Bernard E. Harcourt | Concluding Thoughts to Critique 1/13

By Bernard E. Harcourt

The first seminar, Critique 1/13, was dedicated to “The Search for a Method”: to the question of what it really means to “return” to these critical texts today, to “read” them or ‘reread” them, and to deploy them in our contemporary political struggles in these times of crises. The rich discussion generated a number of different critical methods and typologies; for me, at least, it also served to set others aside.

Amy Allen’s initial intervention put a lot of pressure on the metaphor of treating critical texts as a “toolbox.” The toolbox metaphor is most often associated with Foucault, who on at least one occasion referred to his ambition that readers use his work as a toolbox.[1] That metaphor, though, I would argue, represents the exact opposite of a critical method, because it assumes that there are already-existing tools in these texts that we can take up and deploy, when in fact it is our act of reading, rereading, and interpreting these texts that create tools in the first place. The metaphor, in essence, is ass-backwards. We, critical readers, forge tools, we do not find them ready-made. To adopt the toolbox metaphor is to deny the infinity of interpretation that is at the heart of a truly critical approach.

Amy Allen also raised the important question whether and how our readings can or must remain faithful, in some sense, to the original text or the author’s intent. In this regard, Lydia Goehr proposed that philosophical texts, like artworks, have a history, a reception, an afterlife, and that we should not seek to decipher the truth of the text, but rather to read the history of the text as a discourse, as a language, in an effort to do justice to “the truth-context implicit to the thoughts in those texts.” Goehr urged us to get rid of notions of fidelity and rightness, and think about justice instead: about doing justice to ourselves in reading these texts. Nadia Urbinati, by contrast, urged readers not to rest lazily on these critical texts, nor distort them, but instead to speak in their own critical voice. Urbinati criticized the lack of responsibility or courage in our not taking it upon ourselves to disagree with these texts and emancipate ourselves from their authority.

Taking a step back, Axel Honneth proposed four different, what he called “legitimate,” forms of reading: First, a philological approach to reading that seeks to understand exactly how words and sentences were understood at the time of their writing. This involves careful historical work, it is very detail and precision oriented, and it aims to reveal the truth of the historical context within which the original writing—the original intervention—was located. While Honneth characterized this approach as, essentially, boring, Joshua Simon proposed that such readings, in the Cambridge style, can function like genealogies that reveal paths not taken and conditions of possibility of our present understandings. Second, Honneth proposed reading the texts as a possible form of ideology. The idea here is that texts may reveal a particular way of thinking or seeing the world that attaches at a particular time, and one method of reading unearths those ideologies. The method here is to figure out how certain arguments or moves in these texts reflect a historical set of beliefs.

Third, Honneth proposed—and espoused—a dialogical method of reading: in effect, to be in a permanent dialogue with the critical text. The effort here is to figure out how the text is in conversation with one’s own work. In Honneth’s words, it is “to be interested in whether the text speaks to me.” Honneth argued that, on this view, in reading a text, one should reject what one can’t understand, figure out what one can—and in this way, as Urbinati had suggested, reject argumentative moves in texts that we cannot follow. This is, in essence, the approach that Honneth has typically taken in his own work, dialoguing with and criticizing Horkheimer in The Critique of Power for his sociological deficit, or with Hegel in his extensive work on recognition. Fourth, and finally, Honneth sketched a presentist or instrumental method of reading that seeks to deploy the text to one’s own projects. For Honneth, the fourth method is not fully legitimate because it is too instrumental. Presentism, Honneth suggested, is the equivalent to the toolbox metaphor: it asks only how a text can serve, in our practical intentions today.

For his part, Etienne Balibar proposed a more Deleuzian method of reading as a form of dramatization that turns the text into a battlefield. Balibar noted that this year’s seminar, perhaps by contrast to the two last years’ seminars, had already made an interesting move of circumscribing what we call “texts” to more traditional writings—to articles and books (e.g. The Second Sex, Pedagogy of the Oppressed) rather than to social movements (e.g. #BlackLivesMatter at Uprising 13/13) or the idea of “the common” or of assemblies (e.g. The Common at Praxis 13/13 or Assemblies). By contrast to Derrida, who forcefully argued that the text has no boundaries and that it is impossible to remain within the text, this year’s seminar had already shifted, in his words, from “resources” for critical thought to “sources.” It was in that respect that Balibar pressed us to think more agonistically about reading these texts, and to think of them more as a larger battlefield to discuss practices and institutions as well. (In subsequent conversation, Honneth suggested he would like to develop a method that negotiates the space between his third dialogical method and Balibar’s battlefield model.)

By contrast, I proposed to rehabilitate words that we all disparage today—such as “presentism” and “brutalism,” perhaps even “instrumentalism”—not in the sense of distorting our reading of texts, or lying or being disingenuous, but in the sense of putting these texts to work for our political struggles today. In the end, those often-maligned notions of presentism or even instrumentalism form an integral part of the other ways of reading, whether it is Honneth’s dialogical approach, or Balibar’s battlefield model. We do not like the sound of those words, they are too crude and vulgar. But the truth is, they are present in the dialogical. They are what animate it. And to retain them, we may simply need to rename them. In the end, the approach I advocate is an “engaged” critical method of reading—to use perhaps a more palatable term. And it is to this engaged critical method that we will return at the next seminar with our first set of readings by Adorno and Horkheimer. (The choice of which critical texts to begin with, and more generally which texts to read over the course of the academic year, is another key question. Aminah Hasan-Birdwell raised the challenging question of how to select texts, and the danger of reading the “wrong” texts—which is something I hope we will come back to regularly during the seminar.)

Is there, then, something unique about Nietzsche’s work, or perhaps Foucault’s writings as well, by contrast to Hegel or Mallarmé, that lends itself to this “engaged” critical method, as Amy Allen initially asked? The difference, if there is one, perhaps, is the willingness of a thinker like Nietzsche or like Foucault to reconsider what they had previously written. To come back on their ideas, repudiate them, and reformulate them. I do not discern that in all thinkers—yet it is pivotal, I believe, to our own enterprise of critical reading. It serves as a model for us. I do see that in Foucault, who so often would pivot and push his research in new directions. I see that in Nietzsche, as well. But not as evidently in Hegel or Kant or Horkheimer.

In the end, if we believe with Foucault reading Nietzsche, or, perhaps, if we believe with Nietzsche that interpretation is infinite, that there is no end to interpretation, then we cannot police right from wrong interpretations. If we believe with Foucault, in his words, that “There is never, if you like, an interpretandum that is not already interpretans, so that it is as much a relationship of violence as of elucidation that is established in interpretation,”[2] then there is no getting these texts “right.” That may feel scary. It may feel unmoored, unstable. But it may well describe the world we live in. As Foucault so often cited Nietzsche: “To perish by absolute knowledge could well be part of the foundation of being.”[3] Perhaps, to conclude here, deploying these critical texts in an engaged manner is ultimately an ethical question. It represents a personal relationship to the text, as well as to our own work. It is not, likely, a relation of truth. It is more likely situated and shaped by the political moment; but it remains faithful, at least in an ethical sense, to the critical and emancipatory ambition of the original text.


[1] See Michel Foucault (1974), “Prisons et asiles dans le mécanisme du pouvoir,” in Dits et Ecrits, t. II. Paris: Gallimard, 1994, pp. 523–4.

[2] Foucault, “Nietzsche, Marx, Freud,” at page 571; English, p. 275.

[3] Foucault’s writings would return to this theme not only in the 1964 text, but also in The Order of Things, which underscores that “Thought […] is a perilous act. Sade, Nietzsche, Artaud and Bataille have understood this on behalf of all those who tried to ignore it.” See Les Mots et les choses, page 339 (English, p. 328).