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EdgeworkCritical Essays on Knowledge and Politics
By Wendy Brown
Princeton University PressCopyright © 2005 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneUNTIMELINESS AND PUNCTUALITY: CRITICAL THEORY IN DARK TIMES
Criticism is not an "homage" to the truth of the past or to the truth of "others"-it is a construction of the intelligibility of our own time. -ROLAND BARTHES, "What Is Criticism?"
THIS ESSAY reflects on timeliness and untimeliness in critical political theory. It works outside the intellectual circuits through Twhich both problems are conventionally routed-those offered by Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, and the Frankfurt School-in order to feature aspects of the relationship between political time and critique overshadowed by these traditions of thought. Foucault once defined critique as "the art of not being governed quite so much," and these reflections might be taken in the spirit of a refusal to be governed quite so much by critical theory's traditional intellectual signposts. They accord, too, with Benjamin's counsel to "wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it," a wresting Benjamin thought could be enabled through igniting images of the past different from those the present routinely paints for or as itself. We begin with three tales from contemporary political life, each of which poses a conundrum forthe time of critique.
1. The "Geneva Accords," an unofficial framework for a peace settlement between Palestinians and Israeli Jews, were signed amid much fanfare by selected Palestinian and Israeli representatives in December 2003. Designed to model what "the people" wanted and could agree on (as opposed to what intransigent official leadership would do) and to represent a replacement of earlier negotiation processes, including the Oslo Accords, the Geneva Accords mapped in considerable detail a contemporary two-state solution to the enduring, bloody conflict in the Middle East.
Both committed Zionists and Palestinian militants rejected the Geneva Accords as selling out their interests. Ariel Sharon condemned the document out of hand, and even Labor Party Prime Minister Ehud Barak heaped scorn on it. Most Palestinian organizations also rejected it. In addition, many progressives committed to a just peace in the Middle East viewed the accords as representing compromises of Palestinian aspirations and entitlements too great to swallow: they largely gave up the Palestinian right of return (leaving the matter for Israel alone to determine), left intact a number of Jewish settlements (including those around East Jerusalem), and more generally represented significant Israeli incursions into Palestinian territory. In addition, for many committed democrats, the time of the two-state solution, if it had ever existed, had passed, for practical as well as principled reasons. Such critics argued that the aspiration for democracy and peace in the Middle East required a reckoning with the antidemocratic heart of a Zionist state that is also a colonial one, and insisted on the importance of formulating a binational state that would harbor Palestinians and Jews on a one-person, one-vote basis.
Critics in this last group were themselves harshly condemned by supporters of the Geneva Accords. In essence the condemnation ran: "You are holding out for utopia while we are modeling real-world solutions. If you truly care about peace in the Middle East, then you must support the accords. If you do not support them, you care more about your abstract ideals than about politics."
2. Once John Kerry emerged as the clear nominee of the Democratic Party for the 2004 presidential elections, Ralph Nader threw his hat into the ring. While delighting Republicans, Nader's move infuriated most liberals and leftists, including many who had voted for Nader in 2000. "Anybody but Bush" was the cry of the day, which meant that every voter had to line up behind the emerging Democratic Party nominee, whatever one's misgivings about him. Nader was a selfish spoiler, fit for nothing more than denunciation.
A few small voices, however, suggested that Nader was doing what he has always done: namely, working publicly to remind America that obscenely gerrymandered political districts and two corporately financed political parties do not a democracy make. What was the harm of this reminder when Nader knows full well that we all-perhaps even Nader himself-would vote for Kerry in November? And if not during election season, when else could this point be made as powerfully and vividly? What if Nader's candidacy were to make Kerry even slightly more accountable to the citizenry and less beholden to corporate interests? Above all, what if Nader's candidacy, based largely on a critique of the corrupt and antidemocratic aspects of the existing electoral and party system, became a way to infiltrate the media lockout of such critique?
3. In early January 2004, recently elected Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco declared that the city would commence granting marriage licenses to same-sex partners. In the ensuing weeks, as thousands of lesbian and gay couples descended on San Francisco's City Hall, other cities in California and in New York, New Jersey, and Oregon jumped on the bandwagon. Suddenly, gay marriage was the civil rights issue of the day. The marriages themselves were compared by liberal pundits to the bus and lunch-counter boycotts of the black civil rights movement. The New York Times gave gay marriage a ringing endorsement and, along with scores of other American newspapers and magazines, carried joyous pictures and stories of gay couples tying the knot. When, after four weeks, the California Supreme Court ruled against Newsom's initiative and halted San Francisco's issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples, San Francisco's gay district, the Castro, exploded. Under the slogan "We demand the equal right to marry," demonstrators rallied and chanted through the night.
Meanwhile, those who were dubious about either the egalitarian or emancipatory aspects of the right to marry-whether from feminist, queer, left, or anti-statist perspectives-were largely reduced to silence. So much as mentioning that marriage has functioned historically to secure women's subordination and male privilege, to hoard wealth and transmit property, and to regulate sexuality, ethnicity, race, class, and nation was tantamount to throwing dirt in the punch bowl. Just as unmentionable was the fact that as a state- and religiously granted "status," marriage itself buttresses the intermingled power and authority of church and state, which together secure and regulate marriage as the legitimate modality for love, for sex, and for child rearing. Equally unspeakable was the suggestion that gays and lesbians promulgating marriage as the ultimate sanctification of love between two people were biting from the same mythohistorical muffin as anti-gay conservatives declaring marriage to be timeless and transcendent in meaning. If this was a civil rights battle, there was no room to cast doubt or aspersion on the value or the meaning of the right being fought for. It is therefore hardly surprising that when a threesome unsuccessfully sought a marriage license from San Francisco city officials, they were jeered by their fellow queers: "You're ruining it for all of us," yelled the wedding-besotted crowd as the triplet of sexual deviants walked away from the courthouse.
Despite the variation in their political significance, these three political episodes feature a common conservative and moralizing rejection of critique as untimely. "It is not the time," declare the workers in the political trenches to the critics, a retort that invokes time in the triple sense of (1) the timing relevant to successful political campaigns, (2) the constrained or dark political times we feel ourselves to be in, and (3) appropriateness, mannerliness, or civility-timeliness as temperateness about when, how, and where one raises certain issues or mentions certain problems. The first sense is concerned with strategy and efficiency in reaching a defined political end, the second speaks to holding back the dark, and the third invokes maturity and propriety against infantilism or indecorousness. Critique is taken to be at best irrelevant, at worst damaging, to the value represented by each.
The rebuff of critical theory as untimely provides the core matter of the affirmative case for it. Critical theory is essential in dark times not for the sake of sustaining utopian hopes, making flamboyant interventions, or staging irreverent protests, but rather to contest the very senses of time invoked to declare critique untimely. If the charge of untimeliness inevitably also fixes time, then disrupting this fixity is crucial to keeping the times from closing in on us. It is a way of reclaiming the present from the conservative hold on it that is borne by the charge of untimeliness.
To insist on the value of untimely political critique is not, then, to refuse the problem of time or timing in politics but rather to contest settled accounts of what time it is, what the times are, and what political tempo and temporality we should hew to in political life. Untimeliness deployed as an effective intellectual and political strategy, far from being a gesture of indifference to time, is a bid to reset time. Intellectual and political strategies of successful untimeliness therefore depend on a close engagement with time in every sense of the word. They are concerned with timing and tempo. They involve efforts to grasp the times by thinking against the times. They attempt, as Nietzsche put it, to "overcome the present" by puncturing the present's "overvaluation of itself," an overcoming whose aim is to breathe new possibility into the age. If our times are dark, what could be more important?
To make the argument for critical theory as a hope rather than a luxury in dark times, we will need to think first a bit about critique, then about political time, and then about their relation.
Critique is an old term that derives from the Greek krisis. As the term flowered in modernity-and indeed, with Kant, came in part to define modernity-this connection between krisis and critique has been partly sustained, partly cast off. In ancient Athens, krisis was a jurisprudential term identified with the art of making distinctions, an art considered essential to judging and rectifying an alleged disorder in or of the democracy. (In contrast to contemporary concerns with distinguishing the two, in its original usage critique is an explicit project of judgment.) Since, in Athenian democracy, a defendant was also a citizen and Senate member, and the subset of the Senate constituting the jury also judged and sentenced the defendant, krisis referred to a scene in which the object, agent, process, and result of critique were intermingled. Procedurally, juridical krisis thus consisted of recognizing an objective crisis and convening subjective critics who then passed a critical judgment and provided a formula for restorative action. Socratic critique converges with this practice in its dialectical and dialogical aspect, but breaks with it as it replaces an adjudicated truth with the search for a philosophical one. With the latter move, Socratic critique itself becomes a critique of the originally democratic and holistic form of krisis; embodied in the Republic and literalized in Socrates' defense at his trial (see Plato's Apology), the form, content, aim, and venue of Socratic philosophy is a critique of Athenian critique and, as such, of Athenian democracy.
The sifting and sorting entailed in Greek krisis focused on distinguishing the true from the false, the genuine from the spurious, the beautiful from the ugly, and the right from the wrong, distinctions that involved weighing pros and cons of particular arguments-that is, evaluating and eventually judging evidence, reasons, or reasoning. Krisis thus comes close to what we would today call deliberation, and its connotations are quite remote from either negativity or scholasticism. Since this practice also has a restorative aim in relation to the literal crisis provoking it, there could be no such thing as "mere critique," "indulgent critique," or even "untimely critique." Rather, the project of critique is to set the times right again by discerning and repairing a tear in justice through practices that are themselves exemplary of the justice that has been rent.
Again, this complex origin is evident in the way the project of philosophical critique takes shape for Socrates. Socratic critique was born of a monumental crisis, responding to the catastrophe of the Peloponnesian War, which resulted not simply in a lost empire but in a profoundly degraded, corrupted, and disoriented democracy. In this context, Socrates conceived the task of critique in keeping with the conceptual lines of the original krisis-to sort, sift, and set the times to rights-but as he made Athenian conceptions and practices of justice themselves the object of critique, he worked to remove from the hands of the demos the process of sorting and judging entailed in critique. Reconceived by Socrates as a philosophical activity both deriving from and producing individual virtue, even critique that involved discerning the nature of political justice was hived off from the political-juridical domain. This hiving off is explicitly expressed and defended in the Apology when Socrates explains his limited participation in Athenian political life by pointing out the impossibility of pursuing critique (and hence virtue) there. Thus critique loses its jurisprudential and political status and comes to be constituted as viable only at a certain remove from political life. Paradoxically, Socrates depicts critique both as inherently marginalized and neutered by politics if it refuses this remove, and yet as politically potent if it can ascertain the right degree of remove. Socrates responds to the collapse of Athenian holism, then, by ontologically separating the domains of politics and critical theory, at which point critical theory becomes (and has been ever after) a gadfly.
Etymologically, after antiquity, criticism and critique move apart from crisis, save for a certain sustained connection in the field of medicine, a usage that, according to Reinhart Kosseleck, developed in Latin in the Middle Ages to designate "the crucial stage of a disease in which a decision had to be made but had not yet been reached." Crisis and criticism as a demand for judgment remain closely intertwined here, as indicated by the contemporary medical designation critical condition. Tellingly, we do not speak of the condition of someone mortally wounded or dying alone or among laypersons as "critical"; rather, this terminology is reserved for the dangerously ill within a medical facility or least in the presence of medical personnel, indicating that accurate diagnosis and judgments about appropriate interventions potentially stand between life and death. This meaning lingers in political crisis as well. When we call a threshold moment in an international standoff, in negotiations, or in a campaign "critical," we signal the need for accurate assessment and effective strategies of action, all in a context designated as urgent. A critical condition is thus a particular kind of call: an urgent call for knowledge, deliberation, judgment, and action to stave off catastrophe.
What is interesting in this contemporary trace of the old usage is the sustained linking of the objective and subjective dimensions of critique, the ways in which a worldly event or phenomenon, whether a collapsed empire or a diseased body, connects a specific condition with an immediate need to comprehend by sifting, sorting, or separating its elements, to judge, and to respond to it. Also noteworthy is the way that critique is linked to temporal rupture and repair; critique as political krisis promises to restore continuity by repairing or renewing the justice that gives an order the prospect of continuity, that indeed makes it continuous.
Excerpted from Edgework by Wendy Brown Copyright © 2005 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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