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.

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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.