Critical Theory, Poststructuralism & the Social Context
eds Michael Peters, Wayne Hope, James Marshall and Steven Webster
Dunmore Press, $39.95,
ISBN 0 86469 233 1
Our culture’s aversion to theory is a theme which has been rehearsed numerous times. My favourite rendition is the essay by Roger Horrocks, “No Theory Permitted on these Premises”, published in And in 1984. Horrocks concludes with a guarded concession that this theory “embargo” might be nearing exhaustion. Certainly his essay marks an interesting moment (its anti-theoretical discourse par excellence being Muldoonist economics). A lot has happened since in the names of various kinds of “theory”, however obscure the connections among them. And yet, in spite of the energy which aspects of poststructuralism have injected into literary discourse and elsewhere, the resistance to theory remains well enough entrenched for this ambitious publication from Dunmore Press to be extremely welcome.
Critical Theory, Poststructuralism and the Social Context arises from a seminar series hosted by the department of education at Auckland University in 1994. A dozen academics, nearly all from Auckland and mostly working somewhere in the social sciences, use this forum to introduce and to demonstrate in action these two crucial theoretical paradigms.
Of the two, critical theory has had the least general exposure here. Often referred to as Frankfurt school theory, its classical expression was in the work of the Institute for Social Research, established in Germany in the 1920s and then taken into American exile in the 30s and 40s. This “western marxism,” as it is sometimes also known, departed from the direction taken by marxist thought in Russia in a variety of ways: in its reinvestigation of Hegel, in its efforts to integrate Marx and Freud (the most prominent name in this connection being Wilhelm Reich) and, most crucially perhaps, in its shifting of attention from the means and relations of production to the realm of culture and everyday life. Its legacy here includes Adorno and Horkheimer’s famous critique of the “culture industry” as well as the decisive work on aesthetics of Walter Benjamin. For critical theory today the standard-bearer is undoubtedly Jurgen Habermas, although its impact has also been felt in France, for example, in the work of Althusser.
But pre-eminently France has been the home of poststructuralism and the centre of gravity is Paris in the 1960s and 1970s. Where critical theory strives to formulate a marxism that is neither proletarian nor strictly economic, poststructuralist thought (in a useful distinction suggested by the editors in their introduction) endeavours to supply the theoretical basis of a left culture which isn’t marxist. One marker here is of course May 1968, in the wake of which the intellectual left felt betrayed in its revolutionary aspirations by the timidity of the official party. Another is the critique of the so-called grand narratives of modernity formulated so tellingly by Lyotard. In this light marxist teleology joins liberation, scientific progress and imperialism on a scrapheap reserved for nostalgic expressions of a now de-legitimated Enlightenment rationality.
In place of these totalising fictions, poststructuralist thought offers fragmentation and the proliferation of differences. Above all, it offers a notoriously inclusive textualism: there is nothing in the world of human knowledge that cannot be read, nothing which isn’t structured by the interplay of signifiers. The field of language (or what Nick Perry has called the “dominion of signs”) is where we are constituted as subjects and where our actions, including our political actions, must therefore be staged. From this point of view the positions of critical theory can be made to seem nostalgic, vestigially humanist and commonsensical. In reverse shot, meanwhile, the capers of poststructuralism are apt to be read as quietist, dandyish and nihilistic.
This, then, is the field which this collection explores. The book falls roughly into three sections. The first comprises an introduction, written jointly by the four editors, and three more essays which look at tensions between the two theoretical paradigms. Michael Peters outlines Habermas’s project and canvases the argument between Habermas and Lyotard. Wayne Hope also centres on Habermas, championing his work against the poststructuralism of Jean Baudrilliard in the interests of maintaining an oppositional critique of the bourgeois public sphere in an age of accelerated information. Mark Olssen looks at Michel Foucault’s negotiation of marxism. For Olssen, as for many of the writers in this volume, Foucault is the acceptable face of French high theory, his work being affirmed for its worldly rejection of what is seen in Lacan and Derrida as a language-bound idealism. But while broadly endorsing Foucault’s critique of Marx and his attention to the politics of everyday life, even here Olssen finds too much abstraction and the “eclipse” of any real “political dimension”.
The contributors who follow address their theoretical technologies to a range of specific issues of more-or-less global application. James Marshall and Heather Worth again take their bearings from Foucault. Marshall’s essay examines the implications for educationalists of Foucault’s conception of the field of power/knowledge. Worth, who is a researcher with the Aids Foundation, offers a rather less orthodox reading of his work on eroticism and pleasure. In this interesting piece, a Foucault who sounds oddly libertarian comes laced with French feminism and with a Derrida who sounds strangely Foucauldian (“Derrida’s concern is with power relations within the order of discourse”). Derrida is also a point of reference for George Pavlich and R S Ratner in their discussion of the possibilities of a postmodern justice, though again it is predictably the Derrida of the later work on the law as opposed to the better known and more extravagant work of the 70s.
An essay by Tony Ward, from the department of architecture at Auckland University, makes a bridge between these relatively broad-canvas applications and the explicitly local focus of the work with which the book concludes. In a tone reminiscent of Edward Said and his attack on the alleged complicity of American deconstruction under the Reagan administration, Ward critiques both the conservatism which he finds in postmodern architecture and the critical obscurantism of the academic theory which endorses it. He underlines his call for a more transparent and bare-handed pedagogy with appealing vignettes from his own teaching praxis first in the United States and more recently in Auckland.
The essays which follow are (with the exception of a more difficult piece by Steven Webster on postmodernism and its cultural “others”) comparatively undemanding in their theoretical texture and local and empirical in their focus and methodology. In this sense, then, the arrangement of the volume seems implicitly to align itself with Ward’s anti-elitist rhetoric and it is in this last section that non-academic readers are most likely to find things to interest them. An essay by Chris Harris on the calculative blindness of economic rationalism and Janet McLean’s legal reading of the two senses of the “contracting” state make important contributions to a resistant understanding of free-market liberalism. And Ranginui Walker is effortlessly authoritative in his (once more) Foucault-inflected chapter which closes the volume, mapping relations between Maori and pakeha across multiple sites of “power, resistance and struggle”.
For its useful explanations of a number of complex theoretical ideas and for the commitment with which it brings its armoury to bear on those social and political issues which most urgently characterise our particular situation, Critical Theory is a salutary event. In a climate in which it is difficult to publish difficult and specialised books, the publisher must be applauded for having the conviction to put this work between covers. However, given that in this sense it amounts to rather an unusual opening, I find I can’t help wishing that its ambit was just a little bit broader.
As it is, in spite of the claim that it “provides a wide-ranging introduction” to both discourses, this text is undoubtedly far more persuasive as a way into critical theory than as an engagement with poststructuralism. It’s notable, then, that for all it does cover, the volume scarcely touches on the field of aesthetics — the dimension, that is, where the encounter between these traditions has most typically been staged. In the end, it is not a book about the interface of these two idioms so much as a critique, from the perspective of critical theory, in which poststructuralist thinking tends to appear in a static and somewhat objectified form.
I need to point out that I’m writing as someone whose job is teaching literary studies. It might appear simply parochial to complain if the social sciences go about their business. Yet it does seem to me that in the transition from an in-house seminar series to a niche-market publication, it might helpfully have carved itself a slightly expanded niche and in so doing have performed a service which intellectual culture remains badly in need of.
The respective local histories of those two theoretical idioms have been by no means identical. The garage journal And in the mid 1980s succeeded brilliantly in its aggressive importation of French poststructuralism. It managed to effect what Derrida would call a “positive destruction”, subjecting the assumptions of a realist literary nationalism to a level of interrogation which not only dismasted that dominant discourse but made room for a reinvigorated critical practice in its wake. The same effects were felt in the visual arts. However, in literary discourse at least that momentum appears since to have dissipated. This leads back to the question of that second theoretical import. For whereas in Australia, to cite the obvious comparison, poststructuralism ran up against not just a traditionally well-theorised leftism but a vigorous brand of critical theory as evinced by a journal like Thesis Eleven, critical theory here has so far maintained a much lower profile, a fact which may not be surprising given our endemically under-theorised discourse on the left (see Bruce Jesson et al).
The grinding together of these two traditions — semiotics and poststructuralism against materialism and critical theory — offers one explanation for Australia’s emergence as a hotspot in the burgeoning discipline of cultural studies. It is in this context that I find myself wishing that poststructuralist discourse had contributed to this collection less notionally. Just across the campus, several of the major And players continue to be active as writers and teachers. That no one like Horrocks or Alex Calder or Wystan Curnow is involved in this publication — though there might be any number of mundane explanations — seems to be clearly symptomatic of an encounter still missing in our local theoretical discourse.
Of course it was critical theory, in the person of Adorno, who warned us about the barbarism of writing poetry after Auschwitz. I’m not suggesting, then, that from the perspective of this tradition there is anything untoward in rejecting the “writerliness” of poststructuralist textualism. Inasmuch as critical theory has made its presence felt here, its main voice has been the group around the Massey-based cultural studies journal, Sites (to which a number of the writers featured in this work have been notable contributors). Here, an unease about the literary flavour of much of what passes for cultural studies has been pointedly articulated. The Birmingham version of the discipline (and the same could be said its Australian variant) is seen to derive too heavily from the efforts of English to reinvent itself. By refusing this tradition, the reading of cultural practices here might thus stand a better chance of emerging as both genuinely radical and genuinely local.
I suspect that the editors of this Auckland collection would hold to a similar point of view. If so, the cause for regret is simply that a different kind of encounter — critical theory and poststructuralism, materialism and textualism — is intimated, but does not eventuate. In the era of postmodern micro-narratives small and specialised conversations rule. But in a culture such as ours where the smallness of all audiences makes high-pitched publications so difficult to mount, a more broadly inclusive interdisciplinary thinking does have obvious advantages. We do need more theory and we need it especially from the left: I scarcely need to add, then, that I hope this book will be widely read. And if that other kind of dialogue is still yet to happen, it must at least be one step closer thanks to this meaty and uncompromising text.
John Newton teaches in the English department at Canterbury University.