History, Philosophy, and Morals in ‘Kill All Normies’

Angela Nagle has been a frequent presence in the “new old left” for the last year so—her essays in Jacobin and the Baffler, as well as her many podcast appearances, have been bright spots in the dark year of deciphering the 2016 presidential campaign and the 2017 presidential debacle. Nagle has become perhaps the best-known cartographer of the “alt-right,” the archipelago of online reactionary movements that received unprecedented media attention for their (largely rhetorical) connections with the Trump campaign.

Her long-awaited book, Kill All Normies, outlines the online culture wars of the past few years: the consolidation of diverse far-right tendencies around opposition to “political correctness,” the division between the ethno-nationalist “alt-right” (Richard Spencer) and its opportunistic fellow travelers of the “alt-light” (Milo Yiannopoulos, Gavin McInnes). She covers, as well, the relationship of mutual hostility between online reaction and what she calls “Tumblr liberalism”—the alt-right’s left “mirror image.”

The core of Kill All Normies is a polemic against “transgressivism”—a counter-cultural style that prioritizes rejection of the mainstream, tends toward “anti-moralism” and “nihilism,” and can ultimately be a tool of any politics. Nagle is particularly critical of scholars and commentators who, imbibing what she takes to be an ambient cultural orthodoxy, naively assume that transgressivism is inherently progressive. But as the general public is increasingly aware, the lawless, transgressive, liberating space of the internet has reinvigorated American white supremacy and given rise to vile new racist and misogynist groups who are increasingly taking their ideas into the real world. “When we’ve reached a point where the idea of being edgy/transgressive/countercultural can place fascists in a position of superiority to regular people,” Nagle writes,“we may seriously want to rethink the value of these stale and outworn cultural ideas” (p. 107).

The emphasis on transgressivism seems to have emerged for Nagle from her engagement with scholars like Gabriella Coleman, who talk about subcultures being “counter-hegemonic spaces,” and write glowingly—and credulously—about forms of social organization emerging from online hacker culture. Nagle emphasizes another scholar’s argument that the likes of Coleman have “been insufficiently critical of subcultural ideologies [like those of 4chan]…because their biases have tended to agree with the anti-mass society discourses of the youth cultures they study” (p. 106). Nagle sees residual counterculturalism-by-default as a strategic problem for the left in the present, as it faces down a right-wing neo-Nazism rapidly appropriating the youth appeal of transgressivism for a hideous reactionary agenda, and a liberal mainstream that has learned to weaponize the argot of Tumblr activism as a weapon against critics of the neoliberal consensus.

As an analysis of the contemporary conjuncture, Nagle seems absolutely correct. She doesn’t say much about how counterculturalism became the cultural orthodoxy we probably all agree it is. But she seems right that transgressivism as a political style has little to offer the demands of the present, which increasingly look like the old-fashioned, laborious, and decidedly unsexy work of convincing a lot of non-ideological “normies” to join our side. She also seems right that the dogmatism and allergy to debate in parts of the contemporary left—particularly in the cross-pollination of Tumblr liberalism and campus activism—is in part the pathological result of long decades of marginality and irrelevance, and is locked into dialectical tit-for-tat with the alt-right. Nagle, like myself, is skeptical that the culture of fantasy, victimization, cult of fragility and illness, vicious boundary-policing, and general unreality that have come to predominate in online “left” culture are anything but a hindrance to the job that currently stands before us.

When Nagle tries to situate “transgressivism” in a longer historical and philosophical arc, though, I think she relies heavily on received stereotypes of twentieth-century ideas and politics, and pushes the story into stale and unpersuasive binaries. Kill All Normies vaguely but repeatedly implies that the “transgressivism” that defines the alt-right is an appropriation of the spirit of the 1960s. But Nagle’s only specific definitions of what it means to be countercultural are drawn not from any empirical engagement with what happened in the 1960s, but from a cherry-picked array of thinkers and movements like “romanticism,” Sade, Nietzsche, the Surrealists, the Situationists, etc. This spirit is described as “anti-moral” and “nihilistic,” valorizing the “throwing off the id,” the “liberation of the individual and the id,” “taboo-breaking.” While it is certainly the case that these elements were part of the cultural revolution of the 1960s, it is revealing that Nagle has little to say about the politics of the 60s generation, as if the counterculture was simply about narcissistic individual expression and libertinism.

It is even more revealing that the view of the 1960s in Kill All Normies is presented almost exclusively through the words of neo-conservative critics of it like Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Lionel Trilling. In some passages, one can quite clearly observe the move of simultaneously presenting criticism of the 1960s as conservative ideology and as it if has a certain obvious truth:

“The recent rise of the online right is evidence of the triumph of the identity politics of the right and of the co-opting (but nevertheless the triumph) of 60s left styles of transgression and counterculture. The libertinism, individualism, bourgeois bohemianism, postmodernism, irony, and ultimately the nihilism that the left was once accused of by the right actually characterized the movement to which Milo belonged.” (p. 59)

The upshot of this, for Nagle, is that what seemed progressive at the time and emerged as “culturally triumphant,” actually “coexisted quite comfortably with the scorched-earth free-market economics of the right—a fusion that reached its fullest expression in the Blair/Clinton era.” While this point is indisputable, it need not rely on the reductive, revisionist account of the 1960s that conservatives began advancing immediately and that some leftists themselves later embraced. Andrew Hartman, whose book Nagle draws on heavily, showed that the neoconservatives did not merely hate that the 1960s counterculture was “adversarial,” but they were threatened by its political critique of American imperialism, racial and gender hierarchies, and an illusory cultural consensus built on consumerist pacification; in short, the neocons wanted to preserve an romanticized notion of America as having uniquely solved the problems of modern society.

Nagle seems oddly indifferent to the 1960s critique of consumer society that has recently been appropriated by the alt-right, likely due to the reactionary, masculinist twist it has been given in their favorite films like Fight Club. But 1960s rejection of the conformism of mass society was much more likely to be driven by a marxisant critique of the commodification of life in common and the placation of the working classes in meaningless work and consumption. As Kristin Ross has argued, May 1968 (in France, but also elsewhere) was a revolutionary anti-capitalist movement, deeply rooted in class analysis and labor consciousness, and was only in retrospect revised into a narcissistic generational rebellion and “transgression for transgression’s sake.” Similarly, as others such as Julian Bourg (disclosure: my doctoral adviser) have shown, the spirit of cultural non-conformity and taboo-breaking were not mindless hedonism, but a rejection of conservative morality in favor of a different kind of morality—one that successfully effected the deep cultural transformations that everyone from moderate liberals to Marxists now embrace as basic features of an emancipated society.

Nagle wants to use the fact that 60s counterculturalism proved compatible with Reaganomics and, later, the alt-right, as a way to discredit all transgressivism as inherently “anti-moral” and thus inherently “nihilistic,” unable to advance a political vision that requires moral judgments. On the contrary, I think we need less categorical denunciation and more historical explanation of how, under the specific conditions of, say, 1968-2017, the countercultural style was diluted into barely-political symbolism and fully appropriated by the ideological mechanisms of capitalist society. The alternative is that we end up holding onto binaries between sober, socially conservative, “normie” working-class people, and sexually liberated, libertine, college-educated “bourgeois bohemians, or between the austere, rigidly organized left politics of the 1930s and the youthful enthusiasm of the 1960s. (Nagle explicitly encourages this kind of thinking, noting that during the Great Depression, “ideas of transgression and cultural radicalism were largely irrelevant to this working-class left,” p. 61).

Such notions are myopically stuck in the present: Not only have the lowest rungs of society been the most enthusiastic participants in the radically transgressive festival atmosphere of the revolutions in France in 1789 and Russia in 1917, but the revolt against “cultural” hierarchies were part of both. The Bolsheviks of the 1920s did not give women the vote and legalize abortion and homosexuality far in advance of any Western society because “bourgeois bohemians” demanded it, but rather because these things had long been perpetually-thwarted dimensions of the radical left vision of an egalitarian society. The French Popular Front of the 1930s simultaneously brought a socialist government to power and inspired a mass outpouring of popular enthusiasm for changing the codes of everyday life, reversing hierarchies and transgressing the usual bounds of society.

There is a further way in which Nagle’s prosecutorial tendencies lead to an excessively Manichean view of the recent past. I’ve already mentioned how she defines the spirit of the 60s more by juxtaposing them with older “transgressive” thinkers than by discussing the ideas the political actors really held and what actions they took. This method (or non-method) produces further ambiguity in her account of the theoretical ideas behind late twentieth-century politics; she moves back and forth between theories and empirical history without really attempting the (admittedly very difficult) explanation of how those two things really act upon each other. The result, unfortunately, is highly informal and occasionally even extravagant claims, such as that the proliferation of gender identities on Tumblr was “the subcultural digital fruition of Judith Butler’s ideas” (p. 70).

In general, Nagle’s approach to theory redeploys the shopworn clichés of previous Marxists who blamed postmodernism for the intellectual failures of the post-1960s left. These clichés focused on postmodernism’s embrace of the symbolic, its evacuation of the “real” world of the economy and politics, and its (often greatly exaggerated and misunderstood) epistemological skepticism. There are fair critiques to be made of the many vapid applications of “postmodernism,” and certainly about their contemporary relevance or meaning outside the academy. But Marxisant critiques of postmodernism were only rarely made by people who knew of what they spoke, and Nagle too seems to think she has to criticize “academic relativism” (p. 83) to undermine the worst excesses of identity politics. Scattered reference to “reason” and “universalism”—words that have quite different theoretical/philosophical and political/strategic meanings—suggest that Nagle sees a kind of eighteenth-century materialism as a prerequisite for getting the left back on track to winning the masses. Recovering that, in Kill All Normies, means enlisting an array of veteran left-wingers like Todd Gitlin and Barbara Ehrenreich who have heroic legacies as activists and writers, but have no business weighing in on academic philosophy. She also approvingly sprinkles in quotes from neoconservatives like Allan Bloom and Camille Paglia, and indulges in yet another recapitulation of the Sokal hoax, strengthening the impression that her entire analysis of the 1960s is broadly in sync with its reactionary critics.

Simply put, I think this is dangerous territory for writers and thinkers who are not going to put in the work to understand what they are criticizing. It is at best intellectually dull, at worst strategically damaging. The arguments are tiresome, insular, and for the most part irrelevant to the challenges of building a successful, left-wing mass movement. But the reasons Nagle and others seem to think they are essential are even more troubling: they hold onto to the belief that there are genetic links between ideas and consequences, that a political worldview can only be legitimate if it is absolutely true, epistemologically unassailable.

Not only is such thinking a displacement of the theological desire for absolute grounds, but it has been a true stumbling block for Marxism in the twentieth-century. When the philosophical richness of the materialist and Marxist traditions is reduced to a schematic ideology and orthodoxy, it loses its intellectual vitality and its attraction for people drawn to philosophical problems that are relevant to all aspects of living on the left. And worse, these schematic notions of philosophy that appear in the polemics of the present—whether “the” Enlightenment, or “historical materialism”—do not imply any real engagement with ideas, but are mere partis pris hopelessly overdetermined by the politics of the recent past. The goal should not be to blame “relativism” for inherently producing “nihilistic” politics—a fundamentally ahistorical and idealist enterprise that overlooks the emergence and effects of ideas in specific historical conditions. Relativism and transgressivism, like universalism and nationalism, have emerged repeatedly, in radically different times and places, with radically different political valences. The attempt to pin them to specific politics and outcomes, whether left or right, will always lead to reduction and naiveté.

As the neo-Marxist left works to make a permanent mark on American politics, there will no doubt be an overwhelming urge to re-narrate the twentieth century, to discover causes and assign blame for the left’s failures. That is a worthwhile exercise, and I think Nagle and I are both part of a broad consensus that the embrace of marginality as a political style has had its day, and that the task ahead is the building of a genuine mass movement. This will require universalist explanations of what brings different kinds of people in an atomized society together, and a conscious rejection of in-group boundary-policing and purity tests toward the goal of convincing a whole lot of “normies” that socialism has a program that will make their lives better. Nagle is right that such a project sits oddly with any kind of anti-moralism, or moralism reduced to impenetrable subcultural codes. The critique of capitalism was rooted in moral exhortation from the beginning, and moralism remains one of our most powerful tools.

Yet, articulating new visions, and mediating the inevitable conflicts between them, will take us into the realms of theoretical ideas of what we understand human beings and society to be, and how politics and economics work. There is no such thing as praxis without theory, whether it is made explicit or not. That suggests a greater case for openness to the past rather than judgment of it, a rejection of the assumption that we know the answers right away. History is full of surprises.

Considerations on ‘Considerations on Western Marxism’

considerationsAs has no doubt been said many times before, Perry Anderson’s Considerations on Western Marxism (Verso, 1976) is the perfect resource for a bird’s-eye view of the whole European Marxist tradition, useful both for the newcomer and anyone needing to reassemble the a holistic perspective, perhaps after studying one or more of these figures in detail. Anderson is famous for his wide range, synoptic abilities, and crystalline style; this book embodies those virtues perhaps all the more because he is dealing with (as he notes) some of the most difficult entries in the European philosophical canon, very nearly without reduction. He frames that in a crisp narrative that covers – after an impressive chapter on the debates within classical Marxism from Marx to Lenin – Lukács, Gramsci, Adorno, Benjamin, Lefebvre, Marcuse, Della Volpe, Sartre, Althusser, and more.

The basic argument is that the shift from classical to “Western” Marxism represented a shift from analysis of economics and politics, formed in close connection with the political action of the revolutionary proletariat, to an academic philosophical enterprise that tried successively to cross-breed Marxism with nearly every system in the Western philosophical canon. (Anderson, with a hint of condescension, frequently refers to these as “idealist” and “bourgeois” philosophies.) This was the result of changes in historical conditions: the end of any immediate prospect of revolution in Europe, the decimation of the revolutionary left under fascism, and the stranglehold of the Stalinist U.S.S.R. on the possibility of theoretical originality within the global communist movement. Anderson argues that this pushed theoretical Marxism away from contact with the proletariat and put it in the hands of bourgeois academics sheltered within the university, thinkers figures who were overwhelmingly philosophers and overwhelmingly interested in epistemology and aesthetics. Western Marxism, from 1920 to 1970, lived a period in which the seat of Marxism shifted from Russia and Germany to France and Italy, philosophers fought over the legacy of Hegel, and the likes of Rousseau, Spinoza, and Machiavelli were proposed as precursors or supplements to the Marxist canon. They also saw the capitalist state rebuilt and stabilized, and the working class “integrated” into capitalist society as they had not been in the revolutionary 1910s, 20s, and 30s. As a result of this appearance of a depoliticized proletariat and an impregnable liberal-democratic state, Western Marxism was marked by a pronounced pessimism.

Anderson has a few implicit and explicit takeaways from his survey. He clearly admires Gramsci as one of the few Western Marxists to have maintained a connection between theory and praxis, and for his innovative analysis of capitalist social institutions as mediators of ideology and social change. He recognizes the limits of the objective conditions for theory during the middle of the twentieth century, and is generous to Western Marxism for having enriched the tradition’s concepts and enlarged its intellectual purview. But he views with dismay the long retreat from empirical economic and political “materialist” analysis and the near-total takeover of Marxism by philosophers (at the expense of historians, economists, and political theorists). Toward the end of the book, he turns to Trotsky and his followers as an alternative tradition, one he views as marginal and persecuted, but which maintained both a commitment to historical analysis (in the histories of Trotsky and Isaac Deutscher) and to anti-bureaucratic (anti-Stalinist) political strategy. While far too historically sophisticated to claim that a mere return to “scientific” fundamentals would reinvigorate Marxism, Anderson did seem to hope in the 1970s that the signs of working-class militancy and the renaissance of Marxian economics would once again converge in an economic-political science informed by a revolutionary mass movement.

One of the things I found initially jarring in this book is how early Anderson dates the exit of economic and political analysis from European Marxism, namely around 1920. For those entering academia in the last decade, it is easy to see the “culturalism” (for lack of a better word) of left theory as the result of the “turns” scattered across the period between the 1980s and the early 2000s, rather than a defining feature of Marxist thought in Europe for the greater part of the last century. Indeed, it is frequently narrated that way by the most prominent chroniclers of the historical discipline. According to Anderson in the 1970s, the capitalist economy in the most important part of the twentieth century still lay mostly un-theorized, particularly the nature of the postwar state and its runaway success at anesthetizing the working class. He writes:

For after the prolonged, winding detour of Western Marxism, the questions left unanswered by Lenin’s generation, and made impossible to answer by the rupture of theory and practice in Stalin’s epoch, continue to await replies. They do not lie within the jurisdiction of philosophy. They concern the central economic and political realities that have dominated world history in the last fifty years.

Needless to say, despite Anderson’s rising optimism then, those were not to be answered soon after that statement, as the compromise between socialism and the capitalist state was brutally undone and left theory abandoned Marxism (and in some cases politics in any meaningful sense) altogether. But fifty years later, things have definitely changed: History is back with a vengeance, and not always at the expense of philosophy. Economics has always been philosophical, and the twentieth century economy, with its wars and states, welfare programs and oligarchies, technological networks and security systems—in short, its ideological state apparatusesoffers countless links between the theoreticism of philosophically-trained intellectual historians and nerve centers of capitalist power in the twentieth century.

It’s perhaps curious that Anderson kept a scientistic distance from philosophy that was clearly, all along, grappling with the epistemological and political import of science, that engine of 20th-century capitalism. It turns out that the body of concepts in the Western Marxist tradition are exceptional resources dealing with the empirical material of the 20th century that most needs understanding from a Marxist perspective, virtually all of which is scientific or theoretical in some way. If you can make it through Althusser, you can probably make it through cybernetics and you can definitely handle neoliberal economists. Beyond their ability to sharpen theoretical weapons, exposure to the social theories of Western Marxism—perhaps precisely due to their increasing distance from fashion—may not lead us to theoretical conversion, but neither is it the worst antidote to the ideological technicism that often passes for contemporary social science.

The Facebook Ideology: A Hypothetical Genealogy of the New Right Populism

Wilders-Le PenJacobin’s preview of today’s elections in the Netherlands recounts an increasingly familiar story, one of social-democratic parties drifting to the right, joining the neoliberal consensus, and thus leaving large swaths of voters unrepresented. The author, Alex de Jong, notes that the rising Dutch right began as a combination of austerity and Islamophobia, but gradually shifted toward a defense of the increasingly gutted Dutch welfare state, at least for “real” Dutch citizens.

The trajectory of Geert Wilders and the Party for Freedom (PVV) and its position in the Dutch ideological spectrum closely parallels Marine Le Pen and the Front National in France, as well as—in campaign rhetoric, if not in reality—Donald Trump’s revolt against the GOP. In each European case (leaving Trump aside for convenience), a far-right party has made itself the champion of the welfare state that has been abandoned by its more natural defenders, the social-democratic left. In all cases the emerging far-right campaign has gained significant ground among former left-wing voters; in all cases, the defense of the welfare state is coupled with nationalism and xenophobia—calls to limit the welfare state to its “deserving” European participants.

The left typically understands the rising populist right as successively performing an ideological misdirection: taking some basic correct claims about the anti-democratic nature of the EU or the structure of Washington and lack of any representation of working-class interests in halls of European and American power, and explaining them with scapegoats such as immigrants and Muslims. But I’m not sure we have a convincing explanation of why the scapegoating has resonated as much as it has. Obviously there are deep reservoirs of racism in both Europe and the U.S., but anti-immigrant sentiment did not drive political disaffection at other periods when immigration was high (such as the postwar period in Germany and France). The scapegoating is so gross and naked that one wonders how so many, especially left-wing voters, are electing to blame innocent victims for phenomena that have such obvious sources and villains in the Brussels-Washington technocracy.

I want to propose a series of hypotheses, based more on hunch than data, toward the conclusion that the new right populism is the consummate ideology of the social media era. I call it the “Facebook Ideology” because Facebook serves as a convenient symbol both of the broader social conditions (depoliticization and displacement of social bonds onto the digital) and the specific technological means (a platform for disseminating sensational, exaggerated or false information that consumes political oxygen and consolidates fear) that come together to combine a “socialist” defense of the welfare state with a paranoid and racist fear of outsiders. Thus, the far-right has succeeded in offering a solution to the broad-based dissent from the neoliberal consensus by wedding economic resistance to its traditional bread and butter (obsession with identity, partially dédiabolisé and updated for the social media era).

Postwar depoliticization. The postwar “Keynesian consensus” had the primary goal of institutionalizing compromise between large blocs of political power, of structuring the state around ideological moderation. As intended, high wages, consumption and leisure did the work of depoliticization; political ideology and activism began to seem less important, and the differences between governing coalitions less distinct. Though 1945-75 is often remembered as a “golden age” of the welfare state and worker unionization, it was a deliberate compromise in order to buy social peace, one that had real long-term effects on the population’s political consciousness.

Neoliberalism. The end of this consensus brought the phenomena that are now at the center of political debate: de-industrialization, outsourcing, wage stagnation, tighter economic internationalization, and unprecedented financialization of the world economy. In Europe and the U.S., this was marked the beginning of the collapse of a left identity and left politics. The key lessons for voters over the next three decades were that a) left governments are no different than right ones, thus reinforcing depoliticization, abstention, and political disillusionment; b) that resources were scarce. Decades of austerity politics, of reduced expectations, and of stagnation convinced voters all over the political spectrum, including on the left, that “there is no alternative,” that belt-tightening and managed decline would be a permanent condition.

The financial crisis. The 2008 crisis shattered the myths that governing elites were at least competent and public-spirited, even if they were always giving you bad news. The disastrous, sociopathic response of European institutions bankrupted the E.U.’s political legitimacy, virtually guaranteeing the emergence of the popular revolt that had been foretold for decades yet had thus far failed to materialize. As Perry Anderson argues, the right has a clearer answer to this problem than a left that still clings to the ideal of internationalism, and has unsurprisingly been more convincing in the face of the seemingly invincibility of European institutions to left-wing revolts that stop short of exiting the union.

2008 only accelerated what had already been developing in Europe: ambient feelings of despair and powerlessness toward E.U. stranglehold and the social wreckage it delivered at home. This took place in a context of a gradual decline of politicization: union and membership, and participation fell while rural depopulation accelerated and social atomization intensified. Nearly all of these were related to global economic shifts. Voters, particularly those born in the prosperous 1950s or after, probably on the whole grew up with a less intense political socialization than earlier generations (notwithstanding a class of 68ers, a small minority of whom preserved their radicalism over time).

So 2008 guaranteed a revolt, but what would it be? Europeans had long ceased to be well-formed in left politics, few have religious communities or other associations in which to socialize and build broader solidarity. Much of the energy of the left, especially in major parties, had relegated work and material interests to the side of a program increasingly defined by vague humanitarian inclusion. E.U. politics and the details of world financial governance are utterly impenetrable to the average citizen.

Terrorism. At the same time as Europe experienced growing disconnect from politics and society at large, and above all ambient despair over the constraints of the E.U., it was shattered by a series of terror attacks that followed in the wake of September 11 and the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: Spain in 2004, London in 2005. Throw in the Danish cartoon crisis in 2005-2006, and the Norway attack in 2011, and you have the beginnings of a game-changing story.

The Islamofascism narrative provides a simple explanation for the malaise many Europeans felt: the safety net and the socialization it underwrote have disappeared, making life increasingly anxious, atomized, and miserable. While it’s unsurprising that politicians of the real racist right, such as Jean-Marie Le Pen, would see an opening for a revival of their program. But it’s an explanation that also suits much less ideological voters, who perhaps recall the “golden years” of the welfare state, high employment, rapidly increasing standards of living, and an imagined social homogeneity. The “invasion” of immigrants, especially Muslim immigrants, can be stretched to explain every sense of dislocation and loss: job losses, tightening budgets and degraded social services, eroded social consensus, terrorist violence. But it’s obviously a stretch, riddled with paranoid delusions and requiring sustained ideological conditioning. How did it happen?

Social media. What if social media was the primary way that this explanation came to make sense? All over the Western world, embodied social bonds have been replaced with digital ones, going fairly high up the age scale (all the way to whose who are quite elderly). Social media consumes an enormous amount of the average person’s daily mental space, and calls and visits are increasingly replaced by texts and Facebook posts. As was clear even before the “fake news” panic, social media—Facebook in particular—flattens distinctions between sources and styles of writing. Even accurate information lacks context, while rumor, exaggeration, and fabrication obtain the appearance of authority.

In such a situation, terrorism accomplishes two things: it cuts through the noise, immediately renders all other political matters unimportant, and deepens the fear and paranoia that are a natural byproduct of social isolation. News about terrorism and crime are far more viscerally comprehensible than the latest E.U. trade deal or diktat from the troika. Each drip adds to the fear and confirms the narrative—all the easier believe in an ungrounded, depoliticized social existence—that Muslims are at war with European civilization, including its welfare state and its tolerance. Major attacks, such as the attacks in France in 2015 and 2016, radicalize and intensify a narrative fueled by skewed and false information, all amplified by the highly-developed digital channels of the new far-right. It’s not for nothing that the new right excels at social media, from the Front National’s innovative mobilization of the fachosphère to Donald Trump’s infamous but tactically brilliant Twitter account.

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To recap: it’s clear that some of those attracted to the rising far-right have always been on the right; a good example is the Front National’s original pied-noir base, formed during the Algeria experience in hatred of Muslims. Europeans remain far more deeply racist and hostile to foreigners than Americans. But my guess is not that Europe’s older strains of right-wing thought have “returned,” even if these new movements draw on older tropes and dog whistle to pockets of those old constituencies.

Rather, a new sort of right has been created by conditions that obtained in the second half of the twentieth century, overall not a period when the older far right had significant strength. Some of the conditions are long-term trends beginning in the depoliticization and affluence that came with the postwar economic boom; others are the direct consequence of the left’s abandonment of its core commitments and its failure to identify, earlier on, the villains behind the things that have degraded life for Europeans far more than immigration or Islam ever have. The new right is the right of post-industrial doom, of plutocratic government, of social isolation and drift from recognizable ideological forms; it is a right that stands a real chance of permanently co-opting core constituencies the left abandoned. It is the right that has benefited from the replacement of thick social bonds with thin digital ones. A right that has married a left defense of the welfare state to the neoliberal logic of austerity and exclusion that political elites have hammered home for the last several decades.

The good news is that the new far-right may be more of a concoction of recent trends than it is a deeply historical and ideological movement; it relies heavily on disaffected left voters who could potentially be won back with bold programs from the left. The bad news is that the left has abandoned these voters for long enough that there may be permanent ideological damage to their worldview, and is still barely on its feet in terms of offering a response. Overcoming a half-century of economic reality and ideological compromise is a daunting task. Be that as it may, bold and uncompromising programs that rival the narrative of the right are the only chance of stopping an ugly right-wing realignment. 

Intellectual History and the Postcritical Turn

9780226294032The “postcritical” is having a minor moment. The Chronicle Review just published a profile of Rita Felski, its leading advocate in literary studies (whose book on the “limits of critique” has been widely and positively reviewed); at the JHI blog, Daniel London has raised the question of what the postcritical has to offer to intellectual historians. To put it very briefly, Felski’s argument is that literature has been overtaken by a “hermeneutics of suspicion”—a “paranoid” conviction that the meaning of texts is hidden behind its explicit meanings—that has calcified into a pseudo-radical orthodoxy and precludes all other, “positive” approaches to literature.

The easiest and perhaps least useful thing one could do is to point out how familiar this line of argument is, how often variants of it have been voiced by disciplinary and political conservatives over the past three or four decades. But I want to propose an alternative interpretation of what is happening with the postcritical. This interpretation does not presume to expose what is “really” happening behind the explicit arguments of its proponents; it attempts simply to draw parallels between the announcement of the postcritical and other recent scholarly “turns.”

My interpretation is as follows: the postcritical is the latest instance of a scholarly phenomenon in which expansive constellations of philosophical ideas and methodological approaches are reduced and consolidated into a single object for the purposes of establishing a supersession narrative. An example of this is the history discipline’s consolidation of the “linguistic turn” as a discrete moment that has been surpassed, an operation Judith Surkis brilliantly narrated in the American Historical Review. It involves the creation of an object that did not exist previously—“critique,” the “linguistic turn”—by assigning an essential set of characteristics to ideas that were previously seen as heterogeneous. Reduced, consolidated, and homogenized, the new object is then easier to overcome, to set in a narrative of methodological supersession. The “turn” operation may be initiated for all sorts of reasons: diminishing returns of an overused set of techniques (which often implies their dilution and domestication), a perceived need to “rebrand” the humanities, or a desire to shift a field in a direction some of its participants find more congenial.

What is ‘Critique,’ Exactly?

The central contention of the postcritical discourse is a dominant orthodoxy called “Critique.” A back-of-the-napkin genealogy of this notion might point to Bruno Latour’s influential 2004 essay, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” What is most remarkable about this essay is the way that Latour proceeds without a definition, allowing the term “critique” to attach to an enormous variety of intellectual programs, from Kant to Pierre Bourdieu to Jean Baudrillard. Critique is then pathologized as a kind of individual scholarly performance that encompasses all efforts to look beneath the most obvious and intended meanings of texts, of ideology, of arguments, etc. “Critique” equals weapons of paranoid deconstruction aimed at what humanities scholars like and kept carefully away from their own sacred cows. “Antifetishists debunk objects they don’t believe in by showing the productive and projective forces of people; then, without ever making the connection, they use objects they do believe in to resort to the causalist or mechanist explanation and debunk conscious capacities of people whose behavior they don’t approve of” (p. 241).

Felski continues the consolidation move in this 2012 essay, where she outlines the “five characteristics of critique.” Once again, the definition of critique is exceptionally vague and all-encompassing:

An unusually powerful, flexible and charismatic idea, it has rendered itself ubiquitous and indispensable in literary and cultural studies. Critique is widely seen as synonymous with intellectual rigor, theoretical sophistication, and intransigent opposition to the status quo. Drawing a sense of intellectual weightiness from its connections to the canonical tradition of Kant and Marx, it has managed, nonetheless, to retain a cutting-edge sensibility, retooling itself to fit the needs of new fields ranging from postcolonial theory to disability studies. Critique is contagious and charismatic, drawing everything around it into its field of force, marking the boundaries of what counts as serious thought.

The five characteristics of critique, Felski continues, are negativity (“characterized by its ‘againstness’”); secondaryness (“does its thinking by responding to the thinking of others”); intellectualism (“interested in big pictures, cultural frameworks, underlying schema,” vs. everyday practices and common sense); marginality (“it rails against authority”); and intolerance (“it insists that those who do not embrace its tenets must be denying or disavowing them”).

Given my relative unfamiliarity with literary studies, it is, of course, possible that an ethos of paranoid negativity and highly politicized readings dominate English and terrorize those who want to focus on enjoyment and other subjective experiences of reading. But Felski appears to be describing the personality of the occasional paranoid, sociopathic scholar rather than the modalities of critical reading. First, it is a gross and misleading simplification to claim, as Latour and Felski do, that critical or suspicious are unaware of the possibility of critical tools being applied to their own commitments. Second, historical studies, whether in literature or history, are by definition interested in “big pictures” and “cultural frameworks.” Third, critical reading is less about positioning oneself “against” than about opening up, illuminating both the intended meaning and its ability to animate surrounding texts and contexts. Fourth, in my experience, this is often—perhaps usually—done with good deal of sympathy for the authors and texts in question. What exactly, then, is Felski referring to when she speaks of critical austerity, banishing any hint of the human and the positive? Does “critique” in this sense really exist?

Some English scholars in the Chronicle have similar doubts:

Felski also makes critique seem more dominant than it is, says another skeptic, Lee Konstantinou, an assistant professor of English at the University of Maryland at College Park. “It might be that I just went to graduate school at a different time”—Konstantinou earned his Ph.D. in 2009, while Felski got hers in 1987—“but I was not told that the only valuable thing that I could be doing as a literary critic would be to debunk or expose the disavowed meanings hidden within literary texts,” he says. As a doctoral student at Stanford, he learned to think of himself as a scholar engaged in literary and cultural history — a practice that, while it did involve critiquing, also put a premium on visiting archives and documenting the past. “The picture of criticism that these post-critics create seems a little bit reductive,” he says, adding, “Literary critics are not handcuffed to the project of critique.”

Perhaps a shift toward the history discipline can illustrate the roots of my skepticism. History was more successfully resistant to the imported philosophical ideas associated with the American humanities between 1970 and 2000, and thus had even less of an excuse to complain about a dominance of “theory” (the previously consolidated object that has now been re-named “critique.”) Nevertheless, complaints about theory abounded, and the effort to keep the car firmly on the road of straightforward empiricism and “telling the truth about history” were always strong.

Despite the efforts of European intellectual historians and some superficial appropriations of “theory” in cultural history, historians remained largely philosophically illiterate. And yet, despite the real marginality and dilution of philosophical ideas in history, they could still be constructed into a powerful methodological villain that was eviscerating the “real” business of history, i.e., discovering empirical facts about the past. This narrative succeeded by mobilizing narratives of “theory” as nihilistic, destructive, and negative, the opposite of history’s more positive, constructive role. It was also performed by consolidating a range of diverse, incompatible approaches into a single object—in history, a “linguistic turn”—that further methodological “turns” could then simply consign to the past as if by a natural movement. As Surkis argues, this operation “forecloses these critical possibilities rather than creating new horizons” and “implicitly consigns still-vibrant analytic resources to a periodized posterity and politically compromised epistemology.”

“Postcriticism” seems like exactly this sort of consolidation, consignation, and foreclosure. The positive side of its efforts may be entirely admirable—a desire to explore the subjective experience of reading, of identity-formation through literature, etc. Felski and others are not wrong to argue that these endeavors are perfectly compatible with progressive scholarship and pedagogy, and that particular theoretical enterprises should not be sacralized as “good” politics. The members of the Frankfurt School, the poststructuralists, and almost all other European thinkers would agree that recognizing some books as more important than others is a necessity of intellectual culture and scholarship. But I suspect the other approaches Felski champions have always been a part of literary scholarship and pedagogy; if they need re-iteration, it should be on their own terms, rather than against an imaginary object—“critique”—that codes a diverse range of analytical techniques as negative, paranoid, destructive, and passé. It is an unnecessary foreclosure that has the ring of cheaply-acquired hype common to declarations of methodological “turns.”

Intellectual History and the Interrogation of “Turns”

What, then, should the stance of intellectual history be toward the postcritical? I agree with Daniel London that intellectual historians have not engaged in sort of “critique” Felski describes, partly because I doubt that it is a real phenomenon. Critical reading is a core practice of intellectual history, where it functions—like I imagine it does elsewhere—mostly the way it should: as essential to understanding both the author’s intent and as part of historical explanation more broadly. A few outliers aside, intellectual history as it currently stands remains fairly allergic to prosecutorial or paranoid reading, having carefully earned its ability to handle explosive and politically-compromised texts with rigor and responsibility.

One of the most common jobs of intellectual historians is excavating, de-sedimenting, and untangling the de facto narratives—along with the hagiographic and the paranoid narratives—of the intellectual past. Over the past several decades, this task has often spilled over into “history of the present,” with intellectual historians serving as “methodological consultants”—some would say “gadflies”—for a historical profession that insistently neglects the philosophical education of its members. As methodological consultants familiar with the theoretical underpinnings of what bubbles up into methodological debates, intellectual historians can indicate the presence of poorly-posed questions, false problems, and uncomprehending repetitions. This task strikes me as increasingly important in an era when the pace of scholarship and the demands of corporate higher education are driving an even more rapid succession of methodological turns and claims to novelty.

Intellectual historians should of course read the work of literary scholars like Sedgwick and Felski—not to mention someone as broadly influential as Latour—for the insights and intellectual discovery that they may offer. But they should also refuse to participate in any scholar’s self-serving claims of novelty and intellectual revolution, and should insist that such scholars win their credibility by argument rather than by savvy branding and large grants. I take Bruno Latour, for example, as a serious philosophical interlocutor, but my training as an intellectual historian leaves me unmoved by his often grandiose claims to have overturned Kantian philosophy and rendered most social theory obsolete. In interacting with postcritical discourse, intellectual historians should be open to genuine insight and skeptical of hazy interpretive moves that would render large swaths of the philosophical canon superseded and inoperable. And while we should resist facile links between methodologies and politics, we should not shy from interrogating methodological novelty in relation to the broader intellectual situation, and doing our best not to gravitate toward approaches that mirror and tacitly ratify cultural ideologies that should be subjected to criticism.

Update: This post by Scott Selisker on Felski’s book, which one would need to consider to do full justice to her argument, is worth reading as a companion to my less-informed account. I also enjoyed this one by Lee Konstantinou.