From edition

Review: Defending critique and criticizing its defenders

Til Forsvar for Kritikken.

Willig, Rasmus

Copenhagen: Hans Reitzels Forlag, 2007.

By Tina Askanius

Sociology has neglected its primary duty as the critical watchdog in society and has been reduced to a fragmentized, shallow discipline lacking teeth as well as clout in the general public sphere. As a consequence, critical theory is left disarmed and individualized, incapable of delivering a coherent and exhaustive critical account of contemporary society. The harsh words stem from the Danish sociologist Rasmus Willig, who levels a severe critique against his own discipline in the 2007 book ’In Defence of Critique’ (‘Til Forsvar for Kritikken’) in which he address the state of crisis in which critical theory is plunged and examines the conditions and possibilities of critique in contemporary society.

Willig departs from the basic assumption that sociology as a discipline has turned into a capitalized consumer-version of its previous self in a context where critique itself never refers directly to the fundamental problems of society but rather to their manifestations as superficial, everyday phenomena thus only scratching the surface. Instead of lashing out at the bedrock of societal development, sociology merely clamps down on the inadequate access to consumer or service goods but never questions the underlying structures and the fundamental logic, which control and organize societal development (12[1]). The concept of critique has itself become a victim of the market hegemony and its subversive discourse been colonized by that of capitalism. Far from the leading critical discipline it once was, delivering a continuous flow of systematic and in-dept analysis of the distorted relations of power and dominance in society, critical theory of today is reduced to yet another productive force in neo-liberal society lending itself to the very same forces it tries to subvert thus merely bringing grist to the mill of capitalism.

Although a rather sinister picture is painted here, to some extent influenced by the strokes of Bauman’s dark brush with which he sketches his pessimistic diagnosis of contemporary society, some degree of hope is offered to the reader. If the discipline is to regain its status as a megaphone for the socially excluded unable to articulate critique conventionally, a new programmatic outline for a critical sociology is required. In this manner, this book forms part of Willig’s ongoing and more general project to revitalize the concept of critique so that it becomes possible to formulate a critical sociology, which applies the positive characteristics of the concept as a yardstick for society’s moral development (Willig, 2009a).

The solution to our problems, however, is not served to us on a silver platter. In order to follow the arguments forwarded by Willig, one should master the social-philosophical vocabulary and be able to navigate in the tortuous phrasings and winding argumentations of social science literature pitching at the high level of philosophical abstraction.

In search of a new critical programme

Ever since its historical beginnings, the prime target of sociology has been articulated as the ‘social problems’, ‘discrepancies’ or ‘sufferings’ in society when pointing out the pathological consequences of each new technological advance. However, despite the implicit externalization of its normative critique, sociology has, according to Willig, never had a tradition of explicitly enumerating the normative principles for a good society but only implicitly through the numerous critical diagnosis of societal development pointed out what can be considered as ‘the good society’. In his search of the cornerstones of this good society, Willig takes the reader through the development of social critique in the works of central thinkers ranging from Boltanski & Chiapello and Judith Butler to Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth. Being a former student of Honneth however, the body of theory of this latter holds a central place in this particular account of well-established normative frameworks (and in Willig’s work in general). Axel Honneth’s theory of the struggle for recognition is thus, according to the vein of enquiry proposed by Willig, the main theoretical pillar of the programme to be launched. Consequently, the concept of recognition or more specifically the closely-knit relationship between recognition and critical theory, as this is propounded by Honneth, is brought to the fore throughout the book and serves as a point of orientation in his search of the missing links of a coherent normative foundation.

Bauman has argued that one can think of the kind of ‘hospitality to critique’ which characterize present-day society as having the patterns of a camping site (Bauman, 2001). People come and go without much interest in challenging or renegotiating the managerial philosophy of the site. Visitors pay rent, make demands and might even occasionally complain but generally stick to themselves. When they break up to follow each their individual itinerary they leave the place untouched for the next guests to arrive (Bauman, 2001: 100). Willig leans on this metaphor of a camping-site critique to characterize the impotence of critique and popular contestation today in a society that has stopped questioning itself.  But when speaking of an individualized critique he puts a different spin on Bauman’s argument of the individualized society by claiming that the process of individualization or rather internalization of critique is prevalent to the extend that all forms of social critique today are responded to at an individual level. The crisis of society therefore remains within the subject’s own experience-based framework. Critique has made a u-turn so to speak, turning the previously visible, collective critical demands into individual demands and accordingly structural responsibility has shifted to the subject itself. The subject is in this manner made responsible for his own personal ‘crisis’ despite the fact that this crisis is in principle structurally contingent (Willig, 2009a: 13).

Hence, this is not to say that critique and contestation is not present in today’s neoliberal society but rather that every critique launched against the system lacks a clear and coherent normative foundation. The majority of contemporary sociological contributions is based on fluctuating and inconsistent grounds and seems to be produced with the primary purpose of meeting the demands of the sociological market of quick formula success and pervasive sales slogans. However, Willig does concede that exceptions can be found. In this regard, he accentuates the extensive analysis of the flexibility and integrative powers of Western capitalism by Boltanski and Chiapello in their collective work ‘The New Spirit of Capitalism’ (1999) in which they convincingly demonstrate how the different forms of critique levelled against capitalism have paradoxically helped to reproduce its dominance. But where Boltanski’s and Chiapello’s projects remains on a descriptive level seeking to establish a sociology of critique, Willig instead aims to cast the foundation of a critical sociology.

Several systematic attempts have previously been made to construct a body of theory, which allows for solidly grounded value judgements to be made. Here, he highlights the works of Jürgen Habermas on discourse ethics as well as Nancy Fraser’s theory of redistribution and cultural forms of stigmatization. In particular, he identifies a possible point of entrance in the context of social philosophy and more specifically in the theory of recognition of Axel Honneth who, according to Willig, is capable of providing the normative foundation for a sociology with a methodologically substantiated social critique. But if sociology is to realize its ‘normative turn’ a serious effort needs to be made in terms of empirical contributions providing new accounts for society’s distorted conditions. And for this to be possible the very founding fathers of sociology need to be reread and a new programme for a critical sociology is to be launched. What we need in other words is a clear-cut and psychologically feasible idea of ‘the good life’. In order to criticize society we must know exactly what the kind of society we want to inhabit.

A democratic project?

Despite the reiterated appeals for critical empirical efforts in the field, the book itself provides few attempts to give sociological substance to a critical sociology (a lack of empirical evidence that he however fully admits to). In the one chapter where he sets out to test his tentative programmatic outline and demonstrate how one such critically informed diagnosis can be made, he (perhaps somewhat predictably) clamps down on neo-liberalism as the primary evil-doer in modern life. In an argument akin to many of his contemporaries, he appoints the neoliberal doctrine permeating contemporary society as the main malaise of our time and instigator of social pathologies such as depression and anxiety amongst the populations of Westerns societies. In this Foucauldian line of argument, modern steering technologies compose the kind of new and subtle forms of power exercise which prevail in our present-day era of neoliberal capitalism; a distinct form of social engineering which serves to motivate the masses and sculpture the docile bodies of the working force. In this context, traditional forms of human recognition are changing in the sense that the dominant rituals and graduations of recognition today foster and nourish those values and norms, which ultimately reproduce the established order. Neo-liberalism and the ideological laden forms of recognition it breeds are ‘barbaric’ in the sense that its normative demands of self-realization and autobiographic success pave the way for new forms of manipulation and repression. At present this process is perhaps most manifest in the sphere of contemporary working conditions forging flexibility, mobility and autonomy (Petersen & Willig, 2004: 341). In this regard, Willig makes an interesting analytical distinction between options and possibilities of self-realization. Whereas ‘possibilities’ represent the ‘true’ or realistic paths for the individual to take, ‘options’ form an important ideological element in neoliberal society keeping the self locked up in an absurd and illusionary idea of a successful auto-biographical project that is ultimately led by the norms of efficiency and values of the market (160).

‘In Defence of Critique’ is a must-read for everyone interested in critical theory and critique as a broad socio-philosophical concept. Willig takes the reader on an interesting guided tour of the winding roads of central thinkers within the social sciences, with the concept of critique as the guiding road marker. The book has so far only been published in Danish but many of its main arguments are available in English in additional and perhaps more manageable journal publications. By way of example, in the article ‘Work and Recognition: Reviewing New Forms of Pathological Developments’ (Willig & Petersen, 2004) his thoughts on the relationship between work, recognition and neo-liberalism are further elaborated and in the newly published article ‘Critique with Anthropological Authority: A Programmatic Outline for a Critical Sociology’ (Willig, 2009a), the programme for a critical sociology is taken a step further with the anthropology assumption that “every subject possesses a form of quasi-naturalistic or essential critical ‘ability’ or ‘impulse’ which can be considered as a fundamental pre-condition for human existence” (Willig, 2009a: 511). In his most recent book (Willig, 2009b), he develops his ideas of how to democratize critical practice and thinking so that is becomes an empowering and emancipating weapon to people in every stratum of society in a critical discussion of the lacking possibilities of social workers to challenge or influence their working conditions in the Danish public service sector.

When taking into consideration that one of the primary purposes of his overall project is just this; i.e. to democratize the concept and practice of critique in order for it to become useful for everyone regardless of their social strata, one might question just how democratic a form his argument takes. The book is complex reading and definitely no lightweight introduction to critical theory. To be sure, if the aim is to reach beyond the echo chambers and confined boundaries of the ivory tower with an easily accessible toolkit for critical practice, this has certainly not been accomplished with this book. It does however point towards an interesting path for sociology to take in the future and provides essential building blocks for further work into the embryonic programme of a new critical sociology. And one can only hope that this, along with future publications, will serve as a launch pad for social science to once again assume its critical role in society.


[1] References to the reviewed book contain only the page number(s).


Bauman, Zygmunt (2001) The Individualized Society. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Boltanski, Luc & Chiapello, Eve (1999) The New Spirit of Capitalism. London: Verso.

Petersen, Anders & Willig, Rasmus (2004) ‘Work & Recognition: Reviewing New Forms of Pathological Developments’, Acta Sociologica, 47(4): 338-350.

Willig, Rasmus (2009a) ‘Critique with Anthropological Authority: A programmatic Outline for a Critical Sociology’, Critical Sociology, 35(4): 509-519.

Willig, Rasmus (2009b) Umyndiggørelse. Et Essay om Kritikkens Infrastruktur. Copenhagen: Hans Reitzels Forlag.

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