I seem to be writing a lot of posts lately that contain concepts that I’m not quite ready to express fully – this will be another of “those” posts, I’m afraid.
I wanted to pick up, in a brief and not quite adequate way, on two comments made on other blogs, because I think they each suggest important issues to be taken into account when thinking about the construction of a critical theory. The first is a comment made by belledame222 in an ongoing discussion at The Kugelmass Episodes. Belledame criticises the somewhat widespread tendency to equate “the margins” with “critical standpoint”:
One of the other main radical feminist bloggers, Heart, actually calls her space “The Margins.” i think there is this idea, you know, that freedom exists in the margins precisely because they -are- the margins.
trouble is, if you’re really making claims for revolutionary transformation, sooner or later you’re going to have to figure out a way to move from margin to center (as bell hooks once put it).
otherwise you’re just basically huddling together and licking wounds, telling comforting stories to each other, it seems to me.
To belledame’s concerns, I would add that this vision of critique – that you need somehow to be “outside” what you’re criticising in order to achieve critical distance – can:
(1) be morally underdetermined: some very undesirable movements can also be marginalised – and it may, in fact, be a very important political goal to make sure that some movements remain marginalised – and that other political movements become so… Valorising “the margins” by dint of their marginality often disguises the fact that we tacitly mean “our” margins: that we have a quite specific set of normative ideals that we assume are part of the “package” of marginality. Personally, I would rather develop critical concepts that express those normative ideals directly, rather than bundling them in with an overarching (and, for reasons discussed below, perhaps not even intrinsically connected) category like “marginality”. Otherwise, we risk getting what we asked for, rather than what we wished for – a fate suffered by many well-intentioned social and political movements…
(2) flatten the “core”: the move to margins (like the move to human nature, the appeal to theology or other ways of getting “outside” our social context) operates on the assumption that our social context is fundamentally one-dimensional: that tensions and conflicts might exist on the perimeters, or between our social context and something that we perceive as fundamentally different, but not as integral aspects of a single, conflicted social form. I appreciate that this is, to some degree, an “empirical” question, but I think it’s important not to reject out of hand the possibility of our social world as a contradictory entity – in whose contradictions we can perhaps begin to recognise some of the historical irritants that provoke us to dream that better things are possible. We may not need to be “outside” or on the “margins” to achieve critical distance.
These issues are connected, in ways I’m not sure I’m ready to express, to an issue raised by sinthome at Larval Subjects yesterday. The US election outcome leads sinthome to reflect on the need to recognise how rapidly historical transformation can sometimes be achieved:
I’m still in a bit of shock as to what happened last night. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not expecting momentous changes or for Democrats to suddenly begin acting like genuine progressives. Yet this still is a ray of hope…. it is the hope produced in discerning that rhetoric alone does not win the day or create reality. That is, occurances like this remind me that things are possible… They rescue me from my Adorno-esque pessimism.
A few months ago I would not have believed this possible and I find that this experience of change significantly calls into question a number of my theoretical axioms (I’ve been working through these shifts in theory for a number of weeks on this blog). How is it that forms of social configuration that seem like iron can so quickly dissipate like so much morning mist? The Mayans had a thriving culture that suddenly disappeared. They didn’t disappear as a result of some natural catastrophe (as far as we know) or through depleting natural resources. No doubt the Mayans believed their culture and state to be eternal. Yet it disappeared. How does such surprising and sudden change take place? It seems to me that good social theory help us to see the contingency of the present state of things, that there are other possibilities, that other collectives, subjects, and ways of feeling are possible. Just as psychonalysis allows the analysand to overcome the closure of their universe of desiring, discovering new possibilities where they never before thought they were possible, good social theory creates possibilities where before only the iron laws of historical necessity and power were discerned. Good social theory reminds us of the essential fragility and finitude of the power relations holding together a particular type of collective.
I reserve judgment on the Mayans ;-P, but I think that modern history does demonstrate that quite dramatic and rapid historical transformations – of institutional structures, customs, forms of thought – are possible (it is conceivable that such rapid changes are, in some ways, more possible than incrementalist ones, if we’re talking about achieving fundamental transformations – but I haven’t thought about this issue sufficiently to try to turn this into a strong claim…). And I agree that it should be a central goal for critical theory to cast light on why and how this happens – and that this goal sits in tension with approaches that emphasise “iron laws of historical necessity”.
At the same time, the significant transformations that we have witnessed within the modern era – including many transformations driven by movements that understood themselves as fundamentally revolutionary – can often, in retrospect, be interpreted as achievements that were moving with a broader “wave” of historical transformation – waves whose contours, perhaps, successful movements articulated more clearly than others, or which drove in any event toward complimentary goals… Revolutionary movements often suffer, I believe, from not adequately recognising the dynamic context in which they are operating – a context that may make certain political goals easier to achieve at certain times, that entails that very few political achievements can be regarded as permanent “advances”, and that often punishes movements by rewarding them with what they asked for (which is often the destruction of older social institutions), while depriving them of the free society for which they wished…
My goal here is not to drive toward pessimism. Modernity has constantly irritated us with dreams that more is possible, while also embedding us within an incredibly complex, dynamic, unintentional historical context that provides treacherous footing for conscious political practice. I think we need to develop better theoretical frameworks precisely to understand potentials for conscious political action within such a context – and I think that belledame and sinthome have both hit on some of the concepts we need to move beyond, if we want to work toward a better understanding of the potentials and limitations of particular forms of political practice…