Constructive Criticism: The Human Sciences in the Age of Theory


223 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Bibliography
ISBN 0-8020-7630-0
DDC 121




Edited by Martin Kreiswirth and Thomas Carmichael
Reviewed by Peter Babiak

Peter Babiak teaches English at the University of British Columbia.


The 12 essays that constitute Constructive Criticism were originally
presented at the 1993 “The Human Sciences in the Age of Theory”
conference organized by the University of Western Ontario’s acclaimed
Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism.

Many of the papers gage the significance of postmodernism and
deconstructionism both inside and outside the university. Christopher
Norris, referring to the work of Michel Foucault, rebukes the sceptical
disposition resulting from “the prison-house logic of linguistic
determinism” built by discourse analysts; Martin Kreiswirth explains
that “the virtual explosion of interest in narrative” in recent
years is a response to the postmodernist tendency to dismiss all modes
of knowledge as “transcendental truth-claims”; Victor Li takes to
task the work of Jьrgen Habermas and Richard Rorty for misunderstanding
“the thickness and the unevenness of culture” even as they propose
decentred, inclusive theories of community; and Tilottama Rajan shows
how the important concept of art developed by Hegel in the Aesthetics
“conforms neither to his goal of identity nor to his concept of art”
but instead offers a deconstructed view of art “as the self-production
of a non-identical consciousness.”

The most provocative essays are those in which theoretical speculations
are inflected with substantive social issues. Richard Dellamora’s
“The Ends of Man,” for example, submits the moral philosophy of
Immanuel Kant to a smart reading and shows that, through a series of
textual ruses, the philosopher “refuses to acknowledge the fact that
desire between men colors the very springs of Western philosophy.” In
line with feminist thinkers who have shown that Western morality is
built on a gendered model of binary difference, Dellamora shows that the
cooly rational Kant—in a moment of irrational fear—expels relations
between men as “a sexually perverse Other.”

The essay “The University, Culture, and the State,” written by the
late Bill Readings, is one of the highlights of the book. In it he
argues that, as a result of the diminishing force of the state and the
incursion of the market into all areas of social life, “culture” has
been replaced by “excellence” as the unifying principle of the
university. He makes the starkly realistic point that, for all its talk
of pluralism, the university has become a “bureaucratic corporation”
like the stock market or the NBA. Readings’s point is that academics
need to locate the new relevant issues rather than embrace antiquated
theories that provide them with an exalted social function.

It is these essays, as well as those contributed by L.M. Findlay and
other leading Canadian thinkers, that render this volume truly


“Constructive Criticism: The Human Sciences in the Age of Theory,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed April 22, 2024,