In the preceding two entries (30 Sept 2021; 30 Oct 2021) I concentrated on elaborating distinctions and tensions between Foucauldian-influenced poststructuralism and forms of “ideology critique”. Some useful collections signal the longstanding and ongoing debates about “ideology critique” among critical scholars (see Simons and Billig 1994; Malesevic and MacKenzie 2002; South Atlantic Quarterly, 2020).
In this entry we turn to a more recent development, dubbed “postcritique”. I hope to explain in brief the relationship between this development and the themes addressed in the previous two entries, and to introduce some of the controversy about its stance. I draw largely on the contributions of Rita Felski (2011, 2015) and Anker and Felski (2017), since they most clearly delineate what is at issue.
The postcritique argument, put briefly, is that Foucault-influenced poststructuralism and “ideology critique” have more in common in terms of theoretical propositions than what separates them, posing a significant challenge to the argument I have been developing. According to Felski (2011) tensions and distinctions between Foucault-influenced poststructuralism and “ideology critique” are mere “skirmishes”. While “surveys of criticism often highlight the rift between these camps” (as I have just done in the two previous entries), Felski emphasizes their shared investment in a particular ethos – “a stance of knowingness, guardedness, suspicion and vigilance” (Felski 2011). Hence, she locates both “ideology critique” and poststructuralism within what Ricoeur (1970, 1974) describes as a “hermeneutics of suspicion”, which attempts to decode meanings that are disguised. Going further, Felski (2011) argues that both “ideology critique” and poststructuralism are limited in their analysis of sociopolitical relations and that it is time to move on from the form of “negative critique” they generate.
Felski is not the first to make this argument about the negative character of “critique” (see Coole 2000). In his seminal 2004 article, entitled “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?”, Latour characterizes deconstruction as purely “negative” in its impact, with a tendency to “totalize” and “demonize” opponents. Felski (2011) acknowledges her debt to Latour: “Critique is characterised by its ‘againstness’, by its desire to take a hammer, as Latour would say, to the beliefs of others” (see also Felski 2016).
I should note that Felski writes predominantly in the fields of literary and cultural studies. Still, her position on postcritique has become popular in political and policy studies as well. MacLure (2015) draws connections between the postcritical position and the “new materialists”, supported by Anker and Felski’s (2017: 11) endorsement of the “turn to affect” and the reliance on ontology (Lorenzini and Tazzioli 2020: 29) (on the “turn to affect” see Research Hub entry 31 March 2020; on the “new materialisms” see 30 November 2020).
What I find interesting about this discussion is that the castigation of “critique” in Felski echoes many of the concerns I voiced about “ideology critique” in the two previous Research Hub entries. Specifically, she cautions against the tendency to portray the populace as “dupes” of powerful forces, and the impulse to credit critics with epistemic insight into the nature of power and domination: “As long as critique gains its intellectual leverage from an adversarial stance, it will continue to presume a populace deluded by forces that only the critic can bring to light” (Anker and Felski 2017: 19). Latour also expresses concern about a concept of critique that presumes “a privileged access to the world of reality behind the veils of appearances” (Latour 2010: 475 in Lorenzini and Tazzioli 2017: 33).
While I see merit in this characterization of “ideology critique”, one of the main arguments in the preceding two entries is that a contrast can be established between Foucault-influenced poststructuralism and “ideology critique” on exactly these issues. Specifically I argue that poststructuralism explicitly challenges the conception of the subject as pawn in a power game and questions all knowledge claims, including the claims of critics. My concern about the postcritical argument, therefore, is the tendency to paint all critical analysis with the same brush, specifically the tendency to collapse poststructuralism into “ideology critique”. In fact, poststructuralism appears to be the primary target of Felski’s concern. In her and Anker’s (2017: 8) view, poststructuralism “especially has helped transform critique into a condition of metacritique”. Latour (2004) does much the same thing in his reduction of critical thinking to “debunking”.
In part I am disturbed by the strong polemic characterizing this analysis. MacLure (2015) shares this concern. She notes that “in deploying irony as his counter-weapon of choice”, Latour appears “unable to evade the ‘debunking’ rhetorical gesture that he condemns”. As a result, he creates “a cognoscenti of discerning readers” who know more than “the preponderance of naïvely believing conventional critics”. Similarly, while Felski claims that she does not wish to dismiss critique, her description of the “nay-saying critic” as calling to mind “the Victorian patriarch, the thin-lipped schoolmarm, the glaring policeman” (Felsik 2011) sounds a tad dismissive.
This particular “thin-lipped schoolmarm” (me!) is predictably disturbed by Anker and Felski’s attack on the usefulness of problematization and self-problematization. Problematization is described as “a preferred idiom” among poststructuralists for “demonstrating the ungroundedness of beliefs” and hence as part of “negative critique” (Felski 2011). Going further, Felski (2011) explicitly castigates poststructuralism for its “self-reflexive thinking” and its “tormented and self-divided rhetoric”: “it broods constantly over the shame of its own success, striving to detect signs of its own complicity and to root out all possible evidence of collusion with the status quo”. With Anker she condemns this “demand” for “a hypervigilance on the part of the critic”, its “stringent self-critique and continued attempts to second-guess or ‘problematize’ one’s own assumptions” (Anker and Felski 2017: 8).
The argument on this point, I suggest, reveals a significant inconsistency. As mentioned above, Felski challenges the presumption of epistemic privilege assumed by many critics, which is part of my concern about “ideology critique” (Research Hub entry, 30 Oct 2021). However, at the same time Felski questions the usefulness of forms of “self-critique”. That is, while she expresses concern that “suspicion of the commonplace and everyday risks entrenching the notion that critical thinking is the unique provenance of intellectuals” (Anker and Felski 2017: 14), she dismisses attempts by those very intellectuals to query the grounds of their knowledge claims. It is exactly this questioning of the presumed transcendence of one’s position, I argue, that helps distinguish poststructuralism from ideology critique (see Primdahl et al. 2018). To address this point, Step 7 in WPR enjoins researchers to subject their own problem representations to the six WPR questions (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 20).
I do not want to dismiss the issues raised by Felski and others who develop the postcritical position. With Lorenzini and Tazzioli, I agree about the need to take their analysis seriously:
“Critique should not limit itself to negative, debunking or deconstructive tasks. Indeed, if, on the one hand, unpacking, undoing and problematising are the verbs of what we define here as the “operations of critique”, on the other hand, critique, as a practice, should also consist in enacting and opening up. In other words, critique should also be able to build and produce.” (Lorenzini and Tazzioli 2020: 29)
There are two themes, therefore, that I wish to pursue: first, I want to consider the claim that poststructuralism is purely negative critique; and second, I want to consider the political implications of the postcritical argument. (On the importance of reflecting on the political implications of our theoretical stances, see Research Hub entry 31 August 2021).
On the first theme – the characterizing of poststructuralism as “negative critique” –, I decided to confront head-on the possibility that WPR might (simply) engage in negative forms of thinking. In relation to the supposed portrayal of the populace as “deluded” (see above), I would suggest that the stance on subjectification in Foucault-influenced poststructuralism offers a very different conception of the subject from the “dupes” of “ideology critique”. Political subjects are understood to be emergent or in process, shaped in ongoing interactions with discourses and other practices (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 4). The practice of self-problematization prompted by Step 7 in WPR involves actively applying the WPR questions to one’s own proposals. It operates as a transformative practice in a positive sense, by creating “new modes of subjectivation” and “new collective subjects” (Lorenzini and Tazzioli 2020: 34).
As to whether or not WPR implies that critical thinking is the “unique provenance of intellectuals” (see above), the emphasis on self-problematization operates to counter any presumption of epistemic privilege. Going further, I would suggest that the provocation in Question 4 to consider how an issue could be problematized differently opens up the opportunity for inventive thinking. The same is the case in Question 6, which invites researchers to consider how particular problem representations might be “disrupted and replaced”. An example of a replacement strategy is offered by Henry and Milanovic (1996) in “peacemaking criminology” (Bacchi 2009: 109).
I found it curious that Anker and Felski’s (2017: 1) analytic questions map readily onto those in WPR. For example, they ask:
“What does critique look like as a style of academic argument? What kind of rhetorical moves and philosophical assumptions does the activity of critique deploy?”
There is a clear similarity between the question about “philosophical assumptions” and Question 2 in WPR, which directs attention to underlying assumptions and presuppositions. Indeed, it is possible to suggest that Anker and Felski in effect apply a form of problematization thinking, though they would probably be unhappy with this characterization of their work.
In terms of our second theme – political implications –, Savage et al. (2021: 309) make the important point that all theoretical contributions have a “preferred politics”. Even a refusal to adopt a specific reform agenda, which Savage et al. (2021: 309) identify in Actor Network theory and much poststructuralist research, constitutes a form of politics. It is important, therefore, to reflect on the political implications of contrasting theoretical positions.
Anker and Felski (2017: 2) explicitly link “postcritique” to “progressive commitments”, which in their view involves a “more nuanced vision of how political change comes about” (Anker and Felski 2017: 15). The labelling of their stance as “progressive” indicates a political commitment of some sort, though “progressive” is clearly a term with many possible interpretations. Anker and Felski go on to specify their “preferred politics”. Here they follow Latour’s lead in the expressed desire to encourage a “spirit of dialogue and constructiveness rather than dissection and diagnosis” (Anker and Felski 2017: 16). They also share Latour’s concern that constructionist arguments have been picked up by “the Right” to challenge the status of facts, “evident in positions such as climate change denial” (Anker and Felski 2017: 14). With Latour they endorse a shift in tactics “from a spirit of debunking to one of assembling – from critique to composition”.
I have raised Latour’s position on these issues in an earlier Research Hub entry (31 December 2020). There I point to the work of Puig de la Bellacasa (2011) who argues that Latour’s typecasting of “critique” as negative, exhibits “mistrust regarding minoritarian and radical ways of politicizing things that tend to focus on exposing relations of power and exclusion”. In her view Latour’s plea to “respect” “concerns”, or “matters of concern”, becomes an argument to moderate a critical standpoint. Along similar lines Keller (2017: 62) is concerned by the political vision promoted by Latour’s “compositionist” impulse. In his view, this impulse echoes Habermas in whom social actors, assembled around a table, decide in a setting “free of domination” upon “hierarchies of concerns”, ignoring significant power imbalances.
It may be relevant to consider the contextual factors that have prompted a postcritical approach. According to Lorenzini and Tazzioli (2020: 29) the attacks on “negative critique” by postcritical scholars reflect an “ontological anxiety”:
“… the fear that critique, by ‘deconstructing and demystifying’, will end up making things ‘less real by underscoring their social constructedness’ – thus leaving us with no solid ground on which to stand, ‘however temporarily or tentatively’“[quotes from Felski 2016: 221].
Interestingly, I conjectured in the previous entry (30 October 2021) that this same “ontological anxiety” may well help explain the recent proliferation of born-again “ideology critics” who exhibit a desperate realism in their attempt to identify “systematic distortions in the process of belief formation that can be traced back to existing power relations” (Bianchim 2021: 86). Both groups – the new ideology critics and those who propose postcritique – in the end wish to insist that “truth” is ascertainable.
By contrast, in Foucauldian-influenced perspectives, “truth” is always situated: “that is, it has no intrinsic ‘force’ allowing it to impose itself to everybody or in every possible circumstance” (Lorenzini and Tazzioli 2020: 30-31). In this view, there is no universal basis for “truth”. Rather, “truth” and “knowledge” are produced in “‘local centres’ of power-knowledge” (Foucault 1990: 98). The analytic task, therefore, involves seeking out and examining the multitudes of practices – the “processes, procedures and apparatuses” (Tamboukou 1999: 202) – involved in the production of “truth”, rather than (simply) to uncover what is concealed. The goal becomes showing how political practice takes part in the “conditions of emergence, insertion and functioning” of “regimes of truth” (Foucault 1972: 163), explicitly challenging a view of power as a purely negative force:
“We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it ‘excludes,’ it ‘represses,’ it ‘censors,’ it ‘abstracts,’ it ‘masks,’ it ‘conceals.’ In fact, power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth. The individual and the knowledge that may be gained of him (sic) belong to this production”. (Foucault 1984: 204–205)
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