- Postcritique and Social Justice
Critique has served many as an important tool for combatting injustice and oppression: for exposing, interrogating, and undoing structures of power, exclusion, and abuse. Many early variants of critique, such as eighteenth century discourses of rights or Marxist critiques of the alienation induced by capitalism, originated in such an agenda. Even Immanuel Kant’s classic “What Is Enlightenment?” advocated the need to overcome such modes of captivity as the “yoke” and “shackles” of the “permanent immaturity” self-imposed by an unenlightened state. This spirit of critique has since been hallowed as the special provenance of theory—and, for some, the humanities writ large—and often seen to genetically endow theory and criticism with a radical or leftist politics. Such privileging of critique has understandably been more pronounced in certain fields than others, like feminist and gender studies or postcolonial theory, which arose precisely to critique those histories of domination. Although adopting different guises within different disciplinary formations and schools of thought, the diverse expressions of critique have frequently been united by a dedication to opposing injustice.
Postcritique calls into question this automatic equation between critique and a particular politics. One thrust of Bruno Latour’s seminal 2004 Critical Inquiry essay “Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” is to dispute the premise that critique is always or necessarily on the side of justice. For Latour, critique is just as easily conscripted to promote dubious, reactionary, or even repressive aims. No doubt, recent years have verified Latour’s caution. In our contemporary post-truth, post-facts political era, petty authoritarianism daily demonstrates the ease with which critique and suspicion lend themselves to manipulation. The current political climate thus illustrates why critique can be ill-equipped or misguided as an argumentative strategy, revealing the tendency of skepticism, constructivism, and ironic detachment to become self-sabotaging. When an overdose of cynicism and callous disregard for facts are the problem, it’s not so clear that we can rely on critique as a rejoinder or solution.
Yet Latour’s worries about the ready cooptation of critique are merely the tip of the iceberg, and a postcritical stance can alert us to deeper liabilities of critique as a mode of analysis. It has been observed that critique is mainly negative in orientation, geared toward dismantling and tearing down rather than building up or fortifying. There are important if complex reasons for that intellectual posture. Relative to social justice, it extends from the concerns that claims to transcendent truth risk becoming totalizing and hence oppressive; talk of modernity and progress will legitimize colonialism; defense of universally valid norms erases cultural [End Page 9] and other difference; assertions of immanent, transparent meaning silence marginalized perspectives; and so on and so forth. But what if our wariness of totalities has, ironically, become totalizing and hegemonic? What if resistance to unified systems of theory has itself colonized our methodologies? And what if our anti-normativity has become rigidly normative?
One recognition underlying postcritique is that unmasking, interrogating, and deconstructing has become all, and certainly too much, of what we theorists do. This overwhelming focus on negative critique renders it unending; the onus to critique becomes ceaseless and inexhaustible. Simultaneously, critique frequently represents the destination for theory: the end of the intellectual road rather than one step in a longer itinerary. Either way, the interminable nature of critique is prone to create a sense of impasse or resignation. While the critical gaze can ironically solidify the very objects or conditions it fixates on, critique is often dependent on those same circumstances it defines itself in opposition to.
Let me explain by way of example. Law and Literature scholarship, one of my main fields, is frequently motored by critique. In this context, the usual targets of critique are, not surprisingly, law as well as legal rules, institutions, and protocols, whether the criminal justice system or trial procedure or constructs like property or fundamental rights. Indeed, the assumption that law should foremost occasion suspicion has become so ingrained that terms like “legality” and the “juridical” routinely function as epithets or bad words—as unambiguous markers of power and oppression.
This knee-jerk supposition that law...