The poverty of (critical) theory

  • Bert Olivier, Prof University of the Free State, South Africa


The triumph of neoliberalism globally signifies what one might term the poverty of (critical) theory, as does the phenomenon known as ‘post-theory’, with its cynical rejection of the claims of theory. Here I do not wish to retrace the steps of Adorno and Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment to remind ourselves of the fatal dialectical intertwinement of enlightenment with obfuscation and domination; rather, I wish to follow the trail suggested by critical motifs in the work of various thinkers to demonstrate the ‘poverty of (critical) theory’, that is, its incapacity to effect the crucial transition from theoretical insight in, and exposition of, the sources of alienation, oppression and ideological obfuscation, to emancipatory action. The work of Gil Germain on technology and consumerism highlights the extent to which contemporary humans’ world has been constructed as one ‘minus desire’, where all needs have supposedly been satisfied, and which tends to produce self-satisfied beings, incapable of ‘acting’ in accordance with the demands of freedom. With Kant's famous motto, ‘Sapere aude’, as a point of departure, Hardt and Negri’s corrective in terms of the need to act, and not only ‘think' critically, is pursued. This is followed by an elaboration on Arendt’s vita activa, to unpack what action amounts to, and whether the conditions for its enactment exist today. What becomes clear is that critical theory is incapable, by itself, of guaranteeing emancipatory action. By way of analogy, first the importance of (critical) ‘thinking’ according to Stiegler, and then that of distinguishing between theory and what Parker describes as potentially effecting a ‘revolution in subjectivity’ at the psychoanalytical clinic is emphasised; that is, the subject’s re-articulation of her or his relationship with power. The point is that this amounts to a ‘preparation’ for possible commensurate transformative action in social reality, and similarly, it is argued, ‘thinking’ as well as critical theory can merely prepare the subject for emancipatory action, which is something irreducibly different from theory. To illustrate the difference between critical theory and emancipatory action, a glimpse is afforded of instances of such action reported in the work of Foster and Klein, before demonstrating (with reference to Nietzsche) what is at stake to move from the level of the individual to that of the collective.


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