‘The Left Hemisphere: Mapping Critical Theory Today’ reviewed by Ane Engelstad

The Left Hemisphere: Mapping Critical Theory Today

Verso, New York and London, 2013. 264pp., £12.99 pb
ISBN 9781781685594

Reviewed by Ane Engelstad

About the reviewer

Ane Engelstad is a postgraduate student at University College London where she works on the concept …


“In the beginning there was defeat. Anyone who wishes to understand the nature of contemporary critical thinking must start from this fact”. Thus Razmig Keucheyan opens the first chapter of his ambitious, yet surprisingly concise overview of contemporary critical theory. His project is driven by a worry that has left radical politics and radical theory in a state of fragmentation and political complacency, namely the worry that when the subject of emancipation is no longer clearly identified, how should one continue to think about radical social transformation? Keucheyan argues that this concern arose in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the demise of the workers’ unions as loci of radical politics, and the emergence of radical social movements, such as the Iranian Revolution, that were not driven by a desire to overturn Capitalism. Keucheyan thus hopes that it will be possible to show in what sense a shared political purpose might still exist among radical thinkers who work from a Marxist perspective under the premise that the subject of emancipation is not found only in the proletariat. Moreover, Keucheyan hopes that with a comprehensive introduction to such a movement, its principles become accessible to the theoretical novice, transforming the radical theories at hand from dense and inaccessible to politically potent.

This ambition is evidently daunting, yet the book is only 255 pages long. The text is dense but accessible, masterly translated from French by Gregory Elliott. It speaks with authority, succinctly summarizing a vast span of theories. Given the length of the book, the selection of theories is impressive, made on the basis of obvious academic fame and/or academic productivity. However, it is also this selection that makes gauging the purpose of Keucheyan’s project tricky. Obviously, this is an anticipated criticism, and Keucheyan seems to guard against it at every turn by repeatedly justifying his selection of thinkers, and choices of theoretical strands. Moreover, Keucheyan is clearly aware that irrespective of this proactive attitude, one could always make the charge that a project such as his has left out crucial theories, however long, comprehensive and self-reflective the book may be. He thus mainly seems to hope to spark a debate about how we might want to look yet again at critical theory as a unified intellectual cum political movement.

Yet, despite Keucheyan’s best efforts, and the reader’s best intentions, it is hard to grasp the intended scope and use of his book. Though a theoretical overview is useful to the unintroduced reader, it is not clear whether Keucheyan intends his project to be used as a theoretical encyclopedia for the novice. Indeed, the compact nature of the book leaves much to be desired in terms of theoretical clarity. If one needs a quick introduction to Judith Butler, it might be better to look elsewhere. However, as mentioned, it is not Keucheyan’s main intention to map critical theory as he takes it to exist in its current form. This project will thus make more sense to the already initiated reader, familiar both with the newer theories at hand, and the obsession of traditional critical theory to map its history and constituents.

For this purpose, the book is divided into two sections entitled “Contexts” and “Theories”, the former supposedly explaining the selection of thinkers expanded on in the latter, as well as the importance of a mapping project. “Contexts” explains how, and to what avail we should be grouping writers together. Keucheyan insists, in classical Marxist fashion, that thinking does force itself into trends as a result of current political and academic debates, and through conceptions of what counts as the academic canon (26). Regardless of how fragmented contemporary critical theory may seem, a connection between these simple material facts and larger trends of thinking does warrant an investigation. It is with such an investigation in mind that the section entitled “Theories” is formed. It consists of short chapters on the theoretical strands, and specific theorists, that Keucheyan takes to be most important for the self-understanding of contemporary critical theory.

It is against this structure and purpose that one must criticise Keucheyan’s selection of writers. Given his intention to re-establish critical theory as a historically unified entity with a political purpose, he is surprisingly unaware of issues of representation among his chosen theorists. This is an important issue for a project like this for several reasons. First of all, if he genuinely aims to provide the platform for new political movement, the perspectives he chooses to represent are not distinct from this political potency. Secondly, it is from marginalised voices that the most innovative and politically efficacious theory has been produced in recent years. For instance, intersectional feminism has been widely successful in gaining followers both within and outside the academy, while providing an absolutely necessary and important shift in how one makes sense of the experience of marginalisation, whether one is female, or belongs to one or several other groups that face discrimination.

That said, Keucheyan is obviously not oblivious to the question of representation, and the fact that the most inventive radical theorists are found in other places than western academic institutions. Indeed, he worries that the majority of the more famous contemporary critical theorists are employed by prestigious American universities, disjointing them from real-life radical concerns, and building their theories from political worries that are now historical facts. Keucheyan counteracts this politically disassociated trend by ensuring that theorists from every continent are represented. Wang Hui, Gayatri Spivak, Álvaro Garcia Línera and Achille Mbebe are picked out as representatives of how critical thinking is moving away from its former power centers in Europe. 

However, Keucheyan does not take the political question of representation further. Thus, in a book which covers 31 theorists, only 5 are female. Three of these are discussed merely because of their views on the political subject as gendered. The remaining two, Seyla Benhabib and Nancy Fraser, are grouped together with Axel Honneth in a short section on conflictual identities. While Ernesto Laclau gets his own section, Chantal Mouffe is mentioned only in passing. Moreover, even when it comes to geographical representation, Keucheyan’s best efforts still come over as tokenistic. For instance, in his section on imperialism he focuses on three white, western men (Leo Pantich, Robert Cox, David Harvey), while in a two-page section on Marxism and imperialism he huddles together thinkers with a clearer first-hand connection to the history of colonialism, imperialism and domination, such as Atilio Boron, Daniel Bensaïd, Gopal Balakrishnan and Ellen Meiksins Wood. It seems here that Keucheyan would do well to explain how his selection of thinkers are better equipped to understand the real impact and dynamics of imperialism, and why these form a better basis for a unified radical movement against real-life domination. As a matter of fact, Keucheyan does not mention the epistemic position of the subject of emancipation until the section “Capitalisms old and new”. Here he discusses thinkers who reject the idea of cognitive capitalism as barring knowledge in production. Moreover, it is here he raises the worry that one of the mentioned thinkers (Robert Brenner) is Eurocentric.

It is also in this section that Keucheyan’s first and only mention of ecology as a major political concern arises, through his discussion of Elmar Altvater. This too is puzzling, given that ecology is one of the major unifying radical political causes between geographical location and other forms of political fragmentation. Keucheyan recognizes this omission, and justifies it by arguing that he otherwise has found no theory of ecology that is systematically based in Marxism (255). He sees critical theory as limited to a self-identifying Marxist tradition, thus avoiding discussions of critical theory more broadly construed. However, this is not entirely true. For instance, why not mention Bruno Latour’s Politics of Nature? It seems here that the obvious answer is that Latour is not sufficiently grounded in Marxist thought. However, it is not clear that this is a criterion for Keucheyan’s selection of thinkers in the first place, and it certainly does not explain the priority of some theorists over others. Keucheyan himself claims that Marxism has lost its hegemony within new critical theory, indeed that this is one of its marks (24). For instance, he limits the selection of feminist thinkers to those who specifically discuss the nature of the gendered subject, thus disbarring big strands of Marxist and black feminism. Thus, if strict adherence to Marxism is not a criterion for the selection of thinkers, the lack of women mentioned in other parts of the book is hard to explain. There are many interesting and politically fruitful theoretical analyses of the structures of oppressions that have enriched the Marxist tradition that come from inside feminism, but they are far from limited to it. For instance, where is Iris Marion Young’s politics of difference or Kimberlé Crenshaw’s intersectionality?

It might then be possible to understand Keucheyan’s selection to focus mainly on thinkers that have gained the most academic attention. However, in this way, Keucheyan is perpetuating his own worry about the power structures internal to critical theory that make it politically impotent by virtue of their inextricability from the ivory towers in which they are produced. Thus, not only is Keucheyan’s selection of thinkers in itself confusing, if he sincerely aims to create a sense of unified theoretical movement for radical purposes, questions of representation are far from trivial, and unfortunately only treated in a tokenistic manner in The Left Hemisphere. However, the main force of book remains: it raises an undeniably important question of how one should approach the task of mapping critical theory, such that it both reflects theoretical reality, and is fit for purpose. Keucheyan takes an important first step in this direction. 

2 March 2016

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