Critical Theory For and Against Itself

December 5, 2011

On the one hand, critical theory condemns the occupation. (see letter below)

On the other hand, critical theory defends the occupation. (see letter below)

Can it do both and still be itself? As an old dialectician once said,

CRITICAL THEORY has to be communicated in its own language — the language of contradiction, dialectical in form as well as in content: the language of the critique of the totality, of the critique of history. Not some “writing degree zero” — just the opposite. Not a negation of style, but the style of negation.

First Negation

Monday, November 28, 2011

To the New School Community

Dear Friends:

We need to express our strong appreciation for the way our president, provost and some of our faculty members handled the unfortunate occupation of a part of the New School. They were right not to call in the police, and to be conciliatory, ready to negotiate until a full democratic vote of those present could be taken.

They were also right (letter of November 23) in calling attention to the destructive and undemocratic practice of a minority that initially refused to leave in spite of the vote. This act of firmness also facilitated the favorable outcome.

Some of us, probably a relatively small minority of students and faculty, may think that it is acceptable to occupy the New School whether or not there is any school specific contentious issue at stake. Let us note however, that as against the recent past, the leadership of Van Zandt and Marshall (not to speak of the faculty mostly enthusiastic about OWS) has provided no conceivable excuse for this action. On the contrary, it was all extremely hospitable to the movement and its reasonable demands for time and space. We are aware of possible motivations why the New School was selected: namely our very tolerance and liberalism made us a much easier and less defended target than the real enemies of the movement. But the existence of opportunity is not in itself a justification for anything.

Whether any of us do agree with the occupation of a part of our place, we are sure none of us can accept the fact that the occupiers have deliberately caused serious damage to the facilities. $40,000 dollars is mentioned as a figure. That is quite a sum. Just to pick an example of alternatives, the equivalent of 10 graduate assistantships will go for renovation instead, at a time when we already cannot reward at all some of our best students.

We are not calling for the punishment of the students concerned by the University. This would be counter-productive. But we do think that any serious movement-to-be has the responsibility to police its ranks, and discipline its membership by excluding those who violate democratic rules and engage in random violence.

Again the president and the provost need to be offered our sincere thanks. Had someone else been in their place, the results could have been tragic, and not only for the short term. The long shutdown of universities from Greece to Uruguay and Mexico has happened in the past initially for equally fortuitous reasons. It is our job here, faculty and students, to make sure that this cannot happen to the New School.

Signed by,

Elaine Abelson
Andrew Arato
Jay Bernstein
Emanuele Castano
Doris Chang
Alice Crary
James Dodd
Federico Finchelstein
Carlos Forment
Laura Frost
Teresa Ghilarducci
Jeffrey Goldfarb
Eiko Ikegami
Elizabeth Kendall
Marcel Kinsbourne
Benjamin Lee
Arien Mack
Elzbieta Matynia
Joan Miller
Edward Nell
Julia Cathleen Ott
Christian Proaño
Vyjayanthi Rao
Janet Roitman
Jeremy Safran
Willi Semmler
Ann-Louise Shapiro
Rachel Sherman
Ann Stoler
McWelling Todman
Robin Wagner-Pacifici
Terry Williams
Eli Zaretsky
Vera Zolberg

Negation of the Negation:

Dear all,

I hate to be a party pooper, but I must tell you that I will not sign this
letter. While I agree that the administration handled the situation very
well, I belong to the group, described as a “small minority,” that believes
that a building occupation need not be justified by demands addressed
explicitly to its owners. In fact, that idea runs directly counter to the
premise of the occupy movement, as I understand it, which involves seizing
public or quasi-public spaces to make broad claims about the overall
(mis)direction of our society. Hence, the occupiers of Zucotti Park were
not addressing demands to its owners, but were seeking to speak to the
public at large. I see no principled reason why a movement should not
occupy a university building to make such a statement or initiate such a
discussion. The students who did so in this case may have misjudged the
situation, overestimating their support and failing to communicate clearly
what they were doing and why. But if so, those were tactical errors in
executing what might have been a promising strategy. The letter that many
of you have chosen to sign does not even contemplate such possibilities. It
seems to me to be written from the standpoint of those who govern, whereas
I prefer to consider this matter from the standpoint of those who protest
injustice, a group our society already marginalizes-politically,
intellectually, and spatially.

Best to all,
Nancy Fraser


Positive Negation

I come in late in this conversation, so I risk repeating things that have been said before. I am sorry about this. But I want to return to the initial faculty letter that Jeffrey Goldfarb posted on this blog. This was drafted by Andrew Arato, and signed by a large number of New School professors, many of whom are friends of mine, and most of whom I would expect to agree with on political issues. But I am troubled by the letter. I was not asked to sign it (presumably it was circulated only to tenured faculty), but if I had been, I would have declined.

I had no problems with the first paragraph. We certainly should show our appreciation of the impeccably liberal way in which the President has responded to the various protests over the past few weeks, and especially of the way that he, together with some administrators and professors handled the occupation of the Student Center. For me, this indicated a very welcome reaffirmation of New School values and traditions.

But I thought that the rest of the letter was much too quick and unreflective a response to our local occupation, expressing immediate outrage, perhaps disappointment, rather than considered judgment. Some examples: Why raise the issue of student punishment, merely to dismiss it as ‘counter-productive’? Why not also say that it is inappropriate, indeed wrong, for a university to use punishment except as a very last resort, especially in cases involving politics?
If there is a concern with what is ‘counter-productive’, why then go on to say that any ‘serious movement-to-be has the responsibility to police its ranks, and discipline its membership by excluding those who violate democratic rules and engage in random violence’ (my italics)? This is not the language likely to create a dialogue with members of a highly diverse movement, most of whom are committed to self-organization and inclusion. Why raise the emotional ante by invoking the specter of the ‘long shutdown of universities from Greece to Uruguay and Mexico’ as if a similar ‘tragic’ fate for the New School was only narrowly averted. In the absence of some account of similarities and differences, this is largely scare mongering.
Of course there are substantial issues here, ones that deserve and may get the decent discussion that Jeffrey calls for. But in the letter they serve as rhetorical bludgeons, not as invitations to dialogue.

I want to say something about an issue that is in the near background of the faculty letter: the politics of protest movements. Most of us recognize that protest is a legitimate and necessary part of democratic politics. But we need to pay attention to the nature of this form of politics. Protest operates on the borderlines of legality and, let us face it, of civility. The largely symbolic forms in which protests are mounted (occupations of public or private space, sit-ins, street marches, theatrical interventions in bureaucratic procedures, political graffiti, etc.) often involve breaches of the law, confrontations with the police, inconvenience to uninvolved citizens (those Wall Street workers who complained of the difficulty of getting to work were not wrong!), and extra expense to public authorities. They also attract an incredibly diverse range of participants, with different agendas and priorities, especially with regard to confrontation with authorities and pushing the boundaries of extra-legal activity. Organizational structures are at best fluid and often chaotic; and local initiatives are a constant challenge to overall coordination and planning. OWS did a remarkable job of coordination through procedures of self-management and consensus in very difficult circumstances. But there is always the possibility of smaller factions splitting off from the larger grouping (even the democratic majority) to pursue agendas that they conceive to be more important. Even if it were desirable, it is simply not possible for the group as a whole to ‘police’ its members, ‘exclude’ those it suspects of a penchant for violence. At best other groups (the ’majority’) may want to criticize breakaway factions, and in certain cases disavow them. This is entirely appropriate. But when we presume to give advice as to appropriate democratic procedures, we should be sensitive to the fragmented nature of this form of politics. For good or ill, minority actions of this kind should be recognized as an ever-present possibility in ongoing protest movements. We should not be too surprised, even when our institution is the target and it is our walls that are graffitied.

Jeffrey says that he criticizes the occupation on behalf of the many (I guess most) students who oppose the occupation. Fair enough; though surely their criticisms would have been more effective if they had made them themselves. Criticism by faculty is also appropriate. But where possible, this should be conducted in ways that open up discussion, and do not foreclose it. In this case, I would have hoped that the response of my colleagues might have shown more sensitivity, not only in the terms in which it was expressed, but also to the political circumstances surrounding the occupation. The issues raised by the occupation needed to be discussed. But in a cool hour. There is a place in politics for outrage and disappointment, but these should not displace the need for judgment. Especially at the New School.

Ross Poole
December 5, 2011

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