Bad Versions

Observing the contemporary theoretical terrain, there’s a certain operation that I find rather striking — both in its valorization and in its predominance. We might call this an operation of resuscitation, revival, or rejuvenation (though, for my own reasons, I would call it — or at least locate it within a field of — conversion). This operation is one in which a term, or point of reference, that appears to have become outmoded is taken up and (re)valorized. I imagine that there are a number of instances of such terms, but the ones that jump out to me most immediately include “universalism,” “normativity,” and “Hegel.” While there may be various differences between the specific versions of such revalorizations, I am interested in an overarching commonality among them. This commonality, once again, is operational: the revalorized term is advanced in connection with a readiness to turn aside critiques of the term as belonging only to the “bad version” of the term, but not to the revalorized term. In other words, the operation goes something like this: “of course I understand that you have a deeply critical relation to ‘universalism / normativity / Hegel,’ and you are absolutely right to maintain such a relation — provided that you come to realize that this critical relation belongs to the bad version of ‘universalism / normativity / Hegel,’ and thus not to my revalorized version of this term.” (Shorter versions of this include “trust that your problems have been recognized and — at least in principle — overcome” and “Dad is not so bad.”)

Instances of this operation have varying degrees of argumentation or explanation substantiating the differentiation made between the bad and revalorized versions. My point, here, is simply to call attention to the operation as operation — how it operates, and that it is so common. This operation seems to me to be inevitably conservative or — more analytically — to be tied to a certain historical narrative about theory, according to which it is said (explicitly or implicitly): “we’ve spent a lot of time on theories of difference, of poststructuralism, and of the interconnected attentiveness to questions of race, gender, and coloniality, and we’ve learned a lot from all of that, but it’s time, now, to get back to doing …” what, exactly? The debate, I’m saying, seems to be about how to complete that ellipse, which is to say the debate is no longer about all that stuff prior to the ellipse. In other words, the openness of that ellipse serves to foreclose (and to elide the foreclosure of) the sort of questions that were opened by what came before the ellipse.

This, then, is the striking narratival force of the operation. I would add that this narratival force is actually intrinsic to the logic of such terms themselves. What universalism, normativity, and Hegel have in common is the capacity — a capacity, by the way, that is grounded in nothing other than a sort of sovereign self-assertion — to present themselves in terms of neutral abstraction, or of intrinsic symmetry, and in doing so to set it up so that the field of disagreement about the term’s value is already enfolded within the field of the term. “Do you not see that your critique of universalism / normativity / Hegel, in order to realize itself, must (in some renewed sense) affirm universalism / normativity / Hegel?” So what we are seeing, with the operation I’m noting — the framing of all critiques of universalism / normativity / Hegel as belonging only (or, I’d add, to definitionally) to a bad version of universalism / normativity / Hegel — amounts to the bare assertion of these terms. Or, we might say, it amounts to the reproductive futurity not of the Child but rather of the Father, of the inherited name / name of inheritance, against which we must insist on: “stop.”

20 Responses to “Bad Versions”

  1. Joshua Mostafa Says:

    Interesting, but I’m not sure how this is different from a dialectic?

  2. Jazz Feyer-Salo Says:

    I think you might be blunting the critique of “the contemporary theoretical terrain”.

    On the productive side:

    “the revalorized term is advanced in connection with a readiness to turn aside critiques of the term as belonging only to the “bad version” of the term, but not to the revalorized term.”

    I think someone of this “terrain” would argue that the critiques are not “turned aside” in order to advance a “revalorized” (again, a certain telling dramatic flair with that term) notion of these terms but rather one must go through the critiques and come out the other side. So, it isn’t simply a Paternal move.

    On the negative side:

    “This operation seems to me to be inevitably conservative or — more analytically — to be tied to a certain historical narrative about theory, according to which it is said (explicitly or implicitly): “we’ve spent a lot of time on theories of difference, of poststructuralism, and of the interconnected attentiveness to questions of race, gender, and colonially, and we’ve learned a lot from all of that, but it’s time, now, to get back to doing …” what, exactly?”

    When not stated explicitly, figures in this “terrain” are acting on a premise that has been previously shored up. When you isolate the premise “we’ve done this and its all well and good, but now we must get on with…” from the previous arguments that do the work to make it cogent, it’s no surprise that it would then seem like a shaky first move.

    But of course, the more appropriate and productive (but slightly harder) thing to do would be to stop giving topological surveys and actually isolate people and their arguments. (Now who is being Paternal? “I know you think your doing something new, but, trust me, I’ve been there.” It would seem that différance is the new Daddy)

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Your triad reminds me of Marx’s “Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham.”

  4. Matt Frost Says:

    The risk here is that you are claiming that abuse does in fact vitiate use. Nobody should make that claim without thorough grounds for it; that has resulted in premature dismissal of useful concepts because those in power find them worthy of nothing but critique. (My favorite example being “apocalyptic” in biblical studies.) Sure, you want to invert the paradigm, and let claims of abuse from below determine the inutility of a concept, rather than from above, but the same problem pertains.

    The example you’ve chosen is a poor one, precisely because only your enemy will disagree with the problem as framed, and they’re already your enemy, so why do you care? You wish to categorize the basic move of acknowledging criticism and pursuing better-functioning versions of a concept as invalid, but you have not done enough work to prove it in more marginal cases. Shall we refuse to redeem any concept that seems potentially useful, simply because it has been abused? If attempts to do so fail to escape the problem, or find new problems, does this prove that it should not have been attempted? At what point should one not attempt to see whether a field can be traversed safely?

    The straw white man “accepting” and actually bracketing claims of abuse fails you here; you picked a case where something should be condemned, but I can’t help but think that you’ve generalized it badly.

  5. Matt Frost Says:

    Put less stridently: there is a certain amount of naivete that we expect from students, and we are certainly obliged to teach them to develop solid evaluative criteria, which should above all include “don’t use concepts in ways that result in abuse of others.” And there are absolutely minefields we should mark off as such, which are of great use in demonstrating what happens when we do it wrong. There are fields across which perhaps a safe path might be found, but which aren’t worth crossing because there are safer and more expedient alternatives that meet the need. But the question seems more appropriately about the needs and desired ends, and the failures far more often about our attraction to the means as self-affirming, meaning that we have misplaced the question of needs and ends.

  6. Laboria Cuboniks 0.2 (@nervemeter) Says:

    Hey Dan,
    I think you’re right about the kind of conservative defensive reflexes that this tactic can encourage. On the other hand, isn’t the alternative to re-adapting and dividing traditional concepts just to maintain an entirely negative relation to the history of thought? I must be missing a third alternative, since this blog itself makes a habit of sifting odd interesting kernels out of traditions that, on the whole, have been quite oppressive (the Abrahamic religions, for example). I think you’re right to do this, to try to dissect and repurpose bits of those traditions in ways that don’t (or are less likely to) create monsters prone to colonization, inquisition, crusade, theocracy, and so on. But how would you distinguish — here it goes — the “good version” of distinguishing between good and bad versions, from the “bad version”?

  7. danbarber Says:

    Joshua, more or less yes, though i suppose my point would be not “all this is really just the dialectic” but rather “the dialectic really is all of this.”

    Matt, I’m not sure that I follow your argument.

    Laboria, i guess I’d say, broadly, that my interest is to give attention to this operation — to say, this operation is happening, and then from there to try to evade that operation, antagonize that operation, etc. That’s experimental, but that’s what is at stake (for me). In terms of good / bad distinctions, of course i do think there are ways to parse these out in terms of readings (i.e. there can be a bad reading of thinker X, etc), but at the level of these operations of normativity, etc., my point would be that the operation is “prior” to (articulates the frame of) the good / bad. In other words, the articulation of good vs. bad is actually an enactment of the term being articulated as good and/or bad. Hence my claim that these terms are matters of sovereignty. In terms of repurposing, i can’t speak for others who post here, but for my own part — in the work i’ve done i’ve always attended to, let’s say, the contemporary theoretical significance of Christianity as a mode of power, an entrenched set of epistemological and classificatory habits that persists, in one way or another, throughout and perhaps as the secular, up to the contemporary. So this would mean that i would treat Christianity as an operation, much as i’ve articulated the above as operations. Which is to say, i suppose, that the good / bad distinction is not something i’d see good and bad versions of — that is, i’m not holding onto a good version of good / bad distinction that i would then oppose to the bad version (critiqued above) of good / bad distinction.

  8. Against the uncritiquable | theoretically apraxic Says:

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  9. Matt Frost Says:

    Dan, Laboria managed to say something similar to where I’m trying to push you, and you didn’t reply to that part of his comment either. You want to negate abusive modes of the deployment of power, particularly in the triad of “universalism / normativity / Hegel” and in the structural formulations of Christendom. But instead of simply doing so in this post, you have decided that the general practice of reclaiming usable ground from abusive prior formulations–which, to be sure, is also deployed in those circles–is the problem. You’re right: you don’t maintain any possibility of a “good” version of this tactic. You have decided that the tactic, rather than the ideas for which it is abusively deployed by certain parties, is bad. Because of “universalism / normativity / Hegel,” you imply that no territory can be reclaimed from abusive formulations.

  10. Matt Frost Says:

    The post amounts to one elaborate claim of “abusus tollit usum.”

  11. Matt Frost Says:

    Wow, big mistake on my part; her. I’m sorry, Laboria.

  12. Matt Frost Says:

    (And I may have also just shot the foot I put in my mouth; I believe I said something about minefields we should prefer to avoid walking through?)

  13. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Now that Hegelianism has tarried with the negative of poststructuralist/feminist/etc. critique, it can preserve what is most valuable in those critiques while sloughing off its negative image (negation of negation) and resume its dominance of the philosophical field, at once chastened and strengthened by its encounter with the other.

    In other words: for Hegelians to claim to be in a position to “incorporate” the critiques and move forward is exactly what people distrust about Hegel.

  14. Robert Saler Says:

    How seriously would we take a music critic who argued that “rock music can never be sophisticated” if we found out that said critic had based this conclusion on a case study of Nickleback?

    I took that to be the gist of Matt Frost’s argument, and so far I think that I agree with him.

  15. danbarber Says:

    I should clarify that my argument here does not concern good v. bad versions of a particular thinker, nor does it concern good v. bad versions of a genre.

    What I was hoping to get at was the fact that there are certain ideas, claims, etc. — let’s say “normativity” — that were so deeply and *essentially* criticized that they were taken to be irredeemable (in fact, there were certain points at which calling something “normative” was itself a critique). Now, however, these very terms are being brought back to life — and, particularly, they are being brought back to life in such a way that they are uncriticizable as such … the critiques only belong to the bad version. In other words, these once-irredeemable terms have now actually found a “successful” immunization against any sort of critique.

    So, what i’m trying to call attention to is this specific operation, rather than to a generalized form of judgment about something being good or bad.

  16. Jazz Feyer-Salo Says:

    Dan,

    I guess the hard part about addressing the concern is, by sticking to a specific operation, we are stuck on the surface of the diagnosis. We can’t ask the how, why, or who of this specific operation, insofar as in doing so, we enter into “good v. bad versions of a particular thinker” or “genre”, which is, by your lights, a qualitatively distinct concern from what you are addressing here.

    So are we not stuck spinning our wheels? What else can we do but to either agree or disagree with your diagnosis?

    Adam,

    “In other words: for Hegelians to claim to be in a position to “incorporate” the critiques and move forward is exactly what people distrust about Hegel.”

    From what I understand of those who are taking up Hegel viz. normativity, they either (1) don’t have any intuitive understanding of either this problematic or its reconciliation (i.e. Brandom — but never the less, I think he actually attempts to address these concerns in his paper “”Reason, Genealogy, and the Heremeneutics of Magnanimity”.) or (2) have argued against the various philosophies of difference on grounds *other than* the rational of Hegel’s dialectic (Brassier and Badou — however, while Badiou doesn’t give a rip about normativity, his critique of French post-structuralist thought and taking up of Hegel via Hyppolite contra Kojeve has been a key element in this license to turn back to Hegel.).

    So, as far as I can see, this taking up of Hegel isn’t motived by a Hegelian rational of incorporating the critiques and moving forward (though I think these figures try to address some of these issues). Rather, Hegel is taken up *post hoc*. One may then be able to (not unlike the Owl of Minerva) look back and see the necessity in this move, but to narrate the events as being avowedly Hegelian in their motivations is misleading.

  17. danbarber Says:

    just to add to my above clarification: i’m trying to get at how certain relatively strong critiques (located variously, and anecdotally, in poco theory, deconstruction, philosophies of difference, queer theory, black studies, etc) have been absorbed (or captured) through an operation that circumscribes such critiques as being applicable to a “bad version.”

    And i should add: i agree that such critiques have their limits, and in certain ways have exhausted themselves — but rather than pushing them more intensively, as i’d advocate, it seems that there is a turn toward a being-done with them.

    Jazz, i’m happy to talk about the “how, why, or who of this specific operation,” for sure. No doubt this’d require expansion, but more or less it = the White capitalist subject, or if you prefer the post-Christian Enlightenment / secular modern subject, or simply the majoritarian subject. No doubt, chastened by the critiques i’ve mentioned, this subject has learned how to enable variegated degrees or modalities within its project, but still — that’s what i have in mind.

    Now, whether one has to simply agree or disagree with what i’m saying, i don’t know. But the point i’m making is focused on the prevalence of this operation, and particularly at how this operation, though it presents itself according to the dialogical promise of symmetrical communication, actually is founded in a something closer to a sovereign power of assertion.

  18. danbarber Says:

    p.s. w/r/t

    “while Badiou doesn’t give a rip about normativity, his critique of French post-structuralist thought and taking up of Hegel via Hyppolite contra Kojeve has been a key element in this license to turn back to Hegel,”

    i’m absolutely in agreement — and that’s the sort of thing i’m trying to address, i.e. the “license” being sought and affirmed and agreed upon to return to universality / normativity / Hegel.

  19. Adam Kotsko Says:

    The operation is analogous to how a major bank failure is handled — the debts and worthless assets are unloaded onto a new corporation designated (literally) “the bad bank,” and anything that seems potentially viable is salvaged into a new corporate entity.

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