From Time to Space: When Critical Theory Turns Global

— François Cusset

Theory has become a sexy catchword within the art world. It has evolved from either a boring or intimidating imperative, resulting from the artist’s natural state of submission to the thinker, into a sexy object, subversive and demanding, critical and sparkling—what every successful show or art event requires as its key ingredient, whether you see that as a strategy or as a real improvement, and whether you see theory in that role as an enlightenment or just as another commodity. But throughout the end of the twentieth century, theory has taken on a deliberately vague and expansive meaning: it now mostly amounts to a style and posture, deprived of any predefined object, rather than a science or a dialectical moment (as it was in Kantian and post-Kantian philosophy). It is theory as a cross-disciplinary type of para-philosophical discourse, duly politicized and rhetorical, a form of intellectual performance, much more than theory as the opposite of practice or experience: theory in general, in other words, not the old art theory, a specific academic and museum-related field that by now is mostly out of fashion. In a way, the more distant from art the object of such theory is, the better and more relevant it should be for art itself: Jacques Rancière discussing education, Jean Baudrillard arguing about unreal wars, or Fredric Jameson tackling the political unconscious, will find more direct and popular uses within the art world, strangely enough, than the apparently more apt, more or less canonical texts by the likes of Erwin Panofsky, Clement Greenberg, or even George Didi-Huberman. Strange indeed, as theory, in its critical vein, was supposed to have forever indicted the process of commodification of life forms and the conquest of market shares, a process best exemplified today, precisely, by most of the art world. Strange indeed, as theory in its demanding forms had been declared infatuated and always-already serious (as opposed to fun) by the new aesthetic and cultural populisms, which rose to power in the 1980s. But not so strange, in the end, if one forgets about the art world for a minute, and considers the metamorphosis undergone by the field of theory itself, the historical transformations of critical theory over the last thirty to forty years. It is not so easy, however, to approach theory in such across-the-board, undifferentiated historical terms, to view it as a stable entity transformed by recent political and intellectual history: historicizing theory has fallen out of fashion too, banned by both a new meta-discourse on the mysteries of discourse and by the more immediate, more attractive approach of texts and concepts in terms of cultural difference and geographical displacements.

To put it bluntly, raising the question of what theory has become across the board” through the transition of the 1980s and 1990s—, i.e. between the years of counterculture and avant-gardes (1960s–1970s) and the years of neoliberalism 2.0 and the civilizational debate (2000s–2010s?)—,is now looked at with suspicion: it is immediately regarded as a form of epistemic violence, or historical naiveté, unable to expose the richly nuanced phenomena of local contexts, national destinies, cultural transfers, and transcultural chiasms. What most commentators will stress, instead, are the differences between the U.S. context, a radicalized academic teapot cut off from a reactionary mainstream society, and the French context, where conservative center-left institutions are challenged by renewed forms of activism, or between the English context, torn between Marxist resistance and the forces of privatization, and the German context, with its alternative scenes and the paradoxical consequences of re-unification. Or even worse, more infected by national/cultural stereotypes: the differences between French stylized subversion, American rhetorical schizo-culture, English postcritical phlegm and German disciplined resistance, more substantial and object-oriented—and stick to these four national artifacts, each claiming an implicit legitimacy with regards to such orders of discourse. Or again, they will stress the differences between theory’s discourse and issues at stake whether it is written by, or addressed to, a postcolonial group, a queer community, a WASP elite, or a bunch of socialist feminists. To make a long story short, I am afraid the way this question of theory’s becomings is reformulated and displaced, spatialized and culturalized, is in itself an answer to the question: theory, especially its politically savvy avant-garde known as critical theory, has parted from the social, the historical, and the directly political, and been submitted to, or redefined by, the new paradigms of cultural geography, identity politics, and the textualization of struggles. It is a discourse on and of space, more than a melancholy regarding time; it is a list and a form of offensive dialogue (or interpellation), rather than a paradox, and a sort of tragic soliloquy. I am not being nostalgic here, not necessarily suggesting we’ve gone down or lost something, since we’ve also lost a certain dogmatism of theory, a certain arrogance and totalizing approach, blind to differences and becomings; it is also evident that there are clear limits to today’s dominant brands of theory, or today’s dominant notion of what is, or should be, critical theory. Let me just add a few words on such a vast, complex, historical change of critical theory, not without specifying first that such an evolution could also be summarized, at the risk of caricature, as the transition from elitist modernism to populist postmodernism, or epitomized, in terms of journals, by the transition from the art journal October to the flowering publications in postcolonial and cultural studies starting in the early 1990s.

There are two main brands of modern, or twentieth-century, critical theory: one claiming the label and one more or less explicitly denying it. The former, the German brand revolving around the Frankfurt School and its initial attempt at hybridizing (as well as overcoming) the legacies of Marx and Freud, a brand associated with the unprecedented disasters of Nazism and World War II (from the fascism of crowds to the apocalyptic accomplishment of rationality in both Auschwitz and Hiroshima), and characterized by dialectical pessimism and historical melancholia. Then the latter, the French brand born from structuralism and the controversies it has triggered (which is why Americans have labelled it poststructuralism, before using the more cultural label French Theory), a brand more or less aptly associated with counterculture and global radical protests of the late 1960s, and characterized by a more cheerful focus on becomings and intensities, and a less totalizing approach to the interpretation of texts as well as to power structures and our contemporary institutions of discipline and control. The Adorno-Arendt-Marcuse-Benjamin brand, on the one hand, and twenty years later, the Foucault-Deleuze-Derrida-Lacan brand on the other hand; neither of them actually unified and deserving to be named brands. But what such modernist critical theory has in common is a direct way of challenging, or indicting, powers in place, rather than texts or symbols, and maintains a connection with the social and the historical, even when the first is named discourse and the second is replaced by the term becoming and also a sense, derived from a more or less direct experience of history’s tragedy (more direct for the Germans), of the necessity to create new concepts, to part from yesterday’s masters, and to further explore the domain of theory. At the end of the twentieth century, a few decades later, what we have under the label critical (or cultural) theory born from a certain reappropriation and biased reinterpretation of such modernist legacies, is something quite different, which one could summarize in the form of four main ambiguities: what we have are mostly commentators and bold reinterpreters of modernism understood as a giant Text; a form of largely textualized but necessary radical politics based on issues of identity, minority, and subjectification, at the expense of class struggles and social conflictuality; a cross-disciplinary discourse using references to philosophy, but more directly anchored in literary studies and aesthetic theory; and a more popular, more widely disseminated and maybe more democratic (or democratized) brand of critical theory stemming however from institutional logics, that of academia mostly, and to a lesser extent that of new media and the art world—whereas Adorno and Foucault, or Marcuse and Derrida were more distant from, or rather more strategically connected with, the university or other institutions.

The historical reasons for such a transition at the forefront of intellectual history are complex and far-fetched. They have to do with the kind of pedagogical double binds derived from our paradoxical modernist masters (who taught us emancipation from master thinkers but were the closer you could ever get to them). And they have to do, more obviously, with vast historical changes dating back approximately to the turn of the 1980s: the revolution of broadcast media (and ten years later of online media), the return of the repressed identitarian, from local communities to the dying Communist block, and of course the sweeping conquest of the Western world by neoliberalism and neoconservatism, with its deregulating and commodifying forces—started in 1979–1980 with the double rise to power of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the U.S. In this unprecedented context, critical theory, or whatever you might understand to be behind this troubled label, will never be the same again. It has fragmented, if not dismantled, its dimensions of textual criticism and social critique, or its micropolitics and its macropolitics (as Deleuzians would have it); both have now split, parted from each other, available as separate options, sometimes incompatible (as identity politics and social politics often are), rather than cohesive components of the same approach. Its disciplinary proponents are now many, largely de-territorialized moving away from the discourse (or counter-discourse) of continental philosophy. Its references and principal sources are more eclectic than ever, a hotchpotch of bits and pieces, quotes and proper names, fetishized names-of-concepts and revered silhouettes, far from the dual critique (and redeployment) of just Marx and Freud which the initial type of critical theory inaugurated in the first half of the twentieth century. Its audiences and users are to be found everywhere, at the crossroads rather than the center of its most obvious destinations (or milieus of reception), university departments in the humanities, alternative media and political activists with either a literary bias or a focus on minority thinking, and indeed the art world, or worlds for that matter. And having de-totalized, hybridized and made terminally suspicious the vast abstract entities which its initial twentieth-century forms had intended to deconstruct, i.e. capital, power, society, or bourgeois subjectivity, critical theory no longer has topical priorities or thèmes de prédilection, a clear axis or argument, but instead an almost endless list of targets and objects, of methods and cultural epistemes, which make it run the risk of losing its initial tight grip, of being everywhere and nowhere, everywhere thus nowhere: we’re all critical theorists, those who claim to be the sole legitimate ones only reproduce old strategies of hegemony, therefore no one is really a critical theorist, which might become a qualifier, a media label, rather than a clear denomination.

But there is also good news behind this dissolving, fragmented picture of today’s commodified realm of ubiquitous critical theory. A true democratization of its uses, its academic training, and its discursive production, including the relative absence of master thinkers alive today, is a great opportunity for more timid creators of concepts and for the most brilliant commentators of the time; if not a true de-Westernization of critical theory, then at least a displacement of its geo-cultural epicenter, far from its Eurocentric origins and even its exclusively American period; and for more recent historical reasons (here we obviously lack historical distance) a more direct and urgent take on our global economic, cultural, environmental, and political disasters than was the case during the golden age of symbolic repair, identitarian recognition, and political correctness, almost twenty years ago already—since the systemic crisis of financial capitalism (now fully revealed), the revolutions which have swept through the Arab world, and the reawakening of a robust popular anti-capitalist movement in the First World are three good reasons, at least, to make critical theory operational again, to find relevant and non-rhetorical uses and applications for it, here and now, onsite, urgently. The challenge for critical theory, beyond its trendy market tactics and new intellectual weaknesses, is to be up to this great historical moment, to accompany and maybe even perform it, rather than just comment it endlessly, always in retrospect. In that sense at least, we can finally bid a definite farewell to that cloudy nonsense so popular during the 1980s and 1990s.