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  • What Went Wrong?Reappraising the "Politics" of Theory
  • Joseph Keith (bio)
Review of: Timothy Brennan, Wars of Position: The Cultural Politics of Left and Right. New York: Columbia UP, 2006.

What went wrong? How to explain the dismal state of today's political landscape in the U.S.--with neoconservatism and free-market triumphalism in such dominance and the left in a state of apparent haplessness? According to Timothy Brennan in Wars of Position: The Cultural Politics of Left and Right, much of the left's trouble can be traced back to the post-Vietnam period of the late seventies. It was during this moment of "reassessment and political fatigue" (x) that the left largely and mistakenly abandoned Marxism and the social democratic politics of the 60s for an identity politics founded on the coalescing field of "theory"--namely poststructuralism and variants of postcolonialism--which has remained dominant to this day. (A partial list of those whom Brennan includes among "theory's . . . shared canon of sacred texts"[xii] is Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Butler, Kristeva, Arendt and the book's chief theoretical foil, Heidegger.) Brennan claims that "theory," while portrayed as a source of radical critique, has actually functioned as a surreptitious adjunct to the rise of free-market triumphalism and political neo-conservatism over the last several decades. It has done this by disavowing and silencing meaningful and organized social democratic politics based on discussion and debate in favor of a politics founded on the inarguable "ontological virtue" (14) of identity or being. This has led the left, in turn, to wallow in a narcissistic state of "virtuous inaction" (36) and to espouse positions that re-iterate the very neo-liberal logic and values it purports to challenge. "Theory," in the end, does not embody a vital counter-tradition of radical thought but what Brennan refers to as an acquiescent "middle way," testifying to a deepening convergence in this country since the dawn of Reaganism of "the cultural politics of Left and Right."

Brennan develops his confrontational thesis by distinguishing between the book's two key theoretical terms--a "politics of belief" versus a "politics of being." To understand what these concepts mean for Brennan it is helpful to jump to the end of Wars of Position and Brennan's concluding reading of Antonio Gramsci. Brennan argues that contemporary theory has reduced Gramsci's work to a handful of reified terms (e.g., "hegemony," "subaltern," "passive revolution," "common sense") whose meanings have been divorced both from the larger context of his writings and from the communist intellectual and material history out of which they directly emerged. Nowhere is this more evident, Brennan argues, than in the case of "subalternity." Within contemporary postcolonial thought, "subalternity" has come to occupy a highly privileged position; indeed the term evokes one of the central ethical imperatives of the entire field--subjugated knowledge whose recovery can provide a radical counter-narrative to traditional history. More specifically for Brennan, subalternity has become highly revered as a kind of ontological resistance or "ideational essence"--that is, as defining a philosophical perspective whose value is measured and cherished in postcolonial theory precisely to the extent to which it remains removed from public life and any political engagement.

For Brennan, this received wisdom is a profound and telling misreading of Gramsci's concerns. Gramsci never intended to privilege the standpoint of subalternity but instead theorized it as a condition that needed to be overcome through political action. "Having no desire to 'give voice' to the essential wisdom of the subaltern, or to glorify subalternity as such, Gramsci repeatedly made clear in his writing the need for the training and discipline provided by education, national-popular literature, and other practices that would in essence eradicate subalternity" (263-64).

The distinction between these two versions of subalternity provides one of the more elegant examples for the book's central polemic against the cultural left's shift from a "politics of belief" to a "politics of being." Gramsci's vision of subalternity expresses a "politics of belief"; it is intimately tied to a radical social democratic vision and to specific political strategies to eradicate subalternity and the inequality it describes. This has...

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