Research What is Critical Theory's Role Today?

What is Critical Theory’s Role Today?

The 2018 Critical Theory Workshop brings together scholars, activists and artists from around the world, whose work cuts across numerous fields and disciplines. The invited speakers include, in addition to the Founding Director Gabriel Rockhill, Seloua Luste Boulbina, Jonathan Eburne, Eric Hazan, Bertrand Ogilvie, David Palumbo-Liu, Jennifer Ponce de León, and Delia Popa. Click here to see the entire program.


By Larry Alan Busk

The recent rise of Right-wing extremism has left critical theory disoriented. Beneath the numerous accounts of “what happened,” counsels about what to do next, and warnings about what the future may bring, we can perceive a sense of desperation, perhaps even panic. The triumph of the Right, coupled with the relatively emaciated status of the Left, may appear to confirm what we have long suspected but dared not admit: that history has passed us by, that the attempt to critique contemporary society at its most fundamental levels has become obsolete and archaic. In the face of seemingly overwhelming defeat, we are beginning to wonder if our work is still relevant. We have the awful feeling that Marcus Aurelius was right when he said: “Even if you burst with indignation, they will still carry on regardless.”

This feeling of disorientation is compounded by a sense of isolation. Universities in the West are increasingly inhospitable places for critical theoretical work, and those of us with heterodox intellectual interests and radical political leanings know that our situation is precarious. The notion of the “tenured radicals” was always a paranoid exaggeration, but now more than ever it’s a pure figment of overactive imaginations. Even in the era of the Alt Right, neoliberalism, and anthropogenic climate change, the Academy is no hotbed of resistance. At times it seems like the most critical theorists can do is shout at one another from iceberg to (melting) iceberg.

At the same time, the despair that I’m describing is nothing new. The early Frankfurt School critical theorists wondered out loud (quite loudly) whether resistance was possible any longer against the overwhelmingly powerful forces of “the culture industry” and the “totally administered society.” Adorno was particularly uncertain in this regard, frequently punctuating his calls for political change with phrases like this: “…if indeed such a right form of politics lay within the realm of what can be achieved today.” Since the decline of worldwide socialist politics, thinkers like Jodi Dean, Wendy Brown, and Enzo Traverso have theorized “Left melancholy”: the disturbing but distinct feeling that the struggle against global capitalism is over, and that the good guys lost. For as long as there has been critical theory, there has been the sense that the odds are stacked against us and that the forces we are trying to confront are too strong. The disorientation and isolation that we’ve experienced since the return of the far-Right is only a particularly stark expression of this familiar feeling.

Part of the task of critical theory today, then, is to develop alternatives to the political dead ends of despair and isolation, both in theory and in practice. One necessary countermeasure against this melancholic feeling is the forging of a community. Building networks of collegiality and solidarity is more important now than ever, for personal as much as professional reasons. A sense of community is essential for reminding ourselves that radical theory is still possible in these dark times, that isolation is not a necessary condition of doing heterodox work, and at the risk of sounding sentimental, that we are not alone.

The Critical Theory Workshop/Atelier de Théorie Critique in Paris is an indispensible avenue for such community building. Sponsored by Villanova University, directed by Dr. Gabriel Rockhill, and held last year at the prestigious École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), the CTW/ATC is a three-week collaborative seminar that brings together professors, students, and independent scholars. In addition to developing their own projects individually and in dialogue with small groups, participants also take part in critical debates and “encounters” (rencontres) with internationally renowned guest speakers. Eschewing traditional conference formats and institutional hierarchies, the Workshop is critical in form as well as in content.

Crucially for the project of forging a community across isolating geographical and academic distances, the CTW/ATC is international and interdisciplinary. Participants in 2017 represented five continents and disciplines as diverse as anthropology, literature, art history, liberal studies, sociology, journalism, and clinical psychiatry. The two inters are more than just catchwords here; their cultivation is essential for overcoming the insularity that can often inhibit critical theoretical work and exacerbate the melancholic feelings described above. Speaking on a personal level, it was inspiring to meet and engage with critical theorists from around the globe, from Australia to Peru to Hong Kong, some in my own discipline of philosophy and some from completely different backgrounds. The critical exchanges across these boundaries were also enriching and informative. For example, a debate between Dr. Rockhill and Özgür Gürsoy of Izmir University on the role of the intellectual became the springboard for a fruitful conversation about the dire political situation in Dr. Gürsoy’s native Turkey. This and other similar encounters remind us that for the Left, as Deleuze says somewhere, what seems most distant is actually the closest.

Overcoming the melancholy that accompanies critical theory in dark times means confronting it collectively. A necessary first step in this difficult endeavor is community building among critical theorists, of which the CTW/ATC is a unique and invaluable example.


Larry Alan Busk is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Oregon. His work has appeared in Philosophy Today, Constellations, and Radical Philosophy Review, among other places. In the fall he will defend his dissertation and begin a one-year teaching position at California State University, Stanislaus.


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