The Paradox Paradox: On Elizabeth S. Anker’s “On Paradox”

January 27, 2023   •   By Michael W. Clune

On Paradox: The Claims of Theory

Elizabeth S. Anker

THE INTELLECTUAL DEBATES roiling the humanities in recent years represent responses to an underlying, fundamental shift in the field’s relation to power. The nature of this shift will be immediately apparent to anyone, like myself, over the age of 40.

When I was an undergraduate in the 1990s, the witchy logic and arcane vocabulary of high theory served as a key to the malevolent forces hidden by the oppressive, indomitable, literalist common sense of the government, the media, the corporate world, and all those powerful disciplines towering above the humanities’ beleaguered sector. The New York Times’s sneering obituary for Derrida, Clinton’s Reaganesque posturing, television’s racial apartheid, and the economist on the university committee who informed me that my neo-Marxist course proposal was pernicious gibberish were all different facets of the rock over which the humanities folded its densely written paper, and on which it blunted the scissors of its dialectics.

Now the Times speaks fluently in the language of intersectionality, mass-market television decenters and countermarginalizes, HR officers subject emails to deconstructive readings, major corporations compete to sponsor critiques of the police state, and biology and accounting departments house adepts in the politics of representation.

Whatever the other implications, and I think it’s safe to say that no one really understands them, the fraught and ongoing transformation of radical humanist thought from oppositional to hegemonic presents an existential challenge for the humanities. As humanities-originating discourse has grown more powerful, humanities departments have grown weaker by every measure: stark declines in the relative percentage of majors, the job market for PhDs, monograph sales, and so on. The humanities disciplines, after the theory revolution of the 1970s and ’80s, no longer presented themselves primarily as centers of disciplinary expertise, which require long apprenticeship to practice effectively. Instead, they became boxes holding a special kind of thought. This thought required no expertise or long training to practice effectively. In theory, anyone could do it.

The rationale for the theory-centric humanities wasn’t that an English professor was the only one who could properly analyze the politics of exclusion but that the vocabulary and style of thought associated with this theory was sheltered by English departments from the withering common sense of power. Now that this style of thought and vocabulary has been lifted from the box of the English department and placed in the infinitely better-furnished and more spacious boxes of some of society’s most powerful institutions, the question arises: what can an English professor teach someone about race, class, gender, or capitalism that they can’t learn on the internet or Netflix?

In Florida, and in some other red states, legislatures have placed a temporary hold on this question by attempting to ban some versions of theory, thereby legitimating its traditional oppositional stance. Humanists in the rest of the country have four possible and three actual responses to the migration of theory to society’s commanding heights.

The first response is that some aspects of theory — biopolitics’ suspicion of public health, Foucauldian analysis of the repressive hypothesis, Althusser’s insights into Ideological State Apparatuses — can be marshaled to attack the very power centers that have co-opted other features of theory. The reason few or no actual humanists take this position is that the right wing of the internet is already doing it (see Agamben on COVID-19, Douthat on Foucault, etc.). Maybe most humanists basically believe in and respect the current elite power structure; maybe they don’t. But the simple fact is that there’s no incentive, career-wise, for any professor to become confusable with right-wing internet activists.

The second, and more popular, response by humanists to the challenge presented by theory’s success is denial. Sometimes this takes the form of a denial that television or The New York Times or AOC or Human Resources really understands intersectionality or the politics of representation as well as humanists do. Sometimes it takes the form of a critique of the university concluding that the humanities’ problems are the result of everything in the world except what humanists say, think, and do, and so there’s no need for us to change anything in that department, thank God.

The third response, by the hardcore, “class-reductionist” Marxists, is that we predicted this — Marx predicted it. It’s no surprise to us that the American elite have embraced theories of exclusion that mix class with the distractions of race and gender; we always saw theory as a ploy to hide the obvious fact of economic exploitation — we were saying this in the ’70s! In the 1870s! Theory has always been the opiate of the intellectuals, and now, thanks to Netflix and the internet, it’s the opiate of the masses: the latest ephemeral reason for the eternal tendency of the working class to ignore its own interests.

The fourth response is that it’s time to change what we do. We must identify the aspects of theory that no longer work in the context of the academic humanities and let them go. Earlier versions of this response have been articulated by writers as various as Eve Sedgwick, Bruno Latour, Angela Nagle, and Rita Felski. Elizabeth Anker, in her new book On Paradox: The Claims of Theory, gives this response perhaps its most compelling formulation yet. The novelty of her approach is to identify theory’s style of thought with a fatal attraction to paradox, to something that appears absurd or contradictory but is actually true. She then argues that paradox, which initially served the purposes of the humanities, now undermines them. Paradox has been degraded into a rote, one-size-fits-all solution to every problem, a clichéd form of thought perfect for university administrators and right-wing YouTubers, but alien to the humanities’ educational and political work.

We need search no further for examples of paradox than the humanist tendencies I’ve just inventoried.

1) The formerly left-wing, now right-wing, insight of Agamben’s biopolitics: When the government says it wants to keep you safe and healthy, the government is actually trying to control/kill you (cf. Hitler).

2) The insight of the self-analysis of the humanities: People claim that what’s ailing the humanities is the content of humanists’ books, lectures, etc., but actually, what humanists say or do doesn’t matter. The problem is money.

3) The insight of the “class-reductionist” Marxists: The canon of theory has been created by what it excludes — the hardcore Marxist insistence that class and only class determines everything. Therefore, everything theory says has as its secret repressed message: forget that class determines everything.

The master form of theory’s paradox is what Anker calls “the paradox of exclusion.” She examines dozens of examples, from Edward Said’s argument that the colonial imagination is shaped by what it excludes to Saidiya Hartman’s argument that the slave grounds the bourgeois subject “by negation.” “During the 1980s and onward,” Anker writes, “theorists of all inclinations […] increasingly converged on a politics of exclusion […] to route political agency through the metabolics of paradox.”

The basic move of the politics of exclusion is to say that a given system — of human rights, citizenship, gender, race, law, public health — gains form by excluding someone or something. Not only is the integrity of the system paradoxically dependent on what it excludes, but the excluded factor also represents a privileged perspective for understanding the workings of that system, which is typically concealed from the included.

Readers of this review will likely be familiar with this logic. So, what’s wrong with it? Anker argues that, as a mode of analysis, the paradox of exclusion suffers from several basic flaws. First, it isn’t the most obvious approach to take if you’re interested in practical social justice. The point, one might feel, of critiquing exclusion and oppression is to end exclusion and oppression. Yet the experience of oppression is, from the perspective of the paradox of exclusion, “ennobling.” The “liberatory ethos of paradox,” with its endlessly reiterated “call to ‘give voice to exclusion,’” routes attention away from practical solutions to oppression and towards reaping the supposed benefits of attending to the perspective of the excluded.

Throughout her book, Anker suggests that theory’s fascination with paradox draws its energy from religious and literary conceptions of paradox embedded within earlier versions of the humanities. This accounts for the otherwise curious “worship of paradox” she notes in the politics of exclusion. But if Christianity offers a framework in which it makes sense to venerate the suffering of the poor who will always be with us, the same cannot be said for a supposedly secular theory, which, if it’s really interested in social justice, should be oriented towards ending suffering. Similarly, if great literary works have the capacity to cause us to fixate on paradoxes of action, such a fixation looks like a liability when the theorist’s interest is in forms of action that might counter the effects of racism, homophobia, or exploitation.

The second problem with paradox is that, by enclosing a complex social problem within a simple, endlessly portable contradiction, it obviates the need for fine-grained analysis of particular contexts, histories, and values: “[T]he logic of paradox […] short circuit[s] the types of reason-based, evaluative, comparative labor on which, it should go without saying, intellectual life depends.” Anker, an English professor trained as a lawyer, is especially sensitive to the bizarre effects of applying the paradox of exclusion to the study of the law. For example, she discusses the tendency among humanists to leap from the fact that the law sometimes excludes to the idea that the law always and constitutively excludes, “creating the illusion that an unbroken narrative connects slavery to the prison-industrial complex.”

It is, of course, this rote simplicity of thinking via paradox that has made theory so attractive to and recyclable by nonacademic institutions. For Anker, this quality renders it inappropriate for academic disciplines that should prize rigorous and expert analysis. Humanists, she suggests, shouldn’t already know what we’re going to find in a given text or space before we encounter it. Yet, as she shows, the logic of paradox preformats a bewildering array of objects of humanistic inquiry. Her herculean labor in reading many hundreds of works of theory shows the extent to which humanistic research often consists of dumping the contents of a given historical period or archive into the paradox machine and standing back while it does its work.

Given that literally anything can be said to be constituted by what it excludes, and that any solution to a given paradoxical situation will have its own disabling paradoxes, paradox-thinking represents the “cultivated resistance to a praxis theorizable in affirmative, serviceable, constructive terms.” Paradoxes “are geared to neutralize substantive propositions, rather than to facilitate reasoning aimed at the positing of practical game plans or normative goals.” Anker offers an amusing précis of Agamben’s body of work — in which every institution becomes, through the alchemy of paradox, a more or less serviceable replica of Auschwitz — as the reductio ad absurdum of a tendency she also finds in more circumspect (or less consistent) theorists.

In analyzing theory in terms of a style of thought, and identifying this style with paradox, Anker illuminates both why theory has migrated so effectively beyond the academy and also how its self-replicating endlessness gives a startling large-scale intellectual uniformity to the pronouncements of elite institutions and right-wing conspiracists alike. Unlike some earlier versions of the dissent from theory, Anker doesn’t attack “critique” as such. Rather, it is the tendency to dumb down critique through overuse of a one-size-fits-all logic of paradox that concerns her. We should strive to loosen paradox’s hold on us and open ourselves to theoretical paradigms that enable attention to values occluded by thinking exclusively in paradox, such as “[n]oncontradiction, harmony, coherence, stability, unity, clarity, resolution, perseverance, continuity.”

In making this argument, Anker also suggests that the reflexive anti-statism and anti-legalism of paradox theory is inappropriate now that progressive values have gained some of the commanding heights. She praises, for instance, theorists who see the Americans with Disabilities Act as a hopeful and positive step for people with disabilities, against the paradox-mongers who castigate it as enshrining “the right to maim.” And she notes how easily reversible the political valence of paradox theory is, how quickly its paranoid twisting of evidence — the proof that someone is trying to enslave you is that they say they’re trying to free you! — can be repurposed by anti-vaxxers, antisemites, election deniers, and so on.

Anker’s book is most persuasive and successful in tracking the influence of the paradox of exclusion from the human rights debates of the early postwar period to the present. Her surprising claim that theory’s most pervasive effects can be traced to the operation of a single sharply delineated form is one of those insights that seem obvious once you’ve been shown them. Her argument about the automatic quality of this paradox in humanistic thought seems undeniable once she’s led you carefully and judiciously through numerous examples.

When she strays from the paradox of exclusion to other forms of paradox — as in the less-compelling first chapter, and at places elsewhere — there’s a tendency for “paradox” to become rather fuzzy, and to risk becoming a reductive explanation for disparate kinds of thoughts and rhetorics. One might also quibble with her intellectual history. Some philosophers, for example, would trace the style of thought she examines to the influence of Hegel; Anker’s intermittent efforts to distinguish the logic of paradox from Hegelian contradiction are only partially successful.

Yet my main question concerns her positive vision for the humanities. In her introduction, and with a nod to Kuhn, she claims that paradox has been the central “paradigm” for humanities research and pedagogy. Having demonstrated that paradox has become brittle, formulaic, and unproductive, she imagines, towards the end, a more robust paradigm that would be evidence-based, “constructive, goal-oriented, [and] practical.” This would be fine if the humanities were indeed, as her analogy implies, like the natural sciences, oriented to solving problems and increasing our store of knowledge.

But is that what humanities writing does? Is humanities writing “research”? Is it always — or even often — “problem solving”? As I was reading On Paradox, I thought of the way my friends and I tend to evaluate works of humanities scholarship. “Interesting” is relatively low praise. “Useful,” “solid,” or “smart” is somewhat higher. “Persuasive” or “right” is higher still. But the highest praise borrows language from psychedelia and mental illness: “tripped out,” “insane,” or “totally insane.”

A truly powerful paradox constitutes its own evidence. It works by giving you a perspective from which things look different. Anker herself pays tribute to this when, early in her book, she describes the thrills of paradox — “the epiphanic, cunning, delicious, unexpected discoveries that paradoxes often elicit” — and claims that, in teaching literature, she is “still a believer” in paradox. But, when I reached the end of her excellent book, I wondered whether Anker thinks the problem with the humanities’ use of paradox is that it detracts from a properly constructive, problem-solving, practical disciplinary work, or if the problem is just that the automatism of paradox thought has lost its insane, tripped-out “epiphanic, cunning, delicious, unexpected” qualities. How we diagnose the problem of paradox dictates how we see the future of the humanities.

In his 2020 book The Knowledge Machine: How Irrationality Created Modern Science, philosopher of science Michael Strevens argues that Kuhn’s main insight is that the key to science isn’t its paradigms. The key, rather, lies in the way science motivates. How do you get thousands of people to do the incredibly tedious, boring work of compiling experimental data, day after day, year after year, decade after decade? The answer, Strevens says, is to insist that everything that gets published has to take the form of an argument supported by empirical data. Innumerable times while reading On Paradox, I thought that, if there were a peer-review regime in the humanities such that Agamben, for instance, was forced to use evidence in a consistent and rational way, then several generations of graduate students would have been spared his pernicious nonsense. My colleague, the philosopher of science Chris Haufe, has made a similar point by observing how vanishingly rare it is that an article in the humanities ever gets retracted.

If the problem is not that the humanities aren’t doing practical, problem-solving work, but that they have ceased to cultivate the awesome, transformative insights and mindfucks and paradoxes that initially draw students in, then our path forward looks different. Perhaps humanists should learn from Rimbaud and engage in “a prolonged and rational derangement of all the senses.” Perhaps they should keep dream journals, or practice imagining that everything they hear on TV or from administrators is wrong. I’m not sure. For English professors, at any rate, there’s a more direct path. I try to keep myself and my students close to our object of study — literature, a vortex of unaging paradoxes, teeming with logics useless to the hacks of right and left.


Michael W. Clune’s most recent critical book is A Defense of Judgment (2021). The 10th anniversary edition of his book White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin will appear in March 2023. He is currently Knight Professor of the Humanities at Case Western Reserve University.