The Reversal of Values as a Method in Criticism

One could say with only limited exaggeration that all intellectual vices reduce to the vice of intellectual dishonesty, and that all intellectual dishonesty reduces to the phenomenon of kneejerking. Kneejerking could be defined as responding to the form of the thing rather than the thing itself: to its associations or appearance or emotional resonance, not to the substance of the argument within its specific context. While in principle everyone knows this vice to be one, it does not mean that it is easily avoided (as is generally true for intellectual vices). Within the political and cultural left, particular forms of kneejerking occur that are peculiar to our social sphere. Without wanting to point the finger at anyone or any group in particular, I think it is worth examining in more detail some of these specific forms of intellectual vice that we are prone to. 

One such example I think is often not recognized as a pattern, despite being unfortunately rather common in ‘radical’ theorizing. In fact, it is often not recognized as being an intellectual vice at all, although I think more often than not it is one. It is a form of kneejerking, but at a high level of abstraction: a form I call ‘the reversal of values’.

By the reversal of values I mean this. Often there will be a dominant or powerful narrative with normative implications, whether historical, political, or otherwise, in which a clear value hierarchy is established. There are forces or abstracta that are portrayed as good or desirable, and ones that are portrayed as bad or undesirable, and through this value hierarchy the narrative tries to make sense of the dynamics at issue. One could call this the conservative master narrative. By definition, radical theorizing sets itself against such conservative master narratives in the specific domain which it studies, and seeks to undermine it. 

A frequent approach in radical theorizing has been to do this by taking the conservative master narrative and reversing its values. This seems, after all, the strongest kind of critique: to show that those things seen as good are ‘actually bad’, and those things portrayed as bad are ‘actually good’. This undermines not just the original narrative’s potency, but also the ability of the exponents of the conservative master narrative to make value judgements at all. It exposes their value hierarchy as reversible, and therefore not natural or inevitable, which has been one of the essential goals of radical theorizing in modern times since it roots in the Enlightenment and romanticism. Finally, it has the clear advantage of having the theoretical tools laying ready to hand. After all, the conservative master narrative has already done most of the work in distilling the relevant abstracta and providing the raw materials for theory: all one needs to do now is to question the normative frame. In this way, it is always a tempting approach, since it appears simultaneously radical and easy.

It is not difficult to find practical examples in (relatively) recent radical theorizing. A clear example is the study of the witch hunts. The conservative master narrative had portrayed the witch hunts as a kind of irrational mass craze, and their victims as (at best) pathetic losers who had lost social support or (at worst) sinister figures in their own right who might have brought it on themselves. From the 1970s onwards, a strand of feminist historiography inspired by the work of Margaret Murray and others has sought to reverse this approach. Most eminently represented by Silvia Federici’s work, this strand has argued that in fact the witch hunts were very organized, ‘rational’ and deliberate undertakings, supported by a social elite, and their victims primarily (proto-)proletarian women, whose freedom and self-organization the witch hunters sought to destroy in order to inaugurate or further capitalist social arrangements. 

Beyond the historical specifics, the argument is quite explicitly framed as a reversal of values: the witch hunters were not crazy but rational (in an instrumental sense anyway), their victims not social losers or sinister schemers but oppressed workers, the violence not primarily a work of religious mania but of gendered social control, and so forth. These are, of course, social abstracta and not values in the strict sense. But the normative import attached to it, and the purpose of the historical exercise, is precisely to demonstrate that the victims were – anyway from the viewpoint of Marxist historiography – the ‘good guys’ and represented historically progressive forces, while the witch hunters are to be identified with the same historically regressive forces of exploitation and oppression that would manifest under capitalism, and therefore the ‘bad guys’. For her, the victims of the witch hunts were indeed the social underclass, but this is good about them

Moreover, Federici hints at the old idea that the oppressed workers victimized by the witch hunts were really in some sense deviants from the official Christianity, and had a different religious life; it plays into the reversal of values between the conservative master narrative of church history and its radical opposite. It is not a coincidence that Federici is happy to regularly rely in her book on very old works inspired by Catholic reaction, works in which the witch hunts are essentially justified as necessary measures to defend Christianity. These suit her purpose, because they give her a perfect opportunity to reverse that polarity. She too presents the witches as representing an inherent challenge to that same Christianity, but argues that this is a good thing, because that Christianity was patriarchal, oppressive, controlling, etc. 

There is much that can be doubted about this line of argument; it is certainly not in agreement with the more contemporary historiography of the witch hunts, which does not see such strong class or religious differences between witch hunters and their victims, nor was the upper class of the time uniformly enthusiastic about the enterprise. But that is not the point. The purpose of the book is to establish a reversal of values, where the victims of history are feminine, working class, organized, and free, and therefore represent things to be valued, whereas the winner-protagonists of the conservative master narrative actually represent all the things to be despised. 

Similar kinds of arguments can be found outside historical discussions too. One may think for example of the arguments about the nature of ‘rationality’. The conservative master narrative of philosophy and reason of old presented rationality as masculine, cultural, and dominant, and therefore associated irrationality with femininity, nature, and passivity. Clearly, this is no longer generally believed (although it still has its fans in many dark intellectual corners). What is surprising perhaps is how popular nonetheless the reversal of its values remains. A popular response is to say things along these lines: perhaps femininity is better then, because more in touch with emotions; or perhaps artificiality is ultimately destructive and harmful, and the natural is more balanced and more sustainable; perhaps rationality is not so desirable, because instrumental reason is ultimately a form of domination, and we should seek a more intuitive approach; perhaps acceptance of the dictates of nature is better than the aggressive and vainglorious attempt to control and dominate the natural; and so on and so forth. 

All of these represent in one form or another an attempt at the reversal of values as a method of criticism of the conservative master narrative, in fact a reversal by now much more common and more persistent than that old narrative itself is. Many more examples could be furnished: one need only think of the postcolonial studies tradition of revaluing the ‘subaltern’ against the Orientalist conservative master narrative, or the desire to revalue ‘queering’ against a vast array of master narratives of Otherization, and so on. 

It would seem a banality to observe that this method, as a method in radical criticism, is not really adequate, were it not so pervasive. Its great weakness is that while it undermines the value system of the conservative master narrative to which it responds, it preserves its parameters intact. It is in this sense that it is a kind of kneejerking: it says “if you say X is bad, I will say X is good!”, while thereby conceding that X has the properties and meaning that were ascribed to it in the first place. 

Analogous to how for Wittgenstein “philosophy leaves everything as it is”, the reversal of values also leaves everything as it is: it challenges the normative implications or the identification with one or another label, but does not challenge the structure of the argument itself. One might instead ask: what if the witch hunts were neither a defense of the true church nor a conspiracy by the ruling class, but a product of the particular social tensions of Renaissance state-building and religious conflict in which perpetrators and victims were often quite similar? What if rationality is not masculine to begin with, or femininity not natural, or the artificial not inferior to the spontaneous, or indeed none of these binaries particularly sustainable or likely to refer to natural kinds?

The point here is of course not to take positions in those specific debates, but to identify a pattern of reasoning. Indeed, reversing values is by itself not necessarily a bad thing. Many values do deserve reversal, and the reversal when undertaken as a deliberate enterprise intended to provide a form of counterculture or counterideology can be a healthy contribution to the landscape (Gerald Gardner’s inspiration of Wicca comes to mind here). But as a product of the kneejerk it is a serious methodological problem in radical theorizing. 

The upshot is that the critique of ideology demands a questioning not just of the normative claims inherent in the analysis but also of the analytical parameters themselves. The first instinct should not be to preserve the reasoning but to reverse its polarity, but to find that tertium quid – one that is not merely saying “this binary is insufficient” (which is surely itself often banal), but to find that analytical ground from which the parameters themselves come to look very differently, and the normative reversal becomes as irrelevant as its original counterpart. The way past the reversal of values as a method in criticism is to reject the instinct to say, as the witches in Macbeth, that “fair is foul and foul is fair”. This is a beginning, perhaps, but not adequate to the task. Instead we should make our instinct to go outside: to find that Archimedean lever, with which one can move the world.

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