"Intervention" was in common usage in academia before it became an MTV-sanctioned watchword for the dramatized fight against addiction, but even without that post-facto reappropriation (there's a word for another day), this is one of the most annoying terms in the critical theory lexicon. Why? In a nutshell, it implies a vision of the critical theorist as an activist which, I think, simultaneously inflates and undercuts the stakes of the project.
|"I actually did that."|
Those who have come since have generally hoped for a similarly spectacular, direct impact - but the inconvenient truth is that claiming to be making an "intervention" is more a quantitative than a qualitative claim. That is, it implies that one believes one's own work should - perhaps even that it will - have the kind of deep, short-term social impact that Butler's did. Inevitably, most of these "interventions" have come up short, turning the word into self-important ash in its users' mouths.
But is the picture of critical theory's impact implied by the term "intervention" even the one we should be committed to?
Perhaps there is something to be said for the legacy - many of the pioneers of this sort of work, such as Foucault and the Birmingham School, were concerned with very immediate matters, and frequently wrote with the aim of intervening. But there are two things worth remembering: First, that the immediate writings such as Policing the Crisis, no less than Judith Butler's work, were premised on rich immersion in broader traditions. And second, that both Butler and Hall - to say nothing of sweet Michel - also produced much less interventionist, much more fundamental work (I particularly love Hall's lucid but deep attempts to reconcile Lacanian and Foucauldian theories of the subject). What has come to be called critical theory could just as easily be referred to as engaged philosophy, and I think that the obsession with "making interventions" could - maybe even already has - led to the neglect of one side of that equation.
As I write this, I'm realizing that perhaps 'intervention' could be a useful tag for distinguishing these two types of writing - the more immediate and activist from the more philosophical or theoretical. But the most important - that is, the most objectionable - thing about "intervention" is that it is an evaluative term, one that makes claims about the impact of a piece of writing, before that writing has even properly entered the world. To describe yourself as making an "intervention" is essentially no different from saying "my work is of great social importance and will change the world." As you write, ask yourself - are you really comfortable making that claim? And more importantly, are you comfortable with your colleagues thinking you're a self-important jerkoff?
|Creed, too, were certain they were changing the world.|