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Missing Misrecognition

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This essay seeks to explain a riddle peculiar to the contemporary nexus of post-Marxism and Cultural Studies: the improbable return of the misrecognition thesis. For traditional Marxism, misrecognition denoted the definitive ideological effect that concealed objective conditions of exploitation, and the critical task was to unmask this reality, fostering revolutionary consciousness. By contrast, for the Frankfurt School and Althusserian Marxism misrecognition was a constitutive element of domination itself. The critical task was to undermine the dominant power by exposing its reliance on misrecognition. For critics of this tradition, such as Foucault, Lyotard and Baudrillard, the misrecognition thesis was itself an error impeding critique. Yet the misrecognition thesis has returned as a pivotal feature of post-Marxist cultural critique that rejects the concept of false consciousness. In the work of theorists as different as Jameson, Laclau and Žižek, misrecognition persists in the mode of a nostalgia for a lost object which, though fictitious, is therefore deemed indispensable. To account for this predicament, I draw on the work of Niklas Luhmann to argue that compelling the appearance of misrecognition is the very mode of performative efficacy and legitimating force characteristic of reflexive operations comprising social life. In effect, misrecognition is (re)produced as a kind of virtuality whose discursive existence takes the form of an endlessly unmasked object, appearing in the course of its own disappearance. This means that politically engaged cultural critique must confront its investment in the misrecognition thesis as a product of the very discursive processes it aims to transform.

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14735784.2012.721625

Publication date: November 1, 2012

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