Reviewed by Peter Gratton, Memorial University of Newfoundland
Janet Roitman’s Anti-Crisis deserves to be one of the more consequential works in the last year at the nexus of Continental philosophy and social theory. Made up of three chapters (I will focus on the first), the short book nevertheless packs a punch as it looks to the conditions of possibility of a certain crisis thinking that has become a key term in narratives of contemporary politics: we live in an age of seemingly perpetual crisis, a paradoxical situation detailed well in Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine (2008) and Bonnie Honig’s excellent Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law, Democracy (2011), among other recent works. Roitman suggests the greatest crisis left is to lift ourselves out of the myopia of this kind of thinking. As she demonstrates, a thinking of crisis not only informs a permanent state of emergency that disrupts all considerations of patient and democratic deliberation, but also is found in much recent Continental philosophy, including Judith Butler’s and Michel Foucault’s accounts of perpetual critique. Her critique of critique, then, needs to be confronted by all those informed by critical theory and genealogical approaches. As I will come to it, I will push beyond Roitman’s analysis to suggest an almost impossible distinction, but one needs to be made in the name of a future beyond the age of perpetual crisis and critique, that is, between a thinking of the event and that of crisis, terms that Roitman at times uses interchangeably.
As Roitman notes, there is an etymological common source for both critique and crisis, namely the Greek krinein, meaning to separate, judge, or decide. As Roitman notes, from the fifth century forward, the word had connotations in the domains of law, medicine, and theology. In medicine, for example, “crisis denoted the turning-point of a disease, or a critical phases in which life or death was at stake and called for an irrevocable decision.” (15) This history is important, though Reitman could have augmented her “conceptual history” of crisis by noting its elaboration in early Greek democracy, where krisis became inextricably linked to a thinking of krinein as decision, a judging by a third party who was both sovereign over a given judgment but also was, to use an anachronistic term, objective and not involved in the power play between different litigants at court. We thus can see a straight line from this thinking of krinein to all modes of philosophizing that have the pretense of judging a given reality while not intervening in that reality. But we also can see a certain legacy of this krisis and krinein in such thinkers as Carl Schmitt and others who find in the krinein a sovereign cut made on high in the moment of crisis.
Roitman bases her own analysis on the writings of Reinhart Koselleck (1923-2006), a German philosopher of history who identified in his 1959 book, Critique and Crisis, a mutation in modernity (or as modernity) in the title terms of the book; this is the perpetual emphasis on the new produced by each crisis, long remarked upon in the literature on modernism. In Christian theology, krisis was paired with judicium, which came to signify the final judgment before God, he argues, and one can see this as an elaboration of the sovereign decision already developing in ancient Greece, transposed to that most sovereign of beings, God. This, he argues, becomes secularized in Enlightenment thought, which practices an “anti-politics politics” at a distance from the state, making room for critique in the growing civil society privileged by Habermas, for example. If this sounds similar to Carl Schmitt’s analyses of the secularization of the political theology of sovereignty, that would be because Koselleck’s analyses were deeply indebted to Schmitt’s decisionism, a point Roitman does not raise but which shows how even deep critics of a certain thinking of crisis repeat a certain Western preoccupation with the decision as the sovereign political event. In any case, modernity is said to secularize the crisis, thus inventing another thinking of history, where the telos is dictated by reason and each crisis can be dated within secular time—not a time beyond all time, or as the end of time, as in Christian theology. A given crisis, on Koselleck’s reading, becomes a means to judge history anew, and thus “one can interpret the entire course of history via a diagnosis of time.” (18) This judging, too, makes a decisive cut, as in the krisis’s etymology, namely between past and future, and Koselleck’s claim is that previously in the West, such a thinking was unavailable: the future, rather than repeating the past, as in so many cyclical versions of time, is now seen as producing a future that is open. “Crisis,” Roitman argues, “marks history and crisis generates history.” (20) She writes:
What is expected of history? With the temporalization [that is, secularization] of the Last Judgment, history, in its immanence, becomes a problem of meaning. If the emergence of crisis as a historical concept occluded practices of prophecy [e.g., the book of Revelations] in favor of practices of prognosis, as Koselleck argues, this raises the issue of the burden of proof for meaning in history…[invoking] Schiller’s influential dictum “World history is the judgment of the world.” (21)
Here we can cite any number of examples; Roitman herself leaves the relation between history and time opaque, but the point is that each new crisis means a new judgment is made over history and its meaning at some distance from those actually practicing politics, on Koselleck’s account. This gives rise to a utopian strain of Western thought, since the practice of politics (as in Schmitt) is always to be critiqued from the place of a rational theory. In this way, history is historicized, since with each declaration of a crisis we reevaluate the meaning of history and how such a crisis arrived. Truth is hence relativized along a temporal timeline. For example, we judge history differently before and after 9/11, or before and after the 2007–9 financial crisis, to cite notorious recent examples of crises calling for sovereign decisions. Roitman is right to suggest that the judgment of a crisis provides the “access” to history and in fact is productive of historical knowledge. But whereas the ancient Greeks judged over the singular, the new thinking of time, on her account, means a judging over the whole of the world itself. Is this not the thinking of the a priori in Kant, the judgment of a critique or crisis that is not itself judged as part of that crisis? Or the constant declarations of crises (e.g., of legitimation) in the critical rationalism of Habermas? It is here that Roitman’s analysis turns to Foucault and Butler, problematizing the centrality of critique in their writings, noting that for both
crisis signifies a discursive impasse and the potential for a new form of historical subject. For both crisis is productive; it is the means to transgress and is necessary for change or transformation….The decisive duty of critique is essentially to produce crisis—to engage in the permanent critique of one’s self. (35)
Both “risk ontologizing the category of crisis,” thus calling into question its “self-evidence” as an historical category (35). That is, Butler and Foucault, on her account, see perpetual critique as following from the impasses of modern thought that they identify. Whatever the validity of this, there is no doubting the aporia this pulls us towards: if the thinking of crisis and critique produces normative demands for differentiating the past (whatever is unveiled by critical thought) and the future (whatever is beyond a given impasse) opened up by this critique, then what other narrative forms do we have left by which to jettison this past of thought, namely a long thinking of crisis and critique, which is to say, the sovereign decision, that is our heritage? Can we decide otherwise without repeating this very gesture? If we wish to unveil this latent thinking of crisis within the West, how to do so without repeating the modes of critique that is the basis of political judgment and philosophical thought? Roitman writes:
Crisis is a blindspot that enables the production of knowledge…which makes certain things visible and others invisible, it is merely an a priori. Crisis is claimed but it remains a latency; it is never itself explained because it is necessarily further reduced to other elements, such as capitalism, economy, neoliberalism, finals, politics, culture, subjectivity. In that sense crisis is not a condition to be observed (loss of meaning, alienation, faulty knowledge); it is an observation that produces meaning. More precisely, it is a distinction that secures “a world” for observation. (39)
This repeats, though Roitman does not review this history, the earliest considerations of krinein and krisis in the West. What interests us is her claim that any crisis itself cannot be representable, since a crisis itself interrupts the epistemologies by which we have previously judged things. The judgment of a crisis thus is self-authorizing and hence without foundation: “crisis is posited as a non-locus from which to signify contingency and as a self-authorized ground for accounts of the emergent.” (70) This is precisely the logic of sovereignty, a non-representable place from which a decision emanates and makes the cut between past and future and between what is and what will be. Chapters two and three look at the 2007–9 credit crises and the various declarations of crises over the past several years, setting out how the narrative of crisis is nearly ubiquitous, and thus the politics of crisis is to work out norms for a future beyond the now as a means for covering over the suture of each particular crisis: “contemporary claims to crisis are the grounds for the critique of capitalism, the critique of imperialism, the critique of the efficient market hypothesis, the critique of the politics of crisis, but they are not the ground for alternatives or for other histories. The judgment of crisis is a distinction,” which is to say a decisive cut, “that produces information, which serves to reproduce existing dichotomies.” (90) For reasons of space and because I take it that the invocations of crisis as a blackmail for more of the same is a given in recent memory, the upshot of chapters two and three is that the invocations of crisis provide a cover for how everyday and routine transactions gave rise to the supposed “crisis,” which did not come from anything decisive and new. The incantation of the term crisis, then, inoculates various political and economic actors from responsibility and maintains a sovereign hierarchy itself based in a long thinking of krisis. It is the modus operandi of sovereignty that has long clung to our thinking of the political.
The question that Roitman’s book asks is how to leave this long legacy of the crisis and krinein behind? Do we not need a certain historiography that would call this thinking into crisis? To articulate an impasse that will be productive of new forms of knowledge beyond crisis thinking that we judge to unveil previous latencies and end our alienation from reality? Given that this would repeat the modus operandi of critical and crisis thinking, Roitman is right to say that “crisis narratives are not ‘false,’” since, as I would add, the whole thinking that we can judge the true and the false belongs to a given history of the krisis and the krinein. In this way, we can mark the implacability and ubiquity of the crisis invented and long behind Western thought. The irony of Roitman’s book—perhaps any on the topic—is that it remains at a critical level, leaving in its last pages only a critique of this dispositif of the critical apparatus, instead of a positive way forward. But this is as it perhaps should be. What is called for, beyond a genealogy of krinein and its modern heirs, is a deconstruction that recognizes that we take on, in both senses of the phrase, this critical thinking while testifying to what is unpresentable to critical and genealogical thought, to think a future different than the crisis thinking of the present. This means a consideration, I would argue, of the event detached from the thinking of crisis—given the weight of a certain history (and its concomitant thinking of the future), there is perhaps no more difficult task. This event would mark a patience that arrives not in the form of a sovereign decision or cut between past and future, disrupting any thinking of critique and crisis. Such would be other to the central conceits of the krinein of Western thought, formed as it is around this thinking. But while I can’t decide for such a future, or merely mark the here and now from what has come before, nevertheless one can begin by not giving into the blackmail of crisis thinking, of the need to follow the decision of the here and now. Nothing is more difficult than that patience, which is not to be confused with quietism or the decision not to decide, or the “I prefer not” of much recent literature. It calls for thinking the decision otherwise, a decision detached from krinein and krisis, a decision cut down from its cutting violence.