For the Slow Work of Critique in Critical Times

With so many crises—environmental, humanitarian, racial, viral, and economic—the work of “critique” can seem to be a luxury. But is it?

In critical times, do we still need the slow and subtle work of critique? Bernard Harcourt, coeditor, with Didier Fassin, of A Time for Critique, raises doubts, writing that “critique was always sharper when it confronted liberal ideology … using the aspirations and ideals of its object of critique to motivate a reassessment. … But when the opposition is openly racist, sexist, homophobic, nationalistic, and supremacist, there is little to be gained by immanent critique. In the struggle over values, there is hardly any need for sophisticated critical theory.” Our targets are obvious, the needs immediate.

The politics of crisis can seem to render the probing examination of aspirations, ideals, and values—in short, of ethics—an unnecessary distraction from more pressing tasks. And yet an attentive reader of Fassin and Harcourt’s volume, which was provoked by the political turmoil of recent years, will notice that the chapters are animated by a pervasive, if largely unremarked, moral lexicon. The authors speak of “solidarity,” “freedom,” “hope,” “community,” “justice,” “fairness,” “dignity,” “humiliation,” “decency,” and “deservingness,” and make value-laden references to “democracy,” “safety,” and “the collective.” The normative claims may remain implicit, but still they are unavoidable. Indeed, what would the political be without them?

Still, in the midst of present dangers—environmental, humanitarian, and political crises, and now (since the book’s publication) pandemic and economic disaster, and the onset of a sweeping antiracist movement—critique can seem to be a luxury.1 Problems like these can appear so obvious as to require little further reflection. They give contemporary life to Marx’s exhortation not to interpret the world but to change it.

What, then, is the purpose of critique in a moment like this? What does it propose, and whom does it address? What is the work of critique, and what are its possibilities and limits?

First, critique is not simply “criticism.” Criticism asserts that something is wrong. The critic attempts to unveil the truth of a reality that others misrecognize. Critical observation contains a normative avowal pitted against a state of affairs. Critics unmask in order to judge: things should not be the way they are. They take the facts as knowable and assume that the critic and the audience share some moral bearings.

By contrast, critique brings an ethical imagination to bear on the very conditions of possibility for our present circumstances. It aspires less to unmask falsehood than to compel its audience to see matters in a different—but not necessarily truer—light.2 It is not always negative. After all, Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason wasn’t an attack on reason but an effort to identify the fundamental conditions that make reason possible.3

If the pace of criticism is urgent and may demand immediate action, critique can be slow and indirect, and often raises more questions than it answers. The aim of critique is to open up what we can imagine.

Seen in this light, critique helps drive intellectual inquiry. For example: historically contingent ways of being—like those tied to gender or race, or to the value of work and the desire for endless profit—can feel, within their own time, utterly natural. Delineating such contingencies and how they become naturalized has long given purpose to the human sciences, such as anthropology, sociology, history, and certain strains of political science and economics. Yet how did these disciplines arrive at such a purpose? The answer is that such empirical questions don’t come out of thin air; instead, they are often prompted by the theoretical work of critique.

Critique investigates the assumptions that underwrite the way things seem to be, as well as their sources. However, like criticism, its focus on matters such as gender, race, or economic value also rests on an underlying judgment. The practitioner of critique must believe that examining these categories of identity and worth contains some potential to emancipate its audience. Otherwise, why engage in it at all?

Critique is rarely a matter of disinterested inquiry. By dissolving the categories that define our lives and values, however, critique risks disabling or deferring a reckoning with these categories’ harms and undercutting the basis of political solidarity with others.

The essays in A Time for Critique respond to the political events of 2016, which have so dramatically mobilized categories like race, gender, and economic worth. And yet they avoid the temptation to address fast-breaking events straight-on. In light of the anxieties and doubts prompted by the sharp rightward turn in global politics, Fassin and Harcourt enjoined the contributors to consider the fundamental nature of their intellectual enterprises.

Harcourt, along with several other contributors, accepts Foucault’s definition of critique as “the art of not being governed in this way,” which implicitly links practices of resistance to our ability to reflect on the world as it seems to be, with its suggestion that there is another way.4 Critique is thus as much an ethical practice, concerned with human flourishing, as it is a political one. Quoting Foucault, Fassin affirms that critique is “akin to virtue”; it is a mode of ethical self-transformation.

Nonetheless, this raises a nagging question: To the extent that people are shaped by and inhabit the world as it is given to them, what enables them to step outside it to propose an alternative?


Stop Hyping Academic Freedom

By Simon During

One answer turns on the normative idea of progress: we imagine how the future will judge us. But can we be sure of that future judgment? Anthropologist Fadi Bardawil argues against narrow or predetermined views of history’s direction. Specifically, Bardawil targets those on the European left who—in thrall to accepted narratives of history’s forward motion—cannot take seriously the claims of Syrian rebels seeking their solidarity.

For the secular leftist, argues Bardawil, Muslim rebels who seem too religious, and bourgeois ones too uncritical of capitalism, don’t always count as potential allies (as being properly political) and, perhaps, don’t even count as their contemporaries in a progressive, secular world. The European leftist might say that those who take religion seriously or disregard the evils of capitalism simply fail to take their place in the moral narrative of modernity. Addressing European leftists, Bardawil shows how they unwittingly pit one shared value (their commitment to progress) against another (their anticolonialism).

The question “Whom is critique for?” beckons toward the community it addresses. With this in mind, political scientist Linda Zerilli invokes Hannah Arendt to insist that intellectuals engage with “the opinions of the many.” Practices of freedom, like critique, depend on recognizing social connection both as an object of inquiry and as a spur to analysis. Zerilli’s is a salutary warning against the self-isolation of elite theorists, and a reminder that critique is a distributed practice.5

We are not entirely at liberty, however, to choose which of “the many” to count among our fellows, or who is prepared to include us; communities are not natural features of the landscape. Thinkers should look beyond the intellectual’s usual enclaves to address and learn from those for whom critique resonates.

For instance, prisoners who study texts smuggled from cell to cell hardly consider reading and writing to be luxuries. Their political engagement with texts is crucial to the ethical mission of “laying bare, describing the world carefully in all its awful and mundane violence,” writes legal scholar Allegra McLeod.

The ethical can inspire critique in other ways too. “Irritations of doubt,” as political analyst Nick Cheesman calls them, often emerge as an inchoate pressure rather than as the violation of a principle. Queerness, argues historian and anthropologist Vanja Hamzić (quoting José Esteban Muñoz), can be “that thing that lets us feel that this world is not enough, that indeed something is missing.”

What is the purpose of critique in a moment like this? What does it propose, and whom does it address? What is the work of critique, and what are its possibilities and limits?

But what is that missing thing? When we are faced with the inarticulate sensation of being out of joint, the alternatives are often assumed, unspoken, or unknown. It is the work of critique to discover and give words to the unspoken. But the book’s editors claim that ethics does not require a prior set of collective norms. What, then, makes the ethical recognizable? Who can speak in critique? And to whom?

Consider how McLeod’s description of the prisoner’s reading and writing practices illuminates the dynamics of critique. “Addressing himself in the third person in his petition,” McLeod says, the convict in solitary confinement offers “a description in his own words of the first-person perspective of someone subject to this treatment … sharpened through the process of developing a collective understanding of these shared experiences.” The prisoner’s writing conveys the authority and particularity of one who has suffered specific harms. His prose, however, maintains distance from the immediacy of subjective experience. It is the act of engaging texts together with other prisoners that produces the third-person stance.

Reading and writing, therefore, help the prisoners observe their shared suffering as if from the outside. This perspective enables them to depict their individual experiences as parts of a pattern of systemic abuse, one articulated with yet-larger social, economic, and political structures.

What might seem an isolated case of mistreatment—when viewed from the first-person stance—becomes fully political when portrayed as part of something more general, a pattern visible only when individuals see the similarities across cases—that is, when employing the third-person stance.

That collective work articulates critique’s emergent ethics. The prisoner’s text brings first- and third-person stances together by addressing readers directly. This second-person address demands their acknowledgment.

Each of these three perspectives is indispensable to an ethical accounting, one that is not fully laid out in advance.6 The first-person utterance alone might be no more than a solitary lament; the third-person stance provides context and analysis but offers little reason for the listener to care. The second-person address—the you—can elicit concern, forge solidarity, and instigate action. Critique requires both distance and affiliation, and passages between them.


When Secularism Fails Women

By Pamela E. Klassen

Fassin stresses the need for a middle way, between the voices of the oppressed and those who view their condition from a distance. He wants to define a critical practice that can “acknowledge the social intelligence of agents as well as recognize the need for an intellectual autonomy of social scientists.” Each perspective has to be involved; neither is uniquely privileged.

The problem is that not all perspectives count at all times. As Europe’s colonies were fighting for independence, the Afro-Caribbean author and politician Aimé Césaire resigned from the Communist Party because its political categories of worker and capitalist rendered it unable to recognize the specificity of anticolonial and antiracist struggles. He hoped instead that “the doctrine and the movement would be made to fit men, not men to fit the doctrine or the movement.” Bardawil echoes Césaire’s complaint when he says the European left was unable to accept Syrian rebels because the rebels didn’t fit their existing secular models.

Can progressive thought escape its own provincialism?7 Even such an eclectic and multidisciplinary volume as this one taps a relatively narrow pool of conceptual resources in Western philosophy and political theory. It draws especially on poststructuralism and the Frankfurt School’s cultural Marxism, with a nod or two toward the liberal-minded, can-do style of the pragmatism advanced by Peirce and Dewey. The tacit assumption is that critique is of the left, its values democratic, egalitarian, tolerant, cosmopolitan, feminist, antiracist, its ontology materialist and atheist—and that these values are, or should be, universal.

To live up to its pretensions, however, critique’s practitioners must be able to recognize not just circumstances but the people who live in them. In doing so, they can’t count on others to see matters as they do, in familiar, or even agreeable, forms.8 Responses to oppression might, for example, run to monarchist enthusiasm, pious quietism, millenarian utopianism, prophetic rupture, and populisms of every stripe.9 Accusing others of false consciousness or denouncing their failure to share the ethical sensibilities or political aspirations of intellectuals in the North may recall a lingering imperialist outlook.

Such admonitions against those beyond one’s own worldview risk losing that crucial capacity for second-person address, which the prisoner’s writing exemplifies. They also restrict the imagining of alternative possibilities that invigorates critique.

Critique that cannot or will not take seriously alien viewpoints on the world is in danger of reproducing the very ethnocentrism it seeks to challenge. To avoid this, critique’s practitioners must reflect on its taken-for-granted ethics, along with the secular, materialist worldview, and assumptions about linear history, on which it depends.10

The work of critique cannot be defined solely by events, with their jumpy temporality and blatant culprits. Instead, it must undertake what Harcourt calls “the slow, time-consuming labor of shaping ideas and desires.”

True, critique can only be just one endeavor among many others. Amid the urgency of crisis, it can seem perverse to call for slow work; even the most circumspect practitioner of critique must acknowledge that some harms demand immediate action. But sometimes decisiveness can also rob us of self-knowledge.

Drawing together first- and third-person perspectives, critique provides languages to dissect, persuade, dispute, enlist, encourage, propose, invent, and imagine, so that others may do so as well. Through second-person address—such as that employed by the prisoner—critique may summon forth new solidarities and emergent communities. Working at its own pace, critique can reveal the ethical wellsprings of people’s political commitments, so they know better why they act and what they can hope for.


This article was commissioned by Matthew Engelke. icon

  1. Janet Roitman, Anti-Crisis (Duke University Press, 2013).
  2. See David Owens’s Wittgensteinian reading of Foucault in “Criticism and Captivity: On Genealogy and Critical Theory,” European Journal of Philosophy, vol. 10, no. 2 (2002).
  3. For this distinction see Judith Butler, “The Sensibility of Critique: Response to Asad and Mahmood,” in Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech, edited by Talal Asad, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, and Saba Mahmood (Townsend Center for the Humanities, 2009), pp. 108–9.
  4. Michel Foucault, “What Is Critique?,” in The Politics of Truth: Michel Foucault, edited by Lysa Hochroch and Catherine Porter (Semiotexte, 1978).
  5. See Tania Murray Li, “The Practice of Critique: A Comment on Fassin,” Anthropological Theory, vol. 17, no. 2 (2017).
  6. Webb Keane, Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories (Princeton University Press, 2016).
  7. Amy Allen, The End of Progress: Decolonizing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory (Columbia University Press, 2016).
  8. Talal Asad, “Free Speech, Blasphemy, and Secular Criticism,” and Saba Mahmood, “Religious Reason and Secular Affect: An Incommensurable Divide?,” in Is Critique Secular?
  9. See, for instance, Matthew Engelke and Joel Robbins, “Global Christianity, Global Critique,” The Immanent Frame, Oct. 21, 2010.
  10. Webb Keane, “Saba Mahmood and the Paradoxes of Self-Parochialization,” Public Books, August 3, 2018.
Featured image: Jacques Louis David French, The Death of Socrates (1787). Metropolitan Museum of Art