Theoretically Speaking

Throughout the 1990s, the rise of neo-conceptual art coincided with an increasing engagement with theory as a generator of ideas. Did that interest wane, or did it take on new forms in the years that followed? A look back at the last two decades in philosophy

1990s   Simon Critchley  

Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York, USA. His books Impossible Objects: Interviews and The Faith of the Faithless are both forthcoming. He lives in Brooklyn, USA. 

From the obscure, muddy corner of England where I resided, the 1980s were a dismal period, defined by the threat of imminent nuclear catastrophe and the ineluctable rise of the right, with Thatcher’s crushing victory over organized labour and what remained of the socialist left. I also had no money. 

The 1990s were something different, but it is difficult to describe exactly in what that difference consisted. Firstly, it is difficult not to exaggerate the elation that was felt at Thatcher’s resignation in late November 1990. Secondly, the Cold War had ended, everyone seemed very pleased, and people began to say wildly optimistic things about liberal democracy and the End of History. Thirdly, and most importantly, I got a job at Essex University teaching philosophy, which was very cool. In those distant days, prior to the metropolitanization of intellectual life and the rise of the urban hipster and even the yBa, provincial universities like Essex, Sussex and Warwick were still places where you could think and were the crossroads or vanguard (pick your metaphor) of new ideas about theory and philosophy.


Definition of 'theory' in Raymond Williams' Keywords, 1976.

Definition of 'theory' in Raymond Williams' Keywords, 1976.

The question of the political, as it came to be called, assumed a centrality that must seem odd to those who didn’t live through the orthodox Marxism that preceded it. The publication of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985) was a key moment in leftist theoretical debates in the following years. It set off a wave of attacks on their unapologetic post-Structuralist post-Marxism, but for crypto-Gramscians like me, the theory of hegemony seemed to offer an account of political practice that made sense of the new situation, i.e. the emergence of new forms of democratization after the collapse of state socialism in 1989 and the rise of new social movements organized around gender or race rather than class. People forget that it was through Laclau that Slavoj Žižek entered into theoretical debate in the English-speaking world, showing how the notion of radical democracy required a more Lacanian account of the subject, articulated in relation to the Real. I remember Žižek coming repeatedly to Essex in the late 1980s and then reading the first 100 pages of The Sublime Object of Ideology when it was published in 1989 and thinking, ‘This is it.’ Sadly, my enthusiasm waned.

By the early 1990s, the pseudo-heat of the Postmodernism debate had dissipated and positions became routinized and rather tedious. The Habermasians defended their secular, Modernist corner tenaciously, and everybody else tried to ignore them, often with great success. Of much greater interest was the question of what came to be known as ‘post-colonialism’. I started my job at Essex the same week as Paul Gilroy and learnt a lot from his work that was eventually published as The Black Atlantic in 1994. It seemed to provide a new geography for theorizing social and cultural ensembles and it changed definitively the way I approached the philosophical tradition. Also, Homi K. Bhabha (then a humble lecturer at Sussex) exerted an ever-growing cultural influence. I remember being on a panel at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London listening to him talk about the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and develop his theory of culture in terms of the category of hybridity. It seemed obvious that the questions of identity formation and political resistance posed by these approaches couldn’t simply be subsumed under the usual Marxist analysis of class.

Indeed, an awful lot happened at the ICA in those days, which is really difficult to imagine after the decay of that institution into endlessly stupid events about neuroscience and art sponsored by transnational corporations. It was at the ICA that I first encountered Judith Butler and where she defended herself brilliantly against the voluntarist misinterpretations of Gender Trouble (1990) that have endlessly plagued the reception of her work. I ran something called ‘The Philosophy Forum’ at the ICA for a couple of years in the mid-1990s, with Sonu Shamdasani, and there was a terrific buzz around the events, which featured such luminaries as Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Nancy and Michel Serres. It’s important to remember that this was before the emergence of the utterly middlebrow and life-sapping pop philosophy that has been cluttering bookshelves and airwaves since Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy in 2000. Philosophy had not yet been reduced to expertise and the philosopher was not yet seen as some kind of life coach who could tell the upper- middle classes how to live.

The ICA philosophy series was a spin-off from ‘The Psychoanalytic Forum’ at the ICA and I mention this because it might be difficult now to appreciate the centrality of psychoanalysis to the interpretation of culture, art and life at that time. Man, it was great. People believed that language was central to the formation of culture, that it was indexed to desire, and that language was not ‘in the head’ but constitutive of social and ideological structures. Of course, psychoanalysis has been swept away by the ideological naiveties of neuroscience, which I see as a kind neo-phrenology for the 21st century.

The central philosophical figure of the early 1990s, at least for me, was Derrida, and he dominated the intellectual landscape, inspiring attraction and repulsion in equal measure. The Cambridge affair of 1992, where he was initially denied an honorary doctorate from the University of Cambridge, was a focus of intense public debate. I remember a front-page headline from The Independent from May 1992, after the doctorate was finally granted: ‘Cognitive Nihilism Hits English City’. This was a tremendous stroke of luck, as my first book, The Ethics of Deconstruction, came out in June of that year and sold a tonne.

Up the road at Warwick University, something decidedly non-Derridean was taking shape that flowed from a strong cocktail of Georges Bataille, Philip K. Dick, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and various chemical substances. The key figure here was Nick Land, with whom I’d been a graduate student at Essex, when he was writing a PhD thesis on Martin Heidegger (did I mention that everyone was a Heideggerian back then, even – and especially – the anti-Heideggerians?).

Nick had the most meteoric and savagely satirical mind. His collected writings have recently appeared as Fanged Noumena (2011), which I see as a kind of righteous revenge. Nick was dismissed by professional philosophers because they simply didn’t want to think and preferred their turgid academic complacency. I always admired him for his unwavering desire to take thought to its absolute limit and then see how much harder one could push. Others were pushing too, and I think of the important work that Keith Ansell-Pearson was doing in a series of books in the late 1990s, including Viroid Life (1997) and Germinal Life (1999).

Things ended badly, of course. The philosophy department at Warwick basically pushed Nick out in the late 1990s in the name of rigour, which is an academic disease that precedes rigor mortis by a year or so. Nick’s weakness was his strength: seduction. This meant that he produced disciples. It was amazing. You’d go and give a talk at Warwick and be denounced by people with the same saliva-dribbling verbal tics as Nick and wearing similar jumpers. So, one axis that came to dominate the 1990s was a stand-off between a Deleuzian immanentism and Derridean quasi-transcendentalism, and this is a convenient way of summarizing some of what happened in the next decade.

Other elements of the 1990s scene should be mentioned: Carolyn Gill’s wonderful extra-mural seminars at Birkbeck College, University of London, and large conferences on Bataille and Maurice Blanchot that became a real focus for intellectual activity; the amazing guest lecture series that Michael Newman moderated at the Slade, attracting hundreds of listeners to the surreal surroundings of the anatomy theatre at University College London; Mark Cousins’s Friday lectures on everything and anything at the Architectural Association, which were listed in Vogue under ‘five things you must do in London’. As for me, I realized that what I had seen or imagined was possible within academia in the 1990s was disappearing fast in the name of the ideology of research excellence and quality assessment. I was lucky enough to get out of the UK early in the next decade.

The 1990s ended with the ‘Battle in Seattle’ and the emergence into media visibility of the so-called anti-globalization movement. Some months later, this ‘movement of movements’ seemed to find its philosophical testament with the publication of Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s Empire in 2000. I remember that the graduate students at Essex had begun to organize a radical politics reading group in 1999, which I always attended, and there was a palpable shift in tone and toleration. There was an impatience with deconstruction, which seemed politically irrelevant and textualist, a frustration with the platitudes of post-Structuralist anti-essentialism and what appeared to be its cheerleading for democracy, and the desire for a return to Marx. The stage shifted and a new cast of characters began to appear who seemed much better able to address it, like Alain Badiou and Jacques Rancière. The wheel turns.


Mark Cousins Lecture, Essex University. 

Mark Cousins Lecture, Essex University. 


2000s   Nina Power

Teaches Philosophy at Roehampton University and Critical Writing at the Royal College of Art, London. She is the author of One Dimensional Woman (Zer0, 2009) and writes regularly about philosophy, politics and protest.

When Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s best-selling Empire came out in 2000, it seemed that the ‘new global order’ they described really was upon us – protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organization the previous year seemed indicative of their idea that opposition to the flux and flow of global capitalism was as borderless as the multinational companies that comprised it. Not only was the nature of capitalism and anti-capitalism changing as the 21st century got off the ground, but so too was the image of the worker that worked for and (sometimes) fought against it. The old image of the factory worker on the production line was increasingly being replaced by the polyvalent, immaterial labourer engaged in ‘communicative, cooperative and affective’ work, as Hardt and Negri put it. Even as Web 2.0 was just around the corner, the chains of connection that linked individuals all over the world were well-established (even if many of these individuals didn’t yet have computers, and even if factory work had really only been outsourced to places where regulations and decent pay could be ignored). The nation state was on the wane, and capitalism would replace dropping bombs with opening Starbucks: ‘Imperialism is over,’ claimed Empire. It was too good to be true, of course. As 9/11 ushered in an era of war, governmental paranoia, increased surveillance and the brutal imposition of US financial, military and political hegemony, Empire’s networked image of the globe and the possibilities of resistance that it produced seemed depressingly premature. How would theorists, philosophers, artists and activists respond to this new–old world? As enemy number one morphed in the political imaginary from red threat to amorphous ‘terrorist’, a curious resurgence of old ideas seemed possible – communism was resurrected in a new, purer theoretical form, particularly in the work of Alain Badiou and, rather more messily, by Slavoj Žižek (who nevertheless managed to produce a theoretical–political analysis of almost every event, film, figure and trend that this period produced in a repetitious cut-and-paste frenzy that became increasingly popular as the decade wore on). The fading memory of 1989, coupled with the desire for something more, something better, than this inverted image of the world in which American financial and military power, coupled with negative collectives (remember the ‘Coalition of the Willing’?), destroyed, killed and accumulated with impunity.

It was perhaps no surprise, then, that something of a pious or neo-theological tone crept into theory, as biblical figures and themes such as Saint Paul, Job, the Multitude and Exodus were mined, albeit in a materialist way, to provide new accounts of contemporary universality, theories of work and, ultimately, a way out of here: the millennial tone that was somehow lacking in the run up to 2000 (although it was manifested tangentially in new kinds of misplaced techno-paranoia like the fear of the Millennium Bug) flooded out across the first decade of the 21st century, as climate change and religious revivals collided in some sort of apocalyptic carnival of undead thought (cinema during this period, by way of computer-generated imagery, continued to develop its haunting and otherworldly capacities, revelling again and again in the destruction of major monuments, cities, continents, the world and entire universes).

After the ironies and repetitious End-of-History declarations of the 1990s, and the suspicion held against ‘grand narratives’, it was surely time to replace the smaller narratives of reformism, liberal ethics and identity politics with the increasing suspicion that democracy was a cover-story for the same old enemies that had never really gone away – war, exploitation, a rapacious capitalism that provided for the few while devastating the many. But if not democracy, if not old forms of the political party and old words (‘masses’, ‘proletariat’, ‘revolution’, ‘party’), then what? What did it mean, for example, when millions of people took to the streets across the world before the Iraq War in 2003 and governments simply ignored them and did what they were going to do anyway? The spectacle was consuming protests as fast as it could blunt their potential effect: images of millions marching became stock footage the instant they appeared, despite the rage, despite the majority support for the protesters’ cause. As many bloggers pointed out at the time, we would have had enough people to storm Parliament on 15 February 2003 – instead, Blair and Co spun the numbers as some sort of democratic epiphenomenon, along the lines of: ‘Well, Saddam would hardly have let you do what we’re allowing you to … aren’t you lucky you can?’



WTO protest, Seattle. Photo: Michael McGuerty.

WTO protest, Seattle. Photo: Michael McGuerty.

Much of the early 2000s seemed to occupy itself in a quest for a new language and a new politics that would reflect the legalization of the illegal, of war as an enduring condition, and the increasing control over the biopolitical (surveillance, fingerprinting, security controls and so on). Giorgio Agamben’s revival of the Roman notion of ‘homo sacer’ – the excluded who can be killed but not sacrificed – attempted to abstractly identify how the logic of a ‘state of exception’ or of permanent emergency was operating through, beyond and parallel to the specific laws of nation states. The political, economic and geographical grey areas of Guantánamo Bay, torture and internment camps, the use of extraordinary renditions and the secretive Export Processing Zones analysed by Naomi Klein in No Logo (2000) pointed to a globalized world that was nevertheless over-coded by dark, hidden and terrible vested interests that punished in the peripheries. The ‘new transparency’ that would ultimately culminate in the emergence of WikiLeaks, launched in 2006, would lift the lid on some of these practices, or at least speed up their revelation in an ever-more information-saturated society, as social media continued to construct a world in which Joseph Beuys’ idea that everyone has the right to see him or herself as an artist ‘has now become an obligation’, as Boris Groys put it in his book Going Public (2010).

This was a time when the real abstractions of a complex, financialized capitalism had not quite yet hit the buffers, and theory was doing its best to map new political possibilities, though often at the expense of material and economic analysis that might have better predicted what would come after. For the time being, the housing and debt bubbles floated freely, if unsustainably, and theory and art busied itself with networking and talking to itself, in the main. But some experiences – marching against the war and changing nothing, let’s say – and some theoretical ideas – such as ‘precarity’ and the anger among the dispossessed that this would ultimately induce in a practical way across the Middle East and elsewhere – would lie dormant, like a sleeping lion, until the financial crisis of 2008, which unleashed a deep and pervasive rage in ways that are still yet to fully unfold and be properly understood, theoretically, politically, economically and aesthetically.



Seattle Protests.

Seattle Protests.


Now & Beyond    Timotheus Vermeulen

A lecturer in Cultural Studies and Theory at the Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands. He has recently published on contemporary aesthetics, Mad Men, The Wire, and the work of Jacques Rancière. He is co-founding editor of

As global warming, the credit crunch and political instabilities East and West are rapidly taking us beyond that so precipitately proclaimed ‘End of History’, beyond the all-too-hastily declared victory of liberal democracy, the most important question for philosophers today, it seems to me, is how to come to terms with and conceptualize the so-called post (but in fact not so post after all)-historical condition – or metamodernism, as Robin van den Akker and myself have called it. 

The philosophers and theorists that have sought to engage with this question are a diverse bunch, including Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, Rosi Braidotti, Peter Sloterdijk, David Gauntlett, Luc Ferry, Ruth Sonderegger and Nina Power, to name but a few, as well as any number of bloggers. Some of them rework Alain Badiou or Jacques Rancière, others reinterpret Jean-Luc Marion. There are those who turn to Friedrich Schlegel, while others tend to Immanuel Kant; to Eric Gans, to Jean-Luc Nancy, or to Bruno Latour, or Henri Lefebvre, or Ernst Bloch. A few stick to Gilles Deleuze or Jacques Derrida; a few to Friedrich Nietzsche, as always. Some seek to cross disciplines, some concentrate on a particular practice, phenomenon, author or artist. Most might be considered progressive, yet a number of them should probably be categorized as conservative. Some appear to be both at once.

Yet whatever their differences, there are a number of things these thinkers have in common. Rather big things, in fact. Things rather typical for our times. After the post-Structuralist deconstructions of the 1980s and ’90s, and the liberating projects of the neo-Deleuzians, Rancière-ites and Badiou-ers in the early 2000s, thinkers today have taken it upon themselves to begin the process of rewriting, indeed of reconstructing, History. Sloterdijk et al appear to once again seek to rethink History, reconceptualize the present and re-imagine the future by (re-)connecting the dots between previously deconstructed points of view.

To my mind, a few debates stand out: the renewed appreciation of grand narratives, of transcendence, of optimism and sincerity, the reinvention of the commons, and the rediscovery of affect and of love, even, of techne, craftwo/man-ship, and of the body as origins and remains. In order to give something resembling an overview of what I imagine – and to an extent hope – ‘philosophy’ today and tomorrow to be about, I will very briefly describe three of these debates below.


1. Grand Narratives Oh, the grand narrative, that totalizing, teleological grand scheme of things, signifying and explaining all events and experiences by way of this or that ideological principle: the Enlightenment, Marxism, neoliberalism. A taboo in the works of Jean-François Lyotard and Derrida (who proposed, instead, a multiplicitous, deferred retroactive construction of meaning), a haunting absence in Deleuze and Nancy (where it appears to hide in the non-place of the in-between), the idea of the grand narrative has been recently returned to by philosophers. Sloterdijk, Braidotti, Ferry, Josh Toth, Nicolas Bourriaud, The People of Seething (a collective living in or near the London suburb of Surbiton, whom over the past few years have come to write books and pamphlets, make videos, organize events, and who invented the founding myth of the Goat Boy of Seething): all of these seek to reintegrate the possibility of a tomorrow into their conceptualizations of society today in order to overcome the paralysis, and even apathy, into which the critical kynicism (cynicism’s hopeful, cheekily subversive sibling) of some of their colleagues had turned. They initiate these projects, however, acknowledging from the outset the problems inherent in grand narratives. Sloterdijk warns never to draw conclusions from grand narratives. Braidotti emphasizes again and again that her project of a pan-European feminism is not ‘over-idealistic’. Rather, she suggests it is simply the philosophical delineation of the catalysts ‘without which no social project can take off and gather support’. Instead of returning to the grand narrative of Hegel (or even, dare I say, Marx), these thinkers tend to Kant, where History is not a dialectical law but an allegorical principle; where telos is as imperative as it is imaginary, a horizon forever beyond reach. 

2. Optimism Closely connected to the idiom of the grand narrative is that of optimism. A party pooper of Postmodernism if there ever was one (it is hard to find even the slightest bit of enthusiasm in, say, Cindy Sherman, Michel Houellebecq or Bret Easton Ellis), optimism has recently been re-adopted as a viable critical stance. Like the ‘new’ grand narratives, however, it is an optimism that is firmly grounded in Postmodern scepticism. Sloterdijk has compared this ‘new optimism’ to the figure of the oxymoron, that which is at once ‘sweet and sour’; Van den Akker and myself have described it as ‘informed naivety’; and the Slavist Raoul Eshelman has called it a momentary ‘suspension of disbelief’. Indeed, in their return to grand narrative and optimism, these thinkers appear to couple (rather than counter) a typically modern desire for direction and meaning with a rather Postmodern doubt about the sense of it all.

Obama and the Tea Party movement, the Facebook revolution, ‘Slut Walk’ protest marches, the informed naivety of Wes Anderson’s films, the epic staccato of novelist Roberto Bolaño, or – to give some examples from visual arts – the shamanistic bodies of Nathalie Djurberg’s animations, Ragnar Kjartansson’s romantic irony, Šejla Kamerić’s privatization of public histories and Cyprien Gaillard’s hauntology of the modern; today’s paradoxical phenomena and practices can no longer be theorized simply in a post-Structuralist vernacular of deconstruction or even by Rancière’s idiom of the aesthetic. If we want to understand what is happening around us, we will need another language that is itself, as Sloterdijk has put it, oxymoronic: that is both-neither affirmative and-nor cynical, deconstructive and-nor reconstructive, global and-nor local, political and-nor personal. The return of optimism and the grand narrative into philosophical discourse are two examples for which philosophers have tried to create this language. Negri and Hardt’s recent reinvention of the ‘commons’ (a sharing of cultural resources) as a site of discourse that is both-neither public and-nor private appears to be another. Eshelman’s performatism (the pretension of unity) is yet another. One further example that is particularly poignant is the return of ‘affect’. It is on the note of affect that I will finish here.

3. Affect For Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism was characterized above all by the waning of affect. Not necessarily affect in the Deleuzian-Spinozist sense (a sort of ping-ponging, pre-personal intensity), but affect in the colloquial meaning of the word, as empathy, as a sensibility towards something. As of late, however, in philosophy as well as in the realm of aesthetics, this latter kind of affect has made something of a surprise comeback. Sometimes cringingly, as in Sara Ahmed’s thinking, and almost always apologetically, as in Negri and Hardt’s. But nonetheless, a number of thinkers has adopted affect as a strategy not just of deconstruction, but also of reconstruction, as an orientation, or promise, that may alter not only our experience of life, but also ‘living’ itself. And that, indeed, seems to me to be the crux of the projects of the philosophers I have described. What all of these thinkers appear to be after is to reclaim for themselves a relationship to an ideal ‘reality’ of unity, coherence and truth that they nevertheless realize is forever beyond their recognition and reach, that they realize cannot exist.

Issue 141

First published in Issue 141

September 2011

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