Is Critical Theory Out of Touch? An Interview with Lois McNay

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-—————Illustrasjon: Lisa Mrakic—————-

Why do critical theorists in general fail to address forms of structural oppression that are inherent in modernity, such as race, class and gender oppression, and their relation to the capitalist framework? Lois McNay argues that contemporary critical theorists have lost touch with critical theory’s initial stance, where theorizing starts from experience. She finds that their overriding concern with justificatory issues means that they fail to produce sociologically grounded accounts of oppression.

McNay is Professor of Political Theory at Oxford University and Fellow of Somerville College. She has written extensively on Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, and the Frankfurt School of Critical Theorists, and pursues questions concerned with continental philosophy, political thought and feminist theory. She was recently appointed Professor II at the Centre for Gender Research at the University in Oslo in collaboration with the Faculty for Social Science. In September, she was the keynote speaker at a symposium hosted by the Centre on theorizing from experience, feminism, and critical theory.

In addition to a long list of published articles, McNay is the author of Foucault and Feminism: Power, Gender and the Self (1992), Foucault: A Critical Introduction (1994), Gender and Agency: Reconfiguring the Subject in Feminist and Social Theory (2000), Against Recognition (2007) and The Misguided Search for the Political (2014).
Articles by McNay that most prominently feature her investigation of critical theory and its difficulty accounting for structural oppression include “The Limits of Justification: critique, disclosure and reflexivity” in the European Journal of Political Theory (2016) and “The politics of exemplarity: Ferrara on the disclosure of new political worlds” in Philosophy & Social Criticism (2018).

For those who might not be familiar with your work, what is, in your understanding, critical theory, and which of its main contributors are you concerned with?

There are two senses in which you can understand critical theory. First, in the narrow sense of Frankfurt School theory, which is a direct inheritor of the tradition of cultural Marxism and includes the work of such thinkers as Adorno, Horkheimer, Habermas, Honneth, Benhabib and Forst. Second, there is critical theory in a broader sense, which refers to the largely French tradition of post-structuralist thought, including thinkers such as Foucault and Deleuze. This broader tradition also includes feminist theory and critical race theory.

Although the broad and narrow senses of critical theory are internally diverse, they share a commitment to thinking about politics from the perspective of marginalized and oppressed groups and therefore from the perspective of power rather than that of moral principles. There is certainly a normative content to these traditions, but it is not the type of ‘ethics first’ approach associated with analytical political theory. They also share a method of theorizing that we might loosely call a ‘radicalized hermeneutics’, which assumes that thought is not impartial reflection – the so-called view from nowhere – that floats above the social realm, but is always historically situated. On this view, theorists themselves are participant observers who are implicated within, and have a practical relation with, those phenomena that he or she studies.

So, pulling these threads together, my current project is to look at critical theory in the narrow sense – that is the recent work of the post-Habermasian generation of Frankfurt School thinkers – from the perspective of critical theory in its broader sense. I do this by using feminist theory and critical race theory in particular to interrogate questions of gender oppression and shortcomings in the way it is treated by Frankfurt School theorists.

You say that critical theory has lost touch with its initial intent of exposing oppression in society, which you find must be based on phenomenological observations of experience. Why do you think one must be concerned with embodiment and phenomenology in order to do critical theory?

The idea that political thought should attend to actual experiences of oppression can be found within the tradition of critical theory itself. Critical theory distinguishes its approach to theorizing from other comparable approaches, for example liberalism, by claiming that rather than formulating abstract models of justice, equality or freedom it starts from an analysis of existing inequalities and oppressions. Critique therefore uses social experience in a particularly distinctive way. It reads negative experiences, or suffering in the world, as symptoms of a deeper inherent oppression, i.e. the intrinsic inegalitarianism of capitalist society. Negative experiences are signs of a deeper social pathology or illness. Not all forms of suffering are politically significant however. Everyone suffers in various ways but what critical theorists are especially interested in are forms of suffering that tell us something about power structures in society: types of social suffering that are directly caused by inegalitarian structures, and that in principle could be corrected. Suffering is a general existential fact, but some groups suffer more than others, and it is this social dimension that critical theorists are concerned with analysing.

Although critical theory says it starts from experience, it is important to recognize that the category of ‘experience’ can be constructed in various ways. You don’t necessarily have to refer directly to the lived reality of oppressed groups, you could use statistics, surveys and other types of empirical sociological evidence. My argument is, though, that the hermeneutic aspect cannot be bypassed entirely; there has to be some phenomenological element to this experiential inquiry as it can reveal important things about the operations of power. I am using phenomenology here in the sense derived from Merleau-Ponty and Bourdieu, which focuses on individuals’ direct embodied experience and understanding of the world. Experiences of oppressed groups can alert us to forms of injustice and other social wrongs that don’t necessarily take the form of fully fledged political movements. These pathologies and disorders are socially invisible, so to speak: they fall beneath the threshold of public attention, but they nonetheless refer to deep-rooted pathological tendencies in society. An example of this might be how we treat the old and ageing more generally. There is certainly no formal justice movement attached to these issues but the isolation and marginalization experienced by the aged certainly points to something wrong with society that we might want to attend to politically. An experiential perspective can also alert us to forms of power that are not always visible from an external theoretical perspective, for example, forms of stigmatization, deauthorization, those forms of ‘euphemised’ domination that Bourdieu calls ‘symbolic violence’. There are modes of symbolic derogation that are acutely felt by those who directly experience them but are often invisible to someone who is not the recipient of it.

The final point is that embodied experience is very important to critical theory, because critical theory is supposed to speak to, and about, forms of oppression. Critical theory’s account of oppression is not an alien, scholastic construct, but is supposed to draw on the lived reality of those who suffer in order to deepen an understanding of power. The oppressed should in some way be able to recognise themselves in the account of oppression. That is why critique needs to stay receptive to the way in which subordinated groups live and understand the world. Receptivity to this lived reality is a way of keeping one’s own theoretical paradigm open to the complex ways in which oppression is realized in the lives of disempowered groups.

You say that the concern with experience as the starting point entails a shift from top-down (liberal democratic) theorizing to bottom-up (radical democratic) theorizing. You suggest a shift away from thinking of ‘the political’ in ontologically abstract terms, which has been popular in analytic political philosophy. Is there a chance that the top-down and bottom-up divide is a false dichotomy? By that we mean: Is it not necessary to rely on both abstract principles and a phenomenological account of oppression to successfully theorize about oppression in our society?

It is not a question of either/or. If you analyse oppression only from an external theoretical perspective, then there is a risk that your understanding or framework is only partial or even obsolete. That is why it is important to have some kind of engagement with those who actually suffer in order to keep theoretical reasoning open, that is to render it a dialogic and reflexive practice, rather than a scholastic imposition of pre-given categories. This said, however, although experience and embodiment are important in the analysis of power, critical theorists cannot remain only at this phenomenological level. If they did, critical theory would be little more than a descriptive anthropology, passively reflecting negative experiences without seeking to critically probe them. Critical theorists therefore also have to try to establish a more general perspective from which to analyse and compare different experiences. What might be true for one group’s experience of the world is not necessarily the case for others and the theorist needs to find some way of speaking meaningfully across different life-worlds if critique is to have general significance. That is what critical theorists famously call ‘context transcendence’; theory has to both attend to contextual particularities, but also step back from them in order to make evaluations with regard to the general backdrop of power, that is whether something is oppressive or not and, if so, in what way. Critique has to operate within this dialectic of immanence and transcendence. It is not a question of choosing between immanence and transcendence, rather the task that confronts the theorist is to avoid the artificial privilege of one over the other and to inhabit the paradoxical space between experiential disclosure and generalising critique in as productive and dialogical manner as possible. The problem with Frankfurt School Critical theory today is, in my view, that it has for various reasons become preoccupied with questions of context transcendence, and neglected the socially embedded experiences that pertain to the critique of power. Critical theorists certainly do acknowledge the importance of socially grounded critique in principle, but have in practice drifted away from that in favour of abstract foundational concerns.

As you say, some groups of people experience more or less oppression than others. Within the political left, identity politics has been criticised for getting in the way of an analysis of class and economic oppression. What do you think critical theory that takes experience as its starting point might say about the alleged divide between identity politics and class analysis?

Critical theorists, such as Honneth and Fraser, would say that the divide is artificial and seek to develop ways of examining the imbrication of recognition harms with distributive injustices. I would agree with Fraser that while we might want to conceptually separate the two for analytical purposes, we have to appreciate that empirically they are interwoven in complex ways and that neither has absolute priority over the other.

You argue that Frankfurt School theory was similar to feminist thought in terms of its focus on experience and human relationality, but find that contemporary Frankfurt School theory has become too concerned with abstract issues of justification and ignores questions of gender or racial injustice. In 1985, feminist philosopher Nancy Fraser wrote an article titled “What’s Critical about Critical Theory? The Case of Habermas and Gender”. What is your take on Fraser’s critique of critical theory?

Simply put, I think that Fraser’s essay is brilliant and still, in many ways, sets the agenda for feminist critique. Many of the problems that she diagnoses in Habermas’ treatment of gender still stand for subsequent generations of Frankfurt School thinkers even though they have explicitly sought to overcome such difficulties. Of course I am not including in this leading feminist critical theorists such as Fraser, Benhabib, Young and Jaeggi, who have sought in various ways to embed a concern with gender at the heart of critical theory. What I am concerned with is, why, to put it crudely, the mainly male theorists and heirs of Habermas – people like Honneth and Forst – who acknowledge the importance of a feminist agenda in some ways, still tend to treat gender as a marginal issue. Against this, someone like Nancy Fraser shows in her recent work that actually, an analysis of gender oppression stands at the heart of understanding how capitalism operates. It is quite mysterious why it does not receive more attention given that, as you pointed out in your question, methodologically speaking, feminism and critical theory share similar commitments as well as a broader understanding of the aims of emancipatory political theory.

Why do you think it is the case that questions of gender oppression have received little attention within critical theory, when critical theorists claim to be concerned with forms of structural oppression?

I think it is a result in part of what I have referred to in the previous questions, namely the current preoccupation with meta-theoretical questions of context transcendence and the foundations of critical theory. To put it simply, the kinds of debates that have dominated critical theory in the last few years turn around the justification of various diagnostic paradigms. For example, Honneth is concerned with justifying the merits of his recognition paradigm, vis-à-vis, the shortcomings of, say, Habermas’ communicative paradigm. Likewise, Forst is concerned with vindicating why his idea of justification provides a superior critical perspective to either Habermas’ communicative perspective, Fraser’s notion of participatory parity, or Honneth’s recognition-paradigm. Fraser does the same in response. And so on. Although very interesting, these debates ultimately centre around the justification of certain all encompassing, uni-foundational explanatory paradigms whether it be ‘recognition-monism’ or relations of justification or some other single diagnostic principle.

My argument is that given their complex nature, gender inequalities as well as other structural inequalities such as race and class cannot be captured by these monistic, or what Patricia Hill Collins calls ‘single lens’ theories. A difficulty with conducting sociological critique with reference to an all-encompassing, uni-foundational paradigm is that specificities of social experience are effaced and this, in turn, has simplifying effects on an account of power and oppression. For instance, the neo-Hegelian tendency to depict gender as an interpersonal dynamic of recognition fails to capture the ways in which gender is not just a relation between men and women in the domestic realm, but a structural inequality that influences reproduction in all social spheres. The neo-Hegelian perspective also tends to naturalise women’s labour as an ethical relation and fails to grasp the intersections of gender with racial and class oppression. These descriptive limitations mean that critical theory tends to generate normative proposals that are tangential to the diagnosis and correction of oppressive gendered dynamics. Ultimately, this failure to grasp key dynamics in the reproduction of a major and enduring form of social inequality calls into question the radical status of Frankfurt School thought.

You have an interest in black feminist theory from the U.S. and post-colonial theory (e.g. Patricia Hill-Collins and Chandra Talpade Mohanty). What is it that black and post-colonial feminism may contribute to critical theory?

These bodies of thought exemplify two important things with regard to the diagnostic and epistemic aspects of critique. First, black feminist thought demonstrates a way of grounding theory in the analysis of experience, without it necessarily becoming stranded in contextual particularism or relativism. Contrary to the fears of Frankfurt School thinkers, it shows how theorising from experience need not necessarily have reductive and limiting effects upon systematic political critique, especially if systematicity is conceived of in terms other than consistency with a uni-foundational paradigm. The point of theorising from experience is not to uncritically affirm immediate subjectivity but to theorise outwards from certain phenomenal realities in order to crystallise and deepen accounts of power. It is precisely with such an aim in mind, namely challenging established but flawed accounts of oppression, that Collins and other black feminist theorists used the neglected experiences of Afro-American women. Their goal was not to assert the intrinsic authenticity or incontrovertible truth of experience but to use it to shed light on the intersectional operations of race, class and gender and thereby explode the prevailing single-lens accounts of women’s oppression as patriarchy that dominated feminism at a certain point. The method of experiential disclosure is crucial, then, to grasping the complexities of oppression and to keep theoretical understanding relevant to its context by injecting it with new meaning. It does not follow therefore that attending to the particularities of social experience, will inevitably immure theory in the particular so that it is unable to emerge out of it to a general evaluative vantage point.
Second, I think that contemporary critical theory fails to fully enact some of the epistemic implications of its concern with oppression. The animating concern with oppression seemingly imposes on the critical theorist a certain epistemic responsibility to avoid the type of top-down intellectual prescription that might symbolically compound the already disempowered status of oppressed groups. This epistemic responsibility means that theoretical reasoning ought to be construed in as reflexive a manner as possible, that is self-critical and dialogical process. Although, in principle, Frankfurt School theorists endorse such a notion of theoretical reasoning, their preoccupation with justifying the superior interpretative purchase of their particular paradigms over competing versions in practice blocks the development of reflexive critique. Their tendency to bestow a ‘quasi-transcendental’ status on their chosen constitutive principle shields it from genuinely extensive criticism and hence what they hold supposedly as the indispensable capacity for reflexive self-scrutiny is effectively constrained. Black and postcolonial feminist theory provide instructive exemplars of theorizing that is reflexive and dialogical in nature and my contention is that Frankfurt School critical theorists could learn much from it.

You come from a French poststructuralist tradition, whereas feminist ethicists of care come from more Anglo-American and analytical traditions although they criticize some tendencies of the analytical tradition, such as the idea of the autonomous, rational agent. Despite these differences, there appears to be some significant similarities between your position as a feminist political theorist and feminist care ethicists (for instance, Joan Tronto, Eva Kittay, Virginia Held) who also argue against top-down theorizing and in favour of contextual theorizing. Do you see yourself as a ‘feminist political theorist of care’ or something of the sort?

I wouldn’t describe myself as a political theorist of care but there is no doubt that I draw extensively on this rich body of work. As Nancy Fraser points out, critical theorists such as Habermas and Honneth, have a very normativized concept of the family and of women’s role within it that they derive from Hegel. This Hegelian paradigm results in an ethical understanding of family that romanticizes women’s labour and fails to fully grasp the power relations that run through the family. Amongst other things, this makes using the family as a source of ethical potential quite problematic. I think that recent feminist work on care – both as a conceptual and normative issue – is very effective in problematizing the rather sanguine and one-dimensional picture of gender relations critical theorists tend to paint. For example, the commodification of care that is a growing feature of intimate life in Western societies is creating new inequalities that far exceed the interpersonal logic of recognition that critical theorists use to analyse the family.

In your opinion, if critical theory became more concerned with experience and embodiment as starting points of theory, what might critical theory achieve?

It is not so much a question of what it might achieve so much as one of how critical theory might be reoriented away from meta-theoretical questions of justification towards sociologically grounded forms of critique. It might become less paradigm focused and more problem focused in the manner captured by Iris Marion Young in her idea of ‘theorizing with practical intent’. She means by this that the aim of theory is not to devise an all-encompassing framework in which you can slot all problems and come up with a definitive normative solution of some kind or another. Instead the aim is to focus on a practical problem of some kind and work through it systematically, in order to come up with a better idea of how we might move on – not in a finalist sense but a gradualist one of developing emancipatory practices.

Do you think that this focus on all-encompassing frameworks has to do with some sort of Western Philosophical heritage of being concerned with First Principles?

Without wanting to overstate the case, I do I think there has been a liberal capture of critical theory in so far as the latter has oriented itself to intellectual agenda of Rawlsian justice theorists. The tone was initially set by Habermas’ debate with Rawls and some critical theorists continue in this path at the expense of socially grounded critique. There is no doubt that many of these ‘justice’ issues are important, but at the same time, this engagement with liberalism has affected the way that critical theorists go about intellectual inquiry and has diluted certain commitments of the Marxian tradition from which they stand. In this respect my work on gender oppression echoes other recent criticisms of Frankfurt School theory such as that of Charles Mills who says that it largely ignores racial inequality, or Michael Thompson who says a similar thing about class or Amy Allen who probes the Eurocentric bias of its underlying concept of reason.