- The Bad Habits of Critical Theory
Progressive critical theory—defined here loosely as a combination of poststructuralism, psychoanalysis, Marxism, and deconstructive feminist and queer theory—has been relentlessly dismissive of habits, particularly of habits of thought that organize social collectivities. Such habits have, often correctly, been aligned with outmoded traditions, ideological complacency, persistent inequalities, authoritarian governance, and the lack of imagination. Moreover, faithful to Nietzsche’s proclamation that so-called “truths” are merely metaphors that have become habitual, that have managed to camouflage their fictitious origins, critical theory has meticulously questioned all taken-for-granted forms of meaning, action, and judgment; it has been so thoroughly suspicious of the propensity of ideas to congeal into rigid, lifeless configurations that it has rejected everything systematic and centralized, that is, everything that smacks of the habitual. This explains in part why the field has long been characterized by what Eve Sedgwick (2003) diagnosed as a paranoid hermeneutics of suspicion: an interpretative practice that distrusts the surface of things, actively digs for hegemonic intent, and flees from all surprises because the worst that could happen would be for the critic to be duped by ideology. This paranoid attitude—as Sedgwick herself emphasizes—has generated some of the most thrilling critical work of recent decades, the kind of work that has interrogated the foundations of subjectivity, agency, meaning, and ethics. Yet it has arguably also produced a new set of entrenched habits of thought that curtail critical theory’s capacity to remain genuinely critical.
In this essay, I want to consider two attitudes that have become so predictable in contemporary critical theory that it seems legitimate to label them as the field’s bad—distracted and therefore largely unreflexive—habits. The first of these is the tendency to leap from the (warranted) critique of the autonomous and sovereign subject of humanist metaphysics to the (in my view absurd) notion that all efforts at subjective recentering should be discouraged, that indeed, the more thoroughly pulverized the subject gets, the more “ethical” it will be. The second is closely related in being the logical outcome of this pulverization of the subject, namely the idea that radical antinormativity—the flat rejection of the kind of normative ethics that relies on a set of a priori judgments about right and wrong—constitutes an adequate ethical stance. Regarding the latter, I admit to a degree of admiration. I have recently written extensively, and mostly sympathetically, about the Lacanian-Žižekian [End Page 5] ethics of the real, Alain Badiou’s ethics of the event, and queer theory’s ethics of antisocial negativity, all of which start from the premise that antinormativity is the only effective antidote to our society’s corrupt normativity (see Ruti, Between Levinas and Lacan; The Ethics of Opting Out). As a response to structural violence, this claim—which on some level harks back to Walter Benjamin’s notion of divine violence—is difficult to contest. Yet it underestimates the degree to which normative judgments hover in the background of antinormative theories. Simply put, the minute we hold values of any kind, we have to have some grounds for holding them. Let us assume that I want to argue—as I do in “real” life—that racism, sexism, homophobia, and economic inequality are oppressive (that is, wrong). On what basis do I posit this? On the basis of a priori norms that I have come to accept as valid. To the extent that antinormative theories deny this basic insight, they cannot even begin to approach the core of contemporary ethical dilemmas.
The two ideals of critical theory I have named—the pulverization of the subject and radical antinormativity—suffer from the additional problem of being more or less untenable as real-life politico-ethical choices. In Edgework (2005), Wendy Brown states: “As a meaning-making enterprise, theory depicts a world that does not quite exist, that is not quite the world we inhabit. But this is theory’s incomparable value, not its failure. Theory does not simply decipher the meanings of the world but recodes and rearranges them in order to reveal something about the meanings and incoherencies that we live with. To do...