- Postcritical Theory? Demanding the Possible
“Post” indicates a very particular condition of afterness in which what is past is not left behind, but, on the contrary, relentlessly conditions, even dominates, a present that nevertheless also breaks in some way with this past. In other words, we use the term “post” only for a present whose past continues to capture and structure it.—Wendy Brown, Walled States (21)
If learning to think is learning to resist a future that presents itself as obvious, plausible, and normal, we cannot do so either by evoking an abstract future, from which everything subject to our disapproval has been swept aside, or by referring to a distant cause that we could and should imagine to be free of any compromise.—Isabelle Stengers, Cosmopolitics I (10)
Popular reports of the demise of critical theory in the humanities and social sciences during the first decade of the new century were far from the first time the “death of theory” had been pronounced. However, they may have been the first in which the enterprise was presented as a victim of its own success. The first influential argument of this type may have been Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s depiction of postmodern and postcolonial theory as little more than “symptoms of passage” toward new [End Page 637] forms of social power that appropriate the generic goals and techniques of leftist thought. As they write in 2000’s Empire, much like left-oriented critical theorists, international capitalism is also “bent on doing away with those modern forms of sovereignty and on setting difference to play across boundaries,” the key difference being that the latter has been much more successful in the endeavor.1
The more specific co-opting of analytical and rhetorical forms native to critical theory by right-wing ideologues was perhaps most poignantly outlined by Bruno Latour in his contribution to a 2004 issue of Critical Inquiry themed around the journal’s colloquium on theory’s future and, in particular, the rather discouraging coverage of the same by the New York Times (an article with the memorably blunt title “The Latest Theory Is That Theory Doesn’t Matter”2). In addressing the titular question of his essay “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” Latour concludes that it is not so much the operation of critique itself that has become moribund, but that the methodologies long associated with the practice—the analysis of truth claims in reference to the ideological dispositions of its claimants, the presumption that no institutions of any real social influence are innocent of the effects of social power—had been shown to be equally (more?) successful in the hands of climate-change deniers, libertarian-influenced conspiracy theorists, and conservative culture warriors of almost all stripes as they had previously been for science and technology studies scholars such as Latour.3 Latour’s focus on the amateur theorizing of republican image consultants was to become only one of the first in a long series of such ironic appropriations documented in the coming years; indeed, by the end of the decade, it was increasingly hard to feign surprise at reports that Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari were required reading for members of the Israeli Defense Force or that Jean-Francois Lyotard’s writings were becoming as popular with advertising and marketing students as they once were with English Lit graduates.4
As always, however, the most revealing description comes from the loyal opposition. In a recent interview, the conservative online media mogul Andrew Breitbart discusses the initial confusion he experienced when taking courses in American studies as a Tulane University undergrad—“I don’t understand what this deconstructive semiotic bullshit is...