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SO NOW!: On Normcore


One of my concerns over the last few years is what I see as a certain fear within some domains of left thought—the fear that, because we have repudiated any normative grounds for adjudicating between arrangements of existence, we must be blind to how our actions extinguish (kill) another way of life … the question must be what arrangements of existence do we want to try to pull into place or remain in place rather than disaggregating good essences from bad essences. In other words, the goal for me is not simply to state what I do not want—or how I am or am not more anti-normative than thou—but what forms of existence do I seek to put my shoulder into making normative in Canguilhem’s sense: normativity is the power to establish norms. But aren’t I paralyzed by the fact that I have no transcendental grounds or regulatory norms justifying why I shove here rather than there? And when I put my shoulder here rather than there, am I not shoving against not merely a different position but trying to shove outwards into a new arrangement of existence that will, if successful, extinguish what existed before? So am I not extinguishing others without reason? The answer is pretty much yes. And so I must take responsibility for this, this potentiating and extinguishing, without either shunting responsibility onto a transcendental truth or regulation, or onto a denigrated and demonized other. The current emphasis on anti-normativity is, at times, a refusal to accept this responsibility.
—Elizabeth Povinelli, 2014

Perhaps beyond normcore is another normal altogether, an aberration devotedly to be wished.
—Benedict Seymour, 2014

The project of critique, at least as represented by critical theory, is in trouble. Indeed, the grandees of an older generation of critics are warning of the dangers of a “post-critical” condition, where presumably power does not only go unchecked but doesn’t even have to suffer the indignity of critique. Yet many leading voices in contemporary philosophy and social thought argue that critical theory has brought this crisis upon itself, and they are joining in the critique-of-critique chorus. Whether we look to Bruno Latour, whose influential critique of the epistemological foundations of critical theory has chimed in with recent attempts to escape its anthropocentric limits; Jacques Rancière, who has advanced an epistemological and political equality in place of the hierarchies of knowledge-power built into the demystification at the heart of critical theory; Alain Badiou, with his forceful return to the universal terms of capital-P Philosophy after the wordplay of theory; Reza Negarestani, with his recent attacks on the antihumanism of “kitsch Marxism” in these pages; or Elizabeth Povinelli’s push back against the constraints of anti-normativity on the radical Left, the familiar tropes of the critical project have been declared conceptually moribund and politically exhausted, and this by thinkers of the Left. Yet, the idea that critical theory is in crisis may come as a surprise to anyone who has recently passed through a graduate program in the arts or humanities, where it remains dominant. Yet this is perhaps paradoxically part of the problem, critique having lost its sting as it became institutionalized, not only as a methodology but increasingly as a set of knee-jerk reactions and rote exclamations; a generation or two of those speaking truth to power assumed that power themselves, often resisting rather than producing change in their own institutional fiefdoms. Largely cut off from social processes and political impact in its academic enclaves, critical theory poses little threat to the powers that be, who are more or less happy to let it persist, defanged, in these melancholic holdouts where it waits for the generational dialectic to gather momentum.

In the midst of this slow crisis of critical theory, the contours of new models of thinking, new questions, and new concepts can be seen squirming, only partially formed, and they are already shaping the terms of social thought. This is perhaps most evident of course in the new forms of philosophical realism, materialism, and rationalism that have emerged over recent years, and the new attitudes to art, politics, technology, and the environment that have developed in an awkward tandem with them. However, despite all the distracting fanfare that has accompanied the mishmash of discussions about posthumanism, accelerationism, object-oriented ontologies, the Anthropocene, mass extinction, neorationalism, and so on, a more latent and still somewhat obscure transformation has been underway in how the relationship between difference and normativity is understood. This shift both tests some of the key conceptual pillars of critical theory, and bears directly on some of the more prosaic political concerns that have taken a backseat as abstract metaphysical and epistemological concerns have been dominating the social media spotlight and lapping the conference circuit. Difference has long been the lens through which radical social thought has approached all questions, setting itself the task of exposing the inside/outside exclusions or above/below hierarchies through which social power operates in every instance, and undermining all foundational claims with reference to some deeper contingency, where destabilizing reserves of difference can always be found. By contrast, normativity has often been considered a central aspect of the problems that critical theory ranged itself against. Normativity, seen from this perspective, was seen to provide the legitimating basis for the exclusions and hierarchies by which social power supports itself, and became a byword for authority, domination, and inequality. Yet today the dominance of this anti-normativity is beginning to loosen as various strands of radical social thought, weary of the claims made for difference failing to translate into tangible political gains or prevent the grip of capital tightening on ever more spheres of life, are returning to questions of normativity in the hope of gaining the type of traction on social reality that appears so far beyond the reach of critical theory 1.0.

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