When I was an undergraduate, I believed that the prevalence of positivism in the social sciences – the idea of studying social phenomena in an “objective” or “value-free” manner – was one of the great evils in the world. Not only was it an illusion, but it was a harmful one, because beneath the guise of objectivity there lay a hidden agenda, namely, an interest in domination. Treating people as objects of study, rather than as subjects, was not politically neutral, because it generated a type of knowledge that just happened to be precisely of the sort that one would need in order to manipulate and control them. “Objective” social science, in other words, was not value-free at all, but rather a tool of oppression.
The alternative to this, warmly recommended at the time, would be a new form of social science, one that was explicitly guided by the “emancipatory” interest of human reason. Rather than striving for an elusive value neutrality, it would instead adopt a commitment to improving the human condition, then make these commitments explicit, as part of the inquiry, so that the entire exercise would be methodologically transparent. This is what we called “critical theory.”
That was then, this is now. What have I learned in the interim? Mainly to be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it!
Two years ago I was asked to serve on a jury for a book prize, to select the best work published by a Canadian university press in the social sciences. Shortly thereafter, a big box of books arrived on my doorstep, from a wide range of disciplines. As I began to delve into them, a number of things surprised me.
The most striking thing about the books is that, out of 16 books I received, only four were straightforward instances of what would traditionally be thought of as “social science,” according to the positivist conception. In other words, only four of them had as their primary objective the desire to establish and present to the reader facts about the world. The others, by contrast, had as their primary objective the desire to advance a normative agenda – typically, to combat some form of oppression. That is to say, they were driven by the “emancipatory” interest of human reason.
Most of these could broadly be classified as one or another form of “critical” studies. (In academia, the term “critical” is often introduced into the description of a field, in order to flag this orientation toward normative questions, particularly those involving one or another forms of oppression. Thus we have “critical” legal studies, “critical” race studies, “critical” aboriginal studies, and so on.) Most of these books were also profoundly cringe-inducing. They were, to put it mildly, bad. Forced to read a dozen of them, however, I began to notice certain patterns in the badness.
Earlier on, I said that the ambition for “critical social science” was to have, not just social science guided by normative commitments, but for those normative commitments to be made explicit. The biggest problem with the books I read is that they almost invariably failed on the second half of this. It was obvious that the authors – with the exception of a few law professors – had no idea at all how to make a normative argument. Indeed, they seem incredibly averse even to stating clearly what sort of normative standards they were employing. The result was entire books aimed at bolstering resistance to things like “neoliberalism,” none of which ever stated explicitly what “neoliberalism” is, much less what is wrong with it.
A long time ago, Habermas wrote a critical essay on Foucault, in which he accused him of “cryptonormativism.” The accusation was that, although Foucault’s work was clearly animated by a set of moral concerns, he refused to state clearly what his moral commitments were, and instead just used normatively loaded vocabulary, like “power,” or “regime,” as rhetorical devices, to induce the reader to share his normative assessments, while officially denying that he was doing any such thing. The problem, in other words, is that Foucault was smuggling in his values, while pretending he didn’t have any. A genuinely critical theory, Habermas argued, has no need for this subterfuge, it should introduce its normative principles explicitly, and provide a rational defence of them.
As I was reading through the stack, I couldn’t help but notice that the most reliable indicator that a book is going to be a complete mess, from a normative perspective, is that it contains either discussion or extensive citation of Foucault (and/or Bourdieu). From the perspective of someone in philosophy, where this stuff is dead as disco, it’s amazing to see academics still taking it seriously. In any case, the major thing that they seem to be attracted to, in this ’80s French theory, is the cryptonormativism.
For instance, I had noticed a long time ago that the term “neoliberal” functions as the most important piece of cryptonormative vocabulary in critical studies. For those who don’t know, here’s the basic problem with “neoliberalism.” It’s a made-up thing. It’s just a word that Foucault popularized, to talk about economic ideas that he didn’t really understand. There is no group of people out there who actually describe themselves as a neoliberals. Because of this, there are no constraints on what it can refer to, and there is no one to answer any of the criticisms that are made of it. Compare that to terms like “conservative” or “libertarian.” Because there are real people who call themselves “libertarian,” if you write something that criticizes libertarianism, an actual libertarian might write back and contest what you say. With “neoliberalism,” on the other hand, you can say whatever you want, without any fear that a real-life neoliberal will write back and contest your claims – because there are none. As a result, people who use this term in their writing are basically announcing, up front, that their intended audience is the left-wing academic echo chamber. After all, if they wanted to engage with people outside that chamber, they would have to address one or more of the ideologies that are actually, and self-consciously, held by people outside that chamber. (In this respect, people who criticize neoliberalism are the cowardly lions of academia. If you think you’ve got what it takes, why not go out and find an actual right-winger to argue with?)
The fact that there are no self-identified neoliberals in the world does, however, have one desired consequence. Use of the term limits one’s audience to those who share the underlying normative judgment, allowing academics to feel completely unanimous in their belief that neoliberalism is a bad thing. As a result, no one ever feels obliged to say what is so bad about it. Roughly speaking, neoliberalism is thought to have something to do with market fundamentalism, it began with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and has been sneaking into every nook and cranny of public life since then. Beyond that, it can mean pretty much anything. (Example: is a move toward means-testing in a government social program “neoliberal” or not? Some authors think it is, some think it isn’t. No one ever explains their reasoning. It seems to be determined just by gut response – whether the person sees means-testing as way of denying benefits to some, or as a way of making the program more progressive and thus reducing inequality. In any case, the mere fact that applying for the benefit involves filling out a form is likely to lead the critical studies practitioner to denounce it for being committed to the (re)production of docile bodies, in order to advance the normalizing agenda of the neocolonial state, or something like that.)
The most surprising thing about the books I read is that, of the 10 that used the term “neoliberal” disparagingly, only one offered any sort of an explanation of what the term was supposed to mean (interestingly, that book was the only one written from an explicitly Marxist perspective). Perhaps the most confusing was the one book that used the term “neoconservative” as well – and not in the international relations sense – without defining that either. It was obvious from the discussion that the author also regarded neoconservativism as a terribly bad thing, and in some way different from neoliberalism, but it was absolutely unclear how they were thought to differ.
Reading through these books, I discovered a whole new set of cryptonormative terms that I had perhaps been vaguely aware of, but had not realized how important they were. There is obvious stuff like “neocolonial” and “racializing” (always bad), but there is also the term “stigmatizing.” Stigmatization is, apparently, always bad. Anything that stigmatizes anyone else is bad. In some cases, entire bodies of empirical research, which might introduce a bit of moral complexity to the analysis of a particular situation, were swept aside on the grounds that they are “potentially stigmatizing” to oppressed groups. Thus the potential for “stigmatization” served as all-purpose license to ignore inconvenient facts (an egregious display of normative confusion).
In any case, it seems to me fairly obvious why these books are written in the way they are. The authors feel a passionate moral commitment to the improvement of society – this is what animates their entire project, compels them to write a book – but they have no idea how to defend these commitments intellectually, and they have also read a great deal of once-fashionable theory that is essentially skeptical about the foundations of these moral commitments (i.e. Foucault, Bourdieu). As a result, they are basically moral noncognitivists, and perhaps even skeptics. So they turn to using rhetoric and techniques of social control, such as audience limitation, as a way of securing agreement on their normative agenda.
This is – perhaps needless to say – not how critical theory was supposed to be done.
Let me give a specific example of this. I read with some interest the book “Métis” by Chris Andersen (UBC Press), who is a professor in the Faculty of Native Studies, University of Alberta. The book is focused on answering the question, who is, and who is not, Métis. This might sound like the usual sort of exercise in identity politics, but in this case some serious issues hang in the balance, since Métis groups in Canada have been demanding, and in some cases have been granted, many of the national minority rights traditionally enjoyed by status Indians (e.g. being able to hunt out of season, etc.)
The question of who counts as Métis is, however, a somewhat complicated one. During the early colonization of Canada, there was a period of roughly 200 years in which the only Europeans to enter the territory west of the great lakes were men (voyageurs, fur traders, etc.) Hundreds of them settled throughout the river and lake systems that afforded access to the interior of the continent, married Indian women, and had mixed-race children. This meant that when the British began to colonize the west in earnest, starting in what is now Manitoba, they encountered not only Indian tribes, but also very substantial, settled communities of mixed-race Métis (who resisted colonization in a series of well-known rebellions).
Because of this, however, the term Métis harbors something of an ambiguity. It is often used like the term mulatto, to refer to someone of mixed ancestry (in this case, European and Indian). Yet in the politically (and constitutionally) relevant sense, it refers to a national minority ethnic group – namely, the specific population, located in and around the Red River valley, that was involuntarily incorporated into the Canadian federation. Andersen’s primary goal in the book is to defend the latter, rather restrictive definition of the term Métis. While some will no doubt find this controversial, it important to note that it is a perfectly reasonable position to want to defend.
So how does Andersen go about defending this perfectly reasonable claim? There are some obvious argumentation strategies that he could have employed. For instance, he could have proceeded by reductio, pointing out the absurdity of using the “mixed ancestry” definition for legal or constitutional purposes, since almost the entire French Canadian population (de souche) has mixed ancestry. Or he could have made a straightforward normative argument, starting with Will Kymlicka’s influential analysis of national minority rights, and then shown how only “Red River” Métis qualify as a national group.
Unfortunately, Andersen does not do either of these things. Instead, what he argues is that the “mixed ancestry” definition, by focusing on racial inheritance, is part of the broader “racializing logic of colonialism.” Racialization, he claims, is an insidious ideology (“I position racialization in terms of a colonial ‘habitus’ that, deeply engrained, powerfully shapes our understandings of the social world.”(22).) So people who subscribe to the “mixed ancestry” definition are actually reproducing the “sovereign logics of violence” of colonialism as well as engaging in “settler biopolitics.”
In other words, instead of trying to persuade his opponents through ordinary argumentation, Andersen basically accuses them of committing a thought-crime. They are not merely mistaken about the best interpretation of a term, they are inflicting symbolic violence on the body of the colonized subject. Or to put it in more prosaic terms, they’re a bunch of racists. (And for the Métis, like Maria Campbell, who use the term in the “mixed ancestry” sense, they have been “seduced” by the logic of colonialism. They can be forgiven though, because “the deep relationality of racialized practices in virtually all sectors of Canadian society means that they powerfully shape not only how Indigenous subjectivities are produced but also how we come to know others and ourselves.”(23).)
I assume that most people can see what is wrong with this style of argumentation. Saying “I believe X, and anyone who disagrees with me is a racist” is not exactly an invitation to dialogue. In fact, it’s the perfect way to poison any conversation. What I found striking, however, is how unnecessary it all is in Andersen’s work. After all, the position that he is defending is perfectly reasonable. Would it be so hard just to acknowledge that other, reasonable people, might take a different view, but then argue that, on the balance of considerations, his own view is better?
My suspicion is that the vituperativeness and rhetorical overkill is intended to disguise the fact that Andersen doesn’t really know how to proceed otherwise. Not knowing how to defend a normative claim, he resorts to character assassination and intimidation of those who disagree with him. The main effect, however, is just audience limitation. A lot of people just don’t have time to get into a discussion with someone whose basic argumentation strategy is to accuse everyone who disagrees with him of being racist or brainwashed.
The book also contains a great deal of old-fashioned bafflegab. Consider the following (single!) sentence:
In this socio-historical context, I position courts as a specific, semi-autonomous, and generative form of juridical power: specific, in that the courts currently hold a specific relation of power in Canadian society and, equally importantly, over other institutions within the larger juridical field; semi-autonomous, in that although shaped by various social and cultural factors (racialization, for example), the distinctive dynamics of the courts shape the production of logics not only irreducible to the dynamics of other social fields but potentially resistant to them; and generative, in that the dynamism of court struggles produces a form of “juridical capital” that rather than directly constituting social relations or (re)producing a “grand hegemony,” generates particular depictions and problematizations of social issues and classifications that can potentially shape the parameters within which subsequent political strategies and struggles ensue, but only upon their subsequent successful translation into those fields (63).
Sure buddy, whatever you say… Just one question: can you think of an event that could happen, in the world, that would cause you to lose confidence in this claim?
The irony, of course, is that because its practitioners don’t seem to know how to make normative arguments, “critical” studies winds up being incredibly dogmatic. Students who study this stuff must find it completely bewildering. While they are supposedly being taught to “think critically” about the world, they are most emphatically discouraged from thinking critically about what is being said, in the books that purport to teach them to think critically about the world.
This is — to repeat — not how critical theory is supposed to be done.