard Yack’s book The Longing for Total Revolution (1992) is excellent on this theme.




regje de Kok argues that in the course of field research we should always consider our subjects’ capabilities to engage with the critical process themselves, but she reminds us that these might differ from our own modes of critique: DE KOK – Although I do not have a working definition of critique myself, the workshop did make me reflect on the various ways in which critique features in my work, including critiques of theories, ways of framing ‘the problem’, and methodologies. There is however an additional way in which critique comes in: I analyse the ways in which my research participants critique, or do not critique, certain practices. For instance, the ways in which pregnant or labouring women are treated in hospitals and maternity clinics, or the ways in which government and local authorities – including traditional leaders and health facility staff – currently hold women accountable for proper health seeking behaviour by fining those who give birth at home or on the way to the clinic. Whilst this is specific to my project, there’s a general issue here: how important is it that when we as scholars critique, we take people’s own views seriously, including whether they engage in critique and what the subjects of their critiques are? Various reasons can be offered as to why the people on whom our studies focus do not engage in critique. For instance, one could suggest that they are somehow insufficiently ‘empowered’ to see what there is to be critiqued (a sort of ‘false consciousness’ a la Marx and Engels), or are unable to verbalize the critique. Or, the issues that we researchers critique and deem relevant may not be relevant to (or at least not priorities for) our subjects in their daily lives. This reminds me of Schelgoff’s warning against ‘theoretical imperialism’ and ‘hegemony of the intellectuals’. This does not necessarily mean that we need to stop critiquing whatever it is that we critique, but I do think that as social scientists we need to take people’s own interpretations very seriously, and be wary of imposing meanings and interpretations from an intellectual outsiders’ point of view that do not marry with those of our subjects. 14



hether ethnographers or social theorists use these critical practices to study small- or large-scale phenomena, critique is supposed to throw new light on existing real-world issues and thus produce ‘new’ perspectives or conceptualisations. Olly Dowlen explores the complex relationship between critique and innovation with a pair of challenging (and perhaps provocative) questions: DOWLEN – First, we could ask: ‘If I am right, they must be wrong; does my innovation imply critique?’ The way that the question is posed gives an indication of how we could explore the subject. It is a question posed by an innovator who, firmly grasping his or her discovery, looks around to assess what others are or have been saying. Critique, in this view, is an act that follows innovation, and is, one presumes, a necessary consequence of the new replacing the old by exposing it as, somehow, out of date, inaccurate or irrelevant. An act of discovery usually involves an object of discovery, something in the real world that is brought to light, classified or viewed from a new angle so that a previously unknown or ignored part of it achieves some new level of prominence. Calling this an object could, perhaps, make us think too much of it as a material form – a thing – but the object of discovery and of investigation might just as easily be a product of consciousness: an idea, a theory, a perspective. I would, however, suggest that our intrepid innovator, sure of the value of his or her innovation, would only make this claim in the conviction that the new idea had some direct relationship with the world of other things. It is therefore at this interface between the world of ideas and the world of things that we must measure the proposed innovation, and from this high ground the innovator can best instigate a new discourse with the assertion: ‘If I am right, they must be wrong.’ We can, however, turn the question around so that it reads: ‘If they are wrong, I must be right; does my critique imply innovation?’ If we take this view then the act of critique is now primary, and if



that act is a success, the consequence is innovation. According to this view, innovation is measured within the critical world, the world of ideas. In the first scenario it would seem as though some other form of success criterion is in operation. The danger of the inverted premise (that critique implies innovation) is that the discourse might not leave the world of ideas and thus fail to operate within the ‘world of things’ in a convincing way. However, this is not inevitable: a critique can be mounted on the grounds that an existing discourse has lost touch with the reality it seeks to define or reflect. An innovation, however, will best justify that status if it stands up to the critique of practice; the new view of the object under investigation defines it so accurately and comprehensively that it will be used in preference to other, earlier views or interpretations. A critique – almost by definition – cannot command this status.


he second part of Dowlen’s discussion addresses the premise that ‘those who know that something is wrong must have some idea of what is right’: DOWLEN – Again this is an argument for the primacy of substantive innovation over the act of criticism or critique. There are two aspects to this. The first is the recognition that the motivation for innovative change starts from the intuition that things are not as they should be. The second asks what action should follow such a recognition: should it be a critique of the present state of affairs or a move towards innovation? Again, in my view, there is a danger here that an understanding that something is wrong does not necessarily entail a further recognition and exploration of the (possibly hidden, possibly subconscious) intuition of what is right. Thus more attention falls on the problem – the critique – than on the possible shape of the solution – the innovation. Let me cite an example. The notion explicit in the Marxist adoption of Hegelian dialectics is that contradiction precedes resolution.



Translated into a social theory we can read this as a philosophical endorsement of the idea of critique as an innovative force in society – even to the extent of justifying criticism by arms. This has left us absorbed in critique concerning what is wrong, but with a relatively weak discourse exploring the idea of what is right… the hidden intuition that prompted the original critique. We can find hints of this in early Marx, especially in his shortlived appreciation of Feuerbach. The concentration on alienation (the critique or what is wrong) rather than on what humanity is alienated from (the intuition of what is right) quickly dominates the Marxist discourse. The result? Anti-Capitalism at a permanent crossroads. The lesson? Perhaps it would be useful to explore the original intuitions of those who critique.


e will return to the matter of critiquing the practice of critique later in this discussion, but Dowlen’s argument introduces the idea that critique can be employed to determine how our lives as individuals and citizens could be improved or protected. Kimberley Brownlee explains how her project on social rights allows her to explore the kinds of social contact humans need in order to live a ‘good’ life: BROWNLEE – One aim in thinking critically is to identify the important issues of our day that are going undiscussed, to figure out why they are undiscussed, and to bring them to the centre of our collective attention. For instance, in our individualistic western culture, there is surprisingly little discussion about our most basic interpersonal, social needs. When we look at our political, legal, and cultural practices, we see that we give little thought to whether people have enough access to decent social connections. We let vulnerable people such as elderly people, disabled people, and immigrants become chronically acutely lonely. We give some attention, but not much, to whether babies and children get loving social contact, care, and intimate association. We also adopt policies that deliberately curtail people’s chances to



have social connections: for instance, although there’s growing acknowledgement that solitary confinement is an indefensible practice, we still incarcerate offenders in isolation for long periods, sometimes (in the case of the United States) for over a decade. On the grounds of public health and the need to prevent the transmission of disease, patients could find themselves in long-term medical quarantine, which tends to result in chronic neglect. Finally, immigrants may be held in isolated detention even when they pose no security risk. In moral, political, and legal philosophy, there is a similar lack of reflection on the nature and moral quality of acute loneliness. There is little reflection on the evils of coercively denying someone access to social connections. And, there is little reflection more broadly on what we might call the ‘ethics of sociability’. The ethics of sociability is about, first, our duties to provide decent social contact to each other; second, our social rights; third, the virtues of being sociable; and fourth, the value of social inclusion. The issues surrounding sociability are the subject of growing interest in fields other than philosophy such as psychology and neuroscience, where there is increasing appreciation that our social connections play a fundamental role in our health and wellbeing. One aim in thinking about these topics must be to integrate psychological perspectives on the expanding empirical data on our social needs with philosophical perspectives on what it means to lead a decent human life. My ISRF project on social rights and social needs aims to go some way to remedying the neglect of the ethics of sociability in moral and political philosophy. Amongst other things, my work allows me to critique the parameters of the social claims we can legitimately make of each other: the limits of our social duties, the expectations we may have of our government that it care about our social needs, the conflicts that arise between social needs and our freedoms of association, and the implications that social needs have for institutions that segregate people, such as prisons, healthcare facilities, and immigration detention centres.



My work also considers the socially assistive potential of emerging technologies. In all these ways, I seek to bring sociability to the forefront of our debates about rights, need, and the good human life.


udra Mitchell demonstrates that no subject is too large to undergo critique; as she discusses here, even humanity itself can become a subject. She introduces the idea of ‘swarm critique’ and in turn uses it to re-examine the ‘school’ of posthumanist critique: MITCHELL – The capacity for critique is considered to be one of the unique and defining characteristics of humans, and a keystone of the humanities. So, one of the most radical ways to advance critical thought is to critique humanity itself. This forms the basis of what is being called ‘posthuman turn’ in the fields of philosophy, ethics, social theory and, more recently, international relations. ‘Posthumanism’ is an umbrella term that really describes a syndrome of distinctive critical interventions. The common thread connecting them is the idea that a normative, naturalized idea of the human must be challenged if humans are to acknowledge the ontological conditions of the universe they inhabit with other beings, and to engage with the ethical demands that flow from these conditions. Recent contributions drawing on continental philosophy have significantly stretched ‘expanding circle’ ethics (central to discourses of animal rights), suggesting that beings as diverse as plants and artifacts should be considered, not on the basis of their similarity to humans but rather because they co-constitute humans. New materialisms, exemplified by the work of theorists such as Jane Bennett and William Connolly challenge the dominance of human agency and mind, emphasizing the capacity of diverse assemblages of beings to influence causality. Cosmological pluralism, drawing largely from anthropology, challenges the Western secular divide between ‘animate’ and ‘inanimate’ objects, ‘enchanted’ and ‘disenchanted’ beings, and



persons/nonpersons. Transhumanists focus on technological developments such as robotics, artificial intelligence and synthetic biology to challenge our understanding of what the human being is. Literal forms of posthumanism assess the potential for the destruction of humanity by various processes, from the sudden, acute affects of climate change to long-term astrophysical processes. The emerging ‘posthumanities’ take stock of these various discourses to explore how concepts of the human, inhuman, nonhuman and posthuman are framed in artistic, literary and social practices. As this very brief survey suggests, ‘posthumanism’ is less a unified line of critique than a sensibility that finds multiple expressions which, in posthumanist imagery, ‘swarm’ the structures of humanism. My work contributes to this ‘swarm critique’, drawing from amongst these approaches to question conceptions of ‘security’. Recently, the field of international relations has seen a number of interesting interventions from ‘posthumanist’ perspectives. These tend to focus on the ability of nonhumans – from ‘drones’ to infrastructure – to contribute to stability or insecurity at the international scale. However, to date, there has been little research on the implications of these approaches for security ethics. To address this, my project applies a broad posthumanist sensibility to the questions: ‘what is harm?’ and ‘what should be protected?’ Empirically, it engages with the problem of extinction (including the possibility of human extinction), which pushes the boundaries of existing notions of security, both physical and ontological. This approach is a ‘critique of critique’ in two senses. First, drawing from across the posthumanist modes of thought discussed above, it challenges what is held to be the source of critique: human reason and the human subject. Second, it takes issue with the idea that a ‘critical security studies’ which retains an unquestioning basis in anthropocentrism is truly critical. In international relations, the term ‘insecurity’ refers to an uncomfortable state, one that human institutions are designed to reduce. Instead, I argue that



we should embrace the fundamental insecurity of the category of humanity as a powerful form of critique and an opportunity to open ourselves towards uncertain, but not necessarily tragic, futures.


o round off this first part of the conversation, Jonathan Hearn considers whether there is a specific Anglophone tradition of critique to set alongside those developed in Germany and France, and if so, what it might look like: HEARN – I would think an ‘Anglophone’ tradition would be one more closely aligned with ideas of ‘normal science’, that is, there is an arena of contending descriptions and explanations around some issues. In this arena, ‘critique’ is simply the contest among these; in effect these ideas critique each other, competing for supremacy. This is, in a sense, a pragmatic conception of critique, which of course fits within an Anglophone tradition exemplified by the work of John Dewey. Dewey is often a bit woolly, although in his 1938 debate with Trotsky about reformist versus revolutionary approaches to the problems of capitalism (sometimes published as ‘Their Morals or Ours?’) I think Dewey makes moral mincemeat of his opponent. This pragmatic ‘normal science’ notion of critique is not without its problems. For example, it doesn’t guarantee that important problems will make it onto the ‘social scientific agenda’. It is perhaps too inclined toward compromise and ‘muddling through’, defining social problems and issues too narrowly, so the can be grasped more easily and addressed piecemeal. But ‘the harder they come, the harder they fall’. A more modest approach to critique may also be more robust and enduring, and have greater cumulative effects in the long run. I’ve aligned myself with Hume, and distanced myself from some ‘Germanic’ traditions of critique, although Max Weber’s approach appears very sympathetic to Anglophone styles of thought in some respects. The critical position associated with the work of



Foucault often strikes me as similarly exaggerating the problem of domination, but by knowledge, language and discourse. These tend to take the place of ‘capitalism’ as inescapable totalities. Foucault did talk about ‘resistance’ and ‘local knowledges’, but in ways that I find oblique and difficult to make sense of, because they seem defined in terms of an original condition of domination. We need to be careful when assuming that Foucault represents a ‘French way of thinking’; he has many Anglophone followers, and other influential French thinkers such as Thomas Piketty and Raymond Aron are certainly not Foucauldians. Bourdieu, no stranger to critique, always strikes me as an unusual combination of Francophone and Anglophone traditions.


he second part of this conversation addresses the dangers associated with the critical agenda and its methods. Derek Hook identifies some key areas of contention: HOOK – Perhaps by way of ‘a critique of critique’, we might offer three questions: •

Does the noisy exercise of critique-making not ultimately prioritize a series of intellectual labours over and above what we might understand as practical forms of critique as enacted as part of daily forms of resistance, that are not identified as ‘critique’ as such in the more reified sense of the term? Do we subtly affirm positions of moral superiority in the act of making critique, that is, does critique become a narcissistic exercise which leads more ultimately to the affirmation of the maker of critique than to the dissection of a given (typically problematic) social phenomenon? Are we – as makers of critique – complicit in what we critique? Is the endeavour of critique in some instance driven precisely by the desire to conceal such lines of complicity?

HEARN – When critique becomes the aim in itself, it becomes vacuous. There is a particular risk for academics that they will become attracted to the posture of critique, of playing the role of



the social critic for a captive (and increasingly paying!) audience of students. I don’t mean that academics should suppress or disown any genuine, hard-won critical views. I simply mean that they should be self-critical, and aware of the lure of playing a role that receives a certain kind of approval, a temptation we are all subject to. This is not just a matter of regard for students, but also of colleagues. Some disciplines and fields of research develop a kind of collective identity around critique as a value, so the reasons for being critical can become a matter of fitting into a social group. ‘Being critical’ can easily become inverted, and confused with simply signing up to a certain set of values – usually, but not always, leftist or radical.


ál Nyíri, Bregje de Kok and Jonathan Hearn explore further the importance of striking the right tone in one’s critical enterprise in order for findings to be considered seriously: NYÍRI – Critique directed towards the field of research typically takes the form of deconstructing earlier arguments. In anthropology, and perhaps to some extent in other disciplines as well, it is unusual to find an article that does not explicitly set itself up as critical of everything that came before it. In order to demonstrate the value of scholarship to peer reviewers or a funding agency, scholars feel they must preface their texts by claiming that they call attention to what everybody else has forgot, or that they debunk a widespread myth. There is something about the style of writing in my discipline that is sometimes jarring in that regard. De KOK – We need to make sure that we critique in a manner that opens rather than closes off conversation. Critique can be too sharp, and can easily offend. This is partially a problem of the received; academics need to accept that critique is part of the academic language game. However, I have seen how critique can lead to schisms. For instance, discursive psychology is an approach I greatly value and draw on. However, at times discursive psychologists have formulated their critique in ways



that led to rather antagonistic responses both in publications and informal academic life (I was once asked, years ago, by a cognitive psychologist when debating discursive psychology, ‘how many discursive psychologists are there anyway?’). I am sure other disciplines have their own examples. I think more constructive responses could have been elicited if the critique has been paid with greater appreciation and perhaps modesty. All approaches have their limitations, and can offer only partial explanations of the social world. HEARN – I would also say that in certain intellectual traditions, if they possess a very totalistic conception of the social order, the call to critique can become strangely quietist. For instance some branches of critical theory have such an all-encompassing conception of capitalism and its evils, that there is no possibility for action untainted by that order. In this frame, the position of critique becomes something like the world-rejecting posture of the religious ascetic – to know that the world is damned and withdraw. In my view capitalism, while now dominant, is an historical process, with limits, fissures, hiatuses, and loose ends. It is not easily redirected, but neither is it a stable totality.


s a result, the regimes, institutions and cultures under critique may interpret the findings as merely ‘criticisms’ from a hostile position:

NYÍRI – The political position of anthropology in the West is overwhelmingly critical of global capitalism; that is, it is generally strongly on the Left. The same tends to be true for sociology, cultural studies and media studies, although perhaps to a lesser extent for political science, history, or philosophy. By definition, this type of critical posture (in the Horkheimerian sense) finds little resonance with political elites, but is at this point still, whether hopefully or mockingly, seen as the legitimate prerogative of the leftish academic or the ‘Global South’. Yet in places outside Western Europe and the Americas, particularly in Eastern Europe and East Asia, similar rhetorical postures and conceptual



apparatuses, directed against global domination by capitalism, have been adopted by some nativist, nationalist and even racist ideologues not unlike those whose intellectual legitimacy is ascending. How will the Horkheimerian tradition of critical theory – which at its inception faced not all too dissimilar ideologues in late-1930s Germany – respond to this?


hile the effects of critique can be lost if the subject or intended audience does not respond to the criticism in the manner intended by the researcher, there is also a danger that critique might become complicit to the very system it intended to investigate. Jonathan Hearn and Pál Nyíri explore how this might occur: HEARN – What kind of society allows us, as researchers, to be critical? The broad answer I think is a society where power is widely distributed, and people are in a sense forced by circumstance to be relatively open to the views and opinions of others, to at least take them on board. Modern liberal forms of society (i.e. liberal, democratic, capitalist) are paradoxical in this regard. On the one hand they make a virtue of critique, and cultivate questioning of the status quo, in the sense of Karl Popper’s ‘open society’. Science is premised on this kind of systematic questioning. But political and economic power is highly concentrated in some organisations, making it possible to direct, purchase, and generally co-opt the capacities for critical inquiry. So liberal societies on the one hand cultivate a critical point of view because it enhances their overall dynamism and capacities to innovate, but they also ‘buy-off’ those capacities, by directing funding and accolades for research in both public and private spheres. One of the key slogans of the 1960s was ‘question authority’, which on the one hand was threatening to the powers that be (were), but on the other, was quintessential statement of liberal values. NYÍRI – Within the fields of anthropology and critical studies, political critique generally takes the shape of deconstructing



dominant – nowadays typically global – political regimes or truths. While these forms of critique are often on target, they are also frequently formulaic and predictable. Also, they leave little room for the moral or political criticism of a more conventional, normative kind that which actually involves truth claims (for example the criticism of nationalism, or of a particular government that abuses human rights) because that type of critique tends to be treated as itself complicit in these regimes of domination and thus becomes a target for subsequent deconstruction. For me personally, this is something I have had to grapple with, both in teaching and in research. To some extent, this conundrum extends to the contemporary anthropology of China. Anthropology today generally seeks to uncover global structures of domination and recover the voices that those structures suppress. China’s reality sits somewhat uncomfortably with this, because the disempowering effects of government control and the ubiquity of nationalism are hard to analyse as corollaries to global capitalism (see Kipnis, 2008). Some scholars try to do so, while others use the contradictions with which China is rife – how the omnipresence of the state can be widely accepted and expected while people appear to chafe under its effects; how individuals can be cosmopolitan and nationalistic at once – to poke further holes in dominant political-science understandings of democracy, authoritarianism, nationalism and so on, and to affirm the agency and complexity of the individual in the face of international relations scholars’ common view of nations as monolithic actors. Again, this is often productive and necessary, but it occasionally seems to me that anthropologists are deliberately ignoring the forest in favour of the trees. Both types of criticism should be possible at once, but it is hard to shift between discipline-inflected epistemologies.


hus, by focusing too strongly on the abstractions of critique we risk preventing critique from advancing beyond its status as speech-act, thereby neglecting the real-world problem ostensibly addressed by the researcher. Derek Hook explores this further with



reference to the work of Steve Biko: HOOK – Steve Biko, the charismatic anti-apartheid activist and leader of the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa, had an interesting perspective on the critiques offered by white liberals. These critiques were for him merely intellectual exercises, critique sans action, and, more than this, it was a kind of barrier to actually meaningful political involvement. White liberal critique – and the argument can be uncomfortably extrapolated to other forms of ostensibly liberal critique which engender an impression of criticality without following it up in any meaningful way – is in effect for him shield against political action. That is to say, the making of critique is a smokescreen exercise, which creates a great performative fuss, without actually offering anything by way of the sacrifice and meaningful action required of robust forms of political action. More than this, white liberal critique often falls prey to a type of self-congratulatory narcissism, calling attention to itself and the moral superiority of its own position, while in effect detracting attention from those instances of the underlying situation to which the maker of critique is somehow a beneficiary. One critical perspective that can be developed out of Biko’s thinking is the idea that critique can function precisely to conceal complicity in what it is that one critiques. A psychoanalytic idea might be aligned to this perspective: more often than not, one is somehow indebted to or ‘enjoys’ facets of one’s symptom, that is, facets of precisely the thing one most complains of. Furthermore, might the making of critique be a way of blinding ourselves, not only to ties of complicity, but to other forms of really active practical, ‘worldly’ critique, that may already be in place, and that our own critique thus needs rival and foreclose?


he ISRF workshop in York attempted to answer the question: ‘what is critique and (how) are we doing it? Judging from the discussions here, it is clear that we are no closer to finding any easy answers. From an interdisciplinary perspective, the theory and praxis of critique do not lend themselves to any single definition,



methodology even purpose. There any many different critical methods to choose from, and thus many forms that the final critique may take; even then, the results may be interpreted in different ways according to the audience, be it scholarly or the target of the critique itself. So in the absence of any firm answers, we will leave the final words to Bregje de Kok: DE KOK – I don’t use a working definition of critique – I think we all have a common-sense understanding of critique and that seems sufficient for enabling us to do it. Reflecting on critique is useful, but perhaps the main thing is that we get on with it!


This issue features: Kimberley Brownlee Bregje de Kok Olly Dowlen Elizabeth Frazer Jonathan Hearn Derek Hook Audra Mitchell PĂĄl NyĂ­ri

ISRF Bulletin Issue 4: Conversation - Critique & Critiques  

This issue of the ISRF Bulletin is based on the annual workshop held this year at York on the theme of Critique and Critiques. For the found...

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