Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Jodi Dean on Critique

Jodi Dean on critique:

There is a certain left intellectual position that holds out critique as an unadulterated good.

Critique is superior, more knowing, more responsible than action. Indeed, it's held up against action, support, enthusiasm, as the more responsible and mature position. What are the presumptions at work in such a vision of critique?

1. That one's opponent is uncritical--as if the ideas expressed had not themselves been products of critical reflection.

2. As if any and every space were the right space for critique because critique is always right.

The problems with such a view, particularly now, is that they neglect the characteristics of our setting:

1. Constant critique and cynicism.

2. The academy as industry.

3. The need for left mobilization, coalition, and hope.

I have never met an activist or intellectual who didn't live and breath critique. That's how we wake up, eat, drink, and go to sleep. We are constantly critical. But in our enthusiasm for critique we neglect the ways we become dependent on its displacements of responsibility and activity, as well as it inner satisfactions of knowingness. For activists and intellectuals, it's not a matter, now, of being insufficiently critical. It's a matter of courage and will to push forward. We are already critical, together, in various settings. We don't need to, and shouldn't be, critical of ourselves in every place and every time. We need to build ourselves, our confidence, and our mutual trust.

Absolutely. There is no concept in the academy that is taken as uncritically as 'critique' itself. I've thought and written about this a bit myself recently, albeit in a less cutting and succinct fashion!

Etymologically (my dictionary informs me) 'critique' and 'critic' derive from both Greek and Latin words for 'judgement,' with literary associations. The Greek 'krinein' means to separate or decide and is also the root of 'crisis.' I think it also helps to associate critique with two other meanings of 'critical' -- that is, ‘unstable’ and ‘important.’

On this basis we can say that to engage in critique is (or should be) to exercise incisive judgement to render unstable things that are questionable, or to separate, judge and better understand things that are in crisis. Such an endeavour is critically important.

Unfortunately, ‘critique’ itself has become the least incisively judged, the least unstable and perhaps even the most pointless of academic endeavours. It’s not even clear just what the word means much of the time. For some it seems to be little more than saying damning things about the state, or capitalism, or war, or patriarchy or whatever, which is all well and good as far as it goes but it doesn't go far enough. When discussed theoretically it usually turns out to be some half-baked admixture of Kant, Marx and Derrida, usually avoiding specifics by taking the opportunity to assassinate ‘uncritical’ straw men instead.

Being 'critical' has become more of a pose or a demeanour than anything substantial. It's a social signifier, a territorial marker, a pin badge, a way that people identify with a particular kind of academic self-identity.

I don't entirely agree with Latour's essays on critique but he's been saying something similar for a number of years. (e.g. his essay 'Why has critique run out of steam?'.) His basic point is that critique has become too easy, too cheap. It's like it's been 'miniaturised' and is now embedded in everything. The problem we face today is not a lack of critical mindedness or a lack of cynicism. On the contrary, we have a hyper-abundance of both, within the academy and without. But it is an unfocused, aimless, fetishised critique that does no one any good at all.

Everyone knows that politicians are corrupt and businesses are selfish and men treat women badly and the powerful suit themselves and subvert others. But this knowledge is politically paralysing rather than rabble-rousing or invigorating because the misery just seems too monolithic and impenetrable to ever be challenged. Critique as practiced at present tends to reinforce this impression as it finds power and manipulation everywhere, under every rock, behind everyone’s back, insinuated into every nook and cranny of our lives. People, quite reasonably, conclude that they might as well make the best of what they’ve got since, well, what’s the alternative?

More and more critique-for-its-own-sake won’t help this state of affairs; it won’t render these affairs critical. It may even make matters worse. That said, we mustn’t abandon the concept or throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater; we must reconstruct the concept and reclaim what is of value in the critical tradition.

Critique is no longer critical in three senses of that word: with respect to questioning itself, rendering things unstable or being important. We need to address all three of these failures, in order.

And perhaps it’s time to question whether the university is the best setting for these projects. After all, most good critiques were written either from prison or from poverty.


  1. David Campbell does my nut in!

  2. I know what you mean! I think his work is very useful but it is the kind of critical work that itself needs to be criticised at this point in time.