Pulling the Emergency Break on Critical Theory in Retreat: Interview with Gabriel Rockhill

Gabriel Rockhill is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Villanova University, and Director of the Critical Theory Workshop/Atelier de Théorie Critique. His books include, Radical History & the Politics of Art (2014, Columbia University Press), Logique de l’histoire: Pour une analytique de pratiques philosophiques (2010, Éditions Hermann), Politics of Culture and the Spirit of Critique: Dialogues (2011, Columbia University Press), Jacques Rancière: History, Politics, Aesthetics (2009, Duke University Press), and The Politics of Aesthetics, which is a translation of Jacques Rancière’s Le Partage du sensible: Esthétique et politique (2004, Continuum Books).

Q: Briefly, what is Critical Theory according to you?

GR: Critical theory, as I understand it, is an attempt to invent alternative theoretical practices, communities and institutions that radically reconfigure the institutionalized power structures that we have inherited, as well as the parameters of action and thought that they condone and maintain. It is also a tradition of intellectual engagement that is invested in the concrete analysis and elucidation of the cultural, economic, social and political world. It avoids both abstract philosophic speculation for its own sake and positivism or the blind belief in empirical truths of a so-called scientific nature. Instead, critical theory seeks to develop committed theoretical practices that allow us to map and intervene in the contemporary world in order to transform it. Critical theory—we must remind ourselves in the current conjuncture—is nothing if it is not critical.

This does not mean in the least that it is purely negative. The project of radical critique is one of developing concrete alternatives, as well as identifying alternatives that are already operative. This ‘positive’ dimension of critique—to speak in schematic and oppositional terms that would need to be problematized—goes hand in hand with an ‘affirmative’ aspect. Critique is not for it’s own sake. It is to affirm other possibilities by categorically resisting the idea that the inherited world is the only possible one. This is particularly important in a conjuncture marked by the world disorder of globalized neoliberal capitalism, hyper-militarized and hyper-financialized imperialism, the massive destruction of the biosphere, institutionalized racism and heteronormativity, global gender inequality, and so forth.

Q: When did you first become interested in Critical Theory in the broad sense of the term?

GR: I’ve been interested in critical theory in the broad sense since high school, when I began reading works by Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Sartre, and Camus, but also Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, Black Elk, and many others. This was coupled with my growing interest in social and political issues, which led to the publication of a subversive underground newspaper that called into question many of the power structures operative in the school I was attending. Once I went to university, I was immersed in a larger network of references and a broader set of preoccupations. I encountered critical theory in the Frankfurt School tradition at that point in time. I also became interested in Francophone philosophy and contemporary Anglophone theory. I studied abroad in Europe my third year of university and then again after I graduated. My interests in critical theory have always stretched across different geographic and cultural milieus, and this continues to this day.

Q: You’re involved with the Reinventing Critical Theory series. What does it mean to reinvent critical theory for the 21st century?

GR: In my opinion, critical theory in the Frankfurt School tradition has remained politically and socially somewhat conservative. There were, of course, radical high water marks like Herbert Marcuse’s work at the end of the 1960s and in the early 1970s, when Angela Davis and other activists were working with him. [1] However, the Frankfurt School was generally either indifferent to or critical of the student movement and skeptical of the New Left. [2] If we were to apply Castoriadis’ incendiary but poignant critique of the Althusserians to them, we could say that they were academic Marxists (with the insistence on academic). Even this has largely been lost, however, as the critical theory tradition developed through the second generation with Habermas and into the third generation today. In the strict sense of the term, it has become synonymous with a specific brand of institutionalized moral, political and legal philosophy.

It is not only that the revolutionary critique of capitalism has been sidelined or forsaken; it is also that the very project of a critical theory of society in toto has arguably been shelved, significantly modified or simply abandoned. The question of aesthetics, which was at the core of the work of figures like Adorno, Benjamin and Marcuse, has been set aside by many so- called critical theorists, or at least decoupled in important ways from the question of society and politics. Psychoanalysis, one of the pillars of the early Frankfurt School, has also tended to be eclipsed by other concerns. There are certainly some exceptions to these tendencies, and I am obviously painting in broad strokes for the sake of making my point concisely. However, it is safe to say, in my opinion, that critical theory in the restricted sense has retreated from revolutionary politico-economic critique as well as from the multiple fronts of its early struggles. It is critical theory in retreat.

The task of reinventing critical theory in the current conjuncture can thus be understood as one of putting a halt to the retreat. Invoking Benjamin’s powerful image, we could say that it consists in pulling the emergency break. This means taking back up the tasks of radical political economy and the analysis of contemporary society in its totality. Far from simply returning to earlier paradigms, however, it is absolutely necessary to hone new tools and develop novel methods of elucidation. In other words, it is not a matter of being faithful to a particular heritage or father figure, but rather one of pushing forward, on all fronts, the urgent project of a radical critique of contemporary society. One aspect to this in the early 21st century needs to be the incorporation of a broader international and cultural perspective, which unfortunately many of the traditional critical theorists did not fully embrace.

The development of subaltern studies, postcolonial and decolonial theory, feminism, gender studies, queer theory, critical philosophy of race, environmental philosophy, crip theory and many other fields constitutes an enormous resource for expanding critical theory beyond its Eurocentric, phallocentric, caucasocentric and bourgeois horizons. This would help put some of the critique back into critical theory, which is one of the primary goals in reinventing this theoretical tradition. Indeed, this is one of the reasons that Annika Thiem and I decided to collaborate on this book series. We are hoping that what they say is true: the 4th time’s a charm! A new generation of critical theorists is on the rise, and there is now real potential for drastically transforming what it means to do critique (above and beyond the lodestone of Frankfurt).

Finally, I should say that I am not ultimately wedded to this term. The expression ‘critical theory’ is a recognizable social signifier, and it can serve as a helpful form of shorthand. This is one of the reasons why I have named a research program that I established in Paris the Critical Theory Workshop. However, it can also be misleading and even function as a veritable misnomer, as we have seen, since the critical is precisely what is often missing from so-called critical theory. For these reasons, ‘radical theory’ or ‘revolutionary theory’ might be preferable or, from a different vantage point, what I have begun calling, with Pierre-Antoine Chardel, la sociophilosophie.

Q: In your book, Radical History & the Politics of Art, you argue against taking art and politics as placid, unchanging concepts. What is the problem you see with such an approach?

GR: The assumption that art and politics are things in themselves or have an internal essence or unchanging proper nature presupposes something like a transcendent realm of ideas or, at least, a stable set of conceptual and practical categories. It is, to say the least, a highly questionable assumption. Moreover, it is impossible to prove without presupposing divine-like omniscience or transhistorical and transcultural knowledge. What I propose to do in this book is to begin the other way around, so to speak. Instead of presuming the existence of stable or unchanging concepts and practices, I suggest that we should start by scrutinizing cultural activities in the here and now in order to elucidate their social and historical constitution.

In other words, I am interested in the ways in which certain ideas and practices are forged and re-forged over time rather than existing in some ethereal domain beyond the pale of history. This is what I refer to in the book as a radical historicist perspective. According to this vantage point, all things are historical through and through. This not only includes our ideas, practices and values, but also material realities and the so-called things of the world. Planet earth and the universe are ultimately the result of historical processes, and the same is true of the species that calls itself Homo sapiens. There is, in other words, a deep history of material forms that is behind the very emergence of something like what will later be called art and politics. To sum up, then, I am rejecting essentializing and eternalizing—or transhistorical and transcultural—orientations in the name of recognizing historical contingency (which, I should add, is not the same thing as historical arbitrariness since what is contingent, in spite of being unnecessary, often imposes itself with the sheer force of necessity).

Q: Can you explain more of what you mean by ‘radical history’? Does it signify that all social and cultural phenomena are determined by history?

GR: This question is crucial because the standard understanding of historicism is in terms of what I call reductive historicism, according to which everything in history is reduced to a set of strict determinants. What I understand by radical history is at least two things

(and I should note in passing that I use radical history and radical historicism interchangeably). One is that everything is inscribed within the flow of time: concepts, norms, representations, cultures, materialities, etc. Yet, and this is the second point, this does not mean that all things are reductively determined. This is precisely because there is a multiplicity of agencies that are operative in any historical conjuncture, and these cannot be flattened out or reduced to a single plane of determination. In this regard, to be a radical historicist is to recognize that everything is situated in time but that it is nonetheless partially undetermined due to the manifold forces of agency that are operative in any site.

Q: And what implications does rejecting what you call the “single determinate matrix” have for our understanding of art and politics?

GR: The beginning point for Radical History & the Politics of Art is in many ways a common-sense approach to the question of the relationship between art and politics. This approach assumes that there must be something called art, another element called politics, and that these two things either have a privileged link or have no real connection. In doing so, it separates so-called artistic and political practices from their deep social inscription. My counter-proposal consists in inviting us to look at the various social practices that have emerged, which cultural practitioners have in certain contexts labeled as ‘art’ or ‘politics.’

In the case of art, for instance, it is important that the notion of art in the singular only emerged in the modern age in a very specific conjuncture, which was the institutionalization of certain cultural heritages in the context of the major social and political revolutions at the end of the 18th and the early 19th century in Europe. When one says or assumes that art has always existed, one brackets the ways in which social practices have formulated specific notions of art that are very far from being transhistorical or transcultural. This is also the case for politics. Both of these terms, rather than indexing eternal ideas, stable natures or even coherent conceptual kernels whose outer form has changed with time, are sociohistorical concepts-in-struggle. In places and times when they do exist, their meanings are regularly contested and negotiated across a broad force field of agencies.

Q: How does this relate to the multiple sources of agency that you write about in Radical History and the Politics of Art? What is the importance of these multiple sources?

GR: This is extremely important for the point of view I develop in the book because if one agrees with me that art and politics are not eternal natures or givens but in fact are historically constituted, then one possibility would be to simply assume that in a given historical moment there is a guiding understanding of what politics is and what art is (and that what we need to do is simply map these out or define them as certain practicing sociologists or historians would do). That is not the position that I take because, for me, art and politics are social signifiers, meaning that they are terms whose significations vary based on the social setting and the actors who are at work within that setting. In short, not everyone will agree at particular points in time on what art is, or what qualifies as art and what does not. The same is true for politics. This should not be taken as a theoretical defeat, as if now we would simply fall into the abysmal vortex of relativism and the only thing left to do would be to watch our theories be swallowed whole by the brutal and unrelenting force of its black hole. We need a theoretical framework that is closer to the working logics of social practices, and that is precisely what I tried to develop.

A key component is what I call a multidimensional theory of agency. Such a theory identifies the multiple types and sites of agency operative in any social field. There are individual actors, institutions, material factors, media, etc. There are also different tiers of agency, and some are deeper or more powerful than others. If the MoMA, for instance, decides that a certain type of work—such as video games—is a form of art, this will likely have a much greater impact than a small gallery in Bombay. These various types, sites and tiers of agency, which all have variable ranges, constitute a veritable force field with complex modes of interaction. There can of course be significant overlap or agreement in a particular setting regarding, for instance, what art or politics is. However, there is also plenty of latitude for disagreement or for ongoing struggles and attempts to re-elaborate these concepts and practices.

Q: Who is Jacques Rancière and what has been his contribution to the concept of radical history?

GR: Jacques Rancière has made one of the most important contributions to rethinking the relationship between aesthetics and politics. I encountered his work when I was in Paris doing research under Jacques Derrida. Rancière was teaching nearby, and my good friend Andrés Claro recommended that I attend his seminar, which I did. As I began reading his books and familiarizing myself with his project, I realized that he, perhaps more so than anyone else in the Francophone world, had pushed forward a particular type of Foucauldian mode of analysis. This consists, among other things, in inspecting concrete practices and how they operate instead of assuming that there must be some form of general governing logic or universal internal order behind them. In this sense, there is a radical historicist dimension to some of his work.

This is primarily the case in his research on aesthetics, although even there I think there are some limitations to how far he is willing to go. His conceptualization of politics—and I’ve published on this in a few essays that are now being collected in a book entitled Interventions in Contemporary Thought—is rooted in a formalist, largely ahistorical notion of politics proper. In this sense, there are ironically two Jacques Rancières. One is much closer to a radical historicist lineage coming out of Foucault. The other is a sort of almost formalist transcendental philosopher who has been much more marked by the Kantian heritage. In this sense, then—and here I’m painting in broad strokes—my project overlaps with certain aspects of the work of the more radically historicist Rancière.

This being said, in Radical History & the Politics of Art one of the things that I try to show is that Rancière has not only opened up new territory for rethinking art and politics, but he has also maintained—which is rather remarkable given his general reception as the thinker of the consubstantiality of art and politics—that there is no determinate relationship between what he calls the aesthetic regime of art and politics proper, meaning political subjectivization. In this sense, there is a profound and understudied problem in his work: where he appears to recast art and politics in a new light, he ultimately concludes that there is never going to be a clearly determined meeting point between them.

In fact, if anything aesthetics, and particularly literature, which is the ultimate source of the aesthetic regime of art, tends to promote what Rancière calls metapolitics (which suppresses politics proper). In criticizing Rancière on this front and others, I do not, however, simply want to remain a sort of philosophical gadfly. Instead, the majority of my intellectual energy in this book is dedicated to developing a rival account that details the concrete and specific ways in which certain practices labeled as aesthetic and political overlap, intertwine and sometimes meld.

Q: In a recent article that you wrote, you call architecture the “political art par excellence.”3 How does this characterization fit into your framework of art and radical history?

GR: It is important to note that I qualify this remark by adding a question mark in the title of the article to which you are referring, and I insist on the fact that this could potentially appear to be the case only from a certain vantage point. I do not want to say that architecture simply is the quintessential political art. This would be reductive and essentialist. Instead, I raise the question of why many of the theoretical debates on art and politics, particularly in the critical theory tradition of the 20th and 21st century, have ignored to a very large extent the role of architecture and the public arts, focusing instead on the visual arts and literature. In my opinion, this is a major blind spot. One of the reasons for this is that many of the approaches of which I am critical have undertaken a bracketing of the social world, or a social époche.

They examine art in isolation and ask about its potential relationship to politics proper or politics as a sequestered phenomenon. With a radical historical approach, which insists on the existence of a multiplicity of agencies in any conjuncture, it is important to study the ways in which art is inscribed very specifically in particular social and material networks. Architecture, like public art, urban planning and design, is an excellent example of a practice that cannot easily be separated from political stakes. If one is aware of it or not, it sculpts, conditions and orients the social body in very direct ways. One can ignore literature entirely; one can even refuse to go to the movies, the theater or museums. But it is impossible to evade architecture and design in the same way since they pervade the built world that we inhabit.

With the notable exception of figures like Walter Benjamin, Henri Lefebvre and Michel Foucault, it is thus rather surprising that critical theoretical work on art and politics has tended to turn a blind eye to public art and architecture. As a matter of fact, if we return to one of the earlier themes of our discussion, it is arguable that this blind spot reveals something important about the history and current state of critical theory. One of the questions that I raise in this article has to do with the extent to which the bourgeois heritage and artistic values of the critical theory tradition have contributed to an implicit but under-theorized distinction according to which the ‘politics of art’ actually means the politics of the high art traditions that have played a central role in the cultural training of bourgeois intellectuals. This points again to the need to reinvent critical theory by undertaking a critical turn, in the double sense of an urgent and incisive shift: we need to dismantle the deep-seated cultural, sociopolitical and intellectual assumptions that plague this heritage in order to rejuvenate its truly critical dimension and mobilize it for pressing struggles in the early 21st century.


[1] See, for instance, Angela Y. Davis’ interesting testimonial in “Marcuse’s Legacies,” Herbert Marcuse: A Critical Reader, eds. John Abromeit and W. Mark Cobb (New York: Routledge, 2004).

[2] This is, of course, a complicated history with different individual positions and shifting allegiances over time. Since it is impossible to sum it up concisely, see works such as the following: Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1973), Rolf Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance, trans. Michael Robertson (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1995), Thomas Wheatland, The Frankfurt School in Exile (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), and Simone Chambers, “The Politics of Critical Theory” in The Cambridge Companion to Critical Theory, ed. Fred Rush (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 219-247. The artist Hito Steyerl’s project, Adorno’s Grey (2012), is a captivating revisitation of some of these issues. To provide a sense of the tonality of the internal debates at the Frankfurt School, I take the liberty of citing a telling letter, in which Adorno berated Marcuse for being too sympathetic to student protestors: “To put it bluntly: I think that you are deluding yourself in being unable to go on without participating in the student stunts, because of what is occurring in Vietnam or Biafra. […] You object to Jürgen’s [Habermas] expression ‘left fascism,’ calling it a contradictio in adjecto. But you are a dialectician aren’t you? As if such contradictions did not exist—might not a movement, by the force of its immanent antinomies, transform itself into its opposite?” (cited in Wheatland, The Frankfurt School in Exile, p. 277).

[3] Gabriel Rockhill, “The Forgotten Political Art par excellence? Architecture, Design and the Social Sculpting of the Body Politic” in The Missed Encounter of Radical Philosophy with Architecture, ed. Nadir Lahiji (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), pp. 19-33.

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