This is a version of the paper delivered on October 29, 2021, at the University of Adelaide’s and Flinders University’s Situations of Theory Conference. It will be revised and expanded for future publication.
Slavoj Žižek, The Fright of Real Tears (Žižek 2001, 13)
The enthusiastic professionalism of Post-Theory is often sustained by a stance of profound political resignation, by a will to obliterate the traces and disappointments of political engagement…
Lou Reed, “New Sensations” (Reed 1984)
I want the principles of a timeless muse I want to eradicate my negative views And get rid of those people who are always on a down It's easy enough to tell what is wrong But that's not what I want to hear all night long Some people are like human tuinals…
Let me begin with an anecdote from my teaching last semester. In a class called “Prison Writing: Language and Liberty,” we brought together a striking array of prison writings from many different national contexts spanning the twentieth century (plus a little either side). Some of the most productive seminars centred on writers who had been imprisoned for their anti-colonial activism. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s prison memoir, Wrestling with the Devil (1981; 2018), inspired a particularly vivid discussion of neo-colonialism and the ongoingly extractive relationship between global capital and putatively post-colonial states like Kenya, aided by the target of some of Ngũgĩ’s most withering criticism, the comprador bourgeoisie. This led us to talk over all the familiar stories the global north tells itself about Africa—endemic corruption, ancient tribal hatreds, “cursed” by natural resources—stories designed to obscure the economic relations responsible for uneven development. During this class, my attention was caught by the troubled aspect of one of my students: were they bored with the topic? Preoccupied by some personal travail? Offended by the discussion? Eventually the student raised their hand and surprised me by saying, quite plaintively: “Why are we just finding out about this now? Why isn’t this discussed more widely? Like, why isn’t it on the news?”
At first I felt a sort of nostalgia for a kind of teaching I’ve never really known, where such scales-falling-from-the-eyes moments might have been common. Today, many students seem to arrive possessed of a cynicism that precedes a clear concept of what they’re cynical about. But this was not a cynical moment, quite the opposite: and part of what I cherish about it is that, it its small way, it puts the lie to a story we have heard in various iterations over thirty or more years: that in the age of mass-media-as-atrocity-exhibition, when our 24-hour news channels and social media feeds swamp us with images of injustice, oppression, warfare, and every other species of catastrophe, what remains hidden for the critic to disclose?
It is a story retold in various forms at each of the founding moments of what we now call postcritique. Here it is in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s 1997 essay “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You”:
(Sedgwick 2003, 123)
As an aside, and because I can only assume Sedgwick’s recollection of this exchange is filtered through her own concerns and preoccupations, it seems to me now that this anecdote—its obvious rhetorical force aside—doesn’t achieve much beyond reminding us that the regime of reading to which Sedgwick belonged had and has little use for the concepts of intention and agency.
Sometime back in the middle of the first decade of the AIDS epidemic, I was picking the brains of a friend of mine, the activist scholar Cindy Patton, about the probable natural history of HIV. This was at a time when speculation was ubiquitous about whether HIV represented a plot or experiment by the U.S. military that had gotten out of control, or perhaps that was behaving exactly as it was meant to… [I] asked Patton what she thought of these sinister rumours about the virus’s origin. “Any of the early steps in its spread could have been either accidental or deliberate,” she said. “But I just have trouble getting interested in that. I mean, even suppose we were sure of every element of a conspiracy: that the lives of Africans and African Americans are worthless in the eyes of the United States; that gay men and drug users are held cheap where they aren’t actively hated; that the military deliberately researches ways to kill noncombatants whom it sees as enemies; that people in power look calmly on the likelihood of catastrophic environmental and population changes. Supposing we were ever so sure of all those things—what would we know then that we don’t already know?”
Here it is again in Bruno Latour’s 2004 essay, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern”:
(Latour 2004, 225, 227)
Wars. So many wars. Wars outside and wars inside. Cultural wars, science wars, and wars against terrorism. Wars against poverty and wars against the poor. Wars against ignorance and wars out of ignorance. My question is simple: Should we be at war, too, we, the scholars, the intellectuals? Is it really our duty to add fresh ruins to fields of ruins? Is it really the task of the humanities to add deconstruction to destruction? More iconoclasm to iconoclasm? What has become of the critical spirit? Has it run out of steam?… the danger would no longer be coming from an excessive confidence in ideological arguments posturing as matters of fact—as we have learned to combat so efficiently in the past—but from an excessive distrust of good matters of fact disguised as bad ideological biases! While we spent years trying to detect the real prejudices hidden behind the appearance of objective statements, do we now have to reveal the real objective and incontrovertible facts hidden behind the illusion of prejudices?
Here it is in Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best’s “Surface Reading: An Introduction”:
(Best and Marcus 2009, 2)
At the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, so much seems to be on the surface… Those of us who cut our intellectual teeth on deconstruction, ideology critique, and the hermeneutics of suspicion have often found those demystifying protocols superfluous in an era when images of torture at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere were immediately circulated on the internet; the real-time coverage of Hurricane Katrina showed in ways that required little explication the state’s abandonment of its African American citizens; and many people instantly recognized as lies political statements such as “mission accomplished.”
And here again, in a deliberate echo of my previous three examples, is Rita Felski in The Limits of Critique (2015):
(Felski 2015, 46)
The contrast on which this exposure relies—between mass credulity and the brave lone voice of intellectual skepticism—no longer carries much force. Irony and irreverence saturate TV dramas and talk shows; conspiracy theories spawn on the Internet; a nonchalant coolness and world-weariness sets the tone in fashion and music. What is the use of demystifying ideology when many people no longer subscribe to coherent ideologies, when there is widespread disillusionment about the motives of politicians and public figures, when “everyone knows” that hidden forces are at work making us think and behave in certain ways?
A couple of claims from Latour and Felski here cause me to prick up my ears: Latour claims that “we” have learned efficiently to combat “excessive confidence in ideological arguments posturing as matters of fact,” and Felski asks what the use is of “demystifying ideology when many people no longer subscribe to coherent ideologies.” Can we—that is, academics who seem to occupy an increasingly marginal position in our own institutions, let alone our public discourse—claim to have learned efficiently to combat excessive confidence in ideological arguments, even as the faltering of the neoliberal project looks set to deliver us not emancipation but increasingly authoritarian rule? Does failure to cohere hinder ideology from holding people in its thrall in the age of QAnon? Granted, these dark developments have arisen some time after these texts were published, but even the syntax of Felski’s sentence marks a strange elision between ideology in its common valence as a standpoint derived from theory rather than practice—“many people no longer subscribe to coherent ideologies”—and ideology in its baleful sense as false consciousness, something to be “demystified.”
In both cases, the authors seem determined to avoid invoking any sense of “ideology” that would not be familiar to Marx and Engels (Williams 2014, 107–11). But of course there are newer theories of ideology than these, ones capable of reckoning with an era of widespread cynicism: I’m thinking of what is arguably Slavoj Žižek’s first, and still one of his most significant, contributions to Theory, namely his argument that ideology today follows the structure of fetishistic disavowal that Octave Mannoni famously formulated as: Je sais bien, mais quand même… (Sbriglia 2017, 112) Žižek’s point is not simply that ideology today functions in the open, as Sedgwick, Latour, Best and Marcus, and Felski all contend; it is that, despite doing so, it still functions qua ideology. (It is particularly odd that Felski chooses not to consider this notion of ideology when, just before the passage I quoted above, she cites the figure who, in large measure inspired it, Peter Sloterdijk.) Does the “new brazenness”—in the context of my anecdote before, I think of Trump’s notorious remark about “shithole countries”—obviate the necessity of critique? Absolutely not, not least because Sloterdijk intimates, in his puckish way, that the new cynicism irreducibly contains a class dimension:
(Sloterdijk 1987, 4)
The fertile ground for cynicism in modern times is to be found not only in urban culture but also in the courtly sphere. Both are dies of pernicious realism through which human beings learn the crooked smile of open immorality. Here, as there, a sophisticated knowledge accumulates in informed, intelligent minds, a knowledge that moves elegantly back and forth between naked facts and conventional facades. From the very bottom, from the declassed, urban intelligentsia, and from the very top, from the summits of statesmanly consciousness, signals penetrate serious thinking, signals that provide evidence of a radical, ironic treatment (Ironisierung) of ethics and of social conventions, as if universal laws existed only for the stupid, while that fatally clever smile plays on the lips of those in the know.
In these conditions, the debunking move needs to adopt the form of an example that Žižek cites elsewhere, namely the courtroom scene from Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933): “Gentleman, Chicolini here may talk like an idiot, and look like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you: he really is an idiot!”
(McCarey 1933; Cf. Žižek 1990, 3)
After all, my anecdote is not really about a Damascene conversion to a new worldview. Instead, the work of critique here—and it is work undertaken by Ngũgĩ’s text itself, not by me—is the ongoing construction of a “public capable of demanding or enforcing scrutiny of ourselves from outside,” to borrow Bruce Robbins’s phrase (Robbins 2016). All of my students were aware—if somewhat cynically detached from that awareness, as we all are to varying degrees—that we live under an unjust world order. What this moment marked was that vague, uncomfortable awareness suddenly acquiring salience. But the condition of its acquiring salience, is an interpretive framework that marks out inequality, oppression, and other forms of justice as worthy of attention, that causes us to turn away from “the crooked smile of open immorality,” and look beyond the “sophisticated knowledge” we deploy to stifle our sense of right and wrong.
At the same time, the account of critique as a practice of penetrating depths and bringing to the surface, which Felski carries over from Best and Marcus, has the important shortcoming that it effaces certain subtleties in the original “masters of suspicion.” Žižek noted this in The Sublime Object of Ideology when he identified an homology between Freud’s account of the dream and Marx’s account of the commodity:
(Žižek 2008, 4–5)
John Frow makes a related remark, addressing Marcus and Best’s essay directly in his On Interpretive Conflict (2019): “[Their] characterization [of depth reading] ignores Freud’s account of the transferential construction of meaning (which, in the reciprocity of transference and counter-transference, undermines the very possibility of a masterful “interpretation”) and Marx’s argument that ideologies are “forms of thought which are socially valid [gültig], and therefore objective, for the relations of production belonging to this historically determinate mode of social production” (a statement that undermines the very possibility of a masterful “ideology critique”) (Frow 2019, 23).
The relationship between the ‘latent thought’ and what is called the ‘manifest content’ of a dream—the text of the dream, the dream in its literal phenomenality—is therefore that between some entirely ‘normal,’ (pre)conscious thought and its translation into the ‘rebus’ of the dream. The essential constitution of dream is thus not its ‘latent thought’ but this work (the mechanisms of displacement and condensation, the figuration of the contents of words or syllables) which confers it the form of a dream.
Orienting himself from Marx and Freud’s shared conclusion that the unmasking of latent content is not enough—that the latent thought can indeed be something that “everyone knows”—Žižek addresses the question of ideology in an age of cynicism by reformulating Marx’s “they do not know it, but they are doing it” as “they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it” (Žižek 2008, 24, 25). (For instance—and this is self-reproach—“We know very well that coltan mining perpetuates extractive power relations in Africa, but still, we carry iPhones.”) In other words, Žižek displaces the question of ideological mystification away from epistemology and on to practice, arguing—to put it crudely—that cynical reason fails to comprehend, let alone transcend, the ongoing role of what he calls “ideological fantasy” in structuring social reality (Cf. Frow 2007).
This displacement reminds me of a deep, and perhaps underappreciated, affinity between the postcritique moment—especially as it is formulated by Latour—and the original coalescence of Theory itself: both are calls for a shift in intellectual strategy so as to better understand and engage with extramural politics, and both reflect, to an extent, a deep disappointment with their contemporary horizons of political possibility. In the case of Theory, the moment in question is the événements of May 1968, which, needless to remind this audience, proceeded rapidly from a moment of seeming revolutionary possibility—student demonstrations and large-scale strikes unfolding in concert, De Gaulle fleeing the country—to snap legislative elections which produced, rather than a victory for the left, an absolute Gaullist majority. Here is how Meaghan Morris and Paul Patton, setting out to introduce Foucault to an Australian readership in 1979—as, we can now say, the neoliberal shift was beginning—frame his work:
(Morris and Patton 1979, 7, 109)
There are many indications to suggest that our established forms of revolutionary discourse have begun to fall apart. Their age has begun to show in the light of the question posed, for example, by the increasing gap between the aspirations of people and the possible future represented by the traditional revolutionary parties… Foucault is a leading figure among those whose work amounts, in many respects, to the repercussion in theory of the events of May, and their aftermath. Along with Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus… Discipline and Punish constitutes one of the important textual “relays” of those localised struggles against power and authority which May ’68 made possible in France.
Already explicit here is the shift from general to specific intellectual, and the concomitant shift in the locus of political struggle away from democratic institutions and towards micropolitics. The context of Latour’s essay is what seemed like at that moment—little did we know—the nadir of the long period of reaction beginning in the late 1970s, marked by the various depredations of the Bush administration and especially its war on Iraq. Latour could not have known, when he delivered his essay as a talk at the Stanford Humanities Centre, that Bush would be re-elected the next year, but—following years of liberal efforts to mock and debunk the President’s serial lies and other fumblings with language—this too would probably have been grist to the post-critical mill.
But there are other ways of understanding that dark moment and liberal institutions’ and intellectuals’ inability to reckon with it; the most striking that I know of is Timothy Brennan’s 2006 monograph, Wars of Position: The Cultural Politics of Left and Right. If, for Latour, the moment was marked by the co-optation of Theory’s epistemological equivocations by the political right and hence the foreclosure of its political possibilities, for Brennan, that foreclosure happened considerably earlier, and its agent was Theory itself. Brennan contends that in the second half of the 1970s, between the end of the Vietnam War and the beginning of the Reagan presidency, a “certain social democratic vision of the political past was banished from public discussion and a forceful shift from belief to being took hold in politics… [producing] a civic religion I call the ‘middle way’” (Brennan 2006, ix). This “civic religion”—having attained hegemonic status in universities, peri-academic venues for publishing and performance, and indeed a large swathe of public sentiment—expresses itself in two basic gestures: the ejection of political belonging from the idea of identity, and the flight of left intellectuals from “any politics seeking to enter or make claims on the state” (Brennan 2006, x). The historical unfolding of these twin gestures Brennan calls “the turn.” The most tendentious aspect of the argument for me is the sheer degree of influence Brennan accords Theory:
(Brennan 2006, 2)
When I summon the word “theory,” I am talking about a broad social phenomenon that is essentially mainstream as well as a substantial part of the kind of thinking that inspires Hollywood scriptwriters, advertising executives, and the composers of neo-punk bands. It is the ideology of the turn I am referring to: a system of ideas more patiently and systematically laid out in graduate seminars, perhaps, but widely practiced and believed in the culture at large, not least because of the successful dispersion of those ideas by academics.
This still strikes me as a little overstated, and yet Latour’s worry over the baleful effects of critique presumes its widespread dissemination. Moreover, online discussion of politics and culture are now shot through with a familiar vocabulary of difference, privilege, decentering, and standpoint epistemology, while “Theory” (as well as “neoliberal”) signifies something to a broad enough audience that it can raise a laugh as part of a Saturday Night Live bit. If Brennan began by overstating his case, contemporary trends may vindicate him in retrospect.
Brennan’s critique of our intellectual culture has the virtue of pointing up a certain peculiarity of Felski’s polemic, namely, her assertion that critique has been the dominant mood of literary studies for some time: for the period about which Felski makes this claim also coincides with the wide-scale reorganisation of intellectual life, above all in the humanities, around the entry of what used to be referred to as the “New Social Movements” into the university in the form of women’s studies, ethnic studies, gay and lesbian studies, and their various successor disciplines. (In this way, connections between scholars and organised forms of extramural politics have endured, albeit usually in the form of organisations that did not in the first instance seek directly to contest state power.) This seems to me at least as significant a shift as the rise of Theory itself, and of course inextricable from it. Noting this phenomenon, Brennan dismisses out of hand the predictable conservative complaints about “identity politics,” focussing instead on a “more consequential and more historically resonant” underlying shift, namely the “explicitly Heideggerian gesture” that dissimulates “belief as being” and vaunts “a politics beyond belief” (Brennan 2006, x).
But Felski’s elision of this structural shift in intellectual life masks some of the tensions inherent in the method of critique as it is deployed differently across these various areas of scholarly endeavour. For instance, there is a difference between a suspicion practiced by and on behalf of marginalised identities—seeking to uncover the overt and covert means of their oppression—and a more global suspicion (perhaps best exemplified by cultural studies) of identity in general, that is, the thought that the present dispensation of categories by which understand ourselves could be, because it has been, otherwise. The former style of inquiry may operate under the sign of Gayatri Spivak’s strategic essentialism, fully aware and accepting of the anti-essentialist conclusions of the latter. But in the wilds of the discourse, this proviso seems largely to have given way to a fierce regime of reification in which any claim to social-democratic universalism is cut down using the tools of historicization, while the ephemeral identity constructs of the present are bolstered by scientistic claims to permanence: an essentialism without strategy.
One of the necessary virtues of the intellectual historian is an awareness of the contemporary situation’s path dependence: for Brennan, this manifests itself in the comprehensive marginalisation of figures who have questioned some of Theory’s foundations; Sebastiano Timpanaro, the Italian Marxist philologist who attacked both Freud and Saussure, is his exemplar. Timpanaro’s utterly démodé insistence on a scientific communism founded in a reinvigorated materialism nonetheless generates impressive flashes of insight that continue to illuminate the present; for instance, as early as 1975, Timpanaro wrote of the “danger from reactionary biologism in the ideology of the British and still more the North American bourgeoisie,” citing a “rebirth of racist theories… [claiming] to base themselves on the most recent achievements of genetics… [wherein] the brutal ferocity of National Socialism is now succeeded by an unctuous paternalism” (Timpanaro 1975, 13). Nearly thirty years later, Paul Gilroy would write in a new introduction to There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack entitled “Race is Ordinary”:
(Gilroy 2002, xix)
Class is not such a hot topic these days. Another constellation of conceptual dangers has appeared in a situation where ‘race’ has escaped the disciplinary constraints imposed by historical materialism and is routinely placed beyond the compasses of either history or society. Delivered by genomics, bio-technology and ethnic absolutism to the freshly mystified realm of natural processes, ‘race’ is now enthusiastically reified on molecular and sub-molecular scales.
Remarking with surprise that this falsification now issues from the mouths of the “depressed and fatalistic advocates of racial equality,” Gilroy goes on:
(Gilroy 2002, xx)
For these timid souls, it would appear that becoming resigned both to the absolute status of ‘race’ as a concept and to the intractability of racism as a permanent perversion akin to original sin, is easier than the creative labour involved in invisioning [sic] and producing a more just world, purged of racial hierarchy.
And still these tendencies proliferate, while a new generation of scholars fight what increasingly feels like a rearguard action against them (Cf. Olaloku-Teriba 2018; McCarthy 2020). This is not only the case in debates over race; as a gay man, I think of the born-this-way essentialism that a particular wing of the gay rights movement adopted in its pursuit of equal marriage, or the incredulity that greeted David Halperin’s culturalist account of male homosexuality in How to Be Gay (Halperin 2012).
“As I use it in this chapter, theory would include (but not be limited to) Lacanian psychoanalysis, deconstruction, and the discursive reading, [sic] but not, for example, the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, theories of space and place, reﬂexive sociology, institutional media theory, or studies of imperialism.” (Brennan 2006, 273)
For Brennan, this elevation of identity into a realm beyond politics—being over belief—is the point; hence, in his terms, it would be time to liberate critique from Theory, bearing in mind that he excludes the critical theory of Frankfurt School, among other things, from his use of that term. (How the Frankfurt School et al. were rendered as part of a common project with, say, Derrida and Deleuze strikes me as an open avenue for inquiry in intellectual history—I suspect that work of bridging was carried out mainly by proximity on graduate seminar reading lists.) Felski’s refusal in The Limits of Critique to disaggregate the Marxist genus of critique from various species of French thought quite antithetical to it is, of course, its own sort of politics. Unconvinced as I am of a programmatic Heideggerianism uniting every thinker that Brennan does include within the rubric of Theory, I would settle for us paying greater attention to some of the countertraditions he names.
Suffice it to say, these conditions of rampant reification in the culture at large convince me that the possibility of our emancipation continues to depend, in part, on critique. Felski frequently replies to her critics that she is not aiming to permanently deprive the disciplinary repertoire of critique, but merely to expand it (even as her scabrous rhetoric tends to undermine the modesty of this claim), and on at least one of the limits to critique that Felski identifies, I tend to agree: her scorn for the critic who brandishes “a close reading of a literary work as proof of its boldly subverting or cravenly sustaining the status quo,” and the discipline’s sometimes reflexive embrace of a “counteridiom of subversion, resistance, transgression, and rupture—those cardinal virtues of criticality” (Felski 2015, 11, 170). We could rephrase Felski’s objection here in terms of a question that arises (at least for me) from Brennan’s account of recent history: if Theory has been so influential and so widely disseminated, why do the academics who produce it (and not just the avowed Marxists) seem—and feel—so politically ineffectual? For Brennan, of course, political ineffectuality is the direct consequence of Theory’s refusal to contest state power. But it remains the case that, even as literary scholars are aware of this refusal (and believe me, I know the bathos inherent in moving between eloquent expositions of Foucauldian micropolitics and, say, leafletting for a local election), we sometimes allow ourselves to believe that our intellectual work constitutes political action in itself.
Joseph North’s bracing, revisionist Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History offers an account of how this situation came to be, and what it leaves out. He charts what he takes to be a far more important paradigm shift than the rise of Theory, that is, the discipline’s abandonment of a “critical” paradigm, defined by interface between scholars and the public, a willingness to intervene in the culture, and an emphasis on evaluation, all in the interests of cultivating “deeper modes of life,” in favour of a “scholarly,” “historicist/contextualist” paradigm in which the discipline becomes a species of technical expertise, and “works of literature are chiefly of interest as diagnostic instruments for determining the state of the cultures in which they were written or read” (northLiteraryCriticismConcise2017?). North contends that the latter paradigm encompasses all the dominant schools and methods of contemporary literary criticism, including Theory; the mystery is not so much how this occurred, but how it came to be broadly regarded as a victory for the left:
Insofar as [the injunction to historicise] has led to a critique of the essentialisms and universalisms of an old elite, it has been palpably of the left. Yet insofar as it has also asked literary thinkers to give up the wider social function to which “criticism,” for all its many faults, at least aspired, and has taught them instead merely to observe the culture, however “critically,” by writing cultural theory and cultural history, it has been a depoliticization: in that sense, of the right. Only the first of these aspects of the historicist/contextualist paradigm has been well publicized.
That “historicist/contextualist work,” absent any direct intervention in extramural culture, could be regarded as a form of political praxis further reflects, I argue, changes in the larger political-economic context of the university, namely the rise of the professional-managerial class (PMC). In other words, the problem here is not so much the defectiveness of critique as a methodology, but rather the position of its enunciation: pace Felski’s evident horror at the self-referentiality of turning critique on itself, this necessary move has always been implicit in the concept.
Although the concept of the PMC was first articulated by Barbara and John Ehrenreich in the late 1970s, the late anthropologist David Graeber has made some of the most interesting recent uses of the concept (Cf. Ehrenreich and Ehrenreich 1977; “On the Origins of the Professional-Managerial Class: An Interview with Barbara Ehrenreich” 2019; Graeber 2015). I think it is fair to say that when North describes the triumph of the scholarly, historicist/contextualist paradigm in literary studies, he is pointing to a local instance of what Graeber identifies as “the profound bureaucratization of almost every aspect of social life that has marked the neoliberal era” (Graeber 2014, 75). And Graeber, too, suggests that Theory as it became lodged in academia started to constitute a class program:
(Graeber 2014, 80)
Post-structural theory—particularly as enshrined in what might be termed the “vulgar Foucauldianism” that came to dominate so many ostensibly oppositional academic disciplines at the time—came to enshrine the particular class experiences of the professional-managerial class as universal truths: that is, a world of networks and networking, where games of power create social reality itself, all truth-claims are merely stratagems, and where mechanisms of physical coercion are made to seem irrelevant (even as they became ever more omnipresent) because all the real action is assumed to take place within techniques of self-discipline, forms of performance, and an endless variety of dispersed and decentered flows of influence.
Suffice it to say, the experience of most of the world’s population does not map readily onto this schema, and yet—to reprise a theme from Brennan—this is the training meted out to an important segment of the world’s cultural, media, and political elites. The current impasse of even centre-left parties around the world cannot be understood without recognising that they have largely opted for the PMC as their main constituency, thus displacing a working class already ravaged and transformed by the neoliberal turn (Graeber 2014, 74). Narratives like “meritocracy” work to obscure the PMC’s identity qua class for itself, but those outside of it can easily perceive a convergence in the interests, language, and mores of political, cultural, and academic elites.
So is fair to say, and I quote: “There is a noticeable silence about class in much contemporary cultural theory” (Felski 2000, 34). That was Rita Felski writing in PMLA, twenty years ago. So, will postcritique open an avenue for literary studies to break this silence? The early signs are not propitious. Forecasting a turn back to the Frankfurt School (or rather its contemporary inheritors) in her current work, Felski consistently opts for that strain of critical theory that proceeds from the thought of Axel Honneth, and particularly his keyword, recognition (Cf. Felski 2020, 2021). By recognition, Honneth means the development of our social identities through a process of feedback with other subject, through which we learn who and what to value. (In other words, we might see this as a displacement of the Althusserian logic of interpolation out of the hierarchical relationship between state and subject onto a flattened social field.) Perhaps Honneth’s most forceful critic on this point has been Nancy Fraser, who counterposes the politics of recognition to the politics of redistribution. Felski acknowledges Fraser’s objections, but insists that Fraser is proffering a false dichotomy through a rather strange argumentative dodge: “The current absence of… compelling language around class does not mean that a longing for recognition is lacking among the working class, the precariat, the poor” (Felski 2021, 99). (Stranger still is Felski’s lament about the contemporary politics of inequality: “Denouncing inequality can also run the risk of diminishing the unequal. One of the striking features of analyses of class, [Carolyn] Steedman remarks, is their denying of a complicated selfhood to those in material distress” (Felski 2021, 105).) Only from the standpoint of an intellectual who has given up on contesting state power at all could one miss that this is precisely the bargain offered by the flailing centre-left parties of today: recognition in place of redistribution. Moreover, if recognition is now something to be bestowed by professional-managerial class academics trying to advance our careers—to show that we are on the vanguard of present trends—by mimicking what we take to be the working class’s tastes and habits of cultural consumption, I suspect their answer will be “thanks, but no thanks” (or more likely, and more appropriately, “fuck off.”)
So where does this leave us? North’s “deeper modes of life” is an agreeably vague phrase and probably a laudable aspiration. But in the context of a rapidly advancing climate crisis, facing a savage and organised global reactionary movement, I maintain that intramural, politicised scholarship is of limited usefulness in meeting the urgency of the moment, absent extramural organisation. Critique—practiced as widely as possible, not just among technical specialists within the universities—must continue to play a vital role, not only in combatting the essentialisms that increasingly stymie political coalition-building, but also in exposing the ideological fantasy that continues to structure our outwardly cynical age.