The State of Critique in the Times of Acceleration

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I.

The problem that critique faces today is that of its relevance in the world where even the most subversive strategies and actions—including ‘having fun’ and ‘making friends’—are capitalisable. It is a problem of inability to speak ‘from within the outside’ of this mode of capitalisation and represent any kind of exterior or alternative.

We might probably see the difficulty in applying what we know as ‘traditional’ forms of critique of ideology (here we can recall the descendants of Frankfurt school, including Adorno, Althusser, Horkheimer, Foucault, etc.) when trying to think of our ‘post-ideological’ times of acceleration. What should strike us (and by ‘us’ I mean at least those engaged in the practices of critique) as important is the cases when the critique is simply dismissed as irrelevant. Perhaps, we can say that one of the reasons of such dismissal is the usual claim that the tradition of what Ricoeur called ‘the school of suspicion’—i.e., the legacy of Marxist critique of capitalist economy, Nietzschean critique of morals and religion, and Freudian critique of the notion of human psyche—failed to produce any alternatives to the economical, social, and psychological organisation of our reality. For example, we are always reminded of the failed attempts to establish the state of equality, freedom, and social inclusion that would not be grounded on inequality, repressed freedom, and exclusion. It seems that the only set of options is either a path of acceptance of the ‘uncriticisable’ state of events, or some sort of reinvention and re-appropriation of the ‘old-fashioned’ critical narratives that would be relevant to the contemporary developments and discourses. Perhaps, critique needs to find its voice—again.

II.

At this starting point we can introduce a set of interconnected questions: what is the state of critique today in relation to the hyper-networked and globalised art market? Is critique necessarily destined to oscillate between the adjectives ‘progressive’ (embracing the progress in all its contemporary emanations and diving into the world of buzzwords and trends) and ‘anachronistic’ (relying on the ‘traditional’ forms of critique of ideology)? Does critique reflect on its relation to the contemporary realities of acceleration and post-institutional art? And further on, how do we criticise the very state of interconnectedness and inclusion that demands us to be available, efficient, and hyper-responsive—a state that demands us to respond effectively, when the very fact of hesitation and deliberation causes the loss of ‘social points’ or even casts us outside the representation and ‘marketable world’ altogether—i.e., beyond the processes of participation and effective decision making?

It is rather easy to observe that in accordance with the the functions of ‘befriending’ and ‘liking’ in Facebook, participation in any of the efficiency-oriented cultural networks (that include publishers, translators, curators, artists, and critics) is necessarily a ‘friendly’ affair: a relation either exists and it is ‘friendly,’ or there is no relation at all (e.g., quite (in)famously, Google’s motto “Don’t be evil” has the same logic of a totalising inclusion without alternative options of participation: it is either you are benefiting the corporation which is good, or you are on the side of ‘evil’). It should have already become clear that the demand to say ‘yes’ without deliberation is also a demand to be conductive to some sort of a content (e.g., a ‘marketable content’)—i.e., to cause no resistance in the network. And whenever we think—i.e., whenever we negotiate before saying ‘yes’ (‘yes sir/ma’am!’) or refuse to accept the very dichotomy of ‘yes/no’ (‘with us or against us’) in favour of the third possible option that is grounded on reflection—we are ‘causing problems,’ hence the resistance.1

Critical thought often falls into a trap of having to choose between subscribing to (and therefore transmitting) the institutional and capital-based interests, or accepting the status of an ‘illegal immigrant,’ a sans-papier who must suffer the consequences of her refusal to ‘cooperate.’ What is at stake in both cases is precisely the status of critique that suffers from the lack of legitimacy: on the one hand it ‘walks the [Party] line’ and betrays its critical potential, and on the other hand, by choosing to be radically independent, it strays outside the zone of inclusion and becomes demonised and associated with the non-representables: outcasts, deviants, angry weirdos, losers, conspiracy theorists, bêtes noires. Having said that, is it possible to argue for a critical thought that would engage with the contemporary developments without having to submit to the institutional interests and, at the same time, without carrying the cross of an excluded deviant or a martyr that are deprived of legitimacy in the cultural actuality?

Surely it is not the case of demanding for some exclusive rights (e.g., a sovereign right to be excluded from the common affairs) or privileged positions that would guarantee some sort of an objective view from ‘above.’ However, there is obviously a paradox here: as far as participation and immersion are concerned, critique in itself signifies a refusal to participate (e.g., refusal to ‘have fun’), so how can we demand an inclusion of critique in a cultural actuality while knowing that critique should distantiate itself from institutions and social networks of legitimation? Tough question indeed.

III.

It is quite clear that self-distancing and withdrawal are not only essential for critical thinking, but they are the very conditions of possibility of reflection as such: we always need to ‘snap out’ in order to reflect on what we are immersed into. It is a cultivation of withdrawal that opens up the gap and produces the difference and productive tension between the states of immersion and reflection. But how do we react to those practices of critical distancing and, moreover, how do we react to the critique today when there is seemingly no way for us to snap out of the contemporary discourses of acceleration, inclusion, and capitalisation—i.e., the discourses that insist on the ‘efficiency,’ ‘collaboration,’ and ‘post-institutionalism’? Quite predictably, the range of reactions to a critique can be split into those of rejection and those of acceptance. I will argue that in both cases the reaction is determined by the same violent demand to be ‘constructive’ according to which critique either fails to fulfil this demand and becomes dismissed and marginalised, or it embraces the given conditions and becomes dependent on them thus ceasing to be ‘critical’ in the strict sense of the word.

In the case of dismissal and marginalisation, critique is often associated with something that ‘attacks’ for the sake of mere controversy—e.g., when one tries to ‘trip up’ the opponent only to prove one’s own righteousness. One of the most common strategies of such dismissal is to refuse to acknowledge the critique for what it is (e.g., to say something along the lines of “It’s not a legitimate critique, it’s not worth of our attention or any kind of serious engagement, it’s just a simple case of ‘sophistry,’ ‘jealousy,’ ‘rant,’ ‘incoherent blather,’ etc.”) Interestingly enough, the point of departure for this dismissive gesture can already be found (bare with me) in Plato’s Theaetetus, where he makes a distinction between the philosophical discussion and mere controversy:

It is the height of unreasonableness that a person who professes to care for moral goodness should be consistently unjust in discussion. I mean by injustice, in this connection, the behaviour of a man who does not take care to keep controversy distinct from discussion; a man who forgets that in controversy he may play about and trip up his opponent as often as he can, but that in discussion he must be serious, he must keep on helping his opponent to his feet again.2

According to Plato’s model, if there is seemingly no contribution to the clarification of the position that is being criticised, then the result of critique is ‘mere controversy.’ Contrary to the controversial relation with the matter of discourse, a ‘serious’ dialogue can be seen as an attempt to clarify opponent’s position instead of dismissing it on the grounds of one’s own ‘righteousness.’ Despite its antiqueness, this Platonic distinction can be rather indicative of how we distinguish between the so-called ‘constructive critique’ and ‘mere hostility’ toward the contemporary developments today. Here I must note that the notion of clarification that Plato had in mind is much broader than just an affirmative (‘constructive’) critique that ‘helps an opponent to his feet’ in terms of support and agreement—it encompasses both constructive and deconstructive engagements, and it is the latter that can give a new meaning to what Plato meant by ‘clarification.’

IV.

I used this parallel in order to reflect on the situation when we are too quick to dismiss the critical engagements as ‘mere controversy’ in Plato’s sense because we accuse them of being ‘non-constructive.’ Let us ponder about what the demand to be ‘constructive’ entails. Constructive critique is expected to reduce itself to the level of some sort of an immune system which is supposed to guarantee the survival of the whole body of ‘progressive ideas’: extend its limits, eliminate its weaknesses, strengthen its grasp, and develop new forms of persistence. By way of highlighting and revealing the weak spots, ‘constructive critique’ offers a way to better things in terms of improving a given construct. Most importantly, it is necessary that the constructive critique uses the resources and concepts of the very object it sets to criticise without actually questioning its conditions of its possibility.3 Therefore the very construct remains untouched, unquestioned, unreflected upon because the ‘constructive gesture’ is expected to contribute to the efficiency of a given development. It exemplifies the ‘survivalist’ mode that provides the sense of immunity without being critical of the very structure it helps to sustain and without being critical of the very idea of immunity.

Immunity is at work here in terms of the necessity to protect ourselves from the corruptive influence by sterilising, containing, isolating, excluding, building fortifications and firewalls. We can be most certain that whenever someone insists that the given state of affairs is the only ‘good,’ then it is definitely haunted and structured by an idea of absolute immunity—an idea that it is possible to posit something pure and protected from what threatens to destroy it, something that is immune from contamination or self-doubt. It is easy to see how any kind of restriction to question the conditions of givenness (institutions, trends, zeitgeist, what effectively drives the culture today, etc.) leads us to believe that the given state of affairs is a singular way of being, a singular ‘choice without alternatives’ and it can only be affirmed as inherently and unconditionally ‘good.’ No wonder that under such conditions the critique that questions the given construct can be simply dismissed as an ‘existential error.’ It is seen either as an insignificant effort that can be ignored, or a destructive threat that needs to be contained. It is the idea of absolute immunity that is at work whenever the critique is given a bad reputation or even worse—when it is demonised, underrepresented, excluded from the discourse under the pretext of negativity; when it is dismissed as unconditionally bad, evil, destructive, antagonistic, devoid of any potentiality or redemptive dimension—i.e., absolutely negative and unproductive, inefficient, against the ‘spirit of time,’ anti-zeitgeist, etc.

Critique can respond to such demonisation in two ways. On the one hand, it can accept its status of a failed project therefore turning into some sort of a defeated outcast. For a critic, defeat becomes part of her identity, even if the very notion of defeat is articulated in the terms of the dominant paradigm that is supposed to be criticised. In such cases critique no longer considers itself an option, but a failure.

On the other hand, critique can resolve the crisis through the affirmation of the guilt and its own impotence in a rather Christian way: by repenting and self-punishment. We can almost see the trajectory of reconciliation: first, critic becomes a recluse and a deviant, then a martyr, and finally a converted (enlightened) functionary. At the end of this trajectory, a former critic resolves the crisis and embraces the ‘constructive.’

V.

However it would be naive to limit ourselves to such a dichotomy. Instead of accepting the role of a victim or an immune system, critique can set forth the goal to denounce ‘absolute immunity’ and other ideals of purity as impossible. And it is precisely in this sense that critique becomes recognised as a deconstructive project which insists that everything is autoimmune insofar as everything contains the threat that renders it vulnerable and, by the same token, susceptible to critique. Everything—all life—is subjected to autoimmunity which designates an unconditional contamination of ‘itself’ by something which is other than itself. As Hägglund succinctly puts it in his Radical Atheism,

[w]hatever is desired as good is autoimmune, since it bears within itself the possibility of becoming unbearably bad.4

It is in this sense that the deconstructive critique denounces the possibility of some privileged stance of immunity. Critique therefore emerges as a reaction to an encounter with anything that is given to us as immune to the processes of thinking, reflection, critique, deconstruction—i.e., when we become witnesses of repression, sterilisation, isolation, and representation as ‘pure.’ To be beyond critique (to be uncriticisable) would mean to be necessary—i.e., without alternatives, without conditions, and it is needless to say that for critical thought such possibility is simply unthinkable.

The task of critique is not to demand or prove that there is the right interpretation or the truth in accordance to which everything and everyone should function. Quite on the contrary, it tries to show how any dominant paradigm, by way of establishing the conditions of its domination, represses and affects ‘the other,’ ‘the rest,’ etc. It always delineates what is sacrificed (or payed as a price) in order for something to be. It does not necessarily mean that critique mourns the loss of some ‘good times’ when the meaning was ‘present’ in a ‘better’ form; it tries to avoid this nostalgic mode. The project of critique is always recognisable as an enquiry into any kind of current power relations and in the way those relations acquire new forms in accordance with the changing times. And by doing that it always sets itself against totalisation in any (especially political) sense.

Critique therefore sets out the task of bringing the violence of the hierarchy to light by exercising the very power of judgement—i.e., the power of thinking as such—under the changing historical conditions. Thus everything can be and is subjected to this power insofar as everything is subjected to thinking. The problem, however, arises whenever a certain discourse tries to establish the zones of ‘non-thinking’ where reflection—the exercise of what we so eagerly call ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘freedom of expression’—is restricted, repressed, or suspended for any reason. What criticism sets out to do is precisely to focus on the instances of such restrictive conditioning.

It is rather easy to dismiss critique either as a form of paranoia (when it is considered as dangerous for the ‘common good,’ ‘friendly state of events,’ ‘productivity,’ etc.), or as a desperate and useless attempt to see the ‘conditions of possibility’ everywhere; or demand it to become ‘constructive’ so it could benefit the given state of affairs. What is much harder to do is precisely to think and engage with critique—i.e., to acknowledge it as a form of dialogue where we are all equal in our attempts to grasp the meaning of things without antagonising the relation between the ‘successful ones’ who caught up with the contemporary forms of cultural ‘game’ and ‘refuseniks’ who are seen as ‘poor in the game.’

So, how should contemporary critique find its voice? Well, refusal to be victimised and demonised could be a good starting point.

  1. Here the parallel with the Bartleby’s paradoxical ‘I would prefer not to’ comes to mind. See “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” (1853), a short story by the American writer Herman Melville. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bartleby,_the_Scrivener  
  2. Theaetetus 167e-168b; translation taken from M. Burnyeat, The Theaetetus of Plato, with a translation of Plato’s Theaetetus by M.J. Levett (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1990)   
  3. For example, a libertarian politico-economic critique that focuses on the problem that we cannot ‘help the poor’ as effectively as we should, however it does not even consider questioning the necessity of the very structure of values that establishes the notion of ‘the poor’—i.e., it does not ask: poor in what? Therefore, from such a ‘constructively’ critical point of view, the biggest problem is how to make ‘the poor’ more rich—i.e., how to incorporate them into the competitive structure of distribution of capital; any kind of possibility that it is the very capitalist model that is the main factor that causes the problem is simply out of the question.  
  4. Martin Hägglund, Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008), p.9.  
  • Indrek Grigor

    Tomas, for me the biggest problem with your article is that it refers to many big concepts that are not so clear to me at all, like the belief in an abstract philosophy driven (of course past) golden age of criticism, that seems to lure behind the beginning of your article, even though you denounce it in the end. Or more precisely for example the term post-institutional. Not knowing the exact metatextual origin of the term in the article – but just looking around me, from what I see (and do myself daily), it would mean that there are a large amount of grassroot initiatives who are mimicking – in order to achieve their strategic goals – institutional tactics – but this definition does not fit into your articles “moral”. Since and this is only a wild guess the article seems to refer to hyper-responsiveness and lack of reaction speed as something post- institutional, whereas for how I perceive the world it is an extremely institutional tactic.

    I do agree that Facebook is based on the “Like” culture, in fact missing dislike button has been a hot topic since the beginning of FB-s success. And when one looks at the mainstream corporate media comments sections, one sees a quite different kind of commercial scheme (that is still strong, but at the background). Now look again at your FB account and think about all the “pages” you manage and like yourself on FB. I would say the like sale is as corporate a business as was and is old school media.

    For the call, to set up some kind of independent critical position that would not play along with the current endeavour and still be intelligible, I would say as an semiotician, it is literally impossible. As soon as you describe a position like that it is already an institution. What is inside the semiosphere is already naturalised/ culturalised, what is outside does not exist. Even the position of being a weirdo is a position! I assure you I know what I am talking about. Working outside the capital city and having a particular academic background I get at least once a month labeled by the mainstream media editors. But – and here is the hook – they all still want me, because I represent the point of view of the weirdo. Sorry Tomas, it seems to me as you are trying to re-kill the notion of binary oppositions, an assault committed 50 years ago on an concept that was never really there.

    Nevertheless I claim this is not a paradox like trap. A story attributed to the legendary Estonian art historian Boriss Berstein claims that he sayd in his lecture explaining what means the prefix meta:. “Everybody is lying! Except me as I am talking from a meta descriptional level.

    Sorry Tomas (rememder contemporary criticism has to be friendly), I don’t share your critical positions, if there is any need for criticism then it is toward how and in which forms criticism has been so far and should be institutionalised and capitalised. This surely should cover more than one, more than dozen ways. Criticism has to be constructive, but not in order to benefit something other than itself. I don’t know in how far the notion of autoimmunity you used, copes with what I call the self sufficient monologue, but in the end of our statements I guess we arrived at kind of similar positions. I just don’t see the ghosts you are hunting. Maybe it is because I am a Tartu semiotician – a well known institution of unintelligible weirdos.

    Last but not least, what we both do, this kind of intellectual between the lines, and in the lines “show off”, I doubt it helps the discussion, but sorry I could not resist to play along with you…

  • Tomas Čiučelis

    Thanks for your remarks, I feel like I can answer that.

    I am not treating theory with an ‘easy hand’ and I don’t wish to disregard any historically previous forms of critique—it is done far too easily by anyone who dismisses all previous schools of thought and call it emancipation. More often than not it simply happens to be an excuse for not being familiar with the tradition and for not actually reading the texts. As I say, I refuse to take this path—there is no ‘golden age of criticism’ that I wish to denounce in order to advocate a completely new paradigm that has nothing to do with history. I attempt to be rather concrete in the way I use those ‘big concepts’ and I do have concrete situations in mind (the examples in Lithuania alone are abundant). I simply do not use proper names.

    There is no self-explanatory dimension that I want to exploit for the sake of a ‘show off.’ By saying that our times are ‘post-institutional’ or those of ‘acceleration’ I refer to the specific modes of functioning in society. I wish to question all that. And, to put it bluntly, I do that by talking about the way we think about it. I agree, I could have explained more about what I mean by those terms, however the aim of this text was a bit different, hence the lack of ‘metatextual’ guidelines.

    Regarding ‘post-institutionalism.’ I do agree that this notion might need some clarification. The meaning that I employ in “The State of Critique” is the exact opposite of the grassroots movement that you refer to—and I do understand how you use this term. I wanted to emphasise the cases when the post-institutional mode does not mean that the institution has been overcome—quite the opposite. It is the mode when institutionalisation expands into the spheres that used to belong solely to the personal and private domains: e.g., making friends, social networking, attending picnics and alike—however in the ‘post-institutional’ mode all these actions are carried out with an additional dimension of strategic awareness added to them. These seemingly non-institutional activities therefore become the new ‘normality’ which needs to be untangled and deconstructed via new forms of critique—a critique that can risk all that dimension. So what I want to say, perhaps, is that there is no proper risk, things are relatively ‘safe’ because on the one hand, we have the ‘constructive’ critique that is non-problematic as it is aware of the institutional interests, and on the other hand, things are safe because the critique that refuses to be ‘constructive’ is demonised as ‘non-critique,’ as something that does not even deserve to be acknowledged. I was actually referring to the cases that we observe here in Lithuania, however I did not use the proper names and titles this time, as I found this problem to be a general one as well—something that pertains to our ‘times.’ Perhaps I might need to expand more on this topic in order to put this message across more clearly.

    The problem with ‘liking’ has the very same logic. What I had in mind were these abundant cases when we are presented with what Zizek and other Lacanians call a ‘false choice’: you can chose only with the condition that you make a right choice. This is happening with the critique in many cases: you can write critical reviews, but with the condition that it is friendly and therefore—precisely as you have mentioned—it is ‘swallowed’ by the given state of events without even exercising its own potential to say something actually critical. Which is a problem—a central one in my text. Can we say something truly critical about our immediate reality that still is ‘under construction’ and what/who is the proper addressee of this critique?

  • Indrek Grigor

    I would like to start my response with the following lines: I can relate to the distress created by the decline of philosophy as I see in this not the subversion of its power but the under estimation of ideology. But I feel that by doing so I step into the same pond of historisation I am “accusing” you of having stepped in. When exactly and in which way was philosophy ever better off? If you say in the first chapter of your article: “Perhaps, critique needs to find its voice—again,” then you are making the claim that criticism did have a voice at some point, put it has lost it by now – that is the long gone golden time I am referring to and that seems to be in contardiction with chapter V: “It does not necessarily mean that critique mourns the loss of some ‘good times’ when the meaning was ‘present’ in a ‘better’ form; it tries to avoid this nostalgic mode.”

    You do the same trick, in a much lesser elegant manner when referring to the phenomena of “befriending” – when was there in the history of the human kind a period when publishing (in a so broad sense of the term that it almost becomes senseless) was not based on the support of some power and as such supporting one or the other interests group? That is to say when was there a period when there was a cap between private and institutional sphere? As we know from C.L. Strauss (simplifying but still functional) schemes about the social structure of primitive cultures, not only whom you can marry is fixed by kinship, but whom of your relatives you have to like (literally). Or think about the social order in European courts – who is in alliance with whom and all the intrigues (read strategic alliances, for example marriages) connected to the social system behind it.

    With that said, I can see two channels of realisation for you program:

    The first is a revolution! The biggest problem during the first civil war in Britain was the question where do the republicans get their legitimacy? The legitimacy of the king was god given, but who are those republicans? They are lawless. The incapability of solving this issue is the reason Great Britain is still a kingdom.

    What I want to say is that the only way to make criticism in a manner that you ask for, is to make a revolution. But in that case one has to bear in mind that in the end of this potentially bloody affair, the revolutioners will have established a new order of things. Will it be better or worser, is unimportant, it will be new and it will be the order of things.

    The second possibility is what I referred to as the self sufficient monologue, that, as I by rereading your article a few times finally understood, is different from your idea of autoimmunity. The self sufficient monologue refers to criticism as a thing in itself. An independent discipline, that as such can not be dismissed as it can not be attacked by value systems outside of the sphere of criticism. Criticism in this case is not anymore some subordinated practice that parasites on other fields (art, politics and so on) . In this form criticism can not be dismissed as inadequate. An artist can not claim that his works have been misunderstood, since the correctness of criticism can only be determined within the sphere of criticism and in this sense it can not be incorrect towards the piece of art in question, but only towards criticism.

    The ambition to be always independent and outside of constituted value systems lead in architectural theory in the middle of the eighties to the use of complex theory and fractal geometry that came to bear the name of deconstructivist architecture. The idea behind it is to use for the creation of architectonic forms unpredictable mathematical formulas. The logic is simple, when postmodernism (and of course all the other bad-bad corrupt styles before it) relied on some value system independent from architecture, then the new deconstructivist (also called neo-modernistic) architecture works with forms which are independent from surrounding social and historical value systems and are even out of control of their creator.

    I like to read this as a positive program that, as a theoretical approach, is rehabilitating meaningfulness, but fixes it in a closed sphere. I do admit that it feels like domesticated deconstruction – fitted into the dogma of Tartu semiotics – but as I said in my previous comment this is the only way.

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Tomas Čiučelis
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May 19, 2015
Published in Tribune
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