Criticising criticism in a time of reaction

I’m pleased to say that I have a new article out with International Politics Reviews, titled “Critical international politics at an impasse: reflexivist, reformist, reactionary, and restitutive post-critique.” If anyone wants to take a look and doesn’t have direct access, a pre-print version (without the proper typesetting but otherwise identical) is available here.

This article derives from a long-term project that I’m developing on concepts and practices of criticism (in the multiple senses of that word). Chronologically, it’s actually the second thing that I’ve written as part of this project, although it’s the first to be published.

The question of what it means to be a ‘critical’ scholar is heatedly contested, both within academia and without. This ‘state of the field’ article reviews and explores recent debates on this issue within international politics. In particular, it focuses on claims that critical approaches to knowledge are, in their received forms, inadequate and must, therefore, be supplemented, restrained, or otherwise transformed. Four such ‘post-critical’ schools of thought are distinguished: reflexivist, reformist, reactionary, and restitutive. A range of works from fields such as security studies, narrative politics, decolonisation, and political theory are explicated, interrelated, and contextualised. Overall, this review makes the case that, while a concept such as ‘being critical’ cannot and should not be strictly bounded, this category has expanded to the point of seeming almost all-encompassing. The meaning of the category itself is thus brought into question, raising not only narrowly academic questions but also broadly political ones.

This abstract will give you the general idea; however, there is also a little more to it than this. Indeed, in recent weeks, the contextual aspect of the article, which is perhaps underplayed in the abstract, has come to seem more and more relevant. So, with that in mind, I will try to give a somewhat more engaging introduction here.

The humble blogpost may be a bit retro these days but it still has its place!

I’ve arrived at this topic from a few different directions. Academic debates about the propensities and proprieties of criticism have been ongoing for decades (I’ve written about this elsewhere, hopefully to be published soon). However, it’s particularly since Bruno Latour’s well-known 2004 article “Why has critique run out of steam?” that such issues have (to belabour the metaphor) built up a head of steam. So, I’ve been aware of these discussions, if only at the back of my mind, since about 2009(!). In my own disciplinary neighbourhood (international politics, human geography, political theory), such questions have really become a thing since about 2015. “Critical international politics at an impasse” is, thus, my response to these debates. I attempt to trace their emergence, pick apart their peculiarities, and generally set them in some much-needed political context.

However, on that point, there is also a broader motivation for this research. If you have been in any way following current affairs, particularly as refracted through the twitterverse, over recent months and years, you can hardly have avoided the spluttering outrage that has swarmed around notions such as ‘wokeness,’ ‘cancel culture,’ and so on. Indeed, this ‘culture war’ teeth-gnashing seems to be gradually taking over political discourse in general. And so, one of my main frustrations with regard to the academic conversations on what it means to ‘be critical’ (debates about ‘criticality,’ as I call it) is their professional myopia.

Who gets to judge? Are there limitations to suspicion and doubt? Is it enough to criticise things without also affirming what is good in the world? When academics address these sorts of questions, they generally do so by focusing on the norms and politics of their own profession and/or discipline. Of course, ‘criticism’ means something slightly different to a literary theorist or a political economist, as compared to a journalist or the average anonymous social media user. However, the campus edge is no boundary in these matters. The propensities and proprieties of criticism are, today, being hashed out all over the place, and academics can only get to grips with their own practices if they bear that in mind.

So, I start my article in the midst of a larger discontent. Particularly, I start from the UK Minister for Women and Equalities Liz Truss’ attention-grabbing condemnation of Michel Foucault, in December 2020:

“While we were taught about racism and sexism, there was too little time spent making sure everyone could read and write.
These ideas have their roots in post-modernist philosophy pioneered by Foucault – that put societal power structures and labels ahead of individuals and their endeavours.
In this school of thought, there is no space for evidence, as there is no objective view – truth and morality are all relative.”

Being, by far, the most cited author in the humanities, Foucault has been a prime target for anti-intellectualism for decades. However, this is just a drop in the ocean with regard to the contemporary conservative, far-right, and centrist campaign against leftie academics, the primary target for which, in recent months, has become Critical Race Theory (CRT).

It is becoming increasingly clear that we are in the midst of a full-blown moral panic, fomented by knowing agents of reactionary politics, and abetted by an ideological bloc that yearns for some obscurely remembered lost golden age of civility and reason. Central to this panic is a long-standing, but lately rejuvenated, impression that university radicals are having an outsized influence on society, perverting morality and corrupting young minds. In particular, resentment is directed at the notion of ‘critical’ academia—a body of pseudo-scholarship, so the rumours go, that inculcates a vicious, arbitrary campaign of complaint against any and all that would resist it. Indeed, it can seem sometimes that the university has been all but hollowed out by this “march through the institutions,” with everything from anodyne diversity policies to aggressively misinterpreted curricula being cited as evidence.

In my article, besides Truss, I highlight the efforts of Christopher Rufo and James Lindsay, in spreading this narrative. However these are just two amongst a growing throng that are gorging their social media profiles upon the anti-intellectual, racist, disinformative demonisation of critical scholarship, and CRT above all.

Such demonisation campaigns, like any good propaganda strategy, seize upon a grain of truth. There are, of course, scholars who style themselves ‘critical’ whose work seeks to undermine the normative, conceptual, and material foundations of Western capitalist, white supremacist, cisheteropatriarchal society—and they are often pretty unashamed of this fact. It’s also rather unsurprising that conservatives would hate every aspect of this, and seek to eradicate it with whatever means are at their disposal, including phony campaigns for freedom of speech and academic freedom that are, in fact, enacting exactly the opposite.

If one actually reads the contemporary discourse that academics are producing about the propensities and proprieties of critical thought as a tradition, and about criticism as a practice, however, a quite extraordinary disconnect becomes apparent. Far from being a cadre of self-confident revolutionaries, reading from the same hymn sheet and marching in lockstep, those who identify themselves as ‘critical’ are much more likely to be pessimistic, if not despondent, about the possibility for radical change, or for the value of their own work in leading to such change.

So, in this article, I look at these debates within the field of international politics, taking this as a kind of case study; however, I suspect that similar stories could be told in other fields. In my reckoning, the contemporary meta-critical discourse in international politics (i.e. the critical appraisal of critical thought itself) is dominated by perspectives that can be called post-critical (that is, they depart significantly from what has, historically, been understood as a ‘critical’ approach to knowledge, while nevertheless continuing to claim the mantle of criticality).

More specifically, I discern four distinct modes of the post-critical; four non-exclusive but distinctive tendencies within the discourse. Here’s how I sum them up:

“Reflexivists, as the name would suggest, radicalise a commitment to critical self-reflection, while rejecting traditional epistemological and political commitments to systemic analysis, revolutionary social change, or suspicious judgement of others. Reformists also, on the whole, advise reflexive self-examination. However, they go further in making explicit the incremental, pragmatic character of their craft, and advocating constructive, non-judgemental engagement with power. Reactionaries, by contrast, present a discontinuity. The reactionary post-critic sanctifies critical reason in its older, more austere ‘Enlightenment’ sense, while simultaneously scorning its latter-day political associations. Crucially, however, they generally do so while conspicuously failing to uphold the very standards of reason and evidence they demand of others. Finally, the restitutive post-critic presents a counterpoint to the preceding, recognising the limitations of a purely ‘negative’ critical disposition, while, at the same time, being neither willing nor able to give up the traditional critical attributes of systemic analysis, suspicious judgement, or commitment to liberatory change.”

These four modes have different kinds of significance for my argument, and I treat them in different ways. The reflexivist mode has become something close to conventional wisdom within large areas of contemporary critical scholarship, even while its refusal of traditional epistemological criteria places limits upon its material success within the profession.

The reformist mode is the one that I give most attention to, in large part because it is the one that has produced the most literature on the topic during the past half-decade. It’s also where my analysis of the literature might become somewhat controversial. While I expect that few of those I dub reflexivist would particularly object to that label, many of those I argue to be reformist likely will. However, while my reading of these authors is not uncritical (in the sense of withholding any negative judgement), I am primarily interested in the conceptual manoeuvres that promoters of reformist engagement with state power make when they continue to identify themselves—often emphatically—with traditions of critical scholarship. The powerful cultural capital that adheres to the critical identity shines through most clearly amongst reformists, as does the laughability of the myth that ‘critical’ means ‘revolutionary.’

It is with the reactionary mode, however, that I reach the centre of gravity of my article as a whole. Here, I look at how the aforementioned ridicule of ‘critical’ academic scholarship, à la Truss, has come to be both criticised and promoted by academics themselves. The examples that I give of academics promoting and advancing this kind of anti-critical, anti-‘woke’ discourse are comparatively few; however, once again, this story could easily be extended beyond the immediate disciplinary milieu that I am examining here. The pertinent point that I attempt to draw is that there is no barrier between intra- and extra-professional debates regarding the propensities and proprieties of criticism. There are clear tendencies that apply to both, and academic debates, I believe, need to be premised upon this continuity.

However, while the reflexivist is perhaps the most established post-critical mode, with the reformist constituting the most prolific producer of meta-critical reflections, and the reactionary constituting the centre of gravity of my own critique, this is not the end of the story.

At the heart of contemporary post-critical discussions is a conviction—itself decades old but lately resurgent—that a disposition of unequivocal negativity is not only politically and epistemically inadequate but, moreover, may even be actively harmful. In other words, the critic who only ever wants to (negatively) criticise will be, at best, a bore and, at worst, toxic. (I’ve written more about this elsewhere.) Discussion of this point has generally drawn from the continental philosophical traditions of Friedrich Nietzsche through Gilles Deleuze to contemporary thinkers such as Rosi Braidotti, Isabelle Stengers, and Bruno Latour. However, with the mode of post-critique that I call restitutive, I draw attention to remarkably similar discussions that are being had, largely unconnected, in decolonial, race-critical, and Black radical circles.

Nearly a year ago, I posted a Twitter thread about Olivia Rutazibwa’s article “Hidden in Plain Sight,” in which I sketched out the basic idea of what I now am naming restitutive. What I find particularly profound about the discourses around this modality (and here I enter an ‘affirmative’ posture of my own) is that such authors, because they work within thought traditions that are centrally concerned with their own subjugation, are compelled to pursue the ‘negative’ practices of suspicion, condemnation, and structural theorisation, while also, and no less, encouraging the ‘positive’ virtues of grace, encouragement, and the cultivation of life.

In short, while white thinkers, due to the long-standing dominance of their own traditions and subjectivities, have been content with promoting either the positive or the negative (while often offering the caveat that yes, of course, neither side is escapable), those whose thinking is defined by life on the other side of the colour line have often, although by no means always, attempted to hold both sides together; to think within the contradiction that they also live.

And that, give or take a wry provocation or two, is where I end up. I conclude by arguing that the gradual evacuation of meaning from the notion of ‘critical’ scholarship is a problem; however, this does not entail a call to police boundaries. A conceptual category such as this, being part of the intellectual commons, should of course be open, but that does not mean that it should become empty. If this were merely a matter of professional and disciplinary semantics, perhaps it would not matter so much. However, these academic discourses are not separate from the wider political landscape—as the recent raft of state-level bills in the US seeking to ban ‘Critical Race Theory’ (or, at least, what conservatives have come to understand by that label, due to a highly effective propaganda campaign by Rufo, Lindsay, and others) very clearly demonstrates.

To round things off, then, just let me note a few limitations to my article. As a review of literature, it is not comprehensive, although I hope that it is thorough. If I have overlooked anything major, feel free to let me know. Furthermore, although it culminates in discussion of the restitutive mode, this section is shorter than the others, and I hope to develop these thoughts more in future. Also, although I talk about complaint as criticism, I don’t mention Sara Ahmed’s forthcoming book Complaint!, which promises to be a profound contribution. Again, I hope my article to be the first of a number in which I will explore these issues.

I really have no idea how this piece will be received—if, indeed, it will receive any notice at all. I am perhaps dancing around the fact that this is a ‘critical’ review in a quite classic, maybe even old-fashioned, sense of the word. Unlike most post-critical discourse, I don’t issue any general discouragements with regard to the act of critical judgement—by which I mean “to state, without feigned ambiguity, one’s convinced evaluation of, or opposition to, someone, something, or some state of the world.” Indeed, I form some quite strong negative evaluations of the things that I am reviewing. In doing so, I have likely said things that some will find objectionable.

Of course, I do not mean to feel sorry for myself about this. I am not in a vulnerable subject position in general—although I am unemployed—and I am happy to stand by everything that I’ve written. What I am saying, however, is that, if I were to be operating with a well-honed strategic mindset, ruthlessly homing in on one of those last few seats upon the professional lifeboat, I would probably have written this rather differently, with more ‘perhapses’ and ‘maybes.’ In any case, as minor a ripple as this will likely make, I have written what I wanted, and that feels good.

With that, then, I’d like to thank Robbie Shilliam for encouraging me to write this for IPR, and for making the process as smooth as one could wish for. Thanks also to Valerie De Koeijer for putting together the short podcast in which I discuss my thoughts and motivations in less coherent (but briefer) terms! Thanks also to Xymena Kurowska for her feedback on an earlier draft, and to the two anonymous reviewers, who not only challenged me to improve the final version of this piece but also assured me that I was doing something worthwhile—not an easy thought to hold on to through these long, isolated pandemic months.