Razmig Keucheyan, The Left Hemisphere: Mapping Critical Theory Today, Verso, 2014.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading this; I worried that it might be simply be a checklist of thinkers and ideas on the left today, that it would be dry and schematic, or that it would be superficial. In a sense, I suppose, it is all of these things, or at least would seem so to some readers. In fact, once I picked it up I found it very difficult to put down.
Keucheyan is a professor of sociology in Paris and has written books on social constructivism, has translated some of Gramsci’s prison notebooks, and most recently is the author of Nature is a Battlefield: Towards a Political Ecology (Polity, 2016). I get the feeling that The Left Hemisphere is the book that many of us interested in critical theory wished we could write; now we don’t have to.
Keucheyan locates the rise of critical theory (more properly “critical theories”) in the failure of the German revolution in the 1920s and the “glaciation” of Stalinist orthodoxy in the 30s and 40s which entered the European communist parties via the Comintern. Western Marxism, which arose in reaction to that, out of the work primarily of Lukacs and Gramsci, and achieving an organizational paradigm with Frankfurt School critical theory, saw Marxist theory divided from political activity and leadership. This marked critical theory off from the kind of hands-on experience gained by members of the 2nd international and (especially) the Bolsheviks, as their membership combined intellectual and political activity. This division explains the focus on “superstructures” noteworthy in Western Marxism and in its “New Left” successor.
The first half of The Left Hemisphere is devoted to context, history, and typology, covering what Keucheyan see as the “defeat of critical thinking” leading up to the victory of neoliberalism in the 80s and 90s; a brief history of the New Left which, as opposed to anglophone treatments, gives a much broader view of the topic than, say, that associated with the New left Review. Indeed, Keucheyan makes the point repeatedly that one of the things that characterizes critical theory today its its internationalism. The centre of gravity, it is true, continues to be in the Anglo-American world (and primarily US academia), but critical theorists come from all over the globe, and retain connections to their national and cultural intellectual traditions.
The critical theories that Keucheyan seeks to map are those that arose out of the decline of Marxist hegemony which can be located around 1989, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Fukuyama’s “End of History”, and the achievement of neoliberal/postmodern hegemony in politics and culture (Note: Following Jameson’s view of postmodernism as the expression of late capitalism in the cultural realm, I see neoliberalism as the expression of late capitalism in the political realm). Keucheyan discusses various potential (and complementary) periodizations of the various left/socialist/critical projects, before delving into his “cartography” of current critical theories.
The second half of the book is devoted to the theories, but rather than a reference work, the theories are presented as part of an ongoing, developing narrative, as themes from various theories combine and cross-pollinate as the discussion goes on. It is significant, I think, that the “Theories” section begins with Hardt and Negri’s empire and multitude, as these concepts allow for a broadening out and problematization as we work through the ideas of people like David Harvey, Benedict Anderson, Jurgen Habermas, Giorgio Agamben, Giovanni Arrighi, Jacques Ranciere, Donna Haray, Judith Butley, Gayatri Spivak, and Fredric Jameson. This list is about half the number of theorists covered, and risks characterizing the book as an encyclopedia if not a laundry list, but as I say, Keucheyan works through some of the main points of each thinker, connecting them back to previous ideas and notions.
One of the two main characterists of critical theory today, in Keucheyan’s view, is the globalized conception of the socio-political field. Hardt and Negri’s empire is a global system, which requires rethinking and reconceptualizing concepts like imperialism, nations and nationalism, labour and demographics. On the other hand, and this is the other main characteristic of critical theory today, the “subjects of emancipation” has broadened out from the orthodox Marxist focus on the working class. Again, Hardt and Negri’s multitude provides a starting point for discussion what used to be called “secondary fronts”: feminism, postcolonial studies, new conceptions of class, post-Marxists understandings of hegemony and domination, race, gender, and sexuality.
Keucheyan has done, I think, an amazing service to those of us interested in Marxism/critical theory, in providing an intellectually stimulating (and challenging) entry into the complementary and conflicting ideas of a very broad range of thinkers on the left. One of the citations that keeps coming up is Bidet and Kouvelakis’ (daunting) Critical Companion to Contemporary Marxism (Haymarket, 2005) and it is tempting to view The Left Hemisphere as almost an introduction to that book. What Keucheyan has achieved here, though, is something different - a book that manages to be introduction, reference work, and contribution to theory all at the same time.