Critical Theory: The Key Concepts
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Critical Theory: The Key Concepts

Dino Franco Felluga

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eBook - ePub

Critical Theory: The Key Concepts

Dino Franco Felluga

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Critical Theory: The Key Concepts introduces over 300 widely-used terms, categories and ideas drawing upon well-established approaches like new historicism, postmodernism, psychoanalysis, Marxism, and narratology as well as many new critical theories of the last twenty years such as Actor-Network Theory, Global Studies, Critical Race Theory, and Speculative Realism. This book explains the key concepts at the heart of a wide rangeof influential theorists from Agamben to ĆœiĆŸek. Entries range from concise definitions to longer more explanatory essays and include terms such as:

  • Aesthetics
  • Desire
  • Dissensus
  • Dromocracy
  • Hegemony
  • Ideology
  • Intersectionality
  • Late Capitalism
  • Performativity
  • Race
  • Suture

Featuring cross-referencing throughout, a substantial bibliography and index, Critical Theory: The Key Concepts is an accessible and easy-to-use guide. This book is an invaluable introduction covering a wide range of subjects for anyone who is studying or has an interest in critical theory (past and present).

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In psychoanalysis, “abjection” is our reaction (horror, vomit) to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object or between self and other. The primary example is the corpse (which traumatically reminds us of our own materiality, thus making us feel like an object rather than a subject); however, other items can elicit the same reaction: an open wound, shit, sewage, even a particularly immoral crime (e.g., Auschwitz). The Lacanian feminist, Julia Kristeva, theorizes the concept in her influential work, The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Kristeva posits that abjection is something that we must experience in our psychosexual development before entering into the mirror stage. On the level of archaic memory (what we superseded when we entered civilization), Kristeva refers to the primitive effort to separate ourselves from the animal: “by way of abjection, primitive societies have marked out a precise area of their culture in order to remove it from the threatening world of animals or animalism” (Kristeva 1982: 12–13). On the level of our individual psychosexual development, the abject marks the moment when we separated ourselves from the mother, when we began to recognize a boundary between “me” and other, between “me” and “(m)other.” According to Kristeva, the abject is necessary since it teaches us how to set up boundaries, for example between self and other or between human and animal. Kristeva argues that the abject marks our movement out of what she terms the maternal chora.
More specifically, Kristeva associates the abject with the eruption of the Real into our lives. In particular, she associates such a response with our rejection of death’s insistent materiality. Our reaction to such abject material makes us feel in immediate bodily ways what is essentially a pre-lingual response (something we went through as a child before we entered into language and the conventions of society). Kristeva therefore is quite careful to differentiate knowledge of death or the meaning of death (both of which can exist within the symbolic order) from the traumatic experience of being confronted with the sort of materiality that shows you your own death:
A wound with blood and pus, or the sickly, acrid smell of sweat, of decay, does not signify death. In the presence of signified death—a flat encephalograph, for instance—I would understand, react, or accept. No, as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. (Kristeva 1982: 3)
The corpse especially exemplifies Kristeva’s concept since it literalizes the breakdown of the distinction between subject and object that is crucial for the establishment of identity and for our entrance into the symbolic order. What we are confronted with when we experience the trauma of seeing a human corpse (particularly the corpse of a friend or family member) is our own eventual death made palpably real. As Kristeva puts it, “The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life. Abject” (Kristeva 1982: 4).
The abject must also be distinguished from desire (which is tied up with the meaning-structures of the symbolic order). It is associated, rather, with both fear and jouissance. In phobia, Kristeva reads the trace of a pre-linguistic confrontation with the abject, a moment that precedes the recognition of any actual object of fear: “The phobic object shows up at the place of non-objectal states of drive and assumes all the mishaps of drive as disappointed desires or as desires diverted from their objects” (Kristeva 1982: 35). The object of fear is, in other words, a substitute formation for the subject’s abject relation to drive. The fear of, say, heights really stands in the place of a much more primal fear: the fear caused by the breakdown of any distinction between subject and object, of any distinction between ourselves and the world of dead material objects. Kristeva also associates the abject with jouissance: “One does not know it, one does not desire it, one joys in it [on en jouit]. Violently and painfully. A passion” (1982: 9). This statement appears paradoxical, but what Kristeva means by such statements is that we are, despite everything, continually and repetitively drawn to the abject (much as we are repeatedly drawn to trauma in Freud’s understanding of repetition compulsion). To experience the abject in literature carries with it a certain pleasure but one that is quite different from the dynamics of desire. Kristeva associates this aesthetic experience of the abject, rather, with poetic catharsis (the release and purification of strong emotion caused by art, as theorized by Aristotle). For Kristeva, poetic purification through catharsis is, in fact, “an impure process that protects from the abject only by dint of being immersed in it” (1982: 28).
The abject for Kristeva is, therefore, closely tied both to religion and to art, which she sees as two ways of purifying the abject: “The various means of purifying the abject—the various catharses—make up the history of religions, and end up with that catharsis par excellence called art, both on the far and near side of religion” (Kristeva 1982: 17). According to Kristeva, the best modern literature (Dostoevsky, Proust, Artaud, CĂ©line, Kafka, etc.) explores the place of the abject, a place where boundaries begin to break down, where we are confronted with an archaic space before such linguistic binaries as self/other or subject/object. The transcendent or sublime, for Kristeva, is really our effort to cover over the breakdowns (and subsequent reassertion of boundaries) associated with the abject; and literature is the privileged space for both the sublime and the abject: “On close inspection, all literature is probably a version of the apocalypse that seems to me rooted, no matter what its sociohistorical conditions might be, on the fragile border (borderline cases) where identities (subject/object, etc.) do not exist or only barely so—double, fuzzy, heterogeneous, animal, metamorphosed, altered, abject” (1982: 207). According to Kristeva, literature explores the way that language is structured over a lack, a want. She privileges poetry, in particular, because of poetry’s willingness to play with grammar, metaphor, and meaning, thus laying bare the fact that language is at once arbitrary and limned with the abject fear of loss. See, in particular, her work, Revolution in Poetic Language (1984).
See also: psychosexual development.
Further reading: Kristeva 1982, 1984.
This school of thought brings together a number of theorists who contest the common understanding of the terms, “social” and “society.” Actor-network theorists question the tendency of traditional sociologists to see “society” as a stable, definable substrate for various aspects of modern existence: they argue instead that “the social is not a type of thing either visible or to be postulated” (Latour 2005: 8). According to Bruno Latour, an influential proponent of ANT, the traditional sense of the “social” is particularly unhelpful when dealing with moments of crisis or change, when “things accelerate, innovations proliferate, and entities are multiplied”: “This is when a relativistic solution has to be devised in order to remain able to move between frames of reference and to regain some sort of commensurability between traces coming from frames traveling at very different speeds and acceleration” (2005: 12). Indeed, one method of ANT is to explore those moments when habitual ways of understanding the world are challenged, thus revealing the complex interactions between heterogeneous things (e.g., innovations, breakdowns, even counter-factual histories that imagine other ways that things might fit together). John Law, another important proponent of ANT, therefore concentrates particularly on mess in his book, After Method: Mess in Social Science Research (2004). That is, traditional social and natural science research tends to deal with things in the world that can “be made clear and definite”: “Income distributions, global CO2 emissions, the boundaries of nation states, and terms of trade, these are the kinds of provisionally stable realities that social and natural science deal with more or less effectively” (Law 2004: 2). What social and natural science cannot handle—or “mess up” in their desire to impose “simple clear descriptions”—are “mess, confusion and relative disorder” (2). Complex systems that refuse to conform to scientific methods are another favorite area of investigation for ANT theorists, as in the collection Complexities (2002), edited by John Law and Annemarie Mol.
For ANT theorists, a part of their method is to resist any predetermined assumptions about what makes up the social: “Society is no more ‘roughly’ made of ‘individuals,’ of ‘cultures,’ of ‘nation states’ than Africa is ‘roughly’ a circle, France a hexagon or Cornwall a triangle” (Latour 2005: 24), explains Latour, for example. As he goes on, “Be prepared to cast off agency, structure, psyche, time, and space along with every other philosophical and anthropological category, no matter how deeply rooted in common sense they may appear to be” (24–25). ANT theorists prefer, then, to replace society with “collective” and to trace the associations that bring “actors” or “actants” (rather than subjects or individuals) together into what are termed “aggregates” or “assemblages.” (Actors are actants that have been given some sort of figuration, some sort of discursive or figurative identity.) According to ANT, “any thing that does modify a state of affairs by making a difference is an actor—or, if it has no figuration yet, an actant” (Latour 2005: 71). Actors or actants can, then, include material objects (“any thing”), and, indeed, one goal of ANT is to understand better the effect of technological innovations on how the social is determined: “ANT is not the empty claim that objects do things ‘instead’ of human actors: it simply says that no science of the social can even begin if the question of who and what participates in the action is not first of all thoroughly explored, even though it might mean letting elements in which, for lack of a better term, we would call non-humans” (Latour 2005: 72). The “network” of Actor-Network Theory refers, then, to the host of heterogeneous actants coming together (assembling) to form an always-provisional reality through actions that cause determinable changes—hence the ANT slogan, “‘There is no in-formation, only trans-formation’” (Latour 2005: 149). Instead of viewing the world from some commanding panopticon, the ANT scholar examines how actants affect each other at the most local level of influence, what Latour terms the “oligopticon”: “whenever anyone speaks of a ‘system,’ a ‘global feature,’ a ‘structure,’ a ‘society,’ an ‘empire,’ a ‘world economy,’ an ‘organization,’ the first ANT reflex should be to ask: ‘In which building? In which bureau? Through which corridor is it accessible? Which colleagues has it been read to? How has it been compiled?’” (Latour 2005: 183). At the same time, each such local act is shot through with heterogeneous influences that come from other times and other places, which is what makes them uncertain “mediators.” ANT terms actants who are not fully in control of their actions “mediators,” which are contrasted to what are termed “intermediaries” (with stable cause-and-effect relationships). ANT scholars seek always to multiply the number of mediators they study because such mediators are truer to the ways actants act and are acted upon: “So, an actor-network is what is made to act by a large star-shaped web of mediators flowing in and out of it” (Latour 2005: 217). Ultimately, then, ANT scholars resist both the global and the local: “No place dominates enough to be global and no place is self-contained enough to be local” (Latour 2005: 204). There are many methods out there for “building formats, standards, and metrologies” (Latour 2005: 249) but such efforts at order and consensus are only ever provisionally employed to stabilize an ever-shifting background of what is not known.
Reality is provisional because groups are seen as constantly in the process of making and defining themselves through such efforts at standardization: “For ANT, if you stop making and remaking groups, you stop having groups” (Latour 2005: 35), which is to say that groups and “actors” are performative, in a way similar to how Judith Butler understands this term. As Latour explains, “the object of a performative definition vanishes when it is no longer performed” (Latour 2005: 37). ANT therefore concerns itself with the ever-repeated performative acts that bring a reality into being, often by excluding other acts or actants that are, in turn, defined as illegitimate by a given set of actants. Any act is itself always an uncertain and unstable one, according to ACT: “Action is not done under the full control of consciousness; action should rather be felt as a node, a knot, and a conglomerate of many surprising sets of agencies that have to be slowly disentangled” (Latour 2005: 44). This insight applies to the very discipline of science as traditionally conducted; that is, traditional scientific methods tend to create a particular version of reality through what amounts to performative acts. As John Law puts it, “Method is not 
 a more or less successful set of procedures for reporting on a given reality. Rather it is performative. It helps to produce realities” (Law 2004: 143).
See also: blackboxing, quasi-objects and quasi-subjects, things and Thing Theory.
Further reading: Latour 1993, 1999, 2005; Law 2004; Law and Mol 2002.
Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy that concerns itself with the understanding of art, beauty, and taste. Raymond Williams begins his Keywords with a definition of the term and helpfull...

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