“Political discussion possesses a character fundamentally different from academic discussion. It seeks not to be in the right, but also to demolish the basis of its opponents social and intellectual existence… Political conflict, since it is from the very beginning a rationalized form of the struggle for social predominance, attacks the social status of the opponent, his public prestige, and his self-confidence. It is difficult to decide in this case whether the sublimation or substitution of discussion for older weapons of conflict, the direct use of force and oppression, really constituted a fundamental improvement in human life. Physical repression is, it is true, harder to bear externally, but the will to psychic annihilation, which took its place in many instances, is perhaps even more unbearable…
In political discussion in modern democracies where ideas were more clearly representative of certain groups, the social and existential determination of thought became more easily visible… political discussion is, from the very beginning, more than theoretical argumentation; it is also the tearing off of disguises – the unmasking of those unconscious motives which bind the group existence to its cultural aspirations and theoretical arguments. To the extent, however, that modern politics fought its battle with theoretical weapons, the process of unmasking penetrated to the social roots of theory…
At first those parties which possessed the new ‘intellectual weapons,’ the unmasking of the unconscious, had a terrific advantage over their adversaries… the mere fact that it could be convincingly demonstrated to the adversary that motives which had hitherto been hidden from him were at work must have filled him with terror and awakened in the person using the weapon a feeling of marvelous superiority… today, however, we have reached a stage in which this weapon of the reciprocal unmasking and laying bare of the unconscious sources of intellectual existence has become the property not of one group among many — but all of them. In the measure that the various groups sought to destroy their adversaries’ confidence in their thinking by this modern intellectual weapon of radical unmasking, they also destroyed, as all positions gradually became subjected to analysis, man’s confidence in human thought in general.”
If this quote seems timely given the political and cultural moment we currently find ourselves in — it is. Yet these words were put to paper nearly a century ago; they are from the opening chapter of Karl Mannheim’s 1929 Ideology and Utopia.
Mannheim had hoped that a “free intelligentsia… recruited from constantly varying social strata and life situations” could save us from this intellectual dead-end. Drawn from (and engaging with) all sectors of society, they would evaluate the facts without being lured towards ideological or utopian thinking — because collectively they would have neither an investment in the status quo nor revolutionary aspirations. They would not view themselves as a class, nor align themselves with any other socioeconomic or political faction, but rather would work to produce objective knowledge for the benefit of society as a whole.
Today, this vision may sound quite naïve. In Mannheim’s time it was certainly not the case that the intelligentsia were being drawn from all walks of life, from all races, creeds, genders and classes without concern for these attributes. Still today — although the knowledge production enterprise is far more inclusive than it has been in many respects — there remain dramatic over (and under) representations along the lines of race, gender, class, geography, religion, political leanings, etc. And not only is it the case that the intelligentsia continues to be drawn from a fairly narrow band of society, but contra Mannheim’s intuitions, they have come to constitute something of a class unto themselves — a ‘professional managerial class‘ — replete with their own ideologies (from meritocracy, to their supposed social justice orientation, to their purported perennial stance on the ‘right side of history’) to legitimate their socio-political position. Against those who challenge their authority, or social and cultural structures that run contrary to their aspirations, they deploy the methods of critique (Mannheim’s ‘unmasking’) — attempting to delegitimize whomever or whatever that stands in their way as racist, sexist, elitist, etc.
Critique Has ‘Run Out of Steam’
In a 2004 essay, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” sociologist Bruno Latour anticipated the arrival of a ‘post-truth’ era– and laid it at the feet of intellectuals who fancy themselves ‘critics,’ himself included:
“While we spent years trying to detect the real prejudices hidden behind the appearance of objective statements, do we now have to reveal the real objective and incontrovertible facts hidden behind the illusion of prejudices?
And yet, entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard‐won evidence that could save our lives…
Conspiracy theories are an absurd deformation of our own arguments, but, like weapons smuggled through a fuzzy border to the wrong party, these are our weapons nonetheless. In spite of all the deformations, it is easy to recognize, still burnt in the steel, our trademark: Made in Criticalland.”
In particular, Latour argues, the bad habit that so many others in society have picked up from academics is the tendency to turn powerful critical tools against things we disagree with, while adopting an alternative posture toward things we support:
“Antifetishists debunk objects they don’t believe in by showing the productive and projective forces of people; then, without ever making the connection, they use objects they do believe in to resort to the causalist or mechanist explanation and debunk conscious capacities of people whose behavior they don’t approve of… This is why you can be at once and without even sensing any contradiction (1) an antifetishist for everything you don’t believe in—for the most part religion, popular culture, art, politics, and so on; (2) an unrepentant positivist for all the sciences you believe in—sociology, economics, conspiracy theory, genetics, evolutionary psychology, semiotics, just pick your preferred field of study; and (3) a perfectly healthy sturdy realist for what you really cherish—and of course it might be criticism itself, but also painting, bird‐watching, Shakespeare, baboons, proteins, and so on.
If you think I am exaggerating in my somewhat dismal portrayal of the critical landscape, it is because we have had in effect almost no occasion so far to detect the total mismatch of the three contradictory repertoires—antifetishism, positivism, realism—because we carefully manage to apply them on different topics.”
Latour argues that if we were more consistent in adopting another posture, fair-mindedness — extending greater charity and curiosity towards things we find distasteful or repugnant while demonstrating more humility, introspectiveness and flexibility with respect to the things we support – academics could work ourselves out of this intellectual ditch, and perhaps help the societies and cultures we are embedded in do the same.
Five years prior, in Refashioning Futures: Criticism After Post-Coloniality, anthropologist David Scott put forward an alternative, but complementary, account of why critique has ‘run out of steam’ — and what could be done about it:
Many lines of ‘critical inquiry’ were developed during the 60s and early 70s, when people around the world were trying to rise up against colonial powers and formal apartheid regimes. It was a time when capitalism and liberalism seemed vulnerable; alternative models — from Communism to Islamism to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and beyond — seemed to pose major threats to the hegemony of the Western political and economic regime.
In the intervening decades, the apartheid systems in the United States, South Africa and other places have been significantly (if incompletely) dismantled; former colonial powers have largely given up their project and independent states have emerged in their wake. In these respects, the revolutionaries had their way. Yet simultaneously, most alternative arrangements to the prevailing political and economic order have collapsed – be it as a result of their own contradictions and deficiencies or because they have been coopted or outright destroyed – or else they persist in some marginal form, with their broader aspirations largely abandoned or curtailed.
That is, in many respects, it is a whole new world relative to when many of these paradigms of critique were put forward. Many of the problems they sought to address have been mitigated or evolved, if not resolved. Most of the alternative social arrangements these critiques were organized to drive people towards are no longer plausibly ‘on the table.’ Nor are new credible possibilities being put forward. Scott argues there are two reasons for this:
First, many have not sufficiently taken account of the very different circumstances we find ourselves in today: the new challenges and opportunities we are faced with, the benefits and costs of the contemporary situation, the very different set of institutions and dynamics one would have to contend with (relative to the milieu of the 60s and 70s). Nor have many earnestly reckoned with why the aforementioned alternative projects have failed. Instead, they continue to doggedly apply the same methods and frameworks to contemporary phenomena — for which they are often ill-suited.
Second, criticism has been disconnected from its strategic purpose, as part of a positive project to imagine alternative ways of living. As Michelle Alexander put it:
“Resistance is a reactive state of mind. While it can be necessary for survival and to prevent catastrophic harm, it can also tempt us to set our sights too low and to restrict our field of vision… leading us to forget our ultimate purpose and place in history… Another world is possible, but we can’t achieve it through resistance alone.”
It is not enough to understand what is wrong with the prevailing order and criticize those shortcomings. It is also necessary to explore what works and is worth preserving or even enhancing about the current state of affairs. It means not only bashing the establishment for its shortcomings, but also thinking through – in a serious way – how these flaws could be plausibly rectified or what could actually be erected in its place, and how.
Instead, contemporary criticism tends to be almost purely nihilistic and extrospective. In the too-rare instances where criticism is paired with thinking about alternatives, they trend towards untenable idealism or else retreads of paradigms that have already failed. Many seem to be working with outdated models of how power is exercised, by whom, and under what circumstances.
As a result of these twin failures — the failure to update the ‘problem space,’ and the failure to think strategically about its methods and use — critique has been reduced to an almost purely academic or performative exercise. But it need not stay that way, Scott argues.
For its deftness in recognizing these problems and pointing towards solutions, Refashioning Futures is a masterful book — full of important insights that have been insufficiently digested within many social research fields. But over and above these merits, I would encourage everyone to read the text as an exemplar of methodological virtues that are far too rare in social research today:
Generous and Generative Engagement
There are a number of hokey ways to ostensibly extend intellectual charity. Among them: being wishy-washy in one’s claims, simply splitting the difference between two points in a mindless way, being insufficiently critical towards one or both sides of an argument so as not to appear partisan (or else being overly critical to one or both sides for the same reason, i.e. both-siderism), being civil for civility’s sake, paying lip service to the value of some other perspective without demonstrating any meaningful influence of these ideas on one’s own views or approach, etc. In these instances, the appeal to ‘charity’ mainly serves as justification for a lack of moral or intellectual rigor.
These types of facile appeals to ‘intellectual charity’ or ‘engagement across difference’ are distressingly ubiquitous. Frustration with these tendencies — which is appropriate — informs a good deal of skepticism about projects like Heterodox Academy.
This is not the type of ‘intellectual charity’ one finds in Refashioning Futures. What one does find is genuine curiosity about why others hold the views they do, an insistence on engaging the strongest or most reasonable version of that view he can muster, willingness to learn from whomever has insight, a commitment to identify and incorporate valuable contributions – even from views the author thinks are importantly wrong in many respects. Scott has no problem in directly stating where these views go astray and how. But the “point” is never to demonstrate their deficiency or his own superiority, but rather to draw constructive lessons, to open up new horizons, etc.
Central to Scott’s approach is his insistence that one should evaluate propositions relative to the question or problem they were formulated in response to. If you don’t understand this context, he argues, then you don’t understand the proposition itself – and attempts to rely on or debunk said proposition will be ill-conceived.
I will quote from Scott here at length (selections from pages 5 -7), because it is a central to his approach in the book – and if there is one thing readers should walk away from this post with, it is this:
“[According to R.G. Collingwood] To understand any proposition it is first necessary to identify the question to which the proposition may be regarded as an answer… this is an important principle for any practice of historical or philosophical (and I might add, anthropological) understanding. Contrary to the rationalist view (as prevalent among contemporary anti-essentialist postmodernists as among the essentialists they attack), you cannot simply read off the error of a proposition without the prior labor of reconstructing the question to which it aims to respond… you cannot assume in advance that you know the question in relation to which the text constitutes itself as an answer.[According to B.F. Skinner] In order to understand a proposition you have to understand it not merely in its internal logical status, but as a ‘move in an argument.’ You have, therefore, to grasp why it was ‘put forward’ in the way it was in the first place, and to do this you have to ‘recapture the presuppositions and purposes that went into making it… any act of communication always constitutes taking up some determinate position in a pre-existing conversation or argument. It follows that, if we wish to understand what has been said, we shall have to be able to identify what exact position has been taking up… what the speaker or writer may have been doing in saying what was said.’
It seems to me that this principle of ‘question and answer’ can be profitably extended to what I would like to call a strategic practice of criticism. Whereas in Collingwood’s and Skinner’s conception of it, this question/ answer principle was to be applied to reading the past with a view perhaps to understanding the present, a strategic practice of criticism is concerned more with reading the present with a view to determining whether (and how) to continue with it in the future. By this I mean that a practice of strategic criticism is concerned with determining at any conjecture what conceptual moves among the many available options will have the most purchase, the best yield.
On this view, a critic has not only to be concerned with whether or not the statements that might be made are logically adequate answers to the questions that can be shown to underlie them, but whether or not these questions themselves continue, in the conjecture at hand, to constitute questions worth having answers to. If, for Skinner, an existing proposition has to be understood as a move in an ongoing argument, I mean to urge that criticism must understand itself self-consciously as a practice of entering an historically constituted field of ongoing moral argument, of gauging that argument’s tenor, of calculating the stakes, of ascertaining the potential allies and possible adversaries, of determining the lines and play of forces, and so on… It is only by understanding criticism in this way that we can determine the contingent demand of—and on—criticism at any conjecture.”
Each subsequent chapter of the book amounts to a modeling of this approach across a range of cases and controversies.
Engagement with Non-Left Thought
Despite Michel Foucault’s prominence within contemporary social research, and Foucault’s confession to be “simply a Nietzschean” in one of his final interviews, Nietzsche himself has become fairly taboo in many intellectual circles. Conservative thought is rarely taken seriously or otherwise charitably engaged within academic circles either. Certainly not in arenas dedicated to critique.
Yet not only does David Scott lean heavily on Nietzsche, he also engages conservatives Edmund Burke, Michael Oakeshott and Maurice Cowling. He draws from ex-Nazi Reinhart Kosselleck (who did a lot of soul searching after the fall of the Third Reich, but never came around to embracing the ideologies of the “allies” — liberal democracy, free-market capitalism, etc.), alongside ‘agonic liberals’ John Gray and William Connolly and post-liberal Alasdair MacIntyre. None of these thinkers are trotted out as foils to be demolished. Quite the contrary! They inform his critiques of progress, teleology, perfectionism, secularism, rationalism and universalism – as well as his emphasis on tradition and community throughout.
Perhaps most thrilling, these thinkers are put into constructive conversation with pragmatists like Richard Rorty and Ian Hacking, alongside revolutionaries like Franz Fanon, and postcolonial scholars such as Edward Said, Partha Chaterjee and Talal Asad.
All of these thinkers were also huge influences on my own intellectual development – and I share the conviction that they can be very productively put into conversation with one another – but this almost never happens anywhere else. Reading this work should impress on readers what a shame that is, given the analytical power it provides.
Refashioning Futures serves as a masterclass in the practice of viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement – and implicitly serves as a testament to their value. In the process, Scott vividly illustrates profound shortcomings in the contemporary practice of critique, points towards ways to rectify those failures, and underscores the importance of doing so.
A bit more on this last point:
As noted above, the prevailing order today faces no meaningful contenders (except perhaps the partial exceptions of illiberal democracy and state capitalism) – but this does not entail or imply that all is well. Instead, the current system is struggling under a number of contradictions, people are growing increasingly impatient with respect to its failures and shortcomings, skeptical of its continued value or relevance. This acute sense of problems paired with a dearth of solutions or alternatives gives rise to dangerous currents of ironic detachment on the one hand, and nihilistic outrage on the other. Up to now, critique has often served to reinforce these trends – but it could be used to mitigate them instead. It could serve to open up horizons, to restore a sense of possibility and agency, to help sort out what is valuable from what is not, in order to understand and respond to the challenges and opportunities with which we are currently faced.
At this point, Scott’s book is roughly 20 years old. However, its lessons have gone largely unheeded up to now — and as a result, the text remains highly (if regrettably) relevant to our contemporary milieu.
Read the book: David Scott (1999). Refashioning Futures: Criticism After Postcoloniality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Musa al-Gharbi is a Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow in Sociology at Columbia University.
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