[16 October 2013]
The Left Hemisphere: Mapping Critical Theory Today is a lofty thing. In its tightly conceived 250 pages, it describes a multitude of critical theories spanning Argentina to China and then back again, taking the time not only to outline the facets of each theory but also the social and political circumstances that caused each one to arise. By the time author and Sorbonne professor Razmig Keucheyan reaches the conclusion of this dizzying menagerie of anti-capitalist thought, one will be hard-pressed to remember the captivating details of each theory just out of the sheer density of this book.
This challenge becomes even more considerable given that Keucheyan does not give his readers the option to “pick and choose” what critical theories might suit them the best. Reading through the table of contents, one could easily skip ahead to one of the neatly labeled subsections of the book’s second part; tags like “Theories of Imperialism”, “Capitalisms Old and New”, and “Post-Femininities” will undoubtedly scratch many a graduate student’s theoretical itch. Yet this is far from a perfunctory survey, and in the post-Buzzfeed world The Left Hemisphere successfully avoids being a highfalutin listicle.
Indeed, the motivation for this book is not merely to identify particularly appealing theories have begun to emerge in the cartography of critical theory; for him, Keucheyan, these theories—be it Gayatri Spivak’s postcolonial Subaltern studies or the ubiquitous Slavoj Zizek’s Hegelian Christianity—have arisen out of a crisis. They have risen out of defeat.
The strongest material comes in its opening contextualization of the critical theories summarized in the bulk of the book, in two chapters entitled “The Defeat of Critical Thinking (1977-93)” and “A Brief History of the ‘New Left’ (1956-77)”. The crux of Keucheyan’s argument is that part of what has demobilized critical theory has been an elimination of the once “irreducible distance between intellectuals and [political] partie[s]” that existed before the German Revolution in 1923 (11). During the propagation of Marxist ideals leading up to 1923 Germany, “to be a Marxist intellectual… was to find oneself at the head of one’s country’s working-class organizations… the very notion of ‘Marxist intellectual’ made little sense, the substantive ‘Marxist’ being self-sufficient” (10).
The failure of the German Revolution, while having myriad implications for that particular society, signaled a much broader defeat suffered by what we now call “critical theories”:
The classical period of Marxism was one of intense debates over, in particular, the character of imperialism, the national question, the relationship between the social and the political, and finance capital. From the second half of the 1920s, Marxism became fossilized. This places intellectuals in a structurally difficult position, since any innovation in the intellectual domain was henceforth denied them. This was a major cause of the distance that now separated them from working-class parties… With time the separation only grew, all the more so in that other factors aggravated it, like the increasing professionalization or academicization of intellectual activity, which tended to distance intellectuals from politics. (11)
Then, invoking the writing of the Italian thinker Lucio Colletti, Keucheyan writes, “Either Marxism succeeds in reconciling theory and practice… or it no longer exists as Marxism” (18). From this severing of thought from deed, Keucheyan forms an underlying narrative that permeates the rest of the proceedings, albeit subtly. Whenever he describes the relevance of a theorist’s ideas relative to the political circumstances of her time, the reader has it in the back of her head that the challenge for theorists the world over is to take their ideas and mobilize them into the change critical theory aims at. Critical theory, as Keucheyan defines it, is any theory that “more or less comprehensively challenges the existing social order” (2). Keucheyan’s summaries of global thinkers aren’t pointed in their intent; there is no gradient scale by which he evaluates how socially effective each theory is. In the end, Keucheyan argues that “the task of critical thought… is to make a new sense of temporality emerge” (248).
This task is a lofty one, and in its aspirations it requires an almost religious devotion. “Experiments in constructing a socialist society have all ended tragically,” Keucheyan observes, “The Marxist conceptual and organizational framework, which dominated the labour movement for more than a century, has collapsed. In such conditions, how is one to continue believing in the feasibility of socialism, when the facts have brutally and repeatedly invalidated the idea?” (30). This quotation comes from a passage that details how, in the face of the continued strength of global capitalism, some critical thinkers have taken to religious, specifically Christian, thought, namely philosophers like Alain Badiou.
Yet while this line of thought is one of many in The Left Hemisphere, in a sense it pervades the entirety of this voluminous survey. That these thinkers are able to maintain radical theories in the face of a seemingly unbeatable opponent is remarkable—and admirable. Keucheyan makes no illusions about the obstacles critical thinkers must overcome. His summaries, captured with wonderful clarity by Gregory Elliot’s translation, are direct and to the point, and frequently they offer contextually relevant counter-movements and theories that depict how these critical theories are functioning in the real world. (Though, of course, “real” and “world” are categories challenged by many a thinker in this book.)
Keucheyan does not treat this project as a militaristic pamphlet to be wielded at some future Occupy-esque gathering. Rather, The Left Hemisphere sensibly and even-handedly engages a gamut of theories that, when taken together, can prove dizzying even for the most erudite of readers. In this way, Keucheyan lives up marvelously to the task he set out for himself at the book’s outset; lofty and theoretical a text though this is, in spirit it aims at reconciling many minds, thoughts, and ideas such that they may play out meaningfully in our ever-capitalist world.
For anyone looking for an ideal jumping-off point to engage in anti-capitalist theory, The Left Hemisphere is a wonderful resource that, in its summary of the words of others, makes its own resounding, unique point.