Finite Demands, the Toronto TA Strike, and Critical Theory


by Tenzan Eaghll

* Photo by Ian Brown

It has been two weeks now since 1000 members of Cupe 3902, the union representing University of Toronto graduate students, decisively rejected a motion to send a tentative agreement reached on February 27 to a ratification vote. Since then members of Cupe 3903, which represents graduate students at York University (also in Toronto) has followed suit. The demands are real, as most of the graduate students, myself included, live below the poverty line and struggle to maintain the demands of research and teaching on a below subsistence funding package.

On that note, I thought a brief post regarding the connections between the strike and critical theory might be in order. For some of you with academic appointments this might not seem like an important issue, and you may even consider the role of theory to be purely a matter for scholarship, separated from the struggle for academic and social justice, but for some of us fighting to make ends meet as we finish our degrees, the connections are all too real. For some of us, critical theory is not just about challenging essentialism in the name of historical difference and alterity, but challenging those who hold power to question the abstract checks and balances that maintain the status quo. Critical theory, for us, is not just about how and why “religion” gets used to police political, economic, aesthetic, and cultural boundaries, but how the means of production are allocated and distributed along essentialist (and hierarchical) lines of force. Or, as Max Horkheimer once described critical theory, it is about liberating “human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.”

Going on strike is one of the few powers some of us have at our disposal to effect real change, and has nothing to do with infinite, pie in the sky demands. So much of continental philosophy over the past hundred years has been consumed with infinite demands, and has tended to portray the advance of capitalism and political essentialism as so oppressive as to be insurmountable. This has led to a sense of apathy and futility concerning matters of reform, as if the struggle against hegemony was impossible, and that the only way forward was to wait for an outburst of Benjamin’s ‘divine violence,’ or Levinas’ “good beyond being.” (a contemporary example of this politics of infinite expectation can be found in the work of Simon Critchley) This emphasis on the mysterious forces of historical transformation, I believe, has at times led to a resignation of the will to the “impossibility” of social change, and a suspension of finite demands in the name of an infinite justice. But make no mistake, surrendering precise finite demands for better pay, gender equality, political change, etc., in the name of an infinite justice, is a choice to let those in power continue to exercise their unfair dominance.

As Slavoj Žižek argues, this trend in continental theory to resistance over struggle is a form of surrender to the status quo. The only way to force change in the political and economic orders’ is to bombard those in authority with an infinite series of small finite demands. (How does mere resistance change the fact that the presidents of the UofT and York make over $400,000 a year? Or, more globally, that a handful of billionaires like Bill Gates control more wealth than half of all the people on the planet combined?) As Žižek writes:

The lesson here is that the truly subversive thing is not to insist on ‘infinite’ demands we know those in power cannot fulfill. Since they know that we know it, such an ‘infinitely demanding’ attitude presents no problem for those in power … The thing to do is, on the contrary, to bombard those in power with strategically well-selected, precise, finite demands, which can’t be met with the same excuse.

The value of critical theory lies in this call to address the finite, which doesn’t imply violence or even necessarily “physical” action, but it does imply commitment to the finite. Calls for infinite justice function as an opiate that obscure the real finite concerns that oppress us, right here, in the midst of the world, and this is the connection between critical theory and the strike. Critical theory in religious studies, is, at least in part, about instilling the importance of these finite demands. (I recognize that this is a somewhat normative claim, but being able to eat and pay rent should be normative)

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2 Responses to Finite Demands, the Toronto TA Strike, and Critical Theory

  1. etseq says:

    Here is a suggestion – you seem to view critical theory as a pseudo-spiritual discipline that informs some version of resistance politics in the context of academic labour relations. This retreat into abstract theory over the last twenty years is correlated with the rise of neoliberalism, particularly within the academy itself. Theory purports to question and problematize essentialist meta-narratives like capitalism and neoliberalism but empirically this obviously isn’t true. Critical theory inhibits political action and is no threat to neoliberalism.

  2. Tenzan says:

    I in no way presented critical theory as a ‘pseudo-spiritual discipline.’ I think you need to reread the post. In fact, it was precisely that view that I critiqued (see my critique of Levinas/Critchley). Ironically, you seem to be adopting my position but without any appreciation of what critique implies.
    It was precisely the retreat into abstract theory that I critiqued. However, this does not mean that we should naively engage ‘political action’ without theory…. that would be ridiculous. What is politics, what is social justice, what is neoliberalism? You cannot critique neoliberalism without a solid theoretical understanding of what it is and where you want to go. If you just give a bunch of people pickets and ‘take down the system’ you will merely reproduce the same order in its stead, but with different figureheads. As Zizek often notes, this is why Lenin valued the importance of study; read, read, read.

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