Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Fragment on the Concept of a “Standpoint of Critique”

The recent discussion of Derrida’s Specters of Marx has reminded me (albeit in a somewhat indirect way) that I should probably toss up some notes on the concept of a “standpoint of critique” – a term I often use to cast light on how I understand other bits of technical vocabulary I use, but which I don’t believe I’ve ever written on in its own right. I’m never sure, I think, how common or self-evident the concept of a “standpoint of critique” might be – the concept isn’t a difficult one and, unlike other technical terms I use (“immanence”, “reflexivity”, “theoretical pessimism” – even “critical theory”) that have tended to be controversial in some overt way, I don’t believe anyone has ever asked me to explain what I mean by “critical standpoint”. Still, I can’t help but be struck by some key differences between how I think the question of “critical standpoint” is posed by Marx, compared to how the question seems to be posed in many other theoretical traditions. If nothing else, I thought that tugging on some of these differences might help me articulate some of what I am trying to say about Marx’s work.

At the most general level, a “standpoint of critique” is something that accounts for the critical ideals or sensibilities that are expressed in a critical theory. Here’s the first rub: theories differ over why such an account is needed – and therefore what needs to be accounted for. Generally, an account of a “standpoint of critique” attempts to explain the genesis of critical sensibilities – to explain where critical sensibilities “come from”, how critical sensibilities are generated. Very often, the possibility for the emergence of critical sensibilities is pointed back to the something that prevents social actors from becoming fully “identical” to their socialisation – pointed back to some aspect of material or social nature that cannot be fully subsumed into any particular form of socialisation. In this case, critical sensibilities are understood to express something that conditions the possibilities for practice that are available to social actors, but that represents a sort of breakdown in the process of socialisation or a “remainder” that exceeds socialisation. Depending on the theory, this breakdown or remainder might result from some intrinsic and ineradicable imperfection in socialisation itself, in some property of our physical embodiment, in some characteristic of language, in some aspect of material nature, or in other properties or processes that are interpreted to secure or guarantee that social actors can never succeed in becoming fully “at home” in their social context. These sorts of explanation for “critical standpoint” can vary substantially from one another. In spite of these differences, they share a conception that critical sensibilities are generated in a failure in socialisation (albeit that this failure may be conceptualised as intrinsic to, and even constitutive of, socialisation itself) that creates an ever-present possibility for social actors to achieve a level of distance from any particular form of socialisation – not simply distance from whatever forms of socialisation might be present at the moment the theory is articulated.

Marx, I want to suggest, approaches the question of “critical standpoint” in a slightly different way. He subordinates the question of how critical sensibilities are generated, to the question of how the practices that reproduce the social context, simultaneously involve the practical constitution of resources, institutions, habits, and ideals that sit in tension with the process of reproduction that generates them. In this approach, the rise of critical sensibilities does not relate to the breakdown of socialisation or to a remainder that exceeds socialisation, but instead to the success of socialisation – in the specific context where the social form being reproduced, generates conflictual possibilities. Here, the argument about critical sensibilities is less an argument about the characteristics of social actors (although this must be theorised as well), than it is an argument about the characteristics of the social context itself. The core of the argument is an explanation of why it is not utopian to judge the existing process of social reproduction as wanting – critical ideals are accounted for, by demonstrating that these ideals can be “cashed out” by relating them to practical potentials whose genesis is the direct concern of the theory. In this approach, it is socialisation – rather than its breakdown or excession – that gives rise to the critical standpoint to which the theory appeals. As a consequence, the theory has nothing to say about how critical ideals might arise in other social contexts, and its account of critical standpoint must be understood to be limited to the society it criticises: this theory is the theory of its object, and lives and dies with the target of its critique.

These two approaches to understanding critical standpoint are not intrinsically contradictory: they simply theorise different objects. Where this is not understood, discussions or comparisons between the two sorts of approaches can speak to cross purposes. To some degree, I see this happening in Derrida’s analysis of Marx in Specters: the “dry messianic” spirit Derrida hopes to resurrect from Marx’s work, seems to invoke a concept of critical standpoint as an ineradicable possibility – a critical standpoint related to the necessary imperfection in the iteration required for the reproduction of our social inheritance. From this standpoint, Marx’s various suggestions that the transformation of capitalism would overcome the tensions and conflicts in socialisation, look violently utopian – they appear as assertions that the overcoming of capitalism would also overcome the non-identity of the individual and society. To most theorists of the latter half of the 20th century, this sort of formulation carries totalitarian overtones – it is not surprising this would be a spirit Derrida would wish to “exorcise” from Marx’s work. If Marx is understood, however, as taking his critical standpoint from within capitalism itself, his claims read a bit differently: not as assertions that the overcoming of capitalism would overcome any potential for critique or any source of non-identity between the individual and society, but simply as assertions that – definitionally – overcoming capitalism means an overcoming of those specific tensions that characterise its distinctive process of reproduction.

Marx of course is writing too early to know to fend off this particular line of misinterpretation – some formulations are ambiguous or inconsistent with the main line of his analysis. My concern is less to protect Marx against critiques of his own ambiguities, than it is to draw attention to a way of exploring the question of critical standpoint, in a way that relates this question directly to an analysis of specific practical potentials that are immanent to the process of social reproduction being criticised, where the concern is less to explain why sensibilities arise, than to demonstrate that sensibilities can be pointed back to practical, non-utopian potentials for change. Whether Marx succeeds in this task is separable from the question of whether this might be a useful line of exploration for contemporary critical theory.

Still a bit tired from my trip – will post without reading back over this, with apologies for editing issues and for the fragmentary nature of these observations.

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