The Politics of Critical Theory: Language/Discourse/Society

Reviewed by John

George Snedeker, The Politics of Critical Theory: Language/Discourse/Society. Foreword by Michael E. Brown.  NY & Oxford:  University Press of America, 2004.

Perhaps at this moment or 'in the current conjuncture,' as we once had the habit of saying when academic intellectuals on the left seem more than usually disoriented and dispirited while global developments seem especially dangerous and hopeless, we might productively return to the confrontation between critical theory and post-modernist philosophy that occurred during the 70s and 80s to reassess our projects and reorganize our commitments.  Some such thought appears to have motivated George Snedeker in this collection of essays.  Certainly, many of the issues that structured those old debates remainor should remain live concerns.  These include the status of historical knowledge, the nature of agency (including the agency of intellectuals), and the saliency of class as in the final analysis or otherwise a grounding category of activist analysis.  So the publication of this book at the present moment seems promising indeed.

In this slim and succinct volume, Snedeker (who serves on the editorial board of this journal) offers synopses of controversial and influential thinkers like Theodor Adorno, Georg Lukács, Jean-François Lyotard, Michel Foucault, Jürgen Habermas, Raymond Williams, Edward Said, and Richard Rorty.  Those too young to remember when the attempt to mediate between a so-called conservative epistemology and a putatively progressive politics weighed upon the critical imagination (at least in the literature and social science departments of Western universities) will benefit from a reminder that social constructionism an offshoot of these discourse-based analyses was not always a received idea.  We may all need to note that none of these issues has been decisively resolved.  A return to foundational questions of truth and reality seems especially timely now, when both news media and the government of the United States seem wholeheartedly committed to keeping reality up for grabs.  The intellectual's obligation to speak truth to power is especially crucial when power increasingly legitimates itself through remarkably crude and amazingly successful obfuscations.  Fulfilling that obligation requires not so much a return to pre-critical notions of truth, but rather a pointed reminder that even for those of us persuaded of the protean power of discourse to determine reality, contestations of the truth have never ceased to be life-and-death matters.

Snedeker's intentionally untimely focus reminds us of these timely matters.  As Michael E. Brown puts it in his foreword, Snedeker offers 'both an introduction to a number of important theorists whose works remain fundamental to contemporary thought (or should be considered fundamental), and a discussion of radical thinking at a time when the conditions of sustaining such a project seem at best precarious.'   In many ways, Snedeker' s first chapter, which reconsiders Perry Anderson and the critique of Western Marxism (here chiefly represented by Habermas, Marcuse, Lefebvre, and Althusser), comes closest to a bracing reconsideration of the grounds of critical thought and political praxis. He attempts, following Anderson, to return to a realist epistemology and a historicist conception of subjectivity.  However, Snedeker gives too much space in this short chapter to simple, concise summaries of the various positions associated with the above-named writers, and too little to consideration of the ways in which a realist epistemology, a historicist conception of subjectivity, and an account of political agency may not be easily reconcilable.  In other words, the return to what Snedeker calls 'classical Marxism' begs too many of the questions within that tradition that make Western Marxism itself more a critical outgrowth of Marxism proper and less a movement simply opposed to it.  Snedeker' s claim that 'Western Marxism…had been led to its critique by Marxism, and led by its critique to deny Marxism in all respects' (13) seems more elegant than illuminating.  While Snedeker himself gestures towards a more invigorating reconsideration of this too familiar argument, his consideration of the issues never goes far enough toward actually describing the complexities entailed by retooling Marxist categories to understand 'what now appears to be world-wide struggle against capitalism' (14).  While this is the from first chapter' s final paragraph, it might better have been its point of departure.

Similarly, Snedeker' s summary of Lukács' s attack on irrationalism in both literature and epistemology and its conflicted relationship to both the Frankfurt school' s critique of enlightenment and Sartre' s attempted rapprochement of existentialism and Marxism also seems to end just where it might have begun.  He mentions, in his treatment of Lukács, the political and philosophical question of 'the ‘role' intellectuals play during a period of generalized crisis' (28), a question that still desperately needs some answers. But Snedeker offers little analysis of this crucial question and of how the attempt to answer it shaped Lukács' s notoriously shifting and conflicted positions on epistemology and art over the course of his career.  He says even less about what light Lukács might shed on a contemporary reconsideration of irrationalism or populism on the one hand and of instrumental reason or rationalized oppression on the other.  Current events, the increasingly powerful and demagogic rationalization of increasingly horrendous acts of war combined with a more intimate coupling of profit and violence than we have ever seen, indicate that the intellectual' s relationship to the ever shifting demarcations between reason and rationalization, truth and obfuscation, desperately needs reconsideration.  Lukács alone does not offer sufficient guidance for this task, but in a more fruitful conjunction with the philosophical traditions of European irrationalism than he himself was willing to imagine, he might help point us toward a revitalized sense of these questions.

Edward Said' s critique of orientalism, Raymond Williams's commitment to humanism, and Habermas's defense of enlightenment focus the next three chapters.  In each case, it seems to me, close consideration of the intellectual' s role the question that Snedeker' s consideration of Lukács introduces and leaves hanging would have enriched the argument.  Certainly this book makes the materials for such a consideration available.  In his brief discussions of Said's early notions of critical distance, of Williams's Gramscian orientations, and of Habermas' s Kantian rehabilitation of the public sphere, Snedeker marks the place where one might expect a more detailed account of the necessity and limitations of the intellectual' s role in the community' s political life.  Too little of that account is offered.  Instead, in each case Snedeker tends to rest with familiar criticisms of the limited political purchase afforded by representation, by intuitionism, and by communicative action.  Yet, in an important sense, Said, Williams, and Habermas have been productively influential on the development of more recent practical attempts to work out the tensions between 'conservative' epistemologies and 'progressive' politics.  In their varied influence on post-colonial theory, on cultural studies, and on critical analyses of the public sphere, each of these writers has inspired bodies of work and forms of intellectual commitment that make Snedeker' s rehearsal of these familiar criticisms seem at this late date blunt and beside the point.  More interesting, I believe, would be a consideration of how in relation to their work (and the work of many other critical intellectuals indebted to them) the question of agency and subjectivity, and the question of intellectual work and its intended constituencies, has been a vital concern. Moreover, in recent analyses of racial, gendered, sexed, and nationalized identities, their influence continues to manifest itself, though sometimes in obscure and unacknowledged ways.  These analyses, along with considerations of class, have occupied many of us in the last decades, and many of us would benefit from a new clarification of these lines of descent.  Recent attempts to articulate these questions with emergent concerns involving globalization and empire make evident the usefulness of such clarifications. Many of us feel the need for a renewed commitment to our critical pasts in order to find our ways toward future commitments.

Snedeker, oddly enough, has nothing to say about any of this, nor about any of the vast and growing literature that presses this work onward as a continuation of or a departure from what came before.  One would have welcomed his thoughts about the sequel to the story he here seeks to tell, a sequel without which the story itself remains frustratingly incomplete.  Where would Spivak and Bhabha, Butler and Sedgwick, Robbins and Mohanty to list some names very much off the cuff—and the positions they represent, figure in the ongoing attempt to search out and present alternatives and oppositions to an increasingly alarming and dangerously suffocating dominant national and global order?  Snedeker' s puzzling final chapter on Oliver Cox' s influential assessment of racism and its relationship to class, to take a final example, takes no account of the many studies of US white working class formation and its historical dependence on racialized forms of exploitation that Cox' s work continues to inspire.  Like each of these chapters, Snedeker' s book as a whole seems to stop right where it might better have started.  In saying this, I register my frustration with a book that seems too content to deliver on only part of the important work it promised to accomplish.  Still, for those who believe that these questions and these thinkers remain important and I certainly do this introduction to or reminder of these polemics and positions will be a useful tool.

Reviewed by John Michael
English Department University of Rochester