Lecture at Critical Theory Roundtable

I am pleased to have the opportunity to present at the Critical Theory Roundtable at Penn State on 11/13. The entire program is available here. The abstract of the long version of my paper (of which I will only present a small part) is available below.

“Critical and Radical Theory”
What can theory do? Or, perhaps better, what does theory do? How does it operate, and what are its social, political and economic stakes and impacts? How does the intelligentsia as a class contribute to the perpetuation or transformation of inherited power structures? How do its theoretical activities and its institutionalized forms manifest and position themselves in relation to the material matrix of society as a whole?

In engaging with these general questions, this paper charts a very specific course. It begins by revisiting the history of one of perhaps the most important intellectual traditions of the 20th century that was explicitly dedicated to mobilizing theoretical tools for social emancipation: Frankfurt School critical theory. After outlining its intellectual contribution, it raises a series of questions regarding the political stakes of its historiography, its concrete sociopolitical positions, as well as its social reputation, foregrounding in particular the ways in which this tradition has resisted and marginalized progressive political radicalism. Given the original impetus of the early critical theorists to situate subjects and knowledge claims in the objective social world, this paper then redeploys its dialectical tendencies by inquiring into the need for a social critique of critical reason, and more specifically of the traditional critical theory that characterizes the contemporary conjuncture. It goes on to examine whether the combined decrescendo of certain Marxist discourses within the academy and the ear-piercing crescendo of imperial neoliberalism has certain leftist intellectuals working at counter-purposes: paying rhetorical lip service to a vague Marxian heritage while defanging its critical bite and realigning “critique” on a reformist agenda within the dominant system of capitalism and corporate political rule.

The taming of critical theory in the age of neoliberal hegemony and the ideological realignment of the intelligentsia leads to a broader conjunctural question, which directly echoes Michel Foucault’s famous interpretation of Immanuel Kant: what is critique today? Revisiting and rethinking resources from the critical theory tradition stretching back into its Marxist roots, while simultaneously retooling historiography and the very notion of historical resources, the paper calls for a radicalization of critique to shake it out of its neoliberal academic slumbers. Parting ways with linear, sequentialist and dialectical historiographies, it revisits important themes from the radical theoretical work of the Marxist and anarchist legacies while simultaneously rethinking their relations to one another and to the present. It also maps out an international constellation of contemporary radical theory—reaching from figures like Arundhati Roy to Samir Amin and Murray Bookchin—that provides important reference points for cultivating a modality of critique that is cross-cultural and deeply historical, systemic and scientific, autonomous and undisciplined, attentive and affirmative, praxeological and emancipatory. In relation to the academic tradition of critical theory, radical theory seeks to return to the roots of critique in order to attack the foundations of systemic problems. It thereby aims at reinventing what it is that we do as thinkers, how and where we do it, and the ways in which the powers of theory can be collectively mobilized against the powers that be.


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