In one of the most widely memefied moments of modern British comedy, an SS officer played by David Mitchell notices the skull on his uniform cap and asks his comrade in alarm, “Are we the baddies?” Elizabeth Anker's On Paradox stages the fallout of a similar moment across its three hundred pages. Trained and deeply immersed in the procedures of what came to be known in the academic humanities as Theory, Anker realized some years ago that those procedures, or at least some recursions of them, far from leading to the sunny uplands of social justice, were actually obstructing concrete progress. Most of her book is a diagnosis of how Theory betrayed the Left: its chapters cover the general theory of modernity (1), the theory of human rights (2 and 3), the development of exclusion as a political category (4), and classroom practice (5). The sixth and final chapter attempts to devise a more constructive path.

It would be hard to fault Anker's general conclusions, although, as with Mitchell's officer, the comic effect for the reader is that it should require three hundred pages to reveal the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of this field. It has been obvious to the rest of us for decades, and not just the knuckle-dragging reactionaries who enjoy the political theater of denouncing feminist studies and critical race theory in Congress and on Twitter. The jargon, the abstractions, the bad faith, the hypocritical elitism and insularity, the hyperbole, the puritanism, the unrelenting sanctimony and finger-pointing, have all made the academic Left a laughingstock among the electorates in the United States and the United Kingdom, electorates that are increasingly open to actual progressive values, including on key civil rights issues. Real accomplishments on those issues have been made both in public opinion and in law, but no thanks to the sorts of critics cataloged in Anker's book, who dismiss substantive change. She saves one particularly egregious example for the last chapter, that of Jasbir Puar, whose 2017 monograph The Right to Maim denounced the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act—an act that mandated employment rights for the disabled, and so enfranchised millions—on the grounds that it “uses capitalist logic to solve a problem largely created by capitalism” (274). We are in the same territory that Adolph L. Reed Jr. (2018: 105) found himself in when hearing Derrick Bell declare in 1991 that “blacks had made no progress since 1865.” And the same territory as Martha Nussbaum (1999) eight years later, pillorying Judith Butler for her political quietism: Butler, she wrote, encouraged her readers not to seek material change but merely to “do politics in [the] safety of their campuses, remaining on the symbolic level, making subversive gestures at power through speech and gesture.”

The thrust of Anker's argument, then, is not especially new, but, as the title implies, she seeks to establish it in the frame of a new panorama of Theory bracketed under the category of “paradox.” Paradox serves Anker as a master trope for the values prioritized by poststructuralism: ambiguity, indeterminacy, unspeakability, liminality, marginality, fragmentation, open-endedness, and so on. (Many of these apparently fungible terms are even listed in synoptic tables on pages 122, 126, and 130.) She characterizes paradox as the rejection of Aristotle's principle of noncontradiction, that something cannot be simultaneously true and false. The overwhelming concern for paradox, according to Anker in a long “interlude” chapter (112–37), began with aesthetic criticism, where it had been identified as the essence of the literary for centuries. With Oscar Wilde, paradox became aestheticized as a marker of the author's simultaneous marginalization and Romantic flair; for Anker this turns out to be symptomatic of a later critical paradox in which both marginalized groups and theorists themselves are privileged by, and not despite, their peripheral status (220, 226). Such a mode is present already in W. E. B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk, where “the ‘unreconciled strivings’ and ‘warring ideals’ of [African American] double consciousness, rather than wholly pernicious, bestow upon the recipient an uncanny clairvoyance” (196). In other words, the more oppressed you are, the more powerful your voice.

In the twentieth century, delight in paradox was imported into moral, political, and legal scholarship, where it manifested as “anti-legalism”—that is, “a suspicion of law and legalization that is compulsory across many fields” (74). It is precisely this suspicion that Anker's book critiques, on the very reasonable grounds that law is one of the principal means for effecting social progress (see, e.g., 108, 186). And so her book rolls through the pantheon of Theory, from Agamben to Žižek, decrying the obsession with paradox as a critical tool and the anti-legalism that it justifies. It must be said that in most cases (Agamben is one exception) this criticism is made very gently, and Anker is constantly at pains not to upset her friends in the business, reiterating the value of social justice movements and the significance and accuracy of Theory's critiques.

Given that the export of paradox from aesthetics is central to her historical argument, Anker is frustratingly vague on exactly how it happened, beyond a section on Derrida (158–66) that traces his “transposition” of the textual realm to the ethical and his redescription of justice as a “style.” This vagueness is unfortunately characteristic of a book that claims to offer not only a survey of Theory as paradox but an explanatory history; Anker writes that “one agenda of this book is to demonstrate how and why a diagnosis of paradox evolved to become the scaffolding of an all-enveloping method” (134). That “how and why” requires what I would call intellectual history, a phrase Anker herself uses (76); but the book's thoroughgoing ahistoricism precludes any engagement with the details that a true intellectual history demands. Instead we get airy appeals to various master narratives, none convincingly realized here: “Left intellectual enthusiasm for paradox was fanned by a blend of the Cold War, student protest and the counterculture, post-Saussurean linguistics, literary-aesthetic criticism, theories of a radical democracy, a preoccupation with twentieth-century atrocity, and more” (183).

Moreover, it is not obvious to me that paradox is a category appropriate to all her targets. It is just too broadly applied. This is clear early on in her discussion of Jeremy Bentham's Anarchical Fallacies, a foundational critique of the concept of “natural rights” (the precursor to our “human rights”), as embedded in the Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen of 1789. According to Anker, his critique relies on the “exposure of lurking paradox” in the notion of rights as natural rather than as “legal artefacts” (80). But this is plainly untrue: natural rights for Bentham are not “paradoxes” but, as his title states, “fallacies,” or as he infamously expresses it in the text, “rhetorical nonsense—nonsense upon stilts.” The difference is not semantic. Equally implausible is her claim that Phyllis Schlafly helped defeat the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s by “maneuvering lurking paradox” (290) in her opponents’ positions. Even one of Anker's favorite examples, borrowed from Joan Scott, has been misread: the French feminist playwright Olympe de Gouges did not describe herself as “a woman who has only paradoxes to offer” (59) but as someone whom parvenus would wrongly condemn for being such. De Gouges did not “leverage paradox”: she disavowed it.

Anker's insistence on squeezing dissimilar arguments and methods into a single frame serves only to give her genealogy of rights skepticism via paradox a false sheen of coherence. The same is true of her genealogy of aesthetic theory. The convenient fact that Philip Sidney uses the phrase “paradoxically but truly” in his Defense of Poesie—leave aside that his idea of paradox was very different from hers—allows Anker to project back the modern identification of the literary with the paradoxical by centuries. She consequently has to view eighteenth-century neoclassicism, with its “alternate set of ideals” (134), as a mere temporary swerve from the mainstream, rather than, as it was, thoroughly orthodox in its orientation.

There are also peculiar omissions in Anker's story, such as the true progenitors of the postmodern aesthetic of paradox—namely, the Jena Romantics, with their flagship text, Friedrich Schlegel's essay “On Incomprehensibility.” Nor is there any mention of the most basic legal paradox of all, the notion of epieikeia, or equity, by which the letter of the law, including political rights, is made at once decisive, immutable, and provisional in the attainment of a fair result. But these are all merely problems of description. A much more serious flaw of the book is that Anker herself, as someone still immured in the disciplinary prison she has come to question, is guilty of the same faults that she accuses her targets of. For instance, she writes that poststructuralist critics “evacuate objective and measurable substance from a text, while also abstracting the activity of reading from the changing real-world circumstance that embed [sic] it, unmooring critical practice from its concrete, lived referents” (136). On Paradox itself, however, is just as removed from “real-world circumstance” and “concrete, lived referents.” This begins with style: Anker's prose may not be impenetrable, but it heaves with jargon and utterly lacks that good old humanist virtue of enargeia or vividness. She has no interest in the use of lively example to clarify a theoretical point, nor in the deft turn of phrase, and metaphors tend to be distractingly mixed (“a politics of exclusion and corresponding onus to route political agency through the metabolics of paradox” [187]).

But beyond the question of style, Anker's “solution” gets the reader no closer to the real problems that Theory pretends to address. She remains off-puttingly abstract throughout and evasive about how critics might better conceptualize, let alone alleviate, actual political situations, notwithstanding her occasional and casual reference to historical events. It is telling that her final chapter—whose title, “What Holds Things Together: Toward an Integrative Criticism,” promises the grand solution for which the reader has been waiting—can do little more than close-read two literary works. Consider that again: you want to convince your reader that poststructuralist theory, lost in paradoxes, has become unfit for political purpose, a purpose of vital importance in an era of “pandemic, looming fascism, economic collapse, violent crackdowns on peaceable protest, climate catastrophe, the end of the postal service, a rigged election”—wait, what?—“toilet paper and refrigerator shortages” (265) and all the rest, and your most urgent alternative is an extended gloss on A Room of One's Own and Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric.

But let's hear Anker out. What do Woolf and Rankine have to tell us? Anker records her surprise that Woolf, an icon of “modernism, queerness, interiority, epistemic dislocation” (267), should praise the virtue of “integrity” in her prose, given that integrity looks like the inverse of everything Theory has taught Anker to value: “smuggling in fantasies of the self-present and autonomous subject or of unitary, harmonious ways of knowing, a value like integrity transgresses all sorts of theoretical pieties” (268). Rankine, too, in her meditation on the experience of personal and structural racism, is found to acknowledge but reject paradox as a healthy mode of consciousness and to embrace instead “wholeness, noncontradiction, sufficiency, self-ownership, and integration” (296). This is the revelation: that a person, even a queer or Black woman, might actively seek, amid the onslaughts of oppression, a state of mental harmony and wholeness. And that therefore critical theorists ought also to prioritize such qualities in their pursuit of social justice. One would think—one would like to think—that nothing could be more obvious; what has Theory done to a scholar to make these seem like hard-won truths?

Works Cited

Nussbaum, Martha C.
. “
The Professor of Parody
.” New Republic,
Reed, AdolphJr.
. “
Antiracism: A Neoliberal Alternative to a Left
Dialectical Anthropology
, no.