[Marxism] more on immanent critique

Peter McLaren drpetermclaren at gmail.com
Tue Aug 14 19:21:58 MDT 2007

Mas'ud Zavazardeh

immanent critique vs transformative critique



Howard’s book identifies critique with “immanent critique” — a  
practice that has become part of the commonsense of postmodern  
philosophy and criticism. Its most famous practitioner at the moment  
is, of course, Jacques Derrida. Immanent critique — critique from the  
inside — is a form of reading that accepts (what it posits as) the  
text’s “own terms”. The main purpose of immanent critique is to  
provide a space for contemplating these terms and to explore their  
consequences for the general economy of representation in the text.  
Derridean immanent critique demonstrates how the text is always self- 
divided and marked by “gaps”, blind spots and “aporias.” These drifts  
and fissures are the effect of the internal “dialogue” of the text —  
the tension between what it attempts to thematize (argue for and  
represent) and its own language. Through its tropes (metaphoric  
structures), the language of the text undermines the “literal” theme  
and argument the text represents. As a result of this tension, the  
text does not “mean” anything — in the sense of representing a  
reliable truth about reality. Its “meaning,” if one may call it that,  
is a self-reflexive story about its own fate as a text; its own  
involvement in the tension between the literal and the metaphorical,  
the genetic and the normative.

Reading for Derrida does not lead to the discovery of the “meaning”  
of a text, rather it stages the tension in the text and demonstrates  
that the meaning of the text is “undecidable” as a consequence of  
this constitutive tension. Thus the “real” meaning of a text for  
Derrida is precisely the lesson of undecidability. By turning all the  
meanings of cultural texts into undecidable constructs, Derrida  
believes he has redefined “politics” itself. A radical, postmodern  
politics, then, is not so much a matter, for example, of class  
struggle but a question of denying words and texts of culture clear,  
decidable meaning. As Barbara Johnson puts it, “Nothing could be more  
comforting to the established order than the requirement that  
everything be assigned a clear meaning or stand.” So for  
deconstructionists, the radical act in politics is to empty words of  
their ready made meanings by substituting “undecidability” for  
“clear” meanings. Radical politics, for these readers, should be  
based not on a “decided” meaning but on a reflection of the  
constitutive tensions in meaning. Politics, in short, is a matter of  
“discourse” and not reducible to such entities as “economics” or  
“history” which are traditionally thought to be extra-discursive  

Howard shares this conclusion that politics is, above all, the effect  
of a tension between the is and ought even though his theory of  
language is mimetic and thus different from that of Derrida and  
Johnson. For Howard, as for Derrida, “politics” is not so much a  
matter of “solving” problems as it is a question of becoming  
conversant with them. Howard’s idea of politics-as- critique is a  
reproduction of the Derridean notion of undecidability. Politics, for  
Howard, is undecidable since a decided politics, like a decided  
meaning, is an instance of coercion by the totalitarian will of the  
revolutionary: the one who needs “certainty” and “decidability” in  
order to make plans and decisions and, above all, to use politics  
instrumentally to organize oppositional forces. Howard and Derrida  
both construct the politics-as-undecidability usable in late  
capitalism. Politics-as-undecidability is a politics of pluralistic  
dialogue; it emphasizes the process of dialogue and marginalizes its  
outcome in order to systematically distract attention from “telos”.  
It is a theory of politics, in other words, compatible with the  
interests of the ruling classes.

For Marx, who believed that people under capitalism had lost sight of  
the “telos” (goal) of their practices, “critique” has a very  
different meaning and form. Marxian critique is what I call a  
transformative critique. Unlike immanent critique, it is committed  
not merely to inaugurating a dialogue in the body politics but also  
to its outcome — the telos.

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