Elizabeth S. Anker joins Money on the Left to discuss her provocative new book, On Paradox: The Claims of Theory (Duke University Press, 2022). Anker is Associate Professor of English at Cornell University and Professor of Law in the Cornell Law School. In On Paradox, Anker contends that faith in the logic of paradox has been the cornerstone of left intellectualism since the second half of the twentieth century. She attributes the ubiquity of paradox in the humanities to its appeal as an incisive tool for exposing and dismantling hierarchies. Anker, however, suggests that paradox not only generates the very exclusions it critiques but also creates a disempowering haze of indecision.
Tracing the ascent of paradox in theories of modernity, in rights discourse, in the history of literary criticism and the linguistic turn, and in the transformation of the liberal arts in higher education, Anker shows that reasoning through paradox has become deeply problematic: it engrains a startling homogeneity of thought while undercutting the commitment to social justice that remains a guiding imperative of theory. Rather than calling for a wholesale abandonment of such reasoning, Anker argues for an expanded, diversified theory toolkit that can help theorists escape the seductions and traps of paradox. In our conversation, we explore strong parallels between Anker’s call for a reparative “integrative criticism” and our own constructive hermeneutics of provision.
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The following was transcribed by Mike Lewis and has been lightly edited for clarity.
Billy Saas: Elizabeth Anker, welcome to Money On The Left.
Elizabeth Anker: Thank you so much for having me. It’s great to be here. Wonderful to meet you guys.
Billy Saas: It’s great to meet you, too. We were just talking about coming into contact with your book and some of the reasons we’re excited about it. That book is On Paradox: The Claims of Theory out with Duke University Press in 2022. Before we get into and I think to help us contextualize our discussion, could you share a little bit about your personal and professional background and kind of the academic fields and concerns that have driven your scholarship and, and your teaching up to the point of like the publication of On Paradox?
Elizabeth Anker: Yeah, absolutely. I have an unusual background, and that I have both a JD, and a PhD in Literary Studies, and a joint appointment between the law school at Cornell and the English department. So I’ve spent lots of time thinking about both the stakes of interdisciplinarity and some of the challenges of doing interdisciplinary work and kind of speaking across audiences. So I’m incredibly sensitive to the difficulty of certain humanities fields that they experience in addressing wider audiences. But in a way, this book really stemmed from two different projects that I spent a lot of time working on, both of which were edited collections. The first was a big edited collection on law and literature, which is actually an interesting field because it was one of the first interdisciplinary junctures, so to speak. So scholars already back in the early 80s, were bringing literature to bear to think about legal questions, and vice versa. So a few years ago, I edited this collection with my friend and colleague at Stanford Law School, Bernie Meyler. And in the process of doing that, we really tried to make sense out of the dominant shape and orientation of scholarship that thinks about law and literature together. And in that effort to taxonomize and dissect these main approaches to that particular interdisciplinary field, we seized on a series of problems. And there’s a way in which those problems also inform some of the arguments that I make in this book. For instance, literature scholars tend to almost scapegoat law, precisely so that they can make the argument that literature comes along to save the day. So a lot of humanistic work on legal questions turns law, this big monolithic thing, into almost a kind of straw man. It’s really easy to be torn down, but through a series of super reductive critiques that actually ended up falsifying the legal process, and its real world operations in certain ways. One of the arguments in On Paradox has to do with this ongoing tendency to explain law in ways that are just plain inaccurate, and reductive and simplifying, I’m sure I’ll get to talk a little bit more about that in a minute. But the other big project that I spent years working on that very much sowed the seeds for this book, was another edited collection with my former mentor, Rita Felski on critique and post critique. Rita has written a lot about the limits of critique. And in a way, that’s a big project trying to weigh in on what people refer to as the method wars within theory. So this book On Paradox is kind of my own foray into the method wars to account for where theory has gone wrong, so to speak, and for the ways in which it needs to reinvent itself. So, just to sum up, a lot of the book stems from the fact that I’m somebody who has one foot in law and one foot in literary studies, and have therefore been able to assume something of an outsider’s vantage point, asking about the crisis in the humanities, and these larger trends that are overtaking humanistic inquiry. But with all of that in mind, there’s a way in which the book is also kind of my take on the crisis in the humanities. People have probably seen the recent article about “The Death of the English Major”. And these outcries about the end of the liberal arts or the corporatization of the university, have been on everybody’s mind of late. And in a way the book is also its own account of where that crisis came from. That’s in part an account taken from an outsider’s viewpoint and there’s a way in which I take an unpopular view, which is that humanists are in part responsible for their own growing obsolescence. Obviously, there are all sorts of other big factors tied to neoliberalism, and so on. But some of that responsibility that humanists carry themselves has to do with what I call paradox, or this idea that some other primary methodological approaches have either backfired or gone astray or simply haven’t delivered on their promise. So there is a way in which the book is a plea for humanists’ own self reckoning.
Scott Ferguson: Thanks for that. So maybe we can focus a little bit more about the specific origins of On Paradox. It’s a pretty wide ranging book in terms of the topics and the issues that it covers. So what are the origins of this specific project? What questions did it emerge from? Did its arguments spring from a core inquiry or focus, we know from communicating with you that you were going to write a modest, small book about one little thing, and then it kind of blossomed into what it’s become?
Elizabeth Anker: Yeah, the book initially was going to be a mere fraction of its current length and scope. And it was initially an attempt to wrestle with what people have referred to as the human rights turn in the humanities, about 10 to 15 years ago. A whole series of humanistic fields: history, anthropology, even gender studies, literary studies, were all abuzz with excitement talking about human rights, and what rights were their limits and their promise, and I decided I was gonna write a short book that attempted to make sense out of that growing preoccupation. Given the skepticism about law that prevails within a lot of these fields, to me, it seemed perplexing that suddenly a bunch of literary critics thought human rights were so important, and were kind of rah rah jumping on the human rights bandwagon. In the process of accumulating, trying to digest, trying to make sense out of what on earth people thought they were talking about, when they started talking about human rights. I was struck by a series of things. The big thing being almost everybody either began or concluded by observing just how paradoxical rights were. So as a diagnosis of rights, paradox was held out and arrived at by almost everybody. And often people did so in a way that also presented paradox as some kind of epiphanic recognition. So I was struck by the kind of rote predictability of paradox as a way of talking about rights discourse and human rights. And in a way that’s absolutely true. There’s no question that rights have proven deeply paradoxical. They’ve been kind of impaled by their paradoxes, again and again, whether in practice, or as a philosophical construct, or even as a discourse. Rights are deeply contradictory. There’s no question about that. But I was nevertheless troubled by the uniformity of the ways that theorists were talking about rights. And in the process, I was also struck by the fact that paradox tended to stand in for deeply polar things. On the one hand, paradox was a way of talking about the fatalities of rights, the failures, the limits, the disappointments, the spent promise, so everything wrong with rights, it was almost a way of critiquing rights by saying they’re too paradoxical to be valuable. But at the same time, all sorts of other theorists and literary critics were citing paradox as the very locus of rights’ ongoing promise. The fact that rights were paradoxical was what made them fertile, fecund, open ended this valuable source of justice for the future. I was trying to make sense out of the fact that paradox meant two totally different things. And it often would even do so in the same study. Somebody would blame rights for being willfully paradoxical and therefore complicit with power. But then say, well, their paradoxes is also what makes them democratic and ethical, and just, so I was initially trying to wrestle with all of this and suddenly realized that this framework, these tendencies for making sense out of rights, were showing up in all sorts of other areas: debates about democracy, debates about the humanities, debates about modernity. And so I came to recognize that I was really attempting to map and contend with a whole kind of worldview or mentality, or even epistemology or way of knowing, we could say that really has been definitive of theory. So I felt the need to really broaden the focus of this initially narrow study on right, to make sense out of and grapple with the genetics of theory, so to speak, or some of the dominant assumptions that inform critical theory as this really far reaching intellectual formation and intellectual tradition. So it became, as one of my friends would tell me, a book about everything.
Billy Saas: It really is a book about everything. And it got me thinking a lot about the evolution of my relationship with critical theory from the experience of graduate school, this sort of initial excitement of encounters with paradox. And then the eventual kind of malaise, melancholy and inertia that comes from paradox, ultimately realizing while on the job market, and then in my first job, that humanities scholars have been talking about these things for a long time, and our work conditions, our workplaces have not gotten the same kind of critical attention or critical self reflection, and that the paradox of that is, is very difficult to live with. And so I think part of what we’re up to here at Money On The Left, and our collective more broadly, is the kind of constructive, let’s build something, in place of this void of paradox. Let’s improve our workplaces. Let’s take that inventory and get to the business of making a better world which is why your work and Rita Felski’s work resonated for me, especially, but I know that her work and your work are also having broader and deeper impact. So we’re super excited to have you and to talk more about this.
Elizabeth Anker: That comment very much captured the trajectory or history of this style of thought, or sort of intellectual mindset that I’m trying to track and make sense out of, which is that you’re absolutely right, that paradoxes are thrilling, and a particular style of thought, grounded in reasoning through paradox or the discovery of these, again, revelatory eye opening capacities of paradox was this exhilarating, new, highly creative thing when theory came of age in the Academy right. So with the advent of theory 50 years ago, or what have you, 40-50 years ago, paradox was new. But over the last 40 years, it’s become routinized. This particular style of thought that once carried all this promise has become too predictable, too much of what we do, and really fails to speak to our kind of lived conditions, and ongoing, most urgent political realities. So some of the book’s arguments are, first, that this style of thought needs to be updated. It’s become passe, right? Ideas that made sense 40 years ago, don’t necessarily make sense in the present. And one of the big reasons, secondly, that it needs updating is that it’s failed to translate into what we could call a practice, or an applied theory, or a set of tools for building better worlds. And I think one of my arguments is that it’s not only that it’s failed to translate, that this style of thought that I call paradox can actually short circuit or impede forms of real world action, because of the various sort of hang ups that come with it.
Billy Saas: When you start to encounter administration, within the context of the university, you start to wonder to what extent that paradox, that style of thought, actually serves the system as it exists, the de facto administrative apparatus, and, of course, folks who end up in administration have been around for a long time, and they weren’t in those theory wars at the beginning or theory development at the beginning.
Elizabeth Anker: Yeah, just piggyback on that, we theorists have tended to presume that this method of reasoning that again, I call paradox, equals a particular politics, that to be attuned to paradox is to be a good lefty, to be a good radical to be social justice oriented. And that’s just not the case. This style of thought is highly susceptible to being co opted or hijacked. And in fact, I really think that’s what we’re witnessing at this moment in history, whether by administrators who might not actually have the best interests of English departments or other humanities fields in mind, or, frankly, by really powerful political actors who are kind of ruining democracy right now. I hope we get to talk a little bit about my next project at some point. But the thing I’m working on right now is precisely to try to track how this style of thought is being actively misappropriated to undermine and sabotage a left social justice progressive political agenda.
Billy Saas: You can sort of see it in your teaching. And I wonder if this is something that you may have experienced, too, where the same kind of surprise and delight that I got from paradox as a student, maybe it’s my own failings as a teacher, but I struggle to reproduce that for students today because it feels so de rigueur, and not surprising, and not delightful, right? In fact, it’s all over everywhere. So where does pedagogy figure into your kind of view of the situation of paradoxes effects?
Elizabeth Anker: You know, to be totally honest, pedagogy is where it gets hardest for me. On the one hand, it is absolutely true that paradox has become second nature to our current generation of college students, kids in their 20s. All you have to do is a quick search of Amazon for books with “paradox” in the title. That language actively works to trivialize and dumb things down and, again, applies to everything from food crises. So if anything, it’s become its own sort of neoliberal mantra, or self help recipe to talk about paradox and there’s a self-indulgent-wallowing-in-paradox-feel-good-self-discovery element that gets capitalized on in a lot of bestsellers, popular culture or what have you. So students, there’s nothing new about paradox to students. But I find that it’s tricky because I myself in the classroom sometimes do, nevertheless, praise the virtues of things like indeterminacy, inconclusivity, indecision, irresolution as values for awakening, or eliciting a particular kind of moral and ethical engagement. So pedagogy and the experience of teaching very much helped to crystallize and motivate some of the book’s arguments but, to be honest, it’s also where I find myself still championing and celebrating the powers of paradox and insisting that we still need some paradox, and there are still lots of things that we can learn from it. I’m by no means arguing that we need to do away with this style of thought, the book’s main take is that it’s simply become far too much of what we do. And if anything, the only thing that theorists have learned to do, and that’s the problem with it, not that it doesn’t contain value in certain contexts, but that we’ve lost sight of the specificity of context and deploy this reasoning everywhere, whereas it should be confined to much narrower types of debates and inquiries.
Scott Ferguson: So across your first five chapters, and a brief interlude, your book traces paradox’s surprisingly consistent importance and centrality for a wide range of critical disciplines, fields, discourses, and even social movements. Would you mind walking us through some of your key arguments in the specific chapters and maybe we can start with chapter one where you take on the grand conception of modernity as a periodizing term. And you make the case that our very theorisation and conception of modernity is, to the bones, thoroughly paradoxical.
Elizabeth Anker: Yeah, again, one of the book’s goals is to really show that this reasoning shows up absolutely everywhere. Basically, any issue that has been deemed worthy of serious intellectual attention, or theorisation, ends up being found to be paradoxical. And one of the prime sites where that occurs, and I would wager even one of the earliest sites where that occurs, if you think about intellectual history, is debates about modernity. And if you do one of those Google ngrams it’s even right when people started using the language of modernity, late 18th century you see a spike in the use of the term paradox. Once again, that diagnosis makes total sense: of course, to be modern is to be steeped in paradox. Basically everything about modern life, selfhood, individuality, politics, you name it is no doubt paradoxical. But one of the things I tried to trace in that chapter is, again, the routinization of that diagnosis, and how it came to be a kind of intellectual second nature, so that it became impossible to talk about something like modernity, without citing to its paradoxes. But I kind of use modernity and debates about modernity in that chapter as an example also to show the very ambidextrous and multifaceted intellectual labor that that citation to paradox carries out. This is true within most theory that performs a particular kind of reasoning. So paradox basically oversees all stages and all aspects of the reasoning process. So for instance, it’s a diagnosis. Right? Modernity is paradoxical, of course it is. But that diagnosis usually embeds a critique of certain aspects of modernity, we can think about classic Marxist critiques of capitalism as a distinctly modern bequest, right. Capitalism is obviously a bad thing. It’s by way of citing to or excavating its many paradoxes and contradictions, that it’s revealed to be so lethal, and predatory, and all of those things. So paradox is a diagnosis, it’s a critique, it comes to basically oversee method or become the backbone of method. Again, it’s almost impossible to find theory that doesn’t operate or proceed by way of the identification and mining of success of paradoxes. So it becomes hardwired into a method. One of the things I try to wrestle with in the book is how this diagnosis of paradox which most immediately encodes all of the bad things and liabilities is something like modernity, with the emergence and arrival of post structuralism, and all of the intellectual ferment that happens in the 1980s and 1990s with the rise of identity politics, the revolution in the humanities, etc, also leads to a change in the way people started thinking and talking about paradox. So that this very notion of equality, that sums up all of the perils of something like modernity, simultaneously comes to be redemptive or salvific, much in the way I was talking about with rights. So the fact that modernity is paradoxical, also comes to be something to be celebrated as the source of modernity’s untapped promise. And I develop an account for the confluence of factors and intellectual developments that allow this diagnosis of paradox to suddenly also become a salvific one. What happens is that paradox also emerges as a kind of destination or cure, or remedy or antidote to all of these liabilities. And that’s in part because paradox does something else too. And that is that it becomes deeply autobiographical for theory. It becomes its own kind of self-referential way of talking about what it means to be an intellectual to inhabit paradox. And paradox almost comes to be transposed onto the persona or character of the great thinker, or the harbinger of modernity, or the great intellectual stage. And there, too, everybody from Max Weber to you name it. These great thinkers are almost always deemed embodiments of paradox and what makes them great is because their own personas metabolize all of these different paradoxes. So it also becomes, again, deeply autobiographical or about the identity of what it means to do theory. And just really quickly, we can see how that would play out. Even in terms of the way people have defined theory over the years to be Paradoxa: as to be contrary to Orthodoxy, to be a dissident, to be a gadfly, to be anti-authoritarian, all of those things. And so it makes complete sense that we as theorists would cathect onto that logic of paradox, or see within it mirrors of our own understanding of our job as leftist, critically-minded intellectuals. Paradoxes are also deeply anti normative. So we can see just thinking about the sheer etymology of the word paradox, why it would be part of the genetics of theory.
Scott Ferguson: Could you talk a little bit more about the Cold War context in which you trace the rise of post structuralism, especially in the states and why paradox becomes so newly enticing given that context?
Elizabeth Anker: Yeah, absolutely. Basically, my argument about what happens in the 70s is that there are a whole series of intellectual development and a particular historical milieu, that come together in ways that really reinforce paradox as a way of knowing or an epistemology, but all provide separate kind of intellectual warrants for intellectual reasons that paradox becomes so incredibly powerful as an explanatory framework. One of those is absolutely the Cold War context. And a particular definition or account of totalitarianism that begins to take hold, and that everybody agrees on and totalitarianism is increasingly defined as a political system that is hostile to pluralism, plural vocality, paradox. And so totalitarianism is misunderstood as the sort of unifying force that’s going to, by definition, devour multiplicity and paradox and dissent, and all of that. Democracy and everything anti totalitarian, is increasingly explained in terms of its paradoxes. This sort of thinking is, I think, generally in the air at that moment in history, the kind of anti totalitarianism of paradox, but also explain why deconstruction would continue, would be one of the most influential progenitors of this kind of reasoning, perhaps, within the academy. So there’s something about that cold war environment and a celebration of speech for speech’s sake, that lends this logic of paradox incredible currency. That cold war environment, one of my arguments, also colluded with these lingering residues of the 1960s and 68, which also endowed the dissidents of paradox and the anti authoritarianism of paradox with a particular kind of purchase. We can think about the sort of magical psychedelic thinking of 68 as its own appetite for paradox, and for those mind altering discoveries that we can associate with that thinking, but a series of other things come along in sort of intellectual developments within the academy, perhaps the biggest is the linguistic turn. And the rise of Saussurean theories of language and representation provide a separate warrant for why paradox is so powerful and all meaning is going to stem from or inhere within paradox. I also talk about the rise of literary study. The 80s are sort of the heyday of aesthetic theory. I talked a little bit about how these thinkers are also drawing from theology. But the point is that all of these things kind of come together in the perfect intellectual storm that all separately reinforce and incite this sense that to be paradoxical is to be alive and energetic and attuned as a thinker.
Scott Ferguson: Would you mind discussing one particular example of one of the supposed paradoxes of modernity, whether it’s in reference to Baudrillard or any other of the thinkers that you cite.
Elizabeth Anker: I guess I would come back to something like democracy. And I’ll use that as an example simply because I think this mode of thought, this modality, is particularly rampant still today within a lot of political theory, and especially radical democratic theory. We can see why democracy would be paradoxical, right? It’s a perennially failed project. Democracy depends on this artificial construction of ‘the people’. But we know that nation states are woefully exclusionary, and are never going to have perfect representation. The paradoxes that extend from modern practice of democracy are countless and incurable in many respects. So again, no doubt that democracy as an institution is fatally flawed, and fatally flawed because of these paradoxes of incomplete representation. But what occurs in a lot of political theory is that that very incompleteness comes to be celebrated, because it’s seen as paradoxical. So the fact that ‘the people’ is forever and complete, gets read as a positive thing. And the source of the very fluidity and indeterminacy and open-endedness of that category of ‘the people’. If ‘the people’ was closed, then it wouldn’t be paradoxical. So there’s a sort of embrace of the very properties that one might, and simultaneously in the same breath, is despairing of. So one of my arguments about what this logic of paradox that again, starts to take hold in the 1980s, does is that it performs a kind of alchemy or almost a transient substantiation. There’s almost kind of something theological about it where it works to redeem legitimacy deficits, or justificatory deficits. The fact that ‘the people’ is fatally flawed, going back to Rousseau, it’s clearly a problem for the legitimacy of democracy. One of the reasons democracy is paradoxical is because it confronts this irresolvable legitimacy, crisis and deficit of legitimacy. But by describing that legitimacy deficit is paradoxical, that very failure comes to be rescued and, lo and behold, fully celebrated or extolled as the very wellspring of democracy’s promise. And this is a move that comes very, very clearly from the long history of aesthetic criticism and theology. Let’s think about The Odyssey and attempt to reckon with the limits of a deity, right? We’ve all had to study this stuff once upon a time. The fact that God is omnipresent and omniscient, yet nevertheless allows evil in the world, that’s a paradox. But that, unknowability of God, and unfathomability of God within theology comes to be embraced and exalted as the very essence of what makes God God. Again, this logic of paradox performs a kind of conversion that takes what looks at first blush like a liability into the very locus of the just and ethical promise of something, whether it’s God or the humanities.
Scott Ferguson: I’d like to try to paraphrase some of the argumentation you’ve been working through in order to tease out some of the resonances that I’m hearing, which is: part of the problem with this mode of paradoxical thinking that, maybe there’s other paradoxical modes of thinking, but this particular mode that’s so widespread that you’re tracing. Part of its major problem is that it weirdly wants to unsettle the master signifier, the law of the Father. Yeah, in order to unsettle these dominant, hegemonic terms, ‘the people’, democracy, right? It has to perform the failure of its univocity. The failure of its single or array of clustered, singular meanings and say, “no, no, it actually does the opposite. You think it does inclusion? It does exclusion. You think it brings people together? No, it brings people apart!” Right? And I think one of the ways in which what you’re up to resonates with what we’re up to, I think, is you don’t have to take those hegemonic understandings for granted. You don’t have to give away the game to a particular enlightenment understanding of “the people”. For us, especially, you don’t have to take the liberal understanding of money and its ontology and its topology. You don’t have to take it for granted and just do immanent critique and show how it’s internally contradictory. You can say: Well, wait a minute, what if you start from different premises? What if you don’t start from the premise that money is a private barter relationship that ends up in this massive system of mutual exploitation? What if you start with it as a public utility or a legal design question, what opens up instead? So to me what’s so illuminating about your book is it gives us this language and so many historical analyses of this problem of giving over to the master term that you’re supposedly trying to undermine.
Elizabeth Anker: Yeah, I love that point. And I have to confess that I haven’t thought about one of the things I’m after along those lines, and that’s why I love it so much. But I think you’re absolutely right, that some of the problems with this style of thought is that it ends up reinforcing the authority of the very thing ostensibly being critiqued. So it ends up almost like reifying, or ceding the game, to the explanatory power of liberal accounts of capitalism, or liberal accounts of rights, because it’s so dependent on that, again, almost kind of reductive notion of what’s being critiqued. I think you’re absolutely right. And for me, another extension of that is that it can contribute to this kind of romance of failure and romance of impossibility, because part of the logic of paradox is to be adamantly resistant to ever lodging itself, or installing itself as a new dominant or a new normativity. So the moment you win, you have to immediately undercut what you just want. So they’re almost like tripwires installed in this logic. The moment what’s excluded comes to be included: Oh, that very thing becomes bad, right? Because it’s the new dominant, but that becomes an endless game that leads us nowhere. So yeah, I love that way of framing it. Yes. Another paradox. Yeah.
Billy Saas: Is there something about paradox, inherently, that we could say is atomizing or alienating, and maybe affectively discouraging? It’s exciting, but there’s a sort of flat affect afterwards where there needs to be a kind of supplement. And that might be what you’re after or suggesting here?
Elizabeth Anker: Yeah, and again, I’m perhaps most critical of the modes of thought that we can associate with post-structuralism that took hold in the 80s. First I very much agree that there’s nothing about this reasoning on its own that’s inherently problematic. The idea is that this logic that’s been so dominant, and, if anything, the exclusive way people think in certain fields really needs to be supplemented or complemented with other styles of thought. We’ve been doing half of what we need to do, and we need to do and the other half. But just kind of is one further example of where this perhaps comes from, to sort of explain how it takes hold and why it has placed a stranglehold on more affirmative, constructive modes of thought. Again, I think so much of this style of thought can actually be attributed to post-Saussurean linguistics and the theories of meaning that emerge. If we think about Jacques Derrida in his account of a text or writing, meaning inheres with the slippages, the deferrals, the gaps between words, the impossibilities of clear presence, the fact that you’re never going to have a transparent understanding. Meaning is going to kind of emerge through those impossibilities, through those delays, through those foreclosures and limits to what we can know. Meaning, action, agency, everything has been imagined to inhere within those kinds of slippages and deferrals. And I think what’s taken hold within a lot of theory is anytime there’s an effort to account for meaning, or agency, or action, that’s not displaced along such lines, it’s dismissed as simply wrong or selling out or “liberal”, or again, just plain mistaken. And one of the challenges in writing the book has been recognizing just how thoroughgoing this mode of thought is, while really trying to push back against a tradition that’s hardwired to dismiss an effort to be affirmative, concrete, constructive, etc, as point blank mistaken, or point blank wrong or missing the picture.
Scott Ferguson: So this is a great pivot, I think, to our question about your second and third chapters. And that’s where you uncover what you reveal to be this deep anti-legalism that subtends, paradoxically, both a positive discourse of rights, but also the critique of rights. We’ve been kind of referring to it, but can you delve into this problem, and how are dismissals and recuperation of rights both rooted in paradox? And then what, for you, does this have to do with aesthetic theory?
Elizabeth Anker: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a big question. One of the things I tried to do throughout the book is to think about how reasoning that lends precedence to paradox can lead to polar impulses. One of them that I think we were touching on or you brought up when you talked about how this logic can end up reinforcing the power of the very thing being critiqued is that when something like capitalism, and this is where I, would have a fight to pick with at least some Marxist theory, capitalism, for instance, is seen as fundamentally contradictory in ways that basically ontologize or reify that property. And I’m sorry, right? Paradox is something that my brain is a quality in my head that I’m reading onto something to help me make sense out of it. It is not a material property of reality. I would dispute that it is, but when it is deemed thus, or fatally part of something’s architecture or gene pool, that ends up rendering paradox a foregone conclusion. I worry about that tendency, in terms of how it can tie our hands in resisting a given structure or cause the problem to seem so fatally incurable that it can lead to forms of defeatism and inertia in the face of this structure that’s deemed paradoxical. I think that plays out with particular vividness in the skepticism about law that has prevailed within and basically across the humanities, and even within a lot of critical legal studies circles. My favorite example, Wendy Brown and Janet Halley have edited a collection called Left Legalism/Left Critique, and their introduction basically says, submitting any otherwise principally minded left project to the law is going to contaminate it in certain ways. So making recourse to the legal system is going to, by definition, dilute a particular left progressive justice-oriented agenda and is inevitably going to involve a form of self betrayal. And I think that’s just wrong. But that mindset that law is fundamentally bankrupt prevents all sorts of political action that might be really, really successful. I think that mindset is incredibly widespread, and really gets us in trouble as theorists, because it rationalizes and can lead to an excuse for forms of opting out, or not trying in the first place. And that suspicion of law is so pervasive in a lot of theory. The other example I like to bring to mind is a text like Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, probably one of the most influential theoretical texts, and rightly so, right? It revolutionized our ways of talking about gender, in ways that have trickled down into the popular consciousness, amazingly important and successful text. Nevertheless, within this otherwise fantastic book, the rhetoric of the juridical circulates throughout in ways that basically are shorthand for power and oppression. So to describe something as juridical is basically to mean that it’s oppressive. And again, that just erases and obscures and it’s just plain wrong about all of these really important social, political advances that over the centuries, the law has facilitated. So this kind of suspicion of law is really problematic in terms of how it can basically sanction inaction and discourage inaction. Like I’m sure some of my humanities colleagues kind of looked down their noses at me even having a joint appointment in the law school as its own form of selling out. So, I’m really trying to push back against that legal skepticism as one of the reasons that so much theory has really failed to actualize itself in a viable practice, or why so many humanities fields have remained cloistered and refuse to get their hands dirty by actually tangling with real world forms of action.
Scott Ferguson: And then what about the school that embraces rights as a framework, and yet in your reading, always predicated on the anti legalistic failure arguments that the straight up anti law scholars embraced?
Elizabeth Anker: Yeah, yeah, the school of post-structuralism, deconstruction, somebody like Jacques Rancière is this very hot figure these days, I think subscribes to its own kind of anti legalism or legal skepticism, but it plays out in a somewhat different way there in that justice is seen as fundamentally uncodifiable. So the minute you can actually codify or consecrate something in a legal decision or law code, that is seen to be the betrayal of these otherwise just ideas. And again, this comes directly from a particular theological tradition that is antinomian. So antinomianism is perhaps the better way to describe that impulse.
Scott Ferguson: Can you describe what that means for you?
Elizabeth Anker: Antinomianism simply means that it’s tied in more Protestant traditions to a conception of grace that is very individualistic. It basically means that law in the books is going to be fundamentally incomplete and flawed. It’s almost more of a Pauline Conception of divine inspiration.
Scott Ferguson: Yeah, the term that we often use at Money On The Left is anti-medial or anti-mediation, right? There’s a sense that mediation is necessarily extrinsic and imposed. And it’s something that we may be all fallen into in a biblical and Lacanian sense, or a Heideggerian sense. We’re all fallen into it, but it is still nevertheless an imposition that we sort of wish that we could be outside of, and we try to conceive of and imagine a just world with that critical leverage of not being fallen into language or not being fallen into the juridical. Yeah, so that’s how we make sense of it.
Elizabeth Anker: Yeah, and thinking about the antinomian a bit further, the big prophet of paradox that, again, everybody was reading in the 80s, is Søren Kierkegaard. Fear and Trembling, this meditation on Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, and the language of paradox is everywhere in a text like that, and it’s the incommunicability, the un-translatability, the fact that nobody would understand that willingness that it would see mad and, frankly, evil to everybody except Abraham is its own version of antinomianism. Kierkegaard was also a big conduit for the thrill of paradox, right? You probably remember reading Kierkegaard for the first time, and I’ve had people over the years when I tell them about the book say: that sounds like the first time I read Kierkegaard!
Billy Saas: You mentioned a couple of times the phrase “selling out”, which resonated with me for a couple of reasons. One, we’re talking about, actually, Scott’s book in class yesterday, Money, Culture, Media with students, we were talking about critical theory, so this is very pertinent to what we’re talking about now. The concept of, through discussion, how selling out was more of a concern, it seems like in the heyday of the logic of paradox. I’m making this connection myself. It’s sort of an early rise. And I think today, there’s a romance of selling out now, as opposed to… So it’s the rise and grind. There’s the culture of hustle as a completion of that rejection of selling out as an abject thing that you don’t want to do as a participant in the economy. And it’s part of this idea that money is bad, whereas now it’s like, yeah you gotta get your hustle on, you gotta get your stuff. And selling out is probably a good thing. So you probably have some colleagues who are like, get the bag. Do your thing. Scott, I know that you wanted to get us into the aesthetic question.
Scott Ferguson: Right. Well in your interlude, Liz, you wrote this anti legalism into an argument about the “aesthetic” as an intellectual project, as an institutional project.
Elizabeth Anker: Yeah, I think one of the big sources of this style of reasoning is aesthetic theory or literary and poetic criticism, frankly, going all the way back to Plato. There are brief interludes in this long history of literary criticism where people are doing something different in the 18th century for a couple of decades. But there’s been a remarkable centrality attributed to paradox when talking about the power of art, I think to be able to see the symmetries are parallels between what that work does in theology. A lot of these early theorists were also doing literary studies, and as theory kind of migrated through the Anglo American University, it stopped first in English departments. So English departments were the big proponents of it. So I think it picked up a lot of these tendencies there. But already the early moderns, Renaissance thinkers, were obsessed with a paradox that you get from Plato, which was referred to as the liar’s paradox. Everybody loves this paradox, right? If I say I’m about to lie to you, it’s raining outside. Am I telling the truth? Or am I lying? It’s actually like 90 in Ithaca. If you tell someone you’re telling a lie, is that telling the truth, or is it lying? But that’s what fiction does. That’s what all art does. All of art says, I’m a fiction, this is imaginary. And so it’s different, it’s a paradoxical form of truth telling. For Plato, that was one of the reasons to expel the poets from the Republic, because they were fiction tellers, they were lie tellers. And basically, since the early modern period, someone like Sir Philip Sidney is a great example. The logic of paradox, they’ve recuperated that epithet and said: actually, no, what was the problem for Plato, we tell lies, is the very power of art that we tell lies. So this kind of spirit of paradox has defined accounts of what art is, and what the value of art is, you know, basically for hundreds of years. And I think that the endurance and longevity of that tradition is one thing that people picked up on. One of the reasons that this style of thought that I’m saying took hold in the 1980s was so readily internalized, because it capitalized on intellectual traditions that have been around for a very, very long time. There, too, there’s a particular relationship to truth telling, or meaning, that needs to be routed through forms of deferral, and delay, and that it can’t be present and actualizable. It’s something that can’t be codified in any kind of positivistic regime. Does that speak to your question or not?
Billy Saas: No, I think that answers our questions. Probably better to segue to the selling out bad versus selling out good.
Elizabeth Anker: But do you mean like an embrace of the fact that everybody’s complicit? And so why not just —
Billy Saas: Yeah, maybe the headline is: there is no ethical living under capitalism, right, as a kind of catchphrase for millennial Gen Z online life.
Elizabeth Anker: Yeah. So, I think that’s showing up and, again, the stuff that I’m kind of working on is a spin off of this project. I don’t see that kind of embrace of selling out so much in my colleagues, or among my English majors. I wonder if that’s kind of the mindset of the New Right or the Alt Right. There’s a lot being written and kind of in process on the extent to which the New Right NatCon youth are kind of embracing a certain bastardized version of Marxism. But some of the animating creeds of that kind of crowd are, I think, precisely this real politic where everything is deemed coercive. There’s a generalized view among the right, increasingly, that all actions are coercive, all power is dispersed. So we might as well just engage in some power play, unabashedly. I think this reasoning is kind of in the air in some of these Alt Right circles, but increasingly in institutions of power that are pretty mainstream.
Billy Saas: I think I see it in left cultural spaces, maybe not among left academics, maybe so much. I do think that there is a kind of well what are you going to do, give people a hard time for working and trying to make money so that they can take care of themselves. And then that being sort of like the baseline, but then we should be happy for so and so that they have gotten this big deal or this big outcome, and, if if nothing else, that abject state of sellout is no longer a category, I feel like so much today in the way that it was.
Elizabeth Anker: I think the kind of internal, the going small, is very much among the left. This kind of downsizing of ambitions, and your comments also making me think about Anna Kornbluh’s forthcoming book, and her accounts of the rise of auto fiction and first person narration. All we can do is think about this very narrow sphere of influence. Everything is so sullied and suspect, so there’s something deeply … kind of retreat or withdrawal, that I think license or sanction by this, like, “everybody’s selling out.”
Scott Ferguson: I’d like to pivot to your fourth chapter, fourth and fifth. To me, in these chapters, you really drill down into very specific paradoxes or specific fields. And I think that they’re maybe among the most likely to offend, to put it mildly.
Elizabeth Anker: Yeah. You’re the first person who has said that so directly.
Scott Ferguson: Oh well, you’re welcome. And I think they are, another way of putting this is that, because they really touch a sensitive nerve of, I think, what the left Intelligencia takes for granted. Just to start with your Chapter Four topic, The Paradox of Exclusion. The paradox of exclusion is that dominant forms exclude. This is bad, it’s unjust, it’s painful, it’s harmful. There’s so many things, negative things, that you can communicate about exclusion. And then the response is often, in this modality, to give voice to the excluded or in an Adornoian parlance, to give voice to suffering. And that becomes the injunction of the paradox of exclusion. And just re-articulating this paradox, it’s really hard to think otherwise, it’s really hard to think: Wait a minute, so what are you saying — exclusion is okay? And are you saying we shouldn’t give voice to the subaltern? What are you saying? So, I want to give you a chance to kind of nuance your critique, and put your most persuasive case forward?
Elizabeth Anker: Yeah, my critiques have less to do with the power of that mode of consciousness raising, because this really emerges with the consciousness raising campaigns of the 70s and 80s. Right with, you know, it shows up in Catharine MacKinnon’s early work trying to awaken women to their own oppression. But that logic, or that project of forever uncovering new sites of exclusion epitomizes the way in which this style of thought can backfire. On the one hand, it’s limitless or insatiable, there’s no end or stopping points to uncovering yet new sites of exclusion. Because once something gains recognition, or is included, it’s no longer excluded, and so becomes part of the problem. And in my own account, a lot of this has contributed to some of the infighting in a lot of humanities fields. A lot of humanities departments, literary studies, perhaps in particular, have become really internally self divided, even though everybody is on the same team, so to speak. And that’s because we’ve identified with that plight of the excluded. Humanists perceive themselves as being paradoxical or, contrary to doxa, themselves excluded. So if our primary mission is to speak to terms of exclusion, there needs to be exclusion somewhere. So we’re going to find them or create them even if they don’t really exist. I think that this project of giving voice to exclusion has really consumed certain humanities fields in ways that have become really counterproductive, and, again, led to forms of internal infighting and rivalries that prevent those fields from taking up other challenges. We only have so much energy and can only fight so many fights. When we’re incessantly fighting with our colleagues, we’re not going to take on other battles. The kind of internal self reference has become a real problem in certain disciplines. It’s one of the reasons for the crisis in the humanities. And I tried to argue that this political consciousness raising project that, again, has governed some of these fields has ironically, led to a form of navel gazing in certain ways. I know that’s a harsh condemnation, I have two other big complaints that I’ll highlight for now about why this project of consciousness raising by giving voice to exclusion became self limiting. One, the problem with this reasoning is that it gets applied to everything in a self reproducing structure. So regardless of what’s being analyzed, there’s a particular methodology that gets brought to bear. And that does a couple of things that lead to the exact same conclusions when you’re applying the same methodology, regardless of whether the object of exclusion is racial oppression, or misogyny. You’re going to reach the same conclusions. But what that does is that also works to obscure or minimize differences between different sites of exclusion. And that can lead to its own forms of inertia, because I’m sorry, to act in the real world, we need to make decisions about which problem is more grave, or more severe, and which is less severe. And there’s a real reluctance to undertake any sort of judgment, that hierarchizes in a lot of these humanities fields. I’m not saying we should do this, but I’m just using this as an example. So if I were to walk into my faculty meeting later today, and say: I think that abortion access issues are more important than the fight against police violence right now. And I think that that’s where I should direct my energies, I would be exiled from the department within the next half hour. But real world political action requires that we differentiate and draw distinctions. Again, because this particular methodology of analysis has tended to operate on autopilot, it prevents normative analysis that actually tries to differentiate between the magnitude of injuries and their severity suffered in diverse sites of exclusion. So in a way, one of my arguments is that we haven’t been critical enough. And that’s because in critiquing everything, by way of the same methodological apparatus, we actually end up preventing ourselves from making critical judgments about where to direct our limited resources. And this logic of exclusion tends to do that. The third real problem with it is just how easily it’s appropriated. All of the men’s rights stuff buys into and reproduces this exact same formula for talking about exclusion. I’ve mentioned a couple of times, I’m starting to work on what’s going on in the US Supreme Court. I have a reading of Dobbs, the decision that overruled or did away with the right to abortion, and I’m sorry, Samuel Alito deploys this logic of giving voice to exclusion, to talk about the rights of the fetus, and to start to pave a pathway for recognizing fetal personhood. And so this thinking is, again, by no means tied to a particular left progressive agenda. It’s super easily plundered and misappropriated. So I’m not sure that it’s the recipe for all of the good things we expect it’s invariably going to be a recipe for.
Scott Ferguson: So in your fifth chapter, you take up the role of paradox in what’s called trauma theory. Maybe to get us into that argument, you can tell our listeners a little bit about what trauma theory is, how it arose, and how it’s been on your view, overridingly positive, but that it, too, has limitations and blind spots that we need to be thinking about otherwise and especially when it comes to pedagogical cultures in classrooms where trauma theory is taught?
Elizabeth Anker: Yeah. Over the course of the book, I look at a series of innovations that demand to be attributed to theory, or this revolution in the humanities, and just how much they’ve really revolutionized popular discourse. Ideas about gender would be one wherein theory won, right? We’ve changed the game, talk of structural oppression. Even five years ago, discussing structural oppression would not be in common parlance. It’s become a kind of dinner table fair. My students arrive in college knowing what structural oppression is. And that’s amazing. Another way in which everything we’ve been doing in the humanities has, in fact, changed things. Trauma theory is another enormous site of influence. Before Vietnam, trauma was not a recognized medical diagnosis. And trauma theory arose in the academy in the 70s, 80s, 90s, and gained enormous popularity. It initially thought specifically about trauma stemming from the Holocaust, and it was heavily influenced in its earliest incarnations by both psychoanalysis, specifically psychoanalysis in the vein of Jacques Lacan, and by deconstruction, so thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man. It’s changed a lot and departed in many ways from its roots and what is often thought of as Yale school, because it happened at Yale. Yale School of Trauma Theory. But trauma theory has also been widely critiqued as colonizing our available vocabularies for talking about victimization and injury. So all sorts of people have complained about… there’s an influential book called The Empire of Trauma, have complained about the ways trauma has become, not that trauma theory is wrong or bad on its own, but it’s become our dominant and often only framework for thinking about forms of abuse, injury, victimization, and all of that. So the perfect example of a theoretical innovation that’s reverberated throughout the real world instituted all sorts of enormously positive change, yet, nevertheless, needs to be rethought precisely because it’s dominated our explanatory framework so much. The book actually concludes by thinking about the ways it has proven limiting. And some of those limits have to do with this recurring theme of just how easy it is to be hijacked. It’s easy to deploy these dominant definitions of what trauma looks like, and to kind of weaponize them in ways that discredit particular injuries. And I’m also concerned about the ways that it draws from an understanding of representation and linguistic meaning that can work to strangely deem trauma ethical. So in a way, it buys into a line of thought that’s really commonplace, and again, enormously productive in many instances, that asks us to think about pain and suffering as endowing the victim with privileged insight and understanding. This is the kind of reasoning that shows up in one of the most influential texts from the African American literary canon W.E.B Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, where he coins the notion of “Double Consciousness”, which is this idea that to be the victim of protracted racial and other persecution endows one with an elevated way of knowing, or a double and multiple consciousness that allows more sophisticated grasp of not only the forces that lead to oppression, but of one’s own relationship in the world. Du Bois actually called Double Consciousness a paradox, believe it or not. And that thinking is super positive and super empowering, but what it does is it nevertheless takes pain and finds something redemptive within it. Again, this is valuable thinking for all sorts of reasons. But I tried to reckon with the ways it’s maybe gone a little bit too far. And trauma theory draws on a similar type of understanding, but supplement it with a model of the psyche that understands trauma as fundamentally elusive, repressed, fragmentary, that kind of resides within these gaps of consciousness. Trauma is something we can never actually localize, all the brain does and cycles around it kind of questing for its origin or cure. Hence, this repressed nature. But there’s something about that mode of thought that can take repression, and treat it as restorative and even ethical. So some of this early trauma theory actively describes trauma as the ethical connective tissue that will provide a link across cultures. You can see why I may be skeptical of that kind of move. I do try to wrestle with how that kind of thinking can be problematic, among other reasons, and that it can disqualify certain kinds of injuries from counting as trauma, lots of people have made that argument about it. Early trauma theory has been widely critiqued for being beholden to a very Eurocentric conception of the subject along these lines, but I’m interested in how especially that model needs to be updated due to historical factors. But how that model for understanding injury can again be turned on its head, or exploited and manipulated, to discount historical forms of oppression to actually undermine the victim, to gaslight, or ghost particular kinds of injuries. So for me, some of these ways of talking about trauma, again, kind of epitomize the ways all of these really great innovations that come from theory can nevertheless be misappropriated and misused by hostile forces.
Scott Ferguson: So I want to try to use some legalese. And you can tell me if I’m not using it correctly, but it seems to me that when trauma theory reaches its limit, it sort of edits worse. In the realm of law, it’s like turning everything into torts. It’s like everything is an injury, and from the point of view of what do we do going forward? How do we construct and fight for a just world? Well, let’s tally up the injuries and then remedy the injuries, which we should do. But that’s only one place to start. And I worry that we foreclose posing questions about the right thing to do for people, the right thing to fight for individuals, for collectives, for groups, for the globe, that aren’t necessarily predicated upon intelligible injuries.
Elizabeth Anker: Yeah, that’s a critique of trauma that others have also raised, that I absolutely agree with because trauma assumes that there was some clearly-isolatable injury that happened at one discrete moment in time. It actually writes off more systemic forms of injustice and injuries that can’t be pinpointed in such a precise fashion. So it can actually do a real disservice to thinking about generalized conditions of harm, or low grade forms of violence and Injury that are woven into the day to day. Trauma is often thought about as exceptional. For most people, a decent percentage of people in the world, trauma is written into their most ordinary, mundane, non-exceptional interactions and realities. And I would also say that one of the things I tried to reckon with in the book is how this particular methodology of reasoning, that I call this Logic of Paradox, tends to be reproduced quite formulaically again and again and again, everywhere, everywhere, everywhere. And trauma theory exemplifies the way in which all sorts of wildly divergent and very, very different injuries nevertheless come to be digested and deciphered, by way of this recurring formal logic. So all traumas end up looking the same or being defined in the same way. And there, too, it works to actually level or erase differences between different traumas that are profoundly meaningful, and that I think we as theorists should be setting out to measure and to wrestle with and to document. A lot of trauma theory precedes from the notion that there’s something fundamentally unverifiable about trauma that can’t be documented, and that can’t lend itself or that will elude legalistic regimes of evidence. And maybe, yes, that clearly is true for certain traumas. But it can actually obscure our ability to engage in forms of documentary labor, or to undertake the kind of normative differentiation that I think the humanities have really forfeited, but that seems essential,
Scott Ferguson: You have an analysis of the trauma theory classroom that I’d like to give you a chance to elaborate. The classroom in which the pedagogue is encouraging students to confess, I have to say that I don’t think I’ve been in one of those classrooms. But I don’t think I ever took a strictly trauma theory class, either.
Elizabeth Anker: Yeah, you’re totally right. And I think this plays out within a lot of these really foundational theory texts from the 80s and 90s where, in fact, witnessing one’s own trauma is heralded as its own form of pedagogy. And so the sort of confessional mode has overtaken a lot of humanity’s classrooms. It’s perhaps different now than it was back in the day, but I can absolutely remember classrooms wherein you authorize your own voice as a speaker by first confessing to the forms of injury that had been inflicted on you. I’ve even taken exams back in the day where that confessional mode was how … I won’t name any names … how one was guaranteed an A or not. But what that does is that also deauthorizes certain voices. Again, it risks trivializing the injuries at hand. So I do think that part of the consciousness raising aspect of pedagogy has been about broadcasting one’s own sites of victimization, and that that kind of exercise has become compulsory in a lot of different spaces. I think the other reason we should be a little worried about that model of pedagogy, that’s oriented around consciousness raising in the classroom, is that it presumes that symbolic change in these elite institutions of higher education is going to trickle down or translate into action on the streets. I’m not so confident the symbolic awareness when one’s in college is actually going to meaningfully activate an electorate. I mean, it’d be nice to think it does. But the seamlessness of that trickle down effect, I think, has been overstated, or over-wagered, in a lot of humanities scholarship.
Billy Saas: I think that there’s some interesting overlap potentially, between what you’re kind of calling for which seems to me like a little bit more specification about trauma like a reconceptualizing, that is about expanding and becoming more specific and not, not just sort of identifying all trauma as co-equal. With some of the histories of money that we interact with, as opposed to the kind of original, primordial barter situation where we’re all just autonomous actors, hopping around trading with each other, and then some genius person or group invents money to make it more efficient. There’s a anthropological history that’s much more feasible or tenable, that locates it in Medieval Period Weregild, which is trying to identify specifically, quantitatively forms of recompense that are adequate for trauma that one inflicts on someone else. And in this case, it’s like, how much is a nose worth? If you took somebody’s nose off, what is that worth in terms of livestock, and gold and money and things like that? And it’s a gruesome origin story. And it’s not the whole story. I want to ask you to maybe specify or differentiate how your theory of integrative criticism, which you have identified toward the end of your book in the second interlude, and then the final chapter is a potential path forward for left theory? How is it not in the field of trauma or in the logic of paradox and trauma studies? How is it different or more than, better than, different from, distinct from? You know, one ear is worth 10 pieces of gold?
Elizabeth Anker: Yeah, a great question. I think, first, why is an integrative approach to theorizing things different from the way trauma is often accounted for? I mean, one of the staples of a lot of especially early trauma theory is that it’s resistant to healing or defiance of the cure precisely because it’s kernel, that traumatic kernel is going to remain fundamentally elusive. So what that means is, if you’re a trauma victim, whose trauma is no longer repressed, whose trauma is self present, who maybe thinks that they’re cured, you’re not properly traumatized. And that’s not really trauma that you’re suffering from. So if trauma can be integrated into the psyche, it ceases to be trauma. We can see why we have this really narrow definition and super normative lens for dismissing or discounting certain traumas. In thinking about those types of issues, types of debates that have been left off the table, or kind of prohibited by what I tried to describe as an epistemology of paradox, or paradox as a way of knowing, are a lot of things that are vital ingredients of a livable and effective politics. And so by thinking about the integrative in a way that’s my framework for trying to put my finger on a series of things that it’s been impermissible to talk about, not to mention analyzed, in a lot of critical theory, or lefty circles. And those are things such as when things succeed or work relatively well. I mean, how often have you read a book written in the humanities that takes the relative success story in the history of politics or law and says, I’m gonna write a book about why this worked? Never! Right? So we’re just allergic to taking stock of, not to mention celebrating, our limited accomplishment. Even here, I’m like mincing my words. I’m scared to say success. Right? I certainly can’t say progress, right? Not to mention, I would call something a victory. Ah, right. But come on. There are political accomplishments that have been successful, that have proven lasting and effective, that we should take seriously and take stock of and ask why they worked, so that we can emulate them and replicate them. We should also ask those types of questions about forms of community, day to day practices that prove sustaining and effective. When I appeal to the integrative it’s a call to train our attention to all of these things that have been off the radar screen of theory and actually deemed impermissible. So I think about the integrative as also a matter of when things hold together as sort of something different from the logic of paradox. Paradox has worked to fracture, break apart, fragment established truths, break down orthodoxies. But sometimes it’s important to examine the kind of glue or connective tissue that isn’t about when things fall apart, but is what renders things sustainable, livable, habitable, again, are when things kind of come in hold together in ways that we want to applaud. So it’s really a plea to turn our theoretical attention to those things that prove non contradictory, or we might experience as non contradictory. Not that they’re going to be permanently thus, but even just episodically so…
Scott Ferguson: One of the things I really appreciate the style of your theorizing, the stylistic turn, that your theorizing takes in the late interlude in the last chapter, is you really stage for us, not in like a “woe is me”, but I think as an important intellectual project. How difficult and challenging this has been for you and has been part of your pedagogy? And how do I get out of those rote forms of the paradoxical with students? And what do they think? And what am I even saying? And what language am I going to use, and what kind of stylization or aesthetics are going to matter for this one potential of many alternatives to the paradoxical? So I just want to say, I really appreciate that bringing us into the problem, that’s a stylistic choice that you make. And I was wondering if you can speak to that, but also tell us a little bit about Virginia Woolf and A Room of One’s Own, which is a bit of a touchstone in the Money On The Left community, just because precisely I think we’re picking up on similar things. She’s making normative demands, a room of one’s and this much money. You want to solve the women in fiction problem, people? Well start paying women to, and furnishing their lives to be able to write fiction. So your response?
Elizabeth Anker: Yeah, no, thank you. And thank you for saying nice things. I mean, this last chapter of my book where I put forward a kind of alternative or supplement to paradox: single-handedly the hardest thing I have ever written or will ever try to write. I can’t tell you how many different iterations of that I went through. Initially, I had settled on the rhetoric of the prescriptive, or the need to be prescriptive. Getting at normativity without fully going normative, a tentative way. So, to me, that was really a lesson in just how stifling this intellectual tradition had become, and also just how hard it was to escape, again, what increasingly felt like a stranglehold or its own sort of internal policing mechanism. So, to me, it was just an unbelievably both fascinating and kind of arduous and painful experiment to try to think differently. I do feel like I put forward the integrative as one way to think about a supplement to paradox. I do want to emphasize that I’m not saying it’s the only way or the right way, it was the best I could come up with. But to me, what matters most is that we do something different. And we kind of add something to the mix, and that we don’t walk away from every conversation, throwing our hands up in the air and citing paradox. For me, what matters most is that we try to undertake so much more constructive, affirmative, and practically oriented labor. I think there’s a way in which theory has lost sight of all of these aspects of lived experience, and the very pragmatic, practical realities of day to day decisions about how we guide our lives, necessary decisions that factor into any political decision making process, right or any legal judgment for that matter, since I think about law a lot. For me, the integrative was one way of focusing our attention on certain elements of those practical choices that get elided, or written off, and a lot of our intellectual labors. By deploying the term integrative, I am also, of course, trying to think about how we might better integrate our intellectual activities into our lived routines. In directing us to the day to day, you probably also have picked up on the extent to which the day to day is written off as some kind of debased sphere of intervention. There’s an incredible utopian future oriented impulse and a lot of theory that any politics needs to be utopian in its fundamental ambitions. I’m pretty skeptical of that, too. So looking at the integrative is an effort to counteract that impulse that shows up in a lot of places. That’s cool you’re also Woolf people, too. I didn’t realize that everyone’s own …
Scott Ferguson: Yeah, I’ve taught a class on essayistic writing across text, and photo essay, and video essay, and film essay, and I always do A Room of One’s Own. So I have a really intimate relationship.
Elizabeth Anker: Yeah, I’ve actually never taught it.
Scott Ferguson: Oh, god, it’s so great. Yeah.
Elizabeth Anker: But I’m also in literary studies, right? There are so many of these canonical or widely celebrated texts that tend to be read in through a particular framework. That’s why I’m so, even having written about Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and I’m still kind of fixated on it because it on the one hand rightly tends to elicit these interpretations that think about it as a meditation on structural oppression, and the tenacity of this kind of monolithic edifice of racism. And that’s right, that’s in there, that absolutely lends itself to those interpretations. But there are all of these other moments in the text that just get neglected or overlooked, that are actually gesturing towards something a lot more complicated, a lot more affirmative. And that’s one of the reasons I’m also so interested in Woolf right, as she’s often one of the great spokespersons for a particular kind of queer consciousness. And that’s true, that’s there. But she’s also doing this really normative project.
Scott Ferguson: Yeah, while being a radical critic of British Empire,
Elizabeth Anker: Yeah, yeah. And those two things can go hand in hand. Right? And for all sorts of reasons, again, hence, the book, we’ve just been utterly resistant to thinking about those things as going arm in arm or being part and parcel of the same intellectual fabric, and they can be and they are, and they should be, and they need to be.
Scott Ferguson: It’s interesting, there’s a certain kind of contemporary defeatist utopianism that I think you’re speaking to, which is like: well, we must overcome capitalism, right? And if we don’t overcome capitalism, which, by the way, on this show, we actually find the word capitalism to be highly reifying. But that’s another conversation. But if we don’t over time,
Elizabeth Anker: I’m going to be the new regular listener.
Scott Ferguson: You’re welcome to! So if we don’t fully overcome capitalism, then you can’t ultimately have legitimate justice, right? One of the normative political projects that our heterodox world of econ and law and US humanities folks are committed to is a federal job guarantee, a right to work. This goes way back to Louis Blanc in the 19 century, throughout the Reconstruction period, the Black struggle for freedom. There’s a long, long tradition to point to. And there’s a lot of other leftists we’re in critical conversation with who will say: no, that won’t work under capitalism, capitalism won’t allow that to happen. Our point is not to say, “No, utopia is coming tomorrow. A right to work is arriving. Let’s all start celebrating joyously that utopia is tomorrow.” Nevertheless, we think there’s a difference between standing by principles, and of critically evaluating the world with those normative claims on the table and in mind, and being put into the conversation as the values that were weighing this reality against, that I think we see in Woolf and I also think that we see in your project.
Elizabeth Anker: Just to echo your observations about how the insistence on a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism is the only way to go, it also blinds us to some of these more complicated histories that exist within a particular intellectual formation. My most recent version of that is four years ago, I started teaching 1L contract law. Which is great fun, but had you talked to me before then, or talked to any of my colleagues in the humanities, they would say: contracts are tools of oppression, they’re individualistic, they’re at the root of capitalism. And so I’m teaching contract law and discover within that history that, lo and behold, there have been all of these very progressive reforms, many of the efforts to codify and systematize contract law, were informed by people influenced by German socialism. So, lo and behold, the sort of real story of the evolution of contract law, especially in the early 20th century, is so much more complicated and nuanced and deeply collectivist, and in a spirit we would actually want to get behind. There’s a way in which this either or thinking leads to these blinkered responses that actually shut down or blind us to avenues for instituting change. I tend to be a bit more willing to accept incrementalist arguments for change, too. But, you know, you don’t want to tell anyone that.
Scott Ferguson: Well, I think here we’re but we’re open to increments, and we’re open to leaps and everything in between, I guess that’s what I would say.
Elizabeth Anker: I love your account of capitalism. And yeah, I tend less to run in, I tend to do less of the economic stuff and I’m less steeped in Marxist theory and those debates, just because they sometimes tend to be more, I want to say, inside baseball, but you know that. I don’t know about baseball. But yeah, we need to be coming up with viable approaches and strategies and solutions that don’t depend on the end of capitalism, or what have you.
Billy Saas: There’s one particular source that I think often gets read by our interlocutors as support for that idea that a job guarantee couldn’t happen under capitalism, because capitalism is a piece by Michał Kalecki, called the political aspects of unemployment, where he argues, basically outlines here are the reasons that capitalists will object to a full employment economy. Here are the reasons that they’re going to do this. And he gives three, the specifics don’t matter so much. They take that as supporting evidence that it will not work. I sort of understand it, anyway, as yeah, these are things to watch out for as you build.
Scott Ferguson: This is why we fight!
Billy Saas: Right. This is why you fight and show up and like to propose and repeatedly iterate and build upon experiments and positive affirmative projects. And so I think the language that you’ve provided in the book is really, really awesome. I mean, the language, the argumentation. What are you doing next? You mentioned a next project, are you developing in that project, some of the integrative criticism methodology or what can you tell us?
Elizabeth Anker: Yeah, I’m still a little bit in between projects, but the one thing I’ve just started avidly working on is precisely to think about the propensity of some of these standard moves and standard left argumentative strategies, and frankly, ideological positions and critiques to be appropriated. So I’m increasingly haunted by how some of that reasoning is getting hijacked by more right wing jurisprudence, and in the court system. Just to give a few examples, one of the things I track in my book is just how hardwired a skepticism of law is among the left. Well, that kind of legal skepticism was a Breitbart platform. And so, skepticism about incrementalist visions of law is becoming rampant among the New Right. I’m very interested in how certain critiques of liberalism, for instance, that we’ve long thought of as kind of the bread and butter of more left progressive theory are being irrigated among the left. I’m sorry, among the right, increasingly on the right in the judiciary, kind of an anti liberalism. And this isn’t just in fringe circles. Like Adrian Vermeule, I don’t know if that’s a name that rings a bell, has this blog called The Post-Liberal Order, and about a year ago published this book called Common Good Constitutionalism, which basically does Carl Schmitt in order to argue for a return of vitalism to politics by way of a strong leader. So it’s this weird apologetics for Trump. He teaches at Harvard Law School, this book is getting taken seriously by all sorts of academics. It is leading to positioning on the right as a result. If we had a half hour, I would catalog the number of sort of staples of theory that are alive and well and flourishing in the right, and I’m simply focusing on legal stuff as a discrete point of entry. I’m trying to sort of prove the extent to which both our ideological positions and our critiques and our methodological tactics are all being actively hijacked. And a lot of these really recent, really controversial Supreme Court cases. It’s precisely in that light, I’d finished the book well before the Dobbs decision was handed down, but that, for me, exemplifies the ways in which a whole series of classically leftist moves are being deployed to justify overturning the right to abortion. But there’s a way in which that decision also gives me new fuel for thinking about the value of integrity as something we need to theorize in affirmative terms because when all of these kinds of modes of critique are being deployed against us, we the critics, how do we react to them? I’m not sure that throwing more indeterminacy into the mix is the answer when somebody like Alito, Samuel Alito says, well, all legal rules are constructs. We don’t respond to that by evoking a constructivist thesis of truth, right? We need to have something that we can independently build or take as a foundation. And I think integrity is one of those values that we maybe need to be adapting, endorsing, not without cognizance of the many dangers that would come with integrity. I mean, integrity carries with it all sorts of problematic associations. I can enumerate, but nevertheless thinking about the integrity of women’s decision making, women’s bodily integrity, all of this stuff might be a helpful counterpoint to such a ruling.
Scott Ferguson: I was just kind of free associating. I was thinking about, if you thought about these spectacular melodramatic performances, crying, breaking down on the witness stand before a panel like Kyle Rittenhouse or Brett Kavanaugh. The way that there’s a kind of performance of trauma and victimhood on the right that may or may not be playing into the legibility that trauma studies has brought to bear. Not to blame trauma studies for those manipulations, but I’m curious if you’ve thought about that?
Elizabeth Anker: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I actually have one of my graduate students, Christina Fogarasi, has this brilliant analysis of how the efforts to invalidate the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford in Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, actively enlisted the conventions of trauma theory but turned them on their head as this pretty savvy tactic for discrediting her testimony, and undermining her authority as a witness. So trauma theory, itself, is a sword that can be weaponized to poke holes or discount particular manifestations of trauma. Her argument is, that’s exactly what happened. I think that would have to go hand in hand with the performance of the traumatized male victim, which just goes to show that all of these bequests of theory have been so valuable, but they’ve been too often presumed to equal a left progressive politics. And these are all examples of how that’s just not true. They don’t necessarily feed into a particular political position or agenda.
Billy Saas: So not discrediting trauma theory but more crediting or identifying the cynicism, opportunism, appropriation of trauma theory’s strongest aspects by some of its worst opponents.
Elizabeth Anker: Yeah, yeah, exactly.
Scott Ferguson: Well this has been a great discussion. Thank you so much, Elizabeth Anker for joining us on Money On The Left.
Elizabeth Anker: Thank you again for having me. This has been so rewarding. I’ve learned new things about my book, because of so many of your really brilliant interventions and spins on its argument. So I am hugely grateful for the chance to talk to the two of you
* Thanks to the Money on the Left production team: William Saas (audio editor), Mike Lewis (transcription), & Emily Reynolds of The Buffalo Institute for Contemporary Art (graphic art)