On the disenchanted melancholy (and anger) of cultural studies


2 August 2006, 12.48 CET

It follows that reading and criticizing the fictions, figures, and strategems of law is indispensible to cultural criticism. George Marcus and Michael Fisher have observed that twentieth-century cultural criticism has typically taken one of two forms: “First, at its most philosophical, cultural criticism has posed as an epistemological critique of analytic reason … grounded in the sociology of knowledge. … The effect of this style of cultural critique is demystification.”[1]

While noting that demystification has been an aim of Nietzschean, Marxist, and Weberian cultural critique, Marcus and Fisher add that epistemological criticism is most recently associated with poststructural semiotics. A second style of cultural criticism, also drawing on Nietzsche, Marx, and Weber, has emphasized the “Romantic” critique of modernization: “It worries about the fullness and authenticity of modern life and idealizes the satisfactions of communal experience. Behind the growth of the market, bureaucracies, large corporations, and professional social services, it sees a decline of community and of … individual self worth.”[2]

Victims of their own success, both of these forms of cultural criticism have lost their capacity to shock or inform: “as rhetorical strategies they have become exhausted.”[3] It is now understood that the particular enchantments of traditional society are lost forever, and that they have been replaced not by transparent rationality, but by other enchantments. Accordingly, we have argued throughout this book that criticism is no longer well served by the familiar rhetorical attitudes of skepticism and sentimentality.

But there is a third model of cultural critique derivable from the classic critics of modernity, Nietzsche especially. The aim of such criticism is not to recover virtues of the heroic age, but to fashion new ones. Thus conceived, the cultural criticism of law is part of the work—at once political and aesthetic—of choosing what kind of culture we hope to have and what kind of identities we hope to foster.

—Binder, Guyora and Weisberg, Robert. Literary Criticisms of Law. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. pp. 538-539. [my emphasis; formatting edited for readability]

1. George E. Marcus and Michael M. J. Fischer, Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences 114 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1986).
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid., 115.