Confronting Theory and Praxis: An Interview with Bernard E. Harcourt

by guest contributor Ruben Verkoelen

Bernard E. Harcourt is a legal scholar, advocate, and critical theorist. He is Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law and Professor of Political Science at Columbia University and chaired professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. Harcourt is the founding director of the Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought. He recently published Critique and Praxis: A Critical Philosophy of Illusions, Values, and Action with Columbia University Press.

Critique and Praxis presents a theory of critical practice that aims to put armchair theorizing and practical struggle in a unified space of confrontation. Written in response to the divide between academic critical theory and activism, the book stresses the need for a corrective: Critical theory, in Harcourt’s view, should not theorize critical practice nor advise those in the field. Instead, if critique is to have any value in today’s world, it needs to be a space of critique and praxis. The theoretical and the practical side of critique should be tied together in a unified, personal space, so that their ceaseless confrontation can be the driving force of critique as ‘critical praxis’. The book presents this kind of critique not only as a possible solution to the problems troubling the well-known critical methods of the Frankfurt School, Marx, and Foucault but also as a viable alternative to the theories of critique of several contemporary critical thinkers, such as Axel Honneth, Rahel Jaeggi, Rainer Forst, and Seyla Benhabib. The book’s introduction is freely available online from the publisher. Ruben Verkoelen interviewed Bernard Harcourt about the book.


Ruben Verkoelen (RV): Your latest book, Critique and Praxis, expresses great frustration with the tradition of academic critical theory. You lament its “contemplative complacency” and the “retreat from its practical ambitions.” What makes you think that critical theorists could nonetheless help to advance the struggles of today?

Bernard Harcourt (BH): Honestly, we couldn’t even identify the “struggles of today” without the kind of critical reflexion that has always been associated with critical theory, so in that sense, critical theorists are absolutely essential to the task of critical praxis. In this respect, I remain entirely faithful to the initial impulse of the Frankfurt School, namely to properly diagnose crises.

My emphasis on critique and praxis is intended to be a corrective, but it should not diminish the importance of “crisis and critique.” Rather, it builds on it. That foundation of critical reflexivity—the critical analysis of our social condition by thinkers who understand that they are themselves shaped by those social forces and simultaneously affect them—is essential. I admire and adhere to that project of crisis and critique, and how it shaped critical theory, from the journal that Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht proposed, Krise und Kritik, in 1930, to Reinhardt Koselleck’s seminal book, Kritik und Krise, published in 1959, to the many contemporary redeployments of those conjoined terms—they are crucial, essential. But they need to be conjoined with praxis. My point is not to sideline crisis and critique, nor to repudiate it. Rather, it is to demand that we go further, building on that critical foundation, to engage, debate, and focus on critical praxis. If I had been more verbose, or clever, I would have titled the book Crisis, Critique & Praxis

This is especially important today, in the immediate aftermath of the January insurrection at the Capitol and the resurgent threat of white nationalism in this country. If we don’t properly analyze the long history of the present, I do not think we will be able to combat this counterrevolution in the making. It’s been going on now for years, for decades. It now presents an even more threatening variant of the new paradigm of governing through counterinsurgency warfare, and it traces back to the reactionary backlash to Reconstruction. Really, if we don’t diagnose it correctly, we will be disarmed to defeat it. And critical theorists are absolutely essential in that task.

RV: In the introduction and conclusion of the book, you strike a rather personal tone when you discuss the moral issues involved in being a critical theorist. Your suggested reformulation of the critical question – from ‘What is to be done?’ to ‘What more am I to do?’ – also moves critique toward the realm of personal motivations and ethics. Why do you consider the personal space to be so fundamental in grounding and guiding critique?

BH: The personal space of praxis, I would argue, is the only proper place to begin. I realize this is somewhat akward for an academic book, or at least uncomfortable, but it’s essential. The fourth, more autobiographical part of the book is really what motivates the entire book. It is what gives the book, for me, its true ugency and necessity.

The postcolonial critiques—the work of Edward Said, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and others—demand that we no longer talk about “what is to be done” in such a naïve and self-authorized way. Their critiques of ordinary political discourse, but even more of critical theory, were crushing. Foucault understood well that he could not speak for others, that was the whole point of his praxis intervention in the 1970s with the Groupe d’information sur les prisons: to let the voices of those in prison be heard. But, as Spivak showed, even Foucault himself, in saying that, was putting words in their mouths. When Foucault spoke about how “the masses no longer need [the public intellectual] to gain knowledge: they know perfectly well, without illusion; they know far better than he and they are certainly capable of expressing themselves,” even as he was carefully avoiding to speak for others, he was doing it. As Spivak quipped, “The ventriloquism of the speaking subaltern is the left intellectual’s stock-in-trade.

So, it’s clear. I cannot say what must be done, I can only address what more I can do. This is, to be honest, the source of the book and it gives it, to me, its true meaning, and its urgency.

RV: In the light of the discussions about our alleged ‘post-truth era’, it is important to note that you leave no place for truth in critical practice: As you write, “making a claim of truth or justification for others is, in the end, nothing more than an imposition of the part for the whole, and in that sense, it is inevitably the product of relations of force in a milieu marked by endless power struggles.” Evoking the critical work of Michel Foucault, you conclude that power relations, rather than truth, should be the focus of critique. But doesn’t Foucault’s work actually hinge upon the careful use of historical material as the complex truth that empowers his critiques? How do you think truth may still play a role in critical praxis?

BH: You’ve put your finger on the single most fraught issue in critical theory today—and in politics more generally. The question of truth is, without doubt, the most thorny issue. Hence its central place in Critique & Praxis. I’d say that it’s even more fraught today than ever before because of the political crisis that the former president fomented. I’ll get to that in a minute.

Regarding Foucault, you are right to point out that his work does hinge on meticulous and careful use of historical archives. It is grounded on the excavation of the real historical ways that people spoke about punishment, sexuality, or madness. That history and those analyses are intended to be correct, factual, true. He was not making up stories. As I discuss in the third chapter of the book, “Michel Foucault and the History of Truth-Making,” Foucault traced a history of the production of truth in his thirteen years of lectures at the Collège de France. I offer this as a new interpretation of those thirteen lecture series—of the books “Society Must Be Defended,” The Birth of Biopolitics, The Courage of Truth, etc. That history of truth production is painstaking and scrupulous. Similarly in his classic Discipline and Punish, Foucault was tracing a history of the discourse of penality and the birth of a new form of power he called disciplinary. That was not just fiction or stories. It was intended to be an accurate representation of nineteenth-century French relations of power.

There is a key passage in his lectures on Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling in Louvain in 1981 where he is discussing positivism, and what he explains there is that he is not anti-positivist but doing something entirely different. He calls himself “counter-positivist.” It’s in the context of his treatment of what he calls “the recent domination of science or of the technical uniformity of the modern world” and it concerns the positivism of Auguste Comte or Saint-Simon—so, the hard social sciences. He explains: “In order to situate my analysis, I would like to evoke here a counter-positivism that is not the opposite of positivism, but rather its counterpoint. It would be characterized by astonishment before the very ancient multiplication and proliferation of truth-telling, and the dispersal of regimes of veridiction in societies such as ours.” Notice that he is not embracing an anti-positivism.

Now, any discussion of truth today is even more fraught in the wake of Trump and the new Biden administration. Right now, especially, it is an extremely sensitive, difficult time to be open and honest about truth. President Biden is trying to heal this nation from the divisiveness and lies of Trump. His inaugural address and his entire approach has been about telling the truth, uniting the country, about healing. And it’s just not the right time to suggest that this is political rhetoric, right? It’s just not the time. It’s not the right time to critically examine, in depth, the fact that Trump lied so much to the American people. It’s clear Trump made deliberate misstatements of fact for months about the election being stolen in order to attempt a putsch. And it is clear how close this country came to the precipice on January 6th, 2021, and what a clear and present danger the resurgent white supremacists are to democracy. All of that is so clear, it is just not a good time to raise the difficult questions of truth, honestly.

As I note in the book, different times call for different critical praxis. I discuss the fact that the leading figures of the Frankfurt School joined the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA, during the Second World War—in effect, that they joined the ranks of the state apparatuses that they ordinarily would have critiqued and had critiqued in the past. Franz Neumann, who had just published his landmark book on Nazi Germany in 1942, Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, as well as Herbert Marcuse and Otto Kirchheimer, the co-author of the classic Frankfurt School book on crime and punishment, Punishment and Social Structure, they all worked for the OSS. Max Horkheimer was also reportedly part of the OSS. Meanwhile, Theodor Adorno, Herta Herzog, and Paul Lazarsfeld became involved in the Princeton Radio Project (later Columbia University’s Bureau of Applied Research), which served intelligence functions.

In certain times of crisis, certainly in the face of a regime like the Third Reich, critical theory and praxis requires a departure from the expected. Right now, in the face of this mounting white nationalism, it again feels like one of those moments.

RV: The tradition of critical theory has always accorded great importance to understanding the nature of the present and of ourselves in the present (as Foucault once put it). Integrating that practice of understanding with forceful activism might cause oneself to lose sight of either activity, since they seem to be so far apart on an emotional spectrum. In your everyday life, how do you integrate critique and practice and bring them into fruitful confrontation?

BH: In a constantly agonizing and painful way! I mean it, it is agonizing to me, to be honest. You know, it is kind of funny. Michael Welton from Athabasca University wrote a bit of a cheeky review in Counterpunch of Critique & Praxis and placed it under the title “The Agony of Bernard Harcourt.” I’m not sure it’s in my best interest to publicize his review, but one thing it got right is that, for me, it’s really agonizing to constantly feel the need and to constantly confront my critical praxis with critical theory.

Why is it so agonizing?, you might ask. Well, the answer is that what critical theory is so good at showing us is how often we are misled or mislead ourselves. How ofter we err. How often we fall victim to our own illusions. We intend to do good, and instead we reproduce power hierarchies or racial injustice. You know the expression, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” That’s precisely what makes integrating critique and praxis so trying. If one takes seriously the ethical imperative to try to change the world, if one takes seriously the ambition of critical philosophy as it was given to us unadulterated—namely, to change the world and not just interpret it—then we face a constant and daunting task: to relentlessly confront our critical praxis with critique to ensure it is pushing us in the right direction.

Right now, for instance, my co-counsel Tom Durkin and I are at a critical juncture in our representation of a man who has been detained at Guantánamo Bay for almost twenty years, the last four years despite the fact that he was found to be eligible for release and no longer presents a security threat to the United States. (The Trump administration just decided to do nothing on his case, so despite that, he has been incarcerated throughout the whole previous administration). Every step we take right now has to be thought through, not only legally and strategically, but also critically, in terms of the ongoing political circumstances and the broader conjuncture of what I have called the Counterrevolution in this country.

RV: In the book you also briefly discuss your privileged position as a professor at an Ivy League university: “Critical scholars reproduce a hierarchical space that is the very condition of possibility of our tiered universities, overlooking—or blindly ignoring—the living and working conditions in the undercommons.”  If we focus just on the university and the academic system, your direct academic space, do you believe it sufficiently enables critical praxis? Do you have plans for university activism?

BH: The current structure of the university in this country is counterproductive to critical praxis, but the problem is larger than that. I am convinced, adamant, that the existing political economy of higher education in the United States is broken. Here, I agree with Wendy Brown and her critique of the ravages of neoliberalism on universities and the academic system. We need a complete reset and massive investment in public universities, freely accessible and open to all students, compensating properly and equally all instructors. We need equally excellent public universities in all localities, not ranked, but all equally premier.

Through my center on contemporary critical thought, I try to model this and experiment with open, public seminars that are accessible to anyone and that offer a full panoply of public resources, essays, blog posts, readings, videos, bibliographies, and seminar recordings. Through what I call the 13/13 series, I am trying to make critical theory and praxis accessible to anyone around the world. I am also committed and engaged in working with universities and colleges that have less resources. The sociologist Bruce Western and I have a big project on that in the works.

I’ve always been both attracted and torn by the imperative to act locally. On the one hand, I firmly believe that one should only militate in one’s own backyard, in order to never be telling others what to do—and there is so much to be done here, on American soil. I trace this back to Voltaire’s Candide and abide by it. But that work, in my case litigating death penalty and Guantánamo cases or intervening legally and politically in protest and protest rights, can become entirely consumming. And it ends up taking so much time that I do not always get to the truly local. But I am working on it!

Ruben Verkoelen is an independent scholar and teacher based in the Netherlands. His master’s thesis traced the beginnings of contemporary life science along the lines of Foucauldian archeaology, a topic he intends to pursue further.

Featured Image: Courtesy of Bernard Harcourt.

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