Imagining Otherwise: On “A Time for Critique”

A new collection of essays explores the role and function of critical theory today.

Imagining Otherwise: On “A Time for Critique”

A Time for Critique by Didier Fassin. Columbia University Press. 320 pages.

HARDLY A DAY GOES BY without reports of critical and investigative journalists being detained or killed. Mexico has the highest death toll for journalists in the world, but the problem is global: the pioneering anti-corruption reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered in Malta in 2017, and several journalists were detained recently in Egypt in a crackdown on reporting of popular protests. In the university, too, critical inquiry is under attack: in September 2019, the US Department of Education ordered Duke University and the University of North Carolina to revise their Middle East studies programs, which were accused of being too critical of Israel. President Trump followed up with an executive order that interprets Judaism as a nationality or race, thereby allowing the government to withhold federal money from campuses it deems too critical of Israel, thus shutting down freedom of speech. Soon after he was elected, Trump issued a similar threat to withdraw funding from universities that declare themselves “sanctuary campuses” to ensure the safety of undocumented students.

And yet, while independent reporting and critical inquiry are increasingly coming under attack, we have also seen the emergence of new political movements built on systemic forms of critique. The #MeToo movement, for instance, is not simply opposed to sexual violence but to the underlying structures of patriarchy that sustain it. Black Lives Matter has articulated powerful critiques of the endemic, structural racism that propagates police violence, while the sanctuary movement for immigrant rights is often explicitly positioned against the very idea of nation-state borders. While all these movements were galvanized by Trump’s election, they began well before it.

How do such forms of critical praxis manage to flourish in these authoritarian times? Didier Fassin and Bernard Harcourt’s new anthology, A Time for Critique, offers substantial food for thought on this question, mounting a rigorous reappraisal of the tradition of critique and a bold search for new openings. Fassin, an anthropologist and medical doctor, and Harcourt, a critical theorist and legal scholar and advocate, have assembled an excellent, deeply timely book in multiple senses: the time for critique is right, even as the time of critique might not be (in other words, the authors insist on critical inquiry even as they question its historical temporality).

As Fassin argues, the essential question is not “What is critique?” but “How is critique?” (italics added). He introduces the book with a clear and powerful essay that reminds us that critique is always historically located. Comparing the radical politics of the 1960s to the right-wing populism of the 2000s, he explores the conditions that make critique possible, noting that it is always a response to specific configurations of knowledge and power in the academic and public spheres. Today, that context is the neoliberal university, the positivist approach in social sciences, and the “new knowledge economy,” all of which function to contain and constrain critique. Yet at the same time, critical movements have emerged outside the academic realm — from Standing Rock and Black Lives Matter in the United States to Notre-Dame-des-Landes and the Yellow Vests in France. Fassin claims that we urgently need more intellectual theorizing that would allow us to understand and amplify these popular activist movements.

At the opposite end of the volume, Harcourt offers a compelling concluding essay that suggests we do not have enough critical activism today. With great acuity, he takes us through the history of various forms of social praxis, from revolution to insurrection, insurgency, disobedience, and insubordination, and finally to open-ended prefigurative social movements such as autonomous zones and occupations and assemblies. He ends with a challenge to leftist radicals to learn from those they call conservative or reactionary, opponents who have their own critical practice, and he criticizes popular assemblies and other prefigurative forms for focusing on the immediate, on the present, as opposed to the deeper structures that inform modern history. Instead, he calls for what feminist scholar-activist Andrea Smith has dubbed “a politics of patience”: one may not experience the desired change in one’s lifetime, but critical work will seed the soil in a lasting way.

If these two chapters ask the essential questions of where and how to critique, the question that haunts the rest of the book — and that perhaps best describes the dilemma facing critique today — is not whether critique is academic or activist, whether to emphasize theory or praxis, but simply how best to imagine otherwise. To envision a different, better world, does it suffice simply to grasp and define the current problem, to call it out? Or must this naming also more concretely suggest and open the way to alternative models for organizing social life, for producing different futures?

Andrew Dilts’s chapter, which draws upon Angela Davis’s 2005 book Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture, argues that critique is about building new institutions through the transformation and supersession of existing ones: it is a dialectical process. He suggests that dismantling and building go together — they are two poles of the same project. Other chapter writers, such as Fadi A. Bardawil, are less certain about what critique today is or should be. Addressing the way nonlocal leftists have dismissed political efforts in Syria as not truly revolutionary — not anti-imperialist in the “right” way — he warns against critical theory becoming routinized and thereby excluding emergent practices from the domain of emancipatory politics. He suggests that critique should be rethought in the light of contemporary practice, always maintaining an openness, an attunement to the world, against the will to totality.

As these chapters show, the question confronting critique today concerns the limits of and possibilities for political imagination. We need such imagination in order to think otherwise: to see outside our own worlds, and to flesh out different ones. This focus on imagination is indeed present in social movements. At an event promoting the sanctuary movement, I heard an artist-activist say that she thought of the project as the “embodied, collective action of care,” where care is about spurring the imagination, “training for the not-yet.” While we can debate how central imagination is to various social movements — does #MeToo work to project a future without patriarchy, or does it get too caught up in issues of punishment? — it surely plays a role in many of them.

While critical thinkers have traditionally adopted a Marxist orientation, that consensus no longer holds; the imagination is thus positioned to play an important role in creating new openings. Some contributors to this volume turn to the past, to partial or unfinished solutions, because, as Allegra McLeod argues, “it is not possible to generate an alternative that is truly and utterly distinct from the status quo as our imaginations are constrained by our existing social arrangements.” Massimiliano Tomba, by contrast, proposes that we see history as the overlapping of historical-temporal layers, the friction between which generates the possibility of new political and social configurations, “futures that have gone unfulfilled.” Other chapter authors turn to prefigurative politics, the way people — both activists and intellectuals — seek to project a world in which they might want to live. In his chapter on “speculative historiography,” David Kazanjian argues that we need to “entertain alternative, speculative narratives of the past that lead to different political futures.”

This turn to the speculative is actually happening in various realms — from fiction to design — whose goal is the imagining of other possible worlds. Could this be another realm of critique? Alas, the one significant gap in the volume is any explicit engagement with creative work as a form of critique. After all, the speculative is a deep dive into the not quite unknown; in this sense, speculative work should not be confused with utopian projects. Locating itself in existing material worlds and working out from there, speculation moves at the edge of what we can see, at the limit; one goal is to make “real” what is already part of our collective imagination. Think of the novels of Margaret Atwood, work she calls “social science fiction,” which seek to imagine things “that could really happen.” Speculative work offers a path into the multiple futures lurking in the present; attending to the incipient potential in everyday life, it critically interrogates the familiar and thus activates different ways of understanding.

In looking to activate political imagination, A Time for Critique leaves us with two dilemmas. First, what are the affective dimensions of critique? If liberal politics thrives on sympathy, pity, benevolence, and tolerance, it seems reasonable to suggest that we need different affective grammars for a radical politics, and specifically for an egalitarian politics. Are there certain sentiments and affects that should guide us beyond a rupture with the present, into the positive forging of new worlds? Is critique formed in anger, frustration, doubt?

The relevant chapters in the book cover a range of affective dispositions, in the process helping to develop a new affective grammar. Ayşe Parla beautifully disassociates hope from critique via a field of thought called “Afro-pessimism”; other writers see critique as a form of rage. Fassin articulates a dialectic of indignation and astonishment while Kazanjian talks about critique as “liv[ing] exorbitantly”; McLeod speaks of an “irresistible impulse to justice.” In terms of contemporary movements, #MeToo has reworked long-dismissed and stigmatized forms of feminist rage into a powerful means of mobilization. Similarly, a recent New York Times op-ed by activists in the Arizona-based racial and economic justice organization LUCHA advocated for anger as a potent tool in the fight for immigrant rights and working families. A key aspect of successful critique today, it would seem, is the evocation of new affective forms.

The second dilemma the volume leaves us with, raised indirectly by both Fassin’s and Harcourt’s chapters, regards the relationship of critique to the politics of left and right. When people talk about radical critique, as Harcourt shows, they generally refer to the left, and yet critique has been important for the right as well. Indeed, Harcourt goes so far as to suggest that we steal strategies from the right — in particular, the focus on deep structures and longer time spans — in order to further leftist critique. And this leads to a potent question: does political orientation determine the shape and limits of critique, or is critique simply a neutral set of methods and practices that can be deployed by political actors of all ideological stripes? As new forms of critique emerge, it behooves us to think through this issue carefully, lest our praxis guide us into unwanted worlds. To that end, this powerful new book opens the way.


Miriam Ticktin is an associate professor of anthropology at the New School for Social Research. She is the author of Casualties of Care: Immigration and the Politics of Humanitarianism in France (2011) and co-editor of In the Name of Humanity: The Government of Threat and Care (2010).

LARB Contributor

Miriam Ticktin is an associate professor of anthropology at the New School for Social Research. She is the author of Casualties of Care: Immigration and the Politics of Humanitarianism in France (2011) and co-editor of In the Name of Humanity: The Government of Threat and Care (2010).


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