The inorganic body in the early Marx


A limit-concept of anthropocentrism

The effort to revive and recover critical theory and its intellectual precedents has become more difficult at a time in which ‘critique’ is regularly denounced as negative, skeptical and anthropocentric. Bruno Latour, for instance, imagines that when we speak about what is ‘critical’, we have in mind a fully negative project, a practice of debunking and dismantling hegemonic presumptions about the world, and that critical theory only intensifies skepticism and lacks transformative power and commitment to emancipatory ideals.(1) The validity of his claim depends on a careful consideration of what ‘negative’ means, and a querying of whether ‘the negative’, in fact, deserves such a negative reputation. Even if a ‘critical’ approach is one that aims not to reproduce those forms of thought that ratify modes of social life that reproduce forms of domination or subjugation, that does not mean that critical theory refuses to reproduce all forms of thought or that it objects to all surface phenomena. To oppose a naturalised form of knowledge because oppression is taken for granted within its terms is not to oppose all nature, or to claim that nature ought to be replaced with expressions of a purely human expressive power. To make a naturalised mode of subjugation into an object of knowledge is not to destroy its reality, but only to form it as an object of knowledge, judgement and transformation. In this way, ‘negation’–understood as ‘suspending the taken for granted character of reality’–opens up a critical perspective on that form, and conditions the possibility of precisely those forms of intervention and aspiration that Latour denies to the critical project. One does not take leave of the world of facts, but, in recognising that it is a world, finds modes of dynamic engagement with them.

One problem with Latour’s criticism of ‘critique’ is that he relies on an account of critical theory which positions it as the contemporary manifestation of the history of a consequential error inaugurated by Kant. Latour writes:

The mistake we made, the mistake I made, was to believe that there was no efficient way to criticise matters of fact except by moving away from them and directing one’s attention toward the conditions that made them possible. But this meant accepting much too uncritically what matters of fact were. This was remaining too faithful to the unfortunate solution inherited from the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.(2)

Latour seems to understand positivism here as the object of critique, and goes on to claim that matters of fact have to be re-approached in a way that affirms their own potential and agentic powers. That may well be the case. But why would such a project be antithetical to critique? Further, is Latour right to imagine that critical theorists have all been ensnared by a view that fails to attend to matters of fact (and recasts them as matters of concern) in order to discern their own critical potential? Latour seems to be asking whether it is not time to stop acting on the world, but in making this claim–if it is his claim–he seems to imagine action as an anthropocentric activity, even though there is a significant tradition of critical theory that contests such an assumption.

Monthly Review Online for more

Comments are closed.