After a grandiose announcement that he was leaving New York Magazine due to a stifling political atmosphere, Andrew Sullivan has now launched a comedy career. In a post of his new “non-conformist” newsletter, Sullivan announces that he will present an analysis of contemporary “social justice” politics. This politics, he says, is the development of “an esoteric, academic discipline called critical theory, which has gained extraordinary popularity in elite education in the past few decades.” Critical theory, he says with what can only be dry sarcasm, is so powerful and omnipresent that it is “changing the very words we speak and write and the very rationale of the institutions integral to liberal democracy.”
Sullivan’s account is full of falsehoods and misinterpretations so drastic that they could only be the product of a refined wit. The neologisms he attributes to the tradition founded by thinkers like Theodor Adorno are: “non-binary, toxic masculinity, white supremacy, traumatizing, queer, transphobia, whiteness, mansplaining.” One can only hope that Sullivan branches into sketch comedy, so we might see a dramatization of Adorno’s reaction to such terms. “The intellectual fight back against wokeness has now begun in earnest,” reads Sullivan’s deadpan conclusion. “Let’s do this.”
To appreciate this joke you have to understand that there’s a second, “meta” level to it, which is that Sullivan claims to be defending principles of ethical journalism, rationality, objective truth, and informed debate, but he never refers to a single primary text of what he calls critical theory. Twice as funny.
In the midst of this comic tour de force we’re introduced to other characters, who give Sullivan a run for his money: James Lindsay, better known on Twitter as Conceptual James, and Helen Pluckrose, authors of Cynical Theories. Lindsay should be recognized for one of the most audacious comic bits of this whole contemporary discourse: in an ornate blog post which claims to clarify the distinctions between categories while actually muddling them beyond recognition, he writes that postmodernists “drew heavily off the successes of Mao in his Cultural Revolution and used them to inspire Pol-Pot, who studied alongside them at the Sorbonne in Paris at the time, to go after a deconstructive Year-Zero campaign of his own.”
The conservative and liberal pundits commenting on “critical theory” are confused, perhaps understandably, by the relation between several different moments in intellectual history: Marxism, which of course is their classic bugbear; something they call “neo-Marxism” or “cultural Marxism” in the manner of various right-wing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, though these labels weren’t used by any of the figures they attribute them to, and are inaccurately equated with “critical theory”; “postmodernism,” an amusingly out-of-date category dragged kicking and screaming back from the 90s; and “social justice” or “identity politics” which is supposed to correspond to the contemporary sensibility of “wokeness” that they believe is suppressing their thought.
These pundits would like to imagine there is some kind of homogeneity and continuity between all these different trends, though some of them, like Conceptual James, have a vague awareness that it’s not so easy. The reigning conspiracy theory relies on the idea that Marxism, which the pundits believe is the basic common sense of the entire left (would that it were true), proposed a theory of class struggle and the determination of all social phenomena by the economic. It revolved around the oppressor/oppressed binary of the bourgeoisie and proletariat. The fact that class struggle failed to result in a revolution in Western countries led “neo-Marxists” to conclude that they would have to wage a struggle at the level of culture, against Western civilization and family values, in order to achieve a revolution. The completely unrelated figures of Antonio Gramsci and Herbert Marcuse are invoked as the master thinkers of this approach. Postmodernism generalized the oppressor/oppressed binary beyond class to identity, and combined it with a total rejection of every principle of rationality or objective truth. All of these tendencies have unfolded into contemporary “social justice.” Despite presenting this last moment as as some kind of historical break, the pundits generally use language that is drawn pretty much verbatim from 90s debates over “political correctness.”
Since apparently no one is willing to open a book or ask someone who has actually studied this material, let’s just go through the categories and see what kind of correspondence they have to reality. My interpretations aren’t necessarily the most common ones, but they’re the ones best supported by the facts.
Marxism certainly proposed a materialist theory of determination by the economic and a politics of class struggle, but this completely fails to even allude to the actual content of Marxist theory and the discontinuous developments it went through even during the classical period of Marx and Engels. We can start with Marx’s early attempt to explain market society in terms of the juridical abstract equality between individuals generated by the separation of the economic and the political, and proceed through to Engels’s late indications that the “superstructure” which rests on the economic “base” is relatively autonomous and can also be a determining factor in what happens in society.
Furthermore, Marx’s economic theory can’t be understood in terms of a moralistic binary between oppressor and oppressed. He presents an analysis of capitalism as a contradictory system, which is prone to crises and ultimately undermines its own capacity to deliver economic growth as the result of its relations of production. World economic history demonstrates that Marx was absolutely correct and we see further verification of this every day.
“Neo-Marxism” and “cultural Marxism” are misleading terms with little basis in the literature. Sometimes people use the term “Western Marxism,” but even this category is highly schematic and obscures major differences within these currents.
Gramsci was a founding member of the Communist Party of Italy who participated in the revolutionary ferment of early 20th century Italy and was imprisoned by the fascist regime. In prison he wrote lengthy notebooks reflecting on Marxist theory and the political situation he had encountered. While he certainly presented an account of the different situations faced by revolutionaries in Eastern and Western Europe, and also reflected on the way that capitalism secured the consent of the population (rather than relying on force) through cultural institutions, Gramsci’s thought can’t be reduced to these two questions. Gramsci was really engaged in formulating a Marxist theory of the autonomy of politics, reflecting on the way that Marxism had to account for the formation of alliances between classes (like the proletariat and the peasantry, the basic condition of the Russian Revolution) and the formation of organizations that would be able to wage class struggle (the political party, which had to be deliberately constructed and wasn’t just a reflex of spontaneous workers’ struggles). In this way he continued many of the themes already established by Lenin. Gramsci was a profoundly original thinker, but not one who broke with the themes or project of classical Marxism, and the East-West distinction and the focus on culture are overstated.
Marcuse, on the other hand was a German academic (though as a young soldier he participated in the abortive Spartacist uprising) who came from an entirely different theoretical orientation: grounded in the study of Hegel, influenced by the phenomenological trends of philosophy, Weberian sociology, and so on. These influences came together in the “Institute for Social Research,” better known as the Frankfurt School, which Marcuse was a member of along with Adorno and others. The alarmism about Marcuse results from the fact that when, like other Jewish intellectuals, he moved to the United States and taught at American universities, he became a supporter of the New Left, unlike his Frankfurt School colleagues. As the difference between Marcuse and his colleagues indicates, there was actually no direct line between their theory and the practices of the New Left. Marcuse gave his own peculiar interpretation, building on the idea that the industrial working class of the advanced capitalist countries had been integrated into the system, and proposing that revolution would come from those who were “outside” the society. His framework was certainly cultural, but his willingness to relinquish the working class as the agent of revolution puts him totally at odds with Gramsci. Furthermore, the reaction of colleagues of his like Adorno, despite also building on similar theoretical foundations, was that the New Left was completely vacuous and even reactionary, and that the only standpoint of critique of the existing society was essentially intellectual or aesthetic: the truth-content of art was valid as a condemnation of the suffering caused by an irrational society, despite the fact that it was tragically condemned to also exist within it.
“Postmodernism” doesn’t really exist, insofar as it’s understood as a current of philosophy which encompasses the French theorists Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, who never accepted the label yet are constantly invoked as its representatives. The body of work lumped into this category is too diverse to make general statements, but despite an equivocal affinity Foucault noted late in his career it had no formal relationship with “critical theory” in the precise sense — the French theorists associated with it wrote their major works with no reference to the Frankfurt School.
Jean-François Lyotard certainly presented a theory of what he called the “postmodern condition” in a book with that title, but he came from a theoretical tradition totally distinct from Foucault and Derrida, and his method and conclusions were irreconcilable with theirs. Lyotard’s theory that the postmodern condition was constituted by “incredulity towards meta-narratives” — that is, a skepticism for grand, overarching theories — was quite specific to a study of how new information technologies had altered classical forms of knowledge, and his proposal for a new conception of knowledge as a plurality of language games was pretty much apolitical and very far removed from the concerns or sensibilities of contemporary social justice. Some people, like the Marxist literary theorist Fredric Jameson, presented Lyotard’s theory an expression of the same “cultural logic of late capitalism” that had produced trends in art and architecture that were actually described as “postmodernism,” but this was a diagnostic theory, not a prescriptive proposal.
In the American academy, “postmodernism” would come to be conflated with any kind of skepticism towards universal truth. This relativism was itself then conflated with the emergence and growth of programs in ethnic studies, feminist studies, and so on. Scholarship in these rising disciplines often had to criticize existing methodologies, which, for example, had based knowledge about South Asia on the archives of the colonists, or wrote labor history without explaining how women formed a part of the working class. These were serious methodological and conceptual questions which were consistent with basic goals of intellectual life: to expand knowledge beyond existing boundaries, to question received wisdom, to interrogate the structure of society.
But the conflation of these questions, which were a matter of scholarly rigor, with the ill-defined category of “postmodernism” resulted in a somewhat cartoonish academic politics, which is what the pundits really have in mind when they’re referring to postmodernism. This is the zone where the oppressor/oppressed binary, identity, and lived experience became the foundations of politics, and they often resurface in contemporary discourses of social justice. It was often based on a grab-bag of references that were tenuously tied to ad hoc positions within university politics.
However, this “postmodernism” was not only an independent development from the thinking of figures like Foucault and Derrida, it was totally incompatible with their insights. It was also incompatible with the most sophisticated developments of the new historical and literary scholarship, which actually did draw on the insights of Foucault and Derrida precisely to criticize the oppressor/oppressed binary, identity, and lived experience as foundations for politics. To take one example, consider the historian Joan Scott in “The Evidence of Experience” in 1991:
It is not individuals who have experience, but subjects who are constituted through experience. Experience in this definition then becomes not the origin of our explanation, not the authoritative (because seen or felt) evidence that grounds what is known, but rather that which we seek to explain, that about which knowledge is produced. To think about experience in this way is to historicize it as well as to historicize the identities it produces. This kind of historicizing represents a reply to the many contemporary historians who have argued that an unproblematized "experience" is the foundation of their practice; it is a historicizing that implies critical scrutiny of all explanatory categories usually taken for granted, including the category of "experience."
Drawing on these theoretical insights, Scott argued in the same year that what was really at stake in the disputes over “political correctness” was that while the right was attacking the university to try to suppress the critical and skeptical outlook of intellectual work, the left was failing to mount a successful response, partly because it remained trapped in the foundationalist categories of identity and experience:
An appeal to “experience” of this kind forecloses discussion and criticism and turns politics into a policing operation: the borders of identity are patrolled for signs of nonconformity; the test of membership in a group becomes less one's willingness to endorse certain principles and engage in specific political actions, less one's positioning in specific relationships of power, than one's ability to use the prescribed languages that are taken as signs that one is inherently “of" the group. That all of this isn't recognized as a highly political process that produces identities is troubling indeed, especially because it so closely mimics the politics of the powerful, naturalizing and deeming as discernably objective facts the prerequisites for inclusion in any group.
It was precisely because of the vantage point of critique that Scott was able to identify these phenomena — three decades ago — and assess them with the goal of formulating better kinds of political strategies and programs. These were actual contradictions and distinctions among political positions, which aren’t visible if you drop the blanket label of “postmodernism” on the whole historical period.
Since the contemporary pundits feel compelled to bend over backwards to try to present a totalizing history, but aren’t willing to do the work to study the material, they end up muddled and incoherent, just as some “postmodernists” were in the 90s. The conspiracy theory turns disparate and irreconcilable developments into a unitary narrative, as paranoia tends to do. As a result, it fails to understand both the intellectual history and the contemporary discourse of social justice that it claims to unmask. It is incapable of critique.
The category of “critical theory” is used quite loosely but should really be restricted to its precise referent, the Frankfurt School. But since it’s the word “critical” itself that’s under target, and it’s the texts categorized as “postmodernist” which entirely occupy Sullivan’s attention, I’ll focus more broadly on the meaning and implications of critique. Rigorous histories of these questions have been available for some time, but I’ll consider the content of the theory.
According to Sullivan, “postmodernism is a project to subvert the intellectual foundations of western culture,” for which “the entire concept of reason—whether the Enlightenment version or even the ancient Socratic understanding—is a myth designed to serve the interests of those in power, and therefore deserves to be undermined and ‘problematized’ reason [sic] whenever possible.”
But as Foucault clearly explains, critique is not a destruction of every form of reason but a putting into question of who we are, what we think, and what we do, by studying the histories that have produced us. It doesn’t simply mean finding fault with things, “criticizing” things. Though it may certainly involve that, this isn’t what the “critical” in critical theory or any kind of critical thinking refers to. The critical attitude continues, in fact, a certain attitude of the Enlightenment, while also situating the Enlightenment in the history which is to be approached with the critical attitude.
As Foucault traces in his 1978 lecture “What is Critique,” in Europe the critical attitude arises in the context of societies in which people and their thoughts are governed by religion, and it reflects the desire not to be governed — or at least, not to be governed quite like that. Critique is “the art of not being governed quite so much.” Hence the critical attitude of the Enlightenment is to not simply accept what an authority tells you is true, but to independently determine its validity; not to follow laws because they are dictated by power, but because you have determined them to be just. Critique, contrary to Sullivan’s paranoia, is an Enlightenment attitude.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that some unmodified conception of the Enlightenment could just be reasserted as a contemporary vantage of critique. Indicating some affinity with the Frankfurt School, Foucault noted that the forms of rationality that emerged along with the Enlightenment were also implicated in new forms of power, operating within rather than in spite of scientific knowledge, political freedom, and individual subjectivity. But understanding these developments was itself part of the complex operation of the critical attitude, which was not afraid to put its own standpoint into question.
It’s the critique of power that worries the likes of Sullivan, who says that it amounts to the view that “we live in a system of interlocking oppressions that penalize various identity groups in a society. And all power is zero-sum: you either have power over others or they have power over you.”
It’s either amusing or painful to read this since Foucault’s analysis of power was specifically directed against the zero-sum view, for which power is something that one holds and wields over another. Foucault conceived power as productive and relational. In the first volume of The History of Sexuality, a short and clear book which Sullivan could read, Foucault dispels these interpretations completely. Consider this straightforward sentence: “Power is not something that is acquired, seized, or shared, something that one holds on to or allows to slip away.” Or: “Power comes from below; that is, there is no binary and all-encompassing opposition between rulers and ruled at the root of power relations.”
What Foucault is arguing is that power isn’t repressive, as in someone prohibiting you from doing something, but productive, in the sense that it produces particular ways of living, moving, working, and acting. Crucially, it produces identities: identities aren’t pre-existing categories which are then the basis of oppression by a more powerful identity. Power actually constitutes these identity categories, which is why part of the critical attitude involves putting our own identities into question, rather than asserting that they reflect our inner essence.
Sullivan says, “in this worldview, individuals only exist at all as a place where these group identities intersect. You have no independent existence outside these power dynamics. I am never just me. I’m a point where the intersecting identities of white, gay, male, Catholic, immigrant, HIV-positive, cis, and English all somehow collide.” He’s half right and half very wrong: individuals are indeed the points at which these various relations intersect and collide, but this process of intersection and collision undermines the idea of identity, which suggests sameness, essence, and stasis. Identity is actually the unstable effect of these constantly changing relations.
So power is also relational, in the sense that it’s not true that someone just holds power over me, and is therefore evil, while I am good. Rather, power is a constantly changing relation which is altered by strategies of domination and resistance, and those who are engaged in resistance will also have a strategic approach to increasing their power. They aren’t inherently good and there’s no standpoint outside of these power relations from which we could argue that the oppressed are somehow naturally worthy of overthrowing their oppressors.
Perhaps these points are best illustrated by considering Foucault’s response to a question at a lecture in Brazil, when he was challenged to consider the power that he wielded over the audience. Foucault responded:
I believe that the relations of power must not be considered in such a simplistic manner as if there are those who, on the one hand, possess power and, on the other, those who do not. Once again, here a particular version of academic Marxism frequently uses the opposition of dominant class versus dominated class, the dominant discourse versus the dominated discourse. And yet we will never find this dualism in Marx; however, it can be found in reactionary and racist thinkers like Gobineau, who maintains that, within society, there are always two classes, a dominated and another who dominates. You can find this in many places, but never in Marx, because, in fact, Marx is too cunning to maintain something like this; he knew perfectly well that what strengthens relationships of power is that they never stop; there is not some single relationship of power here, and many over there; they course throughout everything: the working class retransmits relationships of power; it makes use of relationships of power. From the mere fact of being a student, you are already inserted in a particular position of power; I, as a professor, I am also in a position of power; I am in a position of power because I am a man and not a woman, and, from the fact that you are a woman, you are also in a position of power, not the same, but we are all likewise in positions of power. Of anyone who knows something, we could say: “You exercise power.” It’s a stupid critique to the extent that it is limited to just that. What is indeed interesting is to know how the mesh of power functions in a given group, class or society, which is to say, what is the localization of each group within the net of power, how each exercises it anew, how each preserves it, how each passes it on.
In other words, it’s absolutely wrong to associate moralistic thinking about power with Foucault, whose work was devoted to rejecting it. And in this regard Foucault’s critical attitude remains absolutely relevant.
I will just consider another serious problem in the conspiracy theory which revolves around the category of “lived experience,” and will approach it from the vantage point of Derrida, whose work has been just as distorted as Foucault’s. Derrida was not really concerned with “power,” and the concotions repeated by some conspiracy theorists that he viewed language as a means of oppression, or thought that oppressed people had to overthrow the ideas that words have meanings, are mind-numbingly stupid.
Sullivan thinks that “postmodernism” says that “there is no distinction between objective truth and subjective experience, because the former is an illusion created by the latter.“ Therefore “since there is no objective truth,” any criticism of another person’s “lived experience” is “a form of traumatizing violence,” and “that individual’s feelings are the actual fact.”
Now, Derrida’s work, which is nowhere near as clear as Foucault’s but is still quite systematic, shows us that both “identity” and “lived experience” are actually the effects of structures which themselves are never fixed and total. Objective truth is not an illusion created by subjective experience, “lived” or otherwise — this statement means nothing. Let me explain.
Insofar as “objective truth” is constituted in language — and this is closer to the actual argument, not the denial that objective truth exists — we don’t have some kind of direct and immediate access to it. It’s not just present in the words we speak. For example, the differences between words are what give words meaning: “horse” has a meaning insofar as the word is different from “tree.” These differences can only be observed by referring to all the other words a given word is different from. But this endlessly defers our determination of the fixed and final meaning of the word, since we will always have to move to another relation of difference (each different word’s meaning constituted by its difference from yet another word, and on and on). This combination between difference and deferral is what led Derrida to coin the term “differance.” As a term, you can take it or leave it, but the point it makes is just that we never actually arrive at this fixed and final meaning — there is no moment when it would simply become present to us directly.
If we really take this approach to its conclusions it means we can’t possibly accept the idea that everyone has a unique lived experience that would be the basis for politics. Actually, that would belong to the “metaphysics of presence” which Derrida criticized in the whole tradition of Western philosophy. This is precisely the idea, which I’ve alluded to above, that the meaning of something is present right before us, immediately accessible, the way that speech is supposed to be original, pure, and uncorrupted in contrast to writing, which is derivative, impure, and separated from the speaker. Derrida showed that by closely reading the texts which argued for a metaphysics of presence you could see that they actually undermined their own approach, constantly acknowledging that this derivativeness and impurity were not threats to an original meaning but actually what made meaning possible. This is what “deconstruction” means: reading texts with attention to their marginal spaces, where the metaphysics of presence is challenged. It has nothing to do with the Khmer Rouge.
To return to the points at stake, both “identity” and “lived experience” belong to the metaphysics of presence. They view meaning, morality, and politics as something that is present in “who we are” and how we experience the world, whereas actually who we are is the effect of a constantly deferred difference: the endless list of terms and determinants that I would have to use to explain who I am, which Sullivan starts to enumerate before quickly moving on, perhaps aware that the task is endless. This litany of differences is “foundational”; identity comes after difference. Lived experience is something that I myself don’t even have direct access to, because it’s constantly mediated by these representations and languages which are external to me, the interpretations and misrecognitions of others, the traces of past and future experiences, and so on.
To sum up: the idea that power is productive and relational, and the deconstruction of the metaphysics of presence, completely undermine the notion that politics can be based on the standpoint of identity or lived experience. Contrary to the assumptions of the conspiracy theories, both Foucault and Derrida, and many others they assimilate into the labels of “critical theory” and “postmodernism,” actually put forth radical critiques of the moralizing binary of oppressor/oppressed, and the very categories of identity and lived experience. These critiques are very valuable for us today when political discourse comes to rely on these notions.
I mentioned earlier, and it has to be acknowledged, that the term “postmodernism” was used by people in the Anglo-American academy who sometimes did advance these moralizing notions. However, we have to be capable of rigorously examining the texts and ideas and seeing how their usage was imprecise and logically inconsistent.
Marxists, especially those who are interested in Frankfurt School critical theory, are often quite frustrated at being assimilated into the same currents as postmodernists, since academic Marxists waged a dedicated, if fairly feeble, war against postmodernism — indicating the extent to which all of these political positions had become confined to the academy and dealt with questions of interpretation rather than political struggle. Conceptual James appears to have some awareness of this disagreement, but his drive towards paranoid totalization and his superficial interpretations of the primary texts prevent him from presenting any reasonable assessment of it.
I will be clear and say that in my view the Marxist critique was very ambivalent. There were times when Marxists, who were themselves cloistered in the academy after long periods of political defeat, viewed the insights of figures like Foucault and Derrida as threats to the cohesiveness of their own intellectual system. Sometimes they responded to this threat in a dogmatic and counterproductive way which deprived them of valuable theoretical resources. On the other hand, Marxists in this period also argued that the superficial conflation of different intellectual and cultural trends into “postmodernism” by relativist academics was an abandonment of revolutionary politics, and this was frequently correct.
However, we have to be able to recognize that this is part of the heterogeneity and contradictoriness of the material under discussion. It remains the case that some of the major theorists of the Anglo-American academy — I will just mention Stuart Hall and Judith Butler as two of the most famous examples — presented powerful critiques of identity. In various ways they showed that we cannot conceive of a fixed identity that would be the foundation of politics, that identity is constituted by performances which are never finished. Every day I have to repeat the actions and utterances that make me “who I am”; it is never complete. Lived experience, then, is not an unproblematic foundation which expresses our identities and allows us to take moral positions, but is complex, ambivalent, incomplete — it’s the effect of social relations, which theory has to understand in all its contradictions, not instrumentalize for moralistic purposes.
The paranoid presentation of “critical theory” is based on a total unwillingness to engage in accurate interpretation and ground arguments in fact, despite its claim to defend objective truth. As a result it lumps together totally disparate and irreconcilable bodies of thought. But some of the work included in this umbrella is a precious legacy, which can inform our assessment of the current reality and encourage us to engage in deeper thinking, recovering the critical attitude which is dissatisfied with simple moralistic formulas and aids in building a politics adequate to the demands that history has imposed on us.