Why this critique?

Tzvetan Todorov presenting at the RSA

Ok – haven’t been able to find the first part of this blogpost that I’d written into a notebook or onto some other pieces of paper. But here comes the second attempt… Bascially, during the last few weeks, I have ended up reading a number of authors who engage with the definition of ‘critique’ (and I have just realised that they all happen to be French!). The first one I read was Tzvetan Todorov’s ‘In Defence of Enlightenment’. Currently, the Enlightenment is being blamed or lauded for one thing or another, from disenchantment and the destruction of the environment to freedom of speech and critical thinking (an audio programme on the topic can be found on philosophy bites). Here, Todorov’s book presents, in accessible format, an interesting and thought-provoking position. Through re-engaging with key topics such as autonomy, progress and truth, Todorov seeks to unsettle our preconceived notions of Enlightenment thinking. Ultimately, Todorov seeks to further a more productive engagement with the project of the Enlightenment – and, by extension, our current political/intellectual situation – not necessarily by accepting his interpretations of works, correspondence and events surrounding the birth of the movement, but by inviting debate.

Debate is, for Todorov, what characterises Enlightenment thinking. In his opinion, the movement appears not as unified by ideas, but by method: question everything. As this method or ‘attitude towards the world’, as he puts it, is becoming more and more undermined – from interpretations of critique as inherently destructive and misguided, as furthering a detachment from the sensual reality of the world or as inhibiting care for one’s human or non-human surroundings – what is needed, according to Todorov, is a reminder of the dangers of abandoning certain Enlightenment premises, or rather, the danger of losing the subtleties of certain debates, the majority of which are still going on today. Rather than dismissing certain consequences of Enlightenment thinking as a failure of the whole project, he draws attention to the solidarity between positive and negative effects, as pointed out by thinkers such as Rousseau. As Todorov writes, we need to ‘re-establish Enlightenment thinking in a way that preserves the past heritage while subjecting it to a critical examination, lucidly assessing it in light of its wanted and unwanted consequences’.

A seemingly complete contrast to this argument is presented by Bruno Latour in his search for an alternative to critique. ‘Why do we need an alternative?’ one might ask. In his ‘Compositionist Manifesto’ he contrasts critique, which, to him, constitutes a barbaric, hurtful method aimed at the destruction of a ‘veil’, with ‘composition’, which represents a mending, caring approach and is ‘all about immanence’ rather than a world beyond. This statement may come as a shock to people who believe in the constructiveness of a lot of critical thinking. In fact, the manifesto’s lament that ‘there are enough ruins’ produced by critique has led to the joke that if Latour had been part of the Matrix trilogy, he would have taken the blue pill – or would be seen forcing others to take it (this take on Latour actually made me read Joshua Clover’s BFI series contribution on The Matrix – can recommend the comparison). Latour, however, insists that he is not trying to maintain an illusion, but that everyone else is: by insisting on a separation of society and ‘nature’. How is this an illusion? Here, the definition of the Enlightenment becomes a central element to Latour’s argument. According to his definition of it, the Enlightenment represents a consensus on the construction of a certain reality in which entities which belong to society (= humans) are allowed to speak, whereas entities which remain outside society – classified as ‘nature’ – are not. Through their position outside of society, anything other-than-human is made subject to domination by humans: human scientists not only speak for these entities, but also present their interpretations of them as ‘facts’. Against this division, Latour offers a vision of a world where the social is also made up of formerly natural entitities who contribute to the production of it – and ‘matters of concern’ – in many, often invisible, ways.

This new image of the world is not without its discontents and its discussion would exceed the purpose of this post (a useful read in this context is Graham Harman‘s ‘Prince of Networks’). A worry that has been expressed by Latour himself in ‘Why has critique run out of steam?’ is that his argument, that ‘facts’ or anything else are constructed, has been taken up by anyone from climate change deniers to students who do not want to engage with critical theory. Experiencing a sort of vertigo that the ‘sure ground’ has been taken away by the ‘worst possible fellows’, Latour tries to work against this (mis)appropriation (especially regarding the debate around scientific issues), by, as he admits himself, more or less performing the very method of critique he is uncomfortable with. Stating that ‘the question was never to get away from facts but closer to them’ he blames the misfiring of his proposal on the lack of criticality within criticality: that critical thinking does not recognise how it is constructed itself. The remedy he proposes appears to be a breaking with the destructive Enlightenment tradition and to ‘look forward’ and reconstruct a better world – as a ‘commons’ of humans and ‘non-humans’.

In addition, Latour believes that the ‘grand systems’ produced by Enlightenment-influenced thinking prevent us from being able to challenge them. Instead, they need to be broken down into relations between (human and nonhuman) actors, so that we can gain a better sense of how to dismantle potentially unhelpful systems. As he writes in ‘We have never been modern’ (thanks to Gail Davies for the quote):

‘Take some small business owner hesitatingly going after a few shares, some conqueror trembling with fever, some poor scientist tinkering in his lab, a lonely engineer piecing together a few more or less favourable relations of force, some stuttering and fearful politicians; turn the critics loose on them, and what do you get? Capitalism, imperialism, science, technology, and domination. In the first scenario, the actors were trembling; in the second they are not. The actors in the first scenario could be defeated; in the second they no longer can. In the first scenario, the actors were still quite close to the modest work of fragile and modifiable mediations; now they are purified, and they are all equally formidable’.

Another author who writes against the ‘Misadventures of Critical Thinking’ is Jacques Rancière. Like Latour, his ‘critique of critique’ is directed more against ‘melancholic’ writers such as Baudrillard, but is expressed in very different ways. For instance, in contrast to Latour, Rancière evokes the relation between critique and Enlightenment in exactly the opposite way. To Rancière, ‘critical procedures were supposed to be means of arousing awareness and energies for a process of emancipation’. In ‘Hatred of Democracy’, he jokingly sums up the majority of positions arguing against the Enlightenment or Modernism as ‘the Moderns cut off the heads of kings so they could fill up their shopping trolleys at leisure’. To him, the picture that is thus painted and is dangerous in at least two ways: 1) because nothing can apparently be done against both manipulation and the pleasure drive and 2) because the impotence it shows is portrayed as being caused by the failure of critique, thus paving the way for joyful embracings of non- (or post?) criticality. For Rancière, the image of the failure of critique also endangers the struggle for more democracy as a critical project.

Jacques Rancière at UBC

This connection – and rethinking of possibility and political agency – is ever more pertinent today. To come back to Todorov’s view of the Enlightenment, we are dealing with misappropriations or distortions of the Enlightenment ideas. According to him, a key aim of the movement was to ‘reduc[e] the distance between action and its end purpose’, i.e. not to work towards reward of afterlife, but to work for the benefit of humanity on Earth. Todorov critiques that, at this moment in time, we have arrived at the opposite: the ends have become abandoned over sacralised means such as capital. We would act true to the Enlightenment spirit, Todorov proposes, if we ask ourselves, whether we must accept this state. This is exactly the kind of debate that is taking place in all the occupied sites all over the world at the moment. As Open University geographer Doreen Massey, speaking at the Tent University of the London Stock Exchange occupation, put it: so much of what people fought for in the 60s – flexibility, flow, lack of boundaries – has been misappropriated by neo-liberalism. Instead of serving people and their struggle for more equality, it has led to more inequality and the commodification of people themselves e.g. by emphasising their need to be available wherever and whenever, if they want to remain part of the system. Again, Doreen Massey did not merely critique, but offer how we can participate in constructing alternatives: by continuing to look for alternative imaginations to the dominant narrative that is forced upon us (e.g. listeners were pointing to Iceland as a model) and by voicing and sharing them (‘We need an ideological crisis, not just an economic one.’). Thus, against the background of the many Guy Fawkes/V for Vendetta masks in the St Paul’s encampment and in the videos from the world-wide occupations, I would like to conclude that, if critique gains critical mass, one does not have to resort to gunpowder to blow things up.


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