Should Critical Theory Be Accessible?

Daniel Avatar

It’s widely held that critical theory and left theory more generally is too opaque for a wide audience and that’s a bad thing. It’s bad for a number of reasons. The more accessible one’s writing, the wider your audience will be. The wider your audience, the more potential your thought has to enact change.

The premise behind these claims is that any intellectual or community of intellectuals whose writing deals (whether directly or indirectly) with politics or matters of justice, has a duty to make their mode of address accessible to the public. This is an argument that Martha Nussbaum makes against Derrida and French theory in general. Opaque theory, they argue, walls itself off from revolutionary agents: poor people, wage laborers, and others without an education in the humanities or political theory etc.

The other side of this debate, which is an internal critique of critical and leftist theory is that it forms a shibboleth for the humanities and radical politics itself because even within this culture, it has become too technical. I believe that this critique is tied into the previous critique as I will seek to show in what follows.

What’s the problem with these diagnoses of critical theory and its demand to be made more accessible? At first blush, it seems correct, and certainly presents the grounds for a fair demand to make of intellectuals: write more accessibly so that you can reach a larger reading audience, otherwise your thought won’t be truly democratic and nor will it reach people outside of academe.  The implications of this argument are threefold:

  1. It assumes that potential agents or readers will come from a public that is composed of the mass public, and that this target audience will more readily and easily put to use accessible and clear writing towards a political project.
  2. They understand impact through the lens of the quantity of intellectual output as a matter of marketing reach. The more in-reach you have to diverse audiences, the more impact your writing is able to exert political change. Thus, it conceives of the public as a singular construct that one must comport their writing to, and not as a point that one must resist comporting to. More on this below.
  3. They claim that the presentation of intellectual transparency is more usable to the masses, although there is largely little proof of this. Conservative intellectuals are never accused of using too much jargon. This is always a claim made of left theorists – that their writing is too opaque. We expect engineers and scientists to use opaque jargon, but when it comes to matters of justice they claim there is a universality that must be adhered to. But to what end?

One of the ways to broach these assumptions is to begin by asking what the role of the intellectual is. Stretching back to the enlightenment where the intellectual first made a presence in the public, the intellectual was a figure who wrote in a solitary mode. The bourgeois public was developed on the premise of a number of isolated and private individuals communicating as strangers. The intellectual sought to constantly re-define the common sense basis from which this public was constructed. So the intellectual was, since its inception, not communicating with the public but often re-inventing the public and pointing towards a new way to think in the public, not with the public. The intellectual was formed as a way to critique what common sense had turned into, often encouraging people to think outside of the public, not necessarily with it.

Michael Warner’s Publics and Counterpublics is an essential text in this regards. Warner helps me to understand left theory as what he calls an “intellectual counterpublic” rooted in this critique of common sense. Because the intellectual has historically been a figure that relies on the invention of a counterpublic (as the language the intellectual creates is meant to challenge the idioms and the modes of address of the given common public) what is an intellectual or a community of intellectuals good for if they are not inventing a new counterpublic?

For Adorno, in Minima Moralia, mass culture possesses the worst idealization of commonsense because it is based on an operation of the commodity that affects judgment and thought itself (Warner, 134). An intellectual counterpublic is therefore based on the premise that people are alienated from their labor of judgment in the common public. Common sense must therefore be critiqued with a new idiom of language that is capable of providing a set of tools for re-fashioning reality. So we can say that since the enlightenment to today, an intellectual counterpublic is premised on the creation of a language that is intentionally distinct from common sense speech and writing — even though the mass public is so radically different now in the age of mass media (social, entertainment, etc.)

But before we continue on this thread, let me provide some background on what a public and a counterpublic is. For Warner, the public is another name for the people. It is self-organized and it exists discursively, as a series of texts: websites,commercials, slogans, books, and other media are all the material stuff of publics or the texts of publics. A public is constituted through mere attention, which means that public address is different than gossip because gossip has to do with breaking down the bonds of secrecy and trust that a public does not require us to have. In the self-understanding that makes them work, publics thus resemble the model of voluntary association that is central to civil society. The address of public speech is both personal and impersonal because public speech is addressed to the stranger. Warner says, “a public is a relation among strangers” and goes on to note that:

“A public unites strangers through participation alone. Strangers are not exotic, but they must be a part of the world. Strangers in a community are placed towards commonality, but in a public, the stranger does not need to be on a path towards commonality” (Warner, 89).

Counterpublics, on the other hand, are formed by their conflict with the norms and contexts of their cultural environment, and this context of domination inevitably entails distortion. Warner is correct to point out that counterpublics are formed in relation not only to the common pubic, that imaginary discursive set of texts, but it is also formed in relation to the state. The state thus forms both publics and counterpublics, but in the case of the counterpublic, the state is situated as a threat/enemy to the proliferation of texts within the space of the counterpublic and the fashioning of any counterpublic is based on a desire to abolish the state or to re-structure its own relation to the state.

Critical Theory as a Counterpublic 

For Adorno, the way to understand the demand left intellectuals face to turn their writing into a more accessible mode of address comes down to a question of  style and not content. Any demand to appeal to the common public would is, for Adorno, expressive of the need for belonging, which is dictated by the commodity logic of commonsense. For Adorno, it would be an oxymoron to argue that one must make their address adhere to the common mass public as the masses would only erode and commodify one’s address, turning it into a style.

A counterpublic must therefore formulate their address to a different type of stranger than the stranger of the mass public.

Warner shows that intellectual counterpublics in the age of the mass public tend to write in a dense and opaque way in part because their mode of address is to a public that does not yet exist (Warner, 130). Furthermore, Warner argues that intellectual counterpublics understand their own revolutionary potential to be directed towards a future public, one whose language will be enacted in the idiom of its present obscurity in a future time. This tendency to write to a set of strangers who will understand evokes a certain messianism of left intellectual theory – addressing its project towards an apocalyptic horizon.

While I think it is possible to use clear theoretical language and critique commonsense without being subsumed back into the logic of commodification of the mass public, I also want to point out the value that left theory has in its development of new idioms and concepts. Critical theory is often addressed to a counterpublic, or a set of strangers that require no need for belonging, and not to a community that does require belonging. In other words, critical theory should be clear that it is not built around the attempt to cultivate a reading counterpublic that refuses to adopt its theory as a matter of style and belonging — but that critically tests and develops the content as something more serious. This is the ethics of readership in the counterpublic of critical theory – one must resist the temptation to fall into a stylistic mode of receiving/consuming critical theory.

The truth is that today, the widely accepted view that critical theory has no real connection to politics is no longer an acceptable position. It was acceptable throughout the 1990’s, when theory had no real ties to political movements, but in more recent times, this argument is not possible given the active role of critical theory in political movements such as the Occupy movement, anti-austerity and a whole range of other movements. So critics that continue to argue that opaque and obscure theory writing is occluded from politics are missing the empirical reality of how critical theory is actually impacting political movements today. Even when presented with this argument, they continue to beat the horse that, ‘if only the writing was more accessible than just look at what more success we would all have.’

This critique is reactionary because it still insists that an intellectual counterpublics and its idiom/language must be adopted by the masses in order to affect change even though its has managed to invent a new counterpublic. My point is that the purpose is not to affect change with the masses but to invent a new counterpublic. What is ultimately at stake in this critique is a nostalgia for the return of the cult of the intellectual. This nostalgia for the leader intellectual makes this positions surprisingly conservative and authoritative as it sees the intellectual as the permission grantor of revolution, or as the proper diagnostician of present circumstances, or the widely followed and celebrated figure of resistance. There may be no arguing with people who hold this view of the intellectual. They will always argue that if the theory was truly impactful then it would have a wider reach, i.e. they use the same logic of the common public against an intellectual counterpublic, therefore neglecting the way that every intellectual counterpublic tends to form itself in opposition to this logic by necessity.

Within intellectual counterpublics, there is another internal conflict that often takes place. Some argue that once a set or school of theory is adopted widely by the common public than it becomes calcified and the terms/concepts are raised to the level of banal brands and slogans. So for the internal, more puritanical community of readers, (typically highly well trained academics) the problem of theory is that it always risks touching the mass public of commonsense and when it does it loses its power because it then produces jargon, which occurs when a community of readers has not adequately understood the material they are seeking to enact in a new, properly revolutionary idiom. This failure makes theory incapable of properly diagnosing politics in the present as well as incapable of actual political change. The 20th century Marxist community of readers and revolutionaries often determined party and sectarian membership based on poor readings of Marxism in the present. They would accuse materialists as failures or improper materialists because their reading into the present conditions were secretly idealist, or speculative leftists, etc. This tendency exists today, but it really has no bearing on the question of public versus counterpublic in part because it is a conflict internal to a very particular strand of theorists within a counterpublic.

Worldmaking: Polemic or Problematization?

if we accept the notion that left theory is opaque as a matter of a. challenging the hegemony of the public and b. to invent a new counterpublic and enact it through new texts and a new language, then we can understand this process as a process of worldmaking, not as a problem of communication with a public. Warner argues that Foucault arrived at a mode of worldmaking that escaped the internal polemical tension I outlined above. In his later years, Foucault argued that we should abandon the use of polemics altogether. For Foucault, speech is not grounded in the transcendental, but in the history of polemics and other modes of discourse (Warner, 153).

Thus, Foucault recognized that arriving at truth is a procedure that involves sifting back through the history of contentious polemics which form the very basis of discourse and its potential linkage to truth. But to move beyond this polemical stranglehold, Foucault famously proposes an ethics of dialogue as a counterweight to polemics, which is based on the development of his notion of problematization. Problemitization arose after May 68 as a way of appreciating the changes in Marxist discourse that were occurring at the individual and intimate levels. Problemitization entails a new public to develop acts and practices, i.e. it involves the development of a new public scene that must have a different temporality from the public of polemic because it is designed for its ability to pose problems for politics. A counterpublic of problemitization that is formed around speech that is aimed at the creation of a future public is however, difficult to imagine.

With the return of acute capitalist crisis in the last decade, Marxist intellectuals have returned to a critique of idealism vs. materialism. It is of utmost importance for Marxist intellectuals to determine who is a proper materialist as the proper materialist is able to present the most apt critique of existing material conditions. But it seems to me that the wider field of critical theory is primarily about a critique of commonsense that is understood as a deeply political critique. This means that critical theory does not only imply a proper critique of capitalism but a wider critique of ideology and commonsense towards the end of creating a new world or what Warner calls “worldmaking”.

The stakes of worldmaking for critical theory are such that worldmaking entails a break with the state. As Warner states, “it may only be through its imaginary coupling with a state that a public acts” (124). When alternative publics act this means they acquire agency in relation to the state. Perhaps an effective way to understand the potential impact of an intellectual counterpublic is the degree to which it is able to perform an alternative worldmaking project.

7 responses

  1. phlogistical

    So that’s a “no,” then.

  2. bimingargentina

    Reblogged this on BIMing Argentina.

  3. David Pollard

    As Middleton Murry wrote about a quote in Keats letters ‘It is too simple to be easy’.

  4. terenceblake

    Hello Daniel, I find this question of “accessible” versus “opaque” language very interesting. This is something that I remember Deleuze discussing a few times in his seminar. He argued that given that philosophy involves the creation of concepts, there are two ways to handle that in language. One way is to create a new jargon to convey the new concepts (according to Deleuze this is the Continental way) and the other is to use familiar words in a new way (for Deleuze this is the Anglo-American way). I think that this distinction need not be mapped onto the Continental/ Anglophone divide, but can be maintained independently of this division. Badiou too claims that conceptual creation involves a “poetic cut” in language.So I would argue that the question of opaque vocabulary and references is a pragmatic one, rather than an essential one. Resistance and worldmaking can be served by either procedure, depending on circumstances. I have been following a discussion on the blog IN SEARCH OF AN IDEAL which takes the contrary position to yours, arguing that opacity of language consolidates existing power structures (see: I feel sympathy with both sides, and I think that each solution has its pathologies, e.g. at one end of the scale François Laruelle’s opacities and at the other end Bruno Latour’s pseudo-transparencies.

  5. CRITICAL LANGUAGE: opaque vs transparent | AGENT SWARM

    […] is expressed in a blog post by Daniel Tutt entitled “Should Critical Theory Be Accessible?” ( I think that it chimes in well with Jason’s concern about ideology. I think you will agree with […]

  6. Alain Badiou: What is Philosophy? [Part 1: Philosophy and Language] | AGENT SWARM

    […] is a very interesting lecture by Badiou, and it has a lot of relevance to Daniel Tutt’s critique of the requirement of immediate accessibility and to Bharath Vallabha’s critique of academic […]

  7. terenceblake

    This is a very interesting lecture by Badiou on philosophical language: It has a lot of relevance to Daniel Tutt’s critique of the requirement of immediate accessibility and to Bharath Vallabha’s critique of academic language. Badiou criticises the idea that “Being speaks L” for any language. The problem with “English” is the problem with any language that remains faithful to democratic materialism, and thus ideologically accessible. The problem with a particularistic language is repeated in academic language, Being does not speak academese. In both cases universality is lost in favour of abstraction.

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