Article Title

What's Left of Critique?


Leslie Green


Wendy Brown and Janet Halley, eds., Left Legalism / Left Critique. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002. Pp. vii, 448. $64.95 (cloth); $22.95 (paper).

Wendy Brown and Janet Halley think that "the left's current absorption with legal strategies means that liberal legalism threatens to defang the left we want to inhabit, saturating it with anti-intellectualism, limiting its normative aspirations, turning its attention away from the regulatory norms it ought to be upending, and hammering its swords into boomerangs." As an antidote, they have assembled eleven, mostly reprinted, essays that range widely but have overlapping worries about legal rights, identity politics, and the prospects for political argument. They express no similar doubts about the various postmodemisms that inspire most of them.

Brown says, "[R]ights secure our standing as individuals even as they obscure the treacherous ways that standing is achieved and regulated...."' For one thing, rights have costs for others, as illustrated in a fine piece by Mark Kelman and Gillian Lester. They ask why students with learning disabilities should get more resources than other students who do poorly through no fault of their own. "Left multiculturalism," they think, wrongly pushes their claims to the front of the queue by representing them as rights to cultural difference. Rights may also have costs for the rights-holder. Should gay people seek the right to marry? Michael Warner sketches some obvious risks: for example, same-sex marriage could demean the gay singletons and polygamists who choose to remain outside it. Puzzlingly, he also thinks this concern is "almost unheard." And Judith Butler echoes, the "intensification of normalization is not widely recognized as a problem in the mainstream lesbian and gay movement." In fact, almost every story in the gay press about marriage worries, "Will it make us too straight?" Indeed, just about the only thing that the mainstream lesbian and gay movement fears in the problematic institution of marriage is the "intensification of normalization." And thus the debate is always about whether one can have equality while remaining outside it, through private agreements or civil unions. The alternative -equality by leveling down and abolishing civil marriage entirely -is what is unheard and untested in theory, let alone in practice.